Monday, 8 July 2013

SLMM 2013

I have a new t-shirt.  It is black with white lettering, with Corney Fell reading bottom to top along my left rib cage, and the SLMM logo upper right.  We did it we did it we did it, Team Kingfisher came home, in time (half an hour before the course closed even) all controls properly checked and visited.  Last, but not by anything like as much as the LAMM 2011.

The map is spread out in front of me, with the control points marked in ink now.  How long will the numbers marked on the map conjure the memories stored in the souls of my feet?  After the ignominious defeat on the first day of the LAMM 2012, feet and heart rejoiced together at the modest demands to get to control one on day 1: a gentle wide path along Whitecombe Beck, leading to an unsubtle control at a fence corner. Control 2 was an equally obvious tarn on an old friend - Black Combe - a top we had visited in our training weekend, visited but not seen, the whole then wrapped in frightening thick fog.   

The contour lines lie close on the way to Grassgill Beck - a bracken covered bank too steep, a place of dramatic but well padded tumbles.  Sniff our way out of Crookley Beck, trying to find the path that would start us on our way to Kinmont Beck. We meet our first marsh.  We were to become connoisseurs of squelch, but at that time we were only learning the trade, and troubled ourselves to look around for  drier ground.  In later marshes we would splash directly through with bogged determination.  Sight down to the stream junction where control 5 was sunbathing on the rocks just down there - but separated by a fence.  It is Wicked and a Sin, we had been told, to cross a fence or wall.  We were novices, and obediently walked the half kilometer along the fence to a gate and half a kilometer back.  It became apparent that others didn't.

Six hundred paces to the kilometre, keep counting, there's the control, hiding in a corner.   Contour round to control 7, sounds easy, yes?  Tell my feet that.  Two and a bit kilometres with feet struggling to keep their grip at an ankle wrenching angle, feet sliding in their shoes, scrunched toes screaming.  On to Stanton Pike.  I should be glad of a bit of straightforward ascent after all the sidewise sidling, yes? No.  And fence issues.  There were no gates.  I christened  a convenient stone a stile and hopped over.  

And down, through a maze of rock fields, and then fence issues.  Gently despairing of getting across, we asked a runner running up from halfway camp (clearly had not enough to do to keep him busy) how to handle the fence problem.  "Oh, just climb over."  Ah.  Well, now we know.  It turns out that the Bad Things only happen if you climb walls, and then Really Bad things only happen when you climb walls which are explicitly Verboten (marked in red on the map).  Last control, and in to a thriving tent city with all mod cons; a water hole, a washing hole, portaloos sufficient to the 500 or so in overnight residence.  Tea, in a bright blue mug this time, with milk!

Cramps, cramps and more cramps.  Placating rebelling muscles is as challenging as pacifying a bawling infant.  Hydration problems? Waaa! No.  Glucose? Waaaa! No, or not in and of itself.  Madopar - ah, yes, or perhaps the combination of all three.  Chicken Korma in minutes courtesy of the minute cooker that could, a device weighing nothing and which I can enclose in my hand, which boils water for two while we are putting down a foundation layer of flapjack.  Second course chocolate ReGo followed by a savoury course of supernoodles.  Well tired, well fed, nothing else so well makes a comfy mattress of a lumpy field.  Two contented team mates needed no rocking to sleep that night.

Day 2, and a sense of disquiet and unease.  With an earliest possible start time of 8:05, and course closed time of 16:00, finishing was going to be a challenge, forget about clocking in at all the controls.  The first and third of these were Up, not my favourite direction, and clocking in at the third after a wearying climb, doubts had clouded an otherwise bright morning.  A feeling of utter wastedness, too familiar, too well remember from the dnf'ed LAMM 2012 clouded my spirits.  Well, time would tell.  Either the feeling would pass, or, as last year, it wouldn't.

It passed.  A long level stretch featuring some friendly footing restored spirits and body, control 4 by the fence and wall found and clocked.  A splendid stretch to a control 5, tucked in a sheep fold.  Control 6 was over a featureless fell that would do as a model for eternity.  Happily some with excellent compass skills had laid a trail of flattened herbage that we came to trust; the trails etched on the rising slope by feet proceeding to control  7 confirmed the accuracy of our guides unknown.  Time was with us; two hours to find control 7, one steep downhill and into the event headquarters.

Control 7 was an idyllic trot over close cropped turf, in full sun with a cooling breeze.  Running doesn't get better than this.  Our trail blazers had led us on, down to the col, and then up the little summit which is White Hall Knott.  

The path on top of the Knott sowed the seeds of uncertainty; a narrow knife edge, neither side of which was appealing as a way down felt sinister with even the mild breeze on top.  Oh well, the ridge route down would be less steep, surely, and our friendly guides had beaten the track before us: they were experienced and had justified our trust. Trusting, we followed them and committed ourself to a frightening descent.

