Original Mountain Marathon (Tweedsmiur Hills) 2015
It’s the beginning of September and my wife, Heather, and I have just returned from a wonderful four days running the Tour du Mont Blanc with Duncan Archer, my regular OMM partner. We stayed in high mountain huts, lucked out with perfect weather and drank cold beers at the end of each day. Whilst Heather had gone at her own speed, Duncan and I had run well together, shifting quick enough to laze in cafés and refugios along the way. We had a great time and talked about entering the OMM the following month. We had won in 2011, finished 2nd in 2012, but then I’d been injured and missed the 2013 and 2014 races with a knackered back, which had required surgery to fix. 2015 would our first chance to race together again, and when Duncan’s email arrived a few days after returning to Kendal, I couldn’t resist.
Tour du Mont Blanc. We both have an almost unlimited choice of running clothing but we both managed to choose matching red t-shirts and black bottoms!
I had had no intention of entering the OMM. I’d done almost no racing during the year and I was exhausted from organising eight of my own events. However, I threw myself into an intensive three week Blitzkrieg training regime, once I had finished organising the Rab Mountain Marathon. It was exhausting. I had simply swapped the stress of working hard for the stress of training hard without missing a beat.
Tapering from the intensive period of training in the week before the OMM, I reflected on the sudden death of my friend Ben Winston a few weeks previously. I was feeling melancholy and unmotivated to be honest. I realised that I was in fact, not all psyched for the OMM. Actually, I was dreading it and I found myself wishing for unexpected illness in the week before the event.
Poor Duncan. He listened patiently as tried to explain my complete lack of motivation in our tent on the Friday evening. It rained hard all night just to help, but I promised him I would give it 100% the next day.
We jogged up to the start the following morning in heavy rain with a poor forecast for most of the day ahead. We arrived to a queue of people all waiting for the race maps to arrive. We chatted with friends before making a shameless push to the front of the queue to start first. I feel a little guilty about this, but with the poor weather conditions we didn’t want any of the other fast teams, who were in the same start block as us, to latch on. We knew some had a straight forward plan to do just this… they had just told us so in the queue!
We pushed hard up the forestry track from the start, turned left and spiked the first control. The previous evening we had agreed to run as hard as we could from the start, treating the day as though it was a long fell race. We’d worry about the second day tomorrow!
There was an obvious low route choice to checkpoint 2 or a slightly shorter, but more exposed higher route. With the heavy rain and long weekend ahead we opted for the more sheltered route but paid the price with Kim and Adam catching us at checkpoint 3 having taken the more direct route.
We pressed on to checkpoint 4 but had two difficult and dangerous river crossings as the heavy rain swelled the mountain rivers to bursting point. At the first river we came too, I had jumped across immediately, without sufficient thought to the consequence of not making the long jump across the foaming torrent. I only just made it; both feet hitting the water, but my knees hitting the bank and my body weight carrying me forward into the sodden ground. Duncan followed, but with a more considered run-up and graceful landing. The second river was too big to jump. We didn’t want to waste time searching for the shallowest/safest section, so again, I just stepped waist deep into the surging water with Duncan in tow. We grasped the underarm straps of each other’s sacks and edged forward cautiously, the current becoming stronger with each step. The far bank was almost in reach but we were definitely in trouble. I lunged for it, grabbing the bank with one hand but unable to pull myself out whilst also holding on to Duncan. Naturally Duncan climbed over me. Then he helped me out. Great teamwork… “Right let’s get running before our balls freeze”!
Checkpoint 11 on Day One
On route to checkpoint 4, we could see Adam and Kim a few hundred metres ahead and Jim and Nic closing in on us from behind. Oh well. We were disappointed to have been caught by them so early in the day, but were unsure how much time they had pulled back on us because of the flexible start times.
After Jim and Nic caught us, we ran together until we took diverging route choices to checkpoint 6. We were slowing down now, and Duncan was in a low that wasn’t responding quickly to extra food. We had both been very cold earlier that morning and that was not helping now, as we had still not fully recovered despite the rain having mostly stopped. My feet were still numb even though I’d been running for 4 hours!
We arrived at checkpoint 6 to see Jim and Nic leaving it less than 60 seconds in front of us. We felt strangely satisfied, as our route must have been better, because they were evidently moving quicker than us.
“Right! Come on. We are going to catch them, and then stick with them”, I announced to Duncan with a burst of enthusiasm. I chased after them, Duncan followed, and as we descended to Megget Reservoir dam we caught them. However, now I made a mistake, passing through the wrong gate 100m too soon. We reversed out but wasted 30 seconds. Jim and Nic, realising the same mistake faster, wasted less time. They put the boot in to break away from us again. I wanted to respond, but Duncan needed some less intense running and so we slowed down relative to them. We watched Jim and Nic gradually pull away as they trudged through the heather toward checkpoint 7, then checkpoint 8 and then checkpoint 9… and then we couldn’t see them any more. It wasn’t a good day for Duncan and the last five controls were a battle of determination. It’s like that sometimes, and it could have just as easily been me that was having a bad day.
