DNF – Did Not Finish. The three letters a runner never wants to hear.
Marmot Dark Mountains was an incredible race. It was everything I had expected and more – testing navigation, brutal conditions and challenging terrain, the event certainly lived up to its reputation. However, despite having a fantastic time, it was also my first ever DNF. This has taken some processing. I realise it’s a hard race – so hard, in fact, only 37% of pairs completed the linear courses this year. But starting the race, I was determined to be in that minority..!
So, after taking a little while to reflect, re-analysing the route and my performance I’ve finally got round to writing up the details (warts and all).
I submitted my entry to Marmot Dark Mountains back in October 2015. I was psyched, preparation had been going well, and I felt ready, however a few weeks before the event I fell and badly hurt my ankle. Not wanting to miss out I was determined it would only be a week before I was back to normal. A week and a half later I still couldn’t weight bear correctly – then in the process of deciding how silly it would be to try and run anyway, Tom fell over and broke his leg! I took this as a pretty firm sign 2016 was not our year to race and reluctantly deferred our entry.
Luckily 12 months later, despite the usual winter sniffles, we were both in far better shape to be taking on the challenge. You could even say we were well prepared having recently come back from a pretty wild Scottish adventure!
One of my biggest worries going into the race was how I was going to cope staying up all night. Should I be trying to switch my body clock before the race? Or randomly getting up for 2 am runs? For me a late night was normally anything past 10 pm – this was all a bit of an unknown.
The day of the race nerves increased. I had decided to try and lie in as long as I could and have a very relaxed afternoon before driving up to Warcop, however, this felt so alien to me. By habit, I am an early riser, and especially before big races I am used to getting up at the crack of dawn, but on this occasion, I had one of the laziest days I’ve had in a long time!
Pulling into the event car park, I had that familiar gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s a mixture of excitement and adrenaline with a tiny bit of dread that once again, I have knowingly jumped in at the deep end – the B course was certainly going to be a challenge. As always Tom was as relaxed as ever, with the opinion what would be, would be!
Soon distracted by the hustle and bustle of registration and gaggle of other enthusiastic runners, the worries started to disperse and before I was on the start line with a map in my hand…
A promising start
It was just gone 9 pm when we set off – any other evening I would be coming in from a run or bike, not going out on one. Initially, the weather and conditions seemed pretty good, however as the distance between us and the twinkling lights of Warcop increased so did the mist. Visibility was decreasing rapidly.
That being said, so far things were going pretty well. I mean we were never going to be looking to break any records, but navigation was going smoothly and overall (for us) we were pretty efficient bagging checkpoints 1,2 and 3 in good time.
The first mistake
Wiping the snow and ice off the map I devised our route to checkpoint 4 – it was a bridge crossing a large river running parallel to the Pennine Way – compared to other checkpoints so far there was no major cause for concern, it looked fine.
By now the visibility was down to a few meters, and a blizzard was blowing in, so not wanting to get cold Tom and I stopped to put on extra layers. Hitting the Pennine Way, we quickly followed the river scanning the banks for a bridge…
Looking back now at the tracking data, I can see we must have come within a few feet of the bridge but somehow manage to miss it and kept going an extra two kilometres. We were just so sure that we wouldn’t have blindly passed such a major feature!
However, after 15 minutes had passed, we had to accept that we needed to retrace our steps. Sure enough, it was behind us – and worst of all, it was very large and substantial! How did we not see it before?
The ‘bridge incident’ certainly knocked my confidence. If I had managed to struggle to locate a big metal bridge, I was not massively confident in my ability to find a small sheepfold in the middle of the moorland. Trying not to verbalise these concerns I focused my efforts on paying closer attention to the map and triple checking our bearings. In some ways, this did pay off, and we found checkpoint 5 without any disasters, but it was now 1:30 am, and I was getting tired.
Looking back over the past 4 hours I realised I had eaten very little. My body, clearly not used to food this late at night, had not told me I was hungry and in the midst of navigating and route finding I had got distracted. Delving into a pocket, I shoved the first edible thing that I could find into my mouth – a potato, once cooked now frozen. Never to be repeated, it sat in my stomach like a block of ice!
Somewhat better fueled, it was back to the maps. The next point looked tough with approximately 4km of bog trogging and heather bashing on a bearing to a shooting lodge.
