Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Marmot Dark Mountains

I am climbing a tussock and heather covered hill in the un-forested “Forest of Bowland” with my partner, Andrew Berry, it is 4am on Sunday morning, we do not know where we are, visibility with our headtorches on is down to 10m, it is pouring with rain and we are both getting dangerously cold. Should we stop and get out the extra clothes which we are carrying, which will be almost impossible to put in the wind, or carry on trying to move fast and hope not cool down any more and also hope to relocate and eventually get somewhere less windy to get some more kit on? This is part of what makes Marmot Dark Mountains a great event. It is not just moving quickly and navigating well it is looking after yourself and your partner at night in winter.

We had set off at just before 8pm on Saturday night with 54km, 21 controls and 2000m of ascent to navigate round on the Elite class. We set off fast, probably too fast in hindsight. On the first 4 controls we found good routes and our navigation was perfect. Then I suddenly started to feel tired, I said to Andy that I would be OK if we took it easy for 30 minutes – 3 hours later I finally picked up a bit. Andy took my pack and took over the navigation. I tried to run but I just kept falling over and swearing. There did not seem to be anything in my legs – a classic bonk. But it is even worse than a normal bonk when it is rough underfoot and dark. Then the cramping started in my hamstrings, calfs and even my quads and there were screams as I fell over. I was still suffering badly as we finished a loop of the 1st half of the course and we were only 4km from the finish. Andy asked if I wanted to give up. I said no, I did not give up Mountains Marathons just because I am feeling awful and suffering badly. Also I know from experience that it is possible to recover from the biggest depths. I have only given up one mountain marathon and that is because my knee swelling up overnight and I could barely walk the next day. I do not know why I felt so bad, probably I was still not completely recovered from a really nasty cold that had finished a couple of days before.  Eventually as we ran towards 13 I did indeed up a bit and was enjoying myself again.  There was some tricky navigation but we did not make any big mistakes. Then there was a long leg (17-18) into the wind and the rain started. I should immediately have put a warmer top on underneath my waterproof and some waterproof trousers. But I thought I would be all right. However in the wind and rain and through the peat groughs I drifted off my compass bearing. We hit a river and fence but nothing made sense as we were getting cold. I made a guess as to where we were and we continued on a bearing but we were climbing much too much. At this point I was getting worried about how cold we were. Andy suggested what we could have done and the map finally made sense. We were lucky it was not the way we intended to go to 18 but it was an OK route and we did not lose much time. Finally we reached control 20 a trig point on the top of a hill, still dangerously cold, but just a log descent to a sheltered valley. I was descending very slowly because I was so cold but also I could not really see as my head torch batteries were also nearly gone.  Andy got us sheltered and changed the batteries on my head torch. Finally we reached the bottom and I got my Berghaus HyperTherm on, although my hands were so cold it took ages. Then there was just one more climb to the final control. Just as we approached the top I had another even worse bonk, although at least I was now warm. I could barely stand let alone make forward progress. I had the final small bit of food we had left and eventually it kicked in enough for me to start moving at a reasonable speed again.  We reached the final control but had lost big time, taking 1 hour 46 minutes on leg 20-21 compared to 1 hour 19 minutes to eventual winners Sabrina Verjee and Tom Gibbs. Then it was just downhill in the dawn on the road to the finish – which I was very relieved to finally get to. 

 I am happy to have worked with Andy as a team to get round and there is something amazingly satisfying about navigating at night over some of the roughest terrain you can get.  There is also something amazing funny about pulling yourself out of another waist deep bog, apart from when you have cramp. Overall, I made loads of mistakes but that means there is always room for improvement in future years.

Congratulations to Sabrina Verjee  and Tom Gibbs  for another win of this tough event. Lawrence Eccles and Ally Beaven got round in the fastest time of the night on the Elite course but went to the wrong number 7 (which we also did but luckily Andy checked the code) and Jonathon Davies  and Neil Talbott also very nearly won but accidentally went into an Out of Bounds area near the end. It is tough when these things happen but I am sure they will be back.  As well as these performances the impressive thing is anyone who goes out on a Saturday night on the fells in winter, looks after themselves and their partner and sees what they are capable of. 

