Original Mountain Marathon (Langdale) 2017
Day Two: The final few kilometres before the finish. © Sleepmonsters
For just a second, I am unsure if the comment is a genuine statement of surprise, or a joke. “I just can’t believe that you have won the OMM twice!” I take it in the manner I think it was intended, and laugh along with my fell running friends as we share some pre-race banter at the UKA Hill Relays a few weeks before the 2017 OMM.
This year it’s the 50th anniversary of the event, and it has returned to the Lake District for the first time since the infamous 2008 hurricane washout, when the race was abandoned after the first day. Duncan Archer and I are returning as the defending champions, and I have been a bundle of nerves in the weeks leading up to the event.
To be honest, I understand my friend’s light-hearted jibe; based on my fell running record, I am an unlikely multiple Elite mountain marathon winner. However, that is to underestimate the difference between a mountain marathon and a fell race. There is so much more complexity to a mountain marathon with the orienteering style navigation being the most important difference. It is being very good at lots of things, rather than the best pure runner that counts, and it is this niche where Duncan and I have excelled as a team.
“Perfect. Perfect for us”. I quip on the start line when asked my opinion of the horrendous weather barrelling down Mickleden, by the OMM media team. Minutes later as Duncan I climb out of the relative shelter of the valley, I start to wonder if we’ll be eating my words…
It happens in the start queue at every mountain marathon now; another team in the elite class jokes about following us. We know it is not a joke though, and they have every intention of following us for as long as they can. With little discussion, Duncan and I push extra hard from the start, and with burning thighs, disappear into the clag.
We take the direct route straight up Troughton Beck to Checkpoint One. We had seen the slightly longer but less climb option via Stake Gill, but stick with our ‘straight is great’ approach and attack the course head on. The previous night we had discussed how one’s approach to the first checkpoint often sets the tone for an entire orienteering race, and starting too slowly, too cautiously, often leads to a below par performance overall. We agreed that if we wanted our best possible result, we needed to go very hard from the start. Effectively, we treat day one of a mountain marathon as though it were a fell race, pushing as hard as we can with absolutely no regard for the second day.
I knew 2017 was going to be a very challenging year for me work wise, so I decided from the outset that I would have only one A race, and that would be defending our 2016 OMM elite win at the 50th anniversary event. During the year, I raced as much as I could, but regularly the weeks passed when I would not have time to run. If I did manage a decent training week, I couldn’t afford to be fussy about whether there was a race on the weekend, so as a result, I often turned up fell races - even the championship races - either knackered from work, or knackered from training. Racing tired wasn’t a bad training strategy for me, given that I only had that one A race goal at the end of the year, but it wasn’t the most satisfying approach to racing with a succession of mediocre results throughout the year.
September was intense as my business – Ourea Events – organised three events on consecutive weekends. I hardly ran a step that month. With my final event of the year a success, the pressure plummeted, and I had planned four weeks of quality training, followed by a week to taper, and then OMM victory. However, the reality for me was that I was exhausted from the year, and September had nearly broken me. What I actually did in October was very little running, and plenty of resting, reasoning that training hard now was pointless, and I was better off getting to the OMM rested and fresh.
Duncan is leading on the navigation. An orienteer at heart, Duncan typically sets off like it’s a 90-minute orienteering event, and subsequently, I always find it hard keeping up. Heading into Checkpoint Two, we both feel slightly nervous as we drop out of the cloud and the ground does not immediately match our expectations. Automatically we break our close formation, and spread out 30m across the hillside as we sweep downhill. We just need to have the confidence to keep going on the bearing without slowing, and sure enough, the ground quickly changes to match our mental image. The checkpoint is there, just a little lower than we had visualised.
Contouring the change in slope angle, we traverse north towards Checkpoint Three. We are fractionally further south than we expected though, nearly missing the southern tarn, rather than hitting the middle tarn. It’s a 100 metre error, and could have been serious had we not spotted the lower tarn on the fringe of the murky weather. Damn, conditions are really tough today, and we are being sloppy by our own standards.
