Mountain Marathons ... Madness?by ian stewart Aug/2011
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It is half past five when the sound of distant bagpipes stirs me from my half sleeping state. At first I think I must be dreaming, but as the pipes get closer I become more aware of my uncomfortable surroundings. My pillow is a rolled up rucksack, my mattress is a one foot square sheet of thin foam and my lightweight sleeping bag holds little warmth, despite me being fully dressed inside it. A grunt from behind me reminds me I am not alone; I am sharing my cramped tent with a fellow sufferer.
As the piper passes by outside I am fully awake. It's no dream, it's time for day two of the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon!
Mountain Marathons are not a recent idea - the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon has been around since 1968 (it was rebranded the OMM in 2006) - but the increase in popularity and participation has seen the events springing up all over the country. A full calendar starts with the Highlander in April and finishes with the OMM in October.
Although each event has its own unique character, they all follow more or less the same format: a two day event with teams of two racing across mountain terrain, navigating their way between set checkpoints and carrying with them all the food, camping gear and equipment needed to sustain them.
The field is split into a number of classes, often with five different linear courses to choose from. Each level up means a longer distance with more height gain along the way. Some events also include a 'Score course', where teams have a set time to plan their own route from a large number of checkpoints. Each checkpoint has a number of points allocated, with the easier checkpoints earning less points than the difficult to find, far away ones. So points really do mean prizes!
But I can't run up mountains!
Admittedly there are some Mountain Marathon competitors who will be out running in the hills every weekend and some hold impossible sounding records. Such as Steve Pyke who, in 2010, completed the fastest ever round of the Scottish Munros: all 283 in 39 days. Or Steven Fallon who has now completed 14 Munro rounds. However there are also plenty of people who would class themselves as fit hillwalkers and definitely not runners, as well as everything in between.
Also the number of different course lengths allow you to really choose your challenge. For example the D course at the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon is designed so that it can be completed within the allotted time at a good walking pace.
One thing that all competitors have in common is that none of them, not even the super skinny, lycra clad, sponsored Swedish ones, run up all the hills. Everyone has their own pace, and on the steep climbs a steady walk and a handful of jelly babies will get you to the top.
To maintain some consistency and ensure the safety of the competitors, each event stipulates certain items of compulsory kit. These lists should be pretty much taken as kit lists: if it isn't on the list then you probably don't need it! (With the possible exception of food!)
The main choices then come down to comfort overnight at the mid-camp, versus weight to carry during the day. A nice warm sleeping bag and insulated inflatable mat would guarantee the good night's sleep that might spur you on for day two, but an extra kilo or two on your back for two days can more than undo any benefits gained.
The main factor in the quest for the lightest rucksack is how much you are willing to suffer at the mid-camp to save your legs during the race. As you can guess from my uncomfortable introduction, I find that my legs get more than enough punishment just getting around the course as it is, so anything I can do to shave a few grams off my kit feels worth it. The decision is yours, and may come down to how competitive your ambitions are. If you are just out for a fun, adventurous weekend, then you might as well enjoy the overnight experience, whereas if you have an eye on a prize then a bit more suffering might give you the edge!
The other thing to consider is cost. If you are on a budget then you need to focus any investment into the areas that are going to make the biggest difference. With most things on the kit list, such as waterproofs, headtorch, stove and bivi bag, grams can be shaved of by picking up specific, lightweight kit, and a hundred grams saved on ten items will make a difference to your day. But with a potential weight range of 800g to 3 kilos for a two man tent, choosing a lightweight option will make a huge difference. The lightest designs often have a single skin structure, specifically designed for these types of events, although their ability to hold up to strong winds definitely vary. Worth considering if the weather forecast is not perfect, as on the infamous Borrowdale OMM of 2008!
Whatever your ambitions, one essential purchase for the first time mountain runner is a good pair of fell shoes, with sticky rubber studs to give good grip on everything from steep grass to wet rock that will be encountered along the route. These will give you the security and confidence to switch off the brain and let gravity do the work as you fly down the descents.
