Why run a Mountain Marathon?

Where else can you spend a weekend, in tough conditions, camping in a tiny tent that is pitched on a wet slope, in the wind and rain, and end up with a smile like this after 50km of running up and down big hills?

Running in to the finish, slightly broken, but very happy.
Running in to the finish, slightly broken, but very happy.

It was the challenge of navigating in the mountains and the camp craft that attracted me to my first Mountain Marathon in 1999. Since then I’ve got fitter but the challenge is still the same. I like the score classes. You don’t receive the map until 2 minutes before setting off. The map is marked up with controls. These are 15cm square flags, with a small electronic “dibber” on them, Each control has a number of points, these points, with your exact time are recorded on a little chip you wear on your wrist. This chip is dibbed into the control box when you find the location. Each team of runners has a set period of time with penalties for not finishing within the time period. It’s a two day event and the pair of you must be self sufficient. The winning team is the one that collects the most points over the two days. In the event of tied points, the fastest team wins.

I’m really lucky to have a really solid running mate to share this with – Jeremy.

There is a huge amount of tactics involved, and for the winning teams a lot of fitness. I really like running these events with Jeremy. After talking to another team a few years ago, who persuaded us that being minimalist and uncomfortable isn’t necessary. We now do things in comfort, cheese, crackers and whisky make the evening far more enjoyable than being in a cramped tent waiting for the morning.

This year neither Jeremy or I were that fired up for running fast across the Cheviots. We set off on Day 1 with the plan to have a nice weekend. We were a little surprised to find out in  overnight camp that we were lying seventh, and had made the chasing start of the top 20 teams. We had obviously picked a good course to pick up plenty of points.

This meant a 0742 start for Sunday, but with the clocks going back it wasn’t going to be a massive hardship.

In retrospect we made a strategy error on the Sunday, and should have gone West, onto the moors, instead of East of the start line and into the forest. We were lured by some controls with big points, and totally missed the fact that we could have picked up several smaller scores, worth more, in the same time. Anyway, we ran in, finished 54th on day 2. Combining our points gave us 22nd overall which, given 120 starters, and our less than competitive approach to the weekend is pretty pleasing.

For me, the event is all about the chance to go run somewhere that I wouldn’t  normally and have the challenge of having to have really good navigation. That I get to do it with my best mate makes it really special.

Thanks Jeremy, a cracking weekend, and proof that guts makes glory, not a diddy rucksack! Though to be fair we could cut back in a few areas…I might take one less buff next year!

Finishline photo Cheviots OMM 2014
Finishline photo Cheviots OMM 2014

OMM 2013

I always look forward to the clocks going back, it means its the weekend of the Original Mountain Marathon (used to be call the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon). 

The event moves around various mountainous parts of the UK and is a 2 day race for teams of 2 runners. The teams have to carry everything with them (tent, sleeping bag, cooker, food and various mandatory kit). The race has a range of different classes. Elite, A, B, C and D class follow a preset route along “controls”. These controls are small orange and white cubes of material about 40cm off the ground and are often hidden from view. They have to be “dibbed” with a little wrist worn dibber. When you put the dibber in the hole at the control it logs the time that you check into the control point. On these classes the fastest from start to finish is the winner.

There are three other classes that are ‘score’ classes. These classes have points assigned to each control. Each control has a different value. The classes have a set time on day 1 and an hour less on day 2. The winner is the team that collects the most points over the two days. Navigation and time keeping is critical. The highest points on a control is 40, and runners get 2 points deducted for every minute they’re late to the finish control.

Oh, the other thing is that you only get the map, marked up with the controls for that day, 1 minute before you cross the start line. 

I run with a local and very good friend Jeremy, we enjoy the short score class and we do it for fun, not to be super competitive.  This means 5 hours on day one and 4 hours on day 2.

This year the OMM was in the Brecon Beacons. This meant that the journey for Jeremy and I wasn’t too onerous. We left home at 1730 and after driving down, buying a few bits and bobs, had some food and faffed a good bit we were at race HQ at 2030. 

