Mountain Marathons: A British Twist on Ultra Trail Running

What is a Mountain Marathon? Learn about this uniquely British type of ultra-distance trail race.

By on August 28, 2012 | Comments

You made it to the top of the mountain, one of the highest points around. You should be awestruck by the expansive views before you. Not this time. There’s nothing there but low lying cloud, you can only see the ground 10 to 20 feet ahead. Your partner reached the top a moment before you; he’s already studying the map, the next checkpoint to reach is over a mile away, east of here.

You squint to try and see a thing, high winds driving the rain straight into your eyes. It feels more like hail than rain. The winds were bad enough down in the valley, but up here you feel truly insignificant as it buffets you. Gusts hitting 60-70 mph you’ve already witnessed other competitors blown of their feet, being unceremoniously dumped on their backs.

The climb was hard, it would have been tough running up there under any circumstances. With a backpack full of food, stove, fuel, first aid kit, change of clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and tent weighing you down it was downright tortuous.

The first few seconds resting while studying the map was a relief, catching your breath as your calves relax. Twenty seconds later though, and you’re now shivering, the wind and rain stripping heat off your body. You need to get moving and fast to generate some body heat. Hypothermia is a very real danger up here. You need to pick the quickest route to the next checkpoint, not necessarily the shortest route. Your map reading skills are paramount here. A wrong choice could see you struggling to make headway as you sink up to your waist in mud, all because you took a ‘short cut’ through a boggy section, leaving you helpless as you watch competitors who took a longer route overtake you.

Another ten seconds, hands shaking in the cold, it’s hard to grip the map let alone read it – but you manage to fix a bearing on your compass, you’ve noticed a stream that runs past the next checkpoint, heading due East following a compass bearing in zero visibility over a mile stretch you’d certainly miss the checkpoint, instead you head East–Northeast, to intersect the stream, it means running a greater distance, but you can do it much faster. You can run your hardest ‘til you reach the stream then follow it downstream as it heads South and towards your next checkpoint.

Relieved, you begin to run again. You stood still for less than a minute, but the cold October winds coupled with the heavy rain left you feeling cold to your bones. There are tracks on many of the mountains and hills, they zig-zag up to the tops of the peaks, thousands of visitors hiking them every year, but they’re not the fastest route down.

Glancing once more at your compass, you head off on the bearing, dropping straight down the side of the mountain. The ground dropping away before you is scary steep. In just a few moments you’re running faster than you could ever sprint on a good day, and you keep accelerating. Your arms instinctively reach out like wings to keep you balanced.

This is dangerously fast now. There’s nothing you can do though. You chose the line and now you’re committed. You couldn’t stop if you wanted to, stride lengthens dramatically, the rate at which your feet turnover is growing by the second, your arms fail to resemble wings anymore. Now they look more like propellers flailing around outstretched and above your head trying desperately to counterbalance the pull of gravity which is insisting your torso should overtake your feet, leaving you tumbling head over heels ‘til something stops you – most likely a boulder.

The pounding of your pulse is clearly rushing through your head, your breathing louder still. Your heart is beating harder than it was on the way up. Every fibre of muscle in your body is being worked to its limit as your brain picks a line through the boulders and loose rocks. You don’t have time to consciously think- to choose your route. If you try interfere, you’ll be on your arse in no time. You have to switch the fear off and trust your brain to scan the ground fast enough, and let you your feet know where they should go next.

Your peripheral vision must be there somewhere, but you don’t notice it anymore. If you could notice it, you’d see a blur as you hurtle towards the ground at twenty miles an hour or faster. This can’t be held for long, a controlled fall more than a run. Your eyes zoom in on the ground ahead with laser-like focus. Every footstep is a potential sprained ankle or worse. You’re exhausted, legs screaming under the exertion, hold on, keep concentrating, keep the effort in your legs, it’s not far to the bottom now.

That was an experience you could expect running just one mile of a ‘Mountain Marathon.’

A mountain what?

A mountain marathon is a type of running event very popular amongst mountain and trail runners in the United Kingdom.

Competitors enter as pairs, racing over unmarked mountains, relying solely on good, old fashioned compass-and-map reading skills. They have to find a series of obscure ‘checkpoints’ (wearing electronic wrist-bands that verify they were there). It’s as much a test of ‘mountain skills’ as it is fitness. Competitors need the ability to navigate confidently especially in poor visibility and foul weather, which is to be expected in the mountains. For many competitors, bad weather is something to relish, another element to challenge them.

Although it’s called a ‘Marathon’ it covers a much greater distance than standard 26.2 miles. Competitors have to carry everything on their back that they will need for a night camping out in the wild. Including stove, food, tent, etc., the lightest packs are around 11 pounds for those who can afford the lightest kit. For many, packs are heavier still.

