Monday, 27 April 2015

The Highlander Mountain Marathon - lessons in toughness

Having improved my long/steep fell race experience and my navigation over 2014 I decided that I was ready to try a Mountain Marathon. I'd heard from John Hewitt that the Highlander offered a good experience, with a friendly overnight camp complete with catering and ceilidh dancing. I asked around for partners and found one perfect for me - Viv. She's an all-round high achieving athlete who loves wild adventures, and she's also around the 5 foot 50 kg mark (important for tent space!) 

Three other pairs from Glossopdale (and extended family) travelled to the far flung North Highlands location of Elphin. I am lucky to have friends like  Lins who offer to drive non-vehicle-owners as myself to these events. We stayed at the Aultguish Inn on Friday evening after the 8 hour drive from Glossop. Very nice bunk room with good facilites. 

Day One

We'd faffed and repacked at the hostel and arrived raring to go at the event HQ. We'd read weather forecasts which would have been more at home in Norway so I stuffed all my waterproof and warm kit plus handwarmers, Babybel and my brand new Montane Minimus mitts into my pack. We were given maps, a 'clue sheet' to tell us where the checkpoints were and off we set. The first big task was to mark up our maps, which I wan't expecting as a novice but got on with fine. We headed off on a course with seven checkpoints to reach. The weather looked clear and breezy. As the day went on, a theme of clear..hail,..clear.. hail emerged. We enjoyed the first few hours, especially the big herds of deer roaming about the tops and the antler we found lying in a valley.

My big find!

A big climb brought us up to the snow line, hail in our faces, we made our major error and visited a checkpoint which wasn't the right one. It took us about 40 minutes to regain our course and then the Hell of Rocks was underway. On the map, a lovely open ridge to run. On the ground , as in the picture - at least 3km of broken rocks to try and make quick progress along. I was astonished how fast some of the other pairs passed us and with a sore ankle from training, i wasn't going to take risks. So with the hail sweeping over us in waves we struggled onwards...

My Hell of the North - photo by Viv
Viv up the first big hill

After some low moments on this ridge and beyond, we made it down through blessed heather and bogs, to a very tricky checkpoint to find, at which point we were met by Rob and John - we fanned out to search for the devilishly hidden flag which Rob located, then sprinted back downhill to the overnight camp. It was better even than I expected. A big, warm marquee full of lovely fellrunners , food to eat, beer to drink and stories to swop. We found that we were lying last place in our class with a time of 8 hours 11 minutes, which we suspected would be the case due to our bad error and slow progress. I found out about a new sport at the marquee - competitive camp food mashups. Alex McVey, a fast mountain marathon competitor from Edinburgh started the bidding at couscous mixed with cup-a-soup with a side of smoked salmon. Andy Oliver could only manage cous-cous. John Hewitt raised him super noodles, cup-a-soup, sun-dried tomatoes and pepperami pieces. I think Alex and John tied. We did a quick 'strip th willow' dance to the excellent four piece band in the warm, muggy, slightly smelly marquee and then off to the tiny yellow tent to sleep.

Viv and Andy ceilidh dancing 

sock drying on the heater pipe 

Things I learned on Day1 : You need two carrier bags to put your dry-socked feet into your wet shoes when you do a 2 day event. Hail hurts. Think harder about navigation. 

Day Two

At 2am I woke up with a throbbing foot. The pain was enough to wake me and I lay worrying in my sleeping bag, also realising I had gone to bed wearing my club vest and compass (cute hey?). I then realised that the Rocktape which Tim has expertly applied to ease my twisted ankle had got wet all day, then dried as my feet warmed up and shrunk, constricting my foot. Cue hilarious silent sleeping-bag acrobatics to get the tape off. Back to sleep.

I'd heard snowfall in the night and we woke to this, with little piles of half-melted snow around the tents. My watch alarm went off. 5.28 whilst I in the portaloo (another welcome luxury of this event) before 6 to beat the queues . 

the camp at Inchnadamph lodge, snowy mountains in the background
Our aim for day 2 was to think better about our route and to make faster progress. We hoped we'd go up a few places in the standings if we could do this although both of us were very comfortable with just getting round, having realised how hard C class was from the Saturday course. Starting off by wading through a river should've warned us about the day ahead though clear skies and crisp new snow drew us up a slope in search of our first checkpoint of the day. We found it with minimal fuss and set a course for the next one, always following our compass bearing and being careful not to be drawn away by the footprints of other competitors who may have been on a different route. There were 5 classes all out on this event: A, B , C, D and score. The going was good and we sang and chatted in the wintry wonderland. We skirted over the shoulder of a hug mountain, Canisp, knowing that we had a long trek to our next checkpoint. On the way down it became clear it was a Very Long Trek Indeed, involving going over to another very big pointy mountain, Suilven and up the steep side over its shoulder to find a small loch. As we went, we both began to chill off and supporting one another got really vital - noticing Viv was very quiet I asked her to use some handwarmers and eat some food, she stopped and put on an extra jacket and began to improve. I too went through the onset of hypothermia and was saved by Viv helping me with my too-frozen hands to dress myself more warmly. We had been out for more than 4 hours and the snow still fell....

We realised that we would not get back to the HQ before the cut-off time of 3pm and so looked at the map for the fastest route back. Being right in the mid-point of the course, we had no choice but to follow the return route roughly, without detouring to the checkpoints. The loch-side landscape was rough. That is the only way I can describe it. Lots of little rocky outcrops, interspersed with bogs and many many little lochans which all looked the same. navigation wasn't a problem, we knew exactly where we had to go but a long trudge lay ahead. A long trudge during which the beauty of racing in pairs came good, companionable chatter about life, racing, how cold we'd been and how lucky we were to be headed towards a hot tea and a sit down and later a hug from the men in our lives. We arrived back roughly 8 hours after starting and accepted our pasta, tea, shortbread and commiserations. Disqualified due to missing 2 checkpoints and timed out. Very glad to be safe. here is our Day 1 map and printout of results. you can laugh at the massive silly detour we made!

This map made lots of our fellow MM-ers hoot with laughter! 

What did I learn? (bullet point alert)

  • Never underestimate Scottish terrain and weather
  • Hail is better than snow because it bounces off of you
  • Always double confirm compass bearings 
  • Getting back safe and warm and sane is more important than racing

Kit recommendations, for folks who like that kind of thing

  • Montane Minimus waterproof mitts. You need warm hands for navigating and they're worth every penny
  • The Inov-8 race 32 backpack is roomy but fits small pixies very well
  • Inov- 8 race-elite 140 jacket, I've loved it all winter and it stood up to the Highland spring
  • An extension of the backpack to carry antlers in would be really good

the experience 

will always stay with me, I feel like I had a surreal dream now I am back in sunny Glossop in a warm house full of dry items, Thank you Viv for pulling me up on bad navigation ideas, keeping up the pace, keeping me company and from getting hypothermic. I'll do it again with you but let's do the D class next time :) 


  1. Fabulous inspiring read Zoe. I have all sorts of quiet sleeping bag aerobics images!!

  2. Fantastic review of the weekend!