10 Tips For Your First Mountain Marathon

Mountain marathon

I had originally planned for this week’s post to be my lessons learned from trying to plan a sustainable wedding. And that will be coming up, but it’s going to be a big post and I’ve been struggling with RSI in my wrists and forearms this week, so it was really a no-go.

As the rain lashed across my window this morning it struck me that we’re really into autumn now. And I always associate autumn and winter with mountain marathon season. That’s not to say all mountain marathons take place in the winter – there are many summer events, which I would definitely recommend to mountain marathon newbies. But I seem to be a glutton for punishment, so have always chosen events which, based on the time of year, are almost guaranteed to bring you the worst of British weather.

The ‘big one’ is the OMM. Now in its 50th year, it’s always held the weekend the clocks go back, ostensibly because it gives you an extra hour of daylight on the Sunday, but really because it always rains. Always. (At least, every time I did it.) If this year’s OMM is your first foray into mountain marathons, congratulations! You’ve jumped in with both feet to the waist-deep bog. But to make your experience a little more pleasant, here are a few tips from the wise…

Tip 1: Prepare for the worst

This is both a general comment and a weather-specific one. Lightweight is all and good but the number one priority is survival. If this is your first mountain marathon and you haven’t yet tested your comfort vs safety limits when it comes to warmth, then don’t strip your pack right back. Besides, you want to enjoy this right? And there’s nothing like a dry change of clothes and a hot chocolate at the overnight camp to instantly make you feel a hundred times better.

Tip 2: Bubble wrap does not a good night’s sleep make

You may hear it said that you can skip carrying a heavy blow-up mat by shoving a square of bubble wrap into your pack and sleeping on that. After all, nowhere on the mandatory OMM kit list does it say ‘sleeping mat’. Now you could do this, and you would probably survive the night (presuming you have a decent sleeping bag), but you’re not going to get any sleep.

Do yourself and your tent mate a favour. If you can’t afford a super-light blow-up mat then at least get a length of lightweight roll mat or a balloon bed. Of course, these come with their own set of problems …

Tip 3: Don’t leave your balloon bed pump behind

“What’s a balloon bed?” I hear you ask. Well, it’s very simple. It’s a bed made from balloons. Not the big round ones you blow up for your kid’s birthday party, but the strong, long, thin ones magicians use to make giraffes and dogs. The ‘bed’ is a thin piece of fabric with sewn ‘tubes’ down which you stuff your blow-up balloons to make an airbed.

If you think this all sounds like a big faff, then you would be right. But do you really have anything better to do with your sixteen-odd hours at the overnight camp? And packed down, the balloon bed is about the size of your fist and weighs 100g. Perfect for mountain marathons.

There is one potential downside. You have to be one of those people who can tie balloon ends. I have never mastered this feat, but fortunately, my past tent mates have all been experts. You may be tempted to save five grams and leave behind the little pump that comes with the balloon bed. Many people have been stupid cunning enough to do this in the past and only realised too late that the balloons are impossible bloomin’ tough to blow up without it. Oh, and take a couple of spares in case of popping (and to make giraffes).

Tip 4: Take plastic bags to put your feet in

You can spot the mountain marathon newbies at the overnight camp as they’re the only ones walking around without plastic bags sticking out of the top of their shoes. This tip is tried and tested.

However much you try and bog-hop, by the time you get to the overnight camp your feet will be sopping wet. And it’s not great for your feet to sit stewing all night in wet socks. So, once you’ve got your tent up, get changed into your spare layers and put on your nice dry socks (you have got dry socks, haven’t you?).

Presuming you’re rehydrating like a pro, at some point you’re going to need to visit the portaloos. (Guys, just opening the tent flap and pissing out is really not on.) That’s where you have the wet shoe dilemma. And where the plastic bags come in. One for each foot. Just don’t bring cheap supermarket ones with holes in, as they’re kind of pointless.

Tip 5: You don’t need a toothbrush

Really. It’s ONE night. Your teeth will survive. Acceptable alternatives are a piece of chewing gum (mmmm, minty) or those little chewable toothbrush things you get in capsules in service stations (which do no good but may make you feel better).

Tip 6:… Or a hairbrush

All you people out there with no hair, SHUT IT. Have you ever tried to get a brush through a tangled head of long hair? No? My point exactly. It’s hell. Worse than tangled climbing ropes. Anyway, despite all this, there is still no need to take a hairbrush on your mountain marathons. If you have long hair, plaits/braids are the way forward. And buy a Tangle Teezer – you’ll never look back.

Tip 7: Tie your compass to your wrist

Loose compasses are another newbie error. You do not want to lose your compass. Particularly if you have ten-metre visibility on a mountain plateau surrounded by big cliffs. A simple piece of string and a wrist loop mean you never have to worry about losing your compass to a man-eating bog or forgetting to pick it up when you stop to tie your shoelace.

Incidentally the same goes for your dibber. Especially when it comes to man-eating bogs. (I nearly lost my husband to one, but that’s another story. He survived. The dibber didn’t.)

Tip 8: Look at the map before you set off

This is perhaps more pertinent to those competing in the score classes than the linear classes. When it comes to score events, tactics are key and spending five minutes planning your route is time well spent.

And make sure you look very carefully at the final section up to the finish. That way you won’t miss the four miles of dead running between the last control and the finish. And you won’t forget to take that into account in your timing assessment. Which means you’ll get in on time and won’t lose out on a prize as a result of misinterpreting a load of red squiggles. (I’m still bitter, alright?!)

Tip 9: Look after your partner

There are solo mountain marathon events, but for most classes, you’ll be in a team. Which means you need to look after you buddy as much as yourself, particularly if it’s their first time and they’re starting to wonder exactly what you talked them into after five pints in the pub that night.

Use each other’s strengths. If your partner ends up doing most of the navigating, why not offer to take the lion’s share of the tent? Or blow up their balloon bed. But remember this, there are times to be kind and sympathetic and times when you have to be tough. And you will each have your ups and downs.

The last OMM I did, I ran with my sister. On the first day, she was striding out ahead of me and I struggled to keep up. But nearing the end of day two, just after we’d spotted those soddin’ red squiggles mentioned above, she was starting to feel it. At one point she tripped over a tussock and refused to get up. Fortunately, by that point, the quickest way back was to follow the rest of the (over-long) trudge to the finish. So I gave her a hug and told her that she’d forget the pain in a couple of years. Tough love is sometimes necessary.

Tip 10: If it’s windy, stash one of the maps

What’s worse than losing a map? Losing BOTH your maps. Without them, you’re screwed (unless you have exceptional map memory skills). It can get pretty windy in the hills, and it’s surprisingly easy for a map to be whisked out of your hand and blown over a cliff. When the winds pick up, have one person stash their map safely in a jacket pocket or rucksack and navigate using the other one.

If the wind takes both of them? Well, that’s just careless …

And, there you go! I have many more tips whizzing around my head, so perhaps they’ll be a follow-up, ‘Part 2’ post. Feel free to share your best mountain marathon tips in the comments below! And best of luck to everyone competing in the OMM or other mountain marathons this winter. May the (navigational) force be with you.

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