60MPH winds, minimum visibility and a gem of a partner. My first OMM experience was everything it was cracked up to be. Next time, I hope I’ll even be able to finish…
In all of my thoughts of what my first OMM could turn out to be; cold, wet, hilly, beautiful, fresh, painful, emotional, hard… DNF wasn’t one of them. ‘Retirement’, as they call it in the orienteering world, wasn’t something I’d prepared myself for. I’ve DNF’d twice before, once in my first open water swim, and once when thwarted by punctures and exhaustion in a sprint triathlon, and the OMM 2017 was the third.
Yet, this had nothing of the disappointment I’d experienced in my first taste of DNF, during that first open water encounter. This wasn’t an event in which I felt sheer determination could belligerently get me through. When the weather throws everything it’s got at you, you DNF by making a positive choice. When James asked me whether I wanted to head back to the car, I looked at his rouge, wind-beaten cheeks through my eyes filling quickly with tears and announced that it was the only option that I felt was honestly right for me, not just in that uncomfortable, crouching behind a rock moment – but for at least the last hour, which had rendered me freezing, tear-stained and feeling like I was in a strange dream.
I don’t yet know enough about the mountains and my own capacity to deal with the cold to know whether it was absolutely true in that moment that the only choice was to retire, but the very fact that I’m questioning it says that yep – this time, it was. I’m used to battling on through, not giving up. I’m stubborn and I don’t like quitting, but there was barely a moment of doubt, even after months of build up.
What’s All The Fuss About?
In the car on the way to the event, stationary on a jammed M6, nibbling on M&S chocolate, feet on the dash, I turned to James and said: “I know I’ll eat these words after this weekend, but I just can’t see yet what all the fuss is about. To me, spending two days running on the fells just doesn’t seem that big a deal.” I honestly couldn’t imagine what could be so hard. In 2017, I’d jogged up the UK’s three biggest peaks and had been merrily running about town with a big, fat OMM sack, while wearing interchanging grins and grimaces. To bolster this (in hindsight) fairly woeful prep, I’d harnessed a bunch of eye-wateringly pricey breathable waterproof stuff with taped seams, a tiny first aid kit, a bunch of energy bars, a pair of beautiful Salomons, a whistle, a prized SILVA thumb compass, a toasty pair of Sweaty Betty run leggings and a borrowed self-inflating thermarest – thanks Tasha.
Up, Up and Away
When we set off fell-ward into Langdale at 8.40AM on Saturday morning, the drizzle was wetting our clothes, and the wind occasionally gusted as if in merriment of OMM day. We were given the Day 1 map, a ten-strong set of controls to find on the linear B course, totalling around 13 miles of running for the day. The first order of the day was up, up, up. Then up, up, up. Within minutes, my calves were screaming at me, and I was already making up puns in my head like OMM My God! This was climbing like I’d never known it. Not just up a mountainy, peaky, fell thing, on a nice path like I’d occasionally trained on, but straight up through the gorse, grass and bracken. It’s incredible how going off piste can really hurt. James was fine, pretty much dancing up the fell like a creature of the peaks, he might well have stowed a picollo in his pack for moments like this. But there was no tiny flute playing on my patch; just minutes into this event, I had strong some concern about my calves, because they felt like they were going to explode. This was the first sign that I was, perhaps, slightly underprepared for the OMM.
Type 2 Fun
At the top, the mist was a-swirling, and it was chilly, by gum. James navigated us effortlessly to the first control, and we danced off into the clouds to find the next, saying ‘good morning!’ to a photographer as we sailed on through. Amid a merry wee or two, an energy bar here and there and some fruitful following of an objective compass bearing, we had some type 2 fun — which in OMM speak, means we were both travelling faster than walking pace (just), with sixteen or so kilos of weight strapped to our bones between us, and me, occasionally disappearing down a bog with a tiny scream.
We were doing ok. James was in good spirits and offered up an opportunity for me to navigate us to the next control. I pointed at a mountain and a respective contour line and beamed with pride, before a minor map confidence crisis befell me, triggering yet another opportunity for James to navigate us safely to a really lovely bridge, the final opportunity to harness a smile before long climb number two put paid to all that jolliness. This time, 320 metres of fell to test my legs and emotions. I glanced up here and there, James was at his piccolo playing again, occasionally pausing for me to catch up as the lava of a thousand lactic volcanos once again raced through my pins. Finally (finally!) at the top, weather conditions had worsened – what happened thereafter was a bit of a blur.
Through my squinted, wind-harassed eyes, I occasionally saw other pairs of competitors, but mostly it were as though we were totally alone up there in the swirling mist. I remember realising that I was pretty darn cold, and, a while after being wet through, that it was in fact, raining. I decided to put my waterproof on behind a rock, along with a damp gilet, but I was already really cold, and struggling to warm up. The weather seemed to be getting worse, not better, and as James expertly navigated us on the safest track to the next control, 6 of 10, the wind was getting stronger, knocking me off my feet.
I knew that the only way to warm up was to run, and as I did so, I occasionally went through bogs that swallowed my legs whole, which made me giggle and kept my spirits up. With the wind knocking me over, James turned to look at me, and shouted through the noise of the gusts: ‘this is madness!’. His cheeks were red and his jacket juddered in the brutal wind.
‘Sound Mountain Judgement’
Moments later, we sheltered behind a big rock. We discussed the options, including the one that was in the OMM spirit of ‘sound mountain judgement’ of ‘let’s go home’. I simply couldn’t imagine staying that cold and wet very much longer, let alone the potential four or so hours it could take us to find the controls, or through the higher grounds we’d have to take to find our way to overnight camp.
There was a path back down the mountain, about an hour long, back to the start. At the end of it, there was the promise of a warm car, food, shower, and as it happened – a lovely meal out in Keswick and a nice glass of red wine.
The winner of the Elite course this year apparently said it was the worse Day 1 weather he’d ever encountered.
I’ve emerged from my first OMM with three things: the motivation to get a lot better at orienteering and mountain running, a better understanding and respect for the event, and bags of gratitude for a ruddy brilliant partner. Oh, or four if you count DOMS!
The OMM takes place every October in a cold, windy place in the UK.