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Ro ut e s e r v u e o n ma

Longer but on good tracks and fewer hills

ff Shave minutes ota your best moun in marathon time without bustingw a gut. h ere's ho to choose th e fastest route every time

Shorter but over rough ground and hills

Hot tip: Learn the lingo

You'll go faster if you instantly know what all the features on your map are. Learn the jargon in this feature: Spur – a short, continuous sloping line of higher ground, normally jutting out from the side of a ridge. Peat hag – un-runnable steep-sided peat. Tarn – a small mountain lake.

Words Tarquin Cooper s Photos Stuart Holme

OUR Experts

Tim Higginbottom has been competing at the top of mountain marathons and adventure racing for 10 years. The Inov-8 and Haglofs sponsored athlete has 12 elite wins under his belt — although his best place in the OMM is 2nd. Al Powell is an international mountain guide and five-times British night orienteering champion. He has won the OMM and LAMM, and was the first Brit to run the 100-mile Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc in under 24 hours.


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Pic taken here

9.1km m 525 ascent

10.5km 420m ascent

Go straight or run the long way round? A classic dilemma for navigators is whether to take the shorter direct line over rough ground and hills or take a longer route on better tracks with fewer hills. “In general, always go for the shortest option if you think you can run the majority of it at a good pace,” says Al Powell. To make your decision easier, he says there are two methods that will really help. The first is to convert climb into distance. “Use the approximation that every 100m of climb is equivalent to an extra 1km of distance on the flat,” he says. This rules out the red route easily as its 525m of ascent equates to an extra 5km. You can also use Bob’s Law (see next page) to quickly estimate which route is furthest. Tim agrees with ruling out the red route. “I’d almost certainly follow the blue route,” he says. But he stresses the importance of flexibility on the ground.  “Remember that looking at the map is always a bit theoretical — many times I’ve set off on the longer way round and completely revised it due to horrible terrain. If it was runnable I’d stay lower down but if it looked a bit marshy I’d stay higher.”

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››› the right route every time!

Pic taken here

Avoi d climbi ng


his is a perfect example of how a simple diversion can avoid hills. “The blue route is a complete non-starter," says Tim. "It would just be tortuously long — all those ins and outs and ups and downs, it would just take forever.” The blue route involves 135m more ascent than the red, over a kilometre in equivalent distance — for average C category teams this adds 10 minutes to the route (see average timings right). Al agrees, also pointing out the importance of taking other conditions into account.   “You should consider the weather, particularly wind direction,” he says. “I remember this event and there was a south-westerly gale, so this high level route would have been doubly tiring.” Al would have broadly followed the

red line but gone a little further south, crossing the Glenochar Burn 500m earlier to stay close to the base of Doddin. “This is quicker because it links up the most runnable sections of terrain – a small section of path, the flattest ground for longest in the valley bottoms, then a fence line near to the end.” The approach to the control also features a classic navigational conundrum — to follow the gully or ascend via the spur. Tim says getting onto the spurs offers the best terrain. “When you get a narrow gully like that you tend to find it overgrown, rough and quite hard going. Spurs generally have good terrain and animals always use them so you might pick up a sheep track.”

Longer but less climbing. Phew!

Hot tip: Know your speed

Average speeds for C class at the OMM: ■ Flat rough terrain = 10 mins per km ■ Good track or road = 6 mins per km ■ 100m of climb = equivalent of 1km on the flat

6.3km 510m ascent

Average times for Elite teams at the OMM: ■ Flat rough terrain = 8 mins per km ■ Good track or road = 5 mins per km ■ 100m of climb = equivalent of 1km on the flat

6.3km 375m ascent

Shorter but hills in the way!

Shall we go over the hill or around it? Making the right choice here can save you vital time and energy on your next mountain marathon and it only takes a few seconds to figure out which route to take using Bob's Law, below.

Hot tip: Bob’s Law

Use this to quickly estimate the fastest route to a control. Pick the point at which your proposed route is furthest from the straight line route. This distance is roughly how much further it is than the straight line choice. “It’s a handy rule for doing quick calculations,” says Al. So here, route B is 2km and route A is roughly 1/2km more.

Hot tip: Take turns

Alternate who map reads, rather than coming to joint decisions every time — it’s much faster. The non-navigating partner should look after their team-mate, making sure they’re eating, and acting as their eyes. “It’ll save you from picking yourself up off the floor,” says Tim. 

Hot tip: Be honest

In bad weather and poor visibility, be realistic about your navigational abilities. “Going for the low level safe option route could save you a lot of time if it’s easier to navigate, rather than risking getting lost,” says Al.

Route A X 1/2 KM


Route B


2 KM

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››› the right route every time!

In the valley it could be boggy too...

