For 2014 my mountain marathon partner Jon and I decided to focus our efforts on this competition format. It was our middle-aged, semi-serious stab at trying to be competitive. The year started slowly enough with long sessions of bog-trotting through ice cold water on bleak winter hills, more often than not, with a reasonable size pack on our back. I seemed to spend several hours most weekends covering seemingly little ground. During the week I seemed to be constantly doing hill repeats of increasing length and duration again with a pack. Jon by contrast seemed to breeze through the week on relatively flat, short sessions. I always feel weak in comparison to my stronger partner on the climbs and feel the need to work on my perceived inadequacy in this area in order not to penalise us unduly.
When we got together for joint training sessions it became apparent that some of the ground that I’d be covering was in fact a bit grim. My times for covering such ground in winter conditions turned out to be perfectly acceptable for our goals.
Our first target for the year was the Highlander Mountain Marathon which has developed quite a following and reputation over recent years. Bar some umming and ahhing over whether we were going to commit to another trip to the Mournes in September we had scheduled a challenging progression through the year. We avoided trying to overcommit, both of us have young families, neither of us were getting any younger and recovery is always challenging, especially as we both have the capacity to push ourselves very (painfully) hard in competition.
A few weeks prior to Highlander we had a local shakedown overnight trip to iron out any bumps in our new, lighter approach. It was important to make sure we weren’t going to end up too cold as April in the Highlands can still be pretty inhospitable.
The overnight trip was both successful and enjoyable, putting everything together and discussing our plans and training approach for the year ahead.
First on the agenda was safely navigating through the Highlander which this year would be in Moidart. As part of our staged progression for the year we had entered B Class and promised ourselves that we wouldn’t take it too seriously. Turns out we have a problem understanding this concept. The day before we were set to travel I appeared to develop a cold, it had been threatening for a while. The trip to our hostel accommodation went well enough despite me feeling under the weather. During the night things went from bad to worse as I developed a fever and was drenched in sweat. A grim looking morning arrived and I was sleep deprived and dehydrated before even reaching the start. I wasn’t overly concerned. We had agreed that this was a warm-up and we were happy to settle for a comfortable trip round nestled safely in a mid-table finish if possible. From the outset we were clear that we wanted to steer clear of qualifying for the chasing start on day 2.
Achieving the ‘non-competitive’ aim seemed easy enough as I silently cursed every ascent on my way around. Jon usually drops me on the climbs, he’s far stronger in that respect, but I was feeling rough and slower than ever. There were several times where I seriously wondered whether I’d get around and I just knew that my death march was hampering our progress. The obvious racing route choices were rough, actually the ground was rough full stop. One competitor didn’t even make the first control before breaking his leg in two places. We find this tends to play in our favour…not losing competitors, although that helps! Rough, technically difficult, terrain is our natural ground and helps level the playing field with far stronger runners. I found the easiest bits of the day were those where we were scrambling and negotiating steep burns and snow rather than running or walking. The only section where I felt that I had positively contributed to the pace setting was on long rough, steep contouring leg. Unusually, by the end of the day Jon was setting the pace to the finish. I just couldn’t keep up. I just couldn’t wait for it to be over.
After dibbing, we greeted the news of our provisional position with shock and incredulity. When the dust had settled and everyone had completed the course, or at least accounted for, we found ourselves in 4th place overnight and firmly in the chasing start. I was less than happy. Somehow we had just gone out too fast. This was brought home when it transpired that 20 minutes spent searching for one control had cost us a comfortable 2nd place. There was only a couple of minutes between 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. The pressure was now on with no hope given my current condition. This was totally against plan. There was plenty of support at the overnight camp from clubmates and friends also competing. It didn’t really help to lift my mood. I didn’t feel that we could maintain our position let alone compete.
Day 2, and a reverse order chasing start for the lead teams. Jon and I didn’t discuss a plan. We’d recovered as well as we could overnight. A silent understanding always appears to be achieved. “5..4..3..2..1..Go!” We were off and officially racing, and being chased. It was hot and the ground was easier, more runnable. We fully expected to caught by the leading 3 teams, we didn’t have much of a buffer. It never came. On the downhills we simply flew, sometimes quite literally. At times I was quite giddy with laughter. ‘Non-competitive’ teams graciously let us by, dib ahead of them and cheered us on. By the end we were flying and bum sliding down the final steep descent. Then a curse. Nothing left to give, nearly in sight of the finish and they’d put a control on the most insignificant contour blip on the map. Swines. All that was left was the flat leg under Glenfinnan Viaduct and relief to finish. Standing ahead of us on the run in were some friends from the club who’d travelled down to support at the finish. I thought I felt ok and by this stage I was certainly holding my own in terms of finishing pace. Jon even asked me to slow when I started to pull away. The picture tells a different story.
We dibbed convinced that the leaders had passed by us through better route selection. First placed team on the first day were an hour ahead. No, none had passed. We were provisionally, temporarily, in 1st place. We knew it couldn’t last, it was a tense waiting game. I don’t know what was going through Jon’s head. I didn’t even know what was going through mine. We stood at the finish monitoring the time differences as teams started coming in. Guaranteed 4th we hadn’t lost anything. Then something incredible happened. Guaranteed 3rd. Relief. Elation. It couldn’t get any better. We did the calculation and watched the seconds and the minutes pass. It happened again, guaranteed 2nd. Never in our plans or wildest dreams. At this point my body realised what a state it was in. I had to take myself to one side. Dropping on all fours I felt sick, it was all a bit much. I held back the vomit but there may have been a tear. My first properly competitive podium placing since my school days. On day 2, with over 5 hours racing, there was about 1.5 minutes between the winning pair and us and we’d put a 20 minute buffer between us and 3rd place. Finishing time: 12 hours 10 minutes 3 seconds.
Next up was the LAMM. If we thought Highlander hadn’t gone to plan, well…