Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon

4th Jul 2011

For a few months I’d be been suffering with a bruised right foot, which was rarely bad enough to stop me running but was definitely painful. Getting married at the beginning of June, together with a honeymoon climbing in Morocco seemed like an idea opportunity for a good rest. Although my foot seems to have recovered this strategy did mean I missed three weeks of training immediately before the Saunders, which was frustrating but essentially unavoidable.

Many years of competing in mountains marathons has taught me just how hard they are on the body and mind; especially when you go there with high expectations. In the week prior to the race I kept thinking about my lack of training, the hot weather forecast, the complex navigation and sheer physical effort of running in the mountains. Gradually, I psyched myself out rather than psyched myself up!
With about 1300 competitors racing in pairs, the Saunders is one of the larger mountain marathons. Unusually for a mainstream mountain marathon the organisers allow the elite runners to go solo in a separate category called the Klets and this was the fate that awaited me.

Generally I prefer racing and running in the mountains on my own but a particular challenge for me at the Saunders, without a partner to double check, is accurately and quickly plotting the location of each control onto the map, which has to be done in race time.  In each previous occasion that I have raced in the Klets I have managed to miss marked the map, resulting in disastrous decisions and navigational errors on the hill. Putting dyslexia and dyscalculia aside, this year I took a deep breath, took my time, used a roamer and managed to mark everything accurately. However, even once you have the controls marked accurately on your map, deciding the optimum route between then all is a highly skilled task… and you do all this before you can really start running.

Above: Climbing up the first hill and planning the days route moments after the start.

After marking the checkpoints I walked/ran up the first hill, whilst trying to decided on my route for the day…counting contours, estimating distance and trying to visual the ground ahead. The first control was relatively easy and I was to stumble into it whilst still planning the rest of the day’s route. However, I had started nervously and was struggling to interpret the map quickly enough and missed control 2 badly, costing about 10 minutes as I relocated.  Thereafter I just never found top gear and made too many conservative decisions on route choice, attackpoints into controls and the physical effort that I thought I would be able to sustain. It was also very hot with my watch thermometer recording 31C mid afternoon.

The end result was a very mediocre performance positioning me in 5th overall at the overnight camp, with 4th and 3rd within 1 minute, 2nd within 35 minutes and the leader (Steve Birkinshaw) over an hour ahead.

What a difference a nights sleep can make… I woke feeling totally different and 100% positive. Overnight I’d camped next to Steve Birkinshaw (the overnight leader) and chatting to him had been good for me.

On the second day, the control descriptions are issued at 0645, so you have the opportunity to mark up your map and decide your route before starting and without the pressure of having to do this in race time. Steve and I marked up our maps together and he shared his route choice insights (he’s been racing mountain marathons for over 20 years and been almost unbeatable in the last decade so this was a big deal) and I was able to point out that he’d miss marked the map; an equal swap I think!

The day 1 leaders set off first at 0715 with a chasing start for anyone within 45 minutes of them. Having been so terrible on day 1, I’d missed the chasing start altogether, which meant I could start when I liked after 0800. I started as late as possible so that I would have bodies in front of me (to highlight controls) and people to chase.

Above: Heading into the overnight camp at the end of hard days racing.


I’d made the decision to be much less conservative with my nav from the start and absolutely hammer the running. I wobbled a bit approaching a few controls but nothing serious (no more than a few minutes of navigational hesitations in total for the whole day). I could tell I was having a good day; I just felt so strong and confident in my running, whilst staying in contact with the map, and although I could tell I was tired it seemed unrelated to my here and now. I was totally in the zone.

At ¾ of the way round I was actually ahead of Steve (we compared splits afterwards) having more or less followed his route. I then caught sight of Simon Harding, the runner in second place who had started 45 minutes before me earlier that morning. Immediately, I decided to bin the planned route and chase him down instead. I think this was probably the right tactical decision but my route choice (well Simon’s route choice as I was now effectively following him) was actually 10 minutes slower than my (…well actually Steve’s) original plan!

With a few kilometers to go I passed Simon and kept pushing hard all the way through to the finish to secure second place and a remarkable turnaround from my day 1 performance.

My day two experience has been incredibly motivating and I am already feeling excited about the OMM in October.

Amongst distinguished company on the podium. From left to right: Mark Seddon (1st Vet), Shane Ohly (2nd), Steve Birkinshaw (1st) and Simon Harding (3rd)