After months of training, doing research and buying stuff, the OMM weekend had finally arrived!
Our weekend started off on the Friday when Chris picked me up in the rental car to set off on the 6-hour drive to Scotland from the South of England. Chris drove the whole way and the traffic was thick. We listened to a podcast about American Frankenfoods that was pretty funny and arrived in Scotland at dusk. You could just make out the shadow of some massive hills in the distance. In the dark it was not clear where the top of the hill ended and the clouds began!
We drove straight to the OMM center to register and get the team electronic dibbers (they attach them to your wrist for the duration of the weekend). We had a look at the makeshift OMM store to check out the latest gear. I bought a t-shirt and mug. It was wet and muddy out – a sign of things to come…
We stayed overnight at a hotel in Moffat, Scotland, about 30 mins drive south of the event center. We sorted through all our gear and prepared our final pack, lightening the load as much as possible. I only slept okay – was hot in the room despite the windows being open and I was nervously excited.
The next day we woke up, scarfed down some oatmeal and head up to the start. When we arrived, Thursten and Pete arrived ahead of us and they thought that our start window as earlier, so Pete and I scrambled to the start, which was a 15 min walk away. Turns out our slot was 15 mins later, which was good that we didn’t have to rush in the end. Chris and Thursten started in the next 15 min slot, so we waited for them on the other side of the start line. This gave us time to check out the maps they give you when you start and plan the route to the first control. We were on the C-Course, which is designed to be a mix of a linier and score course. Together, the four of us headed up the first mountain road up to the first control point.
Here’s the route we took on both days, note each contour lines is 15m elevation (so the closer together they are, the steeper the slope)
It was good to have an established trail to go up. Chris, who had suffered a severe knee injury a couple of months before, was hurting on the first ascent, but he soldiered on. Once we got to the top of the first very large mountain, the weather had changed drastically. There was sleet-like rain, heavy wind and poor visibility. Pete, who was nominated to lead the navigation to the first control point, took us up to the large beacon building at the top of the hill, then we took a bearing off towards the control point, which we eventually found in the fog, aided by another group searching for the same control.
The second control took us a bit off course as we tried to stay on high ground. We overshot the direct route and followed a fence line that took us a bit out of our way. There were a bunch of people around that we followed – they were a bit lost too! (or on another course, you just never know). Eventually we made our way to control 2 and the weather started to turn around at that point. I refilled my filtered water bottle with some sweet, cold, rusty colored Scottish water and had a powerbar and some trail mix.
I navigated the next bit. It was fairly easy since it mostly involved following a fence line. When we got to the end I wasn’t quite sure that we made it until we realized that the fence took a turn. I took a bearing and we headed straight down the hill to the 3rd control inside a sheepfold. This downhill really didn’t do Chris’ knee any favors, but we all made it.
I don’t think the OMM planners intended to have this long haul at the start. We heard that they had to reroute the start of day one away from some hunting going on in the area, which made day one much longer than planned. They decided to shorten the day 2 course as a result.
We decided to avoid the direct route to control 4 over a hill, favoring following the river towards the road. Thursten made the call and it worked well. Turned out that there was a nice trail along the river from some 4 wheeler tracks that were not on the map. We eventually ended up on some roads and made it to the foot of the hill near control 4. Here we decided to go up and over the hill, which was probably a mistake. It was boggy and hard going. In retrospect, we should have dropped down to the valley once we saw a trail, but at that point we were pretty tired, mentally and physically, and our group was finding it hard to agree on the best direction. At lest the weather was much better and the sun was out.
Once we got up the uneven hill, with lots of knee deep holes of watery crap, Chris’ knee had finally given in. Chris and Thursten decided to pack it in for the day (they were a team) and headed back to camp. Unfortunately, the overnight campsite was still a distance away…
Pete and I descended to punch into control 4, then we waited to see if Chris and Thursten were behind us. Some women told us that they were asked to relay on the message that they had headed to camp. Pete and I decided to see how much more we could do, knowing that it likely wasn’t possible for us to finish the course due to how late it was.
This was the part of the C-course where you could pick any 3 of 5 control points to visit. I had thought that trying to keep near the camp would be best in case we had to pack it in, but in retrospect we probably should have just tried to go in a loop around the nearest 3 controls. We headed over to control CM.
