Mountain marathons are a huge challenge for me (my first was with Julian Hall in 2009 – B course LAMM) as they are two day events and can cover 40-80 kms (with 2000 – 4000m elevation gain), depending on what course one does. Persuading Andrea to run a mountain marathon with me is an even bigger challenge and for the 2nd year on the trot (pun not intended), I managed to twist her arm to delve into this rather mad way of travelling through the mountains.
Last year we were surprisingly successful running the D course of the Highlander where we came 3rd (1st in our mixed age category). After discussion, and a little gentle persuasion, we felt that the LAMM C course would be the next logical “upgrade” in difficulty and in actual fact, it did not look much harder than D with 24 kms (1180m) and 21kms (940m) for both days. We registered months ago and so there was no backing out (in fact, one can register up to 2 days before). Training had been harder to fit in this year and Andrea clearly had spent too much time playing tennis (as usual) and not enough time getting the distance in. However, her survival of Stuc’ O Chroin a few weeks ago gave me confidence we would make it.
So – as is the norm, we did know where the race would be located until 36 hrs before the race-start. I love this as they can literally be anywhere in Scotland north of the Central Belt. When “An Teallach” came over the interweb last Thursday I was deeply excited as this is one part of the Scottish far north-west that I do not know well at all. The LAMM would take use through some pretty wild country.
So – Friday afternoon, we blitzed north towards Ullapool, carb loading in Aviemore, and finally getting to the main event campsite near Dundonnell at around 9pm. We quickly pitched the tent, registered (8.10 am start time) and had a beer to calm the nerves that were already starting to build. A brief hello to Alasdair Hind who was running the B course with a friend and then we were off to bed where I failed to sleep by overdoing the chocolate brownie consumption on the drive up.
6am – bagpipes – ugh! Here we go.
The sun was shining, enough wind to keep the midges away and we were packed and ready to go at 8am. On the 10 min walk to the bus, the organisers gave us the race map – our lifeline for the next 2 days – the largest laminated piece of paper you’ll ever want in the hills. You could almost make a tent out of it. We were then bussed about 25 kms to the south-east and dumped in the knowledge that the route back to the finish would be much longer.
Like an orienteering race, there are electronic checkpoints (CPs) of which you’re given the OS grid coordinates at the start. Once you get the list of numbers, you’re on the clock. These points must be first marked on the map before one starts running. As we’re running in pairs, it is best to do this independently and check that you have identified the same locations. A mistake at this point can mean disqualification if you miss a CP. Once done, we were off!
The first few CPs up into the Fannichs were easy enough but on the ascent up to CP 3, it soon became apparent that Andrea was not her usual smiley self. We jog/walk in the hills quite a lot and she seemed a tad slower than normal and not her chipper self. She was struggling already which did not bode well and my infamous jokey personality did not seem to help. Coming off CP3 we caught up Willie Gibson and Moira Stewart of Carnethy and basically buddied with them until CP5, swapping places depending on whether we were walking up or running down. From CP5, we had the first major route choice. Either a direct but hillier line or a longer lower route with some runnable track. I decided that the hillier route would be best as Andrea is normally quite strong walking up. Willie and Moira went low. Our route involved a rather long ever steepening climb up over a ridge. In hindsight, this was a mistake as it took all the final vestiges of energy out of Andrea who started feeling sick and getting dizzy. After a couple of pauses I decided to carry her backpack for the final 100m of climb which seemed to help. After a quick breather and fuel recharge for Andrea on the ridge top, it was a quick jog down to CP6. Only just under 4kms to go! Andrea appeared to have bounced back a little and we managed the final few kms with no bother and at CP8 caught up Willie who had gained about 10mins on us by taking the lower route between CP5 and CP6 – you live and learn!
