When discretion is the better part of valour.

When it comes to sports, risk taking can be exciting and is the basis of adventure – but when does that risk go from being controlled and fun, to uncontrolled and potentially fatal? Sometimes those judgements are easy to make, getting behind the wheel of a sports car in the snow when you’ve never had a driving lesson is a dangerous proposition, but the same car and weather wouldn’t cause a rally driver a second thought. But as the cases of triple Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna and (more recently,) multi-award winning mountaineer Ueli Steck tragically illustrated even world leaders in a field can fall victim to risks they were unable to gauge perfectly.

St Sunday Crag is a east-west ridge rising to over 840m (2700ft) in the eastern Lake District, it is part of the wider Fairfield/Helvellyn massif and forms the southern border of the Grisdale valley. Topped by an approximately 300m high rocky outcrop that offers good scrambling and climbing, in the right conditions it is (apparently) a good day out in both summer and winter.

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A grim looking St Sunday Crag

Now, you’re wondering, what does all that have to do with the price of tea in China?

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I’m currently in the process of preparing for my medical post-graduate exams in Anaesthesia which is involving a good amount of time reading books a not much time enjoying the outdoors, so I was desperate to get away this weekend into the mountains and have a couple of days days walking and climbing. At this point I’ve done most of the major peaks in the Lake District (St Sunday included) at least once so the idea of building on my indoor climbing which is gradually improving by getting into advanced scrambling was something that I’ve been keen to do a while. St Sundays’ grade III rated Pinnacle Ridge scramble has a short Diff rated climb at the end and offers fantastic views of north-east Lakeland and I had it on my tick-list for this weekend.

Sadly, the weather forecast had other plans. Torrential showers, 40mph winds – up to gale force on the peaks and low cloud coupled together to make an exposed and now slippery scramble seem like a rather bold undertaking. Despite this I packed up the rucksacks with a lot of heavy gear and set off enthusiastically up the Grisedale valley, waterproofs on, traipsing through the drizzle wishing more than hoping that the sun would come out and dry everything out in some June warmth. My keenness to do something exciting with my weekend had got the better of me.

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Footpaths turning to streams

After less than 15 minutes in the dank weather we joined the farm-track that would take us to the far end of the valley and we were passed by a Patterdale Mountain Rescue 4×4 which was shortly followed by two further rescue vehicles. This coupled with increasingly strong winds meant ideas about “somewhat bold” high level scrambles were rapidly abandoned as it became clear that as we’d expected (although I’d not really wanted to admit to myself) conditions were just too risky to be venturing vertically up the valley side.

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Windswept Richard

We headed up the southern track towards the climbing hut at the far end of the valley as Patterdale MRT were in the process of very efficiently packaging up a casualty for a carry out. I later discovered via Patterdales MRT’s Facebook page the poor lady had suffered a fractured ankle walking along the coast-to-coast footpath but had been transported to hospital safely. In this particular case the casualty was well prepared with a survival bag and warm clothing. We turned back at the climbing hut and headed back down the northern aspect of the valley. Not quite what I’d hoped but the 8 mile loop did offer some spectacular views. Super keen to return in July – hopefully for some scrambling this time!

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Not the exciting day out I’d expected to be blogging about but I lived to climb another day. It was a timely reminder for me that mountaincraft is not just about testing your physical limits but developing your understanding of nature and respect for the great outdoors.

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Trinidad and Tobago

For some reason I’ve found this particular blog entry difficult to write. Perhaps its because it was quite a different holiday from my usual “Rock that is higher” fodder, or perhaps it has been a reluctance to accept that I will never quite be able to convey as I would like the sights, tastes, smells and sounds of the Lesser Antillies.

After my grandmother died last year my mum and aunts decided it was time to revisit their home country of Trinidad and my sister booked a ticket to join in the fun. Finding that I could get leave at the same time, I booked flights for Richard and myself and we set off on Holy Thursday to the other side of the world.