Bad call.  By the time we knew it there was no possible retreat. Maybe these mountain goats could do it standing up, but not a coward with two slow planks for legs.  It was, frankly, a bummer.  Many feet had polished the grass into toboggan runs.  Sit down, position yourself carefully. Get going too fast and there would be no stopping until the land levelled 150 metres below.  Seek out catching features - nice friendly patches of scrub gorse.  Inch forward, legs in front, slide, grabbing at gorse bushes (NB the roots don't sting) in passing in an attempt to control the slide, landing in a heap, hopefully at the catching feature. Repeat, and repeat again, six feet or so at a time.  Nice friendly gorse, what wonderful strong roots you have, I forgive you all your prickles.

The bottom, at last, with shaky knees, holes in my Ron Hills through to my knickers, and more thorns in my backside than proverbial fretful porcupine, grateful to be standing up.

A final small stretch of bog to damp down the dust, the final control visited, and home.  Job done.  Overall 16:21:21, age adjusted 15:15:56, last, any way you count it, but happy.  The long ride home provided plenty of time for reflection and analysis in between dozing.  We need to make a list of exactly what we ate and what we carried home, so as not to load ourselves with unnecessary food next time.  We need to analyse where improvements can be made for next time.   Specific training required: cv stuff for me, downhill running for my partner.  Her excellent navigating placed us accurately at every control - not bad for someone who first met navigation at our training weekend a month ago, but there is always more to learn.

Next time is already a mark on the calendar.  Lots can happen between now and then of course.  Improvement for one.  But a Parkinson's disease runner must also know a truth that holds for even the winner of Klets: there is going to be a last.  We pd folk are just more aware of it, and therefore place a value beyond measure on the memories of the present; glorious weather, fantastic trails, splendid and friendly organisation, and most excellent company.  Look on the map and remember.  Look on the map and hope and dream.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Planks for PD runners

The Hash are fond of describing themselves as drinkers with a running problem.  The Monday Hash here have a very severe running problem, even by comparison with other Hashes, in that for half the year they meet again on Wednesdays for (gasp) speed training.  They also like winning things, like the local Chariots of Fire relay, and putting up a good show at such local events as the Grunty Fen Half Marathon.

The Wednesday meeting tends to be a proper gut wrenching workout.  I get there when I can (or, at least, when I cannot find an excuse). There is a little warm up run, perhaps a couple of times around Jesus Green, and then technical exercises - excellent diagnostic tests of where Improvement could (and should) be made.  This appetiser is followed by the piece de resistance of the evening - timed intervals, handicap runs, a pleasing variety of entertainment from week to week, the common theme of which is to leave one bent over, hands on knees and gasping.  And then, for pudding, as it were, core stability exercises, under the kindly eye of the senior sadist.

To be fair, he does not require us to do anything he can't do, and my shoulders are not the only ones trembling with effort to hold a plank as the seconds crawl past (stopping, no doubt, to admire a midge, or hold a leisurely conversation with a mosquito).  I generally cheat and give up early, or decide that a plank from knee to shoulder is good enough.  Then, when planks are deemed done, there is an assortment of tum trials, such as lying on one's back, legs in air and boxing one's boots.  It is almost a relief when the final session of planking is called, signalling the approaching end of dessert.  A beer helps to wash down so heavy a meal.  

Core training is the stuff that reaches the bits mere running cannot reach.  Like oil on a bicycle chain, it ensures that energy spent all converts to forward motion.  No effort is wasted in wobbling.

Same as those who have not got PD, I can not afford to waste any energy in a run.  I do not enjoy planks or boxing my toes, even without midges nibbling my ears, but I (and those who share my running problem) happily indulge in this Wednesday treat.  For me however there is an extra dimension to the exercise, a core component of running that my fellows may not be aware of, yet equally essential to the game.

It is the one time when I run with a group, the distance between me and the pack providing a distressing measure of my limitations.  For those whose speediest pace might be 12 minute miling, joining in a group of runners is a sobering experience.  The unseen "why bother" devils and the "you could just run on your own and spare yourself the humiliation of being so very far behind the field" evil spirits are there in force, standing by the wayside, jeering me on. Face them.  Stare back. Yes, I am slow, and will get slower. So What.  It is important to practice running past them, solid of purpose, accepting that things are not likely to get better, are likely to get worse, but for today and tomorrow, the race goes on.

The glory of it is, of course, that I have not got to face these imps alone.  Although my fellow drinkers may be unaware, they are a powerful force against would be defeatists.  Just being included in the game does it, and the grins are there for extras.

Running heros help here too.  I am thinking of one, then a thirteen year old girl, a survivor of a brain tumour and two years of every hideous form of cancer treatment in the book, in an epic and never to be forgotten race, the hundred metre dash at her school sports day.  She abandoned her customary stick and lined up with her classmates, and the gun went off.  After ten seconds, her competitors were half the field ahead of her.  I saw her falter for the least fraction of a second, and then head up carry on, to finish perhaps a minute after her peers.

