Trying your First Mountain Marathon
One cold October weekend I completed my second Original Mountain Marathon. After two quite contrasting experiences, I think I’m starting to have an idea of why some people come back year after year, while others understandably say, 'never again!'
The OMM isn't like a typical trail race and if you were hoping to follow the red flags you'd be disappointed. However, the added challenge of having to navigate your route is what brings people back year after year. It is also probably why so many of the top mixed and female teams last year were of ‘veteran’ age. Rather than blindly running for the next checkpoint, having the experience of knowing when to stay high, or what ground is fastest to travel across can make all the difference.
Overall, the navigation in the Black Mountains felt easier than the Lake District the previous year, although the horrendous weather did mean that lots of the checkpoints required a bum slide down a gully to reach.
The weather is a major factor when assessing the difficulty of the OMM. Last year was pretty epic with 60mph winds and 5m visibility on the Saturday. This year was no easier and saw us running through hail and snow with reported temperatures on the Saturday of -12c and a freezing overnight camp.
Given the (sometimes) extreme weather during the OMM, your safety requires you to judge the mountain terrain appropriately instead of using GPS trackers and having the correct kit to stay warm and dry. The race generally attracts experienced mountaineers, but if you’re not at the overnight camp no one is going to look for you until 4pm on the Sunday!
The best times for me to get my calories in during the marathon were the mornings and evenings. Each day, I made sure I had a massive breakfast of quinoa with mixed fruits. During the day I didn’t eat much (just a little cheese and a muesli bar), although I put Tailwind in my water bottle which kept me going until an early dinner at the overnight camp, where we enjoyed freeze dried curry followed by rice pudding. On the Sunday I only had water to drink and mostly ate Skittles – not natural but plenty of sugar to keep us energised (1 checkpoint = 1 handful of Skittles each).
The overnight camp was surprisingly sheltered, flat and dry (unlike last years bog camp). However, searching for your own green tent among 1000 other identical tents may be the hardest navigational obstacle to overcome during the OMM. I very nearly had to take a bearing off the Fire Station and a friend and I successfully played connect4 with Terranova tents (the tent of choice on the OMM).
It got down to about -2c in the overnight camp and my shoelaces were frozen when I went to the loo at 3am (and subsequently got lost finding the tent again). I was however toasty in my summer sleeping bag with two liners, all my clothes, hat and two pairs of socks. I kept some valuables in there, such as my phone and gloves, to ensure they kept dry. In retrospect, I should have put the gas canister in there too.
The fact that the race is in a different part of the UK each year is a big incentive to go again. I found the Black Mountains to be more accessible than Langdale the year before; no massive steep uphills (save from getting up from the checkpoints) and a clear horseshoe of mountains to aid route planning and navigation. However, the area is pretty limited and we covered most of it on the weekend, so I look forward to somewhere completely different next time.
At the OMM, there are a number of different 'courses' you can choose from. There are 'Score' course, where you reach checkpoints in any order and try and get the most points, and 'Route' courses, where the checkpoints have to be reached in a particular order and the winner is the quickest team.
Additionally, you can choose between 'Long Score' and 'Short Score' races. I found the Short Score restrictive on time and we finished monumentally late (turns out you can get negative points!). The Long Score gave better flexibility with more time to reach the checkpoints, but our team fitness meant we couldn’t make the most of this.
With so many course options and a variety of locations on offer, I am excited to see where and what will be on offer next year!
Pointers for your first race…
Sandwich bags for dry feet at the overnight camp!
Bring something to light up your tent so you can find it again in the dark.
The only item I forgot was my hipflask 😦 Some whiskey helps the long cold evening in camp.
As does a pack of cards or some compact entertainment – it’s a long evening.
Bring layers, the kit list is a minimum so don’t be afraid to bring extra if there is a cold forecast.
Spend time at the beginning planning a route and review it during the day. Don’t be afraid to pause and regroup (but there probably isn’t time for a picnic).
Have fun! Both years I have tried to prioritise my friendship with my race partner over exhausting ourselves and getting lots of points. Maybe that will change in the future but it’s an approach that works for me.
Written by Rebecca North: Qualified mountain leader and trainee rock climbing instructor, Rebecca escaped London life 18 months ago to spend more time trail running, climbing and wild swimming in the Lake District.
For more information on the OMM and how future races will be affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, please click on the link below: