Incredible stories from Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon

By Hayley Dow

It was brilliant being at Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon(SLMM) again this year. What a weekend! Here are some of our favourite stories from the event.

Photos by Oscar Ross

The Weekend's Winning Story

"My daughter has grown up hearing stories about the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon. The year Phil broke his foot and sat on an fire ants nest while minimal first aid was applied. The year we walked miles to find a pub with a tv showing the England game. The many partners I had been through, none of them wanting to do it again, was I really that bad a navigator? I first entered about 20 years ago and she is now 21, just finished uni and felt ready to give it a go.

Friday night lying on a sleeping mat under the evening sun, while I had a beer waiting for my friend to arrive with his son, was idyllic. The calm before the storm... It’s always hard, but our brains forget the pain nearly as quick as our bodies do and you are just left with a warm glow of achievement and the knowledge that you achieved a goal; you finished. The placing is unimportant. She was unaware of this glowing future feeling and was stuck in the brutal reality of the first hill. The sweat, the lack of oxygen, the lactic pain. And then the realisation that going down is almost as hard. We ran when we could and crawled when we needed to. It rained and things happened in the outside world while we battled the pain.

Brief moments of respite, catching our faster friends after their navigation error, the incredible views, a laugh with a fellow sufferer, bonding over the map and route choice. And then way down in the valley below; a marquee and a sprinkling of tiny tents. I don’t know how we got down in one piece but eventually the last dib of the day and we were pitching up and brewing up. Conversation began to flow and the pain subsided as we took on thousands of calories. She questioned why we had ever done more than one event? How could we come back year after year? Did we actually enjoy any of it? We looked around and soaked in the beauty of the lakes and the looked at our fellow competitors, a rare breed of fellow masochists. It’s the camaraderie, the belonging to an elite group who know what you’ve been through and the respect. She wasn’t buying it. Sunday was horrible at first but mercifully a little shorter.

Nearing the end, on a long run down the valley, her pace increased, I began to slow and she turned and held out her hand. We crossed the line together, sprinting, smiling through the agony, despite the sting of sweat in our eyes. My little girl didn’t need to say anything. The joy on her face said it all. A top quarter finish and beating our friends time for the run in was the icing on the cake. I think we may be back again."

Triumph over Adversity

"I wanted to do the Saunders two years ago but I was injured and my partner Alison Harding had a nasty fall at the LAMM so we were both out. Then I was diagnosed with Cancer and spent 2020 undergoing a gruelling regime of surgery, Chemo & radiotherapy. I continued running throughout albeit very slowly but swore I would recover to do the Saunders. Alison and I put our names on the wait list for this year and were lucky enough to get a place. Finishing the Saunders was a real psychological boost for me. Sat was really tough and I did question if I’d have the energy to do Sundays controls, however never underestimate what your mind will allow your body to achieve, and even though I’m not 100%, being out in the fells with my friend makes me feel alive again. I loved it!"

 

A Dad and Daughter Tale

"I entered the race with my daughter as a dad/daughter adventure on the explicit understanding that she wasn't allowed to shout at me. We had been waiting for over a year to do the event, my wife thought we were mad and was expecting a phone call to say we had DNF'd. The build up was fun organising kit, borrowing kit and then looking for different, lighter kit. Seeing my daughter with what looked like an enormous pack on her ready to head off into the mountains did make me think my wife was right....

I began to worry and felt a bit guilty for suggesting the adventure. However we set off into the mountains none the less with my daughter determined to complete the course. Rosie gritted her teeth and dug in to every climb regardless of how steep....the lakes were a bit of a shock to her as she hadn't believed me when I said the fells would be much bigger and steeper than the Peak District she is used to. She was true to her word and didnt shout (not even a little) even though there were some lip wobbles and tough patches but they were put right by feeding (Gel blocks and sausage rolls...all major food groups covered) and looking at the views.

