Original Mountain Marathon (Glentrool) 2016
The low cloud is rolling and swirling between the knolls and re-entrants of the tussock strewn hills. Welcome to Galloway.
Seconds after the start on day 1
Visibility is down to 20 metres in the worst of the murk at the start of the day, and now as we traverse between checkpoints two and three we are catching the earlier starting teams on the elite course. It’s day one of the OMM, and my partner Duncan Archer shouts a rare warning that he’s lost contact with the map. I glance down at the map in my hand, thumb firmly held on our location, and hear a voice in my head, ‘Use the Force Luke’ before confirming to Duncan, “Don’t worry, I am on it”.
Naturally Duncan asks, “Luke, you have switched off your targeting computer. What’s wrong?” Now, if you are not a Star Wars fan you might need a translation; “Shane, you have put your compass away. What’s wrong?” Confidently I reply, “Don’t worry, I am using the Force”. Duncan looks anything but reassured or convinced, but I am moving with confidence through the landscape and he has little choice but to follow for now. Actually the complex terrain is helping me in the poor visibility, as I must fully concentrate to stay in contact, as we weave an efficient route glancing from one feature to the next.
One of my early orienteering inspirations was former GB Orienteer Oli Johnson, and he often joked about using the Force. I understood that to mean being in a state of ‘flow’ where everything is going right and feels instinctive, where each interaction with the landscape simply confirms the ongoing plan. It feels dreamlike, because you visualise the ground ahead of you, and then the shapes just appear in front of you, exactly as you anticipated. Checkpoint three nailed, Duncan is back in contact and our ruthless journey continues.
Just an hour and half earlier, we had been far less confident, as we probed into the morning mist looking for checkpoint one. On receiving the maps, we had both identified that this simple looking checkpoint was potentially troublesome, and it was clear from talking with other competitors that many minutes were lost here. We were feeling nervous knowing we had gone about the right distance on a bearing from the crossing point, but with every step just revealing more cloud, we worried we’d made an early mistake. However, this is where experience counts; we knew we’d come from the crossing point, we both had matching bearings, and we just needed to push onward, which we did. Seconds later, the crag appeared and we both sighed with relief.
We take a good line into checkpoint five and reverse our course out, heading back east. Surprise! We almost run straight into Nic Barber and Jim Mann in the clouds. We brush past each other grinning. Game on for both teams.
Duncan and I know they will be hunting us. We estimated we are 300 metres ahead right now, and we have the advantage of having started later than them, but neither team knows what time the other actually started, so that advantage could range theoretically from 1-30 minutes. We resolve not to make it easy for them to catch us, and push a little harder all the way through to checkpoint six. This approach works and it takes them over an hour to close the gap.
Duncan and I are mentally and physically preparing ourselves for the battle ahead. We discuss tactics and scenarios and fuel up with gels and water. We also have the advantage of knowing we only have to hang onto them, whereas they must break away, to reduce the time gap between us. We expect them to try and surge past us as soon as they arrive.
They finally catch us midway between checkpoints six and seven, but it is obvious no surging will happen. They are tired, and Duncan and I simply lock onto them to execute our plan. We sit back a little, letting Nic navigate. He is doing a first class job in the mist, especially with the added pressure of us sitting two seconds behind him.
We are in a train of four. The pace is yet to become ‘break the weakest’ but we all know that will happen. In the meantime, we are moving quickly despite the ridiculously tough ground that this area is infamous for. When someone falls (and we all fall often), nobody slows, it’s just up to the fallen to get back up, and re-join the group.
Checkpoint eight quickly passes and there is a long runnable ridge leading to checkpoint nine ahead of us. It has tracked from the passage of other competitors. Suddenly Nic changes gear and presses the accelerator to the floor. Potentially, it is a decisive more, but we are still locked together as a group of four as the first serious attempt to break us plays out. We punch nine with Jim and Nic gaining just two seconds on us. Checkpoint ten is on the summit staring back at us across the valley. The banter is still friendly, but with the finish approaching, the effort level of everyone is ratcheting up, and up, and up. We punch Checkpoint ten, Duncan and I having gained back those two seconds.
