Original Mountain Marathon - Day 1

After a 7 hr journey on Friday afternoon we arrived at the Lowther Hills (Galloway / South Lanarkshire) for the 40th Original Mountain Marathon. The pre-event camping field was less than impressive being full of liquid sheep shit which got everywhere but other than that was a good event centre with all the facilities close by. For those not familiar with the format of the OMM it is the biggest Mountain Marathon in the calendar (about 3,000 people in total) and involves teams of two to run/walk across mountainous terrain self navigating to each checkpoint (no paths!) with the aid of map and compass. Over the two days each team has to be self sufficient with a remote overnight camp with basic facilities (i.e. portaloos and a stream for drinking water) so all kit has to be carried. This year we were entered in the Medium Score class which involves 6hrs on Day 1 and 5hrs Day 2 to find as many controls as possible.

Although we woke up on Saturday morning with plenty of time me and Steve (my team mate) were a bit casual eating breakfast at the food stand so had to rush getting ready. I ended up cramming in as much food as possible, not for any strategic purpose - was just plain greediness! A sausage and egg bap with a large bowl of museli to follow! With just a few minutes before we got to the pre start I went to find a quiet spot for a wee and managed to get back just in time but my partner was not there! With loads of people milling around the start area I couldn't find him anywhere - thankfully we found each other with seconds to spare. As is usual with these things we were only a few metres away from each other all along! As we were about to start it was still dry, but with a cold wind beginning to blow and the cloud level was very low so navigation was going to become an issue once in the hills.
Me (second from right) and Steve (far right) planning our route...
We got our maps and quickly began to plot a possible route. We were mindful of not being over ambitious as we had been in the RAB last month so made sure we kept things simple. We decided to go for the obvious control about 1.5km from the start and I decided to go for a fairly direct route up hill before hitting a track. Just after we started the first ascent we hit a lot of heather which was strength sapping. I don't think Steve was that impressed as he had wanted to keep to the track all the way up. I was clearly feeling ok as I kept pulling away from Steve and having to wait for him to catch up. Having said that I'm a strong ascender while Steve is better at descending. I was still worried about his fitness as his rib injury at the RAB last month had prevented him doing any training, followed by a cold a couple of weeks ago. We hit the track ok and began to follow it along for the remainder of the ascent. At around this point the fog was becoming quite thick with visibility quite poor. It was also very windy so had to put my cagoule on. Just before we were about to turn off I caught a glimpse of a control down in a small valley that looked like it could have been ours but Steve reckoned otherwise and I wasn't 100% convinced either. We turned off a little afterwards when it became obvious the control was not where we expected. We had a quick debate and then decided the control I saw must have been the one we were looking for all the time. It wasn't a major error - we probably lost 3-4 minutes which wasn't a lot considering the poor visibility.

The next control to aim for was fairly obvious and we decided to contour around the fell into the control rather than go up and over. It was pretty straight forward and we ran along most of it in no time at all. As we got there there was a bloke with a professional video camera who asked us how we were getting on and I garbled some message about being good but the visibility was quite poor. After a quick debate we felt we had enough time to get another control before heading into the north eastern section of the map. Steve wanted to go due South before hitting a track but as before I favoured a more direct approach and hitting the track later - in the end I think we did something in the middle. Any of the flat bits we ran whilst walking up the strength sapping hills. The visibility was now becoming extremely tricky as the visibility was no more than 50 metres in places over complex terrain. We hit the track without any problem and followed it along before turning off and into the control. We ended up a touch too low, but it became obvious and we only lost a minute or so in the murk.
After the control we had a quick debate as to whether we should head north east into the next section of the map or continue south east. We both agreed that north east was safer and felt that there was plenty to keep us amused anyway. We followed back the way we came along the track before cutting off and following a fence boundary for 2km and we ran most of it. We followed the fence until it turned away and we took a bearing from there. What greeted us was not pleasant - a load of peat hags that looked particularly uninviting. We followed our bearings through this as best we could, bearing in mind we couldn't see a great deal ahead anyway. As the terrain opened we made a couple of small corrections and dropped right onto the control which was a deep gully. As it happened it was manned so had to provide our team name to the marshal. I noticed a few other teams milling about not far away so made Steve run out of the control before navigating away to our next target. It was good fun looking back at the other teams scratching their heads trying to find the control. The problem for most was that there were loads of gullies about with few marked on the map.

We were making good progress and I was still feeling strong with still less than 2hrs gone. The next control to CH was worth 30 points and involved a direct compass bearing. We had to walk the ascent and knew this control would be tricky in the hill fog as it would be very easy to overshoot and end up down the wrong spur. We found the cairn nearby on the right hand side which confirmed our bearing was accurate. As we reached the top of the climb we couldn't see much so continued our bearings but took it very slowly. I wanted to go a bit further to the right, but in the end we went with Steve's bearing and hit the control perfectly.