Efficient navigation is the key to any journey in the mountains. When it comes to the race weekend, all those hours and days of hard training can be squandered by a single navigational mistake, adding extra miles to your journey, or extra minutes wandering around in circles looking for a checkpoint, helplessly saying "It must be here somewhere!"
This is not the place for me to talk about the basics of learning to navigate, just as halfway around a mountain marathon isn't the place to ask, "How do I use a compass?", but as our routes will be away from paths and tackled at speed, there are a few navigation techniques that are particularly worth thinking about.
This is the art of making the map become a three dimensional picture. Picking out summits, ridges and valleys is the easy bit. The skill lies in seeing the smaller features, such as knolls, re-entrants and changes in slope angle, which give you so many more reference points within the landscape you are planning your journey through.
When visibility is good you should be able to plan a route on the map, linking contour features and then visualise and follow the same route on the ground, saving time needed to take bearings or relocate along the way.
You will be moving across the terrain as fast as you can, so this is no place for walking slowly and carefully, keeping your compass flat and still to maintain the most accurate possible bearing.
If visibility is reasonable but the bearing is needed for confirmation of direction, then try sighting on a point at the limit of where you can see, then put the compass away until you reach that point and then repeat.
Having to stay accurately on a bearing slows you down, so minimising the distance you have to do it for by using attack points helps. This is where you break down a long leg by navigating to a large, easy to find point, such as a summit or stream junction, close to your difficult to find objective, and then using an accurate bearing for a short distance to find it.
Tick off features and timings
Measuring distance by counting paces, or even using timing, goes out of the window when running across variable terrain, but you still need to keep track of the distance covered to know your location on the map. Here recognising contour features, as well as more obvious streams, paths and tracks, gives you a host of markers to note from the map, and mentally tick off as you run past them, giving you an update of your exact position. Running holding the map means you can leave a thumb in place, saving time from re-orientating the map every time you look at it again.
Tactical route choice
"Should I drag myself another two hundred metres up to the top of the hill to then run down the easy ridge to the next checkpoint, or can I just contour around this rough ground to the side? Or I could even descend to the valley and run along that nice smooth track, but then I have to climb up the hill again later."
Mountain Marathon route planners are a cunning breed who delight in inflicting mental torture upon tired and broken bodies This was a choice I had to make on the 2008 Lamm in Glenfinnan. I chose the latter and lost half an hour on my rivals who climbed up to the ridge and then got a stunning decent along the ridge, even bagging a Munro along the way.
There are no hard and fast rules as to what you should do when faced with these options. Sometimes descending to later climb, or vice versa will be quicker than a long or rough contour. The key factors to consider are the speed you will be able to move over the ground against the distance, and time it will take you to regain any height lost.
It is impossible to accurately calculate which would be the best option in the heat of a race, and what looks the best on paper can't take into account the speed of the terrain you might face, so quickly sum up the options, be decisive, but don't be afraid to quickly change or modify the plan if the ground is better or worse than expected.
After a few minutes of futile denial I unzip the tent and put on the stove for a lifesaving cup of tea. An hour later all our kit is packed up, our bodies are fuelled with some sweet porridge and fooled into thinking we feel alright by a couple of twenty metre trots up the path, then it is time to start racing again.
Last year the second day was a seven hour, cat and mouse chase that, thanks to a lucky navigation choice, saw us as the first team home in the A class. This year in the Elite Class day two feels more like a more personal battle, fighting to finish with pride rather than prizes. But something worked and after a navigation cock-up free day we pick up a couple of places to finish 9th overall. If only my bag was lighter, maybe next year...
About Ian Stewart
Ian holds the MIC and runs his own company: Stewart Mountain Skills (www.stewartmountainskills.com. He offers a full range of walking, scrambling, mountaineering and climbing courses in both the summer and winter. He also offers both introductory and advanced navigation courses and mountain marathon preparation.
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