If you know me or have followed my blog for a while, you’ll know that generally I pack in as much as I possibly can into my limited time off and usually try and climb a mountain or two whilst I’m at it, so the idea of a couple of weeks on the beach was in some ways a bit daunting. After an exhausting fight involving a delay on the tarmac, a stop over in Antigua and a domestic transfer from Tobago to Trinidad we finally arrived at Piarco International Airport.

From here I’m mainly going to let my pictures do the talking, but I’ve included a bit of context where I feel its needed. For any of the “Mosaic” pictures you can click on the image for an enlargement.

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Port-of-Spain from Diego Martin

The Asa Wright Nature Centre in the north of Trinidad has been recognised as a bird watching haven since the 1960s. With over 400 species of birds, it is amongst the most biodiverse parts of the Caribbean. The center was previously two large coco estates incorporating large stretches of rainforest, which are now re-naturalised. We spent a day here, guided through the rainforest and enjoying watching birds from the veranda.

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Copper-rumped Hummingbird
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White Chested Emerald Hummingbird
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Bananaquits and Honeycreepers at one of the nectar feeders

The Caroni Swamp is an area of mangrove on the west coast of Trinidad, facing Venezuela. We took a guided boat tour of these wetlands of whilst we were visiting the centre and south of the island.

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Flamingos in flight, a new visitor to the Caroni Swamp.
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Trinidad’s national bird, the Scarlet Ibis.
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Trinidad’s North Coast
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Maracas Beach, Easter Monday.

Transfer to Tobago

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Arrival in Tobago
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Store Bay beach, high surf

Pigeon Point for the classic Caribbean beach and blue waters.

A speedboat tour of the North coast of Tobago included a visit to the nylon pool offshore sandbar with its warm shallow waters.

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Frankie’s Boat Tour

We also took a road tour of Tobago with an excellent local guide, Kenny; visiting more of the historical and cultural sites including a fantastic meal at the gorgeously located Gemma’s Kitchen.

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A Trinidad Motmot eating a Doctor Snake
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Argyll falls, SE Tobago

Seeing a pod of dolphins pass meters in front of the hotel just as the sun was setting was one of the highlights of the holiday. Sadly I didn’t have a telephoto lens to do them justice, but it was truly magical.

Heading home.

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The last view of Tobago
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Stunning sunset from the plane.

I hope you enjoyed these pictures folks. More updates over the next few months if exams don’t get the better of me!

Winter in the Langdales

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View from the Pod

As a special treat to myself, I took a days annual leave on my birthday and headed off to the lakes with Richard in tow this weekend for a few days walking and enjoying the scenery. The Langdale valley was spectacular as usual so I’m mainly going to let the pictures do the talking for me!

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The Band, dawn Sunday
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Cumbrian Way
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Neolithic Rock Art, Langdale Head
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Harrison Stickle from the lower slopes of Lingmoor
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Sunset over Crinkle Crags and Bow Fell

Walking up the Langdale Pikes, Monday

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All in all another much needed and beautiful weekend away in the Lakes. Its exciting to think its now only 6 weeks until I head off to Trinidad for a two week holiday – my next post will be rather more summery I think!

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Good riddance 2016!

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Was that really taken yesterday? I can’t quite believe that it was taken right in the middle of winter on one of the shortest days of the year. 2016 was dark and gloomy for a lot of people, myself included, so after working most of the festive season I’m glad to have started 2017 full of sunshine – literally and metaphorically!

I’d spotted earlier that the forecast for this week of January suggested 48hrs of good weather and tempted by a youth hostels association 25% discount booked a very last minute overnight stay in the Lake District National Park.  Richard and I set off at the crack of dawn from Sheffield for an afternoons walking in the northern fells hoping the forecast would hold and boy were we lucky!

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Picking Skiddaw, one of the lakeland 3000 footers as what looked like a good sized hill for a half days walk we set off at midday with some trepidation as to whether we would need to turn back before we lost daylight but moving reasonably gently by our standards made it to the summit and back again in about 3 1/2 hrs on a nice loop walk with plenty of light to spare.

