I took part in the first Scottish Mountain marathon in 2019. This article appeared in The Scots Magazine, May 2020. I competed in the two-day event in the north-west highlands with my friend Rob.
What is a mountain marathon?
A mountain marathon is an extended form of hill or mountain running, usually over two days and always with a strong orienteering element.
The exact location usually remains a secret until close to the event date.
Competitors participate in pairs or solos, depending on the race, and they must carry their own kit for full self-sufficiency.
There is a range of competition courses, including linear and “score”, and from novice distance to elite, with a set time or distance foreach day of racing.
Penalties are awarded for finishing outside the set times. Classes are male, female and mixed.
A tough mountain challenge
It is the slowest first 10 minutes of any race I have ever competed in. After the excitement and anticipation of the start of the inaugural Scottish Mountain Marathon, my team-mate Rob and I stop still.
We take off our rucksacks, kneel down at the side of a rough track beside a grassy field and pore over a map.
The map is new – created for the event – and shows a remote wilderness area in the north-west Highlands.
Around us, the other participants are doing the same, before, pair by pair, they head off in different directions from Attadale Gardens, near Strathcarron.
The aim of the mountain marathon is to gain the highest score by visiting checkpoints spread across the wild landscape.
Organisers, Ourea Events, have awarded higher scores to the most difficult, or more distant, checkpoints (CPs), but ultimately we must choose our own route.
We also have a daily time limit – seven hours on day one and six hours the next – over which we will be penalised for a late arrival.
The pressure is palpable as Rob and I make an initial route plan, identifying our first few CPs.
At first we follow a wide Landrover track. I can feel the uncomfortable weight of my rucksack and I wonder if there was anything I could have discarded.
I was sure I had minimised the mandatory kit list but I’ve spotted other runners with much smaller packs.
However, there is a balance to be struck between warmth and survival and I’ve packed a few extra items, such as an insulated jacket, socks and a sleeping mat.
In any case, within a couple of hours I’ve accepted the weight of my pack although it is energy sapping when we reach the hills.
For most of the weekend, we walk and run over a pathless landscape, slogging through many miles of thick heather, over tussocky grass moorlands, through bogs and streams and up and down endless knolls, hills and mountains.
It’s an unforgiving terrain, although ruggedly beautiful, and in an area that is new to Rob and I, which means we must navigate from point to point on a micro scale.
However, although tricky and testing, the map reading is also rewarding and a pattern of collaboration quickly emerges.
We discuss each potential CP, making an assessment based on distance, height gain and the potential points scored. We agree a bearing, follow the route cross-country, check the bearing again and again just to be sure and then hope that the CP will be obvious on the ground.
We do all this as we try to keep an even pace together.
After “collecting” the CP, using an electronic “dibber”, we plan our route to the next CP as quickly and methodically as possible.
Of course, it is difficult to ignore the other 200 pairs around us and we wonder what their chosen route to CPs has been and whether it’s more successful or efficient than ours.
But we agree there is little point in thinking too deeply about this – and because people are competing over different courses, we don’t know who is doing what.
As well as choosing CPs over the first day of the SMM, Rob and I must reach Bendronaig Lodge by the afternoon cut-off, for an overnight camp.
The camp spot is the same for everyone and self-sufficiency is part of the rules with all food and equipment carried on our backs.
It’s when we are at our most exhausted towards the end of the day that Rob and I make our most significant error. It has started to rain heavily and we end up crossing a swollen, fast moving river up to our thighs.
Walking and stumbling along a muddy and rocky riverbank, we finally and reluctantly come to the conclusion that we do not have enough time to climb a steep hill to another CP.
Worse still, we must retrace our route for a while to regain a track that heads to the camp. I fall silent, trying to convince myself that it’s a fun event and simply an exhausting torture.
Setting up our tents in the rain while shivering with damp cold does not improve my sense of humour. It’s only when I’ve changed into my dry baselayer and socks, while wriggling about in a tiny lightweight tent, and I am finally sipping a cup of tea that I feel like chatting to Rob again.
We decide that the best plan is to eat an evening meal, cooked over our shared stove, drink more tea and turn in for an early night. There is little else to do in the wet darkness and my sleeping bag is the warmest place to be.
Well, it is the warmest place for approximately four hours. After that I spend a mostly sleepless night shivering and trying not to worry about the rain getting into my tent.
In the end, I get up and make strong coffee (one luxury item packed in my rucksack).
The second day starts in the same stop-still way as day one. Except this time as we assess the map for CPs I am tired, cold and carrying a rucksack filled with wet kit
The choice is to head up two mountains for a couple of higher scoring CPs or stay lower and hope to dib into more lower scoring CPs. We choose what we think is the safer latter option because we are worried we will not get to the finish by cut-off.
The chances are it was the right decision because I feel sluggish and slow compared to the day before but I continue to wonder if we should have braved the mountains.
Yet, there is still a lot to challenge us and we have to push ourselves to move forwards as fast as we can over a relentlessly hilly wilderness.
Again we settle into a familiar regime of collaborative navigating and while we know we will not be the fastest or the smartest competitors, we enjoy the results of reaching several more CPs.
However, the landscape seems harsher on day two and the CPs are tougher to reach. Our total points tally doesn’t increase as quickly as I had hoped and before we know it we are running out of time to make the finish.
Then, frustratingly, we find ourselves in a gorge. What looked like a great exit route on the map turns out to be filled with waist high ferns, thick mud and rocks.
We have no choice but to keep going, cursing our situation and frequently checking our watches and also the map, in search of a more runnable track back to Attadale.
Finally we spot a more runnable trail and with all of our last reserves of energy we run as fast as we can towards the end point. One last CP on the trackside raises my spirits and then we cross the finish line together. I can think only of dry clothes and a hot filling meal.
The results of my first two-day mountain marathon reveals that Rob and I are fifth mixed pair in the Long Score. I’m not going to tell you how many were in our class!
See: Scottish Mountain Marathon .
Mountain marathon kit list
Mountain marathons have a mandatory kit list. My rucksack included:
- OMM Raid 1.0 sleeping back
- Mountain Hardware Ghost tent (850g)
- Therm-a-Rest NeoAir sleeping mat
- OMM Kamleika waterproof jacket
- OMM Halo waterproof trousers
- OMM insulated Mountain Raid jacket
- Long-sleeved baselayer x 2
- Socks x 2
- Trail shoes
- Camping stove and gas (shared)
- Summit to Eat camp food
- Emergency foil blanket
- Plastic cup
- Midge net
- Running tights
- Toothbrush loaded with paste
- Blister plasters
- Zinc oxide climber’s tape
- Snacks/energy gels
Mountain marathon top tips
Take two plastic supermarket bags to place over your feet in the evening so that when you change into dry socks, you can still wear wet trail shoes.
Dehydrated food, whether bought or made at home, saves weight over “wet” food.
Reduce the amount of water you need to carry by taking a lightweight cup that you can drink from when you come across rivers and streams.
Alternative mountain marathons to check out:
- ROC Mountain Marathon
- Original Mountain Marathon (OMM)
- Marmot Dark Mountain
- Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon
- Mourne Mountain Marathon