That's one in the teeth for the "why bother" imps.  Home, shower, log my efforts, it feels good.  For another week, the devils faced, PD put in its place, the extra glow of satisfaction of having defeated the enemies within.  Do the planks.  Stand tall, waste no effort in wobbling, not in running, not in life.  For those who wobble naturally, stability in the mental core will serve where muscles fail.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013


Little things can have amazing consequences.  About a month ago, or maybe it was years ago, I wandered about on a website and eventually clicked on the little box labelled "enter now".  One of the consequences is that I have become a connoisseur of stairs.

In particular, I have become intimate with four different sets of stairs. I had a brief but intense relationship with the seven flights of fourteen steps each up to my mother's apartment. These I used daily, in contemptuous disdain of the lift, except when my octagenarian parent was accompanying me. I twice celebrated their existence by doing seven and ten reps, 686 and 980 steps respectively. The stairs were a textured concrete, painted in slip-proof grey, with black hand-rails, and a general air of neglect.  The natural light, through small windows was sufficiently insignificant that it was the better part of a week before I recognised there was any.  But I had them entirely to myself, unquestioned.

Late in my stay with my parent I discovered that the set of stairs in the far end of the block had twice the number of flights, offering an even longer continuous ascent.  Even better, the natural light in that stairwell was excellent even on a dull day, quite bright enough to render the motion-sensitised lighting unnecessary.  This stairwell was not deserted; I shared it occasionally with maintenance staff, who eyed me curiously but refrained from comment.  I only ever did a proper stairs session once, five ascents, 980 steps, after which the conditions outside had improved to admit real hill runs.

Back at home in flatland now, I return to familiar steps.  There are the office steps, a selection of eight possible circular stairwells attractively surrounding lift shafts, admitting light and carrying sound well - excellent eavesdropping opportunities, catching any conversations in the corridors surrounding the stairwells.  The eight stairwells some connected by corridors or walkways offer an exciting variety of routes.  There is but the one hitch: I must admit to being shy of indulging in the sport of stairs in the presence of my colleagues.  I have not been able to determine whether this shyness is because I worry that they may consider me (even more) mad, running up stairs beetroot red-faced and puffing, or  for fear they might join me, and by bounding up twice as many twice as fast render my pride in tackling stairs at all as nought by invidious comparison.

So the compromise is a grand, broad set of four flights, about 100steps, in a 1950's lecture block in the Sidgwick Site.  The stairs are sealed concrete, with metal edging and wooden hand rails polished by many hands.  The stairwell amplifies my footfall; minimising that impact for the sake of those in lectures is an added challenge. In between lectures I am by no means alone; streams of students pass in either direction, but there is room, and I can fall in step with them for that short interruption of my study in stairs.  Yesterday's ascent was ten reps, steps taken one at a time.  Sometimes I take them two at a time, but I need to get the distance up first.

What is it though, that derails a mostly stable mind that it should fix on the subject of stairs?  Hope. That entry button confirmed my place on the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon.  Dweller in flatland that I am, the stairs must deputise for hills, and I must persuade unwilling legs to do the homework.  Distance along the flat alone will not do, although there is work to be done in that department as well.

Hope is an odd thing.  It puts life and colour back into the world, giving me eyes again to see the world as a woman fit and well and ready to compete, present situation and future concerns notwithstanding.  I am again in training.  I am again a runner.  The framework of life has returned, the weekly round of different "runs" with different purposes providing the lattice on which the other parts of life are fixed.  

The present does its best to withstand, I must admit. At the time of clicking on "Enter now" even a single flight of stairs presented problems.  Walking peg legged and 13 minute miling are the norm.  A rest day for me means at least half the day spent with my feet up, with book or laptop on my knees.   Me running up hills in the Lakes requires a very lively imagination at the moment.

Fortunately, Hope knows better. Imagination to see these my present legs capable of climbing hills is not required. The peaks are often not clearly visible from the foothills.  Eyes down and focus on the stairs. Spend the time with feet up today to extend the mileage tomorrow.  Just do the runs for the week and leave worry for the never arriving later.  It is a gamble.  Yes, it may be that all I can do is nothing worth, and I face another DNF or even a DNS. Yes, PD might win this time.

But it might not, and if I don't settle down and get to grips with the stairs now I've lost already, and will never know if I might not have won had I tried and done the homework.

For now, the eventualities, whether I do or do not make it to the start-line, whether I do or do not manage to complete the course, are irrelevancies. What matters is that I am again a runner.  In training.  Life's compass is restored, Polaris has resumed its rightful place in my night's sky.  Life resumes, in defiance of PD and the other little devils of life.