Thanks to Graham Gristwood for some great courses and also Shane Ohly, the Ourea team and all the volunteers for putting on the event.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) 2017

I was desperate to run this year’s OMM. Not only was it the 50th OMM, it was taking place on my doorstep in the Lake District and if I completed it, then it would be my 20th Elite course completion. The problem is that with the fatigue I have been struggling with over the last couple of years at the moment I can never predict how I am going to feel when I race. So I did not want to run with someone who get be upset if I was struggling all weekend. However, I wanted to run with someone who had the potential to be competitive in case I was feeling good. Jim Mann suggested that Andy  Berry might fit these requirements. He had never done a mountain marathon so would be happy to get round, but after setting the 2nd fastest winter Bob Graham Round (I kept up with him for 90 minutes on the first leg before getting dropped) and winning a couple of Ultra races in the Lake District Fells over the summer, was good enough to do really well. Luckily Andy agreed to run with me and we agreed to go lightweight in the hope that I was feeling good and so be competitive, but the key goal was just to get round.

At the end of the summer holidays I suddenly went from being tired all the time to feeling just about normal. I put in some good weeks of training and, in particular did a number of really steady 2 and 3 hour runs and I felt fine afterwards. Suddenly I was more confident we might do OK.

On the Saturday the clag was right down (visibility of 10-20m) and it was windy, and these conditions were expected to last all day. I was happy with this as I thought it would play to my navigational strength and experience. We set off steadily, determined to run our own race. We saw a number of other elite team come and go in the mist and had no idea who we were in front of and who was behind. The key thing was we were both going fairly strongly. Andy struggled for a bit early on as he got cold having fallen in a bog and I struggled on a big climb after about 4 hours. But I had no massive bonk which has been my normal pattern over the last few years. The split times show that by the time we had reached number 8 (after about 5 and a half hours) we were surprisingly in front (although at the time we had no way of knowing this). The next control turned out to be decisive. This was a sheepfold at 570m elevation on the side of Scafell. I was really worried about this control as there were no other features on the hillside, so I knew if we missed it first time then it could easily take ages to find it. I saw two potential ways to find this control. Firstly a compass bearing from the stream we were following up the hillside. This would be about 800m on a bearing and needing to be within 20m to see the control, but the downside was if we did not find it straight away we would have no idea which way to turn to find the control.  Secondly aiming-off a bit to the north and climbing to 570m and then contouring south along the slope at that height. We went for the second option but did not find the control as we contoured round the hillside. We did find Tom Fellbaum and Peter Bray who had been searching for 40 minutes and were giving up as they were cold.  We contoured back at a slightly lower height but still had no success. I then thought of an alternative plan which was to go back to the small path we crossed and pace a set distance from this path to directly below the sheepfold and then climb up to the sheepfold. The distance on the map was 8mm, I struggled to work out how far that was in meters (320m on  a 1:40,000 map) as I was tired. But eventually got it correct and paced the required distance and then climbed. This time we climbed up to about 620m on the altimeter but still no control. We were in quite a lot of rocks and thought it must be close, as we thought that they built sheepfolds near rocks. We separated by 20m so between us we could see more ground and headed south as I thought I was likely to have been a bit short on the pace counting. Eventually I spotted it. My altimeter read 605m. So it seems most likely my altimeter was about 30m wrong despite having set it less than an hour before in Wasdale, which is strange as the altimeter was within 10m accuracy the rest of the weekend.  Next time I am in Wasdale in clear weather I will be back at this sheepfold to investigate. Thomas Wilson and Alistair Masson (who finished 4th) found the control spot-on using the same technique as we tried (https://www.britishorienteering.org.uk/news).  While both the top two teams overnight: Duncan Archer and Shane Ohly, and Tom Gibbs and Paul Tierney found it without too much faffing on a direct bearing. The split times show that we lost about 20 minutes on this control and nearly half the teams who get that far round the course either had big problems finding it or gave up finding it and most of them seemed to have been too low. We eventually reached the finish after 8:33 minutes of running tired but happy to have got round and surprised to be 3rd overnight and only 15 minutes down. We did not sleep much, which is normal when you have minimal kit but we were warm and dry overnight. 

