I’ve been properly aware of Marmot Dark Mountains since Lucy raced it with Bruce in preparation for an expedition race. It caught my imagination because, well, why wouldn’t an overnight winter race that sounded wild and tough and difficult?!
After a successful day out at the Tour de Helvellyn, I was feeling confident in my running abilities. Having missed the Open 5 with Lucy I thought I might be able to persuade her to do this instead … after a few weeks debate and body-testing it was a reluctant no (pneumonia is tough).
It was only a week or so until the closing date, but I had nothing to lose so asked Jon if he was free and fancied it. He was and he did. Yes! Oh, but they had sold out that very day! A quick email to the organisers and they were able to slot us on to our first course choice (after some deliberation) of ‘long score’.
This event is an overnight mountain marathon, with ‘linear’ courses graded C to Elite (get the specified controls in order as fast you can, with increasing length, ascent and difficulty of control placings) and two ‘score’ courses short / 8h and long / 10h (all controls have points, get as many points as you can before your time runs out).
After a number of email exchanges covering kit (extensive list designed to keep you safe should you get stranded), logistics and navigation skills it was very quickly time to head south. I met Jon near the bypass at the shop selling practically all the kit you might need for this race. I invested in a new compass as mine had gone wonky twice and I didn’t trust it. Gutted to see the same one selling for £6 less at the event centre!
At race HQ, registration was super slick and we were soon sat scoffing a bowlful of Wilf’s veggie chilli. A pair next to us asked if we had come from Edinburgh – ‘yes’ I said, surprised – ‘oh we saw you crossing the road earlier’ they replied!
We had blank copies of the maps on the table and spent some time poring over them. It was good for me as they were Harvey’s and I’m not used to them. The routes through some out of bounds areas were also worth taking a close look at before we got tired. I remarked that without place names we wouldn’t get sucked into going to places with silly / amusing monikers, plus we’d have to get creative when talking about where we were going. A chap at our table suggested we could use grid references … hmm … safe to say that during the race we stuck to things like ‘shall we take a bearing to the purple line just under that number 4?’
Before we knew it, I was squeezing in last second toilet trips and rushing to get to the line. Everyone sets off at short intervals with their own personalised start time. We were 21:04. Straight up the road for a couple of kilometres, we came up with a rough strategy on the move. We then sped on, overtaking a few other teams.
Even the first control was a learning experience for me, as we debated the best way to approach a control in a stream re-entrant. As we left the footpath (the last one we’d see for a while), I was anxious about how we’d know we had gone far enough and whether we’d be sure we had passed the stream junction … but Jon was talking about steepening sides and was powering on. Next thing I knew, there it was right in front of us.
The next control was on a compass bearing contouring round the hill. This could no longer be classed as running. I counted my paces and just as I thought we should be there, we came across the re-entrant. We were a little too low, but we expected it as the slope had kept pulling us off the bearing in that direction. My confidence was buoyed!
The pattern was set for the rest of the event as I stumbled and tripped over the knee high heather. When it wasn’t heathery it was boggy, there were wet reeds or we were clambering up and down peat hags. I was longing for some of the ‘useful’ sheep tracks mentioned in the pre-race ecological briefing notes but I never saw one! These notes were also detailed in their descriptions of different kinds of vegetation and their relative merits for running. We debated whether we were encountering blanket bogs or the wet acid grassland and wondered where the mythical ‘dry’ acid grassland was 😀
At midnight we both had a slump, trudging through more wet ground. I made myself eat and drink to counter the effects. We got to a gate next to some woods, which is what we were looking for. But something didn’t feel right. The fence was at an unexpected angle. Our doziness was having an effect as we stood there for ages pondering. If we were wrong, we risked going into an out of bounds area and I was determined not to do that. Eventually it dawned on us that there was a second small block of trees marked, slightly obscured by the over printed purple out of bounds colouring. This fitted, we followed the fence and got to the right gate. But looking at the map later there was a much quicker route for the whole section using a road – this was our worst glitch as we took over 30 minutes to cover one km!!
As is often the case on a race as long as this though, we started to perk up again. Next notable call was the manned checkpoint, where someone exceedingly cheery greeted us and offered us port. Port?! I was taken aback and nearly said yes, until I saw Jon shaking his head and saying best not … no, no, of course not, one shouldn’t be drinking alcohol mid race! 😀 Off we went into more thigh deep bogs.
In the dark you can’t see what you’re heading for. We had to work hard to look at the features we could see – the steepness of the ground beneath us, the shape of the hills in the dark sky when we switched our torches off, the peat hags. And sometimes other things gave us clues, like the sound of unseen trees rustling in the wind ahead.
We had a string of fun controls. The moon was out as we visited a knoll, a trig point and the base of some crags. It was still dry, but the wind was blowing hard. If you paused to look around you could see bright dots of white light flung far and wide across the hillsides. It was quite surreal wondering if we had come from ‘over there’ but really having no idea as my frame of reference was never more than next 1 or 2 km.
