An introduction to the races in high places
Mountain marathons are the brilliant child of fell running and orienteering. Events are totally lacking in razzmatazz (no finisher medals, gasp!), take place in challenging but spectacular scenery, and as there’s no marked route you’ll need to use a map and compass – but the nav can be fairly straightforward, depending on the event.
For the linear courses you must reach specific “controls” plotting your own route between them. And some are “scores”, where you pick off controls worth different point values, in a set time – further away ones being worth more, so the distance you cover is up to you. Most events have both styles of course running concurrently.
They’re usually two-day events and some mountain marathons keep their destination secret for months and most don’t reveal the map till you’re at the start line.
You’re usually expected to be largely self-sufficient, carrying tent, sleeping bag and food for the weekend. Start times are individual, so though you’ll see runners dashing about all over the hills, about the worst thing you can do is follow someone else as they’re probably doing a different course to you, or are lost. t the end, everyone gets together for a good chuckle about it all and eats a lot of cake while pointing at their compass and suggesting it’s “always been a little bit off”. Ahem.
Interview with a mountain marathon organiser
Charlie Sproson, Great Lakeland 3Day course planner and owner of Mountain Run, talks mountain marathons with Damian Hall.
What’s the appeal of mountain marathons?
It’s about being in the mountains, being self-sufficient, running with a partner or solo, competing against your contemporaries. It’s a special experience. That most mountain marathon (MM) locations are secret until weeks or days beforehand makes it even better and the fact you generally (but not always) only get the map as you cross the start line adds a final twist. It’s about navigation, tenacity and the ability to choose the fastest route (for you, I hasten to add) over rough terrain.
What skills would someone need to attempt a first MM?
First decide on the event. For example, the Great Lakeland 3Day (GL3D) is a very friendly, less competitive event, more about the running lines than out and out nav. It’s about running ridges, tracks and valley bottoms, so the GL3D can be completed with basic nav skills. If you go for the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon in Scotland it’s a totally different kettle of fish and you need more than basic nav skills.
What do you personally get from the experience?
Outside of skiing and winter mountaineering, MMs are the best fun I have in the mountains. I love competing and possibly love planning these events even more – watching all the crazy folk who love them having the time of their lives fighting through adverse weather, against the clock and the courses I’ve planned. And when you get complements on the courses it’s an immense feeling of elation and happiness. Everyone who likes adventure should try a mountain marathon event. If you can’t navigate, don’t worry, there are excellent providers out there, some who have plenty of experience competing in the events and planning them as well. I leave it to you to find them. That’s your first navigation test!