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Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon

by Brian Pearson, 2015

View from Old Man Of Conniston

View from Old Man Of Conniston
Credit: Alan the Snapper

Published: Tue 1 Sep 2015

After a five year rest I returned to the mountain marathon scene to introduce my 16 year old son Matt to the pleasure and pain of these adventure races across the highest, most remote areas on offer.

The Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon is a good one to do, being held in the reasonably accessible Lake District in the summer, having the Bedafell class aimed to encourage juniors and not least providing beer and milk at the overnight campsite.

The area was the Coniston fells and a return to where I teamed up with my father Jim before Matt was born so an apt choice indeed. Jim and Graham joined us for the trip and provided able support, especially with the best cooking facilities in the field bar the official catering.

The format of these races is pairs or solo runners navigating their own routes via checkpoints to an overnight camp and returning the next day. There are eight classes with seven different courses, I found out later that the Bedafell was sharing with the Wansfell which was aimed at seniors/vets.

Base camp at a mountain marathon

Base camp at a mountain marathon
Credit: Paul Foot

All gear has to be carried including tent, sleeping bag, wet weather clothing, cooking gear and food. Saving weight is important and we started with our packs weighing 12lbs/5.4kg before weighing them down further with our Camelbaks. Having a look around the Pete Bland stall at the event centre in Torver revealed how the kit has become even lighter (and expensive) in recent years and I was glad to be able to borrow some gear, especially the tent.

We started at one minute intervals and the several hundred teams in eight classes were soon scattered across the fells ascending into the clouds. The map by Harveys at 1:25000 shows very clear contour detail at 15m intervals and the checkpoints are reasonably placed on obvious features but can still take good skills to locate especially in the clouds.

The kites are laid flat with SI units so you have to know they are there, though it didn’t stop one from being stolen despite being away from any paths. An altimeter and compass are allowed but no GPS or mobile phones with GPS so it is good old school navigating including the plotting of controls via grid coordinates.

A mountain marathon pairing taking a breather

A mountain marathon pairing taking a breather
Credit: Paul Foot

The planner gave us plenty to think about by offering route choices for example either straight down a valley and up the other side or around the longer contouring path with easier going. The navigation requires an adjustment from usual orienteering techniques, for example a hill as tall as two houses could fall between two contours and not be mapped.

I think overall we did okay with the routes and checkpoints and had no major time losses. Other considerations for a quick time are eating and drinking on the run. On previous races I have relied on dipping a cup into streams, topping up water bottles but this time we opted for Camelbaks with energy drink. The weight penalty can be offset by not needing to detour and stop at streams and Matt preferred this, though when I topped up his Camelbak from a stream I got a few bits in and despite adding Chlorine tablets he lost his appetite for it: leg cramps soon followed and he downed our entire supply of jelly babies and energy bars to try and ward it off.

Despite the cramps we finished the first day in 4 hours 50’ and 21st/48 teams, then spent a leisurely afternoon eating and drinking in the sunshine at Tiberthwaite. Next morning the cloud had lifted and we narrowly avoided a massive mistake before starting. With bleary eyes I plotted the northing 012 for the start as the first control which was supposed to be 022, so a kilometre out but worse than that, it put the first control bang on the summit of Wetherlam instead of the valley to the north – glad I checked that one!

We started quite late at the back of the race, our progress was hindered a bit trying to overtake teams along a rocky contouring path to the first checkpoint but then we went well, after getting a big climb out of way passing Wetherlam and Grey Friar. Matt started to suffer with blisters that we patched up and we were glad to get over Walner Scar for an exciting downhill blast back to Torver.

We came in 19th in 3 hours 48’ and pulled a position overall with 20 miles and 6100 feet of climb in our legs. It turned out if we had ran in the Wansfell class instead we would have finished 7th out of 82 so a pleasing result but more than that a great experience that I would recommend for any junior/ parent.

- Brian Pearson, July 2015

2015 event review (Saunders website)