It’s clear that Checkpoint Four is going to be very challenging, and we decide to approach via the Ullscarf summit cairn so that we have a solid attack point to take a bearing from. However, we are lazy, and despite passing very close to the cairn, we don’t actually go to it, and we take the bearing from an estimated position. In good visibility this would have been fine, but it is a gamble now. We are over-confident in the mist. As we are approaching the control circle, Duncan slows down. Instead of saying, “It’s going to be 50m over there” (as usual), he suddenly says he’s nervous and then stops. I know that’s bad; very bad! Usually, as one of us loses contact with the map, the other takes over the fine navigation, without so much as a missed step. This time however, I’ve already lost contact and I can’t help… we have well and truly fucked this up, making our biggest navigation error since we began racing together in 2010. With no features close by to relocate off, and severely hampered by poor visibility, we search to our right, until we crash into the wall 500m north of the checkpoint. We relocate and head back. At least 10 minutes wasted.
It’s a crushing mistake, and we both know that it might well have just cost us victory. There are too many good teams in the elite class this year, with navigation geniuses like Tom Gibbs (racing with Paul Tierney), Nic Barber (racing with Jim Mann) and of course the legend, Steve Birkinshaw (racing with Andy Berry). Any one of these teams could be expected to win.
We are trying to remain positive, but we are unusually quiet on the slog to Checkpoint Five. After Duncan’s characteristically strong start, he is now having a dip, and I take on the navigation alone, whilst gently cajoling him to eat and keep up. We catch Matt Harman and Phil Wilkinson, also on the elite course. They are Event Team regulars working on my events and I know them well. With all due respect, we would expect to pass teams like this quickly, but Matt and Phil stubbornly hang on to us… and then they pull ahead. It is now me and Duncan who are hanging on! A combination of Duncan’s bonk, and poor micro navigation on my part – I just keep missing the subtle route choices that save a few seconds here, a few seconds there – mean we are really struggling.
The last few hundred metres before the finish at the end of Day One
There was a part of me that knew I should be worried about the lack of training. There was another part of me that actually felt quietly confident going into the event. I can’t really explain why, and I certainly can’t justify it, but I know, when I really set my mind on success, that I am capable of exceeding myself.
Continuing my Star Wars analogy from my 2016 OMM write up, I’ve often joked about using the ‘Force’ to navigate, and this is akin to the flow state many athletes describe. However, I have a dark secret… I am using the dark side of the Force, and it is ultimately self-destructive to both physical and psychological health, and I mean this in a very real sense.
For me, the dark side of the Force means bottling up negative emotions such a stress, anger, and frustration. I literally visualise that these feelings are locked away in black box within my mind. This black box sits on the edge of my consciousness, brimming with dark forces. Ordinarily, I choose to just let it sit there, slowly building intensity. But at the flick of mental switch, I know there is massive reserve of unadulterated energy, motivation and focus that I can channel into my here and now. It is a mental trick that I somehow learnt as I grew up, and in an uncontrolled manner, used it to climb hard and dangerous routes. As I have got older, I have become much better at understanding my own mental roadmap, and the slightly unhinged mental state of my black box, has become a comforting norm for me.
We drop down into Wasdale on our way to Checkpoint Eight. Hours have passed, and Duncan is still deep in the mother of all bonks. I’ve been running ahead opening gates for him, and shouting encouragement. Matt and Phil have now passed well in front us. We are moving slowly, and I am certain that we have blown any chance of defending our title. We have to walk through Wasdale as Duncan eats. We discuss giving up and retiring to the pub, and the only reason we don’t is that neither of us have any money. Our motivation is bottoming out, as I shoulder both packs to climb up to Dore Head.
So far day one, has been a total disaster for us, with uncharacteristic navigation and route choice errors, and the biggest, longest bonk either of us have ever witnessed. I have never seen Duncan suffer like this before. We are moving much slower than usual, we are cold, we are wet and we are dispirited.