On on friends.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Broken Promises or Why We Live And Never Learn or Hope Springs Eternal

The point is, the Outlaws are running again.  Daughter-out-law and I have signed up for the LAMM again.  I promised the organisers I wouldn't, and now I have.

You'd have thought we might have learned.  Read back.  It wasn't easy.  It hurt. I can't put it down entirely to a short and faulty memory.  There is too much that reminds me of aspects of that event.  Every stairs session reminds me how very painful even a short ascent can be (basement to top floor of Oriental Studies is near enough 25 metres of climb).  Do that fifty times and hey presto, it's about a day's ascent on the LAMM.  Do it five times on the way in to work and I am aware that I have done it, all day long.  The mix of wind, hail and rain - Chaucer's sweet April showers that pierce the drought of March to the root (Did Chaucer really live in these parts I wonder) - remind me that even in June running up and down mountains in Scotland may not be an unmixed pleasure.  A run of more than double digits in miles is quite sufficient for me for a weekend.  Now double it, add a couple extra, and a couple extra again for incompetence in navigation, and that's the LAMM for you.

Nor can I pretend that I have done such stunning training that I am much better, and that I have been orienteering all winter and so will hit every control just right, and be speedier and better and the Outlaws will be more like any other pair, not the pair that limped home last, five hours after the preceding finishers.  Parts of the past year, to put it bluntly, have been a pig.  Orienteering did not feature as I hoped it might have.

But training now, that's the nub of it all.  Not the cause for this year's entry into the LAMM, but the effect.  After much consideration, looking at the problem from all available angles, I arrived at the inescapable fact.  I have yet to find an event with similar attributes of attraction and terror which might serve to frighten me out of the house.  Whatever the weather.  Whatever delight - stairs, hills, or up the interminable guided busway - has been marked in for the day's session.  The memory of the LAMM gets me out the door.  Every day recalls some aspects of that effort, with appropriate Respect. No, I have definitely Not forgotten quite how hard the LAMM is. 

But nor have I forgotten those two years on sticks.  Not only my mind remembers it, my whole body remembers it, and is very quick to remind me, if some morning I don't exactly feel like getting out there and doing It, whatever that day's It might be. I don't want to be There again.  The medicine makes the training possible, but without the training, the freedom of being able to run and even to walk, stickless,  is unlikely to last long.  The day may come when this alliance of medicine and sweat no longer suffices, but mind and body both are of one accord, that that day be postponed as long as possible. 

As I said, it has been somewhat of a pig of a year.  Even that mind-body memory, even the fear of the LAMM has not always succeeded in propelling me out the door.  But it has been overall effective. Hey, I'm still walking.  I am still running. With luck the Outlaws will not come home disgraced, and we will not keep the organisers waiting unduly long for our return.  Hope springs eternal. As it should. The Outlaws run again. May the gods be kind, and heap rewards both in heaven and on earth on the orgainisers who give us the chance.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

For the last shall be first

It's a phrase that until now has always puzzled me.

Yes Tor Great West Fell Race - race report.

It is six weeks on from the LAMM now and I am in that fallow period with no Races in preparation, with nothing beyond the force of habit coupled with a reluctance to lose the fitness so arduously won to fuel the runs. (I mistyped that funs, I was somewhat inclined to let the typo stand.)  Happily it is sufficient. There is a whole-body memory of what preceded this running incarnation, and as motivation to get out there with religious dedication, there is little that can compete with that memory.  It is not a memory of words or thought, but it doesn't need to be.

But even I profit from a sharpener, and I have been aware that it has been too long since I pinned a number on my front.  Time to do it again.  Yes Tor fell race, advertised as short and steep.  Five miles, not intended to challenge navigational powers.

I don't know if I will ever get used to the start of races. The prelude always makes my mouth go dry and my legs ache even before I start running.  The sight of hard-core lean and grizzled men evokes unfavourable comparisons.  There is not much hard-core here.  I feel an imposter, on site under false pretences, a perennial newbie laying false claim to experience.

The fact that I was wearing the LAMM t-shirt may have aggravated this.  The t-shirt evidently commanded Respect, respect I felt was misplaced.  Naw, I didn't really. We were last, five hours behind the previous finisher.  I'm not really a mountain marathoner.

But that is untrue; we did it, and the course was no easier for us (rather harder, given our navigational errors) than it was for any other competitors.  I felt myself standing that little bit straighter, quite ready for the next difficult bit of a race, the start itself.

I liked this start.  There is only a handful of runners, maybe 60?  I can stand at the back and hear what is being said at the front, no mics.  The difficult bit is 30 seconds after the start, when all (not a careless generalisation, I do mean all) of the competitors are already significantly in front of me, and I know that in this case, that distance is unlikely to shrink.

But I am good at this bit.  I know why I am running and I want to be here.  There will be people who get home faster, all of them, in fact, but there will be few who enjoy it more.

