Friday, 10 November 2017

Hard knocks on Hard Knott - My monstrous mountain marathon.

What am I doing here? It was the sight of top fellrunner Jonny Malley looking forlorn and in despair after forty five minutes searching for checkpoint nine that made me ask myself that rather obvious question for the first time.

We were about two thirds of the way up the featureless western slope of Scafell in thick mist hunting for the mother of all bingo controls - a sheepfold. At least the driving rain and wind of the last eight hours had calmed a little. We’d endured this foul weather as we crossed much of the central Lake District - from Langdale almost to Thirlmere, across Borrowdale, round Gable and Kirkfell to the back of Yewbarrow and we still had to cross Eskdale and Hard Knott before reaching the campsite at the head of the Duddon valley.

Day 1 Course 

So what on earth made me enter the OMM Elite?

A long long time ago - well February - I was having a Valentine dinner with my dreamboat husband and the romantic talk turned to the Adventure Show and it's rather excellent coverage of last years OMM:

The power of television is such that I came away almost believing that Nick Barber is one of the world’s greatest athletes. But it was International Orienteer Jess Tullie and her partner competing on the Elite course that I found really inspirational.

And there was fell-running legend Nicky Spinks looming larger than life on my TV screen encouraging more women pairs to race the Elite. Why not I thought? There’s months to prepare and I’m already a top navigator - at least that’s what I tell anybody who will listen.

Of course another nice twist would be to run it as a Kim Baxter Physiotherapy Team and Sally agreed to join me, alas only to drop out a few weeks later due to a wedding invitation.

I wracked my brains for another partner who might be strong enough to attempt it and who I’d get along with and came up with ex-junior-international orienteer and experienced adventure racer Lucy Spain (nee Harris). After some thought she said yes - the OMM remained one of those challenges she still had to conquer.

Inspiring Patients

Over the years I have never ceased to be impressed by and often in awe of our many patients who embark upon real challenges; whether it is newbie runners challenging themselves to run five kilometres then building up to half marathons and then even marathons. Or others such as the crazy Hilary Bloor who needs a race as extreme as the Marathon de sables to put herself under a little pressure.

In all my running endeavours over the years I’ve been focusing on winning or pbs. I’ve never before taken on the challenge of wilI I finish this race? Am I actually good enough to do this? Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

Well the OMM Elite is certainly that challenge. Those questions started to haunt me. They haunted me all through the spring and summer. They were still haunting me in the car park on the morning of the event. Can I really do this? Is it possible for me?

The training

Training is about balance. Too much training with too little recovery means no progress and increased risk of injury. Too little training and I might not be good enough to finish.

I am a firm believer that your current ability is not the sum of your previous weeks or months training but the sum of your life's training.

So in my favour I have years worth of running and orienteering in the mountains. I trained hard until I was twenty five. I then had a break for travelling and kids where I averaged about two hours running per week but since 2013 I have slowly built up my hours and going into the OMM build up I was averaging six hours per week plus small amounts of strength work, climbing and yoga.

My goal in 2015 and 2016 had been the Sheffield Half Marathon so my training had been based around regular speed sessions and much of it had been done on roads.

I analysed my current ability and came up with the following areas that I believed were adequate and the areas I needed to improve.


  • Speed
  • Uphill strength
  • Basic terrain ability
  • Map reading

Need to improve

  • Endurance. I rarely ran over two hours. The OMM could test me over eighteen hours.
  • Downhill running - I've always been overly cautious, this has been amplified post kids. 
  • Rocky terrain, especially slippery when wet.
  • Running with a rucksack. I walk a lot with a heavy bag but never run.

So I structured my training around three key sessions per week

  1. Hill session - especially focusing on descending
  2. Long run - in terrain and with as much climb as possible
  3. Strength session - the goal being increased agility and lower leg strength to improve descending and downhill efficiency.  

I dropped interval training and speed sessions as these were less relevant and doing too many sessions would fatigue me and reduce the effectiveness of the key sessions.

That was the plan - but what about the reality.

Endurance: In the eight months of buildup I only managed managed to do four runs around four hours! This was due to a family life limiting available time and also a lack of motivation to get out and do the long stuff on my own.

First long training run - March 2017

Hill Sessions: Here I was a bit more successful. Thankfully the West of Sheffield is notably hilly and the majority of weeks I was doing between 1000m and 2500m climb. Still not a huge amount but more than I had done previously. 

Strength: In July I discovered Tribe (Trib3) a local gym that runs circuit classes.
For years my strength sessions had been solitary and somewhat soulless, so it was great to join a class that pushed me.

But it was brutal! It even included ten minutes interval training on the treadmill which was great for training my tired legs to keep moving. 

The idea was similar to these bench exercises by Claire Maxted of WildGingerFilms. 

All was going well up to August and our summer holiday included eight orienteering races at altitude in the Pyrenees and Alps plus some hut trekking near Mont Blanc with the kids. I also managed to slot in a long run which included a 2000m descent. The sessions were working and my downhill legs were coming on.

Using the family hut trek to practice with a rucksack.

The final countdown.

In September I lined up two longish fell races - the Totley Exterminator and the somewhat more relevant Three Shires in Little Langdale.

Totley was fine and I recorded a confidence-boosting victory. At the Three Shires I could still feel the Tribe sessions in my legs and realised my descending was still poor compared to hardened Lake District fell runners. Second place and first vet was ok but I left the race feeling quite demoralised.  

Finishing the Three Shires.

Over the next few weeks I continued with my training plan but managed to tip the balance into overtraining.

I did too many Tribe sessions too close together with too little recovery causing an old foot injury to flare up.

