Friday, 14 July 2017

Manx Mountain Ultra - Learning Fell Running the Hard Way

Manx Mountain Marathon 2009

“To the Isle of Man? Why?” I have been asked in London. Well, I had not been there before, and crossing an entire island, including ascending its highest peaks, was definitely a fascinating challenge. Located in the middle of the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man, also known as Ellan Vannin or Mann, belongs to whatever is called the British Crown, but not to the United Kingdom, let alone to England. The Isle with about 85,000 inhabitants has a long history of autonomy in internal affairs, such as taxes, or Health-and-Safety regulations: Motorbike races are not forbidden on public roads, the Isle has taken the chance and has been hosting the Tourist Trophy since 1907. Not only have the inhabitants bred four-horned sheep and tailless cats, but also have their own Celtic language. The Manx language had become extinct in daily use with the death of its last native speaker (in 1974), but was preserved due to its ritual use at the parliament, the Tynwald, and is now undergoing revival, with presently about 1,500 speakers. The name Tynwald shows its roots as a Norse Thing, which has been convening more or less since the time of the Vikings and therefore stands among the of the oldest parliaments in the world, along with the ones on the fellow island countries of Iceland and the Faroes. On the sea promenades, the flagpoles do not fly the Union Jack, but instead a triskelion on red background - if it appears a bit unsettling seen from a distance, from closer one can see that the triskelion is actually made from three armour-clad legs running in a circle. Derived from the seal of the Isle, this symbol has been around since the middle ages.

The Isle of Man has a north-south length of 52 km, an east-west diameter of 32 km, and a number of peaks of interesting height, making it a perfect location to cross and scramble in a challenging, but not too crazy Ultramarathon to be completed within one day. Therefore, the Manx Mountain Ultra, initially named Manx Mountain Marathon, has been organized annually since 1970 (except for one cancellation due to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak), which would make it to one of the ten oldest Ultras worldwide still in existence. The route crosses Mann diagonally, beginning at the seaside town Ramsey in the North-East, and finishing at Port Erin in the south-west, after having crossed 12 of the highest peaks on the island, totalling about 2400 metres elevation.

Looking back towards Ramsey
Before running here, I did not know too well that this part of the world, "Mountain Marathon" does not simply translate to a marathon in the mountains, but actually describes the races of the longest distance within the sport of Fell Running, even including some multi-day races like the Original Mountain Marathon. Fell Running (related to the Nordic Fjell for mountain) is a variation of mountain running performed particularly in the North of the British Isles and combines elements of cross-country running, mountaineering and orienteering. Also, in contrast to other countries, the paths that leads a runner (or hiker) through the mountains are not defined, only occasionally outlined by flags, and the runners are expected to navigate their course independently. Completion of the route and the summits, is validated by electronic checkpoints, into which the runners insert a microchip, or “timing dibber” they carry along. In addition, it is compulsory to carry along map, compass, signal whistle, and emergency clothing, food and water. Also, road running shoes may not be optimal for the rocky and boggy terrain of course. As the environmental impact of these races needs to be limited, the number of participants in this type of races is also relatively low. Sometimes, Mountain Marathons can be somewhat more adventurous compared classical marathons in the Alps, because the course is not as tightly monitored: During the "Original Mountain Marathon" 2008 in the Lake District, 1700 runners were “missing” due to some of the checkpoints being abandoned due to severe weather – however, the runners themselves were still competing and unaware that anyone was concerned about them.

In 2009, the Manx Mountain Marathon was scheduled on Easter Saturday as a part of the traditional Isle of Man Easter Sport Festival (more recently, the race has been taking place in autumn). About 100 runners were registered for the full length course starting on the Market Square of Ramsey, and the same number for the Half-Ultra, starting from St. John’s, the centrally located village where the Tynwald convenes. The runner’s backpacks having been checked for emergency equipment and timing device, the race was started along the seaside front. Soon after, the track ascended, initially through a wooded valley, with the trees soon giving way to a heather vegetation sprinkled with lots of sheep’s droppings. Next, the runners scrambled up the flank of the North Barrule (565 m), the second highest peak of the Island. From this checkpoint, the whole Isle was visible: In front of the runners, the chain of soon-to-be-conquered peaks, including the Snaefell (621 m, not to be confused with the Icelandic volcano of the same name that features as an entry point for the Journey to the Centre of the Earth in Jules Verne’s novel). However, it is said, that in clear weather, the Isle’s highest peak offers a view of six kingdoms (Man, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and the Kingdom of Heaven).

Crossing Snaefell

Though the weather conditions on racing day were excellent for this location, (10-15°C, sunny with some clouds, gentle wind), the differences in terrain and microclimate made adaptation to the environmental conditions somewhat difficult. The different ground compositions posed an extra challenge, of which running downhill demanded a lot of concentration, since for every step could meet a different response on rocky, overgrown, or boggy ground. After crossing the peaks Beinn y Phott and Carragan, and a slippery river bed, the Colden was climbed through a knee-high heather scrub, the path only marked by the flag on the peak.

Having passed the checkpoints on the following peaks on the ridgeway, the course descended along a former railway track, to St. John's, the location of the Tynwald in the heart of the island. At the exit of the village, one of the most exhausting passages began: a very steep ascent through a forest up the Slieau Whallian. After adapting to the chilly winds of the hills, I experienced the relatively mild and sheltered microclimate as almost unbearably humid and even resorted to a walking stick found in the forest. After the following checkpoint, the course finally went downhill, on a road through a desolate heath and past a closed-down mine. The long ascent to the last higher mountain to be crossed, South Barrule, could be seen from here. The top his peak offered a beautiful panorama of the final ten or so kilometres on the Southern tip of the island: Firstly along the sea cliffs cliffs, then around the bay, and finally into Port Erin, recognizable by its white Victorian Hotels at the promenade. The last climb on the bay was the hill viewpoint at Bradda Tower, from where the small island bird reserve known as the Calf of Man was visible in the South, and the Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland rose behind the Irish Sea in the West. 

Bradda Tower and the Calf of Man
A quick run downhill from the viewpoint and around the bay led the runners to the finish at the village green on the Promenade. The men’s race was won by Paul Thompson (Manx Fell Runners) in 5:04 h, the women’s race by Jackie Lee in 5:29 h. With the last finishers arriving after 10 ½ h, I was in the second half of the finishers with a time of 8 h, so a big respect for all fell runners who completed this race! The certificates and finisher shirts were awarded at the inclusive post-race dinner, a fine social event to conclude a very memorable race.

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