Other teams were coming and going around us. Sometimes it seemed we were being followed then they’d all disappear and we’d feel totally alone. As we were all on different courses, we were all doing different things. I fell more than once in the heather, but it was always a soft landing. One time my left leg disappeared down a hole, leaving me to do a massive leg press to get out again! Jon helped pull me across streams that were a little too wide, or up banks a little too high.
It started raining just as we ran to a fence and turned left looking for a gate. We got to a bend, paused and realised we had to run back – our gate had been right next to us before and we hadn’t seen it! We’d probably been distracted by other teams around us. This was a small but somewhat annoying mistake, as we nipped through then ran straight back to the same bend but on the other side!
The rain was getting persistent, we were going downhill and I was cold despite having thrown on my waterproof. I pulled my hood up and the sounds of raindrops pattering on my head reminded me of being snug in a tent in bad weather. The peat hags slowed us even more. We visited a massive tower, made amusing by the fact we couldn’t see its hulking form until we almost ran into it!
We had to be careful finding a small ruined structure on a hillside. Jon turned to ask if we could run this bit and I laughed, saying this was my run right now. It was a pathetic attempt, not helped by the fact I was bursting for a wee. I just needed to find a bit of shelter … The ruin didn’t offer much protection but I took what there was. The relief was immense, though it was odd contemplating life peeing on a dark hillside in the middle of the night with the rain cold on my bare skin.
I was debating whether to faff around getting my waterproof trousers or other clothes out. But we’d already been stopped a while for my comfort break so thought I’d get going again before deciding. As we ran off I asked Jon if he knew where we were heading. He said we’d sort it out as we went … odd … turned out later he just wanted to get me moving and warmed up! Fortunately, we had to go uphill and now I could run properly without painfully jolting my bladder. These two factors combined to warm me up nicely.
We had all been warned about the dangers of hypothermia before the event. Look out for fumbles, mumbles, grumbles and stumbles – oh how we laughed about that one several times during the night as one of us tripped again or fell too deep into a bog (I’m sure I heard some muttered profanities)! Luckily, apart from a few shivers, my worst state came when I realised I wasn’t really capable of counting out 100 steps any more without losing track, which I solved by throwing in another few handfuls of food.
We had an interesting few moments looking for a river junction. We thought we might have missed it and Jon’s altimeter suggested we’d gone too high on the wrong fork. We decided to test if we had gone wrong and pace 100m on a bearing to our right. If we were correct, we should hit the other stream – remarkably we did, and it wasn’t long until we got to the control. High fives for quick and accurate correction!
We were running out of time and had to make some choices. In retrospect and looking at the teams ahead of us in the results, we should have left some earlier controls to leave time for the better value ones we were now dropping. We decided to head down the hill for a 50 pointer and for the first time in many hours, follow a track / path back out again. I had been over on my ankle 3 or 4 times and it was sore with every step so I had to protect it and be careful. I felt bad as I was holding us up, but couldn’t risk making myself immobile.
We ascended a rough, peaty and very wet bridleway and joked about trying to ride it. I thought it looked vaguely familiar but dismissed the thought as silly. Looking at the map later, I realised Lucy and I had indeed ridden down it in an Open 5 some time ago!
I had been checking bearings and the map, but now abandoned that and just focussed on keeping up. We had one last control to fit in then we were out of there. We ran to the fence, hesitated turned left, nooo, it should have been right! Back we went, got to the path and it was not as fast as we hoped. Then we hit the road and it was time to SMASH IT. My ankle was absolutely fine on this lovely flat surface and I was going for it. Now Jon had to keep up with me as we did two sub-5 minute km, rounded the corner and dibbed 14.5 minutes late.
The penalties really start ramping up at 15 minutes, so I was pretty pleased we had made it. Into the hall and we could see we had finished 10th overall / 3rd mixed pair. Full results here. We were close to 2nd, but the winners were well ahead. Return to the car, quick change, back to hall for hot breakfast and prize giving. Cheers and applause for the organisers, volunteers and all the winners.
This was my first mountain marathon and what an introduction it was! I was glad to have someone who I know I can trust with me (in fact, it is part of the entry requirements that one of the pair must have experience in similar events, including day time events at the level up). I learnt so much about the navigation, really putting to use and relying on techniques that I’d only previously known the theory of. 10h was plenty of time to practise and get it right!
I liked being on the score course and there was no danger of it turning into a procession of follow-the-leader. There wasn’t much chance to enjoy the scenery or have any great appreciation of where we were (other than being in wild countryside!), but I loved the challenge and the experience. Short video recap:
The high retirement rates and lengthy race times on even the ‘easier’ linear courses left me wondering. We had almost gone with A and I might have done elite with Lucy. Would I have been capable? I thought probably so, given the distance we covered, but maybe that is a question to answer another year! Race director’s report here.
We had a nap, drove to Tebay, ate some more stodge, got halfway home, had another nap. I was dropped off, came straight in for another nap. Then I was informed by Andy that I smelled like a farmyard and had to get in the shower … I did as I was told!
