Saunders Mountain Marathon

I had never done a full Mountain Marathon before, but for for a while had been keen to give one a go. Ed and Helen from the Harriers have done the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon the last few years, and said that they would be doing it again this year. Alan, also from the club, has been doing these events for years, and when he asked me if I wanted to join him in a team, I quickly accepted and signed us up.

Mountain Marathon is “an extended form of fell running, usually over two days and often with a strong orienteering element. Competitors usually participate in teams of two, and have to carry their own food and tent”. There are various classes which vary in length and difficulty so you can choose the class that suits you. Since Alan was experienced at these self-nav events, and with us being of similar speed, and the fact that we both like long days out running in the mountains, we decided to take on the Bowfell class, which was the hardest pairs course. Having Alan as a partner was really useful as he was able to share his expertise and experience and it made selecting which kit to take a lot easier – you have to keep weight to minimum!

Having done a fair bit of wild camping and bivvying in the past, I was used to selecting appropriate kit, and making sure I didn’t take too much, however, this took it to the extremes! Whereas wild camping I normally take a 60 litre backpack, for this, I used an OMM Adventure 20 pack (20 litre). Each pair had to carry a tent and enough food for the weekend, plus each runner was required to carry smaller mandatory items (compass, map, gloves, hat, torch etc). Essentially, all I took was a sleeping bag and mat, dry clothes, food for us both, stove and pan, and the smaller mandatory kit. Alan carried the tent (Alpkit Ordos 2) which weighed the same as the food and stove/pan.

We left Belper on the Friday evening, with me unsure as to what exactly I was letting myself in for this weekend. I knew that the winners of the Bowfell class were expected to be out running for about 9-10 hours over the 2 days. We would obviously be out a bit longer! Other than that, I was going into the unknown, but was really looking forward to it as there’s not much that comes close to spending the day running in the high mountains.

We knew the event was going to be in the Lakes, but it was only a month before the event that we founnd out the start location, Pooley Bridge near Ullswater. I wasn’t too familiar with this area and was looking forward to seeing another area of the Lakes. Other than the start location, you don’t know where the controls are going to be placed, or even where the overnight camp was going to be. You find all this out on the start line.

On day 1, you are allocated a start time (8:40 for us), at which point you’re handed a map of the area, and a seperate piece of paper showing the grid references of the controls, and a brief description of the their location (eg. stream bend or crag foot). You then have to mark the positions of the controls on your map and then start navigating your way to the first one.

Photo: Alan Billington

After marking on the controls on the map, Alan and I set off towards the first one. Often the quickest way from one control to the next is to go as directly as possible, not using paths, so we headed off up a ravine and then over boggy, tussocky, marshland. However, you want to make sure you’re not losing height or climbing unnecessarily. Unlike ‘normal’ orienteering, the controls are not immediately obvious – they’re not hanging from gates or walls, but are often lying on the ground, so sometimes you can be be stood within a couple of yards of one but can’t find it!

The weather was always changing, one minute heavy showers, another minute sunshine and the next cold winds. Thankfully, visibility was very good so this made navigation a lot easier than it could have been if the clag was down. Despite being tough underfoot, everything went well. With Alan’s experience, we were able to find the controls quite confortably. In hindsight, we could have chosen a better route between controls 1 and 2 – we should have gone up onto a ridge and taken a high line, but instead we took the direct route, going up and down about 4 different valleys, all off-path.

Photo: Alan Billington

Day 1 finished with a very tough final climb with us on all fours, with every single muscle in the leg screaming for you to stop, and then a final descent down to the finish which was lethal underfoot – about half a mile, averaging 45% gradient, of wet grass and sporadic rocks – one runner had fallen down a ravine just before us, and another followed them shortly after us, both having to be airlifted to hospital (read news article here). This event is not for the faint hearted!

We finished day 1 in a satisfactory 9th place. We had been running for 7 hours 5 minutes, covering just over 22 miles with 8,000ft of height gain – that was a very tough day out!

Arriving at the overnight camp we quickly got the tent up and put on our dry clothes. Both of us were exhausted and after lying down, struggled not to fall asleep! It was raining outside so there was not much to do other than eat or sleep. For dinner we had brought a Pot Noodle (the container can be re-used), cous cous, tinned mackeral fillets in curry sauce, and custard with melted Mars bar. It was also nice to catch up with Ed and Helen and see how they had got on after their day.

After day 1, I was not sure how my legs would hold up for day 2, however, after a pleasant nights sleep, I awoke feeling refreshed and ready for another day running. Suprisingly the legs weren’t that achey and after a bowl of porridge and cup of coffee, we took the tent down, collected the day 2 control descriptions marking them on the map, and set on our way. It was a mass start this time (between 8 and 8:30), so there was steady stream of people making their way up the first climb. Alan and I managed to run most of this, and soon we branched off-path again heading for the first control.

Photo: Alan Billington

Again navigation went well and both Alan and I were running well – we even managed to get the fastest times between checkpoints 3-4, and 4-5. Unfortunately though, on the very last control, we took the wrong bearing and miscalculated the direction we had to head in. We didn’t realise our mistake and spent a good 15 minutes searching the area for the control. In the end, we realised what had happened and finally made our way to the correct location.

Day 2 was tough, but not quite as tough as day 1. We ran for 4 hours 51 minutes, covering 18 miles with 4,500ft of height gain.

In the end, after both days we finished in 10th place overall (11 hours 57 minutes, just over 40 miles, and about 12,500 feet of height gain) – if it wasn’t for the final control mishap on day 2, we would have been a few places higher, but as it was our only major mishap all weekend, we can’t complain. All in all, we think we were off-path for about 90% of the time we were running – this is very tough and tiring running!

At the finish, we were rewarded with cumberland sausage, potatoes and mushy peas, coffee and chocolate cake, and both Alan and I were exhausted. It was one of the toughest weekends that I’ve ever experienced, but I loved every minute, and will definitely be back for more! Thanks to Alan for expert navigation, for driving and not snoring in the tent!

View Day 1 on Strava
View Day 2 on Strava