The Saunders Six

By Rick Ansell

I have to say I like my reality to be real. Last weekend I should have been running the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) two day event with Simon and it would have been real enough and it was in Arrochar, the first real mountains you come to in Scotland….but it wasn’t to be.

What to do? A virtual reality race. When the Saunders Mountain Marathon was canceled, the organisers set up a six-hour score event in the Howgills in Cumbria on MapRunF for anybody to try. It seemed like a good alternative to the OMM weekend, and the wind and rain and hills were real enough, it was just that there was nobody else there.

The wind droned through the roof bars on the car all night as I tried to sleep inside it. I lay watching the stars slowly move round the sky but I must have slept as suddenly it was getting light. I’d set a start time of 9.00 but at 9.00 I was still finishing my tea, so decided on 9.15 but at 9.15 a heavy shower was driving past, so I delayed till 9.30.

It can be an intense moment setting off into the hills on your own, especially empty hills like these where, away from the honeypot of the highest point, the Calf, you seldom see people and somehow I was feeling a bit spooked.

I stuffed an extra fleece into my bumbag like a security blanket. Finally on my way, I found I wasn’t in tune. It started raining so I put on my jacket but then I got too hot and took it off and then the wind got cold as I got higher. My uphill legs weren’t working, probably John’s fault for making me run too hard with the eights on Wednesday. I pushed on telling myself that as the run went on, I would get into it.

My phone was supposed to beep at me when I reached each control but for some, probably very simple, reason it just vibrated so I had to stick my fingers in my bum bag every time I came to what I hoped was the right spot to make sure I got the vibe. I missed seeing the welcoming red and white kites that usually mark the controls.

I had set a wish time of an hour for the fourth control and I should have been pleased when I got there in 55 minutes, but I found I wasn’t particularly. A couple of controls later I was descending into a valley heading for a sheepfold. I saw one below me. There was only one marked on the map but I decided I couldn’t have gone far enough for it to be mine and carried on. That’s the thing with the Howgills. They are small hills but look big and you seem to cover the distance quicker than you expect. I was two minutes past the sheepfold before I accepted the reality and had to retrace my steps.

Two hours gone and I started to get the bit between my teeth and feel the thrill of the chase. They have put cows up in the valleys here now. In the old days it was just sheep, and sheep make good paths to follow. Cows are terrible path makers, they churn up the ground. Following a cow path you are calf (sorry) deep in mud and worse. I was following cow paths through the valleys; the going was slow and my new sense of urgency made it frustrating.

I climbed over a ridge, collected 80 points, and dropped down the other side. Plan A took me up onto the top of Randygill. Plan B took me straight up the valley to the col above Cautley Spout. I was well into the second half of my time and it felt too risky to head further away from home. I dithered, but decided on safety reminding myself I had options of extra controls in valleys either side of the Calf summit, where I was headed next.

The race was on now: me against the clock. From the Calf it was 5km in, mostly downhill and on a good path. How long? The first 5km had taken 55 minutes, with rough ground and a big climb. Must be less than an hour then. At the Calf I had 93 minutes, time to plunge down to a stream junction and get back out again, but I miscounted the contours, it was over 200m re-ascent, not 150. Too late now, I’m committed.

Back up to the ridge, 60 minutes left, but I’m 500m along the path already. Time to nip down to that pond? 60 points? Try it. As I climb back out, I calculate and recalculate. Surely I can do 4km in 40 minutes once I’m back on the path. I can miss out the last control if it’s really tight.

Back on the path, the cairn I’m heading for seems miles away, but suddenly I’m there and I can see the final top just a km away. It takes me 8 minutes. I decide I need 15 minutes to get down to the stream junction for that last 40 points, and then to crash through the bracken to the finish. I have 13. If I’m two minutes late I’ll lose 20 of those 40: worth it.

As I slither down the steep bank to the stream, I cross a trod that must run back down to the road. Four minutes to get back. I won’t do it. I scrabble back up the bank to the trod. At last, the legs respond to the call for speed. I touch the wall and the phone vibrates: 41 seconds late, 10 points lost. Good decisions made.

I sit on the back of the car and the sun washes the hills with gold, the wind is calm now and I can hear the stream pattering away as it has all day while I’ve been out. That’s as good a score as I could have got today. The satisfaction of pushing through the early hours, feeling negative and then engaging in the chase in the second half, testing the limits of the time, sets deep inside. That was good, that was real.

I download and find that of the 100 plus people who have had a crack at it I’m 18th in the rankings. Not too bad, I tell myself but I’m disappointed to be only 3rd V 60.