Team Mountain Hardwear - Low Alpine Mountain Marathon 2014
On the day the LAMM entries went live, the question was asked: “What do you think to doing your first Mountain Marathon?” The reply, “Sure, but we have to win! (joking)”. Don’t say such things in jest to a man that is a master of navigation and a natural born competitor… So the entry was made, choosing B class, which seemed a fair but competitive choice to make given the sum of our fitness and experience.
And so the planning begins. Just how light could we go? Key was to make sure we stuck to the letter of the checklist, but didn’t get swayed by thoughts of little luxuries at camp. Not knowing the location until 1pm on the Thursday prior; we had various scenarios planned out. It’s Scotland after all and there would likely be all seasons to contend with, as well as the infamous ‘midge’.
With a few weeks to go, we set out on a Mountain Marathon practice run in Sedburgh hills, with the aim of kit checking; shoes, bags, tent, bottles. What was going to work the best? The steep Howgills were the setting for our tent pitching practice as well as the suitable smashing of our legs in the hope of preventing them from the dreaded DOMS for day two. With strong winds on the exposed hillside, we were confident Mountain Hardwear’s Super Mega UL2 was going to be the ideal tent; less a few tent pegs should the weather not too look fierce. It’s deceptively roomy for 2 people, with a total weight just over 1kg, including 4 pegs, flysheet, inner and poles. Compared to many we saw at camp, we were one of few that could dress, make and eat breakfast and pack up completely with the both of us still inside. The swarms of hungry midges ensured we put that rigorously to the test!
In the days leading to the LAMM, the scales were out and each item meticulously measured to ensure we were only taking on the essentials. So no toothbrush then? We took a base camp set up for the Friday night; Ghost Whisperer down jackets to keep off the evening chill, cozy Lamina 20 sleeping bags and the Optic 3.5 tent with it’s panoramic double door design, which was pretty spectacular for the sunny morning views of the hills, enjoyed whilst eating breakfast in the tent.
Choosing to run in Refueler shorts and our Mountain Hardwear Elmoro technical long sleeve tees, once the Smidge and sun cream had been applied and Anthony’s heels taped up (for persisting Achilles heel issues) all that was left to take was our compact rucksacks to the hills, mine getting numerous looks of jealousy and wonder as I stood in the toilet queue.
The start of the race saw us board a bus, our time slot was 8.30 am, but with the sun shining and the sound of the bag pipes making their way through the earplugs, we were up early and getting ready for day 1. I was impressed when opening my eyes and sitting up, I was handed a bowl of granola and a nice hot cuppa! Perfect. Breakfast eaten, then second breakfast eaten, we got our gear together and toyed with the though of tights or shorts? The weather looked promising and even with the reports of rain and cloud for the second day, we knew we should be moving fast enough to manage.
On board the bus, it took us along through the town of Strathcarron, memories of my ride round the coastline of Scotland coming back to me. We turned the corner from Kishorn and ahead stood the notorious road climb to Applecross: The Belach Na Ba. We had the maps at this point, so I was assuring myself we wouldn’t be going up that road. Indeed we stopped right before the warning sign (it’s 25% and straight up for 6 miles!) The A and Elite were called off the bus first, then we watched them head to the smaller mini buses, to later be told by friends in the Elite and A class, that they did indeed head up to the top, setting off with an additional map and 3 extra check points.
We were the first of the B off our bus to dib and go. The ground was instantly tough going, bog and scrambling and the heather and gorse ripping at our shins. Next time I decided the calf socks would be coming along.
Anthony was on it and got us to the first check point, both feeling a little slow to start, Anthony told me I’d “shake off my Hippo” soon enough. I always feel like that to start with so I knew it’d come good. The next few check points were seamless, Anthony only stopping to sort my Fellrunner’s Knot on my laces – a must when man- eating bogs are munching your trainers. We were overtaking a lot of teams at this point, but the staggered starts make it hard to know where you’re placed. We kept steady, always moving and running whenever we could. The rocky downhill was my nemesis, but we made good progress on the bouncing stuff and the towrope helped mentally to keep us together on the uphill. Drinking was at each stream, using the small 330ml bottle, we scooped up what we needed and drank while we ran.
There was a long, dragging climb up to checkpoint 7 we took a steep diagonal approach and again beat some other teams to the top, picking good lines over heather and boulder scree. We got to the top and were greeted by a man enjoying the view, having summited from the other side. We didn’t stop to admire it sadly. Lucky there was a decent trail path leading all the way down the valley, so we flew this section, stopping off to pick up another checkpoint by the tarn. I loved the rolling downhill on the marshy grassland, skidding and squidging around in the mud. At this point it was getting hot, so wet feet were very welcome.
Day one was passing quickly and Anthony was always a step ahead on the navigation, slowing only to show me the map and consult on various route options. We hardly saw anyone and it was a very therapeutic feeling to be so switched off from the electronic jungle we live in day to day.
The final few checkpoints saw us come through the valley and into a site I knew well, I’d been on the trail some years before on a magical mystery mountain bike tour with the dad and sister, the latter who though we would be doing more pub drinking than bike carrying on what ended up a 10 hour adventure.
