Back from racing in the Original Mountain Marathon and briefly have time for a post. This is what I wrote earlier for The Independent, which may feature on Monday 27th October. Will write more in due course.
My Danish race partner, Thure Kjaer, had joked beforehand that it has rained everytime he has been to our green island, but this time the weather forecast had indicated that we were in for some truly exceptional weather. We were racing in the Elite class, (the longest of 7 categories in the race), effectively running a marathon distance, as the crow flies, over the mountains, before camping and completing a similar length of course the next day. We have competed in long adventure races like this for a few years and knew that preparation and selection of the right equipment would be essential. There’s a saying in the outdoors community – “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing”, so being well equipped and prepared for the worst conditions as well as adopting a positive attitude is vital to complete the course and to cope with the conditions that prevail.
Being on the longest course we started early on Saturday morning, with conditions breezy, but dry, though we knew things would soon change. As we climbed our first few hills on the lookout for the orienteering flags indicating our checkpoints, we were a bit on the warm side though were comfortable and enjoying the wind in our hair and the great views over the Cumbrian fells. The sun even came out to guide our path, though around 10am conditions changed and the rain began to fall.
The organisers had already taken the sensible step of shortening all the courses reducing our distance and time at altitude significantly and the planners had intelligently created courses that mostly kept us low in the valleys and away from the many high peaks in the area. Mountain marathon runners are a hardy bunch well equipped with studded shoes for secure grip and a mandatory kit list, designed to ensure participants can be self sufficient in the hills for 36 hours. Participants always race in pairs for safety and must meet minimum experience requirements to enter, nevertheless, we realised that some people would find the conditions difficult and may have to take an early decision to realise their limitations and withdraw from the event. We were revelling in the adventure and competition with the teams around us, my Danish teammate enjoying running with a Swedish pair, such is the international reputation of the OMM.
As the afternoon progressed the rain fell heavier, the wind increased and streams became torrents. Good course planning meant that all the major water crossings were possible by bridge, and smaller ones by working together with other teams to form chains for support. On the highest hills it became difficult to continue running and gusts would occasionally blow runners around us off their feet, but we helped each other out and checked on every team we met to make sure they were looking after each other. The camaraderie between teams was admirable and part of the appeal for doing these events. Thankfully visibility was still good and as every competitor had a map and compass, we were able to navigate ourself back to the overnight camp without too many problems, though as we descended, the volume of water in the flooded valleys became ever greater and the waterfalls took on a Himalayan nature. It was possibly the worst sustained weather I had ever been out in but at no point did we feel in any danger: we were well trained and well equipped, despite carrying lightweight gear. We knew those with less experience would carry even more rations and equipment to survive most eventualities. We arrived at the overnight camp after 6 hours of running, to be told that the event had been cancelled and to make our way back by road to the event HQ at Seathwaite Farm. Unfortunately, communications were poor and conditions were ever worsening, meaning that a decision was made by the police to close Honister Pass leaving some participants stuck without transport in the Buttermere Valley, while others had already returned to their cars at the HQ. We managed to get a lift with one of the last cars out of Buttermere before a landslide closed the road, and learned later that others had been taken out to Cockermouth by Emergency Services. The dispersal of people around the area caused the difficulties in accounting for everyone and we were confident that everyone would be safe and dining out on adventure stories for some time to come. The OMM is a fantastic event and I for one will be back in 2009, though my partner would like some sunshine for once!