A race of two halves

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I’ve written about mountain marathon racing before – so as the last weekend in September arrived, it was time once again to dust down the compass and get out on the hill for two days of orienteering, running and general Jedi mind-trickery. As has become traditional, we set out for a foray around the long score of the Roc Mountain Marathon.

Kit prepared and having just spent a weekend teaching on the FRA navigation course in Elterwater, I felt ready for this. The location of the Northern Fells brought memories of boggy Bob Graham recee runs on the back of Skiddaw, Calva and Blencathra – and arriving at the event centre on Friday evening did not disappoint. We got our first glimpse of the event area map (without the controls marked, naturally) and started to pick out the striking slopes and gullies of this less-frequented part of The Lakes.

This area is rugged and desolate in the main – bounded by Carrock fell to the North and the massif of Blencathra and Skiddaw to the South and West, our herding heritage is still visible on the ground through the many ruined building and sheep folds. This was certainly not lost on the event organisers who used the ground to their full advantage in creating a cerebrally challenging score course. With just a few arteries of bridleways and footpaths bisecting the event area, much of the ground was un-tracked and hostile. We enjoyed our pint of local ale (OK, so we’re not full athletes) and went to bed in anticipation of a great few days racing in prospect.

Racing once again with the same partner, we were quickly able to fettle the kit in the morning, having got the requirements down to a pretty tight balance of essentials and a few luxuries. Matt had forgotten his survival bag (mandatory) but we managed to acquire a spare and after a quick mental check we were ready to go. The required kit was supplemented with a bit of extra food (pork pie for me, nut mix for Matt) and the luxury of a pair of dry socks and we were ready to go.

The format of these events (we choose the score) is to race for 7 then 6 hours on consecutive days. The racing time includes planning – you are presented with a map and marked controls after dibbing at the start line. And from there came the first cerebral challenge. The organisers had given us a clear choice – lots of high ground which we knew to be decent running to the south, with relatively low scores, or some much more uncertain ground to the north with what looked like richer pickings. Eyes ever bigger than our stomachs we went north. Ignoring the temping hill top control just by the start (15 points) we set off along a good bridleway for a couple of Ks to pick up our first 20 points of the day.

Now, I consider myself a fair navigator. I’ll happily bore anyone with the importance of the “Four Ds” (Distance, Duration, Direction, Description). So, imagine my surprise after 20 minutes of running off the path and up a valley, chatting away to Matt (we hadn’t seen each other in a while and had some catching up to do) to find the ground not quite matching the map. The flat, featureless col we were on seemed rather larger than expected and we were getting wet feet in an unmapped bog. Redirection, a vague bearing and some cursing brought us to the steep ground of a gully and a change of plan. We dropped the 200m down the gully to pick up a meagre 15 points, but had lost about 40 minutes of racing and had now lost the hard-earned height which we had chatted away some time earlier. Plan B, then, was hatched. Frustratingly less lucrative, but we managed a circuit of 50 and 30 points over some untracked ground before skirting back to our original objective in the right gully. We no longer had time to make the trip across to the other side of the valley, some 10km of control-less dead ground so we had to make do with some zig-zagging up and over Knott to complete the day. We made it into camp with a little time to spare and only 270 points to show for a hard day’s work.

A good feed, a post mortem and a personal talking to got us up and ready to race again by 6am the following day. In the post-dawn light, we formed a plan with the new set of controls live for day 2. The low cloud, clag and rain levelled the field somewhat and we made some good headway with the later starting teams following us up to the first 2 controls of the day. Remembering the “Four Ds” we paced out the 1.2k across the moor to find a sheepfold and made our way up the steep southern slopes of Carrock Fell. We decided to gamble on making out to the far north of the event area and picked up some 35 pointers with little company, the rest of the field seemingly having opted to stay more central. Pushing back south and shoving food down on the move, we started to enjoy some of the first open running of the weekend – a decent high-level trod taking us to the top of a steep trackless gully and down for another 35 pointer. As we stopped to fill water bottles, the weather really came in and we turned our collars to the driving rain. Emboldened by our good progress, we found ourselves in the horns of a dilemma – down the valley for some easy running or climbing again with eyes on the prize of yet another 35 points. The committee meeting was arduous but we soon found ourselves climbing up the gully to an unmapped crag. How could a crag be unmapped? Perhaps by taking the parallel gully……

In 20 years of friendship, Matt and I have never fallen out – but this was close. Determined to correct, I began to stomp up the steep ground to go over the ridge and then contour round to the correct place – a re-entrant which we hit at the correct level and ironically wouldn’t have been spottable from below. Even so, 20 minutes of racing lost and we now had less than 2 hours left and were about 15km from home. Now the clock was ticking, Matt fired his afterburners and we set out further from home to pick up some more points. We were heartened by chatting to another team, who had witnessed our comedy committee meeting as they also climbed the wrong gully. We had the last laugh as they had corrected by returning down the valley and forfeiting the 70 points we’d gained through dogged determination.

We’d banked on some decent running for this last couple of hours and we were pleased to see that the ground had been well tracked by the feet of 200 competitors over the last couple of days. We took advantage and began the climb back over Knott to take what we thought would be the last points of the day before heading home. However, Matt had the bit between his teeth and we took an ambitious off-track climb through bog and then heather to 20 points before a compass bearing and brakes-off descent gained us the final 30 in a re-entrant. Careering down the hillside we found the track and ran the final 5k to the finish on tired legs to get home inside the time limit. 320 points and around 10th place on the day made up for the tiredness, and the homemade bean casserole and flapjack soon made the aching quads a distant memory.

So, in summary – a great weekend of self-sufficient racing and a couple of great days on the hill, testing both mind and body against the elements. Score courses are meant to give competitors a conundrum and this one didn’t disappoint. If we could learn how to tie two decent days together, we might end up being OK at this…just maybe need to do it more than once a year!

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