From CH we decided to hit BU which was worth a whopping 35 points and would involve a large descent on the way. Our morale was good and we both felt strong, more so since we were making good progress. Rather than hit the control direct we decided to descend to the north east along a long spur before turning into the control. As we began to descend we found an unmarked farmers track so followed this along for as much as possible. After a short while the murk lifted as we went below the cloud level and could clearly see where we needed to go to reach the control. We hit the control spot on and things were looking good.

We had a choice of going to CU next which was worth 15 points or head along a track to the controls on the other side of the road. We decided that CU was not worth enough points and would involve a hard ascent so we headed towards the track. In some tussocky grass on the way I found a whistle and compass which some poor bugger had dropped - these were not the conditions to lose your compass! What the chances are of finding a compass in the middle of nowhere? Answers on a postcard please!

The track was well made so we motored along into the forest. We were aiming to hit the ride to the west which would cut off a lot of extra distance. We couldn't really find it and decided that the map was wrong (often this is the case as plantations change). As a result we followed the track a bit further along until this petered out as well. We then had to cut across some rough ground before reaching a large stream. I think the forest bit was a bit of a dent to our confidence as everything to now had been going really well. We crossed the stream, followed by another one soon after. I enjoyed the crossing so much I did it another three times to make my way to the road! I think that with hindsight had we known that the forest area was going to be problematic we might have headed for the 15 pointer after all, but you don't know these things until they happen.

After the road we had a steep ascent to DC which was a hill top. It was at this point after 3 hrs that Steve's legs were beginning to go and he was really slowing up. I kept the lead to try and pull him along but still had to wait for him a lot. As we got closer to the hill top it was becoming really windy and even with my helly and cagoule on I was getting quite cold.

The next control was AF which was a large cairn. We decided to contour as much as possible before a steep ascent to the control. Again as we ascended the visibility really began to deteriorate to the point where we couldn't see much at all. I did have an altimeter on my watch so made use of that so we knew give or take that we were at the right height. Steve was again struggling up the hill and to be honest we both lost our concentration a bit and weren't sure how far long we had gone. With little visibility we had no idea where we were in relation to the control. We wondered about for a few minutes before having a lengthy debate as to what we should do. Just a moment later the mist lifted just enough for me to see the control 100 metres away on the other side of a re-entrant. In the end we lost about 5 minutes - god knows how much longer we would have taken otherwise.

Following AF I was now extremely cold with the wind very strong, so had to got my gloves out and was starting to shiver and swear like a trooper in the process as my hands were too numb to get them on. In the end I just said to Steve that I had to get moving and didn't care where. As a result (and I say this with hindsight) we didn't plan our route to BT properly. We descended off the mountain before contouring around around and having to redo an ascent a bit further on. Steve's legs had really gone by this point and I could see that he was struggling to move at all and he had to continually stop. If I am honest I was getting a bit annoyed as I was still feeling really good - but its one of those things and has happened to me in the past too. I think that part of the reason why I was feeling so good was that I had a large breakfast. Normally I will only have a light breakfast for road races, but as the OMM is more of an ultra a larger breakfast seems to be the way to go. Not far from the control the murk set in again so I ran off ahead to try and find the flag before running back to Steve so we could visit it together. This was probably our worst route of the weekend as we should have stayed high all the way round from the previous control - we were about 20 minutes slower than other teams in a similar position to us who had done the same leg. Some of this was because of Steve's legs, but I think the majority was down to poor route choice on our behalf.

As we descended we now had just under an hour before we had to be back at camp. As Steve's legs were clearly an issue I felt it best to play safe and head for camp but he felt that we should try and get CT. In the end I let him decide as he knew best as to whether he would be able to do it, plus we had a cutoff time that if we couldn't find it with less than 30 minutes to go we would head for home. I took a bearing and contoured slightly to miss some of the unnecessary ascent. I was slightly worried about this control because in the poor visibility it would be easy to hit the wrong stream, but in the end we saw people ascending away from it which was a giveaway. At this point we had 34 minutes remaining and began to head for camp. We stumbled across some really good tracks and made good progress as we descended down the mountain. In the end we finished with 13 minutes spare and I have to say that what was a good start was tinged with a small amount of disappointment towards the end. Like I say I cant blame Steve for it as I've been there and done it myself - when you have nothing left in the tank there is little that can be done about it. Also as we finished we both realised that we could have almost certainly done control DV in the time we had spare so were 20 points down on what we could have realistically expected to achieve. At the same time we also knew that its virtually impossible to have a perfect run in an event such as this.

We felt that our run was good enough for the top 100, and I thought we were likely to be around 70-80th. I was very surprised to read the results that night which showed we were 44th out of around 250 teams. Had we got that extra 20 points it would have placed us 22nd. I thought the course was actually very well planned, more so considering the number of out of bounds areas. I think this is highlighted by the number of routes similar placed teams took.


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