Surviving Mountain Marathons

Mel and Moire - Our Mountain Marathon Team. Photo courtesy of Mourne Mountain Marathon.
Mel and Moire - Our Mountain Marathon Team. Photo courtesy of Mourne Mountain Marathon.

I’ve never run a marathon. However, I have run a mountain marathon. Three to be precise.

Unlike the standard 26 mile / 42km marathon, fully marked along tarmaced city roads, a mountain marathon is:

1) Anything between 35 and 55 km.

2) Is not marked.

3) Is in the mountains.

To make it more interesting, mountain marathons happen over two days and you run in teams of two. And just to make it even more fun, you have to be completely self-sufficient for the two days’ duration.

So in your back-packs you must carry a tent, 2 sleeping bags, a stove and gas, 2 torches, a medical kit, a survival bag, and food for 48 hours. Both team members in turn must have at least a full length jacket, rain-bottoms, and a long sleeved shirt. Lastly, because the route is not actually marked, you need a map, pen and compass to help you find your way along the course.

If you’re entering the shorter hill-walking class, this list would probably include a bottle of whiskey and rashers for the morning. However, if you’re an elite A class entrant, you want to keep weight to a minimum: your tent would be for one person, you’ll be sleeping on bubble wrap, and your survival bag is cut to your exact shape and size.

The first time I entered the Mourne Mountain Marathon was with Mel. I was willing to run along and carry more weight if Mel would navigate. Happy with me being the mule, Mel kindly agreed.

By the end of Day 1 after 9 hours of running, we entered the overnight camp in 2nd place, 27 minutes behind the leading female team. “Right”, we conspired in our tent, over our rehydrated meals. “Tomorrow, let’s give these girls a run for their money”.

The next morning, though stiff and sore from the day before, Mel set off like a sniffer dog, searching for the points we had to visit. She led us along unmarked tracks and quickly figured out routes. To save on time, we ate as we ran. We coordinated our pee stops, barely stepping off the path to relieve ourselves. We swapped bags when the other felt tired.

After 6 hours of running, we finally hobbled across the line. And then we waited.

We knew we had passed the girls back at the 3rd control. But how much distance we had put between ourselves and them, we did not know. Eventually they too rounded the corner and crossed the finish line.

It was only at the prize giving that we heard that, after 15 hours of running over 41 kilometres and up 3,000 metres of mountains, we had pipped them to the post by 3 minutes and 8 seconds.

The one thing about long distance racing that I have learnt, and which we applied that day, is that you never give up. You never know what is happening to those other teams out there. I might feel tired and cold and hungry and lost, but they might be suffering even more than me.

Never give up.

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