If ye like the nut, crack it.

… the need to get out, to test yourself, to flush out the system, and, above all, to have some fun.
– Al Alvarez, Feeding the Rat

We had no idea what to expect when we enrolled for the OMM, the Original Mountain Marathon a few months ago. Running through the Scottish hills, orienteering, two days with a bivouac after the first day, teams of two and no organised support. Let’s not select a distance we know we can handle, let’s push it a bit, feeding the rat.

Here we are, the end of October in Tweedsmuir. Last days it was good weather unlike Scotland. A lot of sunshine, no rain, a lot of wind. We were joking about forgetting the sunscreen. We go to sleep in a pasture near the Event Centre and wake up in mud-pool-paradise-for-waterbuffalos. When we enrolled we laughed about it: end of October, bad weather guaranteed. At this moment we would like to remain in bed, but hey, if ye like the nut, crack it.

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This is our first OMM and we’ve no idea what to expect. The first thing we notice are the small backpacks worn by our competitors. It’s unbelievable that all the gear from the mandatory kit list fits in such a small backpack.
Until the moment we start, we don’t know which route we have to take. Each minute another team starts. When we’re finally in front row, we hear: “There are some last-minute changes. One of the landowners didn’t approve at the last moment. On your map there will be a hand-drawn change of route.” Then the horn blows, we punch our SI, get our map and move a few metres to discuss the route.

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We come up with a good strategy for the first checkpoint, but once we’re past the forest, we enter a thick fog. Navigating is fine, but the terrain is ruthless. We slob through moorland, mud and low heath. The first day starts with rain, fog and heavy winds, but improves to a tiny bit of sunshine.

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Until checkpoint 4 all checkpoints need to be visited in the correct order. Next we need to punch 3 checkpoints from a total of 5. Choice and order we may decide ourselves. To be honest, we’re already quiet tired. As real lowlanders we choose the checkpoints with the least amount of height difference, but a bit more distance. At the second optional checkpoint we meet another competitor. He’s still good to go, but his companion is whacked. They choose to go directly to the bivouac. We look at each other. What are we going to choose? We’re also very tired, but a no-punch means end of race. No, we’re not giving up, it’s going to be everything or nothing.

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We arrive at the third optional checkpoint faster than expected. It’s already getting dark when we start our ascent. The next checkpoint is located in the adjacent valley. I can’t remember the last time I was so tired, three checkpoints to go. I eat a snack for energy. We see a another team walking up a different mountain ridge. No idea which course they do, but when we arrive at the ridge, we see that they are following our steps. We arrive at the next checkpoint in the dark. The moon just disappeared behind a thick layer of clouds, we’re lucky it doesn’t rain.

At this checkpoint we meet a number of other teams. Everyone puts on their headlamps and eats another snack. En route to the last two checkpoints, close to the bivouac. This time the plan is to walk straight west, climb two small fences and descend the valley of the bivouac. The terrain was difficult to walk in daylight, let alone by the light of only our headlamps. The teams support each other and with around eight people we walk the last stretch. It’s normal to support each other in the race, but it must have looked funny to the casual observer: Six hundred people choose voluntary to beat the clock and fight the elements. The last ones trying hard to find their route through the Scottish hills in darkness. The alternative, sitting in front of the telly with a beer sounds very pleasing.

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We find the fences and the valley. The last two checkpoints, however, are unfindable in the darkness. The closing time of eight o’clock is near and two minutes past eight we enter the bivouac site. An exuberant group of volunteers welcomes us with hand clapping and cheering. Thanks guys! This is the end of our race, we’ve missed two checkpoints and we’re two minutes too late. Sadly.

We’re not disappointed about our results. We’re whacked, utterly empty. We’ve given all we got and enjoyed it. Now it’s the time to pitch our tent, cook, eat and sleep. We’re too tired to catch sleep easily.

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At six o’clock a lonely bagpiper plays. Not long after starting he’s followed by the organisation waking everyone with a megaphone. In an hour the first teams start again. We’re lucky this weekend daylight savings changed to wintertime, giving us an extra hour of sleep.

As we’ve timed out in the race, we’re not going to participate in the second part of the race. The shortest way back to the Event Centre is 13 kilometres. Finally we can see where we’ve raced yesterday. The thick fog is gone and today we run a part of yesterday’s route in some sunshine and heavy winds.

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The Original Mountain Marathon, what an experience. We were cold, wet, happy, tired, exhausted but also enthusiastic to carry on. We’ve given all we’ve got and look back satisfied. The atmosphere of this race is truly unique. We’re sure to enrol again, but for this year the rat has been fed.

Photographs

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Video

(English subtitles available via the CC button.)

Analysis

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The first day we’ve ran 35 kilometres, the second day 13. In total we’ve gone 2670 metres up and down. 116 teams entered our course, 73 finished the first day. At the end of the second day only 42 finished, about one-third.

What could we’ve done better?

  • Run faster. Of course. But how to train for something you don’t know?
  • We saw a lot of people with much smaller backpacks than ours. A small comparison: our backpack weighted 9 kilos, the backpack of an Elite team member weighted only 6 kilos. We complied to the list of mandatory equipment and didn’t have much extra with us. We did notice some people combine the coat and sleeping bag or the running pants with rain trousers. It might save a few kilos but there’s still the question if you want to invest money in this very specific equipment.
  • We could have chosen a different set of optional checkpoints. We’ve chosen to go to AC, CD and AD, the least amount of elevation. Maybe it would have been better to go to AO, AC and CD. A bit more elevation, distance about the same, but more trails.

