A Mountain Marathon is a navigational event taking place in high and rough ground where competitors, make their way between a series of specific checkpoints over two days, with a break at an overnight camp. Competitors must carry all the equipment necessary to camp, feed themselves and cope with adverse weather conditions. A Mountain Marathon is race, but not in the conventional sense. Each team starts at a different time, but it is still the fastest team that wins.
Mountain marathons generally have two types of format and competitors choose which they prefer when entering the event. A “line” course requires visiting a series of checkpoints, usually between six and 10 of followed in a set order with the competitor choosing the best route between each checkpoint. The winner is the person or team with the fastest combined time over the two days. The other format is known as “score” and in this case the competitor has to choose which checkpoints to visit within a certain time. Different checkpoints have different points allocated to them. The objective is to plan a route so as to obtain many points as possible during the time allowed. Penalties will be imposed for overrunning the time allowance.
Generally, mountain marathons are run in pairs partly for safety reasons, but some events have specific classes for experienced solo entrance. At least one mountain marathon allows solo entrance in across all classes.
When considering entering a mountain marathon it’s important to note that distance is not comparable with road or trail races. If an organiser quotes a distance or vertical elevation for a course it will generally be by drawing a direct line between checkpoints, as they don’t know which route people will choose. In reality competitors will not be able to travel in direct lines as the ground may be impassable or unsafe or involve an excessive amount of climb. Actual distances covered in the event can therefore be very different to those shown on the courses.
As well as the irregular distance there are some other important differences with Road and Trail Marathons. The course will not be marked with tape or arrows and you must make your own way between the relevant controls. Most Mountain Marathons forbid the use of GPS so you will need to rely on a map and compass and maybe an altimeter if you have a separate device. Whilst many Fell Races are advertised as requiring navigational skills, and equipment must be carried, it is often possible to follow other runners. This is not possible in Mountain Marathons and you need to be able to find the way yourself. Most events feature around eight individual courses with competitors from different courses starting at the same time. Generally, you will not know which courses other competitors are completing so it not sensible to try and follow other teams.First timers should enter the easier, shorter courses. It must be emphasised that good map reading and navigation skills are still necessary
There will be no feed stations on the route and you will be completely reliant on the food you take with you for the for the weekend. There are no drink stations set up for the event and you will rely on drink that you carry or water that you take from streams – and you will have to judge whether it is suitable for drinking. There will be no crowds or bands on the route to cheer you on and your motivation must come from yourself or your partner. You are required to carry everything necessary to look after yourself on a weekend on the fells in any weather conditions and must carry sufficient food and fuel to maintain energy levels over the weekend. Indeed, you will be disqualified if you buy provisions from a shop or a pub. If you want to stop and go home, there is no bus to pick you up and you will have to find your own way back to the event centre to let the organisers know you are pulling out.
Being successful in a mountain marathon requires more than just being able to move quickly. Route choice between controls is often as important as speed on the ground. It goes without saying that nobody is going to win a race unless they can find all the controls so navigation is important and can be difficult when weather conditions are poor. Fortunately, in most mountain marathons the shorter courses will be easier to navigate as well as shorter in distance and cover less severe ground.
When training for a Mountain marathon it’s worth trying to replicate the conditions you will find during the event this means carrying a full rucksack, seeking out rough ground, climbing big hills and getting used to running with wet feet. Often events cross marshy ground and will also involve crossing rivers and streams. You would be very lucky if you manage to keep your feet dry for the whole event. Covering huge miles on the road in training will not necessarily help you get “hill fit”.
There might be times when you are cold wet and miserable but the positives are huge. Completing a Mountain Marathon is a great test of endurance, navigational skill and teamwork. The events are likely to take you to new areas that you may not have thought of visiting. Even if the general area is a familiar one, you are likely to visit parts of it that you would never thought have visiting since the courses will take you a long way off the beaten track. You will be amazed at all the secret places you discover that you want to go back to.
In the UK there are a number of Mountain Marathons that take place annually, with each usually being run at the same time every year. The general area in which the event takes place will be announced but usually the start location will be revealed by the organisers only a few weeks before the actual event – and often only when entries are closed. This is to prevent super keen competitors from getting to know an area before the event takes place.
Often the Event HQ will turn out to be in quite a remote location and some competitors will choose to camp there the night before. The atmosphere is fairly relaxed but competitors will need to register before starting at their allotted time. It is only at this point that a map will be given out and details of the day’s course provided. The clock will be ticking whilst you decide which route to take. Also, this is the first point at you will find the location of the overnight camp to which you are heading
Teams will complete the relevant courses as quickly as possible and then arrive at the overnight camp throughout the afternoon, putting the tent in whatever space they can find at the overnight camp. This site will have organised toilets and water available and some may have other some other facilities but generally the ethos is that all competitors are self-sufficient for the weekend. The second day of a Mountain Marathon usually involves a ‘chasing start’ with the overnight leaders setting off first and then a mass start for other competitors. In most cases the second day will be slightly shorter than the first with the aim of finishing early in the afternoon.
The Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon is one of the longest standing events and has been held for 40 years. It is unusual in that it always takes place in the same general location, the Lake District, and it is always at the beginning of July. Although the weather cannot be guaranteed and, competitors must be able to cope with all conditions it does offer the prospect of relatively benign conditions and pleasant camping.
Coming after most school and university exams have finished, and before school holidays start it is popular with families with a specific course aimed at those as young as 14. For first timers, the Saunders is a good entry to the world of Mountain Marathons. The event is relatively relaxed and sociable and, being run in the Lake District, has some of the best scenery in the UK. Another feature of the Saunders is that drinks, including beer and cider, can be all ordered beforehand for collection at the overnight camp. As with other Mountain Marathons, you must take your own food.
Please see the following links for more information regarding the SLMM
Videos of interest (youtube)
We hope this article gives some idea what Mountain Marathons are about and hasn’t put you off. If you like the idea, then there is no better event to start with than the Saunders Lakeland Marathon and we hope to see you there next year!