A few months ago, WildBounds writer Jack Hart took on the Original Mountain Marathon – and failed. But a DNF isn’t always the worst outcome, as he explores here
The Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) had stood as a challenge for me for years – it’s one of those races you itch to enter as soon as you hear about it, like the Marathon des Sables or the Beer Mile. Not just because it’s a monumental physical challenge, and not just because it demands an extra effort in navigating round the course, but because of the history of the event. It is the original mountain marathon. To trail runners, experienced or not, it’s akin to London or Paris – you’ve got to at least try to get in.
The OMM is held every year at the backend of the autumn, in some remote, mountainous terrain at one side or another of the UK. Its exact location changes every year and remains a fiercely guarded secret until well after competitors have had their entry confirmed. Each competitor lines up at the start line with enough kit to survive two days in the mountains on their back and is handed a map with specific checkpoints marked – and they’re off. It’s that simple, and it’s that simplicity that makes it so bloody difficult.
You see, navigation isn’t just a gimmicky extra to the race – it’s an essential component that can be the deciding factor between success and failure. And so it proved for us.
On October 27th, I rolled into Great Langdale, Cumbria with my brother, Matt, on a chilly autumnal evening, our breath steaming in the air as we stamped feet and hurried to the event marquee to stay warm. We were late arriving for the traditional ‘pasta party’ the evening before the OMM but still managed to grab ourselves enough food to warm up, with a local ale to wash it down, of course. That wasn’t a key factor in our DNF, though – even elite fell runners were sinking ale alongside us. Mountain running breeds a special kind of competitor and pooling enough of them into a marquee means drinking and laughter are near enough guaranteed, even before a tough event.
As dawn broke, we hurried out of our tent to assess what conditions the new day had heralded – and quickly wished we hadn’t. Although not yet raining, a fierce wind was battering tents and competitors alike as all around us, runners hurried to pack their kit away for the two days ahead. But it was the mountains themselves that worried us: shrouded in mist, their peaks completely obscured by the elements. It didn’t bode well for navigation, particularly for two rookies like us.
These early trepidations aside, we approached the start line with something approaching confidence, or at least excitement. To some degree, we’d hoped for conditions like this – the OMM isn’t meant to be easy, and you never enter a race in the Lake District counting on blue skies. A struggle between man and nature is the whole reason we’d turned up; it just so happened that on this occasion nature had come armed to the teeth.
We’d signed up for the C Class category, which involved a mix of following checkpoints in a set order and collecting others as we deemed appropriate. As we were handed our maps and ushered across the start line, we therefore had to first plot a route from checkpoints one to five, then collect any four of the next seven; after that, it was back to following set checkpoints to the overnight camping ground. Taking the time to assess your map was one of the key pieces of advice pressed on me by previous competitors, and we took it heart.
The problem here, though, was that neither of us had ever ventured in this area of the Lakes and neither are skilled navigators – unfortunate, I know. It was a plot twist that would haunt us for the next few hours.
Checkpoint One proved relatively easy to find – after a short climb up Mickledon, we had to locate a rocky gully and search the area for a small, neon orange marker. From there, we took a bearing to our next marker, Crinkle Crags, and marched directly uphill in search of easier passage across the top of the peaks. The ascent proved lung-busting work, but at that point we remained excited at the prospect of the day ahead and attacked the climb, our demented grins accentuated by sweat and rain.
Crinkle Crags was more difficult to bag, partly because we had no idea what the damned thing looked like. More skilled navigators would have breezed this section but we found ourselves stopping regularly to take bearings, increasingly uncertain of our current position thanks to inexperience and unforgiving weather conditions. At the top of the mountains, the howling wind rendered us mute without actually shouting in each others’ ear and brought with it a fierce cold that punished our frequent stops mercilessly. At those heights, you need to keep moving to stay warm, but it’s a lesson we only reflected on later.
Sheer dumb luck eventually found us reaching Crinkle Crags – two figures appeared from the mist and happened to be searching for the same marker, and the nearer we got, the more runners materialised from the shroud to confirm our position. It was a system that repeated itself for Checkpoint Three – we set off, lost ourselves, got battered by the elements while retracing our steps and eventually found runners to point us in the right direction. After several hours of this, we had reached three of the day’s fourteen checkpoints, and though we daren’t say anything to the other, both of us doubted we’d make the overnight camp.
A misguided ascent of the Pike of Blisco was the final nail in our effort’s coffin. With my thighs cramping on each laboured step and Matt struggling to draw breath in the wind, we staggered down the mountain and stared uphill at Checkpoint Four. We had 20 minutes to reach the cut-off point before the organisers would deem our attempt void. To our credit, we set our jaws and began our ascent, knowing we wouldn’t make it but preferring to be forced off the course than admit defeat. We eventually staggered back into camp at 16:30hrs, some seven hours after setting out and having completed less than half the course. The mood wasn’t the happiest, truth be told.
On reflection, we were clearly unprepared for both the mountains and, crucially, the navigational demands of the OMM. Both of us are seasoned runners and have competed in this kind of terrain before, but having to plot our own route and follow it with limited visibility crippled our effort. It was the first time either of us had failed to finish an event.
Writing this, the disappointment hasn’t faded one jot. But, in hindsight, our DNF was perhaps the best result for that year – had we struggled on, we’d simply have run into difficulty further down the course, potentially with more dangerous consequences. The Lake District is an unforgiving environment for the unprepared, and we saw the evidence of this back in the marquee with various bandaged limbs, pulled muscles and one exceptionally broken nose. Roughly 400 competitors had pulled out of the race alongside us, including two elite runners pushing for podium spots. We weren’t ready for the OMM, but it had also taken scalps far more valuable than ours.
A DNF isn’t simply a mark of failure though – it provides clear opportunities for improvement, too. For us, our navigational skills and mountain running experience were highlighted as areas to work on, and the experience of following a route in those conditions will be invaluable to future attempts. And we will attempt the OMM again, without a doubt. If anything, our desire to compete and cross that finish line has simply been amplified – we fell at the first hurdle, for sure. But that doesn’t mean the race is over.
Images: 1,5,6,7: The OMM / 2,3: Jack Hart / 4: TGO Magazine