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Punishing climbs, 60mph gusts, soggy underpants and camping in a bog – Robert Wight takes on the unique charms of the OMM


By Robert Wight

The 50th Original Mountain Marathon was held at Great Langdale in the Lake District on the last weekend of October.

The extreme two-day race is the ultimate test of mountain craft, combining fell running, orienteering, hillwalking and an overnight wild camp. Competitors, in teams of two, are self-reliant, carrying everything they need for two days in wild country – including food, clothing, sleeping bag and tent.

Robert Wight, with teammate Alex MacLennan, lined up with some 2,000 other hardy souls at the start line at this year’s event.

Stay light and stay quick

As we line up in our start lane in a muddy field at Stool End Farm I feel a familiar tingle of excitement deep in my stomach.

This is our second OMM. Start times are staggered and I remember last year thinking the feeling of waiting for the klaxon to announce our turn was like standing in an aircraft doorway preparing for a parachute jump – there’s a sensation you’re about to be launched into the void. Except, with the OMM, the ‘jump’ lasts two days and you’ve no idea where you’re going to land.

We barely stop all day, not just because of the time pressure – in lightweight running gear the only way to keep warm is to keep moving

Great Langdale is ideal OMM territory – steep hills, rough ground and lots of bog. On day one, even the weather played ball – 60mph gusts, thick clag from 500m, and rain. Nobody wants this to be easy.

Robert Wight

There are two types of course at the event – linear and score. In linear, runners must find a set series of checkpoints. Miss just one and it’s game over. Score course checks points are worth varying points. The aim is simply to gather as many as possible, in any order you choose. We’re one of about 200 teams on the Long Score – a seven-hour time limit on the first day, six on the second. Go over this time and you lose two points for every minute – or part of a minute – that you’re late. A heavy penalty.

Whichever course you choose, you end up at an overnight campsite. Our journey there – everybody’s journey there – was pretty tough.

First glimpse at the map comes when they’re handed out at the start line. There are a couple of dozen checkpoints, ranging in value from 10 to 70. Broadly speaking, the higher the value, the more effort is required to reach them.

The clock’s ticking and people scatter in all directions, but taking 10 minutes now to calmly and carefully study the map to work out a strategy pays dividends. The campsite, we see, is 7k south of the start, but we head north for our first points – a hilltop a little over 1km away that requires an immediate 400m ascent. It’s a 40-minute slog and, with full packs and on ground so steep, there’s not much running. Plenty of puffing and panting though.

As we crest the ridge the full force of the cold northerly wind blasts us but we’ve gained height and contouring keeps us high for the next few checkpoints. We mop up 140 points before deciding to head for another clump of checkpoints south-west – the plan is to nab a few en route to camp.

We barely stop all day, not just because of the time pressure – in lightweight running gear the only way to keep warm is to keep moving. We don’t eat or drink nearly as much as you’d expect – snack bars, energy gels and the odd mouthful of water, of which we carry just a few hundred mils, refilling from streams as we go. Stay light and stay quick, is the reasoning.

We’re not hungry though – our strategy includes eating and drinking as much as we can for breakfast. A massive fry-up and gallons of tea give plenty fuel for a seven-hour day on the hill.

Last checkpoint involves yet another 400m climb up and over a steep, slippy ridge. After six hours of stumbling over similar terrain, the strain on thighs and calves is horrible. You’ve just got to suck it up.

A run of a couple of K takes us to camp with less than five minutes to spare. We finish on 240 points and in 54th place. The elation is incredible.

Knackered

Forget the running and the hill climbs – it’s now we face the toughest part of the OMM. The overnight camp.

The site is a boggy field, the middle of which is basically marshland. Our start time was fairly late and hundreds have arrived before us. We struggle to find a decent spot – I think we secured the last available pitch that had a slope of just 30 degrees.

The overnight camp is seen by many as the psychological crux of the whole race

We quickly heat and eat two freeze-dried meals each – 1,200 badly needed calories. Then, as darkness falls and we grow increasingly cold, it’s off to bed. We change into dry thermals and crawl into our thin OMM sleeping bags. It’s the last weekend in October, the night the clocks go back. Ironically, this is the one occasion you don’t want an extra hour in bed. I glance at my watch – 7.30pm, which is now really 6.30pm. What follows is 13 hours of trying to get comfortable on soaking, sloping ground. The wind howls all night, threatening to blow down the tent. It’s one of the longest nights you’ll experience. But it passes.

The thought of a hot meal and a good sit down are powerful draws

Alex MacLennan

Then comes the very worst part of the OMM – putting on your freezing, wet, dirty and smelly kit from the previous day. The feeling of pulling on cold, wet underpants after that interminable night is really quite indescribable…

Conditions on day two are better. Very windy still, but dry with perfect vis. We know people will rack up high scores today. We’re pretty knackered after our performance the previous day – we got every checkpoint we planned for – so we’re stiff and slow.

We opt to head for a clump of checkpoints around Crinkle Crags, close to our start/finish point. The first checkpoint involves an inevitable climb to over 700m. Tired limbs protest. There’s not going to be much running today.

Four and a half hours in, we’ve amassed another 150 points. Yet another 400m climb will bag us 10 more points with enough time to get home without a penalty… or we could just saunter to the finish with about an hour to spare.

By now, age and decrepitude are telling. Knees hurt. Ankles throb. The thought of a hot meal and a good sit down are powerful draws. And it’s only 10 points. Home it is.

In the end, we finish 70th with 390 points. And we reckon that’s alright.

@ScotsMagEd

Images © The OMM