A strange feeling of deja vu surrounded this year’s Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon, based around Conniston on July 3rd and 4th. Once again, Crispin and I had teamed up at the last minute (the Friday afternoon!). Once again Manny had pulled out with a bruised pinky or some-such. I’d intended to run with Chris Upson, and Crawford was hanging around in the wings as a substitute for Manny. When Chris pulled out with gut-rot on Friday morning, it appeared that fate had once again thrust Crispin and me together. Like last year, when I’d started completely untrained, I ran like a complete donkey on the first day and had absolutely no navigational input, and recovered slightly on the second day.

By way of contrast, this year I had actually done a little running in the months leading up to the event, and even a couple of races. My awful performance on day 1 therefore came as a nasty surprise, but my transformation on day 2 was startling, and thus unhindered, Crispin steered us to three fastest legs out of the day’s seven.

The weather on the Saturday was absolutely atrocious. Clouds were swirling around Connistion’s roof-tops and on the open hill we were continually battered by hail, rain and a blustery wind that made picking our way through the treacherously slippery boulder-fields very tricky indeed. We had no knowledge of these hills at all, and marking our maps up at the start we were struck both by the length of the course (two hours longer than last year, it turned out) and difficulty of the route-choices.

Perhaps this lack of local knowledge was largely responsible for a couple of navigational howlers that saw us finish the day in fourth place, over 40 minutes adrift of the leaders, but within striking distance of the teams in 2nd and 3rd spots. At one point we lost the best part of half-an-hour trying to cross the River Esk in spate, eventually hacking uphill through waist-high bracken for a couple of miles to the point where we should have been in the first place.

The weather cleared to some extent around lunchtime, but by now we were both pretty shagged and the relentless boulder-hopping and bracken-bashing sapped our morale as much as it did our legs. We reckoned that, with the exception of the lovely fast mile-long run to the overnight camp, there hadn’t been more than a couple of hundred metres unbroken running in the whole day of almost eight hours. Chris was waiting at the finish, having miraculously recovered from his cholera and driven down for the ‘Pike o Bliscoe’ race. Having perused our map and told us how stupid our route-choices had been, he set off for a hot shower in Penrith – bastard! The instant we had the tent pitched, Crispin retired to his sleeping-bag, from which he was only coaxed out after some hours by the promise of a pint in the Old Dungeon Ghyll just a few hundred meters away.

Day 2 dawned a bit brighter, although we’d had a fair bit of rain in the night, and another flurry just as we were packing up. We made full use of the half-hour route-planning before the whistle, and managed to miss the start, watching hundreds of teams snaking up the first climb while we were still shoving things desperately into our packs. Picking our way through all these stragglers probably cost us a couple of minutes, but this was offset by the adrenalin-rush and frustration. By the top of the first ascent we had passed all but two pairs and a handful of individuals, whom we worked through on the long contour to the second checkpoint.

In contrast to the previous day, I was now running slightly more strongly than Crispin, which gave me the chance to share the navigation. I’m woefully slow at this, and need to stop and think about the map, while Crispin can do it in full flight. The cerebral aspect certainly added to my enjoyment, and I think it may have reduced the burden on my long-suffering companion a little. At least I hope it did!

Sunday was generally much, much more runnable than Saturday, and this combined with the benefit of the half-hour’s route planning seemed to favour us. We fairly romped through the early legs and at the fourth checkpoint were neck and neck with Saturday’s leaders. Fatigue found us, however, and we slowed over the second half. One bit of pretty crap navigation lost us 10 minutes, but this apart we had a very good day and a cracking last two legs on very fast terrain saw us overhaul both the teams we’d had in our sights to repeat last-year’s second place.

The horrible weather and the unusually long first day (which the organiser later acknowledged) led to a very high attrition rate. As far as we could make out, only eight of the 17 or 18 teams that started the elite pairs’ class completed the first day, and at least one of these failed to make the finish. By the time we left for home, almost four hours after finishing, only five teams in our catagory had been posted on the board.

Interestingly, for second place last year we received a crappy little bronze medal. This year it was an equally crappy gold one. Hopefully we can complete the set next year, although what position we need to aim at for a silver is anyone’s guess…

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