What a Race...A short Tale for the Cumberland Fell Runners Newsletter
by John Hunt
The LAMM (Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon) 2004 Elite course was in the top 2 on this year’s targets. A change of approach from racing myself fit had been called for since the birth of our 2 nd child Rachel on Boxing Day, I was going to race less and train harder. A tough call, I hate training and love racing, I’d stuck to it and the build up in the final weeks had been encouraging, a PB at Duddon by 10 minutes and a sub 4 hour Ennerdale (3 rd attempt), the Monday after I was straight back into the schedule, no aches, pains or fatigue. I was short on excuses, this must be what training to race is like and then the reality check, from zero hills to 20 miles 6000ft, 23 miles 7500ft and then a two day mountain marathon in 16 days, not exactly text book tapering. My partner for the second year in a row was Ifor Powell, he had just done the British orienteering event, he was claiming to be fitter than last year but still not as fit as he has been once upon a time, the usual runners talk it down for a good run.
Thursday afternoon and the internet surf told us it was to be New Kelso Farm, Strathcarron, 330 miles north of Egremont right in the heart of North West Scotland, if we went next bump north we’d have been in Torridon. In typical LAMM style we had a “meeting point time” Saturday morning rather than a start time, which was at 07:55 on the platform of Strathcarron Railway station our final destination was to be discovered on route. Sheltered in the waiting room we surveyed the just issued unmarked race map taking us East, which was to be home for the next two days. The local radio forecast scattered showers turning to sleet on the high ground. Elite and A classes piled on the train to bale out next stop to ford a river to get to the start, no big deal, not much! I hate wet feet during a race never mind before the start, I’d spoilt myself and worn socks, that’ll teach me. Most of the usual suspects were there at the start, plus a late Thursday bonus duo; the Davies brothers Phil and Jim. The organisers opted for a last to enter first away start order and the Davies boys were off. Scoffer was teamed up with Mark Hartell, Tim Lenton was paired with Jethro Lennox. It was going to be a good competitive two days on the elite course, except in the vets where Ranulph Fiennes and Yiannis Tridimas had a vets handicap of 119 years, it looked settled for them if they could just finish. My man was unmoved by my appraisals of the calibre of our opposition, he could only see one team winning and I’d nothing on my list to argue so we’d have to pick some excuses up on route. Ifor had got us a paper map to go in a bag and a laminated map, this covered all eventualities in his mind and I thought that was a cunning plan.
Ifor played our cards straight away, the route to checkpoint 1 looked set following the trail of teams pulling out around a deep cutting, we dropped in off the trail and aimed to cut across. I’m used to blowing it on the way to checkpoint 1 and then spending two days catching up so I didn’t question this act of immediate suicide, we fought our way through and picked up the obligatory shin wounds and bleeding into socks, just when it was looking really serious we stumbled upon a trod and ran straight out the other side and onto another trod. We’d made time to 1, only the Davies boys had a faster split, a big first for me. Spurred on we dashed for 2. “Are you O.K. he asked back to me”. I was working hard and feeling the pace was a bit strong for the first hour of a two-day event, I’m positive though and tell him “it’s sharp but carry on”. We had squared up form and sorted kit accordingly the night before, even though my man flew up from Bristol to Glasgow, the electronic scales were rightly considered essential race kit. We’d negotiated and traded kit as you do, I got 9lbs 10oz, Ifor got 7lb 7oz, yeh yeh yeh not traded hard enough I know, I should never have mentioned recent races. I was working for my day out in the hills, my man was fitter than he thought or cracked on. We thrashed through 2, 3 and 4 and we’re on a good steep climb when there behind us were the Davies boys. They chased after us on the climb and got close enough to follow, we traversed high from a col and got lucky through some steep crags on a stag trod. We then dropped horribly on to the next check through treacherous ground, the first shower was coming in to make it worse as we punched the check. The shower quickly scaled up to a full blown down pour with a strong northerly wind, it turned to sleet and a little late we jacketed up. There and then would have already been too late for me for full body cover, gloves and balaclava, instead we pushed on. The Davies boys were hot on our heels, to lose us now would be disastrous for them; navigationally we’d have a serious advantage in the dreadful conditions. They hung on; the sleet turned to snow and started to settle beautifully on the ground. We finally topped out and spilled over into our next drop line. Turns out we’d climbed the sheltered side and it could get worse. All hell broke loose and came towards us as we looked down the first few visible feet of a very steep chossy drop. My man undaunted dropped in, taking our chances between holding it together from the weather and holding ourselves on the ground. I gathered too much speed over the snowy steep ground and broke away sliding down straight for my partner, picking up speed nicely. I shouted for him to “catch me I’m not stopping”. Well it was worth a try he’s 6’3” and 75Kg, without looking back he squared himself, I clattered into him managing to avoid kicking him but going straight into the back of him and taking us both away down the hill. He held the slide second bite a moment later, top man. No time to fish my shorts back from up my back or my sac from around my neck but the dibber was still on my finger. I was dibber to give my elite orienteer valuable extra seconds map time at checkpoints, it was his own personal dibber and I was beginning to think I’d been too cautious and strapped it on too tight. The steep ground started to come to an end and it was looking like a serious crag-fast end of the line. The snow and wind were still giving it their best and my trained racing lean had long since given up any ounce of heat it had and my feet and hands had been completely lost to the cold. Legs were going the same way and the will to live wasn’t far off joining the quitters. Finally we exited stage left on a lucky diagonal, funny once down you look back up and steal time, a very impressive crag, I wondered how many E3 and 4’s were on there to come back for, in my dreams.