It took us awhile to get over to CM. The footing was uneven, wet, thick foliage and sheep shit was everywhere. We made it over to where we thought the control was, but couldn’t find it at first. Eventually we fanned out and Pete found it a little way up the valley.
Next, we headed over the next mountain towards AD. This too was a slog. Lots of wind and wet underfoot, plus the slope was steep for awhile (I’m not the fastest going uphill due to my fat gut). Eventually we made it over to the sheepfold where we thought AD was. The control had some different letters on it (BC). We thought it was labeled wrong, because how could there be two sheepfolds in the same area?! Turns out we were wrong. Looking at the map now, it looks like AD was further down the slope at a different sheepfold. Didn’t get credit for this even though we hauled our butts all the way over there… very annoying!
It was starting to get dark, so Pete and I headed back in the direction of camp. We had planned to follow a fence line that we saw earlier. When we made it to the fence, we got out our head lamps because we were losing light fast. Another muddy walk up the hill. We took a bearing off a post where the fence took a different angle and headed over the hill to camp. It was dark by then.
Once we came over the crest of the hill, it was pretty cool. We could see the campsite, which was a relief, because we knew we had navigated correctly. For the fun of it we looked for control number 9, even though at this point we knew we wouldn’t complete the course and would be disqualified from the competition. It was magical to watch the pairs of head lamps descending from all directions down to the campsite. It was like watching fireflies drawn to the irresistible safety of the campsite lights.
When we arrived, Chris and Thursten were waiting near the gate and somehow saw us coming in. They had arrived much earlier and had already set up camp and ate dinner. They had saved us a spot nearby and helped us get dinner on and our stuff sorted out – was nice to have the help (thanks again guys!), I was totally exhausted at this point after being out for over 10 ½ hours.
We ate. I felt obligated to neck the gin and tonic I had made earlier at the hotel that I sored in a small plastic bottle. Then we hit the sack. It was a cold and windy night. I didn’t sleep well at all. My balloon bed kept shifting under me and I really wish I had a full stocking cap. I had to use my eye shades as an earmuff!
The bagpipes started to blow early in the morning, like 5:30 AM or something like that. We knew that we had already been disqualified, so we decided to skip our early 7:30 AM start time and try to get the extra rest. We woke up and ate some breakfast and broke down the camp. My shoes were literally freezing after being wet outside the tent all night.
Chris and Thursten decided to try to head straight back to the finish given Chris’ knee issue. Pete and I decided we’d try to get a few gates in, but we agreed to be back at the finish for 1 PM so we can all get home at a reasonable time (We all had to work the next day, apart from Thursten who was heading straight on to Italy for a family holiday).
Pete and I climbed up a massive mountain out of camp and over to control 3 (day 2 map). We made it there, walking over some nice soft, spongey heather. Along the way we ran into another team. They were also on the C-course and had done all but one control the day before because they couldn’t find in the dark. The guy said, “It feels like somebody had repeatedly hit the bottom of my feet over and over with a cricket bat!”. That pretty much sums up how my feet felt as well! The constant uneven pounding on the feet and weird angles your feet land on really take their toll on the feet and ankles.
From control 3 we dropped down to the river and decided to go up a mountain trail over to 185. This was another big hill that never seemed to end. Once we got to the top and followed the trail around – we actually saw control 185 about 30 yards away, but couldn’t be bothered to punch in. We saw it, that was good enough!
From there we knew we had to plow on back to the start if we wanted to be back for 1 PM. So we went over the next hill and over the mountain we climbed on day 1 to make our way back to the road we had went up. Once we made it to the road, we knew it was all downhill from there. We make it back at about 1:20 PM, with no sign of Chris or Thursten. We handed in our dibber and got our free stew lunch. Chris eventually came about 15 mins later.
Turns out that a local person had driven him back to the center and he was getting his car keys to pick up Thursten and another stranded pair on a road down by the reservoir. I grabbed my clothes out of the car and went back to the center to grab Pete and let him know the plan (sorry Pete that I bailed out on you there for a bit).
Pete and I went down to Pete’s rental car to see if we could get changed and out of the muddy parking field. Pete did a great job getting out without getting stuck, which seemed almost impossible. We met up with Chris and Thursten, swapped cars and Chris and I drove the 6+ hours home after stopping for a well-deserved KFC and coffee at the first motorway services. Apart from stopping once and for gas, I drove mostly straight through.
