With the memories of Marmot’s Dark Mountains race fresh in our minds and our legs, I thought it was time to write a short account of my experience, discussing my mistakes made and lessons learnt.
For those of you not in-the-know, Dark Mountains is a mountain marathon with one rather important difference; it’s held at night. This set up leads to two rather important differences when compared to the daylight variety. The first is fairly obvious – night navigation is compulsory, adding an extra level of difficulty. The second difference is that as the whole race is undertaken in one session, time on the hills is set up by the organisers to be about one and a half mountain marathon days. Both of these factors, plus the lack of sleep, add up to induce a mild confusion as the night grinds on. That’s where the challenge lies however, and if it was easy, everyone would do it.
I would be running with a new partner for this race, a lad I know through Imperial College Mountaineering Club by the name of Tim Seers. It would be our first time running together, but we were both confident that we would be a reasonable match. Of the two of us, I had slightly more mountain marathon experience, Tim having only ever competed in the 2015 Rab Mountain Marathon, and as such, the navigation fell to me.
Even before we set off to the event centre, our logistics were somewhat confused. Tim lives in London where he is finishing his medical degree, whilst I live in Newcastle studying for my PhD. It was decided that the easiest way for us both to get to the event was for Tim to catch the Megabus (I know) to Newcastle, and then for us to drive over to Mungrisdale together; sounds straightforward, but as ever, the Metro had other ideas. We finally met up at Four Lane Ends (my local Metro station), and began the drive across to the Lakes.
Throughout the drive across, Tim and I had an upbeat conversation, mixing how excited we were for this event with old tales of past stupidities. Whilst we both have connections to Imperial College Mountaineering Club, Tim is of a younger generation, and thus we had, until Dark Mountains, avoided any ridiculous situations in each others’ company. As we passed Penrith, then Reghed in the dark the excitement grew, but before heading to the event centre in Mungrisdale we were bound for Threlkeld and dinner with one of my old friends from planetFear.
It was excellent to catch back up with Chris and Rachel, I never manage to see as much of my friends in Keswick as I would like, and having been fed an enormous Bolognese followed by sticky toffee pudding it was all-too-soon time to depart and head to Mungrisdale. As we neared the event centre, the verges on the road were packed out! We couldn’t see anywhere possible to pull up and park, even in Lucy’s Fiat 500.
Fortunately there were still spots available on the road for the pub, and so we pulled up behind the closest car and quickly changed into our race kit. Tim had a bit of a faff, sorting out what he needed for running from the rest of his stuff, and we were soon on our way to the event centre, passing other runners who had already had the “privilege” to start.
Upon arrival, we were informed that registration was already closing down (oops), but they sorted us out very efficiently and with smiles all around. Happy, lucky smiles, knowing that they would get to sleep soon, but no sleep for us tonight! A quick kit-check and we were through into the waiting hall, warming ourselves up with some coffee and wondering where we were going to be sent on the course this time. I assured Tim that as we were in the B-Class, they wouldn’t send us that far; only the Elite Class and Long Score would be sent all the way round the map; how wrong I was! With only minutes to spare, the pre-race poo reared its ugly head, meaning we made it to the start line with only a minute to spare!
As with every mountain marathon, we cleared our dibber, received our map, and then punched in to the start box. Jogging out of the hall, we only made it a little up the road before I had to stop and re-fold the map. The course was a long one, taking us almost around the perimeter of the competition area, although in fairness we didn’t have to get over to the other side of Skiddaw which really would have been painful. Through another stroke of luck, having seen runners pass us previously, we had a rough idea of where to go for our first check-point, although we hadn’t known that until we received our maps.
The first check point was found and dispatched without any issue, and the Petzl Nao I had only uncovered that morning, after many months of searching, was performing magnificently. I’d passed it on to Tim, as I was unsure of how well it was likely to perform, opting to use my new Petzl Myo instead. As an aside, I can’t recommend the Myo enough, especially the new model. Since the inclusion of a regulator in ~2010, the Myo has gone from strength to strength, and the current incarnation does not disappoint. It provides a regulated beam which is more than sufficient to run by, and with a burn time of 10 hours or so, as required for these events it’s small wonder that the Myo is the torch the Spine Race suggest using for their event.
Doubling back on ourselves, we headed back up the road and followed a river towards control number two. Picking that up, it felt as though we were getting into our stride and we quickly moved on towards check point three. This was up a river, and as we were about to dib, Tim noticed that the number on the box didn’t match the description given on the map. Dilemma time, what to do? It looked like the right control, but if we dibbed the wrong control we would be automatically disqualified. I decided the best option was to run up the river another couple of hundred meters, and if no further control was found, bomb back down to the control and take it anyway. So up we went, until a fairly distinctive squiggle was found and no further controls.
Turn around, run back down, and as I was approaching the control box, the team who had set off after us were just leaving control three behind. A quick discussion ensued, wherein they said they’d just assumed it was the correct box, and I said yes, I couldn’t find anything else upstream. Having finally punched in at control three, it was time to move on and try and make up for the lost time faffing around at control three.