Dartmoor on a benign day is a joy.  The turf feels good underfoot.  The wind feels good on my face, even if it is in my face.  The clouds are there only to give some shelter from the sun, it just doesn't get better than this. I am entirely on my own, the others have disappeared around the side of the hill, and Dartmoor is mine, all mine.

First checkpoint at Longstone hill and I can again see the others, like so many party coloured sheep, moving humps among the lumps and rocks of Yes Tor.  The majority have clearly taken the direct route.  I will not.  That involves going down, which is against my principles when running up anything.  I am more than content to put in the extra distance, dilute the slope to one I can trot along in comparative comfort.  

There are many little animal trails, and the going is easy.  I am no longer alone by now; I have the company of the fell version of the sweeper van; one dog (rescue dog, name of Dave) and his man.  No horrid diesel fumes, just jubilant tail wagging and the occasional backward glance over his shoulder, tongue hanging out, enjoying the day as much as I am.

Don't get the idea that Yes Tor was an easy run.  It wasn't, but I knew it wasn't going to be and I got the pacing right.  Check in at the checkpoint and on along a short ridge to High Willhays.  This is a broad and well used path, but rocky, which I don't find easy.  It is too easy to catch a foot, and the thought of a tumble is not attractive: the rocks look too much like teeth.  Slow down, think about picking feet up.

High Willhays to Black Tor is a lovely patch.  Easy running through calf height grassy tussocks for the most part.  Again, there were plenty of little trails to follow, many made by those who ran before me.  From time to time the going was good enough to let rip a bit, knowing that a tumble would probably be on soft ground.

Black Tor back to Longstone was again along a path, and stony to begin with.  At one point the path became a stream bed, but one with good footing that was on the whole a pleasure to share with the water.  Nonetheless, I did keep eyes on the path, or stream, to avoid the worst of mud or rock.  In doing so, I spied a fish.  Not a very big fish; hardly an inch long I guess, but a fish for all that.  In a stream.  On a path. On top of a hill.  A more highly implausible concept I have rarely considered.  There were to be other implausible experiences in connection with this race.

From Longstone to the finish was the reverse of the route up, with gravity helping all it could.  This was a track through closely cropped turf, a joy to run, and I let the legs do their best, no holding back.  Dave lolloped on ahead, following his man who was pulling up way markers as he trotted down the hill.  A short pull along a gravel road and the finish.  Last, as I knew I would be, but the marshals were still there, it had been a beautiful run, there was a Kitkat and a bottle of water, son and daughter-out-law waiting, and generally things couldn't be improved on.  We set off back towards the car park carrying the extra water bottles, the rubbish bag and such like.  The others were chatting behind me.  I overheard some of it.  ...first in age-group.  I wasn't paying much attention.  

Back to the cars, and I turned to thank the organisers again for a super afternoon - and found myself presented with a bottle - the first in age-group was me!  I've never been first in running in anything as far as I can remember.

It's in the fridge.  I'm looking forward to that bottle.  Birnham wood may come to Dunsinane, pigs may fly, fish may swim on a path on a mountain, the last may indeed come first.  Be it known that I am not one to grow sheepish, to apologise that I didn't really win it, it was just that no one else showed up.  I won that bottle.  These old legs got out there and did their stuff.  They did the homework too. I ran up Madingley rise Wednesday on Wednesday, I ran the long slow miles along the river on Sundays, and the old legs did not let me down today.  Won it indeed. 

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


This is it folks.  The LAMM, 2011.  We did it.

Dale (son 3) and I arrived in Inverness by train, and we met up with Will (son 1)and LJ (partner), who had flown up from Bristol, and headed off west to the base camp, six miles west of Ullapool.  The scenery did nothing to reassure, huge mountains with spiky teeth crowned with an impressive variety of cloud.  The camp site came on us suddenly, an abrupt turn into a field already filling with cars in one half and tents in the other.  A remarkably simple and fuss-free registration process, where dibbers were fastened onto our arms with the sort of wristbands used as labels in hospitals.  We were issued with our start times: 8:59 for Will and Dale, and 9:01for LJ and I - Team Outlaw - mother-out-law and daughter-out-law.  Our company milling around the site looked Scary. There was a notable absence of fun-runners, no fancy dress, unless you count the high-tech lycra running gear.

We set up the "big" tents - two two man tents, one for LJ and Will, one for me and Dale, roomy things that could accommodate kit and two people without having to use the kit (or the other person) as footrest or pillow. We solemnly divided the kit, food, medical supplies, emergency rescue bags, torches, batteries, apportioned tents, gas canisters and stoves, balancing the packs.  Scott's Event catering dished up a baked potato heaped with chilli by way of supper, and very welcome tea.  There was, after that, not a lot that attracted one to staying up any later.  Morning would come.  Early.

