Highlander Mountain Marathon 2015

26th Apr 2015

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Above: A sequence of photos showing Jim Mann and I approaching and punching the final control at the end of Day 1.
© Phil Hindell

 

Squalls of wintery weather had been blasting through all day and there were a few inches of fresh snow on the higher ground. It was winter in the Scottish Highlands; this was the Highlander Mountain Marathon. 

 

Conditions between control 5 and 6 had been really challenging. The weather was making it nearly impossible, with a strong headwind driving spindrift into our faces. The ground was terrible; two kilometres of unmapped scree along the exposed and rounded summit plateau of Beinn-Udhe. With the reduced visibility in the squalls, and the rounded nature of the hillside, navigation was difficult and required constant attention. The fresh snow was making conditions underfoot difficult and slippery. Everything seemed to be against us. We had opted for the higher route between the two controls, but with the onset of another period of grim weather we were starting to regret it. It was a difficult leg to execute navigationally; we were dropping off the vague plateau and needed to precisely land on a stream source in the valley below. I had been concentrating hard, and felt confident as we descended out of the cloud.

 

Day 1 had already been unexpectedly hard for me, and consequently frustrating for my partner Jim Mann. We had last raced together at the Highlander in 2013, winning easily. However, I’d had to sit out the 2014 event (actually most of 2014) due to a herniated disc in my back and an atypical slow rehabilitation. A move to Kendal in 2014, with the Lake District on my doorstep, and a gradual return to pain free running had been rejuvenating. By April 2015, I was running well again and knew by comparing my training diary from years past that I was approaching full race fitness. Jim, as ever, is a machine of endless endurance and determination and we both arrived at this year’s Highlander raring to go and feeling confident.

 

However, it didn’t go to plan. Thirty minutes into the first day I was doubled over with stomach cramp. A number of toilet stops gave me some relief, but I was left feeling unwell, nauseated and unable to eat. Two hours in and I was feeling very rough and I knew I was holding Jim back as he pushed the pace from the front and I gave navigational instructions from behind.

 

The weather up high was obviously terrible, so we had opted for the long, low-level route round to control 3 that was mostly on a track. In the lead was Jim, doing just enough that I couldn’t catch him and run together, but not enough to drop me. Perfect. We know each so well and he knew I’d want to be pushed regardless of the illness.

 

We had both been looking forward to racing Aaron Prince and Björn Rydvall, who we thought would provide the greatest competition. They had won the OMM together in 2012 and were a class act. However, Björn had been unable to race and Par Boquist had replaced him at the last minute. We wondered how they were getting on in the poor weather.

 

Dropping out of the cloud, we could see the stream below. “That’s our stream Jim,” I stated confidently as we approached control 6. However, as we got closer there was no kite visible. We stopped on the stream source, right in the centre of the circle. It had to be here, but a quick search revealed nothing. We glanced at the map and looked around. There were some other streams a few hundred metres up and down the valley – in opposite directions – from this location. They weren’t shown on the 1:50,000 map, but were clearly visible on the ground. Jim and I conferred: “It’s not impossible that I’ve f**ked up the last leg in this weather, so either of those streams could be ours”. Even as I said it, I didn’t believe it but we had little choice. The control wasn’t here.

 

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Above: A sequence of photos showing Jim Mann and I approaching and punching the final control at the end of Day 1.
© Phil Hindell

 

We wasted 10 minutes running to and from the closest two streams in different directions. We ended up heading back to the original stream, now 100% certain that it was the stream marked on the map. We searched again, more carefully, looking behind boulders, under bushes, on adjacent features and sure enough, this time we found the kite. Literally squeezed between two boulders and pinned to the ground with a leafy branch that had clearly been broken off an adjacent bush i.e. completely hidden! 

 

We pushed on, feeling frustrated that we’d lost so much time. Refocus. Jim and I had to put this incident behind us. It was only 12 minutes and now we had to get back into a positive frame of mind and concentrate on what lay ahead, rather than what lay behind us. 

 

Control 7 next. I still felt ill and hadn’t managed to eat more than a few Shot Bloks all day. I had identified that this leg looked tricky, traversing an undulating hillside. We planned to use a small tarn 400m before the control as our attackpoint. Still angry about the wasted time at 6, we pushed too hard across the hillside and suddenly I felt nervous. “Jim”, I shouted, “we should be able to see the tarn by now”. We’d gone the right distance. I knew this. It was almost 4 minutes since crossing the stream, we were moving at roughly 8 km/hr therefore we’d gone approximately 500m, and the contour shapes around me confirmed this… precisely.