Bogs, moorland and a dinghy on the Dee

“We had an early departure and are being helped by a nice tailwind. Our navigation computer indicates that we will arrive at Aberdeen about fifteen minutes before schedule”, says our KLM captain. In reality we arrive five hours later on Aberdeen airport: the Scottish weather covered the airport in a thick blanket of fog, divirting our flight to Glasgow. From there it takes another three hours to get to Aberdeen by bus.

The weather is actually quiet nice here. Aberdeen is covered in fog, but the rest of Scotland is sunny. A day later than planned we get off the train in Aviemore. It’s starting to get sunny while we walk to the start of the Lairig Ghru.

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Lairig Ghru.

The Lairig Ghru is one of the paths crossing the Cairngorms from north to south. The next few days we will be walking through the Cairngorms to the source of the river Dee. Then we will inflate our packrafts and paddle back to sea, about one hunderd kilometers.

“You are going to do what? Walk from here to the Dee and then paddle back to sea? Haha, I feel better already!”

We end our day just after the Pools of Dee in a drizzle. When dusk arrives around nine o’clock, we see two women and a dog approach. They left Aviemore this morning to walk to Devil’s End and back. Perhaps a bit too far for one day, they tell us with a smile. “No, we’re not going to camp, tomorrow we’ll have to be at work.” They have enough energy bars and a good torch with them. As long as they will have left the Pools of Dee behind them before the dark. From the Pools is a good path back to Aviemore. The only thing lacking are dog cookies. Dog Skye hasn’t been eating all day. They ask for our plans and burst out laughing: “You are going to do what? Walk from here to the Dee and then paddle back to sea? Haha, I feel better already!” When we get into our sleeping bags, they’re walking back to Aviemore.

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Scottish grouse.

The famous day two, when the muscles speak up, is being accompanied by the famous grouse. We see the Scottish grouse everywhere, but in real life they’re a bit less elegant than shown in the whisky commercial from 2008. Today there’s not a cloud in the sky and this night we look a bit more red than usual. No, we didn’t take suncream with us.

A number of times we meet people of the National Trust for Scotland. When, after leaving the Cairngorms, we arrive at Mar Lodge we meet someone from the National Trust who is doing the maintenance of the estate. He takes the time to have a chat with us. He asks for our plans and tells about last winter. The enthusiastic way of talking displays a pride for Scotland and a pride of his work here. He wishes us good luck and success and goes his way on his quad.

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Mar Lodge.

At Victoria Bridge we inflate our packrafts. For one second we were doubting our schedule. We lost half a day by the divirsion of our airliner, but the beautiful weather guided us through the Cairngorms faster than expected. It should still be possible to reach the sea. The Dee at this point is wider than we expected, the water level is high enough and even where the river is wide there is a nice current. When paddling you don’t notice the current that much, but it is secretly helping a lot. In no-time we’ve passed Braemar, where we have to land. Just after Braemar a wild fence has been put over the Dee. In our guidebook it was written that a kayak-sized hole would be present in the fence. It has been repaired, no hole anymore. We land our packraft, lift our gear over the fence and drop in the Dee again.

Unexpectedly fast we arrive at Invercauld Bridge, class 3 according to our guidebook. As we’ve been taught, we get out of the river to scout the rapid. We discuss which line to sail and try to imprint the marks in our heads: “Just right of the big rock in the beginning, that’s the gate. Then follow the large V of black water and stay right of the white water.” Later this week we can do some more rapids. We enjoy each of them, they’re not too difficult.

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Packrafting river Dee.

“Hi there, how are you? Was it you, camping on the riverbank a few hunderd meters back? Beautiful spot, good choice!”

At the start of the Dee, the river is tranquil and wide. After Ballater the river becomes narrower and more rapids emerge. That’s where the fishermen are, in almost every bend there are one or two fishing. The banks of the Dee is decorated with a lot of small fishing cabins. Some shiny new, others almost taken back by nature and all have a woodstove. Because of the large amount of fishermen, we find it difficult to find a spot for our tent. When we finally pitch our tent after a cold, rainy day, we’re really glad to sit in a dry environment and have dinner. It’s the disadvantage of bad weather, we take almost no break and don’t eat many energy bars. Having the shelter of a tent and dinner simmering on our stove is real happiness then. Though the wind is blowing hard and we’re sleeping on bumpy patch of ground, we both sleep like a log.

We thought we wouldn’t be noticed in a green tent, pitched behind some bushes. The next morning we start to paddle and within a few minutes we meet the first fisherman of the day. “Hi there, how are you? Was it you, camping on the riverbank a few hunderd meters back? Beautiful spot, good choice!” The next fisherman tells us exactly the same a few minutes later!

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From Peterculter the Dee becomes wider again and more tranquil. Just before arriving in Aberdeen we see two otters playing in the water. It was a week filled with beautiful, rough landscapes, we’ve seen deer, many swallows and oyster catchers and lots of small birds. Although there are small villages next to Dee, civilization can’t be seen easily until you’re almost in Aberdeen.

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Film

Route
Aviemore
Old logging road
Lairig Ghru
Mar Lodge
River Dee tot Aberdeen

Water level Dee: 0.7 m – 0.8 m

Bibliography
36, Grantown & Aviemore
Landranger Map
1:50 000

37, Strathdon & Alford
Landranger Map
1:50 000

38, Aberdeen
Landranger Map
1:50 000

UK Rivers Guidebook
River Dee – Above Braemar to Potarch

UK Rivers Guidebook
River Dee – Potarch to Banchory

UK Rivers Guidebook
River Dee – Banchory to Aberdeen