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Whilst Skiddaw itself is not the most interesting mountain the lakes, the views were spectacular and we got to see ravens feeding at the peak.

Up on the summit we briefly passed above the snow-line. Despite the minus temperatures it wasn’t windy so it was actually surprisingly pleasant, and we hung around so I could take a few snaps of Blencathra and the views over to Galloway.


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We got back to the car just as the sun was setting so decided to head down the valley to the stone circle at Castlerigg.

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After a spectacular sunset we drove south to Grasmere (home of Wordsworth for you english scholars out there) where were we’d managed to get YHA accommodation at a bargain £10 per person per night. We then headed down to Tweedies, a lovely restaurant and bar in the village for our evening meal. It was a victim of its own success and was completely packed but we had a fantastic meal there yet again.

The next morning we decided to squeeze in another walk so feeling a little weary of legs took a gentle stroll around Grasmere Lake and watched what seemed about half the British air force fly up the valley in a variety of planes – they were out enjoying the good weather too it would seem!

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Although exams are on the horizon and work has started for them for the sake of my happiness and my health I’m treating myself to more weekends away outdoors this year – how’s that for a new years resolution?

OMM Galloway: Race Report

In a motorway service station on Sunday evening, somewhere on the M6 about 10 or so weary  Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) competitors, self identifying by their uniforms of down jackets, muddy footwear, stiff gaits and slightly dishevelled, weary appearances and queued up for take-away food and coffee. Few of the groups seemed to know each other but it wasn’t long before people were chatting to each other and smiling in a knowing way at the stories being traded about the weekends antics.

The OMM is a race like few others and in its 49th edition it remained physically exceptionally tough, mentally draining and all round exhausting, but the camaraderie that the OMM inspires between competitors (maybe because of shared misery and joy?) is unlike anything I’ve experienced elsewhere in sport. Perhaps its what brings people back year after year after year for a weekend of navigation, running and wild camping in the British wilderness.

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This weekend we headed up to Glen Trool in Galloway for Richards first experience of the UKs oldest mountain marathon and my fifth return to the event. After joining the “pasta party” and a night camping at event headquarters we had a 5.30am wake-up to allow us to have a cup of tea and breakfast before the 5km walk up forest trails to the start. At 15ºC and a steady drizzle it was surprisingly muggy which made it very difficult to know exactly how many layers to wear but we set of briskly uphill to number 1 and soon had a control under our belt.

With visibility at 30m for the majority of the first day I had my work cut out as the teams navigator and despite nearly 20 years of orienteering experience I still made significant navigational error on the way to our second control by contouring too low. We got a brief view of our surroundings on the way past the concerningly named “Murder Hole” on the way to number 4 but for the most part we were jogging, plodding and falling through cloud, marsh and drizzle.

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Energy sapping thigh deep tussock was the thigh-destroying majority of day 1 and both Rich and I hit major energy lows on the course. Luckily we’re getting better at noticing when each other is about to crash off the energy cliff and did our best to keep calories and spirits up with snacks on the go. As a rookie Rich was amazed by the lack of footpaths in the area which is truly a bit of wilderness. Certainly there weren’t many navigational handrails to help you out.

The route back to the overnight wild-camp from number 10 was much easier going, 4 or so kilometres predominantly on loch-side trails which was much needed relief for Richard’s very blistered feet and my tired legs. We were still smiling at times at any rate!

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It had stopped raining by the time we had arrived at the day one finish. We made it back with about an hour of day light to spare but shortly tents were lit up with head torches. Richard really enjoyed the atmosphere in the overnight camp which given how tired he was says something about the buzz around the place.

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For motivational purposes we skipped the boil-in-the-bag meal favoured by most and opted for a relatively gourmet option of quick-cook pasta, cheese and chorizo and mixed herbs, which for the psychological and calorific boost it provided us with was well worth the 200g additional weight in the rucksacks.