Elite course day 1 control 9 with our route

Ariel shot of Elite course day 1 control 9 showing the sheepfold

The second day was clear and sunny,  it was a beautiful day to be out on the fells. We passed Tom and Paul, to move into 2nd place, on the way to the 3rd control. But we never caught sight of Shane and Duncan who extended their lead over us by another 7 minutes to win by 22 minutes

Overall we had a great time together and we were both delighted to come 2nd. Andy was as tough and strong as I expected, but also really positive throughout and relaxed when things did not go to plan. He was also happy to carry the heavier rucksack with the tent. I did most of the navigation but Andy kept an eye out for me doing anything stupid. I felt completely shattered on Sunday and Monday but a normal tiredness from having run for 14 hours not the head fog, dizziness etc that I had when the fatigue was at its worst. My heart beats were slightly random on the Monday but by Tuesday had returned to a nice steady rhythm. 

Graham Atkinson planned the Elite course and I thought it was good and enjoyable course. There were some really interesting route choices and the control sites selected were really challenging and most of them were at locations where I had not been to before.

There has been a lot of discussion about the dropout rate for this year’s OMM. I can only comment on the Elite course as I have been doing that for the last 22 years (with 20 completions and 1 retirement). This year it was the longest time I have taken to complete an Elite course (14.42) and the longest time to complete a day 1 course (8.33). The previous event in the Lake District in 2008 was famously cancelled and the one before in 2005 in Ullswater had my previously longest completion time. I won that one with Morgan Donnelly with a day 1 time of 7.27. My memory of that day is that the weather was good for fast times and the Eastern Fells used that year are faster going than the Central fells used this year. I think a time of 7.30 for this year’s Elite day 1 was possible for a team who were running strongly and who did not make any mistakes. If the weather had been good I think the fastest possible Elite time on day 1 would have been around 7 hours. The planner says he was aiming for a 6 hour winning time, I personally think this is very optimistic.  My understanding is that there is a spreadsheet and from the length and height climb an expected winning time is calculated, but I think no account is made for the underfoot conditions. I used a similar method in calculating the time I would take between the fells when I ran round the Wainwrights. This worked most of the time but for rocky sections (such as Scafell to Lingmell) it was way out and I think that is same problem here. Much of the focus has been on whether bad weather courses should have been used on day 1. Clearly the weather made everything slower. It was windy, visibility was very low and the rocks were wet. However, there was not actually a lot of rain; the rivers (such as the Upper Esk) were low and easy to cross. I am out on the Lake District fells every day and it was not exceptional. In fact I would say that 20-30% of days at this time of year (the wettest and windiest time of year in the Lake District) have worse weather than we encountered on the first day.  I ran the first day in shorts with a base layer and a Berghaus Hyper100 (100g 3-layer waterproof jacket) and I was warm enough throughout the day.

So I think it was a combination of two factors that caused the high dropout rate. Firstly, the Elite course was on the long side (time wise). Secondly, the weather was bad so it was slower going and there more mistakes, but it was not quite bad enough for the “shortened courses” to be used.  The decision to go for event organisers to use the shortened courses is a really hard one and on this year’s day 1 it was the sort of day where that the decision is marginal and whatever decision is made someone will always not be happy. Personally, I accept any decision the organisers of an event make regarding safety, sometimes I think they have made the wrong decision and sometimes the correct decision but ultimately it is their event and there are big consequences for them if something goes wrong.