So to the last checkpoint and a run downhill to the mid camp, we could see it ahead and thought we’d take a route through the forest – a shortcut – not to be, the pesky fence in the way cost is some minutes but picked up the pace and ran straight into camp, the first finishers of the B course that day.
“Your day’s not done until the tent is up, dry clothes are on and you’ve had some food.” We emptied bags, set up the tent, which was super quick given we’d had a practice, knowing too which way to face it to the wind to maximise space with less pegs. I hobbled to the river, where as one competitor later put it “it’s like the Ganges, but without the dead bodies.” The sun was out and racers were cooling off and washing of the inches of mud caked to their feet and legs. We used the dry bag to fill up and also had some extra firewood picked up from the forest, which worked wonders with the handmade tin stove.
Arriving at 2.30 pm we still had most of the afternoon, so ate all we could and sat chatting with fellow adventure racing friends who joined us in the following hours.
We had been a little cautious about being cold, but by the time we got to bed, wearing our clean base layers, waterproofs, buff and hat, we agreed we’d made exactly the right choice of kit and were pretty pleased we’d saved all that weight when watching lots of others crumbling under the weight of their packs.
Earplugs in and zipped up in our Mountain Speed bags, the rain lashed down on the tent, but warm, dry and well fed we dozed off as well as you can on a balloon bed…
Waking up, the first sight on the tent mesh was the graveyard of midges; those not drown by the night’s rainfall still trying to fight their way in to feed on fresh blood. No chance. We did all we could inside, changing, making breakfast and packing up our kit, before getting out to stash away the tent and be on the start line for 6.22 am. We were third place overall, so attached our B3 numbers for the chasing start wished the team in-front good luck and at the last minutes tore off our waterproofs, stashing them away in the hope that the blue skies in the distance were a sign of the day to come.
Setting off straight up a hill, I felt pretty good and put it down to the cold river bath from the day before. We had a slightly longer route to the first check point, but this time I was checking behind us to see team B4, only 4 minutes behind us. It felt competitive now.
They took a more direct route to check point one, tying us at this point, so fast action was required. Studying the map, we took a good route round to the second point, which was the longest distance between points on the course. This would be a true test of navigation, reading the hills and terrain to decide what line would get us there the fastest.
We arrived ahead to the tarn and Anthony’s sheep-like tendencies led us to some good trods, taking us round to face the highest point of the entire LAMM B course. We debated a little as we look up to Maol Chean Dearg, the clag swirling round the summit and blocking our view to scope out the optimum choice. I voted for the grassy shoot, it was steep but knowing my bambi like qualities when it comes to big, moving rocks, it looked promising. Anthony agreed as soon as the mist cleared and we charged on, seeing B4 not far behind. Just keep moving.
Taking the most direct option, it was a gritty scramble then a steep grassy ascent. We were right on the heels of B2, in fact they couldn’t quite believe how much time we made up. Anthony lassoed me to the tow and took off like Rocky up the Munro side. Almost to the top, it got very sharp and loose with boulders; we grabbed at loose moraine and scrambled up the side, my face getting ever so slightly burned from the tow as we crawled hands and knees. Scattering rocks fell down behind me and I tried as much as I could to choose my footing with B4 stood at the bottom, taking fellow racers out wasn’t in my plan. This was painful but I loved it.
We got to the summit and ‘SID’ the beeper wasn’t awake, so we took down the name and charged towards the other side, immediately met with massive boulders moving under my battered feet. Not my finest descending, but we got down the worst of it and made it to the next point. We thought we’d see the others as we’d come so close, but no one was visible for miles, so we reckoned they were either incredibly fast on their feet or taken a less obvious route. Once again we were on our own in the hills and enjoying the last hour of our race. Tactically, we chose to go up and over, rather than contour round the next hill, knowing from the day before that the route to the last two check points would be far less rocky and a lovely, bouncy, grassy decent met us on the other side. I remember spotting dark outlines of deer on the ridgeline above and just thinking how lucky we were to be there.
We charged down the hill to get to stream crossing check point, then saw a path not on the map, so heading towards it, we ran all the way to the second last point directly. From there it was a fast dash down the track to the bridge only metres from the finish line and made our ultimate dib. Seeing the finish flags we gave it our last effort and made it in, waving to B1 on the way.
What an incredible feeling to be finished and to have such a smooth run. I’ve been warned, this is not normal! Next time, be prepared for a heavier pack, midges, rain and wind. But for now, I was enjoying the satisfying aches and the luring smell of Wilf’s food from the next tent. For all the weighing and the debating, we made exactly the right choice on kit, keeping it lightweight but enough in reserve should we have need to add to it last minute.
After the feasting, we baked in the sun and waited for others to come in, a huge diversity of ages and abilities. Celebrating the 20th year of this event, we clapped to the those that were racing for the 20th time, ate cake and drank champagne, kindly put on by the organisers.
Once home, washed and unpacked, what did I do the next morning? Check for the next one of course!