 

The choice was to potentially waste time trying to find the tarn but have a good attackpoint. Or we could continue to the control, without the assurance of the attackpoint, and then risk missing the control. It was an important call. I shouted Jim again, this time to stop running. I need to think for just a second. I moved my Silva Spectra thumb compass across the map that was already orientated in my left-hand. Retracing our steps mentally from 6, I simultaneously visualised them on the map until arriving at our current location. We had to be slightly higher than the tarn, perhaps just one contour. “Jim, we are just going to drop a little”. We descended 20m at 90 degrees to our racing line. Bingo! There was the tarn, hidden by a fold in the hillside from were we had been standing. Only 30 seconds lost and it was almost certainly worth the investment. Attackpoint confirmed. We nailed the control without a further second wasted. 

 

From checkpoint 7 there was a classic ‘round on the path’ or ‘straight over rough ground’ choice to 8. The path option is always going to be tempting, especially towards the end of the race when you are feeling tired. Approaching 7, I had counted the contours, estimated the difference distance between the two route choices and asked Jim what he thought.

 

“Path!” he shouted. 

 

The path is so tempting, I thought. The direct route is shorter…but it will be more difficult to navigate, with micro navigation required to weave through some steep ground to make the most of the direct line, and it’ll be rough, much rougher than the path…but it is shorter…decisions, decisions. 

 

We punched at 7. “Well?” Jim asked. 

 

What could I say? “Straight is great!” and without giving Jim time to protest accelerated away.  We were only 3km out from the finish and we needed to make them count. We had the fastest split. Good decision. 

 

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Above: A sequence of photos showing Jim Mann and I approaching and punching the final control at the end of Day 1.
© Phil Hindell

 

Jim and I were 2nd at the end of Day 1, and 8 minutes 38 seconds down on Aaron and Par. We couldn’t hide how disappointed we were, as we knew we’d had a poor day by our standards. Due in part to the time lost searching for control 6, but also because of my illness that had clearly taken the edge off our performance. In the end, I had only managed to eat one packet of Shot Bloks during the entire day of racing. Hardly an optimal nutrition strategy! 

 

It was a cold and wintery night with frost on the tents in the morning, and more snow evident on the mountaintops surrounding the overnight camp at Inchnadamph. Jim and I had barely been warm enough to sleep, with our minimal clothing and equipment, and had to resort to sleeping with our feet in each other’s armpits, but hey, what are mates for?!

 

I glanced at the map as we splashed knee deep through the river seconds after starting Day 2. Bollocks! No linear course today and we had the choice of 14 controls in any order. Basically score format. 

 

“Stop!” I shouted to Jim on the far riverbank. The map had ALL the control circles from ALL the courses marked on it, which was confusing at best. It was clearly the critical first step to mark just our controls correctly before we could even consider macro level route choice. I needed to ensure we did this accurately and reluctantly called a stop to our usual explosion from the start. As we checked the map, Aaron and Par watched patiently from the opposite side of the river. Time ticked away.

 

It seemed to take an age to mark the map. We double-checked as we walked up the hill into the first control but there was discrepancy. More controls on the control description than I’d marked on the map. BOLLOCKS. I’d missed one. Diligently we triple-checked whilst trying to walk steeply up hill away from the overnight camp. Jim was reading the controls off and I was checking the map. Got it! OK, we were finally confident we had the map marked correctly. 

 

Our faffing at the start and distracted progress on the hill as we consulted map, control descriptions, map, control descriptions, meant that we took a poor line to the first control. 

 

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Above: A sequence of photos showing Jim Mann and I approaching and punching the final control at the end of Day 1.
© Phil Hindell

 

Aaron and Par had watched us out of the start, marked the map more efficiently and chased us down as we faffed, and then cut the corner on our poor route choice into the first control, so we arrived at the same time. The result? Our 8-minute start on them was gone, and now they had a lead of 16 minutes (the original 8 minutes from day 1, and then having caught another 8 minutes on us already). We had a massive job on our hands if we wanted to win, but we were still going to try. 

 

Jim and I pushed hard, punching controls 2 and 3 just ahead of Aaron and Par who had evidently decided on the same route at this point. We started to pull away climbing out of control 3 and were really making a big effort to make a clean break, but then I made a navigational mistake. We arrived at a tarn in the snow swept landscape at the foot of Suilvan. Control 4 was at a tarn, but I had not been concentrating on the map sufficiently as we focused on speed to attempt our breakaway. I knew my estimation of distance was off, and I had the nagging feeling of uncertainly in the gather blizzard conditions. I thought our tarn would be the next one…and besides I couldn’t see a kite here. We traversed around the right (north) side of the tarn, eyes peeled, knowing we were close…but because so many other tarns surrounded us, the risk of an error was high.

