I am climbing a tussock and heather covered hill in the un-forested “Forest of Bowland” with my partner, Andrew Berry, it is 4am on Sunday morning, we do not know where we are, visibility with our headtorches on is down to 10m, it is pouring with rain and we are both getting dangerously cold. Should we stop and get out the extra clothes which we are carrying, which will be almost impossible to put in the wind, or carry on trying to move fast and hope not cool down any more and also hope to relocate and eventually get somewhere less windy to get some more kit on? This is part of what makes Marmot Dark Mountains a great event. It is not just moving quickly and navigating well it is looking after yourself and your partner at night in winter.
We had set off at just before 8pm on Saturday night with 54km, 21 controls and 2000m of ascent to navigate round on the Elite class. We set off fast, probably too fast in hindsight. On the first 4 controls we found good routes and our navigation was perfect. Then I suddenly started to feel tired, I said to Andy that I would be OK if we took it easy for 30 minutes – 3 hours later I finally picked up a bit. Andy took my pack and took over the navigation. I tried to run but I just kept falling over and swearing. There did not seem to be anything in my legs – a classic bonk. But it is even worse than a normal bonk when it is rough underfoot and dark. Then the cramping started in my hamstrings, calfs and even my quads and there were screams as I fell over. I was still suffering badly as we finished a loop of the 1st half of the course and we were only 4km from the finish. Andy asked if I wanted to give up. I said no, I did not give up Mountains Marathons just because I am feeling awful and suffering badly. Also I know from experience that it is possible to recover from the biggest depths. I have only given up one mountain marathon and that is because my knee swelling up overnight and I could barely walk the next day. I do not know why I felt so bad, probably I was still not completely recovered from a really nasty cold that had finished a couple of days before. Eventually as we ran towards 13 I did indeed up a bit and was enjoying myself again. There was some tricky navigation but we did not make any big mistakes. Then there was a long leg (17-18) into the wind and the rain started. I should immediately have put a warmer top on underneath my waterproof and some waterproof trousers. But I thought I would be all right. However in the wind and rain and through the peat groughs I drifted off my compass bearing. We hit a river and fence but nothing made sense as we were getting cold. I made a guess as to where we were and we continued on a bearing but we were climbing much too much. At this point I was getting worried about how cold we were. Andy suggested what we could have done and the map finally made sense. We were lucky it was not the way we intended to go to 18 but it was an OK route and we did not lose much time. Finally we reached control 20 a trig point on the top of a hill, still dangerously cold, but just a log descent to a sheltered valley. I was descending very slowly because I was so cold but also I could not really see as my head torch batteries were also nearly gone. Andy got us sheltered and changed the batteries on my head torch. Finally we reached the bottom and I got my Berghaus HyperTherm on, although my hands were so cold it took ages. Then there was just one more climb to the final control. Just as we approached the top I had another even worse bonk, although at least I was now warm. I could barely stand let alone make forward progress. I had the final small bit of food we had left and eventually it kicked in enough for me to start moving at a reasonable speed again. We reached the final control but had lost big time, taking 1 hour 46 minutes on leg 20-21 compared to 1 hour 19 minutes to eventual winners Sabrina Verjee and Tom Gibbs. Then it was just downhill in the dawn on the road to the finish – which I was very relieved to finally get to.
I am happy to have worked with Andy as a team to get round and there is something amazingly satisfying about navigating at night over some of the roughest terrain you can get. There is also something amazing funny about pulling yourself out of another waist deep bog, apart from when you have cramp. Overall, I made loads of mistakes but that means there is always room for improvement in future years.
Congratulations to Sabrina Verjee and Tom Gibbs for another win of this tough event. Lawrence Eccles and Ally Beaven got round in the fastest time of the night on the Elite course but went to the wrong number 7 (which we also did but luckily Andy checked the code) and Jonathon Davies and Neil Talbott also very nearly won but accidentally went into an Out of Bounds area near the end. It is tough when these things happen but I am sure they will be back. As well as these performances the impressive thing is anyone who goes out on a Saturday night on the fells in winter, looks after themselves and their partner and sees what they are capable of.
Thanks to Graham Gristwood for some great courses and also Shane Ohly, the Ourea team and all the volunteers for putting on the event.