CBH’s Guide to Mountain Marathons

CBH’s Guide to Mountain Marathons

Originally posted on October 14, 2014 by Chris Baynham-Hughes

I regularly find myself having to explain what a mountain marathon is so I figured there must be loads of people out there missing out on what I see as the best type of event out there. I’m pretty late coming to this sport myself and I’m by no means an expert, but it is hands down my favourite.

Let me know what you think, if I’ve missed anything, if you have any questions, if I have anything wrong, etc.

Note: There is a Glossary at the bottom for terms I reckon may cause confusion. I’ve tried to make them in italics.

So it’s like running a marathon in the mountains right?

Errr, no. Contrary to the title it’s actually a cross between Fell racing, Orienteering and ultra running (in time rather than distance); oh, and there is an overnight camp involved too which you need to be self sufficient for. Confused? Let me try again…

The event has various different formats (described below) but they are essentially a variation on this theme: You have to travel (run, walk, crawl, slide) across open fell land to find controls and place your dibber in to record that you’ve been there. Another way of looking at it is a long distance Orienteering event held over open fell land.

However you look at it, it is a genuine test of mountain skills.

What are the different formats available?

Duration:

Traditionally a two day affair, event organisers have sought to recreate the same magic in other ways, here are the available options:

  • Full Mountain Marathon – a two day event, times will vary by course and competence (see below).
  • Overnight Mountain Marathon – 1-2 days worth of fun squeezed into a single night; e.g., Dark Mountains
  • Mini Mountain Marathon – typically 4 hours in duration; e.g., RAB Mini Mountain Marathons
  • Mixed discipline – Cross between Adventure racing  and the MM really; e.g., Haglöfs Open5 – 5 hours to do the same thing, but there is a running and a bike course, you split your time how you like

It takes two baby… well, most of the time

The standard format is for mountain marathon’s to be competed in pairs; this is less common on the shortened versions. The pair must stay together and are jointly responsible for kit (although must be carrying enough personal kit to be safe too – see ‘Kit lists’ below). Few mountain marathon’s offer a solo class, most notable are the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon (SLMM) which now has two solo classes and the RAB (see ‘Events’ below)

Terrain:

It varies, but rough open fell land is the general order of the day. You can be lucky enough to experience bogs, babies head sized tussocks, heather, mud, technical rocky ground, sheep trods, foot paths, bridle paths and even the odd bit of tarmac (but only to link fells together). In short it has everything, just not necessarily all in the same day/ weekend. Some MMs distinguish themselves by having courses with lots of steep and big climbs, so take your pick!

Format:

Linear Courses

As competitors cross the line they are given a map and a control sheet. The control sheethas the grid reference of all the controls they must visit and a description for each one. On a Linear course the boxes must be visited in order. The fastest to visit the boxes in order is the winner. Competitors decide their own route between the boxes.

There are different lengths of course available to accommodate different abilities; this makes the sport very accessible.

Non-Linear Courses

Fixed control courses – I’ve made this name up, but it is where competitors cross the start line and are given a map and a control sheet; they can visit the boxes in any order, but they must visit all of them. The primary example here is the Klets’ solo class at the SLMM. Selecting the most efficient order to collect the controls in is essential to a good placing (as I have found to my peril).

Score Class – Competitors cross the start line and are given a map and a control sheet. Most of the time the map is marked with the box locations, but the control sheet states which ones are open, the control description and how many points each box is worth (between 5 to 40).

Competitors have a set amount of time and can visit the boxes in any order they wish to. Competitors must make it to the finish within the time period allotted or they face a penalty; i.e., for every minute they are late they lose points. If you’re half an hour late then you lose everything. So you’ve just trashed yourself for a day out on the fells and have nothing to show for it. It happens to the best out there too, it’s not just an amateur’s mistake!

In general there are two types of Score Class: long and short. Long tends to be 7 hours for day one and 6 hours for day two with the short score being an hour less each day.

Other considerations:

The different formats bring different challenges. Linear courses ensure that everybody irrespective of experience knows exactly where they should go next, it takes out a lot of the tactical thought and it is more about covering the distance quickest. On a clear day though it can lead to long snakes of people heading to the next check point and the necessity for sharp navigation is removed. This is a big shame as that is a key part of the test.

The Score class is deliciously tactical and top competitors are capable of assessing the location of the boxes, the quickest line and how much they can run within the time limit over the ground presented to them. Equally at the other end you have people walking so they are also very inclusive as people compete at all ages from 14 – 80+. The other bonus on a score class is everybody is running in different directions, so there are fewer ‘snakes’ appearing to lead you to the boxes. The Score class also has the jeopardy of the clock and the prospect of losing all the points you toiled for.