For the next few control points we were moving with the team who eventually came first in the B-Class. Navigationally, this section of the race was fairly straight-forward, and as we were fresh, no doubts ever crossed my mind. Upon reaching Lingy hut, Tim and I stopped briefly to put my hat on and have a quick bite to eat, at which point “Team Motor” disappeared into the gloom.
The next few hours/controls passed in a grinding fashion, Tim fighting to keep his tea down, whilst I tried to keep us moving fast enough so as not to cool down too much. I now have one criticism of the OMM Phantom Hoody which is that it is too ‘breathable’, allowing strong winds to carry body heat away. It’s not really a criticism in all honesty, I remained dry within throughout the whole event, and it just demonstrates the difference between Kamleika fabric, and other leading waterproof fabrics.
A real struggle arose as we ascended up the back of Little Calver. Tim’s dinner really wanted to make a repeat appearance, and his efforts to avoid that eventuality resulted in us having to stop once or twice to recover. We topped out onto the plateau near the top of Little Calver, and as I was starting to open the pace out again I turned to find Tim retching whilst trying his utmost to avoid any wind-borne delicacies. Soon after, he trotted up to me and simply said “I feel much better now, should have done that ages ago”. Excellent, let’s get shifting. We found our control just off the summit and made our heathery descent down to the Cumbrian Way. From here it was a swift run to Skiddaw house, and the subsequent control, just up the Western flank of Blencathra.
Suddenly, it all fell apart! We dropped round the South of Blencathra, and my brain decided that the best way to the next checkpoint was to cut up the hill, so we could drop back down it onto the checkpoint.
Not only was this plan slow-going on the uphill, it also started to snow as we climbed higher, obscuring the paths and confusing my already sluggish brain. The downwards cut wasn’t showing itself, so we dropped down a bit, contoured a bit, felt really confused, headed down the hill, then back up the hill a bit. A sheep trod made itself apparent, so we bombed down that for a period until it disappeared.
Finally, we stopped, checked the map key (that bold red line was an impassable wall), so we dropped down the hill again to the wall and ran along until we could struggle straight up a bitch of a gradient to the control and return to the path at the bottom, broken men.
From here on in, it looked pretty simple; follow the wall across the foot of Blencathra, and head on to Suta Fell. Should be fine, it’s quick terrain plus I know this area fairly well, having lived in Keswick for two years.
Oh Vanity! Thy name is Johannes Gausden! With a mental state closely akin to that of an over-ripe turnip, a gate I didn’t expect threw me into a spiral of panic. Tim tried to reason out the navigation with me, but I was having none of it and ran off back the way we came for about a kilometre. I then forced us both to climb about 100 meters up the hillside by a fence before I came to my senses and realised what I’d done. Idiot! I couldn’t believe it. Tim was tired, and understandably annoyed by this, and I refused to get moving until I’d asked someone else (who was fortunately just coming our way) where they thought we were, just to check it matched up with what we were (correctly) thinking.
From here on in we didn’t suffer any more problems. Tim was tired and understandably quiet, whilst I descended into a world of self-annoyance and absolute conviction that Tim now hated me. All this was fixed as we came over Suta Fell, where, due to the time I’d added to our run by being confused and pig-headed, dawn broke and we were treated to a snow-covered fellside all to ourselves. Pure magic!
At the cairn and penultimate control, I apologised to Tim for the clusterfuck I had precipitated, and said that I hoped he didn’t now hate me. Fortunately this made him laugh, and he informed me that, no, of course he didn’t hate me, and after so many hours of running in the dark, he thought those mistakes could probably be forgiven. We wolfed down some much-needed trail mix and picked up the pace for the final push.
There’s not much left to say about our ordeal. The final section passed in good spirits, whilst legs complained bitterly about the abuse they’d been subjected to. Impressively, we were so excited to get back that we picked up the fastest time for the stretch between the final control and the event centre!
Sitting back down in the hall we were greeted by jovial marshals who all asked how it had been. Once we’d sorted ourselves out we were treated to an excellent breakfast and coffee, which I’m sure I didn’t appreciate as much as I should have done, and sat around to wait for the award ceremony. Finally, and for this I am incredibly thankful, we headed back to Threlkeld for a hot shower and a sleep in a quiet bed before driving back east.
Dropping Tim off at Penrith to catch a train back to London, I headed onto the M6 and began musing on the events just gone. What would I have done differently? What went wrong? I might discuss these in greater detail at a later date, but the take home messages, if you’ve read this far, are:
Marmot Dark Mountains is hard; excellent, but hard, and I’d thoroughly recommend it as long as you enjoy a good session of suffering.
If you start to panic, try to stop, even if it’s for five minutes. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort. As Tim said to me later, when you panic, think; tired, upset, stressed, hungry, (hungover); and hopefully you can pull yourself out of the panic spiral by identifying why you’re panicking.
Which leaves me to say, thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed my account, and I hope this inspires you to get out for a run in the dark. Running isn’t just a daylight activity!
Post by Johan