UPDATE – We did a podcast! Dave Middlemas had a chat with Jonny and Ian about the weekend. You can listen here… but only after you’ve read Jonny’s account below.
by Jonathan Coney
It’s a quiet Monday evening, and I’m just settling down to watch some high quality quiz action in BBC Two’s Only Connect with a brew, waiting for the general knowledge bit of Mastermind to pass the time.
Then the phone rings, it’s Ian calling for a chat about the OMM, taking place this weekend. What’s the OMM I hear you ask? Well it’s a mountain marathon run in pairs: two days of being in the mountains carrying all your kit for those two days, and camping in between. There are a range of courses: line courses – more like a fell race – where you navigate point to point along the way but the things you visit are probably not a nice summit or obvious feature; and score courses, where you have a time limit to get from the start to the day’s finish, and you visit controls to gain points along the way. This year the OMM was in North Wales, based in the area around Bethesda in Eryri (the region formerly known as Snowdonia).
I’d heard of the OMM and I knew this was Ian’s game: 36 hours or so of running/walking/hobbling/crawling/crying around some mountains in late October. A few mates had done the OMM about five years ago and the stories of shivering in a tent in the snow wearing socks as gloves was enough to put me off. I’d always sort of said I’d give a mountain marathon a go one day – maybe the Saunders mountain marathon in the summer to ease me in, with beer and things at the halfway camp – but not straight to the OMM.
While Ian was (very kindly) giving me a lift to Withins Skyline a fortnight or so before, apparently I’d been less dismissive of the idea of the OMM than everyone else Ian had asked, which meant I was perfect fodder for a weekend’s antics in North Wales. Someone had dropped out, Ian had first dibs on a team place until that night, and he just wanted to be there. Now Ian was being very flattering about my abilities and offering his kit services (we’d all heard about Ian’s kit room but here was a chance to actually see and use it), and maybe by going with an experienced OMM-er I’d avoid some of the pitfalls my mates had experienced a few years back. And I mean, it’s not impossible right? Ian’s being very nice about me, and saying he doesn’t mind at all if I slow him down. And I don’t run well in hot weather, so maybe the OMM is right for me: there is significantly less chance of a drought and a heatwave in October than in July! That place going spare was for the long score, we might as well keep things simple and not change it, fine? That’s 7 hours on Saturday and 6 hours on Sunday, by the way.
16 minutes till Only Connect starts and I message back.
“Yeah go on then I’m in”
Then regret it a bit.
But I’m committed now.
We meet at Ian’s kit room on Wednesday for a chat about the plan and kit. That plan is to go lightweight. My 25-litre rucksack will do – right, fine?! If you’re sure? That removable backrest – too heavy – bubblewrap will do unless we fancy the soft option of a roll mat. Spare socks are unnecessary as your feet get wet within seconds when you put on your shoes on day 2. Food? It’s an eating competition apparently so I head to Aldi (other supermarkets are available) on the way home from Ian’s to buy *nice things*. Ian would sort the tent and overnight food and he’d come and pick me up on Friday.
Friday evening in Bethesda rolls around a bit too quickly for my liking. I’m a bit of a panicker about big things, and I was treating this as an adventure in my mind which seemed to keep the nerves at bay. We register and pick up our dibber and tracker, and settle down at the event centre for a kip before things start proper the next morning.
Our start is between 9 and 9:15 am, so we eat and faff a bit in the morning. Extra unnecessary food is left in the van and we weigh our bags one final time, Ian has 4.5 kg (after we remember that we really ought to take the poles for the tent) and mine is 4.7 kg (what can I say, I really wanted to bring jelly babies). We wander the kilometre or so to the start and I wish I had gone to the loo again before leaving but I’m here now. There are lots of folk with more kit and bigger, more bulging rucksacks than the ones we are carrying. Maps are thrust in our hands, Ian dibs in and sets off at pace down a track towards the first control. Whoops what have I let myself in for: seven hours of this and then tomorrow too?
The next hours pass as a bit of a blur, I’m definitely a passenger but try to keep tabs on the map. Ian’s navigating and route planning is impressive to watch, and he’s really supportive of me being slow as we plunge (well he plunges, I stagger) down hills and suffer up steep climbs of the Carneddau. And contouring. Grim, sad, ankle-straining contouring. We bump into Cat, and we have a chat. Cat’s doing the long score too, though perhaps at a more pleasant pace than Ian and me.
Four hours have gone and we find ourselves at the A5 (ed: that’s a motorway not a control point). Our overnight campsite spot is west of here near Ogwen Cottage, a couple of miles or so of flat running away. But instead we cross the A5 and head south up towards the edge of the Glyderau. I suffer a lot here, Ian kindly shares the load and I get a break from carrying kit. This stuff is hard work and we climb into the mist. It starts raining a bit, after we have been lucky with the weather all morning. With an hour to go Ian proposes what I think is a madcap plan to fly down into some cwms (ed: for non-Welsh speakers or Welsh mountain veterans: a cwm is a steep-sided hollow) underneath Y Garn to pick up some high scoring controls and, despite my initial unease, I agree and we gain some more points. In hindsight my proposal of descending via Devil’s Kitchen would have been a very sad affair.
Time was getting tight as we approached the final couple of controls for the day. Our seven hour deadline passes. Our hard-earned points gradually ebb away. Ian loses a fight with some barbed wire. We bag the last control, and descend down to the camp spot. Bit of a mad rush in and we’re only seven minutes late in (a deduction of 14 points; controls are worth between 10 and 50 points each) and learn that we’re currently in first place, which was a bit of a surprise, especially as I had been apologising to Ian for being so slow all day. This later becomes second, still not bad. Apparently running well on day 1 is a good thing as high-scoring teams get an earlier start the next day, so you spend less time being sad at the overnight campsite.
So after Ian gets patched up from his run-in with the barbed wire, he bumps into some of his mates and we go and pitch our tent nearby them in the bustling field. There’s rain forecast from 6pm pretty much all night, due to stop at some point in the morning, and I’m keen to be as snug as I can be by the time it starts. Dinner and hot chocolate (luxury) gets cooked and devoured, and we admire the fun sheet on the back of the map complete with crossword, wordsearch and some Welsh language practice.
6am GMT, as just to add to the brain-strain the clocks went back on the Saturday night, and a piper starts up along with a procession around the campsite. Fortunately the rain has stopped. We eat some porridge and get packed up. Our start is at 7:03 am, which means I only have to survive until about 1pm when it will all be over!
Things start well but I get gradually more and more done in, and the grand compromise plan of *one last hill* is accepted: this consists of a gradual flowy descent back to Bethesda in about two hours time, mopping up points along the way. Despite my slowness on the last big climb, we make up some lost time on teams who had overtaken us, through serendipitous helpful trods and Ian’s bob-on bearings. We nab an extra control and make it home with about ten minutes to spare of our six hours.
So, we survived. We lost some places from Saturday’s 2nd place to end up in 7th overall. Which was pretty good. I hunched over my lamb kofta and a very sugary cup of tea.
Thank you very much Ian, for having me along and getting me through!
Would I do a mountain marathon again? Maybe. We were very lucky with the weather and I was very lucky to have a teammate who knew the ropes, had quality kit and knowledge and could get me through when I was suffering.
I’d say that was probably my most challenging weekend’s running ever, or at least in a very long time.
Results and tracking: https://theomm.com/54th-omm-tracking/
Captain Jonathan Coney