Having given mountain marathons a wide berth for years, I finally ran my first – the Saunders Lakeland - over the weekend. My running partner, Marc, and I, ran for 11 hours, 18 minutes, covered at least 28 miles and ascended and descended some 2500 metres. In those 11-plus hours we crossed a mere two Wainwright summits: Whin Rigg and Buckbarrow (and these were only visited due to unnecessary diversions).
This is why I had never accomplished a mountain marathon before the weekend. To run in the mountains, to me, is to run over the mountains, to strive for a top, then another, and so on. Organisers of mountain marathons – a masochistic breed of folk, no doubt – dismiss such logic. After selecting a location – Wasdale this year – organisers are blindfolded and spun around until they are dizzy and wobbling, before sticking a stack of pins into a map.
Those pinpoints mark the sites of numerous, awkwardly-placed checkpoints that demand competitors flog themselves over terrain that they would never choose to visit (and will probably never return to again). Running in a straight line is impossible. The route between checkpoints will include a plethora of ordeals: long periods of contouring, rolling scree, tussocks, sopping bog, very steep climbs, precipitous descents, river crossings, featureless moorland. Falling over is guaranteed (and, surprisingly, light relief).
To give a snapshot of the task we – as competitors in the Bowfell category – endured, the longest single time between any two checkpoints was a one hour, 45 minutes stint on day 2. Starting from the third checkpoint on the sodden western reaches of Caw Fell we trudged over tussock-covered rising ground to the ridge of Hause, before contouring east and eventually down again to a valley floor. Full of tussocks, naturally. The col between Seatallan and Haycock loomed above us, a steep grassy pull on top of which was Pots of Ashness.
We paused at the bottom of the slope as Marc submerged the most sensitive parts of his anatomy in a beck. (Mountain running is hard; chafing one’s manhood provides an additonal, awful dimension of suffering; anyone on the hills on Sunday who witnessed a man groping his nether regions as he ran will have recognised my running partner). One hand on his delicates, one hand clawing at the ground, Marc followed me to Pots of Ashness, with our destination upon reaching the col still obscured by crags and still a long way off.
Down we plunged again, then up again – very steeply again, through bracken again – to the slopes of Blackbeck Knotts. We were in the wrong place. The checkpoint was positioned on the tip of a tarn some 800 metres to our right. I scarcely had the strength to run downhill to that infuriating tarn. It was about this point that I imagined a cackling, Hunger Games-style organiser mocking our unfortunate navigation. Right now he or she was planning what else they could throw at us. A few lightning bolts, perhaps? A herd of killer stags? A bog monster?
All this makes it sound like I hated the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon. I didn’t. In fact, I quite enjoyed some it. Like running off Whin Rigg. Or resting in the sun at the end of day one. Or eating food that should be horrible but was heavenly. Or hurtling down the path from Wind Gap. And, finally, bathing in the beck at Wasdale Head.
I also discovered that my potential for moaning had not been fulfilled; I gave a fine performance on my Bob Graham Round five weeks previously, but these two days enabled me to raise the bar to an unprecedented level. Everything bugged me: the weight of my bag as I climbed Black Sail Pass, sore feet as I ran round the back of Kirk Fell, an achy left hip, post-Bob Graham lethargy, being hungry on day two, the mist on Scoat Fell. Then, after missing the short cut around Black Crag, I had a sweary strop. If I wasn’t verbally moaning, I was doing it mentally. It was ironic then that as we sat in the beck, cold water streaming over our legs, Marc said: ‘I hope I didn’t moan too much.’
‘Moan?’ I spluttered. ‘It was your bloody positivity that annoyed me.’
It was then that I understood what I would take away and remember from the 34th edition of the SLMM: not the joy of seeing familiar mountains from an utterly different viewpoint; not the exuberation of completion (in 9th place out of 34 teams); nor the gentle camaraderie of the mid-camp. No, what I’ll always recall is the sight of a red-shirted man stoically running downhill, releasing the occasional groan as tender skin became trapped, but – always – with one hand desperately grasping his crotch. He will never forget Vaseline again.