She (mostly) kept grinning throughout up ridiculous gradients and through torrential rain to get to the overnight camp where cans of coke beer and a re-hydrated Indian take away awaited. Despite having to spend the night sharing a single man Alpkit Soloist tent with her dad Rosie was raring to go the following day. Setting off up the pass on the first climb the reality of "doing it all over again" began to set in and Rosie set her face with a degree of grim determination. We kept moving and chatting, it was brilliant having the whole weekend just to chat about random "stuff", no chores or work to get in the way and a shared goal of getting to the next checkpoint in one piece. Legs complained from the previous days efforts - more on the downhills than the ups. Feet required blister plasters and much vaseline was applied to minimise pack chafing. Rosie sucked it all up and still claimed to be loving the adventure. The toughest leg was coming in to the penultimate checkpoint when strength, energy levels and mental resilience had dipped to their lowest point.

A look at the map, some reassurance that it was, definitely, all downhill from that point and some more Gel blocks saved the day and Rosie set off down the treacherous decent to the valley bottom. The further down the hill we got the more Rosie began to pick up the pace until hitting the flat valley floor she was running hard and I was having to really work to keep up. It felt like we crossed the line in real style at full tilt. We celebrated with the special event specific handshake we had planned in camp. We were then both gobsmacked by the well done Rosie from the marshall. She had remembered Rosie, and her name, from taping on her tracker the day before! What a weekend, amazing views, a brilliant course, a magical overnight camp, all kinds of weather, brilliant fellow competitors and wonderful, warm helpful people in the events team! Chowing down of the superb chilli in the sunshine watching the other competitors come in Rosie asked...."so can we come back and do it next year then dad"...Definitely! That said she really needs to have her own jacket next time rather than her dad's off-cast...over to you Alpkit!"

 

Belief in Navigation

"It was the second day of our first ever mountain marathon. The clouds closed in as we dragged our tired legs up the first big climb of the day (it turns out the 20% gradient signs we had driven past on our way to the event were a sign of things to come!). Visibility was poor as we looked to dib our third control point, located on the western side of a tarn. As we came over the top of the hill we saw quite a lot of people scratching their heads and pondering over their maps. There was a tarn in front of us, but alas, no orange and white control point. Time to relocate ourselves on the map. We paced around the plateau, looking for anything that might resemble a distinctive feature in the thick cloud. A stream? A steep slope? A path! Out came the compass to take a bearing. It all came together but the answer pointed us further along the ridge than we had expected. "Always trust the compass!" my partner cried with a smile. So off we went and sure enough, just over the next mound was the tarn we had been searching for. That excitement over, we turned back to the map and plotted our course on to the next control."

 

Ant Bites and Sharp Grass

"This was my first time having a go at the Saunders (Lakeland Mountain Marathon) and I chose a solo score class. I’ve done score classes at the OMM many times but my partner navigates so doing it myself was bound to be a laugh. The event centre was at Gatesgarth Farm, Buttermere. I had a panic just before my start time when I realised I’d dropped my piece of string (marked with km) – an essential piece of kit for a score class. I ran back to the toilets and fortunately it was outside rather than in! Back at the start the marshal kindly encouraged me to take a breather as a I was panting hard, because it was a dibbed start so didn’t matter that I’d missed my start time. I headed north onto home turf around Robinson, Hindscarth and Maiden Moor, then southwards crossing at the top of Honister Pass. Things were going well, I managed to find the controls even when in clag. Up Fleetwith Pike then down to another checkpoint and decision time. I laid the map out on the ground and knelt down. Part way through my deliberations I felt a sharp pain in the back of my leg.

I thought it was just a spiky blade of grass that had passed an irritation threshold. I stood up and felt a sharp pain on the front of my leg. I looked down – I was being bitten by ants! They’re not something I’ve come across in the fells. I brushed my legs but was bitten again! I decided to descend Loft Beck and ascend to the top of Black Sail Pass, but I found the ascent tough going as I’d been out for 5 hours by then. After four more checkpoints, I began the descent to the overnight campsite at Seathwaite which was alongside Sourmilk Gill on steep soil and rocks. Other competitors kindly got out of my way – if anyone’s hurtling into the finish they’re doing a score class! On this occasion I was going fast because I thought I might just have enough time to get a 10-pointer. This involved turning away from the campsite and running a there and back along a flat track for a kilometre in total. I wished that I didn’t have enough time, but I did, so ran the kilometre as fast as I could in my exhausted state and arrived at the campsite a few minutes inside the allotted seven hours. I was 3rd in the solos and 6th including the pairs. I was greeted by Owen holding 4 cans of Guinness. An unusual feature of the Saunders is that you can buy beer and milk at the overnight camp – energy you don’t need to carry! I pitched next to Owen and Steve and his partner Matthew.

