Tussocks. I hate tussocks. Lumps of grass the size of a football, or a baby’s head, strewn across the otherwise featureless fellside. You can try and hop from the top of one to the next, but they are unstable and give under each footfall, sending you off in odd directions. Try and step around them, and again ankles get twisted, steps are awkward, tiring and frustrating. As I said, I hate tussocks. Our next control was a kilometre of energy-sapping, knee-jarring striding, shuffling and occasionally running away. To make matters worse, it had started snowing and we still had two hours to gather as many points as possible before making our way to mid-camp. Oh, and then we’d camp in the tiny tent and summer-weight sleeping bags we’d brought and do it all over again the next day. In case you are wondering, it was brilliant.
What is The OMM?
The OMM has been around in almost the same format for 51 years now. It was originally called the KIMM – the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon, but changed its name to Original Mountain Marathon a few years ago.
The format of a mountain marathon is quite simple, but takes a bit of explaining, so bear with me. First of all – “marathon” is a bit of a misnomer. It is unlikely that you’ll run 26.2 miles exactly on either day. Depending on your course, you may do a little more, but more likely less. It’s also highly unlikely that you’ll be running the whole way anyway…
There are broadly two type of mountain marathon course: linear and score. Both are usually raced in pairs, although sometimes you get solo categories. Both require you to navigate to “controls” – little orange and white cubes scattered across a large area of mountain terrain. You aren’t allowed any GPS assistance, so have to be able to navigate well with map and compass, even in bad visibility. Both require you to carry a tent, sleeping bag, spare warm clothes, a stove and food for two days. The linear course requires you to visit a set number of controls in a certain order. Quickest pair wins. There’s still a lot of route choice – a straight line might be the shortest distance between controls, but you need to consider things like how much height you might lose/gain. You also need to check whether there are rivers, cliffs or other things in your way, and how likely the terrain is going to be easy to move across (a path is far nicer than those dreaded tussocks).
The score category places a time limit on you each day. Ours gave us six hours on Day One, five on Day Two. In that time window, the aim is to score as many points as possible. Every control is given a points allocation, with out of the way and tricky to get to controls generally being given a higher value. There is no need to (or realistically much chance of) reaching every control, so you have to try and work out the best possible route, given your team’s fitness, navigation skills and willingness to push hard. Don’t be late though… every minute you are outside of your finishing time, you lose those hard earned points. There’s always a few hapless pairs that end on negative points after a bit of a disaster or overconfidence.
Back to the action
So, that’s that out of the way. Running partner, James, and I had a late start time on Day One – we didn’t set off running until 10:45. While this meant more time to faff, pack and repack kit and eat breakfast butties, it meant that the light would be beginning to die by the time we reached mid-camp. If the loss of points wasn’t motivation enough to get a move on, we definitely didn’t want to be benighted. It’s always tricky trying to decide what to wear to run in on a cold autumnal day. It feels bitter when standing around, but it’s also easy to overheat once slogging up hill. The last thing you want to do is get sweaty, only to start catching a chill. Both James and I decided on our Findra Arran Enduro long-sleeve jerseys, with a jacket over the top while we waited to get moving. That was then quickly stashed once we were up to temperature. The day had started with clear skies and a brutally cold wind. After an hour or so, that wind was also joined by flurries of snow and the sky quickly darkened. Jackets back on, and that’s how we stayed for the rest of the day. We were always on the edge of cold… moving quickly, our muscles generated enough heat to stay warm. Stop too long to check the map and we would quickly notice all that heat getting whipped away in wind.
I’m always most nervous about the first control. Have I made a stupid mistake or misjudged the scale of the map? Luckily it passed without drama, as did nearly all the others that day. Bar a few silly mistakes, we moved quickly and efficiently from control to control, loving being outside and on parts of the hill that you’d never usually visit on an average walk or run. Admittedly, I’m not sure if I want to make a habit of scrambling a few hundred metres up a stream bed, but it definitely makes for a memorable day out.
With half an hour to go, we dropped off a well-defined path to find our penultimate control. It had the potential to be the hardest to hit of the whole weekend, and we had no time to waste… holding a bearing, we tripped, skipped and ran through more those dreaded tussocks, almost falling over the control itself. With a rush of elation, we continued downhill, opening up our legs as the ground steepened, tagging a last control in the valley before a flat out sprint to the finish.
Day One done – and a surprise 6th place. We had no expectations of placings, so it was with genuine shock that we went to find a flat(ish) spot to camp. First things first, I stripped off my sweaty jersey and replaced it with a Findra Leithen base layer, aware of how quickly I was getting cold. Instant warmth was topped up with a down jacket, but we were still shivering by the time we’d put up the tent and climbed in. A hot brew, and some food saw us back to normal and we reflected on the day while enjoying our “luxury” can of beer that we each carried in. A high placing was all very nice, but less so was the early “seeded start” that it brought with it – we were off at 7:12am. Ouch.
Luckily there was plenty of time for sleep. By 7:30, we’d eaten, rehydrated and started nodding off. Unluckily we were two grown men in a tent that is designed to be as small and light as possible. We’d also brought the smallest, lightest sleeping bags we could. I’ve had better nights sleep, to be honest.
It was slightly bleary eyes that we set off on Day Two. Back in the Arran jersey, after drying it on a wire fence, then stuffing it in my sleeping bag all night, it was significantly fresher than the rest of me. More tired than yesterday, I added a fleece layer to keep me insulated on the run. Possibly colder than the day before, we crunched across frozen grass, and cracked icy puddles as we strode out. We hadn’t spoken about it, but there was maybe a little more purpose to our running now, aware that there were places to gain or lose and keen to keep hold of a top-ten finish. The course markers clearly had a bit of a sadistic streak as the most obvious route meant a huge amount of descending off ridges, only to retrace our steps back up on slopes so steep we were pulling on heather to climb upwards. Slowly but surely it sapped our energy, but we kept getting there; hitting controls, making our way closer to home, most importantly – still smiling.
The home stretch
It was with some gallows humour that we dropped down yet another gully and climbed back up again. It was maybe thanks to fatigue that we played things conservatively, and missed out a couple of potential controls, finishing with 20 minutes to spare. It meant we lost a few places overall, but we crossed the line content with our performance, working as a team and pushing ourselves while having a good time in the hills. That’s got to be what a mountain marathon is all about? Tussocks and all…