21 top tips for a mountain marathon
I recently took part in the first Scottish Mountain Marathon. As a novice, I was keen to learn some tips and advice for successful competing. My key aims were to reduce the size and weight of my pack and to learn how to move faster and navigate better.
1) The term marathon is a bit misleading. This race does not include a standard 26.2-mile marathon (or two marathons back to back over two days) but a test of stamina, endurance and navigating skills over mountainous terrain.
You might well end up running a marathon distance but the better way to think about this event is that a marathon means a test of endurance.
2) Take two plastic bags. These are useful at the overnight camp. Many people will change out of wet socks into dry socks. You then put your feet in plastic bags and slip them inside your wet footwear. This means your dry socks do not become wet again (until you have to put them on the next morning when they have not dried out!).
3) Choose your partner well. Make sure you both have the same aims for the event and that you are a similar speed and fitness.
It’s important that you get on well, too. Many couples (partners or husband-and-wife teams) prefer not to race together because there is a higher potential for fall outs, although others say it works very well. It depends on your own attitude and your relationship but I saw more friends racing together than couples.
4) Check your start time. This is a schoolboy error that Rob and I made. We were so excited to be starting the race that we forgot to check the time that we dibbed in at the start.
This meant we knew only approximately, to the nearest 10 mins or so, what time we needed to be at the finish for each day.
5) Take your time to properly look at the map. These navigation races seem a bit strange because as soon as you cross the start line you stop.
This is the time when you look at the map – your first look at the map – and work out where you will aim for. If you are doing a linear course you might get started far quicker than if you are doing the score course.
6) The lighter your pack the easier it is to run. Everywhere I looked, participants had very light and small packs. Mine seemed much bigger. I asked various people and they said they were sacrificing warmth for lighter packs.
They had packed very lightweight sleeping bags, minimalist sleeping mats or no mat at all, freeze-dried food, such as Summit to Eat, the very lightest waterproof jackets and trousers and minimal spares.
As hard as I tried I could not work out how their packs were so lightweight.
One competitor told me: “I spend a lot on ultra-lightweight kit. It’s definitely worth it.”
7) Pack a lightweight insulated jacket. Many people that I spoke to were thankful for their lightweight down or synthetic insulation jacket. These jackets will pack down into a small space yet still offer much needed warmth at the overnight camp.
I wore mine inside my sleeping bag all night.
8) Take a luxury item. For many people this was a small bottle of whisky. I took gin with a touch of berry liqueur in an empty soft drink bottle. It was worth the extra weight because it is a real treat at a wet and cold overnight camp.
9) Do not forget your midge net. The midges are fierce in Scotland in summer, especially when its damp and warm and out in the wilds.
10) Take an empty plastic milk carton. This allows you to collect water when you spot it in streams and rivers. We did not need to carry lots of water with us and instead we drank from streams.
11) Get changed asap. I get cold when I stop exercising and my aim at the camp was to change into a dry t-shirt and add a down jacket. I put up my tent as soon as I could, too. Then I got the stove going for a cup of tea.
Rob’s method was slightly different: Tent up, change clothes, tea.
12) An altimeter is useful. You can’t use a GPS gadget when taking part in a mountain marathon but some races allow air pressure-based altimeters. We found an altimeter on a watch to be very useful for sticking to a contour.
13) Wet socks in your armpits! This sounds grim but it was a great way to dry out wet socks. Once they are under your armpits you don’t notice them. I kept mine there all night.
14) If you think you are going off course stop and rethink. Do not plough on imagining that you might be right. It is better to check and check again rather than cover extra distance because you can’t be bothered.
15) Eat before you get hungry. Bring “hangry” (hungry anger) can cause all sorts of issues, such as arguments between pairs, tantrums and lack of concentration. Eating regularly and small amounts as you go along will help to overcome any hangry issues.
16) Take a space blanket. A competitor told me that rather than taking an inflatable thermarest, she uses a basic OMM sleeping mat (this fits into the back of the OMM rucksack) and then a space blanket over the top for warmth. She said: “It can be a bit noisy because the space blanket rustles but it keeps you warm.”
17) Be happy spooning your team-mate! Sharing a tent with a friend will mean you are in close confines so you need to be able to cope with being cosy together. You might even end up spooning them. Sleeping together in a tent is a lot warmer than sleeping on your own.
18) Be prepared for sleep deprivation. A basic overnight camp with not quite enough warm kit will likely leave you sleep deprived. It’s all part of the challenge and mot people can cope with limited sleep for another day of racing. I am never good without sleep but I managed.
19) Take a length of string. I had never heard of this before but one of the top ladies in our Long Score told me about this top tip. She uses a length of string to work out how far she will be able to run/hike between checkpoints.
Based on 4km per hour, she lays the string on the map and works out how many kilometres are achievable in the set time. We did similar by adding up the km squares on the map but I expect the string method is a lot more accurate.
20) A mountain marathon should be enjoyable. Taking part in a two-day event should be enjoyable rather than torture. You do not need to race to within an inch of your life, unless that is wha you enjoy doing. Take the time to enjoy the views, chat to each other and have fun.
Before and after the event is a good opportunity to relax, eat, have a beer and chat to other likeminded people.
21) Don’t be afraid to give it a go. I was nervous about this sort of event. I wasn’t sure about all sorts of things. But in the end I really enjoyed myself. It was interesting, challenging, fun and the views were superb.
Also read about my first impressions of a mountain marathon