The car parking was on a big wet field and even as we were parking a few cars were getting bogged down. HQ is a big barn, first job is to register, which means getting the dibber attached to the wrist of one of the runners-me this weekend. A quick look round the shop inside, buy some gas for the cooker, have a quick beer and a natter before getting some sleep. 

Jez and I knew our start time was 0906 on day 1 and 0851 on day 2. We have a bit of a sort out of kit-splitting the tent up, sharing out our food and packing everything down. The nights sleep was reasonable, and we were up to get breakfast and hit the toilets before it got too busy. 

The start was about 3km from the car park so we set off through the forestry and wound our way up to the start area. A few people milling around and a chance to chat with the course setter who assured us the layout would be plenty challenging this year. The weather forecast was ominous and the streams in the area were already high, with some being un-crossable.  We had arrived 9 minutes before time, and at 0903 we are called forward. At the first line, the dibber number is checked in against the correct start time. A minute later move through to the check control to ensure the dibber is registering. A minute later we’re handed the days map and we’re stood on the start line. One compulsory control about 750m from the finish. But the finish is only 5 km away? That’s unusual. Normally the finish would be a distance away with the controls laid out spread across the route. Jez and I are talking about where we’re going as the start horn goes.

We’ve about 1.5 km down a channel with out of bounds either side. We’re run/walking in the steady rain whilst talking about which way we’re going to get points. We get to the control at the edge of the out of bounds channel. We’ve now got the whole of the Black Mountain range in front of us and some tricky decisions to make. Picking controls is a compromise between picking easy to run terrain, easy navigation (!) and enough points to make it worthwhile slogging some big hills.

The event maps are 1:40000 which I only use once a year and so the second control takes me a little while to judge. But we hit it after being about 100m away on the way in. I’m checking my now ancient Suunto Vector watch for height and time and working off a dead reckoning bearing. We’ve made good distance in the first hour so we agree to change our route and go for some more points. A hard pull over a ridge sends us towards a control that is Waterfall (E). This is the big waterfall on the Haffes, a mountain river that gets kayaked in big water. Although it’s a long leg, my nav is spot on and we hit the control directly on the opposite bank of the river… a few metres upstream and then splash across and dib. Thankfully the rain has stopped and though the wind is high it’s quite nice. Now for a really long leg to get a 40 pointer and a long way South. The area is full of rock, sinkholes and featureless terrain. We work hard to get south and I realise we’re drifting a little East of where the control should be. I’m planning to run through a saddle and then contour off West at the right height to hit the control. Hmmm over shot a little in finding the saddle, this means I now knew that the control was behind to our right. A quick turn round and gain some higher ground. We’re too far away from home to spend ages looking for this. Jez and I agree we’ve got no more than 5 minutes to get this one. With about 30 seconds left on the clock, I spot the orange and white material I’m after and I rush over and touch in. 

Now it’s a dash North collecting as many controls as we can on the way to the finish. There have been literally no paths, really wild running and the going has been slow through tussock grass, broken rock and marshy land, but suddenly we’re on sheep grazed firmer land. This is now nearly pleasant to run on…passed the wreckage of a crashed airplane, then a series of river crossings and a climb up on to Fan Brycheiniog. From this control there IS a path, and a few teams are visible on it. However, we decide that if we straightline the descent we can get another control comfortably on the way into the finish. It works out and 25 minutes later we run under a finish line frame being held up by volunteers-it’d had just been blown over in the wind. 

Jez showing off the warm feet technology and freezer bag water carriers.
Jez showing off the warm feet technology and freezer bag water carriers.

