Mountain Running: Terror and awe in a rocky wilderness: Marathon madness meets orienteering at 7,500 feet. Rob Howard reports from the Swiss Alps

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The Independent Online
AS THEY traversed the scree of the Piazzas d'Anarosa, an inaccessible peak in the Swiss Alps, Sarah and Andrew Gooda moved with care. Directly above them rose jagged cliffs, 1,500 feet of awe-inspiring rock from which occasional boulders fell, and with every step they dislodged more rocks which cascaded down the steep slope, starting small, noisy avalanches falling towards two snow-fed lakes several hundred feet below. At an altitude of 7,500 feet their breathing was laboured yet the pair were not mountaineers; they were orienteers taking their sport to the height of adventure in the Alpine version of the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon.

On the other side of the mountain Alex Pryor and Roger Defaye, who eventually finished third in the veterans class, had taken a different but no less hazardous route, both pairs using map and compass to find a one-foot square orange and white orienteering flag in the midst of this mountain wilderness. Choosing their own route over the high Alps, they had to find nine of these markers, carrying rucksacks containing all they needed for a high-altitude overnight camp. At the end of the day, tent, sleeping bags, stove and food were unpacked in pouring rain, then on Sunday morning the race continued with a second day of competition, now in fierce sunshine.

Over 650 runners took part on 10 different courses, from 20 to 60 miles in length, 40 of them British entries, but their participation in this mountain madness was not surprising, as the race is a copy of the British original. Mountain Marathons began in 1968 when policeman Gerry Charnley mixed fell-running and orienteering 'to test the qualities of two men working as a team, enduring the pain of a marathon and demonstrating their expertise in camp craft, having carried the essential equipment for their survival'.

The first race in the Pennines drew 78 teams, only 11 finishing, and at the time no one realised what they had begun. The two- day, two-man format was a stroke of genius and as the race could be staged in a different mountain area every year the challenge was always fresh. Now the British race, in October, attracts close to 4,000 entries. There are three other mountain marathons in the United Kingdom and this eccentric British idea has spread around the world, with races in Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, Tasmania and France.

The Alpine race was started in 1975 by Swiss international orienteer Dieter Wolfe, who won the UK race and took the idea home with him. A more recent Swiss winner in the UK was Olivier Buholzer, who won last weekend's elite class with partner Urs Butikofer. Even after 12 hours 40 minutes of running he still said: 'The British race is tougher with long running times, wet and cold conditions and a dark camp site.'

Ifor Powell and Pete James were second in the 60-mile elite course and were one of only three pairs to get round, so it was not surprising that Powell, who runs for Wrekin Orienteers, felt that at the elite end the two races were equally as difficult. Most of the British runners were on the shorter 'C' course however, and they felt the Alpine race was harder.

Andrew Gooda commented: 'The terrain is just much more difficult. It is far more rocky so you can't run so easily, and it's harder to breathe at the high altitudes. The scale is so much bigger, the climbs are longer, and if you choose a poor route the consequences are more severe.' He was thinking of that terrifying crossing of the Piazzas d'Anarosa, a mountain that is nothing like the rolling hills of the Pennines, but last weekend the two were linked by a unique sporting event.

(Photograph omitted)