Original Mountain Marathon (Largs) 2019
Shane Ohly and Duncan Archer at the start of the 2019 OMM Elite: "We set off with trademark determination, me trailing in Duncan’s wake as usual. Quickly, we pulled away from the congested start area and climbed up through the tussocks heading north to checkpoint 1".
Plain and simple, the Clyde Muirshiel hills are horrible. Rumour has it, the only reason the 2001 OMM was held here, was because it was the only place in the UK willing to host the event during the Foot and Mouth outbreak. Why… because the terrain is so ungiving that even sheep shun these deserted hills. The landscape is bleak and barren. A sea of heathery tussock moorland that make any kind of coordinated movement virtually impossible. Step, step, stumble, step, stumble, stumble, step…
This year the OMM is going to be poignant for me. I am racing with my regular partner Duncan Archer for the final time. We had discussed retiring after our 2017 50th anniversary OMM win. However, that choice was taken away from me a few months later when an injury wrote off the next 18-months.
Fast forward to August 2019. Duncan and I are running the Tour de Monta Rosa. It was a wonderful few days' trail running in the European Alps. Lapping up the high mileage and monster ascents day after day, it was clear that I had recovered well, and naturally we discussed whether or not the OMM was an option for us that autumn. I was delighted when we agreed to return one final time to race the Elite.
I’d been racing elite mountain marathons for over a decade at that point and whilst I am indebted for the sense of purpose and focus these events have given me, it felt like the time to move on had arrived. Both Duncan and I resolved that we would retire from mountain marathons after this race.
Ordinarily, terrain like the Clyde Muirshiel hills would suit Duncan and I just perfectly. It plays to our strengths by dampening the top speed of the fastest runners to level up the field, whilst also making navigation and route choice, and sheer bloody-minded determination, through the shocking terrain, more important.
The Elite race had attracted some very strong teams all of whom we’d raced before in some capacity or another. As GB Orienteers, Graham Gristwood and Hector Haines were the pre-race favourites despite this being their first OMM Elite. Alistair Masson and Tim Morgan were the young guns who had won the inaugural Scottish Mountain Marathon earlier in the year. Tom Saville and Nathan Lawson from Dark Peak Fell Runners would certainly have the speed to mix it up with anyone else at the front of the race. Sweden’s Björn Rydvall had previously won the OMM in 2012 and partnering with experienced adventure racer Johan Hasselmark they were likely to make a strong pair. Then of course our old rivals, Nic Barber and Jim Mann were racing together again, and they were long overdue an OMM Elite victory. The list could go on with another three or four teams all capable of a podium finish.
To mix it up with this lot, we knew we would need every advantage going, because we were both coming to the event undertrained and underprepared. Especially me. Our plan was simple: to push as hard as we dare and (as always), to be ruthless with our navigation and route choice. We had a vast amount of experience between us, and we were confident that even our ‘not-quite-as-fit-as-normal’ speed would be good enough for a respectable result.
Pacing is easy if a place on the podium is your goal. Each time we had stood there we had simply gone as fast as possible all the time: the maximum sustainable pace we could achieve in that moment. We don’t even consider day two and just push ourselves like we’re at a classic fell race all the time. Why that fast? Because very simply if you aren’t working that hard, someone else will be.
Saturday morning was bright and clear. Perfect weather for the OMM. Walking to the start we chatted with old friends, exchanged nods of recognition with familiar faces and excited hellos alike. We set off with trademark determination, me trailing in Duncan’s wake as usual. Quickly, we pulled away from the congested start area and climbed up through the tussocks heading north to checkpoint 1.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, we raced strongly through to checkpoint 5 and were placed second by less than a minute at this stage. In hindsight I can unpick what then occurred, but at the time it was such a shocking mistake that we considered giving up then and there. Certainly, we knew that we’d blown any dreams of a podium retirement spot. So, about halfway between checkpoint 5 and 6, we both scanned the horizon and identified a low-lying hill that we agreed checkpoint 6 was just behind. In fact, we had both identified the incorrect hill. The hill we’d selected as ‘our hill’ was actually 2km south of checkpoint 6 and represented a 90°deviation from the correct approach we were still on at that stage. Just a simple glance at our compass would have highlighted the error, but instead we blazed a trail in the wrong direction. How was it that two navigators who usually measure their errors in seconds, and consider being lost, not knowing where they are within a 100m2 (on a 1:40,000 map) had made this mistake? On reflection, and speaking for myself, two words come to mind: complacency and over-confidence. I was complacent that Duncan would correct me if I was wrong, and over-confident in my ability despite a long period of inactivity in the mountains. All these factors compounded because I was running beyond my sustainable level of speed at that time. My brain was starved of glucose by the physical effort to be currently placed 2nd.
