Thursday, 17 February 2011

What not to do after you have a breast removed! Tales of a mountain Marathon.

I wrote this article in 1997 - I was between primaries and secondaries at the time!

It was in April of last year, I think, that Anne Jago left a message on our answering machine, asking if I would be interested in doing the Saunders Mountain Marathon.  Three weeks or so before this telephone message, I had undergone surgery for breast cancer.  This I thought might be a slight setback to mountain marathon training. However, when Anne told me she had entered the walkers class - a mere 28 kilometres - I jumped at the chance (albeit rather lopsidedly at the time).  Although I didn't give Anne a definite yes.

I was competing in orienteering events three weeks after surgery and feeling pretty pleased with myself.  I had won a few gold times and was beginning to think I ought to recommend mastectomy as an aid to orienteering! I was feeling pretty fit, when I became aware of a lump in my neck.  I had the lump for a few weeks and thought it was a swollen gland following a sore throat.  I had it investigated and awaited the results.  The consultant rang me at home and told me the lump was unfortunately malignant.  The cancer had metastasised and I would need to start chemotherapy.  It was during this conversation, that I decided to definitely compete in the Saunders Mountain marathon.  I could store up memories on the event and it would also give me something positive to focus on.

So it was, that at the beginning of May in 1996 I rang Anne to give her my decision.  Anne of course was delighted and asked me about my walking boots. Competitors in the Saunders are required to carry their tent and provisions for a two day event on their back. It is a mixture of good navigational skills and fitness.  The competitors have to find tiny markers (or flagged control sites) on the fells or mountains.  On the map these are marked as a circle and route choice is everything. When I told her I didn't own walking boots as I had never been long distance walking before, she was horrified. (I was a runner, walking would be a doddle). I had also never walked or ran carrying anything heavier than a map and a compass - a distinct drawback, felt Anne.  I convinced my friend that these were not insurmountable problems.  I would buy the necessary kit and we would have a bit of practice on some nearby fells! (We live in Kent so they are a bit thin on the ground here).

Several weeks later, having successfully scaled a footpath up the North Downs, me feet shod in 'compede' blister protection pads and spanking new state-of-the-art walking boots, carrying lightweight packs stuffed with baked bean cans, we both agreed the Saunders in the Lake district would be a piece of cake.

I will not bore the non-orienteering readers of my blog with the middle bit of this article but will skip to the end  - but if you are interested to read the full version, Let me know and I will send it as an attachment.

Anne, who is a mountain leader and frightened of nothing, (almost 10 years my senior and weighing half my weight) had warned me about a tricky bit she was planning for us that would save us lots of time and perhaps win us the race in our age class.

We were climbing along the ridge of Crinkle crags and in the distance we could see a steep gully. As we got closer, I could see the end of the gully was blocked with two enormous chock stones.  The sides of the gully looked sheer and steep.  I assumed we would go around the gully.  Anne had other ideas. As we approached, I knew this was the 'tricky bit' Anne had mentioned .  In fell walking circles it is known as the  'difficult step'.  This is a euphemism.  As I approached the chock stones, I thought perhaps I could squeeze through. No chance. To scale the side of the gully, a sheer wall of rock about 15 feet high, Anne helpfully suggested I just find the foot holes and pull myself up.  There were no foot holes or so I thought.  Anne had done this countless times before and assured me it was child's play.  Octogenarians do it regularly, she told me.  After an enormous amount of fuss on my part, Anne finally thought that perhaps we should go the long way round. Feeling a real heel for letting her down, I decided I would close my eyes and have a go at scaling the gully.  I found one foot hole, pulled myself up and tried to find another, I couldn't.  So I decided to use knees, hands and one surviving breast.  Anne confided to me later that this unconventional way of climbing was extremely dangerous. (The climbers's rule book states that you should always have at least one foot in contact with rock!)  Perhaps she had bullied me into doing something beyond my meagre skill-level.  However I did eventually get over the top and felt so exhilarated at my success, that I almost broke into a run.  Anne scaled the thing in about three seconds.  The sun came out, the view from the top of the gully was indescribable, and I really started enjoying myself.  .......... We were now on the home leg.

Control three to four involved a lot of descent on scree.  At one point early on the first day when I was climbing up on scree somebody shouted "below".  As my hearing in not very good, I looked up and shouted back "Pardon?"  For those that understand mountain jargon, "below" means: protect your head, curl into a ball and await a load of falling rock which is about to come your way!  The thing you most definitely don't do , is put your face up towards the avalanche and politely say 'pardon'  Having survived despite my lack of mountaineering knowledge on the previous day, I decided to try out my new found intelligence en-route to the next control.  As I was sliding down the scree, I dislodged some rocks which looked as if they might do some damage to the pair below us.  I shouted "below" and was amazed to see the couple run for cover, curl up and wait for the rocks to stop.  This gave us time to catch up with them! The last section to the final control and finish was all downhill and we really started to speed up again.  The control was on a bridge on the Great Langdale Beck.  As we punched the final control, we had a short distance to go to the finish.  The feeling of elation as we finished was almost tangible.

The Saunders Mountain Marathon had taken us 11 hours and 30 minutes to complete; 6 hours and 20 minutes on day one and 5 hours and 10 minutes on day two.  As we arrived back in the event area, exhausted, thirsty and hungry, we were supplied with a free meal and drinks.  Time to compare routes and look at the results.  As we expected the other ladies, who were at least 20 years our junior had beaten us to the finish, but we were second ladies out of 30 other female competitors in our class.  We were also second veterans in the class.  Not bad for a first attempt, even if I did just tag along behind my mentor most of the way.  I might even do it again!

I did indeed do it again several times.  The other most memorable time was about 5 weeks after my 10 hour breast reconstruction - had promised plastic surgeon I would not jeopardise his lovely work by running for at least 6 months!  He never did find out though! Read what partner Anne remembers of the next time we did a little jaunt across mountains together below:

I thought I would just remind you about the start of our second Saunders Mountain Marathon together. As I recall, 5 weeks prior to the event, you had undergone surgery to be given a new breast. Your consultant, aware of your anxiety to get back to running, had issued strict instructions that you were not to run competitively for 6 months.

Well, we were in the Lakes together when I received the news that my partner Emily could not take part in the event. I needed to find a new partner urgently. “Preposterous!” said David when it was first suggested that you take part. Needless to say you did just that – I think we agreed that we would not run much of the course.

The only real problem occurred at 6am before we had even started the event. We were in a dormitory of Grasmere youth hostel; it was dark. You announced that you had lost the artificial nipple you had been given; the breast reconstruction hadn’t run to a new nipple! You were uncharacteristically adamant that we couldn’t possibly go without the said nipple. You had an appointment with the consultant on the following Monday and he would suspect you hadn’t been following instructions if you turned up without it.

You cannot switch the light on in a youth hostel while people are still asleep, so there was nothing for it but to get down on our hands and knees in the dark and try and locate the missing nipple by feeling for it. It seemed to take ages to find; I felt that any minute somebody would wake up and ask us just what we were doing on the floor!

You did brilliantly to complete the 2 day event of 36 km over mountainous terrain, carrying a heavy rucksack and camping out over night. The consultant asked how you were recovering from the operation on the Monday morning. He was very pleased with your response – you told him that you had been doing some gentle walking!

1 comment:

  1. If I remember correctly, I think the actual warning from the plastic surgeon was that if you wrecked this breast he wasn't going to make you another!