Highlander Mountain Marathon 2016

I’d never done a mountain marathon until last weekend. I’ve done plenty of backpacking, plenty of fell running, but MM’s held an air of mystery (and fearsomeness) that had stopped me doing one. What kit would I pack? Would I survive? Would I triumph?

The Highlander

The Highlander’s pretty simple: two days in remote Scotland, the location of which remains secret until relatively close to the event. You only find out the exact route on the day. You run for two days to get to your assigned checkpoints, and there are different classes that run differing distances. The terrain is generally very hard work and there are few paths. You carry all your own kit including overnight stuff. You run in pairs: my partner was a nice chap called Sam.

images

Sorry, not this Highlander.

If you’ve ever read a post on this blog, it should be fairly obvious that I’m into kit. The stuff below is what I packed. Forecast was for 20+ °C each day and low wind with no chance of rain. That’s what we got, but we also got low fog to start each day:

Terra Nova Laser Elite 20 pack

I own a few different running packs, but the choice between my OMM Classic and this is easy: this is less than half the weight! It’s 220 g and a generous 20 litres. It’s not a perfect pack: the compression from the top is pretty rubbish, the waist pockets are quite small and don’t work well with hard items in them, the straps were initially pretty abrasive and would pill cheap baselayers, and the general componentry is pretty ugly. However, it is super low weight, surprisingly durable, surprisingly comfortable, not festooned with nonsense straps (with most running packs I wonder if they intended to increase the weight with all that extra webbing; vest packs are worse still), and it’s a prettier looking bag than most. Finally, it’s £30! Bargain.

It performed brilliantly, I’d buy another, and it’s the lightest pack out there with an ideal volume for MMs.

P1080702

Full pack: pretty nifty.

Cooking kit

Took a while to make up our mind on this one, but I did some sums and we decided an MSR titanium kettle with foil lid and windshield, Alpkit Kraku stove (45 g!), a lighter, spare matches, and 100 g gas canister was the best option. At 365 g it’s a lighter system than any Jetboil, much more versatile, and almost as powerful. There are lighter options, but when you’re knackered you don’t want to wait 20 minutes to cook your food. It all performed very well; the Kraku is a beautiful bit of kit.

Tent

This was easy: we were lent a Terra Nova Laser Photon (thanks Rich!). At 850 g for a (small) two man tent it’s super light and splitting poles/pegs and fabrics is easy. To reiterate, it’s not big, but you only spend a few hours in it and we were surprised that it wasn’t too tight for us two (I’m 5’11’’; Sam is 6’1’’).

Half the tents at the overnight camp were these – that says something.

Sleeping mat

There’s no option if you want lightweight: bubble wrap all the way. I had a half-length piece that weighed less than 20 g and was perfectly comfortable. It also made a good back panel for the sack. In future I’d use a full length just for a bit more comfort. It’s all relative…

Sleeping bag

I used a prototype Mountain Equipment Helium Solo (a model that already exists, but a secret update). It’s 440 g and has a hood and a fair bit of down in, but I’d have been cold if it hadn’t been mid-summer. Super compressible and I just shoved it in the dry bag with everything else during the day.

IMG_2742

Conditions weren’t like this… imagine a smaller tent, no snow, a much thinner sleeping bag… but apart from that it was very similar.

Dry bag

Inside the pack I stuck everything inside a big dumb dry bag. This was not to stop rain, but to stop me soaking everything in the pack with sweat. Grim. It also gave the pack a bit more structure. I left one clothing layer outside the drybag that I could then put on in case it got cold (it didn’t) without accessing the drybag.

Food

In the day I relied a fair bit on bars and had a bit of real food in the form of wraps filled with Nutella and some malt loaf. Evening meal was partly-provided, but I also carried 2 packs of ‘Big Ains’ Ainsley Harriet cous cous (more calorific, tastier, easier to cook, and cheaper than most expedition meals), cuppa soup, and a recovery drink. I also had a load of trail mix of nuts, raisins, and chocolate M&Ms. I had about 4000 calories on the first day (including breakfast), and perhaps 1800 in breakfast and hill food for the second day. That was about right for me given that I wasn’t running that hard and was mainly in zones 1 and 2.

Clothing

Ronhill Advance Racer short. My favourite running shorts. Couldn’t believe people were running in leggings: it was boiling.

Helly Hansen S/S baselayer. Not sure of the model but it wicks like a beast and has a mesh back and side panels. Essential for someone as prone to overheating as me.

Mountain Equipment Squall cap. Wore this throughout both days as my only headwear. Lightweight and breathable, kept the sun off.

Mountain Equipment Eclipse hooded zip-T. Winter-spec midlayer that seemed overkill for the forecast but it’s really comfy, the hood means you don’t need a warm hat, it keeps the sun off at camp, and I slept in it too. It’s only about 100 g heavier than a microfleece and shedloads warmer.