Camping:

All full length MM formats involve and overnight camp. At the end of each day competitors head to Download to and get a print out of their day. It not only shows the timings and each control visited, but it also allows the organisers to know people are off the course and to give the competitive standings at the end of each day. Competitors then pitch up for the night, refuel, recover, chill out and socialise (if the midges allow!) This of course means that competitors must carry all their kit to camp; this is also true for the one night format (Dark Mountains), but not the mini mountain marathons.

Some MMs provide an option to purchase beers and milk for the overnight camp – I think this says a lot for the relaxed atmosphere of the events as well as a nod to the fell running culture. How do you tell the fell runners from the Orienteers? The fell runners are drinking beer and the Orienteers are complaining that the control point was two metres out of position. Oh yes, that’s a MM geek’s joke right there!

Food and drink:

Competitors must carry in all their food for the event and carry out all their litter afterwards. With the exception of beer cans and milk cartons bought for the overnight camp. Sadly this means people try to stash their litter in squashed cans, but thankfully the majority don’t.

Naturally it’s up to you what you have for overnight, but food is also a major weight consideration. I heard a story of a very experienced pair who got together and in pre-event discussions one had been assigned the food duties whilst the other was sorting tent, etc. during the event a packet of crisps was passed over along with the advice of “make ‘em last”. Whilst amusing, personally this doesn’t make much sense to me as food is so key to recover for the second day, but people do come up with some ingenious solutions for these events.

Water is collected en route from streams and at the overnight camp there is a water bowser, tap or stream. Overnight camps generally have a stream nearby for washing too.

Atmosphere:

Ohh what an at-mos-phere, I love a party with a happy … Ahem.. Sorry. The Atmosphere at these events is very relaxed and inclusive. I’ve recently heard people say, “oh, maybe in a few years I could think about trying one of those” but this is so far from reality. My advice would be to give it a go, pick an entry level course – in general there are guide times e.g.,(SLMM http://www.slmm.org.uk/courses/ )but if not have a look at the winners times and the average times for each course to give you an idea of how long you’ll be on your feet; or pick a score class when you can call time out whenever you feel like it.

People are very friendly, it’s done in pairs so it is a pretty safe event and if you do get into trouble others will stop and help you even if it means sacrificing their own race standings – as I said above, it’s a test of all your mountain skills!

Again, as mentioned above, there are usually beers on offer before and even during the event and people from all ages and experiences take part. Naturally at least one of you needs to know their way around a map and compass, but if you don’t see the ‘how do I train?’ section below.

The general feeling of the events is very much like that of a fell race or Orienteering event. It’s inclusive and a bunch of likeminded people – show respect for the mountains, the environment and your fellow competitors and you’ll fit right in. Just in case you’re wondering what that means – don’t litter (you carried it in you carry it out), respect the uncrossable boundaries (marked on the map), don’t climb dry stone walls and fences. In short, leave no trace.

How do I train?

If you can’t navigate or are not confident then I thoroughly recommend you go on a course. There are a number about, the FRA run some from time to time, but the two providers I’d recommend outright are:

Nav4 is run by Joe Faulkner, recently described on Facebook as “The Gandalf of the Mountains” and has forgotten more about practical running navigation than I will ever know. His event CV is more than impressive with success in both adventure racing and long distance fell/ ultra scenes. He organises several ultras and has completed the toughest events out there including both the 1992 and 2012 Dragon’s Back races. Kudos. He’s laid back, clear and is an excellent coach.

Mountain Run is run by Charlie Sproson. I met Charlie on the Dragon’s Back in 2012 and he too is laid back, clear and an excellent coach. He has designed courses for the SLMM, Dark Mountains and this year’s RAB MM which was outstanding and he will certainly give you an insight into the (evil) mind of a course designer.

Be aware that the MM format will test both your micro and macro navigation. At the more advanced level it will test the accuracy any estimates you make as to how much distance you can cover based upon the terrain presented on the map. MMs generally don’t announce their location until a few weeks before the event so you can’t go and practice.

As you would expect, you can hone your micro navigation at your local orienteering club, your fell running skills by getting out there or doing races and mountain based ultras are also a good training ground (not so much the ones that go around the fells on bridle paths; e.g., UTLD, as it just isn’t the sort of terrain you’ll be covering).

Flipping this question on it’s head, mountain marathons are excellent preparation for events like the Dragon’s Back (not 100% sure on this, but I don’t think anybody who had a pure trail running background actually finished in 2012).

What Kit do I need?

Kit lists vary from event to event and also by the conditions on the day sometimes, but one of my favourite things about MMs is the ingenious ways people come up with to be within the letter of the law, but as light as possible. The Balloon bed is sadly a lesser spotted item these days, but it has to be up there with the best solutions ever; not least because of the comedy it provides when the odd rogue balloon bursts in the night.

