Well, that was hard work. 24 hours to reach as many controls as possible; I think that counts as my first ultra?
This year was the second running of the Marmot 24 race. It’s an interesting format, giving runners either 12 or 24 hours to reach as many controls as possible, in whatever order they like. There are no route markings on the ground, you just have to work with a map and a compass. All controls score the same, so the order is entirely up to you. In addition, you can run solo, as a pair, or as a team of four. With teams, two runners are out on course, and can at any point return to ‘tag’ the other pair into play instead. There is only one first prize for all 12-hour competitors and one for 24-hour, but that doesn’t mean that teams always win… (spoiler: I didn’t win)
I discovered the race when I stumbled across a link at the bottom of the Dragon’s Back race director’s report. At short notice I wasn’t able to find anyone for a pair entry, let alone a team, so I eventually decided to do the 12-hour race on my own. This year the location was the Lowther Hills in southern Scotland, which I’d never even heard of before. With hills up to 730m, and the event centre at 165m, the climbs were going to be sizeable but not ludicrous.
I arrived at Durisdeer nice and early on Friday, in time to register and then see the Western States 100 film (well worth watching). Discussion over dinner involved a number of people convincing me to do the 24-hour course, which I’d secretly fancied but was too scared to do. I was a bit concerned when those same people then came out with phrases like “Well at my first 100-mile race…” and “When I did The Spine…“. Eek! At 09:00 on Saturday morning we received our maps, and much discussion was had about strategies before the midday start. I settled on a loop over the higher, more distant hills to the north as my main drag. The plan was to then have a couple of hours of sleep before ticking off two clusters of controls much nearer to the event centre when tired.
The firing gun sounded at noon, and we were off! Things started well, with decent Harvey Maps making this a much more enjoyable experience than the shrunk-down OS maps on last year’s OMM. A joint effort with a Portuguese chap ticked off the first couple of controls, but then we split up and my solo epic began. I skipped a couple of the more troublesome controls early on, thinking I’d lose too much time on tricky navigation or needless climbing, and focussed on getting to the control at the extreme north-west of the map.
Fear of failure prevented me from ever checking how far I’d come; the farthest I’d ever run before was about 21 miles on Nine Edges, and I didn’t want to psyche myself out by realising I’d gone further and suddenly convincing myself I was tired! Unlike the big mountain marathons, there weren’t many people around, although I did keep meeting up with two military guys at almost every other control.
It soon became clear that paths outranked everything else, since the ground was incredibly hard going if you decided to travel cross-country. Fortunately there was an abundance of tracks, quad tracks and sheep trods to link up if you were careful and continually observant. After seven and a half hours I found myself about 60% of the way around my planned loop, and in the midst of the Lowther Hill radar complex run by National Air Traffic Services.
I pushed onwards as the sun sank lower, hoping to time my return to the event centre to coincide with it getting too dark to run without a head torch. I figured I wasn’t used to running for very long, so I’d need a rest. What better time to take a break than in the middle of the night, when navigation is at its most difficult (and the monsters roam the hills)?
After dibbing another control, and having an awful climb back out again, I descended to a B-road at 21:00. I forced myself to do a two-mile out-and-back to pick up a very easy control, and then it was homeward bound. This required a bit more road, and slight detour to a sheepfold, a bit more track, then a two-mile grassy descent to the village. I was really pleased that I was still running at this point, and took the descent at full speed in fading light. The plan had worked perfectly – I knew I’d come a long way, couldn’t have got any more controls without being substantially later back, and felt tired but not broken.
A cup of tea and some cold dinner were the only things keeping me from my bed, and so I was soon bundled up in my sleeping bag. I didn’t sleep particularly well; I think my body was a bit confused about what the hell was going on, so I kept waking up hot, then cold, then achy. It was 04:30 before I knew it, but with tired legs and brain it was 05:30 before I’d sorted fresh supplies for my bag, put on clean, dry clothes and shoes (bliss) and got myself back out onto the course.
At this point, dear reader, it became clear that I was not as fresh as I’d hoped. Nor had I really looked at the map properly. A half-hour uphill slog nearly killed me, and I immediately discounted the first two planned controls when I saw the hills they necessitated climbing. Control four didn’t look much better in my worn out state, leaving the distinct possibility that I might return to the event centre after two hours with just one more control.
It was at this point I had to remind myself that I had wanted to go down the rabbit hole with this whole “24 hour” thing, and that giving up there was effectively just looking at the rabbit hole and walking away again. I trudged on up the hill and eventually found some kind of rhythm. Although closer together than the previous day’s candidates, these controls had fewer / no paths or good ground between them. Descending an awkward gully after the fourth, I had to decide whether to cross the valley and climb up to another 530m summit, or just turn left and go home.
After over 2000m of ascent by this point, I was pretty tired. But I also had around three and a half hours left until the noon deadline, and so I’m pleased to say that I soldiered on. I even made quite good time on the ascent (although made a poor route choice from there to the next control, but we’ll gloss over that!). By this time I was descending the hills backwards to reduce the pain in my ankles, which had been twisted a few times on the horrible heathery stuff. With one more control conveniently dibbed on my final descent, I gave a strong (but ultimately, given the nature of the scoring, futile) run across the finish line.
In the end I travelled almost 70km, climbed around 2700m, and visited 22 controls for 220 points. Whilst I didn’t break any records, I was really pleased with just how un-awful I felt for the majority of the 24 hours. I managed food and drink really well, and made the right call in skipping controls to keep to my overall target time in the first half of the day. Spending a total of almost seven hours at the event centre was, on reflection, a bit silly, but I wasn’t too confident I’d manage the full 24 hours out on course. Having sampled this event now, I reckon I could next time (but it wouldn’t be pretty!).
The top three of the 24-hour class scored 340 – 360 points, so I wasn’t troubling any of them. Interestingly, the first three places were all solo people rather than teams. I placed thirteenth out of twenty-nine overall, and seventh out of fourteen solo entries.
Sadly, the event organiser has said that the Marmot 24 isn’t economically viable unless more people enter. The event as a whole was incredibly well run – the facilities were great, the course was very well designed, the event team were friendly and helpful. It would be a real shame if we lost this race, because there isn’t anything similar anywhere else in the UK, so I’d urge you to give it a go if you’re in any way tempted. You can return to the event centre at any time, and some teams even took tents so they could stay out for the full 24 hours but camp if they felt like it (I heard a rumour that one team even had three pints in a pub, nipped out to dib a control, then returned to the pub for dinner!). That flexibility is great, because it opens it up to so many people. Give it a go! I’m be heading back next year, and I haven’t even stopped aching yet…
If you fancy looking at some professional photos of me suffering, you can find them at the following links (I don’t normally mind paying, but these are £25 each!):