It took us a few hours to warm back up at the overnight camp and we lounged in our tent, sharing a spoon to eat warm noodles and soup, and enjoying the relative luxury. At the end of Day 1 the results were:
1st 6:54:12 Kim Collison & Adam Perry
2nd 7:01:28 Nic Barber & Jim Mann
3rd 7:17:48 Andy Fallas & Iain Whiteside
4th 7:27:47 Duncan Archer & Shane Ohly
5th 7:58:23 Oleg Chepelin & Sam Hesling
Not a disaster, but we were well off the leading pace, which was disappointing for us. We weren’t surprised that Kim and Adam were in the lead; they were the pre-race favourites after all. Jim and Nic had clearly had a great run and we knew they’d be gunning for the win the following morning. Andy and Iain, competing in the their first OMM [I think], had also had a storming first day. We felt safe from Oleg and Sam, who were half and hour behind us in 5th.
The run-in to the finish at the end of Day One
That night we lay close together in the tent to get a little extra heat from each other’s legs as the tent flapped in the wind, and the occasional heavy shower blasted through. It was impossible to get comfortable and stay warm in our ridiculously light sleeping bags and bubble wrap beds, but we managed to doze through the extra long night until our 0500 alarm.
The day 2 chasing start was not a chasing start. This was the most disappointing aspect of the weekend for us, which saw the teams start approximately 2/3rds of the time behind the team in front… bizarre! This meant that even if we caught, and overtook all the teams in front of us, and crossed the line first, we could still finish 4th! Anyhow, we jogged up to the start feeling confident and determined to close the gap on the teams in front. We were day two specialists after all, nearly always having the fastest second day of all the teams, and as a result improving our overnight position.
We arrived early enough to watch Andy and Iain start and carefully watched them across the far hillside. However, the second we got the map we realised they had made a serious error… in fact we were so surprised that we hesitated ourselves at the start, to double check we were going off in the correct direction. We were, and by the time Andy and Iain had realised their mistake it had allowed us to close the gap and catch them at checkpoint 1.
We ran together towards checkpoint 2. Duncan out front acing the micro navigation and route choice; myself two steps behind; Andy and Iain always within 50m. Without even discussing it, Duncan and I lit the burners as we approached checkpoint 2 and started to pull away. However, all we achieved for a lot of effort was to extend the gap between us without making a clean break. Andy and Iain were still within 100m.
Coming over Black Cleuch Hill we caught site of another team. “Shit! That was Jim and Nic!” They had stared 20 minutes before us but had made a nav error. Suddenly there was a flash of excitement; we have caught the 3rd and 2nd place teams already. Anything can happen now. Duncan and I continued to press the pace at the front, trying to drop Andy and Iain but now they had Jim and Nic to work with and the two teams closed us down until we all came together for the steep climb out of Back Burn, on route to checkpoint 4.
Heading into the finish at the end of the second day.
Duncan and I were out front leading the group of three teams. As the group approached each checkpoint, it was easier for the other teams to capitalise on any errors we made, by following behind us and cutting the corner of any suboptimal routes. However, Duncan nails route choices and spike controls 99 times out of 100; we didn’t feel under pressure, and were enjoying the banter within the group.
We were still pushing from the front until just before checkpoint 6, when Jim and Nic made a move, with Jim moving to the front and the pace shifting up a gear. Everyone needed to up their game instantly. Jim and Nic were clearly on a mission and had decided now was the time to break up the group. All three teams were moving fast: Jim and Nic now in the lead, Duncan and I following and Andy and Iain behind us.
Climbing up to Wolf Rigg soon after checkpoint 6, we suddenly caught sight of Kim and Adam just ahead on the forest ride. Nic shouted some friendly abuse. Game on! I thought to myself, “Had we been moving that fast, or had they been moving slowly?” Jim pressed hard to chase them down and within minutes the group had grown to 4 teams. The express train was shifting and it was a non-stop service direct to the finish.
Jim was out front, breaking trail through the rough heather that lay ahead. He was setting a remorseless pace considering the terrain. Nic was just behind, head down and focused on the navigation, whilst shouting commands to Jim to keep him heading in the right direction. Stuck to Nic like glue was Kim. It was obvious when I was running next to him that he was breathing hard and he joked about his Lakes in a Day win perhaps not being the ideal preparation… “No shit Kim”. Adam was sitting further back, and letting the group drift away slowly on the flatter sections but confidently closing the gap on the climbs; he seemed in control, and the back is often the best place to respond in a group like this… if you have the legs for it! Iain and Andy where further back; they seemed to be making a big effort to rejoin the group, but each time they did, quickly drifted off the back again. Duncan was holding on to Adam. He was clearly in a big dip now but like me, recognised if we wanted any chance of finishing 3rd, we needed to hold onto Jim/Nic and Kim/Adam for as long as possible to make a clean break from Andy and Iain behind.
