The OMM – it can’t be that hard, surely. Last autumn, Daniel Neilson travelled to the Scottish Borders to find out
As the piper played his 6am morning wake-up call, momentarily the world seemed good. It was swiftly followed by a spontaneous rendition on the loud hailer of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning…” and, looking out over an orange-hued dawn on the heather-clad Tweedsmuir Hills, it was accurate in sentiment, if not accurate in pitch. And then I tried to move.
For the previous nine hours I’d been happily ensconced in my sleeping bag, unable to budge even if I’d wanted to. Yet as I roused, pain shot through my legs and up my back. My blistered feet began to throb, my head pounded, a sickening hunger struck. When I finally stumbled and scuffed my way out of the tent, I saw the overnight camp for the first time in daylight. Two thousand or so participants of the 48th Original Mountain Marathon were also creaking out of their tents, sparking up their stoves and pondering the day ahead. I hobbled to a port-a-loo like C-P30, whimpered like a wounded Chewbacca, and felt as old as Yoda. The thought of running another 17km seemed impossible.
The previous day’s 28km were over knee-high heather, and through shoe-eating bog. At one point, a single kilometre took us almost an hour. There were 1985m of steep ascent and it was the toughest thing I have ever done by a very, very long way. We now had another 1510m of ascent to curse our way up. My teammate Ben and I had seriously, seriously underestimated the OMM.
The Original Mountain Marathon, known to everyone as the OMM, will be familiar to many readers of this magazine – past editors and correspondents have been regulars. It started in 1968, created by mountaineer and orienteer Gerry Charnley as a two-day event in ‘extreme circumstances’. Previously known as the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon, it was renamed in 2004.
The concept is simple: spend two days navigating to checkpoints across a rugged landscape, carrying equipment and food for an overnight stay. Participants must complete the course in pairs. There are several classes of events, and we chose the C Class: a mixture of compulsory checkpoints and a set number of optional checkpoints, covering 45 kilometres (28 miles) over two days. Both Ben (who I’d cajoled into doing it) and I had run a couple of marathons before and thought that seemed an achievable amount of running. How wrong we were… how horribly wrong we were.
Preparation is key
We’d arrived at a campsite in the Tweedsmuir Hills on the Friday night at the end of October in sheeting rain under a black sky. Having hastily put up our tent we went to the Event Centre and it was a pleasant shock to see a barn packed with excitable competitors eating burgers, drinking beer and laughing hard. This, I thought then, was my kind of race. How hard could it be if everyone was sinking a couple of beers the night before?
The kind guys at OMM had lent us samples of their latest race pack, the Phantom 25. It was full of clever little weight-saving devices. The back poles could be replaced with tent poles and the padded back could even be used as a sleeping mat… that is if your idea of a sleeping mat is a torso-length piece of half-inch-thick foam. “I’m taking a Therm-a-Rest,” I said. “Ah,” replied Colin, one of the pack designers. “You’re going for comfort.”
Another thought I didn’t blurt out was that at 25 litres it seemed a little, well, small, even though they’d also lent us a Nordisk Telemark 2, one of the lightest tents in the world at around 800g. Hugging my tiny bag, I went out to the tent to spend a restless night being buffeted by wind and rain, broken only by anxiety dreams about the days ahead.
Ben, when excited, is a talker. I enjoyed a running commentary of the packing, unpacking, repacking and general faffage. “Right. Clif bar here. No here. What do you think Dan? Here. OK. OK. Which energy gels are you taking? Ooh. Rhubarb and custard. What’s the best rhubarb and custard you’ve ever had? Do you think it’ll rain all weekend? What Class are we again?” And here is lesson number one for the OMM: make sure you have the right partner. Given that we were best men at each other’s weddings, I figured we’d be OK, or at least still talking by the end of it.
We packed our bags, picked them up in unison and gave each other a knowing look: “How on earth do you run with this on your back?” Back at the Event Centre I saw one of the organisers.
“Does this seem a bit heavy to you?” I asked Andy.
“My god, what have you got in here?” he replied.
I recounted: “Tent, nice warm sleeping bag, spare clothes, stove, gas…” and I continued down the mandatory kit list until I got to “…six cheese sandwiches, a lovely ring of chorizo and water.” “Yeah, it adds up,” said Andy. “Ditch the water.”