The point of no return
I have mixed feelings about Dufton Fell! I am sure in the daylight, or even on a clear night; it is a beautiful place. However, trying to stick to our bearing, trudging up and down the dykes and ditches on the open moorland occasionally stopping to work out if we had crossed a semi-frozen stream or just more standing water, I was not feeling like a particularly big fan of this unforgiving bleak terrain.
Reduced to walking by the conditions underfoot we had been going for what felt like an age. By usual pacing, I felt we definitely should have hit Great Rundale Tarn, but the night was confusing me, had we been going slower? Could we have drifted on our bearing and passed it? Unsure, we continued another 20 minutes or so before stopping to ask ourselves the same questions. In my mind I was sure by now, we had overshot it and slightly drifted on our bearing.
Writing this post now I am so cross with myself – there were so many options better than the one we took! I can see looking at the contours we would have drifted downhill not up, and if we had gone past the tarn, we would eventually have come to a steep downhill slope…
But at that point, stood in the dark and snow at 4 am feeling disorientated, I couldn’t commit to a decision – that right there was the fundamental error. Moving off our bearing I first I decided we had passed the checkpoint drifting north so headed south (I felt like I had constantly been compensating in that direction), then that felt wrong so we followed something that looked like a stream north, hoping it would lead the the tarn. But that too just ended. Next, now in slight despair our chances of finishing were rapidly going down the pan, I followed something that looked like 4×4 tracks again hoping the vehicle would have been miraculously driving to the shooting hut!
Like I said, looking back I can see so clearly, not sticking to one plan was our undoing. We were left totally disorientated and unsure of where we were on the map. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and if only we had just stuck to our bearing, we would have hit the tarn and been able to work our way round to the checkpoint.
Determined not to have to pitch the tent or spend the rest of the night wandering round of Dufton Fell we kept going and at eventually arrived at the shooting hut. We had lost a huge amount of time, and now, not even half way round had a tough decision to make. Keep going despite the probability we would most likely not make it round in the time limit? Or retreat?
Giving up is not my style, but sometimes you have to look at things from a practical perspective. I’ve learnt the hard way that in these sort of events stubbornness is not always your friend. Truthfully I’m embarrassed I decided at that point to hit the road and retreat. I worry that other people reading this post will think I am soft or incompetent. But I know deep down, it was the right call for me at the moment in time – I’d made too many mistakes, not eaten enough and was not making clear decisions. Up until an hour or so before I had been having fun, revelling in the challenge, but the fight had gone, and I knew for the first time I didn’t have the resilience to push through the next section of the course.
So, tail between my legs, we hit the track to make the fairly substantial trek back to the start. Five miles later we reached Dufton. It was now approaching 6 am, and the village was already coming to life with the farmers getting up to start the day’s work. Plodding along the road trying to come to terms with our decision my thoughts were interrupted by a very friendly man in a great bobble hat – staffing the event, he was here to offer us a lift back to the start. Clearly they had been keeping a close eye on the tracker and had taken pity on us! Although much appreciated, I can tell you first hand it felt like a bit of a ‘ride of shame’.
Back at the event base, my mood improved. I had worried we would be the only pair not to have finished, but there was a substantial number of tired looking people drinking tea, reminiscing on the evening and napping. Speaking to some of the other runners and event organisers it dawned on me – this was a bloody hard race and not one that everyone was expected to finish! My competitive nature struggled with this, but looking back over the evening, until we got ‘misplaced’ I’d been having a cracking time. Most sane folk had been asleep for the past 9 hours, but here we were, a rather mad group individuals, running around searching for frosty checkpoints in the dark – I couldn’t help but grin!
I think the reason I am so late posting this blog is because it has not been an easy one to write. I was torn between trying to explain to you why I didn’t finish and explaining the concept of the race, just breezing over my end result.
Marmot Dark Mountains is epic. It’s a unique type of ‘fun’. There were moments I truly questioned what the hell I was doing, but there were also moments I felt completely alive. My advice to anyone similar to me looking to take part would be if you are between two classes, pick the lower of the two. In hindsight, we probably would have been better attempting the C course – but you live and learn! That being said the event is very well organised, the whole team were fantastic and they made me feel both happy and confident in taking on such a big challenge.
Will I be back?
Of course – it’s unfinished business now!