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After a surprisingly comfortable and warm nights sleep helped by the extra-hour in bed as the clocks went back,  bagpipes blasted out across the glen for a tuneful wake-up call. With better weather than most years we actually got about 20 minutes of scottish folk tunes and apparently there was even a kilted highland dancer, although that may have been a delirious rumour being passed around the camp.

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Unless you’ve actually done a mountain marathon, the steepness of the terrain, the knee-high tussock, the ankle-deep mud are things that you tend to ignore until you’re faced with them. More than one newby to the sport commented on how rough the terrain was this weekend; something Galloway is renowned for.

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Towards the end of day 2 we finally descended out of the clouds onto flatter hillsides with shorter grass. The exceptionally marshy terrain meant traveling was slower than the grassy photographs would suggest but we made good progress along the ridge picking up controls as we went.

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With a total of 49.4km and 2655m climb we finished with smiles on our faces with the sun shining which is all we could ask for really!

Home away from home.

The Lake District has in many ways been a constant in my life. Despite its pretty villages and country lanes being busier than ever, there is still a sense of wildness and emptiness in its glacial valleys and hills and year after year I find myself returning to it when I get a holiday window. This October I arranged a meet up with a few old university friends in Ambleside over a long weekend, but took Richard and our road bikes off to the Lakes a few days earlier to fit in a ride or two.

The couple of days to ourselves before being joined by the rest of the group mainly involved enjoying  luxuries that we won’t get on (the very imminent) OMM. Glamping at the National Trust campsite at Great Langdale provided us with a wooden camping pod with a radiator, light and charging points and lovely hot showers just across the field with ample local cake shops, certainly things we won’t get next weekend in Galloway! It certainly makes “camping” a lot easier and its very tempting to book some more time there later in the year.

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Cycling all the way up the 30% gradient climb into Little Langdale was something that remained well beyond my physical capabilities on a bike at this stage! The scenery on our steep jaunt around central lakeland on Thursday was aided by some of the best weather that I have ever had in October in the Lakes, even if on the uphills I enjoyed more than my fair share of the scenery at walking pace.

We found a buggy-friendly walk on Friday around the beautiful Tarn Howes with my old housemates Andy and Naomi (a now married couple with 2 gorgeous children). Plenty to keep adults and kids occupied with lovely autumnal colours and various farm animals.

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A group of 12 of us were walking in Grisdale forest on Saturday – spectacular autumn colours with sculptures in amongst the trees. Then on Sunday we descended for an excellent brunch on the Apple Pie Cafe, although I was relatively devastated that their menu now lacks my previous favourite of pancakes with bacon and maple syrup. We finished off the weekend exploring Ambleside and Grasmere and finished off with more beautiful weather and views from Helm Crag.

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The ruins of Galava Roman Fort at Ambleside

The long weekend was a great learning experience in packing in as much as possible in essentially a 4 day window. Because of the different ages, interests and everyone wanting to have a catch up on what we’d been doing over the last few years we did a lot of half day trips and shorter walks which was a great way for me to appreciate the Lakes in a way that made me pause for thought more than my Lake District usual; 8 hour hike, collapse at the youth hostel exhausted at 8pm, sleep for 12 hr pattern! When somewhere feels like a second home to you its easy to slip into the same old habits so it was lovely to be made to take it a little easier and come back from a holiday actually feeling really relaxed.

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A perfectly still Windermere, looking over to Coniston and Crinkle Crags on the horizon.

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Some of the crowd up on Helm Crag on Sunday. It was a really lovely few days with friends and there was already talk about meeting up again in years to come! And, with only few days left now until the OMM, fingers crossed a few longer days on my feet on some hills I will have helped my fitness a little bit!

 

OMM Lite North Yorkshire: Race report

What an joy this weekend was! Sunshine, enjoyable racing and unexpectedly good results came together to make my first venture into “Lite” format of mountain marathon racing well worth the struggle up the A1(M) on Friday night.

I spent a reasonable amount of last week piling up kit in my living room, debating about packs, loosing then re-finding a head-torch multiple times until I was finally convinced that I had the mandated items in my backpack for the weekend’s racing. I also opted to bring along a few kit items as a test run for October’s Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) which will be being held in Galloway.