Which it did, of course, heralded by a piper marching amongst the tents at 6am, advertising in this way that Scotts was available for breakfast.  I resisted the bacon and egg butty, grabbed a full tray of porridge and took four beakers of tea for our two teams.  We met up over breakfast with other acquaintances of Will's, some of whom had had seriously bad car rides from the south, spending long hours in traffic jams trying to escape Edinburgh.  Packed, saddled up, there was little to do but wait for our appointed start time.

For those unacquainted with orienteering, the game is to find a series of controls - small orange and white half box kites which indicate the presence of an electronic check point, into which you insert your personal dibber, which indicates the time you reached the control.  The whereabouts of these controls are clearly marked on a map, together with helpful comments such as "re-entrant", "north side of lochan".  The controls must be visited in a prescribed order.  Clock in at each of these, run home to the finish line and bob's your uncle, job done.

This is a grand game on a brisk Saturday morning, when the course may last an hour or two and takes place in a relatively confined relative flat space.  Even on such a Saturday morning frustration has moved me to tears, crossing and recrossing my path, each diversion diminishing any confidence I had in my whereabouts, hunting for the small, well-hidden kite that hides the control. The distances to be covered this weekend (23 and 18 km on Saturday and Sunday respectively) and the heights to be climbed (1300 and 800 metres) took the frivolity out of frustration, rendering it into an experience new and strange.  Moreover, we were foolish, if not perhaps young, and inexperienced in the art of finding these electronic needles carefully tucked into their (rather large) haystacks.  There are many skills involved; we were experienced in very few of them.  And we knew it.

But back to the day, warm, sunny, midges hard at work as we transferred our route information - the order in which controls were to be collected - onto our maps, and set out, up a well-metalled land-rover track in bright sunlight.  The word that counts in the last sentence is up. About 600 metres of up.  Training error number 1: running up Castle Hill several times is Not enough.  I had thought of putting bricks in my back pack, and running up stairs for an hour a day.  It would have been wise.

So running did not come into the first part of day 1.  Actually, it didn't often play any very great role.  If the gradient wasn't awful, the footing probably was.  Never mind, I was not the only one running.  Anyway, up on to the ridge, gasping, sticks in use to compensate for lack of leg strength.  We were in fine company - a long string of hard-core whippet like runners leaping over the ankle high heather streaming before and behind us (others started later; no we overtook no one).

One thing we did right: we had invested in an altimeter.  This gorgeous device is to your average runner's timepiece what a swiss army knife is to a table knife.  I had rather thought it a luxury; it turned out to be on a par with our compass (ok, it had a built in compass too) as mission central kit.  If the control was at 580 metres, there was no point wasting time looking for the thing at 550 metres, no matter what the lay of the land.  Thus we ran pretty much straight too the first control. 

To our quiet satisfaction, others hadn't, and more than one set of leaping gazelles came bounding back to collect the control that they in their energy and enthusiasm had missed.  It had been tucked in a re-entrant - a hollow - quietly keeping a low profile.

Control 2 was easy to find.  It was on a summit.  Ok, we went to the wrong summit first, but not far wrong, and a cluster of runners a few hundred metres away identified the location of the checkpoint for us.  It was clear.  The day was warm, we could see the way to where the next control must lie - in the bottom of a valley, the bend of an attractive stream.  We ran right to it and refilled our water bottles.

From the bottom of a valley there is no way but up.  The next control was a summit, again not a desperate challenge to find.  We were getting good at this game. Slow, yes, but good.  A long drink, two and a half bites of Cliff bar, a long drink.  A long up.

I have never been very good at technical foods. I believe in them.  They work. But swallowing them, and keeping them swallowed always presents a problem.  Some present no problem on the way down. Others are rather harder to get down, but on the whole, I consider that fault preferable to the other.  Two and a half bites of Cliff bar is about my record.  I needed as much of it is as I could possibly manage, washed down with SiS, which, if I carefully didn't think about it, stayed. 

A long up, and we were beginning to feel a little lonely by then.  It was not hard to find the top.  On the top we met two hapless walkers.  They had selected an idyllic remote area to contemplate the mysteries of nature in isolation.  They were disappointed, but gracious about their unexpected company.

Some aspects of nature are no mystery, but a locally predictable consequence of physics.  The sun of the morning had yielded to a majority of cloud, rolling in, rolling lower, and beginning to spatter. This was a greater worry than the mere inconvenience of damp.  The next control lay reassuringly at the bottom of the next summit, at the far end of the ridge, with two possible routes to achieve it.  Route one, the obvious one, and, as it happened, the one the inventor of the trail had in mind, involved contouring around the next summit in an anti-clockwise direction, before dropping gracefully onto the control just over the far side of the ridge, at its very end. The hitch was the crag on the other side of the ridge, waiting evilly to catch the unwary who, led on by false hopes of having covered more distance than they actually had, might attempt to drop down to the control too soon. Option two involved bailing off the ridge down a slope that stopped barely short of being classified as a crag.  We looked at the cloud muffling the summit.  We looked at our map, at the inviting landrover track marked at the bottom.  We knew our navigational competence or lack thereof.  We opted to bail out.