Andrea had been a trouper and had really dug deep when some might have broke down. She thought we would be last but was gobsmacked when we learnt that we were 32nd from 65 running pairs on the C course. We got to the mid-race campsite just after 3pm with plenty of time to pitch the tent and eat the masses amount of food we had carried. Alasdair was in already quietly buzzed that they were 5th in the B course which was excellent. We later learnt that Alan had pulled out which was a real shame. Bar a couple of sharp showers, where all the runners dived into their tents for a quick snooze, the next 6 hours was a very relaxing affair with washing in the lake, eating, chatting and more eating. I went to sleep with a bloated belly and slept right through the 5.30am bagpipes.
We had always planned to leave at the latest possible time (7.30am) as I needed time to eat, drink, stretch and do “other” things that require potentially a lot of waiting time for the only 8 porta-loos that had been somehow brought into the area. I will never use the pit!!
The 2nd day’s route started with a nice loosening jog westwards for about 1.5 kms along the track. Andrea was in good spirits and as we left late we passed many runners, so by the time we started the long 500m climb up to CP1 and the summit at CP2, it was clear that Andrea had her mojo back. This was the day for catch up! After CP2 the next few kms were a real pleasure with an initial easy descending ridge to the NW and then a tight left turn down into the bogs to the north-west where I initially thought that we would struggle to find CP3. Up to now, the routes had been generally dry, but this part was boggy, but once we found and passed CP3, we bounced through the heather and bog, contoured around to the north above the cliffs and then dropped down following a perfect line towards CP4 in the valley. Navigation from CP4 to CP5 was straight forward as we simply followed the river upstream. Andrea was starting to flag a little and I told her to eat, eat and eat more. I spent the whole section debating with myself as to the best route choice between CP5 and CP6. There were two routes basically controlled by two scrambles down a quartzite cliff. One option was longer, but had less elevation change with a contoured route along unknown rocky terrain, while the other route had some descent followed by a climb of about 200m but was more direct. The differences of such choices can be subtly important. The day before we had probably lost about 10 mins between CP5 and CP6, I think again in hindsight, we again lost a similar amount of time here. 10 mins do not sound much, but they can impact your final time greatly. Although a bit of a slog, the scenery was stunning with An Teallach to our left and above us the whole time. At this point we were quite happy that we did not have to climb it. That can wait until another year. We made it to CP6 with no issues – overtaking a couple of teams in fact and managed to keep ahead of them on our jog down to CP7. We were almost done and spirits were very high at this point. We were doing well and we had surely gained time and places.
But then in the final kms it all unraveled a little. We contoured to the east and correctly stayed high, as I wanted to stay above the forest. However, we came across a deer fence (not on the map!) which went uphill for an unknown distance. I decided we should climb over and continue contouring. Inside the fenced off area, the plant life had gone nuts (I should have known – regeneration!! Smack on forehead! Duh!) and we were stumbling through deep heather, scratchy bushes and the whole place had been clear cut at some point in the past. It was a kilometre of nightmare with Andrea starting to lose it and cursing me. We finally emerged on the other side (having to climb the fence again) and hit the final trail down to the road and the final CP. However, the path immediately plunged into the thickest rhododendron forest we had ever seen and many runners had gone the wrong way in this mess, so basically we had to crouch to get through. It was like caving. Just what you don’t need when you’ve been running for 6 hrs. Luckily, this was a short section and we soon hit the road and had a final 500 metres jog to the finish.
We took 6hrs 16 mins for day 1, and day 2, supposedly shorter, we ran for 6 hrs 19 mins. We have checked the routes and both days were about 23 kms. Alasdair told us that the stated distances on the website were straight-line distances – not actual :-/ . Our overall time was 12:35:28, coming in 35th of 57 finishers in the C course. Although we had run strongly on day 2, we still lost places which we were a little gutted about. Even 15 mins quicker we would have gained 5 places, so these subtle route choices really are important.
Overall, despite day 1 being a “bit of a chore” for Andrea, we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Although Andrea said on the way home she would NEVER do a MM again, over breakfast yesterday she did concede that she was tempted to do the D course with a female of similar speed, leaving me to find an equal male partner so I can immerse myself in my competitive nature. So – the search is on for partners for next year.
Now to recover for Slioch on Saturday.
Rob and Andrea