If you find all your checkpoints easily, then you may run just one marathon. More likely you’ll find it difficult to locate at least one, if not a handful of checkpoints the first time, meaning wasted distance run looking around. Once finishing the 26-30 miles of running over wild mountainous terrain with a backpack on, runners then have to set up camp at the finish line, heating their dehydrated foods and usually a hot chocolate or coffee. Often people carry the minimum of food necessary. (The more you carry the slower you will be all day.) Stomachs grumbling for more, they’ll try to get some sleep before getting up and doing it all over again the next day. This time there is a new set of checkpoints to find as they return to yesterday’s start point.

The exact locations of the events are kept secret until a week before race day; this is to stop locals from having an advantage. Even then, the actual checkpoints the runners need to find are only given to them once the clock is ticking!

You have to find as many checkpoints as possible, but make it to the finish location before a deadline, for every minute you run over the cut-off time you have points deducted from your score.

So not only do you need to be able to navigate accurately – you need to be able to look at a map, read the terrain you can expect to find, and be experienced enough running out in the wild to know how many minutes it will take you to get there, then choose which points you’re going for. The more distant, obscure checkpoints with the toughest climbs and terrain are worth more points than the low lying quick-to-reach checkpoints. It’s up to you to know your abilities and decide on tactics. Will you rush round grabbing all the lower-scoring checkpoints and end up with a higher score than if you struggled to grab just a few of the higher scoring checkpoints?

The most experienced, fittest runners will ‘clear-up,’ picking off all of the checkpoints systematically before racing to the finish line. The total scores from both days’ efforts are calculated. If there is more than one team who managed to collect all the checkpoints (there will be), then it comes down to time. Who ran to all the checkpoints fastest?

It’s an incredibly demanding and, hence, rewarding discipline of running. It’s not just about getting ‘across’ some wild ground from A-B as fast as you can. You become fully immersed in your surroundings, in the wild, testing all your mountain skills, not just fitness, to the limit for two whole days.

It’s hard to explain to road runners, harder still to explain to non runners when they ask, “Why do you do it?”

I’ve come across no answer better than that of the late Chris Brasher, an Olympic champion who founded the London Marathon: “Perhaps it is escape from the pressure of life, but really it is more than this: it is proof that, sophisticated man though you may be, you can still go out with all your worldly needs on your back and survive in the wild places of Britain. That knowledge is great freedom.”

It’s not surprising people ask why we do it. It does hurt. Running is tough enough, running over mountains is tougher still, doing it with a backpack full of kit on your back, then sleeping out in the cold and repeating it the next day for many just seems silly. It’s as if the competitors want to suffer.

Well, in some sense, I think many do. Many of us today feel trapped in a sedentary lifestyle, and the creature comforts it brings. The majority of us spend our time in or chained to a ‘box,’ be that a car, office cubicle, laptop screen, TV, or the microwave. For most people, their routine which seems the same day after day is as far removed from a natural existence as you could ever imagine. We evolved to move, specifically to run – be that away from something trying to eat us or after the thing we planned to eat next.

Being ‘comfortable’ all the time leads to huge amounts of stress. Almost a sense of being trapped. Being out in the wild, not just for a few hours, but for two whole days is incredibly rejuvenating. You get to see the world exactly as it should look, away from anything man made or man altered, as your stone-age ancestors would have seen it. However, it’s not just the beauty of the surroundings, but the actual physical pain and struggle as well, which strangely makes you feel alive.

When you put your head down in your tent at night, not only does the physical pain stop, you realise you’ve not thought about the laptop, or office or any ‘hassle’ all day and search as you might you can’t find the stresses of everyday life. You’re out in the wild, in your natural environment and you feel the way you evolved to feel in your natural state – physically tired, but mentally at ease. Well, until you remember you have to do it all again in the morning!

The first and hence most well known mountain marathon was originally known as the Karrimor Mountain Marathon. Today, it’s known as the OMM (Original Mountain Marathon). It’s considered the best of all the mountain marathons run in the UK. Every year it draws in well over a thousand competitors (average 1,700). It draws an international field of competitors with at least twelve different countries represented each year.

Call for Comments and Questions
If you’ve ever run a mountain marathon, we’d love to hear about it. If you’ve got questions about mountain marathons, please ask away.

Kevin Carr
Kevin Carr is a 32-year-old ultramarathoner from Devon, England. Kevin normally runs exclusively trails over wild, mountainous terrain. In 2009, he ran the longest unspported trail run in UK history, averaging 30 miles a day for 6 weeks to become the first person to ever run the length of the UK on trails. In 2013, Kevin is taking up a spot of road running, in an adventure named Hard Way Round he's looking to break the record for the fastest run around the world, approx 19,000 miles in 18 months - unsupported.