But I have not yet given up, and I can feel that raw determination within me still. We both know that the weather will be challenging everyone in different ways, and that it would be reasonable to expect some errors from the other leading teams. My approaching to racing is simple, I just ask myself, “Am I doing the best possible job, right now, that I am capable of today?”. If the answer is not, “I am at 100% effort” then I just try harder, no matter how badly it hurts, I just push harder.
Striding up hill, I am right on the red line of physical and mental effort. My quads are burning and on the brink of cramp, with the added effort of carrying both bags. I am glancing back and forth at the map, trying to visualise the complex terrain leading into Checkpoint Eight. I need to stay just far enough ahead of Duncan that he remains under pressure to keep up, but close enough that we are still a team, and that he doesn’t get too demotivated. I know he is pushing as hard as he can right now, but I cannot, and do not, show him any sympathy. Silently, I hope that he forgives me later. We nail Checkpoint Eight, and finally overtake Phil and Matt who are having a superb run.
Checkpoint Nine is clearly going to be very tough in limited visibility, and it transpired that many teams had major problems here with margins lost and gained all round. Again, I am red lining again as we ascend via Groove Gill. Our plan is to use this feature as a handrail, and then take a bearing to the sheepfold once we reach the change in slope angle. Yes, our attack point is a change in the slope angle! We are not going to repeat the error of Checkpoint Four, when our over-confidence was our undoing, and we are really focused on executing our plan precisely.
Duncan is also coming back online, and I can feel my effort level becoming unsustainable as I try to keep ahead of him. I relax a little, and let us settle back into our regular team pace, moving together again; it feels good. I pass my map and compass to Duncan, as I adjust the packs. Comfortable again, he passes back my map… but no compass. We stop, and then double back for 30m searching the long grass but we can’t see it. I’m not annoyed, I’m actually delighted… Every time we have won the OMM I have either lost or broken my compass, and suddenly, and despite all the problems of the day, I have an incredible sense that victory is always possible.
We converge on Checkpoint Nine, at the same time as Tom Wilson and Alistair Masson, which must have helped both of us. There, emerging out of the clag, is an indistinct stone sheepfold neatly camouflaged against the scree slope of identical boulders. It is easy to understand why so many teams missed it.
With renewed confidence and sense of purpose, we push on. Another stupid mistake at Checkpoint Ten sees a few more minutes wasted as we head to the wrong knoll. There are no excuses this time, it was just shit navigation on our part. We push hard to Checkpoint Eleven, catching Tom and Alistair again, after our error at Checkpoint Ten. We then sneak a glimpse of Steve Birkinshaw and Andy Berry ahead of us, as we climb to Checkpoint Twelve. We are slowly gaining on them, and we see their route choice; it is safe given the weather, but we opt for a high risk direct approach. We nearly screw it up, but we are now back to the cooperative navigation with back and forth conversation between us that has been a hallmark of our team approach:
Duncan: “Have you seen that knoll?”
Shane: “Yes. It’s the one west of the larger tarn”
Duncan: “Agreed. 12 is 100m east then.”
Shane: “Yes. Have it”
Duncan leads us off into the mist.
It’s been the hardest, and longest elite day for either of us. We are a disappointed with our performance. We know we have had a poor day, by our own standards, and reckon we will be ~40 minutes off the leaders. However, we are seeking the positives in our day, and we are pleased not to have given up, and kept pushing ourselves hard. We have given it our best, and nothing more can ever be expected.
Shock. We are the first elite team to finish. We were the last elite team to start. Holy shit, that means we are leading. What on earth happened to everyone else?!
Slowly, the impact of the poor weather and longer than normal courses becomes apparent. There are very few finishers on any of the courses, and the Elite field has been decimated. I am actually briefly speechless, but it turns out we are leading day one by ten minutes, with Tom Gibbs and Paul Tierney in second. Steve Birkinshaw and Andy Berry in third, just five minutes further down.
If there was ever an example of never giving up, today was that lesson, and I must never forget it.
