OMM 2017 – 50th Anniversary of the Original Mountain Marathon: Day 1

Race Report – OMM 2017 Langdale – Day One

This year’s OMM was always going to be a tough one. As it was the 50th anniversary, it had to be an unforgettable event which, in the language of mountain marathons, means utterly brutal. I think it delivered, so well done to team OMM for yet another “enjoyable” and enjoyable weekend away.

I’ve also been carrying a foot/ankle injury since the Old County Tops in May, and as such I’m a little fatter, a lot slower and considerably more cautious about pushing it to the limit than I would normally be; not that that would stop me completely.

The run up to the OMM had felt a bit odd, partly because I hadn’t been putting in the usual training miles for the event, and partly because I didn’t want to let my esteemed running partner – Chris Swanepoel of Kong Adventure and general Keswickian fame – down with my running performance. We’re both competitive with this kind of thing and I knew that my performance was bound to be sub-par this year.

Fortunately however, Chris was happy to run the OMM with me in the knowledge that I was going to be slow, saying that he’d prefer to run with me as long as I gave it my best shot. I said of course I would, but that my ankle was still dodgy so I might have to pack it in if it got too sore (luckily it never did).

To give a brief explanation of mountain marathons – they are a test of navigational and general hill running skill, which take place over two days with an overnight camp in the middle. Competitors can either compete in linear (check points must be visited in a specific order, fastest team round wins) or scored courses (many check points are available to be visited in any order but have varying point values and teams have limited time; the team with most points wins). Teams have to carry all their equipment and food for both days and the overnight stop. In short, not just a quick weekend bimble.

As this year’s OMM was starting from Langdale, we thought we’d take advantage of the close proximity of Chris’ house and stay there on the Friday night, rather than the usual extra night of camping before the race. This was aided by the fact that we had a late start (10:15 to 10:29) which meant we could have a nice leisurely breakfast on the Saturday morning before heading down for our start of the race. It also meant we ended up parked in the registration only field which was a huge bonus at the end of the event – the parking field for those who had to camp at the event centre was all churned up and muddy by the time we came to leave.

After arriving in Keswick at about 5 on Friday evening, I wandered over to Needle Sports to go and say hi to a couple of guys there. I managed to catch Harry Ellis, which was nice, as we hadn’t seen each other since both he and I left Keswick at about the same time just over 3 years ago. Still, it was just like it had only been yesterday that we’d been out climbing together and it’s something I really appreciate about the community in Keswick.

Having caught up with the available Needle Sports contingent, I headed back over to Kong Adventure (I always want to call it planetFear) to catch up with Chris and Dan and purchase a few last bits and pieces. I ended up with some nice socks and a pair of the new(ish) Inov8 Mudclaws, both of which I was very grateful for on the event, the shoes especially. Eventually, Chris’ shift finished, so we bundled into the car and headed on down to Langdale to register, ready to arrive and start in the morning.

Getting into Langdale was a bit of a faff-on – it usually is anyway – and, with the increased traffic because of the OMM, we enjoyed some entertaining night time country driving. There were no major incidents though, and we parked up and headed into the event marquee to see what the craic was.

The OMM usually has a buzz about it, but this year felt considerably more busy than the last two. Chris bumped into a few friends of his (you can’t go anywhere in the Lakes with Chris without getting stuck in conversation with someone or other) and I managed to have a quick chat with Steve Willis – long time orienteer and one of the many faces you look forward to seeing at the OMM. We finally extricated ourselves from the marquee, after having picked up a few 50th anniversary bits and pieces, and made our way back to Keswick in the dark. Langdale had quietened down a fair bit by then, but we still opted to take the back road over to Grasmere rather than head all the way out to Ambleside.

It had gone 8 o’clock by the time we rolled back in to Keswick (as we’d forgotten to pick up a few items from the shop when we were there earlier). Thankfully Racheal had prepared tea for us back at their house, so that once we got back (not far off 9), we got sat down and stuck in to a good, hearty Bolognese (washed down with a pint or two – proper athletes like). The usual catch-up and banter ensued until we decided to hit the hay, somewhere between 11 and 12, ready for a relatively leisurely getting up time of 7:45.

Saturday morning arrived – grey and sullen – although near Keswick it didn’t seem too bad. The forecast had suggested that this would be the case and the weather could have been worse (oh, how we were to learn). A good breakfast, morning coffees, final packing etc. etc. and we were off to Langdale to “enjoy” the 50th anniversary of the OMM!

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Popping out of the bottom of St John’s in the Vale on to the A591, I suddenly realised that I’d forgotten my squidgy water bottles which I had carefully filled with mountain fuel. Swearing about how much of an idiot I was, Chris said not to worry, just pull up opposite the Co-op in Grasmere and get a couple of bottles of Lucozade. So that was that, and we headed back over the back way into Langdale without any further trouble.

Parking up, we were glad to be late re-arrivals. You could clearly see that the other parking field was not in a good state already, and this was before anyone had really started leaving. Getting out of the car and putting on my shiny new shoes (never race with new equipment kids, ahem…) the wind was a little biting if truth be told, but you know what they say; be bold – start cold. Down on the valley floor it wasn’t too bad though, and there wasn’t any real rain to speak of.