Punch the next check 6 and utter those weak feeble words “I’m cold”. “Run faster you’ll get warm” came an even colder reply, Ifor took off, with me taking him at his brutal word after him. If going faster was ever likely to have worked at that point we were flying across horrible ground climbing and traversing. The Davies boys were dropping off the back and I wasn’t feeling the warming benefit of that joy. Eventually we turned the traverse and hit the weather square on, the wind and snow bit through me again, O.K. I chattered, trousers time and meant it. I dived into my rucsac and took out my gloves, balaclava and leggings. Ifor took his as well, he slipped his leggings on in an instant and grabbed my sac and took off. I fumbled around forever with hands only working from the wrists upwards with my dibber finger feeling like it was five times it’s normal size. It was all made much worse by the Davies boys coming past fully suited saying good idea John, I eventually got dressed with some help from my teeth. Ifor was long gone; I shivered past the Davis boys after him. He was fantastically relentless; I put it all in to catch him and took my sac, tomorrow was going to have to be another day. I was shutting down physically from the cold and knew it, I had to finish sooner rather than later, I’d stopped eating ages ago but I was hell bent on sticking to my man. He just kept pushing on. We lost height at last and ran beside a river aiming for 7, it was full and the path was on the other side, the path looked good but fun to get to. We pushed on up the boggy side hoping to cross better and faster higher up. The Davies boys took their chance and crossed to the path, my man spotted this and yes pushed on harder through the boggy rough. We were on a hiding to nothing and loosing time; I was getting worse as the pace picked up even more, falling at every ditch and stream jump. We eventually waded across and started the climb to 7. The Davies boys were ahead, my man took off after them, I was busy fighting with my bag of jelly babies, I’d finally decided to eat them through the bag, it was a lost cause trying to open the bag with my hands behaving like thick mittens, whilst I was chewing away the plastic my man turned and said “sac, give me your sac” he took it off me to my frozen disgust and no he didn’t open my jelly babies, totally oblivious to the fact that what I was up to was not normal under any circumstances. Focus boy, focus I said to myself eventually we got to 7, I punched, nope, no beep from the box, “heh no beep”. I felt the final straw crack, he said nothing but took the dibber off me, to my relief it didn’t beep for Ifor. I was in reprieve but there have been better moments. I take a mental note of the three letters that make the keyword on the dibber box for later. My man was gone, burning across the fell, 16lbs on his back; I’m thrashing after him, knowing we only had number 8 and then the overnight camp. I’m briefly with the Davies boys chasing after my man. He’s an animal I tell Phil, animal, vegetable or mineral Phil explains you’ve got to catch up with him. So I’m off again, elated to be running away from the competition but reeling from the fact I’m carrying nothing and doing the chasing. Finally I catch up and nail myself to him, Yeh big achievement I know. Just as we approach 8 my sac is jettisoned for me to pick up as he dibs. Some semblance of contributing to the team was restored as we tumbled into the overnight, Ifor racing downhill but I didn’t care I can tumble with numb feet as good as anyone.
We finish, checkpoint 7 is missing at the download, “top” is the magic keyword and we’re accepted with a complete course for day 1. We hang on for the Davies boys to check our lead on them, 12’30” overnight on the Davies boys, what a bonus. Now a chance to warm up and feel those hands and feet, By 21:30 I was starting to find the numb tingling in the ends of my fingers a tad annoying. I knew they would be fine except for the dibbing finger but they still didn’t feel like mine. My feet were still not my own and would remain numb into the night but that was O.K. I’d stopped shivering from head to toe and was prepared to come out from my survival space bag and let some of the wet evaporate from me. We had a good view of the great and the good walking straight past the overnight camp and down to the road to warmer home comforts. The mountain rescue land rover was providing a regular shuttle service down the track for those able to claim serious injury or hypothermia I guessed. It kept filling up and trundling off, I thought to myself how lucky we were to have gone round quickly and spent less time freezing to death. I could sleep on what was to come tomorrow, the tactics were obvious and my man was clearly fit enough to execute them. A kit check revealed my map bag had taken a bashing on the back somewhere during the day and had let in plenty of water and turned my map to fragile coloured pulp. I did my best to dry it out and rearrange it for what I thought would be the next day’s course, but I resigned us to using the one map in reality.
