Marmot Dark Mountains, January 2020

The Marmot Dark Mountains takes the format of a weekend mountain marathon (which is to follow a previously unknown route through a mountainous area, navigating your way to various checkpoints along the way, whilst carrying everything you need for two days and a night, camp overnight, and then do the same to get back to the start the next day) and starts it after dark on the Saturday night to finish on the Sunday morning. The distances and times are therefore double the standard for the weekend format as it’s all compressed into one effort.  The course we decided to enter was the short score. This meant that we would have 8 hours to collect as many points (by visiting checkpoints) as we could.

I first thought about taking part in this event four years ago and then I discovered that I was pregnant with our first child, Joss. I have always been intrigued by the idea of heading out to run all night in the middle of winter to navigate around a set of checkpoints. It sounds so improbable. Did I have the skills to be able to do this? Andy and I define an adventure as any activity where the outcome is uncertain. This definitely qualified as an adventure. Which made it exciting. Last autumn we completed the ROC in the Lowther Hills which was our first weekend mountain marathon since having the boys. We found it hard. I was still nowhere near fit enough to be competitive. A week or two later I suggested the Dark Mountains to Andy. I fully expected him to veto this idea (he normally does for most of my more ridiculous ideas!). He didn’t. So once babysitting services had been confirmed, we entered. 

Most of our pre event preparation was focused on what we were going to wear! This year the event was being held in southern Snowdonia, North Wales. So there was the real potential for some serious winter weather. Often at the forefront of my mind was the anecdote of a friend who had completed the event in its first year who found themselves digging down through the snow to see if they were on a track or not. 

In terms of training, from October onwards I really focused on trying to consistently get out three times a week. This was track on a Monday, running club or a local run on alternating Thursdays (having to share the running club sessions with Andy) and a longer one at the weekend. Since having Joss and Kenny relatively close together (17 months apart) I have tried several times to get back into regular running and have been hampered by illness. In hindsight it is easy to see that I tried too much too soon. Some people seem to snap back into shape. Not me! It has been, and continues to be, a long hard slog to build the stamina and fitness back up. Anyway, this time the body seemed ready and my routine of three runs a week was sustainable. By Christmas I was able to run in the hills for three hours and two weeks before the event I managed a four and a half hour run. It didn’t really feel like enough hours out on the hills but it would have to do. One of my great reservations before taking part in this event was whether I could keep going for 8 hours. It was a definite unknown. 

We travelled down to Snowdonia on the Saturday afternoon and arrived at the event centre at 5pm. The plan was to eat tea, go and get registered and then get a few hours of sleep in our campervan. This all went smoothly but that alarm going off at 9pm and us knowing we were going to have to get out of our warm sleeping bags and into the night was possibly one of the hardest moments of the entire event! 

We got our things together and headed down to the start. Pairs of runners (everyone has to run with a partner for this event) were setting off every two minutes and we arrived a few minutes before our start time of 2204. The weather was calm; no wind and about 5 degrees. Before we knew it, the peeps were going on our countdown and we were handed our maps, dibbed our dibbers in the start control and were off. The first kilometre or so was along a narrow corridor through an out of bounds area (stray into these areas and you are automatically disqualified) and it was thankfully flagged. This gave us the opportunity to study the map as we walked along. Our first impressions were that it was a relatively small area with plenty of controls to choose from. We were cautious of being tempted too far out and then finding ourselves too far from the finish with not enough time to get back so we planned a route through four controls at which point we would then assess how long this had taken us (as we had no idea what the terrain would be like) and then decide where to go next. As we headed up the first hill it soon became clear we were wearing far too many clothes! A stop was required to rethink the layering. We got going again and came to the end of the flagged section. We were on the open fell and were off for real. 

Our first challenge was a tricky little section of more out of bounds, uncrossable boundaries and crossing points to negotiate. Safely through here we headed for the first control we’d set our sights on. We decided to leave the track we were on and contour across the hillside to it. From the map it seemed there was ruined boundary and then what we assumed was a wall that would lead us up to the control which had a description of ‘wall corner, west side’. This section turned out to be knee deep heather interspersed with rocks and holes so our progress slowed considerably. We considered heading back to the path and then coming into the control from higher up but we decided to gain a bit of height in search of slightly better ground and continue our contour. We did pass a pile of rocks that I thought could have been a ruined boundary. And then we passed a line of fence posts. We paused here and wondered if this was the maintained boundary that we should follow up. However, the control description convinced us that it was a wall we were looking for, so we continued our contour, becoming increasingly frustrated by the terrain and the fact that a wall was not appearing. Lines of heather started looking like walls in the light of our headtorches and very quickly things stopped making sense. Where were we?! When it is light I would look around me and try to use land features to help pinpoint me on the map. Very soon into our adventure, the challenges of night navigation had become blatantly apparent! We thought we must have missed it. That pile of rocks must have been the broken boundary. Maybe that line of fence posts was the maintained boundary. We started heading back the way we had come but then very quickly thought better of that as a plan. We could very easily just end up going around in circles. So, we decided to continue contouring around this hillside. We would either find what we were looking for or meet a path. Suddenly I saw a pair of competitors running down the hillside. They were running too fast to be on this insane ground. They must be on the path! I was delighted. We knew where we were. It later turned out that the sight of these runners had made Andy furious! I knew that Andy would be really annoyed by our navigational errors. We were now nearly an hour in and had not earned any points yet. We’ve done enough of these events together for me to know that I just needed to take over and be positive. We needed to focus on the next control we were heading for. As we marched up the track Andy had something to eat and drink and he was soon back on it.