The field was perfect – level, dry and with plenty of space. We sat outside and chatted whilst making tea. The only fly in the ointment were midges – thousands of them. Occasionally it rained which sent us indoors but overall it was a pleasant change compared to the OMM, where you dive into your tent and rarely come out again all evening. Whilst chatting about the day I realised I’d made a massive blunder. I’d completely forgotten that the map covers both days with all the controls shown (unlike in the OMM where you are given a separate map on each day). I’d inadvertently visited all bar a couple of controls within 5km of the day 2 finish! That was going to seriously hamper my route choice for day 2. After a reasonable night’s sleep with no balloons bursting, we were greeted by a similar day of sun, rain showers and clag. We broke camp and set off on day 2’s adventures. An advantage of using the same map both days is you can plan day 2 in the comfort of your tent the evening before. I’d planned an ambitious route as usual in order to amass as many points a possible followed by a 7km dash for the finish with only a couple of low-value controls near the end. The first couple of controls were at the limit of my skills in fine navigation but orienteer Steve had given me a few tips the previous evening and I was pleased to be spot on with the first. I overshot the second but realised quickly and soon found it. Another chap appeared behind me and eventually caught me up – we’d run close together for a couple of controls on the Saturday and we stayed close for an hour. There was nobody else in sight.

I decided to see how I was doing and concluded I wasn’t going fast enough to complete my intended route visiting far-flung controls so considered different options, made trickier by the clag coming down and heavy rain starting – not the optimum conditions for trying to think straight! I set off for a different control and then made the cardinal sin on a score course of changing my mind again and making it up as a I was going along. I wanted to visit at least some of the distant controls rather than not going for it at all. I rose back in to the clag and had an interesting descent to the Corridor Route, where at one point I was confronted by a very steep slope of grassy ledges and rock which looked far too dodgy. I thought I may have to reascend but, fortunately, a grassy ramp appeared traversing away from the steep ground. At Sty Head my control-bagging was effectively over and I had 1 hour 15 minutes to get to Gatesgarth. I took a rising, diagonal traverse across Aaron Slack heading for the pools between Green Gable and Brandreth. I forgot that I first had to cross the col to the west of Base Brown and the time seemed to be ebbing away.

At least it was now clear and sunny. Between the cols I couldn’t face losing height and traversed across awkwardly-angled and rocky ground. But it was daft – losing 20m of height to cross amenable grass would have been much more sensible. Both feet started complaining bitterly and I had to stop to let the pain subside. On reaching the pools I had only 35 minutes to get to Gatesgarth (4.75km, 3 miles) – I thought it very unlikely but it’s hard to judge how much faster you’ll go descending. After circling Brandreth it was all downhill and I began to think I might just make it. Walkers kindly got out of the way rather than being catapulted off the path. There was a 10 pointer I decided to go for, if I could overshoot by less than 5 minutes it would be worth it. It was then a sprint along an undulating track to the finish. I was almost in tears with the effort but It was worth it – finishing only 2 minutes 55 seconds over budget.

I thought my day 1 mistake would have made day 2 almost a write-off, but whilst I dropped from 6th to 12th including the pairs, in the solo competition I only dropped from 3rd to 5th, so it was worth all the effort after all. I had a nice chat with the guy I’d paralleled for a while on both days before meeting Steve and Owen. Impressively, Owen cycled back to Keswick over Honister Pass with a rucksack on front and back and took a dip in Derwent Water, thus turning the Saunders into a triathlon -  Darren Parker"

 

Blueberry Superpower

"I was alone and dejected in a remote valley in the middle of the day on Sunday, it was foggy and rain was pouring down, making it impossible to find the control. Just when I was giving up hope I came across a bush of perfectly ripe and delicious blueberries, and rested for five minutes eating as many as I could get my hands on. Straight after the sun came out and I found the control and was happily on my way to the finish!"

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