Checkpoint elven is the penultimate checkpoint and, as we approach, Duncan and I exchange a knowing glance. We have raced together so many times now, that words are not even spoken. Jim has finally started to flag a little. Jim is our buddy, and we know he has had pneumonia earlier in the year, which he has still not recovered from fully, but today is not the day for sympathy. Duncan takes the lead off Nic, and pushes us hard over the last few hundred metres before the checkpoint. We punch just 20 metres ahead of them, and immediately turn to the steep descent, which I have committed to memory as Duncan brought us into elven. I hit the front and the afterburners. We are determined to put some more time into them, because the last thing we want, is for them to be starting a few minutes behind us the following morning in the chasing start. The steep, technical descent suits us, and we put everything into a very hard finish, with the last 500m on the never-ending track feeling particularly tough.
The final track leading to the Overnight Camp and the day one finish
We are aching, bleeding and filthy, but relieved to have finished. We pause for Nic and Jim to arrive, whilst giving an interview to the waiting BBC crew. Time passes, and our sense of relief grows; every second they are still out on the course, gives us another second advantage the following day.
Duncan fetched water as I erected the tent; our usual routine. However, this year we’d gone crazy and brought sufficient bubble wrap to place two layers across the entire floor of the tent, and a little extra rectangle for under our hips and shoulders (it’s the bubble wrap that makes our bags look so big!). Coupled with the warmest temperatures I can recall at an OMM (or KIMM), we were toasty overnight. The evening was long, and we settled into a familiar pattern of eating, drinking soup, collecting water, walking around and catching up with friends. There were a few media interviews to do as well! It was hours before we bothered to check what our final advantage over Nic and Jim actually was… almost 19 minutes and far better than we had anticipated.
Claire Maxted (left) from Trail Running Magazine interviews Duncan (centre) and Shane (right) for an OMM film
© Trail Running Magazine/OMM
In between bouts of eating we discuss the likely checkpoint locations and route choices for day two. This is the main activity of the evening in fact (other than eating), and as the hours pass, and the checkpoint/route options are tested on one and other, we eventually end up predicting about 90% of the following day’s route, albeit we don’t know that yet.
What we do know is that Nic and Jim will be chasing us like scolded cats, and we both resolve that, whatever happens, we will not get to the finish on day two without having given it everything. Despite the big lead, we are taking nothing for granted, and even as I try to snooze through the night, I can already sense the looming presence of the chasing start.
Explaining some of the 'tricks of the trade' for a lightweight Overnight Camp for the OMM film
© Trail Running Magazine/OMM
We are ready early in the morning, and the wait for our 07:15 start drags. The pressure mounts, and when we finally start it is with a sense of purpose. The adrenaline is surging and we almost overshoot the first checkpoint. We then make a poor choice approaching checkpoint two, and we know the optimal route would have been a minute quicker. We can feel our lead slipping away already. We knuckle down on the climb up to checkpoint three, occasionally power walking, often trying to run in the tussock nightmare around us. We discuss the micro navigation and route choice as we approach the checkpoint, because we both feel nervous, and both want reassurance. Bingo. Checkpoint three just as we had visualised. We start to relax a little after a nervy start.
Now we are winding up the effort, and moving quickly. Dropping off the ridge towards checkpoint seven we make an error, and get drawn towards the camera man standing on a distinctive knoll, which we mistake for the top of the crag we are approaching. We realise late, and then overcorrect to the south. A drone is buzzing metres above our heads and we both feel distracted and suddenly nervous again. Then we spot the checkpoint, behind us back to the north. We have wasted at least a minute, probably two; our worst mistake of the entire weekend, and all caught on camera.
The final 500m leading to the day two finish
We charge out of checkpoint seven, traversing the hillside initially then dropping to the fence to handrail this into checkpoint eight. Neither of us say it, but we both imagine Nic and Jim nailing seven, and gaining a few more minutes on us. We feel the pressure, and keep pushing ourselves hard. There is absolutely no let-up in our pace or determination. Even the extra seconds to put an electrolyte tablet into a water bottle seem frivolous, and I simply chew one neat in an explosion of froth, before scooping a mouthful of water from a passing stream to wash it all down. Seconds add up, so seconds count.
The long leg from checkpoint eight to nine has plenty of route choice. We are executing our plan from the night before having guessed a close variation of this leg. However, we are filled with doubt, and imagine that the alternatives are suddenly quicker and that another five minutes has been chipped off our lead. If I glanced over my shoulder once, I must have glanced 1,000 times, and each time I expect to see the dark figures of our pursuers chasing us down.
