Mountain Marathon Thoughts

With a week working in Manchester coming up, we decided to make the most of a drive up North and planned to visit the Lake District the following weekend to bag some ‘Challenge Peaks.’ However, on hearing our plans a colleague in Manchester suggested instead that we enter a Mountain Marathon race himself and his wife had entered in the Lakes that weekend. Max had been wanting to enter a Mountain Marathon, however, I had been avoiding it for two reasons,

  1.  It sounds scary – two consecutive days running and orienteering in the mountains carrying everything you need to camp at a yet to be disclosed location.
  2. It is a team event. I would have to be in a team with Max, my ex- GB athlete husband for whom ‘over-competitive’ is an understatement.

So I gave in to Max and he entered us into a mountain marathon. Thankfully I convinced Max to enter us into the second hardest category we qualify for, instead of the hardest.

Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon – what is it?

There are 8 courses to choose from, the top 2 are solo events, the rest are team events. The top 4 require previous experience, the bottom event is for junior/adult teams and the other 3 events are shorter/longer variants of each other. We entered the Harter Fell Category which was the middle event out of the three we qualified for.

You turn up on the Friday night to camp at a location that had only been disclosed a few weeks prior to the event. You register and get given a start time, the start location itself is 4km away, but you are not yet told where. You are set off at individual times so you cannot follow anyone in your event. It is not until after you start that you are given a Harveys Map and a set of coordinates for the 9 checkpoints that you must visit in order. Each checkpoint also comes with a one to two word description, for example ‘sheepfold’ or ‘river source.’

You are also given a long list of rules and compulsory items you must carry. This includes compass, tent, sleeping bag,  waterproofs, watch, pen, gas, food etc…

Oh, and you must plan your route between the checkpoints.

Here is what we learnt!

Day 1 – Straight line distance 15.8km with 1030m ascent

Day 1 route choice (made on ‘walk, jog, run’ as we did not take GPS devices)

We finished 48th out of 91 starters in a time of 5hr33. We estimated we ran over 21km and ascended about 1900m. It was a challenging and difficult day on the hills.

  1. You do not need the best most expensive tiny kit to take part in a mountain marathon. Though if you plan to win maybe you do? We did not buy any kit especially for this race.
  2. Fell shoes are strongly advisable. I confess, I bought new shoes.
  3. Do not carry water with you, water is heavy! Get purification tablets or a filter. We filled up at streams and the lake and used a ‘water to go’ filter.
  4. PLAN YOUR ROUTE CAREFULLY – we made some ridiculous route choices on day 1. So follow contours, but if its steep, running along contours is uncomfortable and difficult. Paths by the side of streams on steep contours are probably slow going. Taking the longer route may sometimes be quicker, as well as re-using routes as you know the land already.
  5. Take a permeant pen to mark your map and write down the check point descriptions in the margin as they are useful information. Though we did find our final checkpoint of the day, had we read the checkpoint description was ‘wall’ it would have made running quicker as we would have realised what we were looking for.
  6. Even though its against the rules, people do take their phones and Garmins. Though do not use them to navigate.
  7. When choosing a team mate, make sure you are both aware of the other’s expectations of the race. I was wiped out from being ill in the week and did not want to spend 5 hours running up and down hills, but to enjoy the challenge, practise navigating and be in the landscape. Max wanted to beat everyone and push himself beyond his limits. As a team we fell apart, we truly disliked each other for a couple hours. My least favourite word is ‘runnable,’ for if Max caught me walking on terrain he deemed ‘runnable’ the red mist would descend. I was also being miserable for not getting my own way. So we learnt something about ourselves and our relationship. In all other adventures, from building a shelter for the night in -4 degrees and snow the cairngorms, to through hiking, rowing racing and thesis writing, we were a great team. However, though we enter the same running races, we never race together. When you are each motivated to do the same things, but by very different reasons it does not always work and compromise must be found. Finding it half way up a mountain is not easy.

Before heading off to the start

Midway Camp

After a beautiful and clear day on the hills, the clouds rolled in and the rain began just as we reached the last checkpoint. Meaning a very wet camp for the night!

  1. Work as a team to get all the tasks done (thankfully once not racing we were a coherent team again).
  2. Get tent up first and find a good spot. Flat, sheltered, not in a ditch and not under a tree.
  3. Next get dry clothes on. Max wore his wet cloths on top of dry cloths to try dry them, I opted for stuffing them at the bottom of my sleeping bag.
  4. Take 2 plastic bags to wear on your feet as your shoes will be wet. Put your dry socks on, then the bags, then your shoes. Works brill.
  5. Get water. It is tempting to lie down before you have have everything you need, fight temptation!
  6. Eat. Dehydrated food is lighter, but can only be eaten if your stove works. We took non-dehydrated camp food just incase. Thankfully, we also had two lighters as after we used one to light the stove I accidently dropped water on the stove putting it out and then the lighter broke!
  7. If you can order drinks in advance at the midway camp then do. We ordered 3 pints of milk each, 1 for recovery, 1 for before bed and 1 for breakfast to go in porridge and coffee. Also if you did not bring mugs you can use the milk bottle and if you need extra water carriers, milk bottles are great.
  8. Wear your wet clothes again to race in, but do not get cold waiting to start.
  9. Know your start time.

Day 2 – Straight line distance 12.4km with 870m ascent

Day 2 route choice. Map made on ‘walk, jog, run’ as we did not take a GPS device

We finished the day 23rd out of the 91 race starts with a time of 3hr56 and estimated we ran around 16km with 1100m ascent. A much better day due to cleverer route decisions.

  1. You get your new coordinates early so there was a lot more time to plan better route options. Take advantage of that.
  2. The day will start with a crazy ascent.
  3. Get to the start early. Unless you are within 1 hour of the winners there is a mass start, get there early and start at earliest possibility as there will be a queue and you want to improve overall position.
  4. If you cannot find the checkpoint, ask others around you, if no one can find it, move on. One of our points was missing and turns out no one found it so luckily we wasted very little time looking.
  5. Give more kit to the stronger team mate. My power to weight is not great so Max took my bag on the uphill sections, a couple kilos less made a big difference to my uphill speed.
  6. Triple check your checkpoint location if there are more than one checkpoint nearby. We accidentally descended an extra 100m to the wrong one that was directly below ours. Also you can use other checkpoints to take bearings from as you know exactly where you are on the map.
  7. Try not to follow those near you, they may have been to the last checkpoint with you, but they could still be in another event.
  8. Finally, despite whatever has come to pass between you and your teammate, be sure to finish together and be proud to have made it!


In the end we finished 37th out of the 80 teams that finished. However, had the weather been poor visibility I think we would have done a lot worse as we still need to keep working on our navigational skills. We are much more confident in the hills and tackling routes with difficult terrain and off paths, a few months ago we would never choose the take the routes we did in this race. The best skill I have taken from this race though, is really ‘reading’ a map. Now when I look at the map I am starting to really see what the landscape will look like.

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