As we all do I adopted the classic ostrich position and ignored the warning signs. This culminated in a longer than planned run with a friend intent on collecting half a cow from a butcher’s in Hillsborough, He suggested I carry his meat and bone laden rucksack as it would be good OMM training.

But then an aborted long run in the peaks a few days later made me realise and accept my mistakes. I had to stop running and rest.

After four days I was walking pain free so I tried an easy twenty minute test run. This was twenty minutes of phantom pains and paranoia but the pain didn’t increase and there was no adverse reaction after or the next day. During the run I bumped into a long term patient who reminded me what I would be saying to him: stop your CCTV. Look outside yourself. Look at the trees, the birds, the river, the other people. Focus on something else. If the foot is a problem it will let you know. Don’t focus on it.

All was feeling fine for the British fell running relays three days later. This was my last test before the OMM. After only an hour of running the pain started to return and on the final descents I felt like I was running with a big heavy block rather than a foot.

My descending skills were back to being poor and I finished tired, disappointed and scared. At the finish the amazing Zoe Harding bounded off back up the hill to do a longer run declaring it was because she was doing the A at the OMM. I sat fatigued in the tent thinking I’m doing the Elite and I couldn’t run any further today. One hour fifty two isn’t enough. HELP.

[Zoe and her M55 Dad nailed the A course winning by over an hour.]

By now Lucy had dropped out with a stress fracture. Having run out of women to ask I found the next best thing and teamed up with Dark Peak’s Dave Sykes. With bags of experience of the OMM and long Lake District fell races and also a top descender Dave seemed to be the complete package - although he needed to work on being more imberb.

It was now too late to change anything. I just had to accept my two week taper, rest, recover, manage my demons and hope for the best.

Will my foot be ok? Can I still descend? I’ve not done enough. I’m not ready. How can I run for ten hours and then repeat it when I haven't managed more than fours?  How stupid was I to believe I could do such a thing?.


I was constantly seeking reassurance from everyone. Patients, friends, Joe Blogs. But the thing about reassurance is the more you get the more you need.

So the final week I was trying to just distract myself. This was helped by our landlady hiking our rent by almost fifty percent so I suddenly needed to find a new work premises.

In these final few weeks the desire to test yourself to check you are able to run x y or z is strong. You want to prove to yourself you are in the shape to reach your goal. For me I was desperate to do a five hour run as this was my goal in training and I’d never done it before. Yet I knew that I was deluding myself. So close to the race there was just no point, no training benefit - nothing to gain and everything to lose.  

I spend a lot of time reassuring patients in their final few weeks before their big challenge. I tell them they can do it, they have done enough training already, they don’t need to stick to the schedule printed in Runner’s World or taken from the internet.

All of them look at me as if to say I’m talking nonsense. They all just want to…….

I was having to fight hard against my just want tos.

Race day

With a few minor hiccups such as a forgotten waterproof and water bottle we were off.

The weather was awful. We nailed the first but missed the second. I relocated quickly. As we left the control we passed the only female pair in the race - double Bob Graham Round legend Nicky Spinks and her partner. Running away from her over the wild fog-covered moor was a definite morale boost. At Seathwaite Fell last year’s winners Shane and Duncan piled past with  Duncan declaring he was already exhausted. I’m not I thought.

We continued on our way and as we ran up the side of Ennerdale I started calculating whether we could make it back in daylight.

Such thoughts were promptly thwarted by the sheep fold on the side of Scafell. But we were luckier than many and found it without too much delay.

I’ve raced orienteering all my life. In 1999 I came back with the leaders in the World Championships Relay on the incredibly tricky Loch Vaa. I needed all that experience and focus to find that last tricky tarn in the dark and mist after 46km and ten hours of running. Not bad I thought.

But there wasn’t much time to enjoy our victory against the weather gods. Food, sleep and all too quickly we were off again, launching into the cold chill of a cloudless but windy dawn.

This day was tough from the start. I’d been protecting my left foot the previous day resulting in a painful right knee and hip flexor. The thought of running all day with this got me down but Dave was a bouncy tigger in the sunshine so I continued to trog behind him.  

About half way round I realised we were at risk of timing out even though we were within twenty percent of the winners. At number four south of Wetherlam we were forty minutes from cut off and as we proceeded round the cut off times got closer until by the south side of Langdale we were really having to push to avoid being timed out. We covered the last half just over ten percent behind the leaders as we desperately tried to avoid what would have been a very unjust disqualification - a fate that hit several teams around us.

And then there it was. The Finish. Eight minutes to spare. I went into the tent, sat down and cried.

What have I learned?

The mental side of running fascinates me. Studies abound about how we can run farther, faster, longer with different mental cues.

Prior to the OMM one of my ultra-running patients told me it’s ninety percent mental and the rest is in your head.

Long distance running is all about willpower and it seems I’m OK at it, although the distraction of having to navigate in zero visibility followed by the pressure of potentially being timed out certainly helps.

Had it been beautiful hills in beautiful weather with plenty of time and just the thought of having to trog round to finish it would have been a lot more difficult.

Hey - I’ve found I can do eighteen hours of running and not throw my toys out the pram. Who knew? Certainly not my long-suffering husband.

Many of you will have read my blogs about the pain system. It really is all in your head. I never felt my bad foot on the second day. Not once. And once the pressure of racing the course closing times kicked in the knee pain disappeared completely.  

And now for RECOVERY

The coming weeks and months are crucial for recovery. I will wait until the New Year before returning to structured training. Until then I’ll just do what my body feels like doing.

Longer term - I really should do my physio exercises to get my foot sorted! And in the unlikely event I ever do this again I’ll need some deeper investigation into how to get my 5.25kg pack down to the 3.5kg weight of the leading male runners.


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