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After enduring the Friday night traffic we eventually made it up to Cropton on the outskirts of Pickering on the North York Moors. I had a very frustrating hour in high winds failing miserably to put up Vaude Power Lizard ultralightweight Tent inside out, then back-to-front (which to be fair, I hadn’t wrestled with in a year or so) but we eventually ended up with a little camp of three little tents with Shirin and Charlie (both new to the sport), Richard and I a very convenient distance from the heated marquee and catering.

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Around us other competitors unpacked high spec mountain bikes to compete in the sister event running alongside; the OMM Bike.

The principle of the OMM Lite is simple. Each day you get given list of active controls or checkpoints on a pre-marked map, with a points value attached to each of them. By registering on an electronic Sport-Ident “dibber” that you have visted the checkpoint you gain that points value. You have a time limit to collect the highest points total that you can, with late finishes penalised by a dramatic reduction in your take-home points.  Richard and I  had entered the short score with neither of us quite as fit as we wanted to be and viewing the event as a warm up for the OMM, just 6 weeks away.

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Saturday: 5 hours racing limit

Saturday Morning was cool and cloudy with the start a gentle 2km walk through the well-kept village of Cropton and down a rural lane. Once we were given our list of active controls it became clear there there were essentially two control groupings for those on foot – To the north you could opt to head up into the forest for a slightly flatter but more dispersed control grouping or head to the east into the deep river valleys. We opted for the latter which seemed to offer a greater number of high scoring controls for the distance that it took us.

Unfortunately my GoPro ran out of battery almost immediately as I had accidentally left it on in my bag so no photos of Saturdays racing 😦

As is usual with the “score” formats we were quickly dispersed from all other competitors and had some pleasant running along bridleways and footpaths for our first two controls before descending steeply to pick up a 50 pointer in a valley next to the North Yorkshire Moors railway line. We visited the picturesque villages of Lockton and Levisham for another three controls including another 50 pointer. The highlight of this segment was probably seeing a tractor complete with farmer and brand new farmers wife in her wedding dress making their way down the hill!  We had our first real navigational difficulty on the Levisham Moor along with a number of other teams trying to identify a specific footpath that would take us down into Newtondale. We did eventually find it although it probably cost us 5-7 minutes and I remain convinced that footpaths in that area were not quite accurately mapped. We then picked up three controls in the forested region to the north of the finish. Richard’s legs were feeling pretty tired at this stage so we took the direct route home and finished with a very comfortable 20 minutes to spare.

We covered about 28km with 1300m climb, eventually finishing a 16th of 41 competitors, happily putting us in the top half of the field which had been my unofficial target for the weekend.

Saturday evening we had some post-race analysis with the little cohort of Sheffielder’s who had made the journey before an early night.

Sunday: 4 hours racing limit

What a day! The weather was even better than the forecast with bright blue sky and a completely still wind as competitors scrambled out of tents at 7am ready for the slightly earlier starts. Richard and myself opted again to stay in the southern part of the map, heading westwards from day two’s start which was slightly to the west of Cropton, down a steeply banking hill.

It became clear that we were moving a lot faster than many other people on Sunday, keeping up a gentle jog through our first control and overtaking about 4 other teams in the process. Most of them then overtook us again on the way to number two as we had an emergency blister-plaster stop in which Rich had 4 large Compeed blister plasters applied to his right heel, leaving us wondering if we’d mange the full route with his feet in the state that they were. Miraculously this seemed to work and he didn’t have too many further problems until we got back to camp.

We picked up another two checkpoints in amongst farmland before heading steeply downhill. I made a navigation error by flying through a gate that actually had the control tied to the other side of it and missed it completely! We corrected ourselves soon enough but lost 4-5minutes running up and down a short stretch of bridleway wondering how we’d missed something that should have been straight infront of us. Crossing over a ridge to Hutton Common we forded the River Dove to pick up our 4th control of the day before braving a small footpath that much to our dismay became waste-deep in stinging nettles about 3/4ths of the way up a particularly steep hill. With stinging legs we jogged past an inexplicable convoy of 20 parked 4X4s into the village of Gillamoor, deciding to abandon plans to visit another 40 pointer on the periphery of the map as we knew we were pushed for time.