Make sure the ground's runnable

Choose runnable terrain


o you go right down into the valley and back up, or do you contour round the top?” asks Roger Smith, who set this challenge from the 2007 OMM. But the challenge isn’t necessarily the climb, but the ground you have to run across. “In a race I’d be thinking blue looks quickest,” says Al. It’s 1.3km longer but the red has 10 more contours to cross, about 1.5km in extra distance. So before I committed, I’d want to know how runnable the ground is.” Tim would also be apprehensive about staying high, as those green map symbols signify bog. He says that ideally, you’d approach this one with both options in mind and make the decision at control four. “Obviously the blue route’s a lot longer but a lot flatter, so if the terrain was quick it’s a better line. However, if you find rough ground, like peat hags mapped, you would have to fight through.” Al agrees. “If it all looks good on the ground, go that way (blue), but if the slope is covered in deep heather and peat hags then think again.”  Probably the better option, says Tim, would be to follow red off Faugh, which would be quick to descend and then climb the gully the other side. “Don’t be afraid of climbs,” he says. “These are not big hills. When I first started someone told me, 'Whatever you do, don’t lose height,' but this is the walker’s rule and it's absolutely wrong for runners. Often it’s quicker to lose height and suck up the climb. If you’re worried about a 200m climb, you’re not fit enough.”

2.6km 225m ascent

3.9km 120m ascent

Pic taken here

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››› the right route every time!

Use the right features


ne of the key tricks to speed up navigation is choosing the right features, but which features these may be comes down to personal choice. Knolls, crags, gullies and spurs are all very reliable, whereas man-made and weatherdependent features like forest boundaries, fences, walls, tarns and streams can change. Here, our experts disagree on which are best. Tim would follow the red route, which offers a more straight-line approach, navigating off the reentrants (gullies) while Al would prefer to follow the fence-line on blue. “I just wouldn’t go blue. It’s too far and there’s no advantage,” says Tim. He’d prefer to follow red, just traversing Steygail a little lower down. “You’ll hit bigger re-entrants,” he says. “They

Direct route – in case the fence line isn't there!


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may be trickier to cross but they’ll give you a better handle on where you are.” He would then aim to the north of the control, pick up the fence and follow it down. However, for less expert navigators, Al says the blue line might be the better option as [on the original OMM map] it follows a fence all the way to the control. “Both are similar on paper,” he says. “So the decision will be about runnability and how tired you are. The blue route is easier to find due to the fence.” Just beware manmade features, says Tim. “They are dodgy things to navigate off. The trouble with fences is – are they there?” Either way, there’s not much in it, says course setter, Roger. “The red route will take 48 minutes. The blue route will take 51 minutes,” he says.

2.7km 240m ascent

2.0km 285m ascent

Pic taken here

Beware of following fence lines

xxxxxxxx right route every time! ››› the

Use attack & catching points

Corner of the forest? Time to head right

6.1km 150m ascent


If you hit the forest you've gone too far


his leg offers a good example of attack points, those visual reference points to guide you straight into the control without any timewasting. The forest corner to the north-east of the control is the obvious one. “You couldn’t miss that forest in any weather,” says Tim. “The blue route hasn’t got a good attack point so you’re going on your altitude, judging slope aspect and that’s a much harder navigational attack point.” The control also features good ‘catching points’ from either direction. These are prominent features that indicate you’ve gone too far. On the red route, it’s the stream, for blue, it’s the forest.  “Both of those routes are pretty valid and you go on the terrain,” says Tim. For him, this means hedging his bets and starting off in the middle of the two routes, constantly scanning

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the ground above and below for quad tracks and runnable ground.   “On the blue route, you have to watch those gullies,” he says. “They’re big. And it looks like it could be quite peaty and tussocky. The red route, in theory, looks pretty good but you’ve got that river. It has lots of bends in it so that tells you it’s very flat. And that means it could be quite boggy. You may be no better off and think, ‘sod that’ and head up onto the hill and follow the fence for a bit.” This is broadly what Al would do, following the west side of the river before heading due south, over the eastern flanks of Penbreck and rounding Queensberry anti-clockwise. “This makes it slightly shorter,” he says. “In good visibility you may also see other teams exiting the control to guide you in, but the idea is to find it yourself!”

Hot tip: Stay on the ball

Navigating is like a jigsaw – it only fits when you put all the pieces together. Look at the landscape. Does it match the features and contour lines? “On a good day, you can spot controls from miles away,” says Tim. 

Hot tip: Only navigate as fast as you can run

“You have to navigate at the same speed as you run,” warns Tim. Fail to do so and you’ll overshoot the controls and waste time going back on yourself. It’s a particular problem for good runners.

Find out more Take a look at Routegadget, the website where OMM pairs and competitors from other events have plotted their route onto one map. It is fascinating to see which team took which route and whether it saved them time or not. ���

5.8km 270m ascent

Pic taken here

A place on the OMM Training Camp at Plas y Brenin 1-2 Oct 2011 worth £160! T he prize includes two nights' accommodation, great food and information-packed workshops on navigation, nutrition, tactics, lighter kit, first aid, injury prevention and training plans for all levels from first-timer to experienced competitors. Just answer this question:

What does OMM stand for? a) Orange Mountain Marathon b) Original Mountain Marathon c) Original Mountain Mayhem Enter your answer at: For full terms and conditions please see the website. Only one entry per person, aged over 18. Competition closes Friday 16 Sept 2011.

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MM Route Choice  
MM Route Choice  

Article in Trail Running September 2011