[Steve is presented with trophy for winning SLMM Scafell Solo course in 2019 by Nicky Spinks, who is also competing in the 2021 Saunders]
When you think of mountain marathons you tend to think pretty quickly of Steve Birkinshaw. The gentle man of steel, most famously known for breaking the thirty-six-year record for the Wainwrights round. So who better than the man himself to give us all a few tips on what to expect from a mountain marathon. Look out for Steve at this year’s start line, he has a new team this year.
Although I have run over fifty of these and I have over twenty wins in the Elite classes I still get plenty of things wrong, but I am gradually improving and making fewer mistakes.
Hopefully these tips mean others do not make some of the painful and uncomfortable mistakes I have made and can enjoy these brilliant events. These are obviously my personal thoughts and other people will have different viewpoints.
Navigation is obviously a key skill that requires lots of practice and also needs to be done well in order to get good results.
1. Choose the Right Partner.
You are going to be spending thirty-six hours in really close proximity to this person, often when both of you are really tired and possibly emotional. I have known of good friends who have fallen out over the course of a weekend and conversely partners who had never known each other before who have become best friends.
I think the most important consideration in choosing a partner is picking someone with similar (realistic) aims. This might be to finish a course, aiming to be in the top half or trying to win.
If these aims are different there will immediately be a source of conflict. The next most important factor is someone of a similar overall speed, ideally with a similar speed over different terrain. But this is not essential and it can be overcome using point 2. I’ll be running with my son this year, that could be fun!
2. Work as a Team.
It is obvious, but the aim is to get round together as fast as possible. It is definitely not for one member of the team to show they are faster than the other.
I have seen someone running fifty metres in front of their partner turning round and shouting at them to hurry up. This person should not be running in a Mountain Marathon as one of a pair. Good teams will transfer food between the rucksacks to even out their speed.
The rules are a bit ambiguous but the top teams will also often swap a rucksack so that one member of the team carries both for a while. One team I know had one member carrying both rucksacks up the hills and the other both rucksacks down the hills.
In mainland Europe a bungee to pull the slower member along is also popular. You also cannot expect your partner to know if you are going through a bad spell; you need to talk to them and let them know (but never whinge all the time about being tired).
The stronger partner should look after the one who is suffering at the time, whether this is taking the lead in navigation, feeding them food, collecting water or putting up the tent/cooking at the overnight camp.
Remember having fun and coming back friends is better than a podium.
The terrain in Mountain Marathons is normally off the tracks through really rough stuff. If you have only ever run on trails or fell paths you can expect to struggle over Mountain Marathon terrain.
If it is deep heather or tussocks you need a high knee lift to get over the terrain and can expect to fall over a lot. The important thing is to find something similar and train by running over it (I think this is much more important than getting used to running with a rucksack – although this is also useful).
If you think there is no suitable terrain nearby then try going orienteering. The terrain on the longer orienteering courses always goes through some really rough terrain wherever you are in the country. One-day mountain navigation events are also great training.
4. Kit Preparation
All Mountain Marathons have mandatory kit lists. The first thing I do is get together the lightest piece of kit I own that satisfies the requirements. Then I add kit or substitute in more robust/heavier kit focusing in on what I actually need.
I am really competitive and I am happy to ‘rough it’ for the weekend so I will generally take very little additional or heavier kit. In a summer Mountain Marathon like the Saunders I will often take nothing extra. Roughing it isn’t for everyone though.
Shoes are crucial and they should have been ‘worn in’ but also with lots of life left in them. Running kit should also have been tested over long days before the actual Mountain Marathon. I once wore some new shorts where the line of stitching rubbed really badly and it was a very painful weekend.
I know this is obvious but make sure you know how to pitch your tent, the end of a long day of running is not the time to figure this out. Also do not get carried away with reducing weight – you will need more than the two matches I once took!
5. Dry Kit
On the first day it is vital your sleeping bag and spare clothes stay dry. They should stay dry even if you have to swim across a river (I was quite happy the OMM in the Lake District in 2008 was cancelled overnight because I did swim across a river and my sleeping bag was not dry as a result).
Nowadays my sleeping bag goes in a lightweight dry bag and my dry clothes go in large freezer bags (double wrapped). A lot of people take dry socks and plastic bags to put over them so they can walk around the overnight camp with dry feet – it certainly makes the overnight camp more comfortable. These days I do not bother doing this, I walk around the overnight camp with my wet shoes on bare feet then just before the start of the second day I put my wet socks from day one back on.
