Back in 2012, I met Clare Howes at a leadership development course and upon realising that she was a keen orienteer, my memories of being dragged around courses with my parents came flying back and I was keen to re-ignite the forgotten hobby of my childhood and combine it with my more recent venture into the world of mountain-endurance sports. Thankfully for me, Clare dumped her mum as her OMM partner due to a “fallen-apart shoe epic” at the OMM in 2013 and so I got the call up in 2015.
I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for, but despite this, I jumped at the opportunity and replied with an immediate, “Yes”. Having completed what is sometimes regarded as “The toughest team event in the world’, the ski-mountaineering race, La Patrouilles des Glaciers, in 2014, I have a warped sense of perspective on tough events and now approach everything with a, “Well it can’t be harder than that” attitude…
or could it…?
Several months before the race, Clare sent me a spread-sheet kit-list, which anyone who knows me will know, made me extremely happy. This included such items as ‘plastic bags for your feet at mid-camp’ and ‘teeth wipe’ as opposed to a tooth brush to save weight and other such peculiar items that only an OMM veteran would know. We also agreed to do a practice race, and so competed in the Rab Mountain Marathon, which turned out to be a fantastic event on a beautiful late summers weekend in Snowdonia.
Before we knew it, we were on the start line of the OMM in the carefully organised torrential rain that so frequently haunts this weekend in October. Feeling fresh, we opted for the longer tracked route to Check Point (CP) 1 and then swiftly navigating the rides between the forested area just south of Tweedsmuir to CP2. We then had our first taste of what was to come, a trudge up and down a couple of valleys over the boggy, marshy, knobbly, heathland that frequents this no-mans land of Southern Scotland.
It didn’t take long for me to realise, that I was in a team with a navigational genius. Always taking the most economical route along contours and taking the line of least resistance wherever possible. And whenever I thought I was being helpful by suggesting a possible route for a future control, she’d already worked out the most sensible route. As a result, I opted to put my compass away, keep an awareness of where we were but take on more of a ‘morale boosting’ and ‘feeding clock’ role for the team. Having competed in several endurance events previously, I’d made enough mistakes in the past to know that sticking to the ‘eat every half hour’ rule was obligatory if we were to make it through the long weekend of racing that lay ahead.
As the day went on, we gradually knocked off the check points. Clare consistently navigating us directly to the check point every time. The weather was kind and gave us clear conditions allowing us to navigate well by sight. However, there was a howling wind on the top of the moors that screamed right into my bones. My feet started to go numb and my fingers became useless and I became less and less helpful with the nav until I realised that I needed to get some extra layers on fast to avoid becoming totally useless. Fortunately we dropped into a valley by the Megget Reservoir and I layered up and got back on track.
After 5 hours on the go, we made it to CP7 and the mid-camp didn’t look far on the map but the going through CP8 to CP11 was infuriatingly slow and our initial expectation of making it there by 2pm, rapidly slipped out of sight. However, we trudged on over the arduous heath at our steady pace and we eventually ticked off each control and made it to the mid camp just over 9 hours after setting off.
Having agreed before the race that our main aim was to ‘enjoy it’, we popped up our tent and went to collect some water ready to cook, and then innocently glanced at the results on the way past to miraculously find that we were the leading ladies on the B course! We then proceeded to gobble up as many calories as we could ready for an early rise for the ‘chasing start’ tomorrow. It really pained me to see the hill-side littered with head torches well after dark as the late comers fought their way down to camp. Navigating in darkness really can’t have been fun on such unforgiving terrain.
After a cosy night’s sleep in our pathetic, light-weight tent, we were woken by the sound of bag-pipes. For some, this was agony, but for me it almost brought a tear to my eye as it harked back to my childhood memories of growing up in Scotland. We scoffed a large saucepan of porridge, packed up our things and made it to our 07:04 start with one minute to spare. My legs complained bitterly but knowing that we had another full day of ‘mountain-marathoning’ ahead, I had to rapidly block this thought from my mind and push on. I had vaguely hoped that the route might be a little shorter today but the planner had other ideas in mind and sent us yet further from the finish line for the first 4 CPs over even more arduous, boggy moorland where it felt like just to move forward you had to lift each foot as if it were stepping over a small fence because of the sinking nature of the heather and moss. The views, however, were a great boost to morale with endless mountains in every direction lit up with an orange-tinted morning mist. It truly felt like complete wilderness with barely another competitor in sight.
Upon reaching CP4, we had the option of taking the longer route via the road or taking the more direct route over the moors. The landscape around us teased us into taking the direct route because the squishy heathland had changed into easier-going grassland. However, we quickly came to regret this decision as the ground rapidly converted back to the unforgiving, pace-destroying moorland that had stung us at the end of yesterday.
The day dragged on and we eventually made it to CP6, where Clare suddenly declared that the cut-off times were an hour earlier than we had thought for the last few check points and that she wasn’t sure if we would make them in time. I’d spent the day riding on an etherial high that we were in pole position only to have this swiped away from me and told that we may not even complete the race. I was gutted. I wanted to do everything in my power to complete the race. With this renewed sense of urgency I discovered my legs had some extra power in them and we set off in a jog towards CP7, where we would ‘re-consider’ our position there.
Having run out of food yesterday, I’d eaten into todays rations and was now cursing myself as my food ran out, knowing that we still had several hours to go. This was the moment where we would win it or lose it. The was the time when it became mind over matter.
Clare predicted that we would make it to CP7 in 2 hours and so we were relieved to make it there 10 minutes faster. But there was no time to hang around with 4 check points still to and go and just 2 hours and 10 minutes to collect them all. Our inner-competitor selves took over from this point, whilst several teams on the same course as us converged together, it suddenly became much more of a race that it had done before. We ploughed on down the final big valley, which our knackered knees were less than grateful for. As we crossed a river, Clare noticed a female pair behind us and it suddenly dawned on us that they might swipe our victory from us at the final hurdle. Clare concisely navigated us through the rides in the trees with the course cruelly forcing us up and down several steep-sided, forested mounds. We battled through the last few CPs with the other teams around us and with just one CP to go we could hear the buzz of the finish line. We pushed on up the final track, every muscle and bone in our legs screaming at us to stop, tagged the last control and ran, rolled and tumbled down the final hill to the finish line overwhelmed to make it with just 10 minutes to spare before the course closed.
As we received our scores at Download, neither of us could quite believed our eyes as we read the total time of 17hours and 42 minutes. That’s quite some time to be on the fells!
Unaware of whether the other female pair had taken 1st, we scoffed the delicious sausage, couscous stew layed on by the OMM team and stumbled back to the car to start the journey South back home. It wasn’t until several hours had gone by that I received a text saying, “We won, we won, won.” from Clare. I was overjoyed! I never expected to come even close to winning! A truly epic weekend.
So, was it tougher than the Patrouilles des Glaciers? Almost...but not quite!