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!
With Itera looming, I was feeling like I hadn’t been out in the hills on foot enough. At first this race was penciled in to do with teammate Paul, but he was otherwise occupied being ‘official’ at the Commonwealth Games. I called a friend, who said yes! I was all set for 4 hours of running off road, whilst navigating to controls to maximise our score.
So Marie (this year’s super speedy Celtman champ) and I headed down to the Lake District on a Friday night in her van. We parked up just along the road from the start and after talking half the night away it was time to snuggle down in the back. Luxurious accommodation for me compared to a tent. We had set an early alarm as there was a suggestion that it would stay dry until later in the day. However, when we woke up the rain was pounding on the roof. I wasn’t keen on a pointless early start, so we promptly went back to sleep for another half an hour!
I was slightly anxious. I haven’t done a run-only event like this before, and we were going to be using a Harveys map, which I’m unfamiliar with. At the hall we asked plenty of daft questions about what various symbols meant before we decided to bite the bullet and get going.
We started off straight up a impossibly steep hill which made my calves scream. Marie was happy as she was bilberry hunting on the way up. We passed many sheep tracks, all going the wrong way. After gaining the ridge we briefly enjoyed a run along a path before diving back off the hill and finding a way through the head high ferns. We were convinced that here and there ‘we were following a path’, or that ‘someone else had definitely been this way’ … but these could have been figments of our over-active imaginations!
The pattern was set for the rest of the day as we (successfully) contoured round trackless terrain and went up and over ridges. We pondered whether the sheep would show us the way, how a guide dog might lead us to controls, that the skull in the grass was a sign (of what, I’m still not sure) and how we could do with a bionic extending arm to reach out and dib from afar. As we ran round a cliff top my foot slipped and a gasp from Marie made me look to my right – to see a vertiginous drop! As I concentrated on route finding, Marie concentrated on making up a song about slidy rocks.
Past a stinking dead sheep we thought we might be sick. Unfortunately, this was the only out-and-back we did, so ‘nose nav’ was called into play as the mists came down on the way back. The second last control was an easy one on top of a hill. All we had to do was follow a bearing and run out along ‘The Tongue’. This was where we made our only serious navigational mistake. It was really foggy (not for the first time that day) and as we ran, it didn’t feel right. We tried to correct, but I couldn’t match the small patch of ground we could see to the map. A fortuitous combination of a family materialising from the mists and telling us that we were indeed where we thought we might be, and the clouds parting for a second to reveal a ridge got us back on track.
We discovered what one of the funny map symbols meant (peat hags), nabbed the last control and made for the finish. Only a steep downhill bum slide and more ferns to stop us! By avoiding the temptation of going up Blencathra (just because it looked fun), we had timed it perfectly. But we had not timed for our late mistake. We ended up sprinting for the end, trying to keep ourselves less than 10 minutes late, which would mean losing a LOT of points! We nearly took out someone photographing with a phone that we thought was the dibber box! We made it with just seconds to spare.
Looking at the results and checking with some wizened fell runner types in the hall afterwards, it transpired we had not taken the popular route. My plan to do the hard stuff first had back fired slightly, as we only did hard stuff and ran out of time for the easier parts. Everyone else ran around the slightly less steep northern side of the map, where apparently the ground was ‘very runnable’. Oops!
Never mind, we had a whole load of fun. It rained but we weren’t cold and it was great to be out in the hills feeling mildly competent about accurate navigation, even if our strategy left something to be desired 🙂 .
After the run we filled up on delicious pea and mint soup, hunks of bread, tea and cake. The organisers were really friendly and it was a good race. We topped off the day by heading to Ullswater for a gorgeous 1 hour swim before heading back up the road.
I’ll be doing the Itera expedition race in a team with three other people from the 9th August. If you want to read a bit about us and keep up to date with our progress, you can ‘like’ our facebook page here.