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Book of the month: Adventures in Mind

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Artwork: copyright Heather Dawe.

Steve Birkinshaw's much-anticipated book about his seven-day run across the Wainwright fells is set to land on doorsteps from 4 May. Recounting Steve’s mile-by-mile experience of the extraordinary demands he made of his mind and body, There is No Map in Hell is a title not to be missed. 

On the running theme, this month we’re taking a look back at Heather Dawe’s Adventures in Mind, which reveals the sacrifices, mistakes and training the author undertook to compete in adventure races. In this extract, Heather and her friend, Ellen Wolfenden, compete in the Original Mountain Marathon, which in 1995 took place on the Galloway Hills. This is a two-day mountain event held each year on a different hilly region across the UK.

Back in 1995 – my first year at university – the OMM was called the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon (KIMM). The Wolf and I had heard about the race from my uncle, and from friends in the climbing club at university, who at the end of October had returned, full of pride and bravado, from completing the B class course in the Brecon Beacons. Having listened to our friends’ boasts, our envy at their weekend of adventure, and our hankering for something similar more than encouraged us to enter the race the year after.

In the months preceding the event we had climbed in loads of places including the Verdon Gorge, the sea cliffs of Pembrokeshire, Fontainebleau and the Chamonix Aiguilles, and we had gone for a few runs on the well-trodden paths on Ilkley Moor. We were confident that we were more than ready to tackle the C course.

And so, there we were, on a wet hillside in Galloway, wondering what the hell was going on. Everything was new to me. 

The Wolf said that she could read a map — handy, as I could not. And a compass? I had never owned or even used one. We could look after ourselves on the hill; our time climbing in the Alps and in Scotland in the winter helped us to gain the experience to be able to take care of ourselves but, for me at least, navigation was novel.

We were each handed a map and our race began. To begin with, we had to mark on our maps the checkpoints we had to visit in order to complete the day’s course. I found six-figure grid references reasonably familiar; a combination of vague recollections from GCSE geography and the fact that it was all very graph-related made marking the map up fairly straightforward — I was doing a maths degree after all. Unfortunately, this was where my knowledge began and ended. The map’s swirls and lines meant nothing to me. I resolved to follow The Wolf.

The Wolf’s confidence belied her experience of using a map and compass in anger. She could read a map but she wasn’t as good at it as she thought. In situations like these, over confidence can be a bad thing. Given my level of experience at the time it was not for me to criticise. I followed, we got lost, we found ourselves, we got lost again, we got hungry, I force-fed The Wolf malt loaf and insisted she put some more clothes on. We shouted at each other, stumbled over tussocks, got lost, fell into small streams, struggled to cross fierce streams in spate (which became more numerous as the day went on), found ourselves on the summit of The Merrick (the largest of the Galloway Hills) and — finally — we reached the overnight camp.

It had been a truly great day.

We erected The Wolf’s heavy but stable tent, which we’d been carrying around all day, and got into it and our sleeping bags. The weather had been very wet and windy and stayed like that through the evening and into the night. Many competitors had retired from the race and gone home. This often happens with the OMM — when the weather is particularly poor it is not uncommon for at least a third of the field to accept their limits and retire. This can be particularly so for competitors on the harder and longer courses such as the A and Elite — the distances and difficulties are such that bad weather can itself decide for many teams between success and failure.

There were around a thousand people on the boggy field that formed our campground for the night. Everyone was doing the same sorts of things, cooking, eating, chatting about their day, their route choices and the weather. After a dinner of quick-cook noodles, cake and custard, energy drink and jelly babies, we fell asleep.

During the night it got windier and wetter. From the comfort of our tent and sleeping bags, the following day of more running, this time on tired legs and blistered feet, felt entirely unattractive and something that I downright did not want to happen. At around 2 a.m., The Wolf’s words echoed my thoughts.

‘Heather, I don’t want to do it today.’

Morning arrived later than the day before as the clocks had gone back an hour. At around 6 a.m. the campsite started to stir; people began brewing tea and eating muesli, porridge and other such high carb
foods. The occasional whiff of bacon made me very jealous of those who had carried it in to the campsite with them. While struggling to chew my muesli, I considered how painful running on my blistered feet was going to be. I wasn’t in a good frame of mind to begin the second day and, given her furrowed brow and shared struggle to eat breakfast, neither was The Wolf.

But start we did; straight across a river in spate that the organisers had put a rope across for fear of competitors getting washed away, and then immediately up a steep hill. We were generally heading in the same direction as many other teams moving at a similar pace and figured we were probably all on the same category — the C course. Occasionally, whippet-like fast moving teams would run past us. Their rucksacks were much smaller than our own and they had a determined, knowing look in their eye. We figured they were doing the A or Elite courses. These categories were far harder than ours, more ascent, a further distance to cover, trickier route choice and tougher navigation; all in a far, far tougher proposition and something I could never envisage doing. Moreover, I did not see any women racing these courses. Perhaps understandably so, given that the toughness of the Elite course in particular is renowned to test the hardest of men; each day covering the distance of a full marathon with upwards of 2000 metres of ascent. These were categories for people like Al Powell, who raced the Elite course annually with his brother Ifor.

After our legs had warmed into the climbing of steep hills and traversing the rough, tussock-ridden terrain of Galloway, we found the second day easier than the first. Not only was there slightly less distance to cover, the weather had improved and there were lots of people to follow. In mountain marathons, particularly those the size of the OMM, ‘snakes’ form during the second day as lots of racers in shorter categories with less route choice all go the same way, thereby forming a trod and then a path: the ‘snake’. For much of the day we were in one of these snakes and were frankly pretty happy with it; there was less need to read the map and we clearly had fresher legs than some others. We regained some enthusiasm and even started overtaking a few people.

The last descent off the hill above the finish line was painful on the body but very satisfying. During the weekend we had learned so much, and had gone from not really knowing what was going on to understanding what it was we needed to do to further develop in order to be more competent and able in environments such as the stormy Galloway Hills. I don’t think that our confidence in being able to finish the event was misplaced but I do think that we were not ‘more than ready’. We were just about ready, and completing the C course in unusually challenging weather conditions had shown this to be the case.

Find out more about Adventures in Mind HERE.

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