It was 11pm, I stood in a gazebo with its sides flapping violently in the gale-force winds, rain thundering off the roof. It was a strange scene for a Saturday night at the stunning Lowther Castle, in the Eastern Lakes where nearly 350 runners prepared to set off on varying courses for the Marmot ‘Dark Mountains’ Mountain Marathon across a section of the Eastern fells, near Penrith.
By the time my partner and I stepped outside and dibbed our timer, it was nearly midnight. As we left the start line, a sense of incredible nervous energy overwhelmed. To be quite frank, I think we were both sh*tting ourselves (this being our first night time nav-running ‘race’). The snow hailed down onto us as we set off into darkness, with our map and compass poised for action. The first few controls flew by as we started off confidently, following bearings and faint bridleways. All we could ‘see’ aside from our map and compass was the terrain a few feet in front of us. The wind and snow soon picked up and winter engulfed the fells. After a while we both settled down and I really began to enjoy what we were doing. The unexpected simplicity of it all was fantastic; all that mattered was getting between two points, focussing solely on a small section of map and our compass bearing. The lack of intervening technology (first time I’ve ran without a GPS watch for a long long time) was truly liberating. I believe this is what people call being alive. The total darkness was transformative. No longer could you focus on distant landscapes, all that could be seen and thought about was the few metres lit up by your head-torch in front of your feet. We were freezing, wet and tired by the time we passed the half way mark but we were loving it. As soon as you feel a sense of safety and reassurance that you are going to make it, you totally relax and enjoy the journey.
The course mixed faster runnable sections of ‘path’ with slower s(l)oggy sections of open moorland and grassy fell. We made good progress on these more runnable sections but got caught in a few bogs on several occasions. Ascending some of the longer ascents allowed us to really knuckle down and push on up whilst the decent felt invigorating and it was nice to really get the legs moving, by far the best way of keeping warm. The sheer simplicity of what we were doing was fantastic, on a few occasions I felt like my survival instincts kicked in: food, water, movement and warmth became the priorities.
By the time we reached the final few checkpoints our legs were really throbbing and we began to tire but what an incredible journey it had been; 20 miles and 4000ft (*ish*) of running later we were back at that same marquee, 7 and a bit hours later, which now acted as a refuge and place of collapse for us all. We were satisfied we hadn’t made any major navigational errors, although we maybe picked the wrong line for some of the legs, we were relatively efficient in our movement and timing. Being without a watch and not knowing what the time was for the entire night was incredibly freeing, adding to the sense of ‘wilderness’ and ‘adventure’. My favourite moment came when we looked back on ourselves across a valley and saw about a dozen lights bobbing along, descending in the darkness, beneath the stars, not a streetlight to be seen.
My mud splattered 1:30000 Harvey map hangs on my wall. A true work of art.
- Eat! Drink! You expend a lot of mental energy as well as the obvious physical expenditure so nutrition and hydration are essential (3 Nakd bars, 2 Cliff bars and a Trek bar did it for me) I think you need about 1.5lites of water which is tricky since its so bloody cold but crucial to stay hydrated as you are sweating even though it doesn’t feel like it!)
- Have your food and water handy, in your backpacks waist pockets. The same goes for spare batteries
- Stay warm! There were a couple of points were I was very much at a borderline for becoming too cold to continue. As soon as you feel yourself shivering and cooling, put an extra layer on and stay dry, especially your hands!! Once you get really cold, you’re seriously screwed.
- Take your time and talk about it. Constant communication was essential in keeping our navigation on point. Yes we could have made better choices but overall solid and steady did us well.
- Trust your bearings. You have little else to go on so your compass is crucial and rarely wrong.
- Listen for clues, especially regarding water features. We navigated to a stream at dehydration point about 6hrs in and only found it once we stopped and listened out for the trickling water: saved!
Moving at night
In the weeks prior to this event I spent quite a bit of training time out in the darkness with the head torch on the local trails and hills, sometimes with the map and compass to to help with feeling more relaxed during the MDM and getting ‘a feel’ for running at night.
This was a new-ish experience, riddled with learning curves and exciting discoveries. Running regular training routes in the dark reconnected me to the landscape in new ways, as I noticed the environment around me in different ways, feeling the bumps, hearing the sounds of the natural world and ‘smelling the smells’ of more poignant features. I felt as though my body as a whole was more in tune with my brain, more embedded in the landscape, my less used sonic, olfactory and tactile senses were reignited by the darkness. Movement was felt not seen. I felt incredibly alone in the silence of the woods yet I felt more in tune and more alive, better connected to myself and the world beneath my feet. The landscape becomes a blend of geology, geography and nature. The environment doesn’t change in physical form but it does in emotional ways. Familiar features and affects become strange and otherworldly, you become transformed into this alternate light-less place of sensory dimensions: time and space are transformed by the absence of light.
It’s interesting that although a lot of these feelings and affects were experienced during the ‘Marmot’, having a map and compass to focus on did change things (for another blog maybe? Orienteering…)
In a world where true darkness is unfamiliar and rare, the feelings of the unknown generated by the absence of light can penetrate the body, leaving one feeling immersed, alive and ‘switched on’ and probably a bit scared..