Breadalbane Original Mountain Marathon
It wasn’t the most auspicious start. Dark rain clouds obscured the mountains as the dullness of the autumnal morning struggled to lift. Light, but incessant rain and the knowledge of what lay ahead flattened even my usually easy demeanor.
It’s the OMM though – Britain’s oldest and most prestigious mountain marathon, and it is held on the last weekend of October just to ensure that the autumnal weather adds an extra layer of difficulty - should I have expected anything different?
Last year, Duncan Archer and I had raced together at the Dartmoor OMM finishing fifth. It was a great result for us but even then we felt we could improve. Building on that experience, during 2011 Duncan had won the LAMM and come second at the BAMM, while I had come second in the SLMM Klets and finally put the Chronic Fatigue that had wiped out 2009 and most of 2010 behind me. This year we headed to the OMM as a more experienced and fitter team and whilst we recognised that we were an outside bet for the win, we did realise that we had a chance and both of us were psyched to give it everything.
Above: Duncan (red jacket) and Shane (black jacket) passing Loch Boltacham soon after CP1 on Day One.
We were one of the last elite teams to start, with Oli Johnson and Rob Baker, followed by Steve Birkinshaw and Jethro Lennox, starting four and two minutes ahead of us respectively. We’d all shared the same bus to the start and Duncan and I had quietly discussed our tactics for the day, whilst we all sat in a little cluster on the back seats. Ideally, we’d try to catch them early, sticking with them and holding on to whatever pace they were setting. However, we knew that these four were probably the strongest runners in the elite line up and there was a real risk that we’d exhaust ourselves if we adopted this strategy. Of course there was also a risk that these four would exhaust each other in the inevitable head to head racing that would develop.
As it transpired, our only significant navigational error of the weekend, costing us two minutes, was at the first control. The others were long gone by the time we had punched, and in the undulating mountainous terrain, we wouldn’t see them again until the overnight camp.
Running our own race after all, we settling into a steady pace that felt hard but sustainable; it was never comfortable but it never felt like we risked bonking either. We just knuckled down to the hard grind that lay before us. For most of the day we hardly saw any other elite teams and just concentrated on consistently good micro-navigation, equally good macro route choices, staying warm and eating enough.
It was essentially an uneventful Day One for us. The only thing we discussed occasionally was whether to take off, or keep on our waterproof jackets. Each time we climbed or found some faster running, we’d start heating up, but on the slower sections and during the frequent heavy squalls of rain we’d want our sleeves down and hoods up. We opted to keep the waterproofs on and with hindsight that was a good decision.
As we raced on in isolation, unbeknown to us, a few kilometers ahead Oli and Rob and Steve and Jethro had been setting a blistering pace. They were racing in a pack with two other elite teams that they had hoovered up along the way: John Rocke and Doug Tullie, and Tom Owens and Alastair Anthony. However, I suspect that the poor weather combined with the fast pace resulted in the exhaustion experienced as the teams took on the brutal climb preceding CP7. First Steve started to struggle; Jethro carried his pack and fed him Jelly Babies, but despite this no one managed to pass them. Oli meanwhile was developing hypothermia and eventually needed to be led off the hill by his partner Rob. Alastair apparently fainted, recovered and just managed to make it to the finish, meanwhile John and Doug managed to struggle on but they all lost time.
Duncan and I looking pretty wet as we run down from CP9 on Day One with just two kilometers to go before the finish.
Once clear of CP7, Steve and Jethro finished in an impressive 5:39. However, the real drama was only just beginning as they were promptly disqualified for punching the incorrect control at CP10. Steve has written about this incident in detail on his Team inov-8 blog (http://team.inov-8.eu/2011/10/controversy-at-omm.html). After protesting they were reinstated with a 30-minute penalty.
Meanwhile, we were oblivious to this unfolding drama and finished Day One as we had started, in a little bubble of our own. After downloading our splits, we were delighted and surprised to discover that we were in third place just seconds behind John and Doug and six minutes behind Chris Near and Tim Higginbottom, who like us had run in relative isolation after starting forty minutes before us.
However, we couldn’t understand what had happened to Oli and Rob and Steve and Jethro. It was only after finishing on Day Two that we found Oli and Rob and heard their story but late that night I bumped into Jethro as we squelched around the muddy overnight camp. He explained that they had been reinstated and would now be starting just three minutes behind us. So, the Day One results looked like this:
1st Chris Near & Tim Higginbottom 6:01
2nd John Rocke & Doug Tullie 6:07
3rd Shane Ohly & Duncan Archer 6:07
4th Steve Birkinshaw & Jethro Lennox 6:09 (5:39 + 30 penalty)
5th Tom Owens & Alastair Anthony 6:17
Retired – Oli Johnson & Rob Baker
Certainly Day One had been really hard for everyone out on the hills. Across all the categories the wet and blustery weather had made the risk of hypothermia a real danger, whilst the low cloud had made navigation difficult and taxing. Difficult terrain is a given for an event like the OMM, with most of the running being done in tussocks, bog and deep heather. All in all, it was a classic mountain marathon day.
Initially, saturated, Duncan and I had changed into our dry clothes and settled in for a damp and uncomfortable night in the tent. We were in good spirits though and mused about how the following day might pan out. Once again, we were drawn by the possibility of joining with Steve and Jethro (we expected them to catch us) and running down Chris and Tim between us. We fancied that if we could hang on to them until the inevitable faster downhill finish, we might just be able to beat them in a sprint finish. Being just six minutes down on Tim and Chris meant that winning was a real possibility and we were genuinely excited about the prospect of getting out there and racing once again the following morning. Neither of us slept that well due to a combination of dampness, the noise of the weather, excessive caffeine intake and anticipation of the following day.