Down to the download area where all the information get’s sucked off the dibber. This show’s us we’re without penalties and scored 240 points (out of a possible 500). We scoot into the camping field and manage to get the last flatish piece of sheltered land,,we’re probably the 20th team in and there are lots to come so we’re pretty lucky. Time to fill some freezer bags with water to save getting up and down and get into some clean dry clothes. Because we’re travelling lightish, the only way to have warm dry feet with wet minging fell shoes is to switch to dry sock, ram these into freezer bags and then back in the shoes. We start boiling water, have a cup of tea, rehydrating food and letting the legs rest a bit. The rain and wind come back with a vengeance and we’re pleased to be dry and warm and getting food. There are a lot of runners still on the hill and we can hear some terrific volunteers encouraging them down to download in increasingly more worried tones. As the hours pass the message changes from a cheery “well done, download is only 2 minutes away” to “download is 60 seconds away” to a fairly concerned “are you ok?”.

Jeremy and I have a rule, that we go as light as we can without spoiling our enjoyment of the weekend. So after our rehydrated plap we break out our Wensleydale and Cranberry cheese and some oat crackers. A nearby tent guffaws as Jeremy says “Do you want to have a go at the 12 year old or the 15 year old first?”-I’ve already got the 18 year old between my legs, warming up. As well as the cheese we’d got some miniature single malts. I can’t think how it sounded from outside!

Just the essential then, some freezer bags, cheese and teenagers, Single Malt that is.
Just the essential then, some freezer bags, cheese and teenagers, Single Malt that is.

We spend the next few hours talking rubbish as only boys in a tent can. 

There is a quick break in the rain at 9pm and I shoot down to look at the results and start times. We’d done pretty well and from 151 starting teams in our class, finished the day 25th. This meant we were issued a new start time of 0751. This was great, it meant we might get home before the big weather front was due in!

A reasonable nights sleep came and went, some heavy rain, some thunder and lightning and some big blustery gusts meaning sleep was even harder. The tent we use is a 1+ man tent, so for Jez and I it means a good bit of coziness.  The informal spoon only broken when a hip seizes or a calf cramps.

An enormous thunderclap wakes us at 0545 (now GMT after the clocks change) and so I get on with boiling water for porridge and tea. We shovel that down, get the toileting over and done with-the portaloos are pretty horrific and start breaking camp. 

The rain is coming and going and the wind is much stronger than the previous day. We get everything squared away and we head down to the start area. 

The same process is about to happen, 3 minutes to go. A lot of the nights conversation had been whether we were going to be able to get off the car park, and whether we really wanted to be car 400 of 800 cars being towed out one by one. Jez needs to be at an airport early doors on Monday so sitting in a car park for 12 hours waiting for a tractor wasn’t going to happen. We’d agreed we’d see what the course looked like, but we certainly didn’t want to be on the course for ages. 

The Southerly wind and heavy rain meant that working back over the Black Mountains was going to be a big ask. Jeremy had rolled his ankle and his calves were a bit “tweaky” after last weekends dualthlon. The first climb took me a while to find my rhythm and Jez was definitely suffering. We were looking to do a loop of about 160 points and get to the finish ASAP.

The second long climb was straight into really strong wind, it was cooling down as well, this front was arriving sooner than expected. The nav was spot on and we hit every control we wanted. We turned back under the escarpment of the Black Mountains to be blown in 3 metre strides down the hill with hail pinging off our hoods. Pretty fun, but also not without risks! 

We blast our way across some soggy mush, with both of us falling up to our waists in bog holes. We’re tiring and making mistakes. We discuss whether we can get a 30 pointer off to the North but both agree our legs don’t have the power to do that and get back early. We climb to 600m, grab the penultimate control and then start the best descent of the event (for me) down to the finish. Mucky, soft runnable hillside, then down a piece of forestry track, then picking a route in and out of the trees down to the finish. 

Over the finish line, dib out, then Jez and I have a lovely hug, and then make our way to download. We’re the 6th team in and we know our position will change loads as the other teams come in over the next few hours. 

Our plan is to down the free soup on the way back to the car park, get off the field and find a layby to change in. We made it about 30 feet before the front wheels buried themselves. The farmer came over in his tractor and gently pulled us out to the tarmac…he was going to have a long afternoon and night ahead of him! 

