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Friday, November 16, 2018

The 51st Original Mountain Marathon (OMM), Black Mountains, Wales, UK

“Orienteering races in the hills of the UK… I just love them.” That’s what my buddy said who I’d met at the Everest Marathon and who, after enthusiastically praising navigational mountain marathons, subsequently talked me into joining him and a couple of his friends for the OMM in Wales. Fast forward a couple of months—registration made, plane tickets and hotels booked—my buddy and both his friends had to drop out for various reasons and there I was, left in somewhat of a bind. After some emails with the organisation, and some luck in the FB OMM Competitors Group, I found a new partner who’d also been left high-and-dry by his injured mate. 

My flight out was on a Thursday night which coincided with my husband arriving home after a business trip to Seoul. The kids would have an overlap alone of a couple of hours. But my husband’s passport was stolen in Seoul, which, after a hectic trip to the police and embassy, caused him to miss his flight home to Munich. His only other flight option later that day wasn’t direct, rather with a layover in Amsterdam, coincidentally overlapping my stopover there on the way to England. So as I disembarked the plane in the Dutch capital at 8pm, there stood my husband with a wide smile and an invitation to join him for a drink in the bar. Three hours later as I climbed wearily into a pristine white bed with over-sized duvet at the airport hotel in Bristol, my husband sent me a text to say he’d just arrived home.

The next morning I rented a car, a royal-blue Mini, and picked up Niels and Max for the 2-hour drive north into the Black Mountains of Wales, the location of this year’s OMM.  They were Dutch college students, Max studying in Holland while Niels was doing graduate work in London. They presented me with a box of colorful macarons as a ‘thank you’ for the lift, though I was happy to have some company and help with the navigation since it was my first time driving on the ‘left’ and all my concentration was focused on the driving rather than exactly where I was going. Neither of them had run an OMM either, so I couldn’t garner any tips from them, and would have to rely completely on my yet-to-meet partner Martin from London who had been doing orienteering since he was 7 years old. Martin would be taking Max and Niels back to London after the race, so they wanted to know what my ‘expectations’ were so that they could check them later with the ‘reality’ of events from my running partner. Max said that with a mischievous snicker. Thanks for your confidence, guys.

The single-lane road heading in to the event was lined by two-meter high hedgerows. Every now and then there was a widening of the road to be used when an opposing car was to come along, but still, I couldn’t help but squirm every time I had to squeeze by another car and heard the scraping of the spiny branches alongside my now-beloved Mini. The base camp of the OMM Wales was really in the middle of nowhere. A field. Actually a group of fields, one serving for parking, one for the prior- and post-night camping, and a huge tent which served as registration, shop, dining hall and bar.

As I gave away the official kit declaration form and was fitted with the control chip on a non-removable wrist-band, I apologized for my partner not being there and asked if I could take the control chip for my late-arriving partner and give it to him later. The volunteer gave me a consoling oh-she’s-a-first-timer look as she explained there was only one chip per team. Oops.

I then left Max and Niels, who would be camping in the field, and I drove back through the narrow road full of oncoming traffic winding their way into the race. After 20 minutes I landed in Abergavenny where I had a hotel room for the night and where I would soon meet Martin. At 6:45 pm there was a knock on my hotel room door and I opened it to find a giant. My race partner for the weekend was a towering 6’4“ (193 cm). He had just driven out from London and, after fighting Friday-afternoon traffic, was more than ready for dinner and a beer. We headed to a pub-style restaurant just down the street, with map and compass in hand, and had a short tutorial on navigation as we waited for our food. The conversation was easy and I was relieved that the ‘strange’ man that I was to spend the weekend with, was in fact, pretty darn normal.

After a short nights’ sleep (get your minds out of the gutters people, we had separate rooms), we arrived back to the event for our start block of 8:30-8:44. We dropped off our car keys and headed out for the 1.5-kilometer walk to the starting line. Once we received our maps, we had 1 minute until we could start, which felt like about 3 seconds before suddenly we were off! Running uphill along a nice trail, till we took a wrong turn after only about 5 minutes and ended up picking our way through bristles (UK-talk for thorny plants or prickers) and edging along a barbed-wire fence until we got back on track. Not the best start. But soon the first control point was in sight and after sliding down a steep slope on my behind, losing a water bottle, which Martin retrieved for me on his way down the descent, we were on our first control point (CP) and feeling positive. Back to running steadily up a slope to the next CP which was high up on a mountain near a cairn (a man-made stack of stones). We didn’t even have to leave the trail to find that one. This wasn’t bad at all, I thought, but little did I know that we were just ‘warming-up’.

