Alpine runners reach the peak of endurance

Mountain marathons are the toughest possible races over the hardest terrain. Rob Howard reports
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The Independent Online
From high on the slopes of Aonoch Mor the lights of Fort William appeared far below through the rolling cloud which swept across the mountain. Only the flash of torchlights and low voices betrayed the presence of competitors in the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon, transported to this high campsite by the nearby ski gondola.

They entered knowing only that they would spend a weekend running somewhere in the Scottish mountains. They found that their competition area was a vast range of the highest and most desolate mountains in Britain, and that even before the race began their bed for the night was on boggy ground 2,000 feet above sea level.

Mountain marathons are a masochistic mix of fell running, orienteering and survival skills. In the United Kingdom these races have been going 30 years and attract thousands of runners. For environmental reasons, only 500 set off in pairs into the mist next morning, but their challenge was a daunting one.

The course planner, Martin Bagness, a former international orienteer, said: "We hold the race in the toughest possible terrain and aim to set the most testing courses and attract the highest standard of competition." He had placed 30 small marker flags in the mountains, which competitors had to find using navigation skills. Their course was just a list of grid references and much of the skill lay in choosing the best route between checkpoints. Each pair was carrying a rucksack with everything they would need to camp out for the night.

There were five courses for all levels of ability, and competitors came from all over the United Kingdom. Camped at the foot of the Nevis range was a group of 10 from Devon who had arrived late after a 12-hour drive. Among them was Robin Carter, who said: "I'm always so tired before I even start these races."

Eddie Speak avoided that problem by flying his light plane to a nearby airfield, and Davie Mack had come by sea from the Hebridean isle of Jura.

A note in the gondola reminded travellers the mountain had an Arctic climate, and while most of the United Kingdom suffered a heatwave the mountains around Ben Nevis were cloud covered, windy and wet. Instead of factor 25, runners were applying midge repellent, and the only paddling was across the fast flowing rivers and through bogs.

Saturday was spent on long climbs to heights over 3,000 feet and picking a way along rock strewn ridges, guided only by the compass. At the end of the day, runners arrived at the campsite at Luibeilt with sodden feet after fording the nearby Abhainn Rath. This was not a campsite with the usual facilities. Luibeilt is a mountain bothy, a rough shelter for walkers situated six miles from the nearest road. The tired competitors simply pitched their tents in the tussocks of marsh grass, lit their stoves and settled down for the night.

The tent containing Mel Owen and John Harvey was an unusual shape as Owen had left the tent poles behind, but they survived and won the veterans' prize in the 'C' course. Other veteran winners were Mary Gillespie, 61, and her husband Alex, who is still active in the local mountain rescue at 62. A regular mountain marathon runner, he lives in Fort William and said: "I doubt anyone in the town is aware of the race. It will come and go and won't have any impact on the landscape."

That was illustrated in the morning when the tented township disappeared, the runners repacked and set off towards the distant outline of Ben Nevis in better weather. Luibeilt returned to its isolated splendour, and to help ensure this the competitors' rucksacks were checked for rubbish at the finish. Anyone not carrying out their litter was disqualified.

The winners of the elite class were Mark Seddon and Dan Parker, who covered about 60km in 10hr 31min. But every pair to finish had overcome the weather, the terrain and the cunning of the course planner.

Among them was Victoria Skelton, 17 and running a mountain marathon for the first time. She said: "It was a lot rougher than I expected with more rocks and almost no paths, which made descending much harder than climbing. I'm more used to the Lake District, which has paths everywhere and is far easier." Asked if she would compete again, she hesitated before answering: "Probably..."