Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Three Triathlons and a Mountain Marathon

Penny and I at the start of the Rab (photo courtesy of Jon Brooke, www.rightplacerighttime.co.uk)

It's been a crazy but fun month of doing big things. Thanks to a slip of the mouse on one or two online entry forms, I had been looking sidelong at September with a slight sense of trepidation. Most of that was down to one thing: the Helvellyn Triathlon. Not an event for the faint-hearted, it is a mile long swim in a cold lake, a 38 mile bike ride over Lakeland passes at their lung-busting best, then a 9 mile fell run to the Helvellyn ridge and back.

The other things were really just sharpeners, diversions from the main event. A sprint distance triathlon in Penrith and a club-organised tri in Appleby. And of course, there was the Rab Mountain Marathon.

Organised chaos in the transition area

But anyway. Back to The Helvellyn. The swim went like a breeze. The course was shortened a little as the water temperature was a bit low- any cooler and it would have had to be cancelled. And then from the drunken shadow-boxing out of the wetsuit, it was the long bike ride. If anything, this was the thing that drained the tanks, left the legs aching and crampy. But still, fascinating way to get that exhausted feeling without spending hours and hours on the hills...

By the time I'd got rid of the bike, everything from the waist down was in some kind of pain or cramp. It was an incredible feeling to know that 9 miles of mountain lay between me and a rest. As I hobbled those first few hundred metres while the legs adjusted to the run, Gill Douglas ran along side, as she had done for all the Arragons Cumbrian Triathlon Club folk. Before dropping back at the end of our one-sided conversation, she said '...just believe...'

These four events were a bag of chalk and cheese, as different from each other as they could get. The triathlon is a fun thing but it is, deep down, a contrivance, a fun thing to do with some fitness and a lot of equipment, but certainly a man-made game. The mountain marathon is different. It's about being absorbed into the mountains, going, as they say, where few men (or women) have gone before...

Penny on the Rab Mountain Marathon, the Howgills

The Rab was in the Howgills, those resting elephant-backs covered in a soft grass like the scruffy fur on a Border Terrier. They are, on any day of the week, some of my favourite hills to run in. It was a fantastic experience to spend two days running through them, slogging along sloping contours and into remote valleys where the situations were as grandiose as I'd seen on the LAMM in Scotland.

Perhaps the joy of mountain marathons is the sheer simplicity of knowing all you have to survive for two days is on your back. It's the kind of event where the mental and physical sides meet up, and if either one is not up to it, the game is over. To maintain the level of concentration needed while the tides of your mental state ebb and flow over two days is to slowly understand what you're capable of, what can or can't break you, and underneath it all, to perform a simple test of the spirit.

6.30 am, Cautley Spout

A glimpse of the English Schools Fell Racing Champs at Sedbergh

It's been a rewarding month of stepping onto the plate, and asking some big questions of myself. Give or take the odd moment of doubt in exhaustion, the answers have been positive. Chalk and cheese they all might be, but somewhere underneath it all, Gill was right. It just boils down to what you believe.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A Traditional Lakeland Show

Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling with the fells as a backdrop

Ever since moving to the Lakes, I've managed to miss every one of these shows. Sometimes it's a straight toss up between running some race, kayaking somewhere or the gentler pursuits of taking in a show. And last year, many were cancelled because of the monsoon season.

Kicking back after the third triathlon in as many weeks, we finally got it together and went to the Shepherd's Meet and Sheep Dog Trials in Rosthwaite, Borrowdale.

Having spent a lot of time at Welsh shows, it was great to see the Lakeland version, with the unique and hopefully never fading sports of fell racing and wrestling.

Billy Procter and the lads from Helm Hill on the start line of the Dalehead Fell Race

The Mind Game

The biggest attraction was the wrestling. The crowd, three or four deep on all sides, first stood mesmerised by the junior matches. These were usually over pretty quickly and all a question of body mass. The older lads treated us to more tactical mind games which could have gone on forever...more stalking than wrestling. Great stuff.

All of these things, the sheep dog trials, the shearing, the droving skills, right down to the walking sticks are for me just one or two generations in the past, and the vestiges are still somewhere, languishing in the blood. Everything except the wrestling. And Stu rather pointedly said I might be quite good at that....

Trail hounds have an intensity about them that is often rare in other breeds

Duck driving

Thursday, 17 September 2009


The Llyn peninsula is a singular place. Almost cut off from the rest of Wales, it has all the hallmarks of being an island. And it almost is. The landscape here is deeply rooted in the past, both primaeval and more recent: from ancient iron age hill forts to deeply gouged opencast mines.

Kayaking off here had an intangibly magical edge to it. Perhaps it was because of the bright blue sea, the warmth of the sun and the wonderfully rugged coastline. Or maybe it was the faint sizzle of belonging to this place. Not by birth, but by the far less obvious ties of ancestry.

In any case, a great place to paddle, often overlooked in the race to the tidal funspots of Anglesey.

A seagull feather on the water


From the vantage points of Snowdonia, a ragged line of perfectly peaked hills forms the backbone of the Llyn peninsula. Known collectively as Yr Eifl, these have been the mythical far off distant hills of my childhood, always there, yet never explored. Running through them was a dream made real in the bright blue sun of last weekend. Not vastly high, or remote, but learning now to expect the unexpected, they provided a surprise that took my breath away.

Around the summit of Tre'r Ceiri is an iron age stone rampart that encircles something like 150 ancient, perfectly built huts. High on this hill, with views stretching out over the sloping green baize and sea below, was an ancient community still preserved almost intact. All that was missing were the straw roofs and the palls of peat smoke. Was it amazing that this place still existed? Or was it that I had never heard about this place before?

It's so common to see hill forts dotted on the map but barely find a stone or two to mark their place in history. The complete picture of this place, by contrast, simply rises out of the ground. The huts are arranged organically like honey comb, drawn from the heavy scree into beautiful shapes. It is an amazing place.