As we rounded the wrong hill and started dropping down to where we thought the checkpoint 6 would be, we suddenly spotted a wall running perpendicular across the slope in front of us. We both instantly realised something was badly wrong and simultaneous stopped and looked at our maps.
I felt physically sick as the extent or our error was laid bare. That grassy slope and ruined wall staring right back at us. Seconds passed and then a surge of adrenaline raged through my veins. This would sustain me for hours to come. I glanced at the map again and chose an aggressive correction back to checkpoint 6 and set off immediately, fired-up with by a potent mix of embarrassment and pure anger. Whilst my rational brain realised our competitive race was over, my competitive streak kicked into overdrive as I sought to claw back time from a 25-minute error.
I’ve explained before (in previous mountain marathon articles) how Duncan tends to start fast on day one, and then have a little dip, before picking up again later in the day. Today, Duncan’s low is magnified by the low morale the earlier error has caused. He starts to fall behind. Soon, he tells me that he’s put his map away and all he can do is keep up. In some respects, this is what I need right now. I become totally absorbed in the fine navigation and route choice and this stops me ruminating over the earlier error. Then he can’t keep up. Duncan is struggling as the tussocky grass and bogs make progress slow and tiring. Often, we are reduced to walking and I focus on keeping myself a short distance ahead of Duncan whilst encouraging him to stay with me. We both know the drill – whoever is strongest in any moment will push the other, and we have both been in each other’s shoes often. Little sympathy is shown. Between us we have a whole armoury of techniques for encouraging each other and I coolly promise Duncan a minute of walking if we can run for next two minutes as we make slow progress to checkpoint 9. As I’m the only one navigating, I over and underestimate time and distance to the next checkpoint at my discretion to try and motivate Duncan to keep moving, “We are just a little over 5 minutes from the next control, and then it gets easier…”.
On our way into the overnight camp at the end of day one. Looking determined but feeling broken!
Finally, shortly after checkpoint 11, Duncan comes back to life, and I am relieved to see he has his map in hand again as he suggests a more refined route to checkpoint 12. It comes at just the right time for me because I am spent: physically and mentally exhausted from hours of pushing the pace and navigating alone. I gladly relinquish the navigation to the real expert, leaving me the simpler task of just keeping up with Duncan now that he is forging ahead again. Our role of leader and follower neatly swapped which has been the hallmark of our success over the years. There is some more terrible ground on the way to checkpoint 12 that only gets worse as we approach checkpoint 13, and despite our best efforts the cumulative fatigue of the day means we can only walk through the worst sections of heather and tussocks. It’s pure drudgery and with no other teams around us, in fading light and the knowledge of our earlier mistake, we have none of the usual excitement of racing.
We finished the first day in 7th place overall, 53 minutes behind Graham Gristwood and Hector Haines who were leading a chasing pack of four teams by 25 minutes. At the end of the day one the positions were:
1st Graham Gristwood & Hector Haines 06:52:01
2nd Alistair Masson & Tim Morgan 07:17:18 / +00:25:17
3rd Tom Saville & Nathan Lawson 07:17:38 / +00:25:37
4th Neil Talbott & Luke Grenfell-Shaw 07:18:30 / +00:26:29
5th Björn Rydvall & Johan Hasselmark 07:19:22 / +00:27:21
6th Nicholas Barber & Jim Mann 07:28:28 / +00:36:27
7th Duncan Archer & Shane Ohly 07:45:27 / +00:53:26
We had paid a high price for the error approaching checkpoint 6. You just can’t make 25-minute mistakes racing against the likes of this lot and remain competitive. However, we had no complaints, and the overnight results were a fair representation of our performance on the day and our pre-event fitness. As I reflect on this months later, I decided to review my training diary, which has all my training logged since 2008. It is no surprise that each of the years that Duncan and I have won the OMM correspond with some of my biggest years of training where I’ve clocked hundreds of hours of mountain running. There really is no substitute for hour, after hour, after hour of running in the hills to build the endurance and strength needed to be competitive at an elite level.
It was a wild overnight camp with squalls of heavy rain blowing through from dusk until to dawn. We holed up in our cramped one-man tent and only left for the absolute essentials: more water and to use the portable toilets.
Throughout the night the strongest guest blew the tent sides flat against our faces and I wondered whether the tent would hold out the night. In fact, I’ve been using this same Terra Nova Laser Competition for all my mountain marathons since 2007 and it has exceeded all expectations that I had about its durability and toughness. Nevertheless, with our minimal kit it was a cold and damp night, and by morning the bottom of the tent was wet, our sleeping bags were wet, and we’d only managed to doze haphazardly between the worst of the weather and periods of shivering. We rose earlier than normal to get some warming coffee and porridge on the go.
