The term ‘Mountain Marathon’ can be a bit confusing as most people associate ‘Marathon’ with a race over a fixed course at 26.2 miles.
Mountain Marathons are fell running events which are generally 2 days in duration and the participants are self sufficient, carrying all camping equipment and food. Competitors are given a map at the start of the event which is marked up with several controls points in remote, mountainous locations. The goal of the event is to reach these locations using a compass and the map. Sometimes the winner will be the person or team who reaches all the controls first and sometimes the controls will be allocated points and the aim will be to score as many as possible within a set time period. The exact format can vary between events and there are often several classifications with different objectives and difficulty levels.
Route choice, navigation skill and tactics are just as important as physical fitness and the routes taken will often incorporate off-trail sections as the events tend to be set in remote areas so that they are not limited to public rights of way. This means that in getting from one place to another, it is important to consider whether the direct and shortest distance will be the best bet or whether a longer route with less vertical gain or natural obstructions will be the faster option.
Equipment is also vitally important. Most events provide a mandatory list of the minimum equipment that each team must carry to ensure they are safe and self sufficient. Often this will include things like a tent, stove, sleeping bag, first aid equipment as well as clothing and food for the full two days. Prior to starting the event, the competitor must weigh up weather conditions and terrain against how uncomfortable they are prepared to be to decide exactly what they are going to take. If your equipment is heavy, you will slow down and suffer, but if your equipment is too light and the weather is poor you will also be in for a rough time.
Mountain Marathon Preparation Tips
- If you are new to mountain navigation, find a good source of info on learning how to do it and buy a compass and a map of your local area. There are lots of good books and internet sites on the subject and I would suggest going for a UK based source to ensure that you are learning terminology that is recognised in this country.
- Find yourself some unfamiliar routes in your local area and go practice! Check all direction changes against compass bearings, even when you know where you are going until you can do it efficiently.
- Once you get the hang of this, go out in the dark with a head torch and practice navigating at night in a safe place. This is a great way of raising the difficulty level and helping you develop your skills
- Use your map and a watch to get a feel for how far you travel over various types of terrain in a given time. There are several formulas you can use for estimating this (Naismith’s rule etc) but they should be combined with experience of your own pace and abilities.
- If you are planning on running as a part of a team of two, make sure you train together extensively prior to the event so that you are used to each others pace, strengths and weaknesses. Remember that both competitors need to know how to navigate.
- Practice running with your loaded pack whilst maintaining good form. If you can’t run efficiently with the pack, you will be prone to fatigue and injury.
- After a healthy period of base training, try and spend as much time as you can running on steep and awkward terrain, including traverses of steep cambers.
- Make sure that you work on your ankle, knee and hip stability as these will be put to the test. Start with practicing standing on one leg for 30 seconds when this becomes easy, do it with your eyes closed and then on an unstable surface. This can work wonders. Romanian deadlifts are also useful.
Tips on Tactics
- Consider your strengths and allow them to dictate your route choice. Are you a fast on smooth terrain with gentle gradient or are you better at trudging up steep slopes with your hand on your knees? Is your navigation good enough to get you through complicated geographical features or would it be faster if you were to follow a marked path and a longer route?
- Take a marker pen with you to make notes on your map and mark your chosen checkpoints.
- At the start of the event, it’s really important to spend a few minutes planning your route before setting off. If you are in a team, this should be agreed and understood by both members.
- If you are in a team, get both members to check and agree navigational decisions or route changes. Be prepared to compromise.
- Re-asses your route choice and other key decisions periodically against your actual performance and be prepared to change them.
- Make sure you don’t forget to eat. Your mind will be occupied but lots of factors which would not be present in a normal race so it’s easy to forget!.
- Make sure you take a watch! Do not risk being late as time penalties are often severe.
- When using an electronic ‘dibber’ at controls, make absolutely sure that it has registered every time. I always let it beep twice.
- Equipment choice and pack weight are important but not more so than your safety. Wait until you have some experience before you go super minimal.
You can find a post about an event I recently entered here
Do you have any tips or questions about mountain marathons? Please leave your thoughts below!