Saunders Lakeland MM: Seconds Matter

After 2 days of hard, sometimes calf-sapping, sometimes fast running over some 40 odd miles of rough, boggy and trackless mountain terrain, just 15 minutes separated the top 3 places in the KLETS class of this years Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon.

I was the person in 3rd, another twenty five seconds slower, a short pause to take a piss or an unnecessary pause to re-tie a shoe-lace and I would have been fourth. Seconds really do matter.

Finishing 3rd in KLETS class. SLMM 2012

The format for this years KLETS was slightly different to previous years in that we were given all the checkpoint grid reference for the whole weekend, it was then our choice over the order of the controls we visited. The only limiting factor to what we could do was that we had to reach the predesignated overnight camp no later than 6pm that day and finish no later than 2pm on the Sunday.

Day One – 36km approx / 2400m ascent

Sat down in orderly rows in a damp field under the morning sun, the stopwatch started at 8am. We turned over our paper to reveal the list of checkpoints and I along with the 40 or so other KLETS class competitors started plotting grid references on our race maps and working out our chosen race routes. I felt like i was back at school sitting an exam.

At 0819, my map was marked, I’d decided upon my rough plan of attack and I was off running along the valley towards an entirely missable stream junction below Styhead Pass. From here my route took me along the high skyline over Green Gable before skirting westwards over Pillar and Scoat Fell. After a sluggish first hour or so, I was beginning to find my stride and running well, ticking off a raft of relatively easy to find checkpoints.

Given the weather conditions, navigation wasnt really an issue, but route selection was. That was what would decide who finished well. Running of Scoat Fell I was faced with what was easily the most taxing of route choices on the whole weekend. Screwing up was a distinct possibility as was accidentally missing a checkpoint which would mean almost certain disqualification or at the very least a massive and costly detour on day 2.

My 2012 route choice

Grouped into a complex series of lower valleys were 3 or 4 checkpoints all of which it seemed could be visited in any order, that would all work. All of which would then have an impact upon the route and number of checkpoints visited for the rest of the day and arguably for the second day also. I raced down the hill, re-folding my map to see the whole area, tried to focus on the detail and tried to stay on my feet as I pounded down through hidden boulders and high grassy tussocks.

I made my choice and could see no-one ahead of me, behind, Ant Emmet whom I had caught and overtaken was following closely behind, and for the next hour or so, despite tracking different lines across the hillside, we kept arriving at each checkpoint within seconds of each other. This would continue for the next hour or so.

Route decisions on Day One

Pulling out of Netherbeck, a brutally steep climb caused me to pause several times, it was the first time my body had started to flag and I could sense Ant eeking out a short lead on me. I was eating and drinking plenty, in every other respect I felt pretty good, but by the time I dropped down to the next checkpoint at Greendale Tarn my legs felt devoid of any power. Ant continued south, I opted to head West, leaving the southerly checkpoint for day two, and skirted around the southern slopes of Seatallan picking up another remote checkpoint before turning back north and beginning the taxing climb to the Seatallans summit.

Conscious that I was slowing I scoped out the most direct and least taxing line, a narrow and steep scree and boulder choked gully sliced through Seatallans western slopes, it was runnable, just, and this along with a short hundred or so metres of climbing up the far side of the valley seemed more logical than a potentially drawn-out traverse. Having clattered, stumbled and partially fallen down the gully I found myself sloshing across the River Bleng, looking back i could see the small but bright outline of Ant, as I flagged, he was closing in. By the time we reached the last climb of the day, as I physically ground to a halt, Ant had passed me. I wouldnt catch him again that day and would lose some ten minutes in just a few miles.

Half an hour later I arrived into the overnight camp. It was 2pm, I’d taken in 15 checkpoints, had covered as much ground as I thought was possible or worthwhile that day (around 33-34 kilometres) and had taken just over 6 hours 15 minutes. I was feeling a little low on energy and slightly stiff but otherwise ok. I pitched my tent, got the stove on and sat back in the afternoon sunshine, the hours passed by, as I forced myself to eat a few thousand calories, some of which could be identifiable as food and went to sleep with the sound of rain pattering on my flysheet and a pack of dogs from the nearby farm barking late into the night.

