Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Marmot Dark Mountains 2015 - Team Spinach take 3rd place!

In terms of the effort versus reward stakes, this was one of the best events I've ever done. I'm still buzzing quietly a couple of days after the event.

My adventure racing partner in crime and the other half of Team Spinach (Emma) suggested entering the Marmot Dark Mountains event after a bout of Xmas cabin fever and her father-in-law Colin telling her about it. Having pretty much no night navigation experience and no mountain marathon experience I naturally agreed.
"What is it about modern life that makes you think this is a good idea?" - Emma's mate Jodie
My fitness at the time was reasonable so I just needed to work on the night navigation skills (some additional Strava logs here and here) After all of these I was reasonably confident in my ability to follow a bearing over blank ground in crap visibility and to trust my stopwatch and pacing. The feeling of elation you get from seeing a cairn or path emerge out of the mist where you expect it to be is pretty special. So, armed with these new found skills we found ourselves heading up the A65 towards Tebay on Saturday tea time.
"Sod it, I'll have a side order of chips with that" - Emma carb loading at Tebay services
I have an unwritten rule that states one should always call in at Tebay services on the M6 if passing so we decided to have tea there, along with a browse of the deli counter of course. We spotted a couple of wiry fit looking types in the cafe who looked like they were killing time before heading over to the event centre. After a final visit to the shop for extra scotch eggs we headed off.
"That's fine, I've seen enough!" - Mr Kit Checker smiling on seeing the amount of food we had brought with us
Thankfully the weather forecast for the event was good. I've generally found the Norwegian Met Office forecasts to be the most useful and when combined with MWIS and MetCheck (useful cloudbase and freezing level info) you get a good picture of what's going to happen. The general forecast was clear, not too cold with cloud only on the tops for most of the evening with rain coming in on Sunday mid morning to provide incentive to finish as soon as possible. Conditions stuck to the predictions. There was a biting wind on top of The Calf and the other tops but the deep valleys were well sheltered.

We registered and headed off to the kit check area where a nice lad made sure we had the prerequisites and that our torches were working as advertised. We were given the thumbs up for some smaller sleeping mats meaning I didn't have to take my "D-of-E special" light yet bulky foam roll mat stuck on the back of the pack. I tried to set fire to his high vis jacket with my fire steel that lives with the stove (to prove it worked) but he must have been too damp to catch light. Sign form, get dibber, get changed, have a brew, dump stuff in car and wait until it gets near our start time.
"If we get lost on the way to the start line then it doesn't look good for the rest of the event..." - Me
A short walk up a track to the start gate from the event centre saw us in a short queue for our start time of 2205. You don't get the map until you dib your dibber in the dibber-dee-doo at the start and that's the first look you get at the course! I started off by dropping my, thankfully waterproof, map in a puddle... dur!

A quick bearing and we were off on the track for CP1. All it took was for the first headtorches to appear behind us further down the track for *click* Competitive Emma to appear and we were off. She's a great team mate and was really driving us forward at this point.
"Hang on, how did that happen?" - Embarrassed me after taking the wrong bearing
It wasn't long before we came unstuck. I made the mistake of not paying attention to the bearing or map and took a course that was 180 degrees out - I'd made the easy mistake of lining up the south marks on the map and not the north marks. Emma caught the mistake after the landscape stopped fitting with what the map said should be happening (we were still going uphill) and corrected it. This cost us 30 minutes and 1.2 miles of extra travel. Idiot, idiot, idiot! We agreed to check each others bearings next time and quickly got back on the right course.

We also overshot the valley for CP3 slightly but we suspected that it was the correct valley anyway so we turned round quickly. The climb out of the valley to CP4 was steep but we took it at an angle to make it easier. This was an easy CP to find as we just had to keep going up on the rough bearing until we ran out of up and there it was! A steep descent to CP5 down odd patches of snow got the quads working and my knee was working just fine. We couldn't spot the tent coming down the hill as it was hidden in a dip but the torches coming and going showed us where it was.
"C Course, C course all the way!
You're not going to win today!"
- imagining our competitors steaming past us chanting this
A welcome boost at CP5 came in the shape of Emma's father-in-law Colin who was marshalling at this, one of the two manned points on the course. I took the time to see to my shoes which had blown two of the lace loops - probably the combination of double socks, steep downhill and large Yorkshireman pushed them further than their design rating! Tightened up, slice of pizza and time to check the map. The photographers at this CP got this really awesome photo of the two of us contemplating the next leg to CP6.