It was a scary lumpy slither down, profiting from the rocky bed of a promising young waterfall at times to afford an alternative to shuffling bottom first.  We made it.  There was no friendly track however.  The map had told fibs, the first of several we were to discover.  

Safe, yes.  Drenched, yes, but hey, only two more controls before - before pitching tents in the rain and enjoying the best of boil in the bag cuisine.  Ah, lovely image to look forward to.  Only two more controls, the next just tucked into a re-entrant, just a hundred metres on the crag side of the road.  Once we found the road.

We found the road, in the nice level stream valley, but not a nice level road, but one that bucked and reared, hugging the bottom of the crag, leaping from hump to hump, every hump disguising a potential re-entrant.  We were overtaken in our searches by another team of straggle haired increasingly desperate "runners".  We teamed up and scoured the area, cursing as each hump revealed nought but the next hump.  We found it, eventually, after some communal cursing, and proceeded as a foursome on towards the next and final control, at a stream junction not two hundred metres from the midway camp.  We slogged through the wet, half blinded by the midge repellent washed into our eyes, but the path clearly trod by many feet.  One last control, the finish line, and Will's friends already had a pot boiled, and instant tea in a plastic mug.  I will recognise heaven when I see it,  It comes in a red mug.

We had rehearsed the procedure of getting the tent up and getting the dinner cooked.  Our minute stove perched like a dragonfly on its canister - the little stove that could.  300ml of boiling water poured into the bag of dried chilli with rice, resealed, made an admirable hot water bottle for the duration of the eight minutes required for rice and beans to soften.  I think I could probably enjoy boil in the bag chilli even at the end of a day that had not involved 23k "running" and 1300m ascent, but the course and conditions certainly lent an extra something to the meal.  The packet once empty served equally well to soften up a second course of supanoodles (and offered second service as hot water bottle as well).

Did I tell you it was raining?  We had practiced setting up and striking the tent in the rain.  We had avoided practicing sleeping in it.  These tents are lightweight, with no second skins to defend against the wrath of the heavens.  The wet is within and without. Within the confined space intimacy is inevitable.  Packs can be left out in the rain, or else they can be brought in and used as a footrest, or a head rest. I had allowed myself the luxury of a basic sleeping mat - easily a centimetre's worth of mat. Useful.  It may not have been raining hard, but it was persistent. My mat was on the lower side. Happily, the depth of water in the tent by the morning was less than a centimetre.

The night was cold.  Soggy sleeping bags are not all that warm.  We shivered, we made a virtue of necessity and lay half over each other.  The cramps from hades struck, fortunately early in the night, fortunately only from the knees southwards, and my teammate spent an anxious five minutes trying to pound the knots out - "harder?""yes, harder, they're not shifting".  It works. It just takes time.  I just wish it weren't necessary. I'm just grateful it was only south of the knees.  In the middle of the night I woke up breathless, gasping, and terrified that I had strained my heart somehow, until I noticed my partner panting similarly - no choice, cold or not, the ventilation panel had to be unzipped, we shivered but breathed easy.

The morning came with an announcement that the sun was up and so should we be. I regretted an absence of tea.  Two packets of oat cakes three mini pepperami and two Tracker bars make a less than perfectly satisfying breakfast.  The inner man was not fed.

Fed or not, we set off as early as we could in the hopes of finishing in time for the organisers to pack up and get home for their well-earned teas.  

An unwise choice of route led us along a delightful track - unfortunately at the top rather than the bottom (as it appeared on the map) of the the ravine we would have to cross before scaling the opposite side to control 1.  I am not sorry, it really was some of the loveliest running of the race, in beautiful setting under brilliant blue skies.  The stream at the bottom, when we finally found a place we dared descend and ascend, was as appealing as any stream I have ever crossed.  We even found the control in the re-entrant.  Without tears.  But we had spent a lot of time having fun getting there.

On to control two.  This involved some up, some lovely down, and crossing a significant stream.  We achieved this immediately below a picturesque waterfall, with no dither, and no falling over.  The control appeared right on cue, in the stream bend, as specified.  We were getting good at this, yes? Two lochans, and one more re-entrant, we can do this, yes?

Innocent we were indeed.  Not hard to find a lake, but in that patch lakes abound.  Moreover, the number of lakes on the land exceeded the number of lakes on the map.  I am told that it's not a lochan unless it satisfies some minimum depth requirement.  Was swimming required to determine which puddles qualified and which didn't? Worse, with so many promising bodies of water to choose from, it did not occur to us for some considerable time that we might be way off course, that there were even more lakes hidden above and beyond where we could see, and that we had strayed nearly to control 4 in search of control 3 before recognising the error of our ways.  I doubt we would have found control 3 had it not been for another pair of stragglers looking in a very different direction.