We’d been looking, rather worriedly, at other people’s unrealistically small bags but had also laughed at the cups strapped to many of them. Ha, we’d saved weight by not taking mugs. It was then explained that mugs were all they were taking, that they’d be sweeping up a cupful out of a stream and shooting off. We hastily repacked AGAIN, this time without a spare pair of pants, an extra down jacket and most of the water; the chorizo stayed.
“When do we get a map? Is that a Scots pine? You didn’t take out the chorizo did you? Hmm, may need the loo first. Top ten second albums of all time?” Ben was still talking.
At the start line, we were given a large, laminated map, the electronic dibber attached to Ben’s right wrist was dobbed, and we were off. Tall people with small rucksacks ran away purposefully. Grabbing our map, we ran too… full of expectation, excitement… and then realised we had no idea where we were going or what we had to do, or what this involved. We sat down and looked at a Harveys map of the Tweedsmuir Hills. It was on here we understood that we’d have to go to controls 1-4 in order, visit any three of the next five controls, and then go through 8, 9 and 10. The average winning time for the C Class is nine hours (yes that’s ‘winning time’) but looking at the map it seemed… OK. Nine hours later it seemed ludicrous we would think that.
We started running up a wide footpath towards Broad Law in good spirits. It wasn’t raining… much, and we concentrated on just getting to control point one, which our map suggested was on a cairn somewhere on the eastern flank. Here we experienced what would be the first incidence of a frankly overwhelming sense of self-doubt. I’ve done my Mountain Leader training and am, or was, a reasonably confident navigator. But there, in the clag, howling winds and alone, we realised we didn’t know where we were. Not a good start.
After a while running around aimlessly following bearings from nowhere, imagining cairns and trig points appearing out of the mist, Ben suggested we climb back to the last trig and start again. We found the control but the experience had been demoralising. We’d made so many navigational errors: we’d missed tick features and handrails, misread bearings and mistimed distances. We’d argued, apologised, laughed and made jokes. It wasn’t even 10.30am yet.
Getting to checkpoint number two was much easier; hell, we even jogged some of the way. Were chatty again. Three and four, despite being up long cruel hills, were dibbed. I seem to remember enjoying the views around there for a bit too long. The clouds had lifted by now, and the true scale of these hulking great hills became clear. I could now relate the ground I saw to our map, and this was terrifying.
The cut off for the C-Class is 8pm and by 4pm we’d resigned ourselves to returning to the overnight camp in the dark. There was certainly very little running. Heather and bog required lifting one foot up as high as it would go and then pulling the next one out. Between controls 8 and 9, the terrain was seriously crushing. Looking back at our times as I write this, I see it took us 1.37 hours to go just over two kilometres in a straight line with only 120m of ascent.
By the time we reached where we thought 9 was, we were still in with a chance. But we just couldn’t find it. In clear contravention of the rules, I went off one way and Ben in the other to find the damn thing. Eventually Ben found it: “Come on! We’ve got 15 minutes.” We ran faster than we had all day back to the site. Approaching the end, we heard a countdown and encouragement: “10, 9, 8, 7…” we made it. With six seconds to spare. “Well done lads,” the guy printing out our timings said. “Shame you missed the last checkpoint.” Ben may have shed a tear. All I could think about was ingesting two portions of freeze-dried shepherd’s pie as quickly as possible. We didn’t make any more jokes that evening.
We smiled for the photographer on the morning of Day 2, pretended to run, and then reduced back to a hobble. To be doing this again in our current physical state seemed insane. There was a bad start to the day: 225 metres of ascent in a kilometre, but once over that we started to feel better.
The fact we’d already been disqualified (around half of the C Class were for some reason) took the pressure off and I was actually enjoying it. I had no sensation in my big toe, but apart from that we occasionally felt like chorizo-munching machines. Up, up, up, down, down, down – these checkpoints were in evil places. But the weather was better, we could see our route and everyone was chatty. It was – dare I say it – fun.
We picked up pace as the end line neared like horses returning to the stables. Not only had we made it within time, we’d made the earlier shuttle bus that, in our heads, lead directly to an Edinburgh tavern. The final disappointment was that it turned out we’d dibbed the wrong dobber (or is it dob the wrong dibber?) on checkpoint one. But sod it, we’d made it to the end of what was and probably always will be, the toughest challenge of our lives. And I say that without a hint of exaggeration. As always, the world is rosier from the inside of a pub, and we recounted our adventures to a friend. I still couldn’t feel my big toe (it would be a month before I could), but boy did we have a story to tell.