The next two CPs were ‘hidden in plain sight’ on a hillside covered with heather. Of course, I’d heard of heather, but hadn’t had too much interaction with the plant before then. Thus, as we ran down a gently falling slope through fields of ‘heather’ (sounds idyllic, no?), I was curiously trying to determine where I should place my feet. On top of the plant? On top of the roots? Between the roots? So, after trying to carefully pick my way down nearly the entire hillside covered with it, I was suddenly passed like lightening by someone who was using the springy plants as trampolines and bouncing his way towards the valley (Note to self: heather is bouncy, use it to your advantage). Next we had to climb up on that same slope and unfortunately the plants couldn’t propel me upwards so I began looking for sheep paths. But, even the best animal trail isn’t made for the human foot which is probably ten times the size of an ovine hoof, so running with feet directly placed in front of each other is somewhat of a balancing act. Oh, yeah, and that with 6 kg of gear on my back.

After a steep descent into a valley, just before a river crossing, Martin suddenly yelled out a warning, “Watch out for the bog!” What bog? I saw nothing but a narrow field of clumpy grass, until another runner came from behind and splashed right into it. Oh, that bog. “Step over on the hags!” Martin yells. Hags??? What the heck is a hag?!? Apparently, they are the firm grass clumps that can be used as stepping stones. But that was too much for me to handle, so I just ran around the bog before we approached the river which Martin jumped over with one giant leap. I stood still, in contemplation. Let’s not forget here that Martin is about a foot taller than me with legs up to my shoulders. There was no way I could leap over that river! So I headed upstream to look for a safe crossing, and when I found a few rocks which gave me an invitation, guided by Martin’s outstretched hand, I was soon pulled over with dry feet. Back up a very steep trail to the next ridge of mountains on top of which a cairn stood marking the next CP. Five down, seven to go.

It was then, running along the top of that mountain ridge, that I noticed the wind began to pick up. But soon enough we had to make a turn downwards, through the heather again, where we bounced back into a gorge and a stream junction for CP6. Then we had a decision to make. The next control point was about 4 km away, as the crow flies, and across some pretty rough terrain, so we could: (a) run a straight shot laterally across the hillside, up and down the undulations, navigating through the heather, hoping to find some good sheep paths, (b) run back up the hill, back along the trail on the ridge and down again to the CP, (c) follow a trail that led behind a farm adding a couple of extra kilometers to the distance but they would be people-trails, i.e. run-able. This was a no-brainer for me after having just had a crash-course introduction to hillsides covered with heather and sheep. So option (c) it was!

Once past the farm and out of the shelter of the valley, the wind really began to pick up, and a few snowflakes began to fall. But wasn’t the sun just here a few minutes ago? Martin stopped to put on his heavier windbreaker because he said the storm looked like it was headed right at us. Storm? What storm?!? Of course he was right. The snow began to fall heavier, the wind got stronger, the sky continued to darken, and I was cursing myself for believing my weather-App with the false promise of sunshine and mild temps.

Freezing cold with icy winds faced us while traversing a high peak, my fingers and toes were frozen and the wind was whipping uphill straight into our faces. A group of sheep with beautiful white wool, seemingly unperturbed by the weather, contentedly watched us run past. I didn’t take much notice of them, absorbed in my frozen sufferings, until out of the corner of my eye I noticed one of those sheep was black as night! The sight of him caused me to break out laughing as he sat there with a miserable look on his face, taunting me not to say, There’s always one in the family, isn’t there?  