A great weekend can easily be wrecked by chafing (I have had a couple of very painful weekends). I use Vaseline around my inner thighs and also on my lower back (where the rucksack rubs) but other people use different lubricants to prevent rubbing.
As a result of painful experiences I now always have some spare Vaseline in an old film canister.
If you are out for seven hours plus you need to drink lots of water.
I have a plastic cup which I use to drink from streams as I go past. Other people have small water bottles which are filled up and drunk on the next climb.
On every Mountain Marathon I have done in the UK there have been plenty of upland streams and I have always drunk from them without treating the water and without any problems (if you are concerned with the water quality then there are bottles available with filters).
I do not understand people who spend lots of money to make their kit slightly lighter and then carry two litres of water (which weighs two kilograms) with them.
Food is a very personal thing. My obsession, as always, is to avoid extra weight, which means avoiding carrying anything with any water in (added weight with no calories) – so I never take gels on Mountain Marathons.
Some dehydrated meals also have some water left in them – check the ingredients.
Having the right amount of running food is really important but hard to get right. You do not want to be going short but do not want to carry any extra (apart from emergency rations) at the finish.
I know the number of bars or amount of Kendal Mint Cake I need per hour. I usually eat just before a stream crossing so I can wash the food down with water and then get an energy boost up the next hill.
I often used to get bad leg cramps at some point on day one of a Mountain Marathon but very rarely on day two. It seems my body somehow adapted by the second day to avoid cramp (do other people find this?).
I have read a lot of articles about the causes of cramp and over thirty years tried lots of ways to avoid getting it.
For me (it might not work for other people) the best option is to take regular electrolyte tablets with the water I am drinking from streams but even then I sometimes feel cramp coming on. Then I get out my little plastic bag with some normal table salt in it and lick some of this.
This article (http://www.irunfar.com/2013/07/cramping-my-style.html) I found really useful.
10. End of Day One
The end of day one is not when you cross the finish line but when you have the tent up and you are cooking your first meal.
If the weather is bad it is important to get sorted as soon as possible (you can get very cold very quickly as soon as you stop moving).
The first thing is to decide where to pitch the tent (my next tip). Then put it up as quickly as possible and get changed.
I put on my dry top and bottoms. Then my running top on top of my dry top and shorts on top of my dry bottoms (the running top and shorts will be wet from sweat or rain but they will gradually dry overnight as I am wearing it).Then I put my waterproofs on (or back on). Water I collect from the river in the dry bag which I had my sleeping bag in.
I spread bubble wrap and survival bag along the bottom of the tent so any water does not come in. While I am doing this I will also be eating some crisps and a bar.
11. Tent Location
Twice I have selected the wrong location for the tent and had to endure a wet sleeping bag for part of the night. A cold horrible experience that I am determined to make sure I do not suffer from again.
The first time it was in a grassy gulley that turned into a stream channel when it rained. The second was a fairly flat field but the tent was in a slight hollow that filled with water.
Now I am very careful to select a site where any surface water will not drain through or accumulate in – it also wants to be fairly flat as well as looking at the weather forecast to see if any rain is expected it is also worth looking at the wind direction and speed.
A sheltered point near a wall or between other tents is worth looking out for. Depending on what the ground underneath the tent is like it is often more comfortable to sleep head to toe rather than both having your head at the same end.
12. No Faffing
Lots of teams spend time standing still while eating and drinking or discussing route choices (this seems to be particularly common at checkpoints). In my opinion this is wasted time.
To do well, food and drink should be consumed and discussions had on the move. The best time is while walking up hill.
The top teams are always on the move. The only good reason to stop is when you are unsure about the navigation.
13. Know the rules
It is important to know the rules and follow them.
Rules such as exactly what kit is needed (and if you are allowed to throw spare kit and rubbish out at the overnight camp), whether you have a specified start time or if you can cross fences.
It can be really annoying or lead to disqualification if you get these wrong.
I have been disqualified when my partner lost the timing dibber in a Mountain Marathon, a hugely disappointing experience after running your hardest over a weekend.
13½. End of Day Two
Having crossed the finish line the first thing to do is to hug your partner (or shake their hand if you are more constrained), congratulate them on finishing and thank them for a good weekend.
This is particularly important if your Mountain Marathon partner is also your girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband! And maybe even son.
Then enjoy the chance to sit and relax.
Steve Birkinshaw is author of There is No Map in Hell, which is available at 20% off post free direct form the publisher.