The Kintail and Morvich estate, lies 4 hours north west of Glasgow on the A87, it’s 400 square kilometers of mostly Scottish National Trust country, home to the famous Five Sisters (a high ridge 8km long and 1067 meters high), 14 further Munros (hills over 2000ft) and the falls of Glomach, one of the highest waterfalls in great Britain (370ft), this is ‘big mountain country’ – welcome to the 2009 Low Alpine Mountain Marathon (LAMM).
Now in its 16th year, with a very experienced planning team at the helm, it is a two-day mountain orienteering competition with an overnight camp at a remote location. Over 500 teams will run in pairs, must be self sufficient for up to 36 hours and choose from five linear courses ranging from Elite (35km with 2550m climb Saturday / 26km with 2000m climb Sunday) to ‘D-Novice’ ( 21km with 1230m climb Saturday and 16km with 850m climb Sunday) depending on ability and fitness. The aim is to visit each of the checkpoints on your course and the times for both days are aggregated to find a winner.
New this year is the Score Course ,unlike all the other courses that follow a linear route, the score course has a fixed time limit of 7 hours on day one and 6 on day two. Competitors choose from a host of controls to collect depending on location and value – highest number of points over the two days wins. Good route choice and timekeeping are vital, as 2 points are deducted for every minute or part thereof over time. 90 teams will be given the checkpoint locations to plot 30 minutes before the start but the value of each checkpoint is only handed out at the start.
My partner Russ and I are novices at Mountain Marathons – Russ has completed one and this is my first – but we have an adventure racing background so feel well prepared to tackle the score course.
Fast and light is the aim, but there is a mandatory kit list: Each team must carry a tent , food for evening meal and breakfast, stove and means to produce hot food/drink, first aid kit. Each person must wear or carry a whistle, compass, map, pencil & paper, torch, sleeping bag, survival bag, waterproof cagoule with hood, over trousers, hat & gloves, thermal vest and bottoms, warm thicker top, hill food for each day with a small amount of emergency rations to remain at the end of day 2. However with practice and light gear you can get this into 2 X 20ltr rucksacks (we were using the new 20L teranova laser’s) each weighing about 6kg, provided you ‘drink on the go’ from the streams. The other key is footwear, with wet weather expected, plenty of bogs and very steep descents good grip will be key to contouring well and speedy downhill running – I am trying out my new Inov 8 x-talon 212.
The ‘LAMM revile’ started at 5am Saturday morning courtesy of a traditional Scottish bagpipe alarm call (with snooze control!) and opening the tent we were amazed at two things – clear blue sky (not the bad weather promised) and 500+ tents (when did they all arrive !!)
At 8:10 we collected our map and control cards, there were 24 control points to plot before you could start getting a feel for the right route choice. The options covered a massive 16km X 17km area, with a ‘ lot of climbs’ so it was clear we would have to be very selective.
At 8:30 we picked up the value card – 670 points in total with each checkpoint ranging from 10 – 60 points. We picked a route covering 8 checkpoints totaling 250 points, the distance considering the climb was right on our limit (35km and 2550m of climb). The route was typified by two things – off piste running and steep slopes (up and down), real ankle twisting and quad trashing country, so we knew we would have to keep moving and make no mistakes. We chose to go north – the high route as it looked like being a nice day and why not try the scenic route!!
The first checkpoint was a very steep 800m climb up Beinn Bhaidhe followed by a spectacular ridge run (you could clearly see Skye) to the summit of Ben Attow at 1032m then another very steep decent ‘off piste’ down to the valley floor and back up for the third checkpoint at the source of a dry near the summit of Ciste Dhubh (979m), this set the theme for the rest of the checkpoints - it was going to be a hard day!!.
We were going well for most of the day but a navigational error (we were 200m too high on a spur) at one of the checkpoints lost us valuable time so we we had to bypass one of the easier 15 point checkpoints or face penalty deductions for being late.As it was, we arrived back with less than two minutes to spare after ‘hammering down’ the last set of grassy descents , south east of the overnight stop and the finish of day 1.