Here are some links to some event kit lists as examples:

Getting your kit right is essential. Both bulk and weight are critical considerations and your kit will get honed over time, however this shouldn’t be seen as a barrier to the event. My advice would be enter, beg/ borrow/ steal kit then once you realise it’s the event for you then you can start on the delightful journey to kit nirvana.

A friend of mine managed to get his kit for the LAMM down to just 3.4kg including 0.5 ltr of water and all his food (0.5kg). This is beyond obsessive and I salute him for it! My kit is down to less than 5kg as a solo competitor (primarily as I take loads of food) and for the RAB which I did as a pair I managed to get my kit into a Slab 12 race vest (although this did arose suspicion and a kit check at the end – passed of course). Every gram counts and it’s a great money pit.

I’ll do a secondary posting on kit, but my final word on it would be that all sorts of weird items become essential; e.g., 2 plastic bags big enough to fit your feet in. Why? Well, your shoes are guaranteed to be soaking at the end of day one, so if you’ve gone with the luxury of a fresh pair of socks then at the overnight camp you will be happy you have bags to put your feet in before they go in your shoes and it will ensure those sock stay dry at least until the next morning.

I’m sold, where can I find these great events?

Without a doubt the most challenging and ultimately rewarding event I’ve taken part in isDark Mountains (http://www.marmot-dark-mountains.com/ – you may even spot me on the website J) however I would not recommend this for beginners. There is a score format which does make it accessible, but only if you have solid mountain skills and can make a good decision; i.e., to call time on it when you are starting to deteriorate. Last year I did the A course (second from top) with Braddan Johnson and it took 15.5 hours – we battled through extreme winds, rain, sleet, hail, snow (blizzard and whiteout) almost got into our bothy at one point, but finished in everything we had out there (my top layer was 2* long sleeve super warm tops, Montane Fireball smock and a Paramo adventure light smock) we also mis-punched on the last control so we didn’t even get a finish! Despite this I rank it as the best single day event (MM and non-MM) I’ve taken part in.

SLMM – http://www.slmm.org.uk/ This is the first one I did and I’d recommend it to anybody. Super friendly, great time of year for weather and the courses (as per the link above) have something for everyone. I also love it as I can compete as a solo as this way my Nav indiscretions only affect me!

RAB MM – http://www.rabmountainmarathon.com/ I have a rapidly growing love for the Score format and this event is run to perfection. The course this year (designed by Charlie at Mountain Run) was terrific with starkly different terrains on the different days. Great atmosphere and highly recommended for both beginners and experienced alike.

LAMM – http://www.lamm.co.uk/index.html Very much want to try this one out. Self dubbed ‘The connoisseur’s Mountain Marathon it has a history of steep and big mountains, but it’s remote Scottish location means that it really means Friday and Monday off for those of us further afield.

The Highlander – http://www.handsonevents.co.uk/?page_id=13 Featuring a Ceilidh at halfway it kinda sets itself up for a sociable event! It’s in Scotland surprisingly enough and takes place at the end of April. Again, it’s one I’m keen to have a go at.

The OMM – http://www.theomm.com/events/OMM_Original/ The Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) (formerly the KIMM – Karrimor International MM ) has had a bit of bad press within the community of late, and the weather at the end of October rarely helps things. I will however report back after doing it myself this year!

RAB Mini – http://www.darkandwhite.co.uk/mountain-marathons.asp Again, something I want to try, more of a long distance Orienteering event in that you don’t need your overnight kit – I hope to get one or two in the bag this year or next.

Haglöfs Open5 Series – http://www.openadventure.com/open5/ These are a combination with mountain biking. A fantastic format and one I will certainly look to try out next year.

Summary:

You don’t need to be an expert or have all the best kit. You just need a sense of adventure and basic understanding of a how to use a map and compass.

 

Glossary:

Control Description –What I refer to as the cryptic clue, it states where the box is, examples include ‘Crag foot’, ‘Stream junction’, and the dreaded ‘Re-entrant’ (often the most ambiguous of the lot). Once you understand all the terms it’s pretty simple really, and really quite helpful (not how I felt about them on my first MM!)

Controls – These are also known as “dibber boxes” essentially it’s an electronic box which you place an electronic “dibber” in, it beeps to let you know it has recorded you being there.

Dibber – An electronic key which are commonly used for timing in events such as ultras and are regularly used in Orienteering competitions. They are the modern day equivalent of a control punch (used to punch a specific set of holes in your orienteering card to show you’ve been to the location)

Download – Dibber is placed in a dibber box to download all the information from it – showing which controls people have been to.

Open Fell Land – Uncultivated high ground where there may be no path, a sheep trod, footpath or even a bridleway running through it. Still not sure, look at the Bob Graham route or even better, go out to a Fell race details of when and where are here:http://fellrunner.org.uk/races.php

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