Why are we having a sprint finish Will? I’m sure a slow little trot would suffice. We still have about 40 minutes until our time is up. It’s an odd feeling running (or shuffling) along tarmac after almost 12 hours of bashing about in waist-height heather. My legs had become accustomed to the slow pace, high knee, bracken gallumping from last night, and now they were being asked to move quickly. But, if you ask nicely enough, they sure get their act together and oblige. We crashed over the line and landed the final dib of the night. Whoa, what a night eh? It was nice to see that Will was looking as wrecked as I was but still smiling.
The days leading up to Dark Mountains was full of the usual mountain marathon (MM) kit prepping and organisation.* Running through the kit list and laying everything on the floor, before playing Tetris trying to stuff it all in my bag. Something a bit unique on the list was an ice axe and micro spikes, but thankfully the weather was warm enough so they weren’t needed. Saturday night quickly approached and before we knew it, we were standing at the start line. Joking with the marshals who said we looked like the springiest runners they had seen so far. I don’t think I felt it though. At exactly 18:44 we were handed our race map with a splatter of checkpoints sprawled across it. We worked out a rough plan, and then headed out onto the fells excited for what the night would bring.
As perfectly described in the planner’s insight, the terrain was notoriously rough. They even advised on avoiding one particularly bad section marked “Here Be Dragons!” As always for the first handful of checkpoints, we were leap-frogging other teams until the field thinned out. The weather was relatively dry and mild, but the fog was thick on the tops creating that ever so helpful glare from your headtorch. Around the fifth checkpoint we decided on a different route choice to the other teams that were near; and we soon ended up in the dark by ourselves. As a kid I used to be scared of the dark. I remember one particular night-time bike ride through the local woods in Newcastle. I had recently watched Predator, so every rustle in the bushes made me jump. I got too scared of the dark and begged my dad to take me back to the car. However, over the years I now find being in the dark second nature, especially when you are with someone else. This is because if Predator does turn up, you push over your partner and let them be taken ha ha! (Sorry Will…)
The first few hours ticked away nicely, and we picked off the checkpoints without too much bother. But around midnight I began to feel cold and tired. I pushed on for a couple more checkpoints and I got quieter and quieter. Only saying the odd “a bit more left” or “a bit more right” if we were straying from the bearing. This was the first time in a race where quitting crossed my mind. I realised that if I didn’t put on more layers and eat more food the next 6 hours were going to be rough. I put on my waterproof trousers for the first time ever in a race, and had some sausage rolls and energy bars. I soon perked up, and we even took the luxury of stopping and turning off our headtorches to admire the stars. They were some of the clearest I’d seen in the UK for a long time. This was the boost that we both needed.
More hours of bumbling about passed with plenty of trips and falls. The most memorable was when Will’s legs disappeared into a hole, and he bashed his bum as he folded in. As we ran over rocky sections, we would sing “ROCKS-ANNE” in the tune of The Police song. Something I found a bit too funny considering the crap joke. The final few hours passed quickly, and we were soon faced with a classic MM decision. Take it easy home, or go for glory with one more checkpoint and then run like hell. To Will’s dismay I managed to persuade him of the latter, and to go for one final 25 pointer. Thankfully, the running gods were on our side and we made quick progress leaving us a whole hour to get back. This didn’t stop us from the sprint finish down the last track though! It was great fun hammering it down the slippery slope, skidding around other teams on their return. We crossed the line to the claps of the marshals. I wonder if they thought we still looked the springiest.
Our splits were downloaded, and to our shock we had somehow come in 1st out of the 13 teams that were back. But there were still another 16 teams to finish so let’s not get our hopes up just yet. It was going to be a nervous 45 minutes wait until 7am. This would mark 12 hours since the last long score team set off and therefore would confirm our final position. In the meantime, we staggered over to the café and shovelled some food into our faces. To Will’s delight they had a decent vegan breakfast for the competitors. Hash browns, mushrooms, beans, Linda sausages, toast and ample tea and coffee. We sat in the event tent getting warm and watching other competitors crawl through the door. During this time, we saw a rather exhausted, cold and wet Mike Ayers stumble in and slump into his chair, bag still fully strapped to his back. He had been out on the medium score with his usual MM buddy Toby White. Mike was in good spirits as always, especially since he had managed to run for 10 hours without too much bother from his knee. Finally, just after 7am we checked the results and our final ranking was 3rd! Woohoo, absolutely epic. We were not expecting to do this well, especially as this was Will’s first MM. We realised that we were only 20 points clear of 4th, so good job we went for that final 25 pointer.
We wobbled to the car and changed into dry clothes and attempted a few hours of kip before hitting the road home. When I shut my eyes, my brain replayed images of map contours and the scan of heather with my headtorch. Clearly my brain was still stuck on navigation mode. After a couple hours of restless sleep, we watched the prizegiving and then carefully began the drive home. The deal, as always, is that if the driver is tired, the passenger can’t snooze and they must act as DJ. Will did not disappoint and played some bangers. I was most impressed by him not snoozing, as in his delirious state he thought it was raining inside the service station bookshop. We chatted nonsense and dreamt up plans for future adventures. Will has definitely caught the MM bug as there were talks of the Saunders, ROC, OMM and the Scottish. How many of these events can we do in a year? Answer: N+1.
*Ed’s note: a regular mountain marathon usually happens over two days. The Dark Mountains marathon packs all that into one night instead. Competitors chose between linear courses of varying distances, or a fixed time — a “score” — in which they had to reach as many checkpoints as possible. Short score (8 hours), medium score (10 hours), long score (12 hours).