It all started about a year ago with a rainy/misty Durisdeer hill race with Rob – there I was exhilarated by the navigational challenge and achieved a solid run without getting lost. During post-race Facebook banter Julian suggested I should try a mountain marathon. At first I thought: “Are you crazy, I will never be able to run such a distance in hills”. I nevertheless mentally committed to the challenge. When a couple of months later Rob was looking for a LAMM partner the “are you crazy voice” was long gone. He suggested we should go for the C course – I didn’t really know what that meant.
In the following months I ramped up hiking and hill running, but somehow constantly failed to do this extensively. I generally try to be active most days so have stamina for hours on hills, but a two-day event with spartan camping in between must be extra hard. During all this time Rob was training intensively (RW: actually – I have still not trained half as much as I should have) for the Lairig Ghru and the dread of an exhausting first mountain marathon was growing in me. Once the organisers announced that this year LAMM will be in Harris I was exhilarated about a great travel adventure to a remote part of Scotland and pushed aside doubts of struggling with the race. The C course was advertised at 24km with 1,300m ascent on Day 1 and 20 km with 1,000m ascent on Day 2. OK, I thought, I can do one day “easily”, perhaps two, if the pace is not too intense.
(Un)fortunately, Rob caught more than Man’s flu just days ahead of the LAMM and prospects seemed grim. We had already spent a lot of money on the registration and travel arrangements and did not want to lose this nor the race/travel adventure! Rob was somewhat stable (Lemsip-ed to the eye-balls) the day before the race and we decided that we go up there and evaluate his state on the fly. I decided that in the worst-case scenario I will spend two days solo hiking/running on Harris.
On Thursday we met and double checked our kit. Since the race was so far away, we had to ensure we had enough “stuff” essentially for camping four days. We travelled from Penicuik to Ullapool by car. In Ullapool we hopped on a 3h ferry to Stornoway with a host of other runners. I found it interesting to observe the variety of runners participating in the race. In addition, the weather was spectacular all the way through (sunny with 20+C) so it really felt like an awesome holiday adventure. I constantly felt bad for Rob and his flu (RW: I was on a 4-hour symptomatic roller-coaster ride between Lemsip infusions), but his humour kept our worries at bay. We arrived at Stornoway around 20h and hopped on a bus to Tarbet. At this point I was getting sick of travel. While driving through the flat undulating Lewis I kept wondering how can one organise mountain marathon in such a landscape. However, once we reached Harris most runners started to intensively observe the hilly landscape and we all wondered about the possible race routes. Upon late arrival in Tarbet we setup the tent on school playground and prepped kit for the next two days – waterproofs, additional clothes, food, and camping kit. Julian informed us that he pulled out of the LAMM A course (32km with 1,900m ascent on Day 1 and 26km with 1,900m ascent on Day 2) due to knee issues, but would be ready to run a lower grade course if needed. This meant that I could potentially run with an even stronger partner in case Rob’s flu would not give way. Midges spoiled the evening somewhat and forced us into tent. We needed the sleep anyway.
The night was short as I was waken by snoring runners in neighbouring tents. Luckily, Rob woke up with practically no flu symptoms and decided to run the race (RW: in hindsight this was still a risk as I had not eaten much the past 3 days! Probably should at least have downgraded to the D-course). I was both glad and worried at the same time – hoping that he would not collapse on the hills! We checked kit once more, applied sun cream and were off. After registration, a bus took us from Tarbert to the starting location (see the map below), where we obtained a map and a checkpoint OS coordinate sheet. This time it was super easy to locate checkpoints – maps had numbered circles and you simply had to cross-reference numbers between the map and the checkpoint sheet. We crosschecked our maps with checkpoints and were soon running towards the first checkpoint on a hill ahead of us. Soon after we hit the hill I got struck by the steepness, heat, high humidity, rather heavy backpack, and Rob’s strong pace – I thought he was sick just some hours ago! It made me wonder how will I sustain this for two days. However, I soon burned in and we reached the first checkpoint in no time. Then we decided to approach the next checkpoint and it seemed we were going really well. We made sure we ate a bar or something else every hour and drank plenty of water with electrolytes to avoid cramping. When approaching the second checkpoint it was interesting to observe how different teams were taking different routes. It was also interesting to see the dynamics of the race as different teams chase different points on different courses – in essence this means that navigationally you are pretty much on your own, though when you’re near to a checkpoint you can take advantage when many teams run to the same point. When nearing the third checkpoint Rob’s pace lessened and we had to take a break. We lost about five places, which obviously frustrated both of us. However, there was no point in pushing Rob just to have him collapse on the next hill. So we decided we proceed slowly, but firmly to the next points. At this stage we descended from hills and had to run a long section on boggy ground. Recent spells of nice weather had dried the bog, which made the crossing easier, but not fully bog free. However, running that section proved really hard due to 20+C temperatures and rough terrain – you could see that all runners were really struggling and most of us were mostly marching like lemmings. At the fourth checkpoint we replenished our water supplies and plodded to the fifth and sixth points cursing the heat. We were constantly debating navigational options and through clever choices regained quite many places lost in breaks. After reaching the sixth point Rob was really low and my blisters from Goatfell started to swell up. However, we finally managed to get some running on the last leg to the mid-camp (RW: Despite my physical state, Day 1 was very rough terrain and bar the last 2kms, there was NO track at all!). We came in 15th place (06:08:18) to the mid-camp among the C course teams, which kinda surprised both of us – we definitely did not feel we should have been so well positioned – I guess we must have done very well with navigation, but we also did work hard with the pace, as much as Rob could take it;) I think that other teams also struggled with the heat. This result definitely gave us a boost!
