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Mountain Marathon Guide. Part 1

A mountain marathon is a 2 day test of mountain craft and fitness. Most people run them but there are walking classes in some events and plenty of walking done by the runners. You will be out, unassisted, for 2 days and be required to eat, sleep and take care of yourself whilst navigating a course in a mountainous environment, whilst carrying all your gear. If you are thinking of doing your first mountain marathon or aiming to improve, this guide may be helpful. A mountain marathon can be thought of as a cross between an orienteering race and a long distance fell race.

1. Select your event.

There are 6 main mountain marathons, the highlander (April), the LAMM (June), the Saunders (July), the Rab (Sept) , the Mourne (Sept) and the OMM, (Oct). Mountain marathons generally have 2 types of course Score and Set Route. Score courses have checkpoints or 'controls' with varying values and a time limit. Your job is to collect as many points as possible in the time. You have a free choice of route. Set Routes are just that. The course is set but not marked and you have to get around as fast as possible. In general navigators prefer score courses and fast runners prefer set routes. Both types of course will be subdivided into classes which will be defined by time limit or distance/height gain. Initially choose an event that plays to your strengths for maximum enjoyment. You may have the choice of competing as a pair or solo but not always. For more enjoyment and security it's best to start as a pair. There is also the Marmot24 in July. As the name suggests it's a non stop mountain marathon with a time limit of 24 hours. No offical overnight camp but pretty much the same deal if not worse.

2. Preparation.

Your prep begins a long time before you pack your bag. The most important thing is to be able to navigate the course. For all courses the ability to take the best line from A to B is more important than how fast you can run, so you should focus more on navigation than speed during your run training. Practise packing your bag and getting it comfy, test out different food and clothing combinations in all weathers and run with your partner. Partner communication is vital for a successful mountain marathon. You will get annoyed with each other irrationally when tired and need to recognise this in each other and yourself. Talk about it and the problem dissolves. When all this is sorted, THEN you can think about buying new kit to make your bag lighter and smaller but a light bag while essential for the elite will not help you if you get lost. Use shorter events to test yourself. Look out for orienteering score events (check out British Orienteering), one day adventure races like the Open 5s and navigational fell races like the Lake District Mountain Trial. All these are similar in style but shorter than a mountain marathon.

3. Your Kit.

We will subdivide this into Clothing, Equipment and Food & Drink. Each event will have its own minimum kit list which should be cross referenced with the weather and your aspirations. There will always be some suffering, it's up to you how much. If the forecast is very poor then you will need more than the bare minimum. It's a good idea to take plenty of kit alternatives with you to the race registration so last minute substitutions can be made. The lists below are based on what I took for the 2010 Rab MM with some extra notes and possible alternatives.

Clothing.


You need clothes to run in and clothes for camp. Anything that does both is a bonus but will get wet at some point.
At the overnight camp I was wearing everything except my running socks. When I arrive at camp, I take off my damp thermal, put on my dry wool one and then put the damp one back on over the top. I then put everything else on. I change my socks to the dry liner socks, put my feet in cut down carrier bags and then put my fell shoes back on. To be competitive you will probably be a little cold until you get in your bag. In cold weather and late season I would consider taking a down or synthetic gillet or jacket but the best answer to being cold is to get into your bag and eat.

Each event is a little different, one might stipulate waterproof trousers whilst another is happy with windproof, one needs a balaclava whilst another just asks for hat. Be sure to check your kit against the list and make any little tweaks.

Equipment.


Everyone has different aspirations and budgets. When starting out, you probably have all you need already, some kit may be heavier than it could be but is it really worth upgrading? Remember, navigation is more important than pack weight. A lot of weight can be shed by cutting unnecessary straps/pockets and gizmos off packs, leaving out stuff sacks and generally questioning the worth of every single thing.
  • Lightweight Pack 20 to 30 litres. 300 to 500g. In the last few years there has been so much development in these packs. So much choice now.
  • Lightweight Tent - Terra Nova Laser Photon Elite 800g. One man tent used for 2 people. For a bit more weight a much more versatile light 2 man tent can be used.
  • Sleeping Bag - ME Xero MM 400g. Down bag with built in balloon bed, so the weight includes my sleeping mat (no longer available). Alternative is a light down bag and one of the Thermarest Fast and Light Mats which is a lot more useful for other things but heavier. Not for the purist who may also use foiled bubble wrap instead of a mat. The Balloonbed is a great piece of kit, so much lighter than any other mat. My top tip is not to over inflate the balloons but leave a little tail as in the image below. No doubt you will hear quite a few humourous little pops around camp. Carry a couple of spare balloons with you.