The next couple of CPs were at stream junctions, which I have come to learn means ‘down a very steep hillside and into a gorge’. From up above we looked down onto CP9 , nestled at the bottom of a precipitous ravine to which we needed to climb down and subsequently back up. Why do they do this to us??? We estimated the slope to be about 60%. I couldn’t even stay on my feet so I just sat down and slid the rough grassy slope the entire way. Martin said he was afraid to get his shorts caught or ripped on a hidden rock, but I was willing to take that risk. Besides, sliding is super fun and fast! I was down in an instant, then turned around to the next task of getting back up that vertical mass. I soon realised that moving on all fours was the most efficient way and I began to have a new-found respect for the woolly inhabitants of that region. Initially I tried to crawl my way around the sheep droppings, but after realizing the piles were strewn nearly everywhere, and after placing my (gloved) hand into several batches of it, I simply gave up and powered right though on a straight course, sheep poo or not.

Next up was a huge expanse of fell, for which I am at a loss for defining without Wikipedia: (archaic outside Britain) A wild field or upland moor. Couldn’t have said it much better myself, except maybe by adding a superlative: A very wild field. That was where I was introduced to the next specimen of Welsh fauna: Tussocks. Tussocks refer to tall grass that grows in clumps, though they are not really well-fixed in the ground but rather tilt from side to side, thus stepping on them is like playing the lottery to win a sprained ankle (Note to self: place feet between tussocks). Martin, told me his mum in northern England uses ‘tussocks’ as a curse word; I would too by the end of the day. We approached a barbed-wire fence crossing our path. Martin looked for the best place to climb over. Isn't there a gate somewhere? I asked. "Could be... but we may have to go a long way to find it," Martin replied. So we found a fence post to use for support, and I laid my map over the spines, as we carefully clambered over the fence.

We were then about six hours into the race, still ice cold, tired, and my injured ankle was throbbing. A small problem that I still hadn’t let Martin know about. I had an overuse injury which caused me severe pain when traversing hillsides which sloped to my right, thus causing my left ankle to bend inward. Flat, left-sided slopes as well as straight up- or downhill running were bearable; sliding and crawling were optimal.

We hit CP11 and had only one more to go then just a short dash to the finish. We were on a runnable trail when Martin spied a ‘short-cut’ through a hillside of tussocks (damn it) that he suggested we take. Shortly afterwards he decided that it likely would have been wise to stay on the trail since we now had to not only maneuver through the damn tussocks, but descend another ravine, traverse a stream and climb up to the trail on the other side. Martin was 10 meters ahead of me and as he edged to the top of the ravine and hesitated, “Well, it’s steeper than I thought”, he said. What does that mean? I asked in near panic, Is there a cliff?!? No, not exactly… he hesitantly answered, though his voice sounded anything but confident. Well, I certainly hadn’t expected to be on my behind again till we got to the tent. But I had no choice, so after scooting around some crag (yes, cliff), I slid my way down the slope, then all-four’d my way up and not too long after we found our last CP and the mid-race camp.

There were already probably 100 tents set up when we arrived in the field and we immediately got to work looking for the flattest spot possible to set up our shelter, a tent which Martin had borrowed from his injured mate. In about ten minutes the tent was up and, taking a peek inside, I asked, “Um, is this a one-man tent?” It was tiny! There was barely even enough room for me in there let alone me and Goliath! He assured me it was made for two-persons, and once we got our gear unpacked and organised, it turned out to be a great little tent, large enough for two, but small enough to keep some heat in. We got into dry clothes, boiled water on the little gas stove for coffee and hot meals, chatted about life, then gazed dumb-struck at the magical star-filled sky before calling it a day.

The second day was similar to the first, minus the snow storm, but with a few more barbed-wire fence crossings. And I learned another curse word of Martin’s mother: gorse, a prickly plant. When picking through a hillside of it, Martin pointed the plants out to me by saying, “You can brush by it without much ado, but just don’t fall into it or you’ll be really unhappy.” (Note to self after several close calls: avoid gorse at all costs). And towards the end of the day, my last lesson in British fauna would be meeting ‘bracken’, a type of fern, which I learned to adore. Why? Because on a 60-degree downhill slope it provides long slippery stems and just enough cushion to slide controlled but with high velocity those several hundred meters down to the next control station. Yippee!

Thanks to The OMM Orga Team for the promo entry, to Martin for his patience, to both of our spouses for allowing us to be crazy adventurous kids for a weekend, and to my Everest buddy, Harry, for inspiring me to try something new.

Some sightseeing before my flight home

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