Saturday 25th January was the Marmot Dark Mountains overnight mountain marathon, based in Glossop at the edge of the Peak District.
My race partner and I arrived at race HQ at 8pm after an afternoon of meticulous packing, shedding unnecessary weight from the mandatory kit list which among other items includes emergency bags, 2 man bothy, tent, sleeping bags and mats. With unfavourable weather reports and an uncharacteristic thunderstorm and hailstones in the afternoon, I wondered just how much of the kit would be required if we got caught out in torrential rain and winds.
The race HQ was in a sports hall, with the adjacent squash courts repurposed to provide competitors with sleeping quarters after the race. Marmot and Silva were the key sponsors, with the routes masterminded by Shane Ohley. There were only fifteen teams doing the Long Score event. The format of the Long Score is a ten hour cut off time, within which teams are given a map marked with the locations of dozens of Control locations. The harder they are to navigate to and the farther away they are, the more points a Control is worth. Good teamwork, navigation skills and strategic planning are required to reach as many Controls as possible and get back in time before points are deducted for being late. Teams’ start times are staggered, reducing the likelihood of teams following each other.
Once signed in we are given our dibbers (devices that you touch the Control with to record when you arrive) and head to the start line which was a Marmot tent at the edge of an industrial park and the start of the Peak. We are subjected to a brief video interview that now features on an official Marmot YouTube video before being counted down to the start.
3… 2… 1… Go! My race partner and I are cheered on by race organisers as we are handed the map. We take a few steps forward then stop to assess the map. There’s a fine balance between charging off blindly without a strategy versus spending far too long planning and losing vital minutes. We decide to hit the first 5 point Control to the north and then start heading further east in search of higher value targets. The first Control is a nightmare – located within a dark green section of the map, which we both assume is a forest. We are wrong. After running in circles for ages we realise our mistake, read the legend (dark green is not a forest) and promptly find the first Control much to our relief. We have wasted half an hour.
The next few controls are located with little difficulty. From one to another then another we navigate our way around the map, utilising what features we can to help us navigate in the dark. I had borrowed a friend’s Hope R4 head torch which is a monster of a light, but after 200 minutes of the lowest setting it drops onto a previously unknown lower power setting. Given the incoming fog, this isn’t an issue. What is an issue is that we have taken a bearing and then run off 90 degrees in the wrong direction. Time for some rapid reassessment of where we might be!
We find our location on the map using the features around us and soon we are back on track. Then the wind picks up and the temperature drops. In a brief moment when we both turn off our torches, the sky is black and from our location there is no ambient light visible from Glossop or Manchester. I feel truly alone with my partner on this race, and it feels good!
After another sketchy bit of navigating we accidentally reach a Control we had given up looking for. We even have a team following us to the next couple of Controls before we manage to lose them heading uphill.
It’s almost turnaround time. Amazingly my Hope torch is still working on power saving mode. We bag one final Control away from the start/finish line before agreeing a route back to the finish, taking in as many Controls as possible on the way. Then my torch dies and all is black.
And then there is light – my backup torch (a Fenix torch mounted on a headband) comes in handy and we are soon bounding along some familiar ground before we have to decide whether we run up into the hills once more or take the safe option of a foot path to get back towards civilisation. We opt for the safe option to ensure we return in time and are soon plodding along the Pennine Way southbound. It feels good to be on a flag stoned path, moreover one that I recognise from previous runs. I am surprised how little I have eaten over the last several hours – half a Soreen malt loaf and a couple of breakfast bars. I’ve drunk less than a litre of water and tiredness doesn’t even register, especially we are now on the home stretch. My feet are starting to get cold, but the end is in sight. We can even see the red haze over Manchester now and soon enough we are heading its direction.
The foot path was the safe option and we are now estimated to be back in Glossop well before our 10 hour deadline. Oh we’ll, it’s too late to turn round and get more points so we saunter back to Glossop and do a bit of a sprint finish towards the awaiting photographers, Marmot reps and hot coffee.
We were fortunate with the weather – it rained lightly but the worst of the weather rolled in before and after the event. The event itself was superbly organised and there were numerous nice touches like sleeping quarters, hot drinks before and after the race and a voucher for breakfast at a local cafe after the race. The sun rose as we drove back from Glossop and I even managed a couple of hours of sleep before getting up again before midday.
We had taken some big chances with our kit: some worked in our favour, some backfired. For example, I was experimenting wearing running socks with vapour barrier socks over them to prevent my feet from getting soaked and cold. This then required me to order a last minute pair of larger fell shoes (Saucony Peregrine 4) which arrived 5 hours before we set off. The combination worked a treat and the shoes had great grip, but I would never recommend leaving footwear options to the last few hours before an event! However, we used a Silva 6 Jet Spectra compass that uses a combination of colours and dots instead of traditional degrees/mils but had not had spent enough time practicing with it. In a small oversight we ended up following the wrong colour & dots at one point, which led us to heading 90 degrees in the wrong direction.
I started this blog a few ears ago in the run up to my first mountain marathon. This latest mountain marathon was a different game altogether – winter, dark, alone, and yet I felt so much more at home out on the hills. Now I need to find another mountain marathon so I can iron out some of the creases in our race strategy and work my way further up in the rankings!
Keep running (through the night)!