As we were heading back, Chris told me about what happened to him and Thursten… They left camp and went up the large hill back to the start. Chris was navigating and they kept getting confused with the map, but seemed to convince themselves they were going in the right direction. At one point they came across some other competitors that told them they were going the wrong way, which they thought wasn’t right. Eventually they came to a hill and saw… the campsite they started at! Turns out that Thursten’s compass had reversed polarity and North/South was flipped! There were other issues that lead them off course, but this didn’t help – what a bummer!
They did see the very prominent reservoir and scrapped the compass to head towards that. I guess there were many other groups who decided to pack it in on the road by the reservoir, like the Walking Dead! Chris eventually got a lift by a generous local person back to the start, which is where we met up with him.
My legs were still a bit sore 3 days after the event, but I really wish I could go back and have another try to fix some mistakes, tweak my equipment and try to complete the course. Guess I’ll have to wait another year for that… bummer…
I know it probably sounds a bit lame how few controls we actually managed to hit, but it was HARD going… I’ve done a 100-mile cycling sportive before, so it’s not like I was expecting a walk in the park, but I wasn’t expecting how challenging it would be.
Overall, I’m trying to think of a good way to sum up the experience. I can say it was one of the toughest challenges I think I’ve ever undertaken and I regret that we couldn’t finish the course, however, I’m still proud of our achievement and I would like to do it again, if not only to prove to myself that it can be done (It’s a middle-age thing 😉 ). I really enjoyed the landscape, being outdoors, the physical/mental challenge, the single-minded focus to prepare and the camaraderie. Thanks again to Chris, Thusten and Pete.
You can find the official OMM 2015 race results here, along with the organisation course reports:
What I learned (spoiler: a lot)…
- Scottish mountains are beautiful, but big! 😉
- I was pretty happy with my equipment for the most part, apart from some minor tweaks I’d make (see below). Check out my kit list post to see what I took.
- I’m glad I packed some extra food and an additional meal. Overall, my nutrition was spot on and I kept eating throughout the event. I never felt hungry or completely out of energy.
- The training we did for the OMM was not sufficient… In the South of England there are not many places to train on the extreme inclines you find in Scotland. Physically, we knew we could handle the distance, but it’s a whole different set of muscles to haul up the slopes of the mountains. Also, the cold, rainy, 30 mph gusting winds and boggy conditions are hard to recreate.
- Although we did okay with the navigation, I need to gain more experience on when to go over the top vs. when to contour, vs. when to follow valleys, etc. Route selection was an issue for us. Distances over land always seemed farther than on the map because of the incline/decline. Navigation as a group doesn’t work very well.
- “Boundaries” on the map are invaluable to either follow, or use as an attack/aiming off point. For our routes, the boundary lines on the map were usually fences that also gave us another point of information given that we could take a bearing off the fence line to translate back to the map.
- Make sure your compass is pointing in the right direction before you start the day!!! 😉
Stuff I’d tweak for next time…
- I think I would likely do the score course next time. At least you would know how long you’re going to be out and if you miss a control you are not disqualified. The score course is where you try to hit as many controls as possible within a set time limit.
- I’d bring my full Rab coat. I really missed the extra warmth, a hood and pockets.
- I’d consider bringing a larger (32 liter?) pack. I’d still want to keep the weight down, but it would be nice to have the extra space for more bulky items that I couldn’t fit into my smaller 24 liter pack. I will still use the 24 liter pack for nicer weather or day trips. Still on the fence about this…
- I’d probably bring warmer gloves.
- I’d pitch the tent with the door uphill and ensure all the points are taught so they don’t flap in the wind.
- I’d bring a better hat, probably a waterproof mountaineering hat with ear flaps. Maybe the OMM Kamleika Cap or a stocking cap.
- I’d bring my Thermarest Xlite sleeping mat rather than the balloon bed.
- Consider buying lightweight, foldable trekking poles, such as the Black Diamond Distance FL trekking poles (www.blackdiamondequipment.com). Not sure about this though, would need to try them out to see if they would be more helpful than annoying to carry.
- Update: Looks like the OMM in 2016 will be in the South of the UK (nearer to where I live), so I’m looking forward to that.
Feel free to post comments if you’d like to ask any questions. Note that I’m a novice at mountain marathons, but I have a couple under my belt now, so I could probably answer some questions.