I was now utilising every bit of experience I had to speed up (when Iain and Andy looked vulnerable) and slow down the group (when Duncan seemed to be dropping further behind) to our advantage.
I wasn’t the only one playing games though; Adam dropped a Tunnocks bar, which Nic quickly picked up and, rather than handing it back, just ate it himself! It was both friendly and serious simultaneously. What had developed was the most exciting and complex tactical battle I’ve had the pleasure of being part of at a mountain marathon.
Passing through a little valley midway between checkpoint 7 and checkpoint 8, Iain and Andy stopped for what looked like a water refill. Jim attacked straight away, pushing harder up the hill out of the valley. Andy and Iain dropped out of sight. I glanced back, expecting to see them closing the gap again. They didn’t. They were gone. Unceremoniously ejected from the express train.
There was no let up at the front, Jim pressed the advantage the second the ground began to level off. Our thigh burning upward power walk became a thigh killing run through the heather. There was no mercy shown because Jim and Nic needed to finish 2 minutes clear of Adam and Kim to win. This put all the pressure on them, as they needed a clean break. Meanwhile Adam and Kim only needed to hold on. Tactically they just had to follow Jim and Nic into the finish and still they would win.
Everyone knew this. Hence why Jim was constantly putting the pressure on at the front. He was trying to break them with a remorseless attacking strategy. However, the danger was Jim would actual break Nic, before Kim or Adam. Duncan and I didn’t really count, as something would need to go spectacularly wrong for us to beat either of them at this stage. We all knew someone would break first but who would it be?
With Andy and Iain now long gone we felt fairly confident that we were now in 3rd place overall but we didn’t feel secure, with nearly 10km of tough running to come. It was also clear that Duncan was having a second bad day and was working the hardest within the group. Remember, you need to be really, really good on a good day, to be able to keep up with this lot on a bad day!
The long climb up Cramalt Craig just before checkpoint 9 finally dropped Duncan and I. Duncan was drifting further off the back and my strategy of moving from Duncan to Jim and Jim to Duncan became impossible to maintain. I accepted the inevitable and stopped for Duncan to catch up and the others broke away. I was sad to see them go because I still had the possibility in my mind that either of these teams might blow up, or make a catastrophic navigational error, and that Duncan and I could pounce on that. I was also relieved though, as now we would be on our own into the finish, and we could go at our own pace. I took Duncan’s bag, agreeing that I’d pass it back once he was moving faster than me.
Coming over the shoulder of Broad Law we could see Jim/Nic and Adam/Kim 300m in front. Jim was still leading the group but he was off the optimum line as he powered up the hill. From our vantage point we could see it all play out. This was the first significant error from Jim and Nic [by significant, I mean they had drifted perhaps 100m off the optimum line], and this time Kim and Adam responded with an increase in pace, cutting the corner as Jim and Nic corrected themselves [because Kim and Adam came from behind, this attack wasn’t immediately obvious]. Suddenly with an increase in speed and corner cut, they had made a break and we could see them “go, go, go” as they pulled away. Kim and Adam had been carefully biding their time for this opportunity, patiently knowing that they could sit on Jim and Nic, let them do the hard work at the front, and wait for their opportunity. It was the right strategy and impressive to watch it play out.
The two teams pulled away from Duncan and I and by the time we’d punched at checkpoint 11 Jim and Nic were disappearing out of sight. We ground out the final kilometres having lost the incentive to run as hard as we could, but confident we were safe in 3rd.
The results for day 2 were:
1st 6:32:19 Duncan Archer & Shane Ohly
2nd 6:37:39 Kim Collison & Adam Perry
3rd 6:39:16 Nic Barber & Jim Mann
4th 7:23:59 Andy Fallas & Iain Whiteside
The Team Works! Duncan and I at the finish. Sore but satisfied!
You certainly get what you put into an event. Despite my lack of motivation pre-event, I was determined to race as hard as I could once I started, and couldn’t help but enjoy myself more and more as the race unfolded. My very genuine and grassroots love of mountain marathon racing sucked me in, despite of myself, and I have come away from the weekend sore but satisfied.
I’m pleased with our result. We did the best we could on that weekend, and it is not possible to ask more of each other than that. The overall results were:
1st 13:31:51 Kim Collison & Adam Perry
2nd 13:40:44 Nic Barber and Jim Mann
3rd 14:00:06 Duncan Archer and Shane Ohly
4th 14:41:47 Andy Fallas & Iain Whiteside
Congratulations to Mike Stewart for his great course and well done to the OMM team and volunteers. We hope to be back in 2016.