Mid Camp was east of Loch na Leitreachset nestled between Creag nan Eilid (656m) in the Killilan Forest range to the north and Creag Ghlas (856m) to the south, a spectacular valley location next to the river Elchaig. When we finished the sun was still warm, the sky clear, no midges, fresh water – it made for an idyllic and almost luxurious feel to the camp as 1000 competitors told their stories of the day, and prepared for the next. We set up camp quickly and prepared our evening meal (cous-cous and dried pasta) to re-fuel for the next day. Elated we had had a good day, exhausting, incredible weather and fantastic high level scenery.
We were all using Idensport tagging which meant that within an hour of finishing the results were published for all to see. The LAMM is very well organised, from timings to facilities to the quality of the courses – a very slick operation.
Interestingly at the end of the day the top 5 teams on the score were separated by only 30 points and the distance and climbs covered were comparable to the leaders of the elite / A courses – so this score class is definitely not ‘the easy option’.The winners of the day had picked a completely different route and gone south, bagging 11 checkpoints totalling 255 points. We ended Day 1 in 4th place with 235 points, only 5 points behind the 2nd and 3rd place teams – so all to play for on day 2.
On finishing Day 1 we received Day 2 checkpoints (22 within a more confined area of 13km X 10km) so we had plenty of time to plot them and plan a couple of alternative routes which we could finalise once we got the values at the start – anytime between 6 and 7am in the morning.
Sunday morning started the same as Saturday with a ‘Traditional Bagpipe alarm call’ at 5am, again bright blue skies, glorious sunshine, in fact warmer than yesterday. A huge bowl of porridge and syrup was needed to kick start our weary bodies and focus on the six hours ahead (rather than the seven hours we had just completed). Camp was taken apart very quickly (easy in good weather) and we were ready – our strategy today was ‘to go for it’ and push hard.
At 6.30am we started, picked up the values and took a few minutes to validate our route choice to make sure we could maximize our score. We picked a route of 11 checkpoints that would give us 265 points if we completed them all!! It would be 33km of running (mostly across boggy plateaus) with just over 2000m of climb – ambitious, but with less extreme climbs than Saturday and easier direct route finding, it felt manageable even with one hour less.
Our route started to the south east of mid camp with two checkpoints in the west Benula Forest Range before passing the famous ‘ Falls of Glomach’ on the way to traversing round AGhlas Bheinn (918m) to a checkpoint at Loch a Chleirich before the final steep decent over to the Inverinate Forest Range. Once there the terrain evened out more and we were able to pick up the pace as we entered the boggy plateaus – or so we thought !! I had an agonising climb up through the valley, I had run out of energy and was struggling to keep up any sort of pace. In the end it took me over 40 minutes to really refuel and by that time we knew we were not going to finish our selected route.
In the end we had to miss out a 25 point checkpoint, it would be another climb up to the crags at 750m just below and to the north of Sgurr an Airgid summit, and to be honest we did not have it in us –the finish line was still some way off.
It had been a long hard slog up the valley northwards aiming for the col between Beinn Bhuide (703m) and Sgurr an Airid (841m) but once there the finish camp could be seen at the bottom of an incredibly steep decent. We now had 15 minutes left to get there and divert off to the final 10 point checkpoint, a final ‘unload everything push was required’, Russ fell over twice (fatigue and cramp)on the way down and we had to ‘fight through’ a variety of other course runners but we got to the finish line with 90 seconds to spare and collapsed in a heap needing to recover before we could ‘download’ the days scores.
We were delighted to have finished Day 2 with 240 points, 1st on the day (to our surprise) which brought us up to 2nd over the weekend.
Races like this, although 13 hours long are decided on one or two minor points, ours was on Day 1 spending 10 minutes trying to find a checkpoint at the wrong height!! This was the difference for us between first and second place over the weekend. However, every team has their tale of navigational errors and lows of energy, its part of the race. The score is a good event , you cannot concern yourself on who is ahead like in the linear routes. You have no idea which route any team is taking so you have to concentrate on your own race, you set the pace, you push as hard as you want, you rely on your navigation and route choice skills (most of which is ‘off piste’)- to be competitive and enjoyable, you dictate how hard or easy you want the experience to be.
A great weekend of racing, the organisation and marshalling is outstanding for such a large field over six different routes, we were spoilt with weather, the ‘big mountain’ scenery is stunning and two mountain marathon rookies produced a damn good performance – see you next year !!