The results were published later; despite taking nearly an hour less than those around us we’d finished Day 2 in 20th position. This meant we’d scored 405 points in 7hrs and 51 minutes, good enough for 26th overall. To compare 25th place had scored 406 points in 8hrs 48 minutes.

The winning team scored 535 points in 8hr 18mins, so there was some epic running out there in really tough conditions. Full results are here

A brilliant weekend! 

We’d planned to do more filming, but the only footage worth sharing is here and the commentary is good from Jez. 

 

Prizes and Events

Its been a funny month, frantically busy at work, lots of miles in a van, but not as much training as I would like. Really pleased to receive my prize from Trail Running Magazine for the video I posted on YouTube. See my blog post for the video. The rucksack I got sent is the TNF Enduro rucsac. My immediate thought was that technology and design has come along way since I bought my last running rucsac. Even unladen the sac is stable, close fitting and super light. I decided to load it up and give it a long run whilst I was out searching for my
Its been a funny month, frantically busy at work, lots of miles in a van, but not as much training as I would like. Really pleased to receive my prize from Trail Running Magazine for the video I posted on YouTube. See my blog post for the video. The rucksack I got sent is the TNF Enduro rucsac. My immediate thought was that technology and design has come along way since I bought my last running rucsac. Even unladen the sac is stable, close fitting and super light. I decided to load it up and give it a long run whilst I was out searching for my “wall” more about that in a bit! I headed out, up through Coed y Brenin and out on to the moors by Trawsfynydd, I mixed the route up with a bit of road and a bit of trail and the sac was easily adjustable. I struggle a bit with the mesh pockets on the side of the sac, but this is my range of motion issues from kayaking, throwing and crashing bikes and not a big criticism of the sac. I’m keen to see if I can get a front pack to fit onto this as that will sort my carrying issues out for Marathon des Sable. Like my blog about the Salomon XR Crossmax trainers, the biggest compliment I can give the bag is that I didn’t notice it. I’ve been trying out various bits of nutritional stuff to try and help me out. Since Trail Marathon Wales in June, and the cramps I got after about 20 miles, I realised I’ve got to get my feeding strategy right. I’ve been trying electrolytes from Shotz – http://shotz1.com/ that I find pretty tasty and easy to glug down. They definitely get into the system quickly and I think keep me going longer. I’m trying to sort some energy gels that I find easy to get down. I’ve tried a few over the years and I don’t enjoy them but they definitely work. First of all I wanted to know where my “wall”is now I’m a bit older. The wall is effectively where all the stored energy (glycogen) in your muscles runs out and the body struggles for an energy pathway. Knowing where this point is helps inform you what your feeding strategy needs to be in longer races. I do things the simple way, to find my wall I skipped brekkie, only took a bit of water and went out running. My track is here. From 35km on I knew I was coming close to feeling the effects, and then at 37km it came at me like a steam train. My vision distorted, I started struggling with co-ordination and in my “Mary had a little lamb” voice check my speech was definitely not clear. I got home, blithered around the kitchen making some self made isotonic 50:50 Orange Juice and Water with a few tablespoons of sugar and a pinch of salt. Glugged this down with some crystalised Pineapple and felt normality return. I now know that when I’m relatively well prepared I can deal with 30km without extra fuelling. Hope I can stretch that out a bit! That run was the third day of the Strava Speedgoat 50km challenge. The aim was to run 50km in three days in “celebration” of the trail race in the states. I was pretty chuffed to rack up 79km and finish the challenge in 15th (out of 1282). Just heard that we’ve definitely got a place at the Original Mountain Marathon, and before then I’ve got the Helly Hansen “Beauty and the Beast” trail marathon in late September. For someone who isn’t mad keen on races its looking good. I’m also hoping this year to finish all of the Meirionydd winter series fell races for the first time. I often managed one or two but never the whole series. Finally, a quick update on 2012 miles in 2012, logged 1327 Miles so far. Starting to feel like it should be possible to get back on track. I’ve caught up from my month and a bit off so pretty chuffed. Head back down and on with life.