Intrepid club member, John Tollitt, sends this race report.
‘Fancy doing the OMM with me?’ I was asked a few months ago by Geoff Davis, a fellow Northumberland Fell Runner, at the start of a fell race in Durham. I said that I’d think about and then asked a few people in the know if I should have a go. The response was ‘ If you’re mental’ or words to that effect. Anyhow, a few days later, I got back to Geoff saying that I would give it a try.
The OMM, to the uninitiated, stands for Original Mountain Marathon and takes place at different locations every year in late October. You compete in pairs in a number of different catagories and have to be totally self-sufficient for the two days of the event. This year’s event took place in the Howgill Fells in Cumbria and had around 2500 competitors.
Once entered, I received my kit requirement list and the lengthy list of rules. The rules relating to kit are strictly enforced and failure to carry any compulsory items will result in disqualification. Equally strict is the rule relating to mobile phones. If you choose to carry a phone for use in an emergency this must be turned off and placed in a sealed bag. The organisers will check the seal at the finish and if it has been broken then you are disqualified. Once I received the kit list I realised that, notwithstanding having one room at home full of outdoor kit, I would have to acquire a whole new range of kit as ‘lightweight’ seemed to be the key to a successful OMM. Preparation for the event, apart from shopping and emptying my bank account, involved a number of increasingly long training days running around the Howgills with Geoff culminating in a full overnight dress rehersal running and camping in the Cheviots.
As the event weekend approached and my lightweight sack started to fill with all my newly purchased items, disaster struck as Geoff came down with a bad cold and knew he would not be able to take part. Urgent appeals via social media failed to find anyone ( mental enough) to want to partner me and I came over all Mr Grumpy as I begun to realise that I would be sitting at home in the warmth rather than yomping about the fells in the predicted foul weather. Geoff then suggested that I post on the OMM forum that I was looking for a partner so come 11 o’clock Thursday night I was frantically sending out a plea to anyone similarly partnerless. Despite no one answering my plea, I noticed a post from Owain who was in the same predicament. A brief phone call sealed the deal and I was back in business.
Friday afternoon saw me driving over to Sedburgh with a car boot loaded up with all manner of equipment. I met up with Owain and his mates at registration and we entered the D class. The OMM is a huge event and is divided up into Elite, A, B,C and D classes as well as Score classes. I had originally been entered into the A class. Owen had entered the C class but, for some reason, we ended up in the D class which I was secretly quite pleased about being an OMM virgin.
After eating my last supper in a local hostelry and eking out as much time as possible hanging around in the warmth of race headquarters at Sedburgh school, I retired to the back of my car where I got a surprisingly good and warm night’s sleep.
I met up with Owain, bright and early, and we made our way to the start point a few kilometres outside the town. The OMM has a staggered start with groups of pairs leaving throughout the morning at 3 minute intervals. You are given your waterproof route map at the start marked up with a dozen or so checkpoints, which must be visited in order, along with the location of the overnight camp.
So off we went. Although it was bright, it was very cold especially when you were in shade. Our map informed us that Day 1 consisted of 18.6km and 1250m of ascent. However, this was the straight line between the checkpoints and our total distance must have been considerably more. We committed a basic schoolboy error by getting to our first checkpoint by following a group of other competitors only to find that it wasn’t the checkpoint we were looking for. With 8 different courses you don’t know what course people are running on and so following people is a futile exercise. We made progress walking uphill and running on the flat and downhill sections. Having found the first couple of checkpoints we were faced with our first major tactical decision; whether to take a direct route involving steep descents and ascents or take a longer route over less severe terrain. We opted for the direct route which caused Owain’s legs to cramp up and he suffered for the rest of the day. Despite this we made good going over the tough, pathless ground and even managed to find the sneaky last few checkpoints which were hidden away in slight depressions in the featureless, boggy wilderness.
We arrived at the overnight camp and got Owain’s lightweight tent put up. We boiled up some water to re-hydrate the evening’s tasty fare of dried spag bol and dried apple and custard. I had a bit of a wander round the ever-growing campsite and marvelled at the minimalism of some of the tents. A key feature of a successful mountain marathon is lightweight kit but there has to be a balance between comfort/safety and minimalism. As the sun disappeared it became bitterly cold and so with nothing much to do at the campsite I climbed into my sleeping bag and opted for an early night. I slept fitfully and hoped that the now heavy rain would not make it inside our tent.
I was woken at 6am ( or was it 7am? The clocks had gone back that night) by a man barking instructions through a megaphone about the day’s starting arrangements. Having breakfasted on porridge I joined the long queue for the netties. Business done we dismantled the tent and packed our gear away. Our packs were considerably lighter than yesterday as all the waterproofs were being worn. At this stage it was only drizzling but as the day progressed this continued through to heavy, persistant rain, strong winds and low cloud.
Traditionally Day 2 is shorter than Day 1 but on this occasion the two day’s distances and ascents were very similar. However, the foul, unremitting weather meant that the second day was much tougher. Fairly early on in the day we met up with Owain’s friends Rich and Pip who were on the same course as us and we stuck together doing our best to navigate in very poor visability. We nearly came a cropper at the penultimate checkpoint which was described as a ‘stream source’. The organisers like to try and break you by throwing in a really tricky problem when you’re ebb is at it’s lowest. Locating the ‘stream source’ in thick clag was like trying to find a needle in a haystack ( or a Mackem in Milan) and we were all very relieved when we came upon it.
We crossed the finish line with a combined time for the two days of 10 hours and 27 minutes which put us in the top half of for our class. Finishing in itself gives a huge sense of acheivement as testified by the numbers of people who retire or miss out checkpoints. We were bussed back to race HQ where we were fed and watered.
I’m not going to suggest that this is something that everyone should try and do as it would not be everybody’s cup of tea. It is tough both physically and mentally. It combines physical fitness with a range of other skills. It is no good being a fast runner if you are not confident using a map and compass. You have to be prepared to rough it and cope with whatever weather conditions are thrown at you. You also need to work together as a team. Would I do it again? I don’t know. Ask me again in a few weeks time when everything has dried out.
(DD – If for some strange reason you would like to read more about the OMM event, and maybe enter next year’s event, click here)