  • Stove - MSR Pocket Rocket (86g without gas) with Light My Fire FireSteel to ignite. A small disposable lighter is a lot easier to use than a firesteel for about the same weight but I just prefer the total infallibility of the firesteel.
  • Pot - MSR Titan Kettle. Lid replaced by tinfoil. I also use a piece of tin foil to make a windbreak to save gas. You can also remove the handles and use a wet sock, but for the 5 grams I prefer not to drop my precious hot water. Your partner needs bring just a cup for brews or can even do without if you share or take it in turns with the cooing pot.
  • Gas. The 100g canister should be enough for two with a bit left over as your emergency spare. An efficient cooker might get you an extra brew.
  • Spork. Just about any plastic spoon will do.
  • Headlamp - Petzl E-Lite 28g. Tiny and light but perfectly adequate. The OMM kit list asks for 'useable light for a minimum of 12 hours'. The definition of useable is subjective so I would pack a slightly bigger lamp in case I was challenged at kit check.
  • Foil Blanket - Some races ask for a blanket, others insist on a bag. AMK do the Heatsheets Emergency Bivvy which is a great product to have in your bag racing or not. You will have one each. Place one on the floor of the tent before you lay out your sleeping bags and put the other over the top as a blanket once you are both in, for extra warmth.
  • First aid kit - the minimum specified in rules in an ultralight drysack
  • Whistle. Built into a l0t of pack chest straps these days. Don't carry 2!
  • Compass - Silva Jet 5. The best compass for running out there. Really stable needle and chunky bezel. Worth every penny.
  • Super Fine permanent black/red marker and a sheet of waterproof paper. The pen will also write on your laminated map for control value marking. Make sure you and your partner have different colours.
  • Watch with stopwatch. Not on the kit list but essential, if it has an altimeter then even better. Learn to navigate in 3 dimensions. Even if the contour values are removed from your map the altimeter can be used to measure height gain from a fixed point and for accurate contouring. Don't forget to start your stop watch at the start! A mistake I have made several times.

Food & Drink.


Again we have on the hill food and camp food. On the hill food for me would be 3 energy bars and half a bag of jelly babies each day. I normally don't start with any water unless I think the first part of the course to be very dry but carry an empty 500ml or 1000ml drink bottle (OMM Ultra Bottle is a nice narrow shape for net pockets) and put in an electrolyte tablet each time I fill it. Recently I have started using a Source Convertube. This gives the functionality of a bladder system (which means you will drink more) with the ease of refilling of a bottle. As a bottle I use old pop bottles which come in just about every size you could want, are cheap, strong, and available everywhere if you need a new one. If you carry the original bottle cap you can stop using the hose assembly if you want to.

At camp I have 2 freeze dried main meals (Mountain House) and some peanut/choc raisin mix plus a cuppa soup or 2 plus a protein recovery drink for the evening. Then a freeze dried porridge oats meal and another recovery drink for breakfast. Some events provide milk and possibly beer at the overnight camp (Saunders and Rab) in which case I buy loads because it's free calories you didn't have to carry. Personally I think they shouldn't and you should be entirely self sufficient but if it's there, use it. Unwrap all your food and use the minimum of lightweight packaging. By ditching all but one of the sealable bags from the meals and wrapping the other potions in clingfilm you will save 70g. Food is the most subjective thing, with the most important thing being that you will actually eat it. You will never seem to have enough but that's just mountain marathons. Practise with the on the hill food whilst training so there are no surprises on race day and you get your portioning right.

So that's everything I carry for a mountain marathon. The golden question is how much should your sack weigh? You should actually think about the weight of both your sacks together as the stronger runner should consider carrying more to even the pace out. Elite pairs aim for sub 20 lbs or 9 kilos at the start line. It can be pricey to get down to this weight involving lots of titanium so match your kit to your aspirations and remember that they are several factors that will have a much greater effect on your performance than your pack weight. I believe I might have mentioned that navigation is far more important than pack weight.

I can't recommend a mountain marathon enough and personally prefer score courses. It's a great test of your general mountain skills and judgement. The sense of achievement and satisfaction at the overnight camp and finish is fantastic. Everyone had the same conditions and information, nobody was perfect and your result is a true reflection of your abilities. The more you race the better your abilities will be.

For more information on race tactics, please read my Mountain Marathon Guide Part 2 - Tactics article.


...just a few additions to Stu's article from me (Kevin).

I compete in Mountain Marathon's with my wife Rachael, usually 2 or 3 a year, but am not quite as hard line as Stu (something to do with a lack of ability and an excess of years). I still get a real buzz from the events though. I agree with Stu that accuracy in navigation is so much more important than pack weight or running fast. Taking this on board I would go for a couple of extra luxuries to make the experience slightly more enjoyable:

Extra kit and food:

  • silk sleeping bag liner
  • I'm a traditionalist so microfleece (ME Microfleece) rather than windshirt
  • If it's cold a synthetic insulation jacket (Rab Generator)
  • toothbrush and paste (micro version)
  • more food during the day; sandwich, banana, cake, fruit and nuts
  • supplementary food at mid camp; chorizo, sundried tomatoes, cake & custard

My Buff doubles as a flannel to get the mire off my legs before settling down to a change of clothing and a meal at mid camp. Like Stu I have separate sleeping gear but don't put wet stuff back on when I'm at camp - I leave that delight 'til the morning.