I last went to Slaidburn 5 years ago and it was memorable for several reasons. I stayed for a long weekend. Andy came with me, and finally got back in the pool after years out. We got wet and cold more than once and had an ‘interesting’ ride in and out from the nearest (not very near) railway station. Meanwhile, at the Open 5, I did my first ever event as an anxious solo competitor. My pedal fell off halfway round the bike. My write up reports that I had “been working hard on my running over the summer” … some things never change!
This time round, I got a lift down with swimming pal Jim again. The road over the moors was rather too exciting at night in driving rain, but we arrived in one piece, just in time for dinner at the pub and a little walk around in the pouring rain to explore the village. It is small, so didn’t take long!
The next morning dawned … DRY! This was a surprise as the forecast 24 hours earlier had been for heavy rain all day. Registration / breakfast logistics were slightly complicated but I ended up studying the map quietly over my cereal with plenty of time to think clearly.
Someone was betting Lucy and I would start at 09:59 and 59 seconds. We were getting chivvied along a lot, both at registration and up at the remote start area. We confounded everyone’s expectations by starting at 09:55. Ha!
We chose to run first, as usual. Due to weather and ground conditions, the bike course was more ‘road’ than usual and had lots of exit options. What I didn’t notice when we started and I marked up the bike control values was that there were high value points on both main loops and that made it committing in a different way.
We set off running happily. I had a slightly dodgy tummy, but both of us had legs that were feeling good at the same time for once! Despite some wet and muddy conditions, we were mostly on paths and moving fast. We caught up male pair James and Chris. Lucy chatted tactics briefly before pulling away. They kept getting closer on the downhills (my fault) but we were faster on the ups and flats. Great motivation. Unfortunately, we then ran straight past a control and had to double back, costing us a couple of minutes. Darn! They ran by laughing!
Lucy was on a mission to catch them up as we hammered down a fast track. I was at my limit, hanging on for dear life, but up for it! Up onto a grassy hill and we reeled them in again, joking. Final stretch and we found ourselves in a wood peering at the map. Uh-huh, we’d taken the wrong footpath. We re-emerged, seeing Chris and James ahead in the distance. One final push and we caught them again on the final hill.
As Lucy said, we proved our point and they proved theirs. What an effort! It was one of our longest Open 5 runs together so far, we only missed one control and we came in spot ‘on time’ at 2 hours. This is usually a good split of time to aim for in one of these events.
Out on the bike and we decided to go up and down a hill for the first 30 points. Then we headed across a field of mud and onto the bridleway over the moor. We knew the top and far side was ‘boggy’ enough to be marked as such as on the map, though we hoped that we wouldn’t be hampered too much by choosing to approach it downhill.
But first we had to get up and it wasn’t the rideable track we were hoping for. Instead we had to push and push and carry and haul our bikes up what had turned into a rocky streambed complete with icy cold water. James and Chris were just in front, carrying their bikes on their backs (an art I have not yet mastered).
Suddenly, up at the top, Lucy took a step into some soft green stuff and disappeared up to her thighs! Luckily, her bike did not 😀 . I stayed on firmer ground, grabbing both bikes and offering a shoulder for her to haul herself out on. We both were glad we weren’t crossing this alone. We might have sunk without trace!
Finally we came down the far side, half running, half stumbling until we reached a track we could ride. Then we hit the roads. I had had some woozy moments at the start of the ‘ride’ due to lack of food and the effort we’d put in on the run. I managed to eat some more and was now feeling good. Where we had long flat or uphill stretches we joined up with the tow to stay together and make efficient progress.
A couple of out and backs were nice and quick – no more nasty surprises. But the moor hike and taken an age and we were running out of time. After concluding we could not do the final loop and would have to drop 65 points as a result, I was peering at the map and starting sentences with ‘maybe if we just … ‘ – which were quickly quashed!
At least the weather was still being kind. The occasional hail shower, a nippy wind and, remarkably, enough sun at one point for me to see my shadow cast onto the hedge at the side of the road.
One final long out and back and we were smashing it up the final hill. We overtook one of the tandem teams, people Jim and I had whiled away the time with the previous night. They joked and shouted at us, then laughed even harder as they flew past on a slight downhill! We repeated this a couple of times before we finally overhauled them on the run in to the finish.
Well, it was a novelty to get in under 5 hours for once … this might almost be a first for us. We thought our score was pretty good and we had raced really hard. But once back at download we could hear everyone else’s chat and knew scores were high all round.
Whilst in the queue for a cup of tea we had another look at the map and realised that one small strategy mistake had cost us a lot of points. This was the day when we should have cut the run short, come in after 1.5h and saved the extra time to get more bike controls. Swapping 30 points on the run for 65 or possibly even 75 on the bike would have shuttled us back up near the top of the leaderboard. At least the post mortem was quick and straightforward 😀 .
As it was we only finished 22nd overall. We held on to 1st female pair but it was a tight race as we were only 10 points ahead of Jill and Sharon, snapping at our heels! However, we both agreed that we had put in the sort of effort that we haven’t managed for a while. Now we just need to combine that speed with the right tactics to see what we can achieve. Three more chances in this series!