 

“Keep going Jim”, I said, “I think it’s the next one.” We ploughed on for another 100m in the increasingly poor weather to the next tarn. No control. I knew to continue would take us too far. I checked the control description. Tarn, South Side. Shit! I instantly realised what we’d done. We had run right past the control on the wrong side of the tarn. Schoolboy error. Angrily we reversed course and arrived back at 4 in time to see Aaron and Par punching. Our hard won break wasted.

 

We chased down Aaron and Par but then took radically different choices all the way to 7. We had weighed up the options and thought there wasn’t much in it, so we should take whichever route Aaron and Par didn’t take, and then make every effort to make a decisive break. Jim pushed out front, setting a punishing pace through the rough ground. I shouted subtle direction changes from behind and concentrated on keeping up, and navigating whilst not falling over in the snow plastered heather.

 

It seems like a good strategy having one person concentrating on going as fast and the other person focused on the navigation. It is certainly a tactic that both Jim and I have also adopted with Duncan Archer, who we both race with regularly.

 

We absolutely busted it to control 7, only to arrive within seconds of Aaron and Par. 

 

Heading northwest from 7, both teams were back together but Aaron and Par still had an actual lead of around 16 minutes over us. The weather was getting worse and there were now full winter blizzard conditions on the high ground. Our minimal mountain marathon clothing simply wasn’t adequate for these conditions and, despite running hard and generating plenty of heat, my hands and feet were numb and I was struggling to use map and compass effectively.

 

Now it was my turn. I moved to the front of the group, Jim slotted in behind, and I flattened the accelerator. We needed to break them soon and start eating into their time advantage. We couldn’t wait any longer as they were clearly running well enough that we were not going to gain 16 minutes in the later stages of the race unless something very unexpected happened. We needed that break now. I pushed as hard as I dared at the front and slowly we began to pull away again. First 50m, then 100m, 150m, 200m. This was looking promising but with my focus on running hard, I’d drifted a little off the optimum line into 9 and when I corrected myself 500m out from the control, Aaron and Par watched from behind, corrected earlier, and cut our lead in half. 

 

We were back together for the long climb up Suilven for control 10. The weather was appalling now. Blizzard conditions…and with every step upward the temperature seemed to drop a degree, with the wind buffeting and pushing us around. Jim had to stop to put everything on. He was cold. I was cold. Aaron and Par pulled a little further away as Jim added extra layers. I did not want to faff with my extra clothing as well, despite almost non-functional hands. Descending off Suilven we took opposite route choices again, Jim and I going round to the south and Aaron and Par going round to the north. As we arrived at the next control, they were leaving it. This is close! 

 

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Above: A sequence of photos showing Jim Mann and I approaching and punching the final control at the end of Day 1.
© Phil Hindell

 

We were now two thirds of the way into the race. Aaron and Par still had that 16 minute lead over us and we’d tried everything to break away from them: wildly different route choices, recklessly fast legs, but we’d messed up marking the map and messed up controls 1 and 4 early on and therefore lost those early opportunities to run ahead and alone. I was freezing now and knew I had to do something or risk becoming hypothermic. I stopped and put on all my clothes. Aaron and Par started pulling away.

 

I’m not sure who said it first, but we commented that if we hadn’t lost that time on control 6 on the first day, we would probably have won the first day, and started last, just a minute or two behind Aaron and Par. Our roles would have been reversed with all the pressure on them to break away from us. Fair or not, we felt a little cheated despite knowing that these chance factors often influence the overall result at any sporting event.

 

We knuckled down to chase after them again but enthusiasm was fading, especially for me. I was feeling the effects of running an entire mountain marathon course on one packet of Shot Bloks the previous day. I was really tired and cold now.

 

I slowed down first. I think Jim realised, just as I had, that we were not going to claw back that much time on them with such little distance left. We knew we were comfortably ahead of Sam Hesling and Iain Whiteside in third place. All of a sudden we were coasting, and thinking about our next race, saving our legs for that.

 

We finished 2nd having lost more time to Aaron and Par in the final stages. It was an impressive win and full credit to them for doing everything right. That’s often what makes the difference at a mountain marathon.