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Off we trotted toward the event marquee, only to be directed away from it at the last minute toward the start line, providing a nice little half mile warm up before the main event. I should have known really. The 3rd time out this time and the start line is never at the centre proper. But again, it wasn’t too bad at this point, so we didn’t mind all too much; what’s an extra half mile of nice, even, flat track when you’re staring down the business end of the OMM?

We arrived ready to go at 10:20, pretty much spot on there with our timing, and lined up into our designated start queue. I say queue, we were the only ones there for the Long Score at that particular start time, and tried to steal a sneak preview of the map while it was sat about 2 meters away on the floor. A claxon was sounded, and we stepped forward to be handed the map. This minute with the map before the start would be vital if the wind wasn’t blowing, but it was, and so we had to wait to start before we could crouch down and assess our options. Finally, we were allowed to start, Chris punched our dibber in the start box and we scampered over to a slightly sheltered side to try and make a plan.

As usual, there were a scattering of control points from 10 to 50 points available, but then there were a couple of 70 pointers out around Ennerdale and Pillar! I discounted them but Chris was super keen to head out and try and pick them up, so we compromised and made a plan with a cut off to turn back to the overnight camp if time was looking tight.

As this was the 50th anniversary, it was always going to be one to remember, and the course planners (thank you Mr Falkner) provided us with a nice steep uphill climb straight away on to Martcrag Moor and the first control point, giving a little shy of 500m climbing within about the first km of racing – vicious. From there, it was a quick descent down Stakes Beck to where it meets Langstrath and the next control nestled within a smallish sheep pen. The weather was still holding reasonably well at this point, and my chosen clothing system of good old Brynje sex-mesh under a set of OMM tights and a windshirt was working a dream.

Straight away it was back off up a hill toward Bull Crag and the third control point hiding somewhere on one of the indiscriminate knolls. On the way up we passed Kip and Dan – two of my friends from my Imperial College days – racing down the hill. It turns out they’d made a navigational error and headed to their 4th rather than 3rd control (they were competing on a linear course), but that’s a different story. The clag was starting to come down a little bit and it was pretty indiscriminate up there. Fortunately, Long Crag was visible and we could take a rough back bearing to narrow down the search and it didn’t take long to find the pesky blighter.

Immediately, we started descending again, this time down the back of Sergeant’s Crag into Greenup Gill and the next control point. This one was pretty easy and we dropped back below the cloud line for a little while. The weather was still just about holding and we were moving well; my ankle had been strapped pretty well before heading out and for the time being it was holding.

But no rest for the wicked! We’d picked up a 40 pointer and a 50 pointer on this little excursion but there was a lot more day to go. Back off up the southern flank of Sergeant Crags we headed to drop back down to Langstrath just above Black Moss Pot. No swimming today though, as our route took us straight back up the other side of the valley onto that indeterminate wasteland better known as Rosthwaite Fell. We’d passed through a little cloud on the way over the shoulder of Sergeant Crag but now the weather really started coming in. However, the mesh/windshirt super combination was still keeping me comfortable and the fourth steep uphill of the day was keeping me nice and warm.

Cresting Rosthwaite Fell, a nippy wind made itself know. There were three controls to pick up here; the clag was coming down quickly and we needed to keep moving and keep sharp. The first control fell quickly – it was only a couple of hundred meters from a fence corner on an easy bearing – but the next proved more elusive. Chris seemed half aware of where we were, and I knew where we were in theory, but the feeling of running around features and hills you know but knowing you’re there in a purely academic fashion was bizarre.

Finally, we descended slightly around a knoll and bumped into another team looking for the same point. A short conversation later and we headed up the gill we were stood next to, which did indeed prove to be Comb Gill, and thus dropped us directly onto our next control. Whilst the clag was bad and the wind was driving rain, we were still in our windshirts, although the thought of putting on a waterproof had now crossed both our minds. It was grim up there, but good fun!

Just one more control to find! Then we could drop off Glaramara, and get out of the shit…

Taking a swift bearing and making good note of the features to follow, we set off towards Hind Gill. We were looking for a track followed by a path; if we hit the gill we’d gone too far. No track (something that may have been a track). Possibly a path? Definitely the gill… Not really sure. We knew that we weren’t far away so we headed slightly uphill. A couple of knolls presented themselves and we knew we were close. A team appeared out of the mist and accidentally signposted the way to the control – we weren’t more than about 20 meters away in all honesty, but it did speed up the search. Punching the control, Chris insisted (I didn’t offer any resistance) that we don waterproofs (matching OMM Aether Smocks) and we then got shifting as fast as possible do get down out of the wind and driving rain.

We crossed Hind Gill and found the path downhill toward Seathwaite. Still, I knew academically where we were, but with absolutely no recognition of the surrounding landscape. The mudclaws were working a treat and as we dropped below the cloud, Seathwaite valley and farm appeared below us. Ah! Then I knew where we were properly, and also that we had to head back up the other side of the valley up Sour Milk Gill to pick up our final 50 pointer.