Another up-down-up leg towards the summit of Green Bell and CP6. We saw some fell ponies en route, skirting round them after one decided to neigh loudly at Emma for getting too close. It was on this climb when we realised just how many pairs of lights were dotting the hillsides around us, bobbing around and blinking with the occasional sweep of light from a high powered one. I've captured our exact view using all of my artistic skills. I expect to be giving Jim'll Paint It a run for his money sometime soon. P.S. it really is more magical than this in real life!

The next leg was a long one! The intention from here was to to follow the ridge to the summit of Randygill Top (ooer, Randy Gill!) and then down to the river and the main track up The Calf and CP7.
"Great bit of team navigating there!" - Emma
I must have spaced out a bit and we reached the summit of Randygill Top and its attendant cairn much quicker than expected! As a result we dropped down to the river and started following it north (the wrong way) which I realised wasn't right when I looked at my compass. Again, tiredness being another factor working against you with night navigation. After staring at the map and eliminating all probabilities we decided that the main track must be just above us on the other side of the river. And it was. The feeling of elation from finding that path was a real high!
"I feel like we're going round in circles..." - Emma
"The compass disagrees, but I know what you mean!" - Me
Then, up the path onto the plateau of the highest peak in the Howgills called The Calf. This was a long steady pull, Emma jogging bits and walking others and me power walking all the way singing random fragments of "South Austrailia" and HMHB's "Lord Hereford's Knob" which made things more tolerable for me, if not my teammate.
"To south east Wales
I was forced to flee,
And now I have no job.
That's why tonight I'm sitting,
on top of Lord Hereford's knob"
- me, singing, badly
We followed the bearing into the fog but the almost non existent contours made us feel like we were going wrong. Torches on maximum just showed us more cloud. We stuck on the bearing and eventually found the main track from the south; we were only 100m off.

The next bit was brilliant, a fast steady descent down a good track to the next CP. We got some good speed up and were both feeling really good. Emma picked a good contour to get us round the tounge and then the stream to the CP and the foot of the last big climb of the day, 400m of up.
"Have you eaten? You were OK a minute ago." - Emma
"I had a couple of fig rolls a while ago." - Me
"You need to eat some proper food, now!" - Emma
We were level with a couple of Scottish chaps at this point who we'd seen a couple of times since CP6 but this climb was when we started to pull away from them. In fact, looking in detail at the timings the leg from 9 to 11 was where we really made up for lost time and moved up from 5th to 3rd. Strong climbing from Team Spinach! I had leaden legs up this climb however and after a brief pause to get my legs working again we decided I needed to eat. Forcing a slice of pizza and some jelly babies down my neck did the trick and I was back on it by the time we arrived at the summit and was ready to make a fast descent of the other side. It was my fault for not eating something solid sooner; this is always the challenge on these events, eating when you really don't want to!

Technique for climbing steep hills. Zig zag as steeply as you can and count 10 paces each way. Keeps you roughly on the right heading and taks your mind off things!
"I would like to take anyone who doesn't like exercise or running and make them feel what I'm feeling right now. I want to bottle this feeling." - Me
Following the valley from 10 to 11 was brilliant. Steady jogable track, a bit of a food boost, knowing that we'd done the last big climb, knowing we were on the home run, the faint prelude glow in the sky of imminent dawn, knowing that we weren't far from a cup of tea.. I'm sure I had something in my eye at this point as it started watering a bit.

The last CPs fell quickly and before long we were thumping down the track to the finish, shaking head at the feeling of having finished, the elation of having tested myself and having passed through all that hard work, seeing the finish line and splashing through the stream to dib the finish checkpoint.
Yes, yes, f***ing yes!
*does a small dance*
We gabbled at the marshals a bit and thanked them for their efforts as one of them made us the best cup of tea I've had all year for our walk back to the event centre to download and take stock of what we'd done.
"Oooh beans! Hash browns!" - my hungry stomach spying breakfast being served
We download the data from our dibbers and got our printout showing that we were currently 2nd out of 2. Or last. Or 2nd. Glass half full?

I proceeded to download a large portion of beans and hash browns to my growling stomach. It almost rejected the first mouthful but when it realised it was actually nice it stopped complaining and let me finish the rest. We chatted to a couple who were back in from the short score course about their day night and she was explaining the difficulty of running with diabetes and monitoring blood sugar levels on the go with an implant a handheld scanner that graphed blood sugar levels - clever tech!
"Well you are certainly first mixed team on the C course. There's a prize for that." - marshal running the computer
"Is the prize a Curly Wurly?" - me
"I'm sure its a better prize than that." - marshal
"But I like Curly-Wurlies..." - me
Time ticked on with no other competitors coming through the doors so we were fairly sure we weren't last, always a relief. We checked with the marshal running the computer about timings. The people in the lead had spanked us by an hour and a half so hats off to them. However given we had all started within a few minutes of each other we were expecting people back sooner.