That uncomfortable night confirmed my feelings about mountain marathons and whether or not to continue racing as my performance inevitably declines with age. Basically, I have come to understand that whilst I am prepared to suffer greatly in the pursuit of excellence, my desire to suffer for the sake of participation has diminished with time. Coming to a mountain marathon with the realistic expectation of a podium finish is a very different mindset to just surviving the experience… and it was starting to feel like I was just surviving this event. That said, and to be clear, I have nothing but respect for the veteran runners that come back year after year. Their personal challenge evolving from once being top competitive runners, to just finishing within the course closure time. However, that path is not for me and new challenges and adventures beckon.
Only late on Saturday night did we realise that we’d made the cut into the chasing start the following morning, after a chance glance at the results by Duncan. Usually, teams start day two the time difference between each other at the end of day one, meaning that the first to cross the finish line on day two is the overall winner. This year the teams were being started at arbitrary 3-minute intervals regardless of their day one time. After a slow start in a damp tent, we suddenly found ourselves rushing to be ready as time became compressed in the minutes before our 07:17 start time. We jogged to the start with a few minutes in hand and enjoyed heckling Nic Barber and Jim Mann as they sprinted past us because they were already late for their prescribed start time 3 minutes earlier.
Over the years we’d developed a reputation as day two specialists, usually having the fastest time on the second day. So, despite the disappointment of day one, we were resolved to race as hard as possible on day two to atone for yesterday's error.
Another shot of Duncan and I heading into the overnight camp at the end of day one. Looking broken and struggling to be determined!
The compressed start intervals meant we were surrounded by the other elite teams, that by right should have been starting way in front of us. We started hard. Really hard. It was a statement of intent for the day ahead and we reached checkpoint 1 with the fastest split. Approaching this checkpoint, we had formed a pack with Jim Mann and Nic Barber and Björn Rydvall and Johan Hasselmark, whom we’d caught along the way. The pace was now remorseless as each team pushed the other, no one wanting to be the first to crumble. By the time we reached checkpoint 3 we were leading day two in terms of overall time at that point. Game on.
After Duncan’s prolonged dip yesterday, it was now my turn to nosedive. Actually, let’s be more descriptive: it was now my turn to crash land! By rights there was no possibility I should be mixing it up with the leading elite teams this weekend after a right-off 2018, and a gradual rehab through 2019. I simply wasn’t sufficiently fit or conditioned to be competitive at a multi-day race. The wheels started to come off. I was trailing behind Duncan, falling further and further behind as Duncan tried to remain in contact with the two other teams. I was now the one putting my map away and resigning myself to simply following Duncan. Soon even that wasn’t possible. The other teams pulled away and within minutes were out of sight in the undulating moorland. I had blown up.
Midway between checkpoint 9 and 10 we were just 3km from the finish and I was desperate to give up. My body ached and it was clear I was no longer the OMM Elite winner I once was. I knew Duncan could sense I was on the verge of calling it, and I wondered whether he’d suggest it out of pity as I struggled to keep up with him. I desperately just wanted to say, ‘Enough…’. It took all my will power to keep my mouth zipped and resolve myself to finishing the course and actually getting a result.
Shane Ohly (left) and Duncan Archer (right). A brilliant racing partnership and friendship, which produced the following OMM Elite results: 2010 5th, 2011 1st, 2012 2nd, 2015 3rd, 2016 1st, 2017 1st and 2019 6th. The years we did not race I was out of action due to injury or illness.
Eventually, and only after a long and painful second day, we arrived at the finish 90-minutes off the winning pace and in 6th place overall. Neil Talbott & Luke Grenfell-Shaw had had to retire due to injury. The final results were:
1st Graham Gristwood & Hector Haines 06:52:01 (1) / 05:56:14 (2) / 12:48:15
2nd Alistair Masson & Tim Morgan 07:17:18 (2) / 05:54:38 (1) / 13:11:56
3rd Tom Saville & Nathan Lawson 07:17:38 (3) /06:05:11 (3) / 13:22:49
4th Björn Rydvall & Johan Hasselmark 07:19:22 (5) /06:27:31 / (5) / 13:46:53
5th Nicholas Barber & Jim Mann 07:28:28 (6) 06:18:49 (4) / 13:47:17
6th Duncan Archer and Shane Ohly 07:45:27 (7) / 06:38:40 (6) / 14:24:07
Whilst “6th place” might sound flattering, the margin between us and the winners was huge, and it reinforced my decision that now was the right time to bow out.