We ticked off the next two controls without any trouble and started to feel the momentum grow. It was time to assess our progress and given our slow start we decided on a more conservative route. Looking at the map we planned our next three or four controls which would take us to another point where we could reassess how much time we had left and take a longer or shorter route accordingly. We made it through these next controls without any incident although the terrain was everything horrible you could think of heather, bogs, reeds, marsh and at one point a maze of gorse bushes. During this stretch the sky cleared and we took a moment to turn off our headtorches and admire the starry skies thinking about all the people out there stumbling home from the pub and enjoying the feeling of being a world away from that. As we looked around there were the beams of the headtorches of other teams running in all directions across the hillsides, all on their own adventure and it felt such a privilege to be a part of it. 

We were now approaching the halfway mark and four hours out on the hill. Almost without warning I suddenly became so frustrated by the ground. I would be trotting along on seemingly decent ground and then all of a sudden would fall down a hole, or it would suddenly turn into a knee deep bog. We had made our plan for the next few checkpoints and set off to follow a fence line. Then I once again found myself in the middle of a deep marshy bog and had a bit of a tantrum! Andy knew what to do. Help me out and then tuck in behind me as we trudged along the fence line. I came to the conclusion myself that I should probably eat and drink something. If Andy had suggested this he would have probably not got a polite response and I think he knew that! After eating and drinking, I suddenly felt really tired and told Andy so. He asked what kind of tired. I said every kind of tired. I felt really sleepy, like I could just curl up on the ground (which was still a bog) and close my eyes. We talked through where we were going next. We were pretty much at our furthest point from the event centre and finish and so were committed to our next couple of controls. Our pace continued as a trudge as I tried to get my head back in gear. Whilst travelling down to Wales on Saturday afternoon I was messaging with a good friend about the nerves and uncertainty about whether I could do this. Her last message to me read ‘You’ll have more in you than you realise, that’s for sure’. This message came back to me at this point in the event and stayed in my head until the end. It felt a really powerful message and helped me to dig deep and crack on. 

We struggled on over more rough ground. My headtorch battery had started to fail 30 – 40 minutes earlier but we hadn’t changed it as we wanted to get as much out of it as possible. But as I was tripping over what felt like every bit of heather and falling down every hole Andy suggested changing the battery. This did make things easier. Shortly after this, we came to a fence line that was going to take us up to a summit checkpoint and our highest point. After examining the map Andy declared that we could get all the way back to the finish on a path from this point on if we needed to. That certainly lifted my mood. So off we went, downhill and on a path, even picking up a decent jog which felt so good! I felt my mojo returning and suddenly had some energy again. We now had two hours left and came up with a final sequence of checkpoints to visit on our way back. All of the time we were assessing our options. What you don’t want is to be late back. The penalties are brutal. Up to 5 minutes late, you lose a point a minute, 5 to 15 minutes it increases to 2 points a minute, 15-30 minutes then it increases to 5 points per minutes. If you are more than thirty minutes late you lose all of your hard-earned points. 

We decided we did have time for a cheeky out and back to pick up two more checkpoints. On our way to the penultimate one we found ourselves in some of the worst ground yet. Reeds as tall as me, streams and marsh everywhere. Andy declared he had no idea what he was doing. I knew we were heading for a checkpoint that was near a river which I could hear so carried on in that direction and he followed. The final point on this out and back was up a 100m climb. We got across the bridge and were faced with a very steep, muddy slope. We paused, considered whether this was sensible. And then cracked on, pretty much climbing a tree to get up! We found the trod we were looking for and set off. Andy then started to panic that we didn’t in fact have enough time. We now had 1 hour and 25 minutes to get back. And we were heading away from the finish. I now felt pretty committed to this plan. We decided that if we hadn’t reached it by 5am then we would turn around. We dibbed this control at 0457 and had 1 hour and 7 minutes to get back. As we descended this steep slope suddenly my legs started to hurt with a horrible pain in each knee. I tripped and fell and felt cramp coming on. No time for that, you’ve got ten seconds. The sympathetic response from my partner and darling husband.

Looking at the map I decided that there should be a better way out than the horrific marsh we’d come through on the way. By now communicating with Andy was difficult. It was like we were speaking two different languages. Neither of us really understanding what the other was saying. I guess 8 hours of concentration and physical effort was taking its toll. There were a number of other teams around us, all heading in vaguely the same direction hunting across this messy ground for a track. It is so tempting in these situations to just follow them, assuming that they know where they are going. But this is so dangerous. You can easily find yourself very lost. We managed to find the track and picked up the pace, heading for home. 

Then it very nearly all went catastrophically wrong. I saw a gate. The track headed through the gate in the direction of the finish. A team around us at the same time headed through the gate and away. Thankfully Andy had a closer eye on the map and shouted ahead to me (I had passed through the gate and was off down the track) that he thought this was out of bounds. I came back, agreed and we quickly retraced our steps and found the crossing point we needed to use. There were teams all over this area all equally baffled and confused by a number of fences, gates and stiles. Thanks to Andy we successfully made our way through this section and back to the flagged route back to the finish with I think about 10 minutes to spare. 

It would be fair to say we were pleased with our trip out. It felt like we had really taken part in something special. The finish of these events is always very low key. We handed back our dibbers, headed to collect our free breakfast (which we ate sat on the floor of a hallway) and then it was back to the van to try and grab a few hours of sleep before we headed back home to relieve Granny of toddler care! As we checked our results on the way it seemed we had finished 10th of 21 in our class. I was chuffed to bits with this! The results also showed that a number of people had been disqualified for going into the out of bounds area that I very nearly led us into. Yikes, that would have been a difficult one to deal with! 

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) this was probably the last running of the event. Although I may not be able to take part in this event again, I will definitely take strength from knowing that I do in fact have more in me than I think (thanks Nim!).