Back for a second helping of breakfast and the invention of the double decker hash brown and beans sandwich. Then off for a shower (so hot! so nice!) and back to the hall, ostensibly to collect my T shirt before heading off for a nap only to find the prize giving has just started.
"And now the results for the C course. In 3rd place and 1st mixed team: Emma Van Der Gucht and James Pawson..." - Shane "Mr Race Director" Ohly.
WTF? 3rd place what? Daft grin, smattering of applause, handshake, photo, promise of own trophy. I've never won anything at a race before apart from a malt loaf (everyone got one). The bemused joy is there to see on my face.

"I'm feeling pretty wired right now, not much chance of sleeping. Shall we just head off?" - me, buzzing quietly
I headed outside for a splendid coffee and a nice chat with Joe Beaumont from Joey's Coffee. A nice chap with an interesting story on his road to recovery after a serious climbing accident (more serious than mine). His mini coffee van was almost as cool as his knobbly tyred Mercedes Sprinter camper van with a winch on the front.

I also chatted to the guys that beat us into 3rd place on the C course who hailed from Leeds way and have just set up a new fell running club in the area. Nice chaps, best of luck with the club.

Still high on endorphins, hash browns, hot showers and the glow of finishing we zoomed off down the M6 homeward bound - still not tired despite being awake for 26 hours. Dropped Emma off at home, went home, made cup of tea, sorted out wet kit, sat on sofa and *pop* I woke up 3 hours later, a bit disoriented and wondering where I was. I spent the afternoon with my feet up on the sofa listening to the radio and drifting in and out of awareness, surrounded by a happy glow.

Race Reports and Photos

There are loads of fab photos from the event and a mini report here from Ian Corless. He also does the Talk Ultra podcast which makes for interesting listening.

The organiser, Shane Ohly, has written a summary of the event on the Marmot Dark Mountains page.

The SI Entries timing and results data is here

I would like to say a personal thank you to the organisers, marshals, volunteers, cooks for organising such a fun event in challenging conditions and maintaining smiles and good humour throughout. One of the best organised events I've done.

Detailed Results Analysis

Strava log for the race is here
"Hello everyone, my name is James and I am a massive geek"
"Hello James"
"It has been 5 minutes since I last made a graph"
*round of applause*
- minutes from last week's Analysts Anonymous meeting
The results overview table from Si Entries is shown below. We came in 3rd place by 13 minutes, so if we hadn't have made that first navigational error of 30 minutes we would have been in second place. I'm a bit embarrassed by this as it was primarily my fault!

However, looking at the detailed results has kind of made up for these feelings. Graphing the results shows how after our disastrous start we slowly clawed our way back up the table.

The key section for us was from CP7 at the top of The Calf to CP12 where we kept taking little bites out of the people in front of us. A good line from 8 to 9, a strong climb up over the last hill and a fast descent to 10 with tired legs, watching the other head torches fade behind us. Then the fast descent down the valley, wondering where the people behind us had got to. I think our stamina, determination and good navigation on the last section is what ultimately paid off and this makes me even prouder of our result.

Lessons Learned
Some lessons have been re-learned again from previous events.

  • The rewards from trying something hard and slightly scary are that much greater because of the challenge
  • Even if you've messed up, keep on pushing, don't give up. To finish first, first you have to finish. We went from 7th at CP1 to 3rd at the end just by keeping moving as best we could.
  • Night navigation is tricky but doable. Practice makes perfect.
  • Barometric altimeters are useful but not amazingly accurate
  • Long events are just as much about eating as moving. I "learn" this every time.
  • Team events are fun
  • Reactive lighting headlamps like the Nao are pretty damn good for events like this where you end up looking down at map (so bright!) and looking up (so dim, where's my night vision!)
Not bad for a first mountain marathon, I'd definitely do others and also do this one again. I'm still waiting for my Curly Wurly though.

Go Team Spinach  8-)


  1. Yay!! Well done :-) Night nav can be so tricky.

    We went to Lord Hereford's Knob during Itera, or somewhere near there at least. Fond memories, as it was beautiful when the sun set. 3 of us 4 had something stuck in our eyes that day as well :D

    1. Cheers Rosemary. I'd love to do something like ITERA, very jealous!
      I'm making it a mission to go up Lord Hereford's Knob sometime with my ukulele and give a bad rendition of the song on the summit ;)