At this stage it was well over 20˚C and both myself and Richard exhausted our supplies of drinks with about 40mins running to go despite carrying the same volume for less time than Saturday.

The beautiful Spaunton Moor was the location for out last two checkpoints before a brisk jog followed by a power-walk up the last 125m of climb to the finish. We finished with just 10 minutes to spare suggesting that we had planned perfectly for the day and were rewarded with 11th place!

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The area for day two with our download receipt, having run approx 24km with 1000m of climb. Our final result was 14th overall.

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I can’t think of many races where I’ve been running for 3 1/2hrs and still looked this happy!

The Score Card

Logistics: 8/10 Having a heated marquee, even with the good weather, made the evenings much more bearable. The toilets were clean and well stocked with toilet paper – which isn’t always the case. Catering was distinctly average but not having to cook at all if you didn’t want to was a massive bonus at the end of a long day (or first thing in the morning).  The brewery pub next door was also very welcome and looked like it did lovely food!

Course planning: 7/10 The controls were planned very much with the consideration that mountain bikers would be participating and I did feel that for at least some of the groups of checkpoints you could tell that mountain bikers were the target audience in terms of route-choice. From an orienteers perspective there were only one or two legs over the weekend where an alternative route choice caused me to pause for thought and it certainly wasn’t technical navigation. Also the way the checkpoints were planned meant that for the most-part runners on the short score were kept off the moors and mountains and in more pastoral terrain. Saying that we did seem to manage a good deal of height gain and competitors were well dispersed through the controls and for an event welcoming to newcomers to the sport I think it was well pitched.

Mapping:  7/10 Harvey maps (as pictured above) are excellent for navigating at speed and I’ve used them many times before. Certainly I felt comfortable reading and making navigation decisions whilst running this weekend which is something I do find tricky from time-to-time on orienteering maps. There were areas where the map needed updating, particularly in the south-west part where large plantations of clearly mature trees were completely missing from the map.  As mentioned above there were also one or two areas where footpaths did not match what was on the ground but none of these omissions made any difference to my navigation which I guess is the important part!

Racing: 8/10 I was very pleasantly surprised how well my and Richard’s fitness held up to two consecutive days of running. Finishing 120 points ahead of the leading pair of women was a highlight for me too! There was a good range of skill levels on each course which meant whether you were new to the sport or a seasoned veteran you had a good group of people around you to be competing with and the organisers were kind enough to let a few teams who’d had a rough day on day 1 and finished late on the short score move to the long class retrospectively so that they had a points under their belt starting day 2 – a move which I think was very practical given the number of people new to the sport this weekend.

Pain Level: 3/10 (a good thing!). Overall, the light packs with good weather made for very comfortable racing. The presence of a LOT of stinging nettles on parts of day two and the complete lack of wind in that heat made it a bit more uncomfortable but it was nowhere near previous mountain marathon pains! I’m also not too sore a day down the line. Yay!

Weather: 10/10! Best weather I’ve had outdoors all year and I now have some slightly odd but well earned tan lines.

Overall: 8/10. It says something about how a weekend has gone when people are finishing a 4-5hr race with a smile on their face. People I spoke to in passing, snippets of conversations overheard on the race and the chats I had with the group of rookies from Sheffield all gave me the impression that people had really enjoyed themselves.

You can find more photos of the event and the full results at the OMM website: https://www.theomm.com/results-omm-litebike-yorkshire-2016/ After such a great weekend I’m already considering which of the Lite races I want to enter next year. I’m also getting increasingly tempted by the OMM Iceland which is being held on the Reykjanes peninsular in May of next year.

Want to keep up with how Richard and my preparation for the Original Mountain Marathon in Galloway this October is going? Hit the follow button for the an occasional update on what we’ve been up to.