Approaching checkpoint nine, we start to mingle with the other competitors as the courses converge towards the finish. We are running though, and many of these competitors have been reduced to walking and shuffling along after a weekend of toil. The tracked up paths don’t readily allow for passing. We shout warnings, “Passing on your left”, and most people manage to step aside, but the more tired ones just turn around and stare at us blankly, bewildered with their own fatigue. We try not to actually knock anyone over but we are shifting and the finish is like a tractor-beam drawing us in.
A kilometre before the finish we spot Claire Maxted filming for Trail Running magazine, and I shout, “Have Jim and Nic come by?” Claire replies, “No!” and I instinctively say, “Thank fuck for that”, without thinking about the video camera. For the first time I actually start to believe we are going to win.
© Richard Else/The Adventure Show
Speaking for myself, it was a proud moment putting on my Great Britain Orienteering top as we headed to the podium. Don’t get me wrong, I know I am not representing Great Britain as a classic orienteer; many are far better than me. However, I am proud because I have been on a journey that started with my first D course at the LAMM in 2002. Every year I made a little progress and moved up a class, until I attempted my first Elite course exactly ten years ago in 2006. It was at the KIMM, also in the Galloway Hills, so returning here a decade later to win felt special. In 2006 my partner Rich Parry and I failed to finish day one, and the step up to Elite seemed enormous. I was motivated though, and I wanted to win, so I went away and trained, and I started orienteering aged 30. Gradually my performance at mountain marathons improved, culminating in an OMM Elite win with Duncan in 2011. This process of improvement has been a journey, much like a mountain marathon, with some significant highs and lows along the way.
Duncan and I are not the fastest runners, we are not the best navigators (well, not me anyway), but we are consistent, ruthlessly efficient on the hill and with skill sets that are highly complementary to each other. Above everything else we are an excellent team.
I believe that winning a mountain marathon requires a partnership that is greater than the sum of its parts, and it is this mystery extra that Duncan and I have. You might call it determination, but I prefer to call it the Force.
Duncan Archer (left) and Shane Ohly (right)
© Richard Else/The Adventure Show
Equipment and Clothing
We get plenty of comments about our small and lightweight bags. At the OMM this year my bag weighed approximately 3.8kg, and I was carrying nearly 7,000 calories. The bag might be light but I am definitely not skimping on the fuel required to keep me going over the weekend.
First and foremost, we are prepared to suffer a little at the overnight camp, so we take minimal overnight equipment and as a result, I’ve shivered through many nights spooning my partner's legs! I feel this trade-off is worth it for the lighter bag, but I understand if you don’t. Also, because we are moving quickly and can be confident that we can maintain that high tempo of activity, we can wear minimal kit on the hill, and carry only the mandatory spare clothing. This is a high risk strategy though, because if your fitness or fuel supply falters, you quickly get cold and exhaustion hypothermia is a genuine risk even in relatively mild conditions.
I am vegan, so I need to think carefully about my food choices, which mainly evolve around nuts, savoury biscuits and soup at the Overnight Camp.
This year, Duncan and I were fortunate enough to have a sample Berghaus Hyper100 jacket each. This is a truly amazing piece of clothing design and engineering: 3 layers, breathable waterproof jacket with a full length zip and hood. Ours weighed just 99g each.
- Rab Quantum Top sleeping Bag (custom made)*
- Bubble Wrap
- Terra Nova Laser Competition Tent (split 50:50 with Duncan)
- Patagonia Ultra-Light Down Shirt*
- Skinz tights and Rab Aeon long sleeve base layer
- Montane Minimus Waterproof Trousers
- Berghaus Hyper100 Waterproof Jacket
- Spare socks, Buff and Terra Nova windproof gloves
- Arc’teryx Phase SL T-shirt
- Salomon Intensity ¾ Tights
- Hilly Twin Skin Socks AND inov-8 x-talon 212's (not worn in the house!)
- inov-8 Race Elite 15 Rucksack
- Snacks for days 1 and 2
- Overnight food
- MSR Titanium pan, lighter, stove, fuel, Petzl eLite
- Compass, drugs, Salomon Softflask, Survival bag
- Suunto Core altimeter watch
* Since becoming a vegan, I have the moral dilemma of whether I should continue to use these down filled products. My comprise is that I will continue to use them for the time being (despite feeling a little compromised), but that I shall not replace them with down products when they wear out.