… team Thurlbeck and Roper were competing in the Highlander Mountain Marathon 15 miles north of Ullapool in the area of Ben More Assynt, Conival, Canisp and Suilven: two days of competitive scampering over glorious countryside in the warm early Spring air, punctuated by a relaxing mid-camp on a smooth meadow by a babbling burn. In your dreams. The “unseasonably cold weather” predicted by the MWIS duly arrived as we neared Ullapool and continued as we headed for the event centre.
We were entered on the score course. Unlike the linear courses, where you have to visit a fixed set of control points, usually in a particular order, the score course has controls scattered throughout the competition area with differing points allocated to them – the big values being high up or far away, or both. The challenge is to maximise the number of points within a strict time limits (7hrs day 1, 6hrs day 2), after which points get deducted for each minute you are late (yes, some teams do get negative scores!). Many of you will recognise this as an interesting optimisation problem, and one that we have noticeably failed to solve satisfactorily in several years of trying.
We set off on the Saturday morning with what we thought was a reasonable route for the conditions (snow/hail with a brisk wind, but with reasonably good visibility for most of the time), deciding to stay relatively low and avoid the “attractions” such as the summit of Conival. Our lack of navigation practice started to show up after a few hours with one or two controls taking a few minutes to locate due to lack of concentration. We had some big point controls planned for the last hour or so but we were forced to abandon these after being delayed on the awful rocky ridge of Beinn Uidhe – what looked on the map like about 4k of relatively good running turned out to be something we could only miserably pick our way across at a child’s pace.
We finished with a few minutes to spare but pretty dispirited with a measly 225 points in 16th place out of 52 starters.
The mid camp was one of the largest and flattest we’ve seen, but also horribly exposed to the wind. Finding relative shelter meant opting for the less even and tussocky ground, or, as one team chose, tucking in behind the portaloos. We went for the tussocks. After lots of food and an obligatory beer in the marquee (an absolute blessing) we eventually got some of the sensation back into our feet and retired for a chilly night’s rest.
Sunday morning and we were at the start line (the other side of the first of many river crossings that day – a MM planner’s idea of a “joke” – so cheerio warm toes) at 7.20am feeling a bit more positive, with another 6hrs ahead of us. It started to snow shortly after the start and never really stopped the whole day. This time the terrain was a lot more runnable and easier to traverse and we managed to get round our chosen route pretty well without any navigation problems. The high scoring controls on Suilven and Canisp looked horribly difficult in the conditions so we left these well alone.
We trundled back to the event centre with the 6th best score of the day which pulled us up to 9th overall (and 3rd vets) in the class.
The weather played a big part this year with many DNFs, including over half of the A-class – who clearly had a torrid time on day 2 – failing to finish, so all in all we were happy with the end result, especially after the disappointment of Saturday.