Having found control 3, it should have been an easy matter to retrace our steps towards control 4, yes no? Except that what we had thought might have been the lochan hiding control 4 was not the lochan hiding control 4, while the lochan hiding control 4 was yet further up, and out of sight.  My partner was very persuasive.  Had she not been, we would not have achieved control 4.

So be it, with very very little time to cover the distance, control 5 lurked to the south, not so very far as the crow flies.  We are not crows, nor have we wings of any description.  It was a long way down, and a long brutal way up, and time was ticking.  The control was set to close at 15:00.  It was only the north side of a lake.  Again.  But we had begun to distrust lochans.  Our fears were entirely justified.  We visited lots of lakes.  The rain began to spatter.  The time ticked on, 15:00 came and went.  Well, we had tried.  We really had tried.  Nothing to do but head south and strike for home.

We headed south, and stumbled on the north side of yet another lochan, the control sitting there trying to look innocent.  Words failed me.  Words still fail me.  We both punched the control with an unwonted degree of savagery.  And headed south.

It was easy running from there on, providing that one did not get caught in the occasional mires of peat.  The navigation was a doddle, the rain had stopped, we had signal for the telephone, we rang Will to pass on the message to the organisers that we had fallen down no crags, and would be returning to base tardy but unharmed and in no need of assistance.

The gentle slope turned into a landrover track, and then a foot track-cum-stream bed (did we care about sharing the track with a stream by then? not a lot) and then a very respectable road.  One last control, at a bridge.  Dale met us at the bridge, and we sauntered back to the finish, trotting the length of the final field to the energetic cheers of the few who had not yet packed up and departed, before clocking ourselves in.

The wonderful organisers had very kindly kept the clock ticking. 79th, final finisher, and five hours after the preceding finisher (gulp). For our part, sure, I would like to have navigated better and run faster, but honour is satisfied.  Well satisfied.  We did it.  We got round. 

Is it possible that the organisers can imagine how much it means to me that they did not time us out?  I am aware of the strain a team like ours places on the organisation; a hugely slow and inexperienced team, at best a worry and a delay. I am aware of a degree of presumption on good nature in signing up for such an event.  In this, as in other challenges I have taken on, the generosity and good nature on the part of the organisers in making me, us, very much more than welcome defies description.  What a privilege to have taken part.  Thank-you is hopelessly inadequate, but for lack of any others it will have to do.  Thank-you thank-you thank-you organisers, thank-you LAMMers, one and all.  I sincerely intend to be back, although, in spite of all we have learned about how to train and how to navigate, I suspect it will be in the role of marshall next time, if I may.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The light in the valley

 - an apology for silence.

Many bloggers fail to carry on.  The blogging stops, the followers hang around a bit and then disperse.  I am one such lapsed blogger.  The LAMM is now four days away, close enough for the weather reports for the region to be a source of anxiety, close enough for further training to be at best decorative rather than functional.  The preparation is past, now it is time to play the game.

So what's with the silence?  For several months my thoughts were hijacked by the crab.  My brother-in-law was diagnosed with and shortly thereafter died of a particularly unpleasant cancer.  For several months the awful possibility that his cancer had been a hereditable one pre-empted all thought, before the evidence was gathered that gave us the confidence that his was the sporadic version, that our kids would not be faced with that threat on their horizons. For that time, I could not write, I could only trawl the web hopelessly, searching for answers that didn't exist, reading and rereading in many forms the same empty content.  

That time is over.  Strands of abandoned thought resumed, the normal chafing and irritation almost welcome as the greater worries recede.  "Me" didn't come into the story much during those months, nor did Parkinson's, nor did running, or did it? 

I'm not so sure now.  The quality of light is different in the valley of the shadow of death.  The small and insignificant shows up bright and of great value.  Watching my bro-in-law revise and abandon his goals as the crab bit deeper raised the value of my own.  Was I getting a tad discouraged with 15 minute miling? 15 minute miling is fine, thank-you. It's a sodding busy time of year to go gallumphing off to the northernmost parts, taking a weekend off to run the LAMM, is this sensible? Yup. 

It's not about Parkinson's, or is it? However crocked the PD will leave me, I get to see the sky, watch the clouds, feel the wind.  And now, while I can still get out and run, challenge the hills, feel the rain on my face and the icy wet of peaty bog numbing my feet, I will cherish it all.  I am alive, and PD or no PD, will live it to the limits.  I will do it for H. and I will do it for me.

I have, temporarily at least, stopped grumbling.  The light in the valley is the consolation we are given, the ability to see the ordinary as precious, to value minute by minute the gift of time.  Open eyes, seize the chance, be grateful, and run.