Experienced mountain runner Jonny Muir came in for a chastening
experience at the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM), one of Britain’s
most brutal races
ORIGINAL MOUNTAIN MARATHON
Sitting at home, dry and warm for the first time in almost 36 hours, I re-read the OMM blurb: ‘Held in some of the most remote locations and at a time of year when conditions can be extremely challenging, the OMM is meant to be hard.’
Soon after finishing my first OMM, I was asked for three words to define the experience – the experience of slogging for 13 hours across tussock mazes, calf-deep heather and frigid bog, covering some 40 miles while ascending and descending around 3,000 metres. It was too soon to rationally coordinate my thoughts. It is only now that a single word to describe the OMM has crystallised in my mind: chastening.
Originating in the 1960s, the OMM is the Glastonbury of mountain marathons; both are muddy and teem with the unwashed, but unlike the music festival, the OMM moves around Britain, seeking the country’s most challenging mountainous terrain. The destination of the 2015 edition lacked glamour, but the Tweedsmuir Hills in the Scottish Borders are brutish bulwarks of no nonsense.
With the hills bathed in mist and rain skittering across our hoods, Duncan and I began running, immersed in the hopeful optimism that imbues new beginnings. Along with some 2,000 others (all running as pairs), we were carrying everything we needed to survive for two days.
Faced with a choice of eight categories, we chose the ‘long score’, a course with a fixed completion time of seven hours on day one and six on day two. Numerous checkpoints of different numerical values – far more than we could feasibly visit – were sprawled ominously across a map that we had not seen until the clock had started. There was no route; that was for us to decide.
The challenge of the OMM is to override instinct. Think of how we like to move over mountains: we follow defined paths; we cross rivers at bridges; we yearn for summits. Even in the mountains, humans are not as free as we would like to think. We still crave comfort. The OMM devours comfort – and, for us humans, that can be deeply unsettling.
“I WANTED TO CRY”
We had been running for two hours. Duncan had already taken the stove, the gas and the tent to lighten the weight of my bag. It made a marginal difference only. I wanted to cry. My body was engulfed in a special brand of tiredness, although I do not know what came first: mental capitulation or physical ruin. The words of the blurb haunted: ‘The OMM is the most complete test of character and is regularly underestimated.’
Somehow we completed day one, with seven hours of unremitting effort climaxing in a frantic charge downhill on cramping quads to scrape into the overnight camp with minutes to spare. Dinner – soup from a packet, couscous from a packet, hot chocolate from a packet, custard from a packet – felt incredibly luxurious.
Day two must have happened because I am writing this in the past tense, but the memories are hazy – a consequence of the trauma, no doubt. Some things are definite, however, like falling face first into a river and the hands-and-knees ascent of an awful hill called Dead for Cauld.
We did not rest for a moment. By the end, I scarcely had the coordination to descend without fear of stumbling. With time growing tight, Duncan took my bag. My emasculation was total. Rarely had I endured such type two fun, the sort of activity that is only fun – and I am being generous with this word – in hindsight.
The OMM is about as real as it gets in British running, offering something deeply metaphorical. Here is A, there is B – you choose the way. I can’t say I enjoyed the hardship of the OMM, but that is far from the point. Chastened is good. It is meant to be hard.