03:15 breakfast, 4:45 for me. Out and at them 05:10. 06:00 was the time of our start, it was especially early because we were so far north and home would have to be reached by most that night somehow. We’d had the overnight lead and it was the Davies boys 12’30” behind who were in 2 nd. The tactics were to go off like stink and make sure when the boot went in from the off by the Davies boys, it made little impact and we could stay out of sight for most of the 2 nd day course and not lead them into any checkpoints or provide easy targets for the runners in them. Between 1 & 2 there was a steep climb, I took a time check, they were 10-11 minutes behind. I thought twice, but told my man, I was feeling good and warm, fingers were still tingling numb but the legs were feeling good and the pace was great. He pushed harder, and over the top we went, an extra 50 metres climb but worth it. A long descent before the next really steep climb to 3 and another time check, 12-13 minutes lead, I told Ifor in an instant, we’ve run the fight out of them, just keep it together and run for home. Quick check, I’m fine he’s fine, the running was good and we’re up for it. We had a tricky 5 and we knew if we could get to that and drop on it no problem we’d have cracked it. A dash across wilderness and climb onto a really vague middle re-entrant and 5 was dibbed. The back of the 2 nd day was broken, there was good running from 6 to 7 and a spur in a hillside of spurs made us laugh about good checkpoint selections. I had renegotiated being dibber overnight and so far all had beeped and the job was done. I dashed off 7, the finish was there down the hillside. In my haste I drew my man off his racing line and we had to correct on our descent to take in the last check, we traversed for a couple of minutes and saw the checkpoint, sadly a rather serious ghyll stood between us. We had time to get away with this and tackled it head on and in. A steep climb in, swinging from branch to branch and a scramble out landed us right beside the check. Oh no, the dibber had gone, a shocking moment of dibberless finger, collected and calm we agreed it must have come off in the ghyll. All was to be lost at the final check if we could not produce our dibber, we would be disqualified. Could we find it? How long would it take? We would have a great view of anyone coming past whilst searching, what a bonus! We dropped in, I was convinced it would have been plucked off on the way in, so I threw caution to the wind and tramped our line out back in with a cursory glance just in case. I went to the first tree swing and nothing, drat, a climb up and look further double drat. My man is now up on the other side again looking at the checkpoint weighing up the end with disaster developing with every passing second. “Found it, yup, found it”, it’s stuffed in my mouth for the down climb this time and we’re back in the race, no one has come past but we’ve lost minutes not seconds. It’s a blast down the path and onto the road run jubilant from our near miss, we pushed the road for no good reason other than sheer relief and disbelief until my man explained the obvious fact we didn’t need to hurt ourselves that much. We finish and dib the dibber one last time, we’ve won, second year in a row and congratulations all round. Onto dibber download for our till receipt of the days journey, the man with the PC dibber download says checkpoint 4 is missing and shouts for Angela Mudge the course director. We quickly squared up the grid reference on the map, it was not good, we both instantly see it; we’ve not been to 4. Poor Martin Stone was devastated with us and for us. “What can I do” he offers, “nothing Martin” is my reply “we’ve not been there, we’re incomplete, and we’re out of it. It’s lost; don’t worry, sorry, our mistake”.
It’s a pretty short post mortem, we missed 4 a checkpoint 1Km away from 3, 3 and 4 were clustered, we had passed within ¾ of a Km of it, it would have even given us a neater cleaner line off the hill, we blew it. The story telling has been good therapy, so has the two weeks holiday in Brittany whilst writing this. My family took the ferry the Monday after Sunday’s events, in the quiet moments however during the 8½ hours drive home, the 4 hours drive to Portsmouth and in sleep, number 4 haunts me (4 was my lucky number), there seems to be no limit to the number of different ways I can find to lose races, absolutely gutted. O.K. O.K. yes the weekend was great, we raced the race of fun loving mountain runners with our racing shoes on, we were in there at the front racing for the front for two days, on the edge at some points and just plain blasting along in the racing zone at others and you can’t have more in racing than that. It’s a long season, there’s always some highs and lows if your lucky enough to run the whole year, this season still has plenty of classic running in it yet, perhaps not many more golden chances of big victories but there’s Wasdale, Kentmere, Borrowdale, The Mountain Trial, Three Shires, Langdale, the relays and of course the KIMM. The fingers tips are still tingling a bit as they bash this out on the keyboard and the dibber finger is still not my own but that doesn’t affect my legs, the bleeding has stopped and blisters are all burst. Fit for nowt and not much sense in an empty head, but the joy is in racing the hills.