The mid-camp was in a lovely remote part of the Island with white sandy beach surrounded by mountains. The location was simply stunning and the weather could not have been nicer – high temperatures and mild breeze (RW: no midges!). Everybody was leisurely setting up tents, resting, replenishing calories, and debating the race. Some of us had even dared a swim in the sea! It truly was a magnificent mid-camp. Since the day was long and weather great we had plenty of leisure time. I used it to again observe the different runners, their approach to stretching, resting, refuelling, kit, and other trivia. Despite having not cramped during Day 1, while chatting and resting, Rob’s thighs cramped severely (RW: the cramps were excruciating and felt like my thigh muscles were being ripped apart!), which he managed to salvage somewhat with gentle stretching. The night eventually came and we aimed to have a good rest.
The second day started with a piper at 6am, when slower teams with long (> 9 hrs) times from Day 1 had to start already. Weather for the second day did not look that promising with quite low clag and mist, but at least this suggested less heat. We leisurely prepared coffee, porridge breakfast, and packed the tent along with the other kit. You could see a team starting every few minutes and soon there was a time for our start. As we were within 90 minutes of the leading pair, we were part of the chasing start and were scheduled for 8:03am. The start was up a steep slope into a clag. Here navigation became soon very important and I think we did really well by aiming for the trig point near the first checkpoint – and the stream junction. However, although we should have hit the checkpoint, we somehow missed it and went down by the stream for too long only to realise we need to go higher (RW: I am pretty sure we hit the check point perfectly, but with the thick mist and steamed up glasses, we very likely walked past the bloody thing!). All-in-all we lost about 20-30 minutes there! Quite frustrated, we pushed on, but Rob soon realised that he was really struggling with downhill running due to pains in his thighs (from the cramp the day before). On the way to checkpoints 2, 3, and 4 we caught up some lost places. On the way to checkpoint 5 the clag lifted and heat from the first day came back and stayed till the very end of the race. Rob started to suffer quite severely and was near to quitting the race. He hobbled downhill to the sixth checkpoint that was special – we got a leisurely break with bus transfer to the next checkpoint. This was done for courses C and D so that the distance of these two courses could reach the mid-camp on Day 1 and the Tarbert finish on Day 2. Rob inquired with marshals about options for pulling out – bus would only take him to the next checkpoint, while he would have to walk back to Tarbet on the road. Not a nice option in that heat. After an hour break of waiting for the bus and the drive itself and realising that we only really had just one more major climb and two descents gave him energy to continue. He really struggled with these last checkpoints (6-10). While I was still strong, I also suffered with heated and blistered feet – we simply ran too slow at that time to not think about this. Despite the struggles we made it to the finish 20th (12:04:12) out of 75 (7 were disqualified or did not finish), which I am very happy with.
At the finish we got some food and drinks to replenish energy. While Rob went to shower in the school I opted for a sea swim just next to the campsite – it would have been shame to miss the opportunity with such a nice weather I spent quite a while swimming and on the way out of water realised that my towel and clothes were floating on water next to beach – I completely forgot about the damn tide! Well, one more “drama/adventure” event;) While swimming and relaxing I missed the prize giving and speech of the organiser Martin Stone – apparently this was the LAST LAMM. After 22 years he decided to leave on a high. It was quite emotional (RW: many misty eyes from exhausted runners), but we have already heard that Shane Ohly will organise a similar event in 2019. That evening we went for the LAMM dinner, which was a total rip off – we paid £7 each for a tiny portion of rice with curry. The taste was great, but simply too small of a portion for all the effort we had put in during the last two days. Being somewhat crippled we did not join the ceilidh and returned back to the campsite, but did stop at the pub for a pint of Guinness and a dram and life was suddenly much better! We camped one more night in Tarbert and travelled back to Penicuik on Sunday.
All-in-all I found the whole LAMM thing great! It was in a stunning location, it was fun, daring, though, organisationally challenging, and with lots of drama. The first day was somewhat too technical and I missed running. The track simply lacked runnable sections. The second day was better in that regard, but then the heat was quite excruciating and Rob was truly struggling. Hats off to him for running when he had flu just a day ago. It was very foolish and likely the cause of bad cramps, but we nevertheless had a great time together. Thanks Rob for the first, but sadly also the last LAMM.
RW: I got a severe rollicking from Andrea when we got home for not downgrading to the D course. However, I have no regrets. If I had let Julian run in my stead, I would have simply felt miserable for the 2 days. Our place of 20th clearly showed that even in my low energy state, the course was doable. What is life without a few risks? I feel I owe Gregor a proper “speedy” Mountain Marathon and I don’t think this will be the last for us as a pair. I believe over these distances we are well balanced. So – roll on 2019 and other MM options over the next 12-18 months.