Day One Time: 6 hours 18 minutes

Day Two – 23km approx / 935m ascent

I awoke at 0530, we were due to be off at 7am. There was a palpable sense of tension at the startline, rumours were abound that there was a race on. Ant Emmett was on a mission and I was not in the mood to be left for dead. Competitors split from the outset as some headed for Seatallan and other outlying checkpoints that I’d checked off the day before whilst others and myself raced out along a track towards the bottom end of Wastwater. The first checkpoint was a mere formality and as we ran along the edge of a forest plantation, I tried to rein in my pace just a little, consicous that although I had a relatively ‘short’ day there was still plenty of ground to cover.

Two others came by as Ant, not needing to visit my first checkpoint headed south along an easy, if slightly bruising track. I and 3 others veered Eastwards across tussocky and slightly boggy ground, making a beeline for a sheepfold that was our second checkpoint of the day. Dropping down on the fast descent into the grassy pastures of the valley I spied Ant, 400 yards or so ahead, below in the valley.

Tracking across the minor road that heads into Wasdale and climbing up Greathall Ghyll on the other side could not have come soon enough, I was climbing more strongly than those around me and I closed the ground down rapidly whilst pulling away from those behind. It was another rapid descent on the other side, Ant kept his 2 or 3 hundred yard distance but again on the climb out of Mitedale I could sense the distance between Ant and myself getting less. By the time I reached the utterly forgettable top of Boat How I had caught him, and thanks to some sublime (and a little lucky) navigation in which i practically tripped over the checkpoint, I passed him as he searched for the small checkpoint marker.

It was a fast and easy run down towards Burnmoor Tarn, on a good trod, before once again getting bogged down, quite literally, in the marshy flats. I was unlikely to beat Ant at this stage, there simply wasnt enough ground left and so we worked together as we skirted around Great Howe, forcing each other on. I pulled out a short lead, Ant necked a gel and eeked ahead and so it remained.

A sustained run across the dead ground of Scafell’s lower South-Western slopes saw us both pulling out a strong lead over the two runners following behind (it would be ten minutes by the finish line) and staying high i arrived at the top of Rakehead Crag Ghyll just a hundred feet or so behind Ant Emmett. I tore down the soft and forgiving scree, catching and passing Ant, scanning the hillside opposite for the penultimate checkpoint.

Cooling off with 2nd placed Ant Emmett after the 2012 Saunders MM

Moments after ‘dibbing’ the checkpoint seconds apart, i felt my toe catch an edge, running lower to the ground, the inevitable gravitational pull was about to make its presence felt. I smashed into the cobbled ground hard, my knee buckling under me as I rolled across the path in front of a group of tourists. I felt my leg spasm as for a second or two I waited for the sense of pain to alert me to injury. I picked myself up, not looking at my leg and attempted to break back into race pace, I looked down, blood seeping from my knee, hands sore, but nothing terminal, as my legs creeked painfully back into some sort of stride, slower than before, but moving. Ant was practically out of sight. There was less than 2km to go, I pushed hard to the finish, conscious that seconds mattered, ending my second day in just under 3 hours, as short a mountain marathon day as any I can remember. All that was left was a tantalising wait whilst the other remaining KLETS competitors came in over the following few hours to see whose accumulated time was fastest.

Day Two Time: 2 hours 59 minutes

Definitely racing for pride rather than prizes – Bottoms Up!

1st: Dan Duxbury 2nd: Anthony Emmett 3rd: Me!

Total Time: 9hrs 17 minutes 43 seconds

Distance: 59km


About Richard Talbot

An accomplished fell-runner as well as being a keen climber and mountaineer. Since 2005 he has worked for the UK based manufacturer Mountain Equipment and is currently Director of Product. He has worked in the outdoor industry for over 15 years.
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