With the end of British Summer Time overnight, we were sentenced to an extra hour in our damp abode and our 04:45 alarm couldn’t come quickly enough. Once up, we started our routine of eating, drinking, packing and toilet queuing that always seems to take longer than expected, hence the very early alarm.
About an hour before the start I swallowed some Voltarol and Paracetamol to subdue the knee pain from a little niggle that had been plaguing me for a few weeks. Duncan took some Nurofen and we made a careful note that we’d need to top up around 10:00 to see us through to the end of the race.
It was still sufficiently dark as we headed off to the Day Two start that we needed our headtorches. We watched Tim and Chris set off at 07:00 just as the dawn gained sufficient strength to light up Glen Almond. Six minutes later we were off ourselves.
From the start we went off hard and quickly caught Doug and John moving us into second position overall. However, soon after CP1 Steve and Jethro caught us and although we ran together in loose formation to CP2, it was clear that they were gradually pulling away from us – we were therefore now in third place. We all caught a glimpse of Chris and Tim as they left CP2 as we approached it from the same direction; clearly we had already cut the six-minute deficit and Jethro was obviously relishing what was to come, “Race on boys!” he shouted to us all.
On the long track run to CP3 Steve and Jethro consolidated their lead over us, gradually pulling away, whilst I was finding the early morning pace really tough. Before long they were out of sight and based on the speed that they had pulled away, we assumed it was the last we would see of them.
As we'd done the day before, we settled into a steady and sustainable speed that always felt hard but never felt like we were in danger of blowing up. Duncan was superb, leading from the front and taking charge of the navigation. We continued to discuss route choice options and occasionally we would confer to agree our position, but it was clear that Duncan had everything under control.
Above: Shane - with Duncan in the background - approaching CP9 on Day Two and about to start down the forest tracks to the finish.
Despite thinking we had been dropped by Steve and Jethro and Tim and Chris, we heard the TV commentator saying to camera that we just four minutes behind as we punched at CP4... we started to get excited but didn't change our 'steady' approach just yet.
A great route choice into CP5 aided by contouring on the altimeter to avoid a single meter of unnecessary climb, allowed us to catch Steve and Jethro and Tim and Chris. We briefly ran together as a group of six and although there was some banter between us, it was abundantly clear that racing was now serious with less than 10km to the finish.
At first Duncan and I were just amazed to have caught the leading two teams. If you had asked me before the race if I would have settled for third, I probably would have taken that. However, now a really big win was within our grasp and there was a paradigm shift in our mentality. We were here to win and win we would.
After running together for five or ten minutes, it became obvious to us that the other two teams were finding life tough, the pace was marginally slower than we had been going previously and Duncan and I exchanged a glance and made a silent decision to up the speed. Tim and Chris were dropped immediately and Steve and Jethro started to fall behind and were about 80m down as we approached CP6.
Throughout the weekend, Duncan as the better navigator had been leading on all the navigation and route choice but I had also been contributing and we both stayed ‘in contact with the map’, so were able to discuss our nav options. I think this strategy worked really well and was in contrast to how some other teams approach the navigation. However, heading into CP6 I became convinced we were about to overshoot and shouted a warning to Duncan. I was wrong but it caused Steve to pause and check his map as well. Duncan quickly made a big decision that we still had another 100m to go and set off assertively but Steve seemed to hesitate just a little longer. Duncan was correct and it gave us the clean break we needed.
A little giddy with excitement we started to realise that we were leading the OMM…. Holy F***ing Shit!!! We were now 300+ metres ahead with simple navigation and then track running to the finish and glory! We started to get very excited but Duncan was also tiring now, whilst I kept pushing the pace hard. And then of course, we missed at CP7! We instantly realised we had contoured too low into CP7 and as I was carrying the SI card, I pounded up the hill in search of it. Fortunately, I guessed right and found the control after only a minute or two of raising panic.
At the control, a marshal’s dog started barking as I punched and, knowing that Steve and Jethro were only just behind us, I shouted at the marshal to shut up the dog before racing off. I feel a bit guilty about that now.
Above Left: Finished! Pleased and relived. Above Right: "Did we really just win the OMM?" All smiles now. Shane on the left, Duncan on the right.
Pushing ourselves really really hard, we raced through CP8 and on to CP9 at the start of the forest track. There was no sight of any chasing teams now and Duncan was bonking so we decided to walk... We joked about walking to the finish, it certainly wouldn’t be the most dramatic way to win the OMM.... or so we thought. With 200m to the finish line, Chris and Tim suddenly appeared from nowhere and were rapidly chasing us down. Duncan drew on his last reserves and we just beat them to the line to win by thirteen seconds!
WOW WOW WOW!!!
1st Shane Ohly and Duncan Archer 4:48 (10:56)
2nd Chris Near & Tim Higginbottom 4:55 (10:57)
3rd John Rocke & Doug Tullie 4:55 (11:02)
4th Steve Birkinshaw & Jethro Lennox 4:57 (11:06)
5th Tom Owens & Alastair Anthony 5:13 (11:30)
Above: New found celebratory status as we are interviewed for the BBC Scotland Adventure Show program.