January 10th 2019. I’m sat in the staff room at work during my break, nothing much is happening, everyone appears to be absorbed by their phones. Not wanting to feel left out I check my own phone and come across a post on the HPH Facebook page searching for a partner to run an overnight mountain marathon in the Lake District. I love the Lake District, however I don’t really race and have virtually no experience of head torch running so I quickly discount the idea of volunteering. Later that evening sat chatting with Laura she asks if I saw the post, I say that I did but I discounted it because I don’t race and when I do it tends to be longer, trail type races over hilly terrain… somewhere far away I hear the faint sound of a penny dropping. I give it a bit more thought and decide to contact Mark, my would be race partner, to get a bit more info. I liked what he had to say, I assume he liked the sound of my running experience so the following day I was signed up to the Marmot Dark Mountain Marathon. I now had less than two weeks to get some practice in for up to 14 hours of running, in the dark, over Lakeland mountains, in wind, rain and snow, navigating to checkpoints, with someone I had never met. What could possibly go wrong? Fast forward to Saturday 26th January, I’ve begged, borrowed and stolen the bits of kit that I didn’t already have (thank you very much Steve Rhodes) and been on a couple of practice night runs (thank you Matt Armstrong) and I’m making my way up to Lowther Castle in the Far Eastern Fells of The Lake District to the race start. Peering out of the car windscreen at the fells I estimate the cloud base to be about 300m, at first I worry until the realisation hits me that it will be dark so I won’t be able to see anyway. The second visual issue I have is that I haven’t the foggiest (pun intended) what Mark looks like; I resort to waiting for someone to turn up sporting the same apprehensive expression as me. I manage to identify Mark at the first attempt.
As promised by Facebook, Mark turned out to be a decent bloke although not the slow runner that he rather modestly claimed, when I ask what he means by slow, he replied that he can only do 10km in about 35 minues! We spent the next couple of hours sorting kit and inspecting the maps of the race area, you don’t find out the actual route until the moment you start. There are seven races tonight, 4 linear courses where check points have to be visited in number order within a set time and points races where points are awarded for visiting as many check points as possible within a set time. We are running the Linear B course; for this sort of race there is a mandatory kit list but it is important to minimise the weight of your kit, so we scrutinise everything we are carrying and get rid of anything surplus to requirements. Finally our departure time of 9.06pm arrives, we are handed our map of the checkpoints and we head off in to the dark with just our own small circle of light for comfort.
We start well overtaking numerous teams before check point 1 (not from our race I should add), despite the torrential rain the navigation is pretty straight forward for the first few check points and we overtake Team 31, a team from our race; we are then joined by another team and spend the next couple of hours in close competition. After CP4 there is a decision to make, a direct route over two very steep ridges, a navigationally risky route or a longer but safer route around the base of the ridges. We opt for the latter while the other two teams take one of the other alternatives. We arrive at the next CP a little after the direct bearing team but well ahead of the navigationally risky team who got lost and ran up and down the ridge until they gave up. We catch the other team up at a river crossing just before CP6, at this point I am really glad that I invested in waterproof socks… until I step in to the thigh deep water. My displeasure is heightened moments later when somebody points out the bridge 30 yards up stream that had been cunningly hidden by darkness! Soon after leaving CP6 at about midnight the rain takes on a more fluffy appearance in my headtorch and is coating the ground in a thick layer of white, there is no let-up in the torrential nature, it just stings a lot more when it is blown in to my face. We press on through the snow, back up and over the ridge that we had just avoided, as height is gained the depth of the snow increases and my hands and feet turn to blocks of ice. There is a bit of mild panic as we briefly struggle to find the next CP, we soon identify it on the other side of a river, there is no bridge available this time but there is a thick layer of snow on the opposite bank to warm our feet up. CP7 to CP 8 presents another choice; we could take the direct route which involves a very steep snowy descent or follow a path to the valley for a faster, safer descent. The direct route is very tempting as by now I am freezing and just want to finish ASAP; my feet are so numb that my foot placement is dubious at best. Reluctantly but probably sensibly we opt for the valley, head off and are making good progress until I notice the snow is looking darker than it should do in the beam of a bright head torch. Another unscheduled stop for a change of batteries is in order; we stop for a couple of minutes while I fumble around with tiny batteries in freezing hands that have all the dexterity of a horse threading a needle. Several minutes later the task is accomplished and triumphantly I turn my torch back on and bask in a beam of total blackness! Mild panic sets in again, swear words prove not to be a miracle cure so I reach for my spare torch; my reach would need to be about 15km to reach the torch that I had left back at the start in my desperation to save weight! As cold sets in again and we both start to shiver uncontrollably Mark lends me his spare torch but reveals that it is unlikely to last until the end of the race; we decide to continue to the next CP to decide what we will do. Carry on with the risk of being stuck on a fell top waiting for sunrise or drop out; I don’t want a DNF, if I was going to drop out it would have happened in the blizzard on the fell tops so in reality my mind is already made up. CP8 is manned and is reached quickly where the marshals are sheltering in a van; light from the van proves bright enough to fix my head torch. Reenergised we set off at a cracking pace, on the way up to CP9 on Hallin Fell we overlap with Team 31 on their way down. The view from the top of Hallin Fell was stunning; by now the weather had cleared up and we were presented with a dark panorama of Lakeland fells swarming with the little pin pricks of torch light in every direction.
We set off in pursuit of Team 31 and have pretty much overtaken them by CP11 although we do not know this at the time. Mark’s navigation was spot on throughout the race and he picks the perfect line to CP12 where we catch up with what we believed to be Team 31, we are soon past them and storm through the last few check points to the finish, managing a few sub 5 minute kilometres after 9 hours of running (or 9hours, 2 minutes and 6 seconds if you want to be picky).
We are the first team back from our race and congratulate each other before slumping in to a couple of chairs to knock back gallons of tea prior to heading for breakfast. When we return Mark checks the results and asks “do you think we could have saved 95 seconds at any point?” We had been beaten to second place by a little over a minute and a half by the team that we overtook at CP12. Mentally I invent some new swear words and subtly tuck my spare head torch further to the bottom of my rucksack, fortunately Mark does not blame me and points out numerous occasions when we could have been quicker. Of the 20 teams that started our race only 11 finished so all in all it was a great result, I’m sure the added weight of a second torch would have slowed me down by hours anyway. I’m really glad I volunteered; I really enjoyed the race, even at the coldest, wettest and darkest moments. It took me out of my comfort zone and forced me in to new experiences that I probably would have avoided before. The darkness of winter no longer places barriers in the way of route choices and my navigation has taken a step forward. It’s certainly given me a taste for mountain marathons (although don’t tell Laura!) or just longer runs in the mountains and I would encourage everyone not to let your fears prevent you from doing that you want to do; you’ll soon find that many of these fears are unfounded. Just don’t forget your spare torch!
Bob Graham Round anyone?