Sunday, 6 April 2014

Lakes 42: DNF

Yesterday I started, but did not complete the Lakes 42 mountain ultra-marathon. It was my choice to withdraw just after the halfway point, without pressure on anyone else's part or regret on mine today. What follows, therefore, is not excuse-making nor justification; it's just explanation.

So let's deal straightaway with why I chose to drop out. It wasn't, contrary to what I half expected before I started, due to problems navigating - there were plenty of people out there who knew their way round, and the paths in any case were reasonably obvious; you just had to choose the right one. It also wasn't because I was struggling physically - at the point I stopped (22 miles and 4000 feet of ascent completed out of 42 and 9000 respectively) I was lying 25th out of 85 starters. It WAS, however, because I was concerned for my safety, and that of anyone who might have to give me assistance.

Let me explain that - the weather was awful in the Lake District yesterday. At 'normal' level that manifested itself in constant rain and a temperature of 7c. Up in the mountains, the temperature was 2c before windchill, -5/6c after windchill, and that was in the context of the rain being of a temperature and ferocity it felt like you were taking a cold shower. I'd been over High Street (the highest point in the eastern Lakes) in those conditions, and it was kind of ok. However, by the time I got to Wythburn church, the 5th checkpoint out of 10, I was getting quite cold. Wythburn is the start point of the ascent up Helvellyn, and one of the organisers arrived at the checkpoint when I was there to provide an update on conditions. It wasn't pretty - the wind was strong, the rain was as reported, visibility was no more than 5 metres, and there was a dangerous cornice very near the route - a formation of snow that overhangs the mountain, meaning if you step on it you're in for a big fall.

Two things struck me at this point. First, compared to the majority of the other participants I was a novice - I'm not a seasoned fell runner or climber. Second, I'd skimped on mountain-specific kit in my preparation - sure I had everything warm with me that I owned, but a rainjacket that's suitable for a bike just doesn't cut it in those conditions. I'd gambled on the weather being kind-of-ok, and it most definitely wasn't. Now, even that might have been ok had I been able to change a few strategic bits of clothing (base layer, socks) from wet versions to dry versions, but even that wasn't possible because I'd arrived at Wythburn 50 minutes ahead of when Mrs M and I had agreed she'd turn up there, such was my progress at that point.

So, I was wet, cold, and without the right kit for tackling Helvellyn in bad conditions. My running shoes, in addition, are great for trails, but not so great for mountains - I'd already fallen over (mainly on grass thank God) half a dozen times by that point. The last thing I wanted was to fall over or otherwise injure myself (exposure would have been another contender for that), and cause the local mountain rescue people to have to come out. Maybe that's defeatist, maybe it's not obeying Rule 5, but to me, yesterday, it felt sensible. Pain may be temporary and glory may last forever, but death is permanent. OK, that's a little melodramatic, but you catch my drift.

Anyway, those are the circumstances of my abandonment. I had, at that point and as I mentioned above, still covered 22 miles of Lake District mountains and hills over the course of 5 hours 20 minutes, which is comfortably more exertion that a standard marathon, so what of the event till that point?

Well, it was a 6am start, which meant being out of bed at 4.15am to prepare, travel the 12 miles to the start at Askham, register, be briefed and leave. It was as we were being briefed I realised I'd made another error - I had the largest, seemingly heaviest backpack of any other starter. There's a 'compulsory' kitlist for the event, that includes survival blanket, headtorch, spare batteries, whistle, first aid kit, etc etc., and you had to sign to say you had all those things. It was clear to me that most people had nothing like the full kit - there rucksacks were far too small - but I guess the organisers are happy as long as you sign to say you've got everything, as that absolves them of blame if anything goes wrong. Not only did I have the full kit (again, a novice's error I suspect), but I'd supplemented it with 2 litres of water in a bladder (volume unnecessary, bladder too bulky), spare clothes that proved to be useless, a loaf's worth of sandwiches and 24 gels/jellies/energy bars - again, more than necessary. My pack was pretty heavy for walking on the flat, let alone running up mountains with. D'oh.

Anyway, the half of the route I did took us south-west from Askham and up to High Street. At relatively low levels the views were brilliant, but by 6.30 we couldn't see anything beyond 15 metres, and that's the way it stayed until we descended from High Street into Patterdale via Angle Tarn (which is beautiful). Back up through Grisedale Forest was where the weather really closed in, and after the descent from Grisedale Tarn we reached Wythburn, which is where the story above unfolds.

I enjoyed what I did - but in retrospect I just wasn't  prepared for the combination of conditions that came together yesterday. Doffed chapeaus to those who finished. I'm not downcast in any way; apart from it still feeling sensible, I'm also telling myself this was my Mo Farah London marathon moment (he did half of it last year as a recce for doing the full event this year). However, who knows? It does feel like there's unfinished business though.


  1. Hi Stuart, firstly kudos for starting the event and making the sensible decision to pull out when you did. You'll have no doubt learnt a lot and will be better prepared next time.

    One thing that did concern me in your report was the belief that most people didn't have the compulsory kit. From my experience, this really isn't true, I believe the vast majority of experienced competitors will have the compulsory kit plus additional kit to suit personal preferences. To go into the fells with anything less would be irresponsible.

    Pack size isn't really a good indication of what people are carrying as there is now a lot of very functional kit at low weight and pack size. I had everything on the compulsory list and squeezed this into a North Face Endurance Plus bag, it's about 8 litres. I'd happily list everything I took.

    Furthermore, I'm sure the organisers would disqualify anyone without the compulsory kit if they had done kit checks.

    Best wishes for your future adventures.

    1. Hi Adam, thanks for your comment. On reflection, I think you're right and I'm wrong (and I'll say that in my next post) - I spent several hours yesterday both reflecting on what I carried and looking on the internet at the lightweight but effective gear that's obtainable these days, and which I didn't have. I do now understand why people were able to carry the compulsory kit with packs considerably smaller than mine - and that'll be me next time (and there will be a next time). As you say, I learnt a lot on Saturday.


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