IMG_0254

Whether it’s a fell run through Wales or a mountain marathon, a long run isn’t the time to try new clothing for the first time.

Mountain Eclipse Firefox fabric trial. A lighter-weight version of an existing jacket. Amazing fabric, pretty lightweight. Wore this at camp to keep warm and while lighter jackets exist, if it had rained this would have been far more effective. 300 g all-in, so not heavy but not racer-light.

Mountain Equipment Aeon pants. Superlight overtrousers with zippers that work over trainers. Wore them at camp to keep the breeze off.

Helly Hansen Lifa leggings. Fashion faux pa but I didn’t care: they’re the lightest leggings I own and were great to keep warm at camp. 100 g.

Mountain Hardwear powerstretch gloves. Full of holes now, but they are light and they are small-packing.

P1080701

All the kit ready to go.

Other stuff

Mountain Equipment survival bag (had to carry it, did not use it); marker pen (to mark the map); Silva Expedition compass (not the fastest to centre but I wasn’t going to buy an orienteering compass for my lowly level); midge net (was lucky and didn’t need it); Petzl Elite headtorch (de rigueur); bogroll (just in case); suncream (turned out to be essential, absolutely essential); sunglasses (didn’t wear these, would not take them next time). I carried water in two soft Ultimate Direction bottles that were brilliant: they’re very light, don’t leak, easy to fill quickly, squash up small, and easy to drink from.

The total pack weight was 4.4 kg plus water, and I had taken a bit more than half of the group kit. Split dead-equal the pack would have been 4.1 kg, so lighter than your average day pack. Good!

Day 1

P1080704

Late arrival and about to get in bed for our midge-ridden sleep

I’m going to cut this short. Despite serious kit preparation, Sam and I did not reach immortality on day 1 of our Mountain Marathon…

With pinpoint accuracy we navigated to the first checkpoint through thick mist and clag: visibility was maybe 10 metres. We were winning. We plodded up on to the plateau and were then presented with a beautiful cloud inversion. Blue skies, cloud sitting below, bright sunshine. It was magic, we were running, and we were passing teams from all the courses as we nailed it across the hills. Navigation up here is easy – we can see for miles and we just navigated to a box 30 cm wide through dense thick clag – we are good at this!

Soon we were darting down the back of the ridgeline towards checkpoint 2… towards checkpoint 2… towards… where is it? It has to be here. Must be just a bit further. Maybe up here a bit?

But it wasn’t there. After a further 3 hours we still had not found it. Oh dear. At this point we began to realise we’d blown it and had made a series of hideous navigational boobs. Boobs to make any Page 3 girl proud. So we went up the biggest mountain in the area (which wasn’t even on our map) and then decided we really didn’t have the time or legs to get to camp via the remaining checkpoints. So we decided to run the full width of our map back to camp and not bother with the pesky checkpoints. 27 km, 1700 m ascent, 1 out of 10 checkpoints reached, rock-bottom last place. Boom. What had gone wrong?

We’d basically not engaged our brains in any way shape or form.3 hours of sleep was a bad start, but not a valid excuse.

Neither of us are exceptional navigators, but we’re both experienced and I’ve navigated my way across much worse terrain in much worse conditions numerous times without mishap. I was extremely embarrassed but put it down as a blip. A major blip, but a blip all the same. We had, however, bagged two Munros (neither of which were on the route), had a totally fantastic day out in the hills, and we weren’t really disappointed, more surprised and embarrassed. We chilled out at camp, had a debrief and told ourselves to engage our brains the next day.

Day 2

23818623291_fc20f1ab99_o

Exactly.

Dialling back the enthusiasm a bit, dialling back the speed, and actually thinking turned out to pay dividends. Who would have guessed? We got to checkpoints 1-3 without mishap and were quick to each one. We had already done better than the day before. We kept going and were reassured that yesterday had just been a colossal brainfart and not a symptom of complete incompetence. Soon we were running for the last three checkpoints, it was baking hot, and Sam was leaving me for dead. I couldn’t go any faster, my head felt like it would pop, I’d stopped sweating, my arms had gone numb, I was feeling dizzy… ooh this is familiar! Heat exhaustion here we come. At the finish I was completely spaced out, utterly roasted, and just sat in a daze as Sam got me bottle after bottle of water to drink and pour down myself. Within twenty minutes I was all dandy again, but I was very glad for the help. But how had we done? We were still last as our previous day’s performance had disqualified us, but on the second day alone we came in mid-field. Not impressive, but we were a bit more satisfied with that. Neither of us had run hard save for the last couple of miles, and we’d not really been racing. So that was that, Highlander 2016, and the last Highlander mountain marathon ever, done. Plenty more MM’s still exist though. Engage brain and you’ve a chance.

A few thanks: to Sam for good company, to Rich T for the tent lend, to USA Sam for the excellent Ultimate Direction bottles, and to Meg for a heroic 10 hour drive each way despite working full days as a nurse. Mega.