For any who have never been up to Gillercombe, it’s pretty much a slog any way you look at it. This time was no exception, but at least I didn’t have a bouldering mat on my back this time! Eventually, the marsh at the top appeared and we squelched our way across to the sheepfold. Time was starting to feel tight – at this point we had about 2hr10 left – and I was getting twitchy. We said hello and thank you to the marshals waiting there; they told us that time was running a little tight, and that our next planned control was going to be taken down in the not-too-distant future.

Green Gable was next on our list. Time was feeling tight, but there was a 40 pointer which looked reasonable to find. Until we started going up the hill.

A never ending ascent into yet more clag drained my enthusiasm for heading off back down the other side of Green Gable. Chris was pushing to go and find it, but as the gradient started to ease conceded that we’d missed the feature we were looking for and, that as time was getting really tight (1h40 left before our 7 hours were up!), we probably should start heading back.

We hunkered down on the ground briefly just in the lee of the hillside to work out the fastest way back. Down to Styhead tarn, across to Sprinkling Tarn and over to Esk Hause seemed the most direct option. The plan as we were setting off was to stay on the path and head over Bowfell to eventually drop into Mosedale.

We moved fast all the way to the ascent up to Esk Hause, slowing only because of the gradient. I was not keen for Bowfell, not another hill, not today! So on the uphill I had a little study of the map.

“Why don’t we head up Esk Pike (we’re practically there anyway) and drop off the front? There’s even a couple of 20s to pick up on the way down, and we know that section half-reasonably well…”

“Yeah alright, that’s a good idea”

And off we went again…

Back off of the path, and the clag started to make a difference. It’s bleak around upper Eskdale, even on a good day, but running on a bearing in the clag and wind made for an interesting experience. It actually went quite well and we found our first control point in good time. The marshal who had been posted there for the day was not looking happy and I didn’t blame him – the weather really was wild – so we said thank you for sitting out there all day and disappeared off into the clag again.

It felt almost like the home stretch then. There was one more control to get on the way down and then we could get ourselves onto the path down Mosedale to Cockley Beck – a track we both new all too well.

More stumbling along in the clag brought us finally to the last checkpoint. We were pretty much at the end of our 7 hours at this point, and all thought was on getting back as quickly as possible. There was a 40 pointer just a little further down the track we were on, but in the wrong direction for dropping into Mosedale. Annoyingly (in hindsight) I thought that the penalties for being late increased from 1 point to 2 points to 5 points, as they do in the OMM Lite events. If I’d read the information on the map (RTFQ!) I’d have realised that it was a flat 2 points lost per minute over your time, and in that case, it would have been well worth our while to pick up another 20 pointer close by, and the 40 pointer! Idiot!

But never mind; it’s one lesson I’ve learnt the hard way, and one I won’t forget quickly.

Scooting along Lingcove Beck we knew we were looking for a track on our left to drop into the top of Mosedale. I knew from the direction of the track, and the bearing of a beck we’d just crossed that it wasn’t far away, so we kept the pace up in the hopes that we’d find it soon. Unfortunately, we ran past it, and almost to the 40 pointer, but in our false understanding of the penalty system we just turned back with a little care to find the track proper. Thankfully, it only took a couple of minutes to find so we picked the pace up again to “enjoy” a slippery descent down to Cockley Beck and our campsite for the night.

As we neared the end, the road appeared on our right, and Lucy and Jim could be seen waiting there to take a couple of action shots. However, Chris had the race line in his sights (don’t forget this is part of the OCT and therefore a descent we knew reasonable well) which involved not going onto the road. Waving, he tried to get Lucy and Jim to head down to see us appear onto the road – something they just about managed to make. My legs were not happy by now, I was (and still am) way out of shape, and we’d been out for over 7 hours. Pacing down the road, we pushed to the finish to dib at Saturday’s finish line.

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What a relief! It was getting dark; the weather, whilst not a foul as on the tops was still pretty grim and all we could think about was getting the tent up and warming up a little bit before sorting tea out for the night.

As it was the 50th OMM, there was cake in the check-in tent (mmmm). We got our results from the marquee, and we were somewhere around 46th-ish. Not too bad considering we weren’t expecting to be competitive. My foot had held on reasonably well for the day, but it had been a bit of a drag.

All that was to be done, was to find a reasonable spot to pitch – not an easy task this year it has to be said. All the dry ground was sloped, and all the flat ground was bog. Eventually, we found a small patch that was flat and not too damp. Great! Pitching up we settled in for the night and actually felt pretty comfortable. One useful lesson from this year was actually to leave the race clothes on – especially as I was wearing mesh base-layers, everything dried out quickly, kept us warm, and we didn’t have to worry about putting on soggy clothes in the morning – bonus!

Thanks for taking the time to read this far. I know it’s been a bit wordy, but I always think it’s worth trying to convey the ups and downs of an event like the OMM. Really, that’s the answer to “why do you do things like that” – because it can be really shitty, but at the end of the day, when you’ve been out trying your best, it’s great to pitch up and enjoy an evening with an old friend and look at what went right as well!

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(OMM day two to follow soon)

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