Marathon. If you tell anyone you’re doing they’ll be impressed; 26 miles of road pounding is no mean feat for any runner and completion of a marathon in any time is impressive. Now take that marathon off road, into the hills and add some British mountain weather and you’ve got an altogether different prospect. On top of that, the course isn’t marked out for you, you get given a map after you’ve started and you’ve got to find your own way; this is a Mountain Marathon (MM).
Here’s how they work; A Mountain Marathon will be set in a specific hill/mountain area normally with some ‘in bounds’ and ‘out of bounds’ areas. Over this area will be a series of checkpoints known in the orienteering and MM world as Controls. You will be given a time limit from between a few hours to a few days to visit as many controls as you can and get back in time. Getting back late will incur a points penalty. As for points, each control will have a different score attached to it, you can assume the harder to reach ones have a higher score and are more worth the (often huge) effort to get to. If your a planner you’ll be disappointed, you won’t be given a map marked with the controls until after you start and the clock is running. You’ll have to make an assessment of where you will go on the hoof and hope you made the right choice as the event wears on. This is where the label of ‘Marathon’ is a little misleading; it’s true you may be running marathon distances or more, I competed in the Kong Mountain Marathon last Sunday and the winning few competitors will have covered around 40, boggy, snow covered gruelling miles, but the points-score nature of these events means you can just do what you are capable of, try and score well and get back in time so you might cover five, ten, fifteen miles or whatever you can. So in fact, Mountain Marathons are open to all abilities and you need not be a super-human fell racer to get a lot of satisfaction from these events.
Tactics and navigation skills are extremely important for these events. What I really like about an MM is the fact that the playing field is levelled a little by not being just about fitness. You may not be the fittest in the field, but if you can navigate you may have an edge on a fitter competitor who can map read so well, or follow a compass bearing as well as you. If you can navigate well, you’ll know that in the hills its a good tactic to keep any height you’ve gained and try not to loose it unless you need to. However, the devious organisers of these events know this, and will position the controls up hill and down dale to force you to loose much of the hard won height you’ve gained! Height gain is all important and when you are faced with making your hasty plan at the start while the clock is running you can easily underestimate the difficulty of your chosen route and get very unstuck.
For me, a keen mountaineer, I see mountain marathons as a stripped back mountain skills test. Since you are running you’ll be carrying minimal gear, basic kit, and you won’t have the luxury of time to think too deeply about your navigation decisions. It’s a case of glancing at the map, making quick (sometimes instinct based) decisions and then sticking to them with confidence for better or worse. It’s a true test of independence in the hills.
On Sunday I took part in the Kong Mini Mountain Marathon in the Peak District’s Kinder Scout area. The weather was seriously wintery; deep snow, strong winds, thick fog and bog. Going was half the speed of normal and very tough. I entered a as a solo and due to this evening not being one of the biggest I was indeed ‘solo’ for most of the race, rarely seeing a soul. Tramping through snowdrifts in whiteout conditions, unable to distinguish between the where the ground finished and the sky began. Wearing fell running trainers in the deep snow turned my feet into numb blocks of ice prompting brief thoughts of ‘why am I here,’ always a sign of true adventure! There’s nothing like finishing an event like that, going home to a warm house feeling like today was one of those days that I won’t forget.
You shouldn’t be put off from entering a Mountain Marathon because of the intimidating name tag ‘Marathon.’ You run these events at your own pace, your own level of challenge. They are great events that will sharpen your hill/mountain skills and boost your confidence like no other event can.
Above all, mountain marathon’s are a great way to have a mini adventure. If you’d like more inspiration for mini adventures of your own, a great place to look is 101adventures.com