Beckoning Darkness

18th Oct 2012

Shane Ohly describes his love for nocturnal mountain running and why a night mountain marathon makes so much sense!

As daylight diminishes, most mountain folk are heading for the valley and the safety of indoors. For a few, this is the time to lace up, power up and head out into the hills.

There is something truly magical about running in the mountains at night. It is an experience that often teeters between genuine adventure and apprehension, and getting the balance right is part of the attraction.

In the last decade there has been a revolution in the development of powerful headtorches. Initially lead by the mountain biking world, as the technology has got smaller and lighter, super powerful headtorches have become the norm for nocturnal exploits and an entirely new form of winter mountain running has been possible.

So, as the winter nights draw in this autumn, there will be many runners – some informal groups of friends, some members of fell running and orienteering clubs – that start searching through neglected drawers and boxes of kit to find their headtorches.

Above: Running as a group at night is always more fun than in the daylight. Photo: Ben Winston

Clubs such as Dark Peak Fell Runners have their regular ‘Warts’ runs over the winter months and they epitomise the slightly anarchic spirit of British fell running that attracts many to the sport.

A couple of hundred lumens of lighting power is sufficient to enjoy your time on the hills but, with some headtorches providing 1000+ lumens, night time running can be transformed by the ability to see hundreds of metres and navigate more confidently. I would recommend around 500 lumens for a quality headtorch that won’t break the bank.

There is often a strong sense of isolation being in the mountains at night, especially when you are alone. Away from urban light pollution, a full moon and bright stars on cold and clear winter’s night can result in some of the best running experiences possible. However, when the weather craps out, running at night (especially in the high mountains) quickly becomes a disorientating and threatening experience. Successfully managing your fears and completing your run brings a sense of satisfaction that is rare from daytime outings.

Above: My torch lights the descent from Stob Ban, during my 2012 winter Ramsay Round attempt. Photo: Gary Tompsett

I’ve experienced both the highs and lows of night running. In particular, I recall running off the top of Chno Dearg on my record-breaking winter Ramsay Round in 2008. There was a bright moon and the stars were so intense that the Milky Way was clearly visible. I actually turned off my headtorch and stood still for moment to soak up the incredible atmosphere before continuing with my headtorch turned off. But there can be lows too; this February on another winter Ramsay Round attempt, my primary headtorch suddenly died while descending Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin. The descent from this mountain is complex at the best of times (i.e. summer with good visibility) with an indistinct path interspersed with bands of cliffs. As the torched flashed repeatedly to warn it was about to fail, my sense of dread grew knowing the descent would be more difficult and much slower with my smaller, spare headtorch. On this occasion my record attempt slipped away as the power ebbed from my headtorch.

A few months later, I had a light blub moment though… I love mountain marathons, I love running at night, so why not combine the two?! And so, Dark Mountains™ was born.

Above: Running on Burbage in the Peak District at night. Photo: Ben Winston

The first Dark Mountains™ will be on the weekend of 25/26th January 2013. It takes the classic two-day mountain marathon format and gives it a new ‘darker’ twist. Rather than two days of running with an overnight camp in between, Dark Mountains™ packs two days worth of running into one winter’s night! Like most regular mountain marathons, Dark Mountains™ is a pairs’ event.

This exciting new event is based on the standard mountain marathon format with Elite, A, B, C and Score classes for competitors to choose from. Usually at a mountain marathon, the nature of the terrain dictates the distance of each course and the planners design a course with a certain winning time. I am sticking with this principle but allowing for the added difficulty of navigating and running at night. Therefore, although the winning time for a course will be similar to a normal mountain marathon, the overall distance will be less.

Above: The normal transformed into the surreal... Just add the magic ingredients of darkness, headtorch and a sense of adventure. Photo: Ben Winston

The event will begin on the evening of Saturday 26th, with the longest classes setting off first for dusk-to-dawn racing. The shorter classes will set off later in the evening with the aim of most competitors finishing within an hour or so of each other the following morning. This should make for an exciting finish as all the courses and most of the competitors converge on the finish as dawn breaks.

Dark Mountains™ is meant to be challenging, but with the courses remaining open until 1200 on the Sunday, there will be sufficient time for everyone to complete their course and share in the success.

It goes without saying that there will a hearty breakfast and hot drinks available to everyone as they finish. Competitors may also camp at the Event Centre should they wish to grab some sleep before travelling home.

The location for 2013 will be Northern England and within 2 ½ hours drive of Manchester. We are keeping the precise location a secret because local knowledge of the event area, especially for a night mountain marathon, would be a significant advantage.

The event location will be revealed at 1200 on Wednesday 23rd January.

Above: Camera, action, sneeze... how about that for timing! Photo: Ben Winston