This weekend saw me make the journey to the Western Dales for an attempt at the Rab mountain marathon. Whilst I have done a number of multi-day trips previously, this was the first time I'd done it as an "event" with no mountain bagging or journey objective...
A mountain marathon is designed to be not just a test of fitness (although it is fair to say that the winners were far from lard arses) but to also test the all round mountain skills of the participants. The approach of the organisers of these events (for instance, the OMM, Saunders, LAMM and Capricorn) is to leave the publication of the specific location until the last minute – to prevent folks going for a reconnaissance of the area prior to the weekend. So, on arrival at the event centre (Outhgill, in the little-frequented Mallerstang valley) I had no idea what to expect from the terrain and even less local knowledge. With the surprisingly well-enforced smart phone ban, the heart and soul of the event becomes the "holy trinity" of map, compass and watch. The ability to read a map and reckon distance on the ground, along with a good level of fitness is the factor that distinguishes these events from the Lakeland classic or fell training session.
An MM is a real chance to geek out on kit – and weight is king. I went for a 25L pack, with the mandatory requirements and a few "luxury" items. I went for a 1 man tent, light-weight down bag, hooded waterproof and a dry bag with a few dry layers as the standard.
Not one to skimp on food, I decided on the luxury of a gas stove (MSR pocket rocket) against the seasoned MM-ers preferred choice of hexy block burner. This allowed a decadent meal of pasta, pine nuts, pesto and parmesan followed by a custard and Soreen desert. With the map, compass, water bottle and spare socks (I went for a pair of seal skins to go inside wet shoes at the overnight camp) this still made for a fairly full pack and certainly something that I wasn't going to be racing around with a breakneck speed.
The MM generally has a number of different course options – from a range of "linear" courses, which are basically set navigational routes where the fastest team wins, to the score format. All are available as solo, pairs, parent/child and vet classes. I went for the solo short score – 6 and 5 hour time limits on the respective 2 days. The objective was to collect as many checkpoints as possible in the allotted time and not be late back at pain of significant penalties.
After an initial briefing on Saturday morning, we were issued with a GPS tracker (taped to the rucksack) and then given a map with all the controls for the weekend marked. This was a 1:300000 with contours at 15m, so took some getting used to compared to the 1:25000 and 10m contours that are "the norm" for mountaineering. After passing through the start, we were issued with the list of active controls and their points values. Here the strategy begins – do you go for a linear course with a high point per mile ratio, or take the approach of going for the big scores? The course planners had certainly done a good job of giving us a headache!
This course was well designed, in so far as there was a clear set of controls of each of the two sides of the valley. I decided to take the West side of the valley and made for the high ground of Wild Boar Fell to start my day.
I got into a steady rhythm, and made good time accumulating points for the first 3 hours on fresh legs. I was covering the ground well and feeling strong. I then came to the Southern end of a row of controls to have a decision to make – to descend to the valley and take a few low-scorers on the way in to the camp, or go hard for some of the more distant controls and risk a late return. This is the core of orienteering events – and those that manage the best strategy usually win. I went with pragmatism, with a contingency loop in the back of my mind, but ended up wading through 2 km of deep bog to reach a 10 point control – when staying on the ridge would have been easier running and much more profitable, albeit slightly further. This had cost me time, so I had to rattle along the road to get to the right end of the valley. This left me with time to spare, but not enough to be able to go out for more points – so I made my way in to camp inside the limit.
In a field above Outhgill popped up a mini village. I am always amazed at what people consider to be "luxury" – while some competitors luxuriated in gourmet meals but shivered in thin sleeping bags, others forwent sleeping mats in favour of a survival bag. I had taken the view that 14 hours in camp is a long time, so a bit of comfort went a long way – and managed a good meal, several brews and a pudding while relaxing on my sleeping mat in my dry layers and seal skins. As an aside, plastic bags to line the wet fell shoes are a good addition to anyone's kit, and this was certainly the look "en vogue" in the field that night. Even with all this personal admin to complete, I was still fast asleep by 8pm.
As quickly as it has popped up, the camp started to collapse – from 6am, folks were up and about (possibly from spending the night shivering in uber-light and insufficient kit) and the race marquee was being taken down. I look time for a breakfast of porridge and coffee before joining the queue for the portaloo and taking my place on the start line to mark out the controls for day 2. The controls values for day 2 were different – giving a whole new planning headache.
I decided to go for a West loop, followed by a cross of the valley to pick up some high scoring controls on the Eastern side. However, I flirted with some out of bounds (instant disqualification!) and got myself the wrong side of a railway crossing so didn't leave sufficient time for the climb to the big hitters. This led to a long and attritional slog up some tussocks where every third step was into a bottomless section of moss carpet and by the time I gained the ridge time was running short. Always the competitor, I went for the high points – but had wasted enough time to leave my points total for the day well short of what should have been expected from the milage and climbing. I finished on time, but about 150 points short of my self-set target.
As with all things – a learning experience. This was a hard 2 days out, with full kit and in mountainous terrain with few paths and little easy ground. My milage and climb actually compared with the leaders according to the GPS data – but the strategy (to use a teachers expression) "required some improvement".
Get busy with the map and compass! On this event, very little was run on paths and those that were marked on the map were often not there one the ground. Using a compass bearing and being able to run on it, coupled with accurate distance estimation, are a must.
Think about your kit. The basics are OK – but remember that you will be spending a long time in that tent, so a few extra grams might make the difference between recharging overnight compared with waking up a shivering wreck.
Food! Lots of it – stuff you can eat on the move and also a good hot meal that you will enjoy (and look forward to!)
Strategy – this is not about the miles. Spend time on the map and plan out a circuit that keeps climbing to a minimum. Go for a high points to miles ratio – and don't be tempted by the organisers' attempts to draw you off course for a 10 pointer.
If you enjoy time in the mountains, give one a go!