Mountain Running: Taking on the wilderness of pain: Robert Howard loses his battle with the unforgiving elements of mountain running

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The Independent Online
AT THE foot of a snow-covered mountain in the Northern Lake District last Saturday, I tightened the straps of my rucksack and set off on the 25th Karrimor International Mountain Marathon. The race sets the standard by which other endurance challenges are judged and is hard to get into, despite accepting 2,000 entries, so I felt lucky just to have reached the start line. By the end of the day I had changed my mind.

The race is for pairs, so I entered with Ian Douglas, a long-striding Scot, whose ability with map and compass made him an ideal partner. When we entered in August we had no idea where in the United Kingdom the race would be, until notified by post a few weeks ago, and only when issued with a map and grid references at the start did we know where we were going.

Each reference marked a checkpoint in the hills, and as long as we reached them we could take any route we chose: there were no flags or marshals to show the way. Setting off uphill the 20lb weight of our rucksacks quickly made itself felt, as we were carrying food and equipment not just for one day but for an overnight camp and a second day of competition.

There was snow underfoot, slippery even in studded boots, and hiding rocks and patches of deep bog. Clouds hid the summits, and it took more than an hour to reach our first checkpoint, hidden in a deep gully. With eight to find, several high tops to cross and stinging hailstorms driven against us, it was going to be tough.

At times we were alone, isolated in white-out conditions and entirely dependent on a compass bearing; at others, clinging on by gripping wet, loose tufts of grass. And always there was another snow-covered hill to climb, followed by a muscle-wrenching plunge downhill. Ian was hit by a rock knocked down from above, and we often fell, but not as far as the runner we saw slide 50 frightening feet. He was still for some time, but was shaken, not hurt.

The race relies on experience, the support of a partner and a mandatory list of equipment for the safety of the runners; and in 25 years there has never been a serious injury. But this year everyone was pushed to their limits. Runners reading the map poorly took longer routes and became exhausted, the unfit were quickly found out, those who misjudged conditions and carried too little froze, and any weakness was mercilessly exploited by the weather.

It was not a day for faint hearts, and arriving at a cliff cut by a steep gully we joined other pairs looking down into its mist-shrouded, depths. The checkpoint was somewhere below and, while others took the long route round, we plunged into the unknown, scattering snow and scree in a joyously fast descent, overtaking dozens of other pairs in one bold move. The sweet taste of success was brief, however, and by the end of the day had turned to bitter defeat.

A sharp pain in my left knee meant that when I limped into the overnight camp alter eight hours it was to retirement. Ours was the easiest of several classes, yet more than half of those who started it failed to finish day one. We could only resolve to return next year and admire those who did finish.

They had to survive a wilderness camp on a night when the snowline came down below 500 feet and an even worse second day, with blizzards and snow drifts. In conditions more Alpine than English it was fitting that the winners of the Elite Class were the Swiss pair, Oli Buholzer and Matthias Ramsauer, though it is doubtful if their friends at home will believe just how rough the low British hills and usually mild winter climate really were. I can still hardly believe it myself.

(Photograph omitted)