Overnight there is more poor weather. We were fortunate to have had the choice between two excellent Terra Nova Tents. A Laser Competition and a Laser Ultra. We decided on the 300g heavier Laser Competition for the extra space, which enables us to cook inside the flysheet. It was good call, and the evening passes drinking soup and eating. As always, I keep drinking until I need a wee – regardless of how late it gets – as I had become very dehydrated during the day despite the wet weather.
Much better weather marks the start of Day Two
Another mental trick I use to get the very best out of myself, in the here and now, is to borrow from the future. It is like a deal with the devil; I visualise all the energy I need for a certain period, and then, in my mind, I literally pull it from the future into the present. On this occasion, I simply decide that all the energy I would have used for running in November, can be brought forward, and focused into day two of the OMM.
Knowing this, I am confident that we will be hard to beat. Victory is certainly not assured, and any chance of the win is still dependent on 100% commitment the following day. However, I start to rationalise our lead. Ten minutes is a lot. If you were to stand still, and watch a fell runner disappear into the distance for ten minutes, and then imagine trying to catch them up, it would be a tall order. When I recall our previous mountain marathon results, it is rare for Duncan and I not to have the fastest second day – we are strong on the second day. We are experienced, and assuming we get the navigation right, and we usually do, it is very hard for people to erode our lead. Above all, we are the defending champions, we are leading, and we have just been given a sniff of victory.
In the start lanes at the beginning of Day Two © OMM
Day two. The Chasing Start. It is an intense way to race, with the first across the line winning. I love it! At least we have a ten-minute start on Tom and Paul, and they won’t be seconds behind us, which is stressful. They are better runners than us, so we know we need to stay out of sight, if at all possible. We start hard… actually, we always start hard!
Punching Checkpoint One, Duncan checks the time, and when we pass Tom and Paul on the out and back route choice, he checks the time again. We still have the ten minutes in hand. Good. We are clean into Checkpoint Two, clean into Checkpoint Three. We are not going to make it easy for anyone chasing us. We opt for the cautious route choice into Checkpoint Four, going via Levers Hawes rather than directly down the east ridge of Brim Fell. That was a mistake, and we lose a few minutes relative to Steve and Andy who have now overtaken Tom and Paul.
Despite the frequent glances over our shoulders we don’t see anyone chasing us. Maybe… just maybe we can do this…
We are clean into Checkpoint Five, Six and Seven. For once, I know one of unmapped fell running trods on the way to Checkpoint Eight, and we reverse the Langdale Horseshoe race route under Crinkle Crags, before picking up another, less well known trod, traversing under Bowfell. We are clean again into Checkpoint Eight.
Checkpoint Nine. Still no sight of any chasing teams. We dare to think we might actually win this. We are very glad not to be racing head-to-head on the steep and technical descent back into Mickleden. Another glance over our shoulders. Well, the other teams have either taken a maverick route choice, and really smashed us, or we are going to win. We ease off just a little, enjoying the run down the valley.
There is the finish line. We are still not 100% certain of the outcome…
YES! Another OMM Elite victory. I never could have imagined that I would end up a three times OMM Elite winner.
OMM Victory number 3 for us © Sleepmonsters
OMM Elite Podium 2017. From left to right: Andy Berry, Steve Birkinshaw, Duncan Archer, Shane Ohly, Tom Gibbs and Paul Tierney
On Monday morning I woke early, aching, sore and uncomfortable, and unable to get back to sleep. I really can’t think about coming back for more, and I am simply left in awe of Steve Birkinshaw’s 20 Elite finishes (and seven Elite wins). It is a very impressive record.
Duncan Archer and I have a great mountain marathon partnership and the interchangeability of skills (navigation, running, and cajoling the best from each other) was absolutely the key to our success. Thanks Duncan!
Many thanks to Berghaus, inov-8, and Terra Nova for support with clothing, footwear and a tent. Thanks also to Emma Gill, Stuart Hamilton and the entire OMM team for an excellent weekend. Special thanks to all the volunteers who makes these special events happen.
My deal with the devil. The debt was paid. I didn’t run a step after the OMM until 23rd November. Four weeks off running.
I headed straight from the OMM to Zeffirellis in Ambleside for Pizza and Gin!