Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Autumn Afternoons

Something smells like wet dog in here; the sweet musty scent of hounds drying by the fire after long wet walks on autumn afternoons. Warm and sickly.

I roll over and hit something, roll the other way and hit something else. All of a sudden an enormous roar and a cold splash on my cheek. I’m confused and disorientated.

Those splashes and the sound like a hundred fighter jets passing overhead bring it all back. My prison is one of bodies, sleeping forms pressing in on all sides. On my left Duncan, on my right Ducky, if I stretch far enough I can kick Sarah and if I fully extend Marcus is my pillow. Zoom out and this mass of bodies multiplies and extends to cover the whole floor space of this barn, our refuge, our sanctuary, and I’m just one tiny dot in it’s midst. Hundreds of contorted and bunched up shapes in multi-coloured sleeping bags hiding under a sea of shimmering, shifting foil blankets surround me. I’m sure I’ve seen this before on the ten o’clock news. Emaciated and tired faces crammed into a shelter near a border, fleeing from war-torn homelands.

It seems like days ago that this all began, and safely tucked into my sleeping bag little do I know what a stir it’s causing.


For a few days the weather forecasts had been telling us to expect the worst. As a huge low pressure formed over the Atlantic, so too did the excitement and psyche build amongst the competitors of this years Original Mountain Marathon. Borrowdale in the heart of the Lake District was the venue for the 41st OMM, and after a few years of good results for us ex-EUMC kids the fighting talk was getting loud and pride was at stake.

By Friday afternoon MWIS told us to look out for 110mph gusts on the tops and persistent torrential rain. Courses had been shortened. Still, it’s the OMM, we thought, it’s not supposed to be a walk in the park, so we strapped it on and stepped into the breach. The mini-bus journey from Edinburgh was all the usual OMM banter – eager beginners asking about what to expect, nervous chatter and communal laughter, tall stories about past events, chip-shops and pasta.

Before we knew it Duncan and I were lycra clad and packed and 0853 on Saturday morning was fast approaching. The wind was already gusting hard in the valley but it was still dry. Ant-like lines of competitors tramped off towards Great End and Green Gable. Game faces were applied, thinking caps tied in place. The horn sounded and we moved off.

The rain started somewhere on the way to control 1. It didn’t stop until Sunday morning. In the teeth of a strengthening storm we struggled onwards, wet through and cold. Heads down, checking the map, running, walking, sliding, sinking. Sometimes blown backwards, sometimes blown sideways. The day was spent balancing heat gain and loss on the tiniest razor edge. Stopping for a minute at control 9 left us both shivering uncontrollably, but a minute later as we contoured the north side of Knott Rigg the blood flowed again and I could just feel my fingers enough to wrestle a jelly baby from its bag.

At control 10 we knew we’d made it. Only a kilometer or two to go. The marshal told me we were the third team in A-Class to come through. Having started late that could only mean we were in a strong position. Bouyed with his words I tried to stick three fingers up and shout the news through the gale to Duncan, but my fingers didn’t want any of it. I just waved a claw at him and yelled, from his grunts and howls I assumed he approved.

Sprinting to the finish we punched in the final control and smiled, only to be told that the whole race was off, canceled, fini.


Along with everyone else who’s made it to the overnight camp in Buttermere we’re herded into the barn that is to become our home for the next 18 hours. Change clothes and warm up. Meet friends and exchange thousand-yard stares. Rumours circulate – we have to walk back to the start in Borrowdale. Honister Pass is closed so we can’t reach Borrowdale. There’s hot food for everyone back at the start. Mountain Rescue is turning everyone back in Honister Pass. Cars are submerged and tents floating. Finally we work out that we’re staying put and start getting comfy. Sleeping mats and bags are arranged, stoves flicker and roar as a hundred brews are made and shared. Camaraderie is high and an anarchic festival atmosphere spreads through the masses as more and more soggy shapes shuffle inside and find increasingly inventive places to sleep – in a digger bucket, on a JCB, under a truck, two to a sleeping bag, four to a one-man tent. I’m part of sixteen or so friends from Edinburgh and we all bunch up for an epic nights spooning. The wind continues to howl and rain pours down. I hunker further into my sleeping bag and close my eyes and drift back to those autumn afternoons.


The OMM 2008 isn’t going to be quickly forgotten, but sadly, probably for all the wrong reasons. The media got there and decided to spray. Yes, a hugely expensive mountain rescue operation was carried out, and ultimately the poor, beleaguered, credit-crunched tax-payer has to foot the bill, but let’s look at it objectively. 1700 runners started, 1700 got home. Everyone knew it was going to be a desperate and uncomfortable event, and that was why we were there. I think calling the race off was probably the correct decision because 1700 people under canvas for 18 hours in that weather was asking for all kinds of hypothermic mischief, but I disagree with those that say it should never have gone ahead in the first place. It’s understandable for the likes of the police to want to call it off, but their job is public safety, so if they could we would all be wrapped in cotton wool and tied to our sofas. The kind of people that do the OMM don’t look at the world like that (naturally, many beginners/idiots got stuck and needed help). Of course, the mainstream media (and also lots of numpties that use computer forums, I notice) seem unable to comprehend the idea of people being able to look after themselves and actively seeking out challenging situations and end up instantly labeling the race organisers as a bunch of selfish cowboys.

The moral is, if you want someone to hold your hand and bring you back from the hill in a shiny helicopter when you start to shiver, don’t do the OMM, you’re a soft-cock.

1 comment:

Sarah Jones said...

well said - I couldn't agree more. The overnight camp sounds awesome!