The death of the mountain marathon in Scotland

Chistine Whaller running the West Highland Way. Picture: Christine Whaller
Chistine Whaller running the West Highland Way. Picture: Christine Whaller
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Once a delight for ultra runners at home and abroad, the two famous mountain marathons in Scotland have recently died a quiet death

At the beginning of June this year hundreds of runners ran up Clisham mountain on Harris as part of Scotland's last ever mountain marathon. The sad news that it was the last ever one was announced to runners at the LAMM event's prize-giving on Saturday 2nd June.

As all hardcore runners will know, a mountain marathon is where you run up a mountain, carrying everything you need on your back. Runners compete not only in the running, but in paring down their necessities for the two-day race, for instance chopping toothbrushes in two. A favourite of ultra runners, they are typically between 40K and 80K in distance over two days and over rough ground.

The LAMM mountain marathon, which has been running for 24 years, has come to a sorry end this year. Dubbed “the connoisseurs mountain marathon”, organisers decided June 2018 would be the last one. It was a two-day mountain competition with an overnight campsite, with runners competing in pairs. We tracked down organiser Martin Stone to find out why.

“There's no drama to it, it was just time for the party to end. A lot of the same people do it every year so it's almost like a friendship group. It's going to be my 60th birthday this year, I'm getting older and so are my volunteers. It's not cancelled, it's just that that was the last one,” he said.

“I announced it at the prize giving that it was the last one and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. I've kept it away from social media as much as possible, kept it retro, it's almost like being at a private party. We have hundreds of people who return each year,” Stone said.

“Economically things were going well. We gave 4k in proceeds to the school in Tarbert that hosted the finish for their school activity trips. Then we gave 3K to two mountain rescue teams and some money to cancer and MS charities.”

The LAMM had five different running courses, ranging from 40k to 80k and with climbs from 900 metres to 2,100 metres.

“It's never on the same mountain,” said organiser Martin Stone. “In 24 years, it's only been on the same hills on three occasions. This year it took place on the mountains of North Harris and our midcamp was at a beautiful campsite on the west coast of Harris.”

“For most of the years we've run it, we've announced the venue around 36 hours before the event. They were given the hours to the destination in hours from Glasgow and Inverness, and it created a unique sense of anticipation that we lack in our modern lives. Sometimes we'd begin with getting the runners there by steam train as we did in 2001. In 2005 we didn't tell competitors it was on an island until we put 1000 people on ferries to Mull.”

Runners run with a map and the race is about more than just running, involving mountain navigation, lightweight camping and self-sufficiency.

The Highlander mountain marathon

The other mountain marathon that was an institution for Scottish runners was The Highlander, but the last one took place in 2016. The loss of The Highlander mountain marathon is mourned by many runners. It was possibly the only race in the world with a ceilidh at the end of it.

Alisdair Lawton from Hands On Events was the organiser of The Highlander with his wife. “We did a series of ten. LAMM was always at a similar time of year. We'd seen the numbers slowly decrease them, there are fewer people doing these events anymore. It's easier for runners to do a tough mudder. For a mountain marathon you need lightweight equipment which can be expensive if you are only doing it a few times a years.”

“The average age of the competitors was slowly creeping up. It was hard to get new people to come into the sport. It seemed to be the same faces and not too many new ones. It's well known to runners but there are far more alternatives for runners these days. Twenty years ago there weren't many others.”

“The Highlander was running for 10 years. There's a lot of planning and it's not cheap to stage. We had a ceilidh in a marquee and the feedback was brilliant. We had a great last event.”

“I think it's sad LAMM has ended too. All the mountain marathons are really good events. There's a certain type of person who goes and it makes it special. You've got to really like the outdoors and they tend to be good people. We were vocal about keeping the areas clean but we never had any problems.”

Disgruntled runners

There are some disgruntled runners who were not prepared for the mountain marathon party to end. “Mountain marathons are different to other events. Yes they can be difficult and yes you have to sacrifice comfort to keep your pack small and light, but there is something incredibly pleasing about being self sufficient in the hills for a couple of days. It’s also great mentally to have something so immediate, positive and compelling to focus on, whether that’s navigation and route planning or just how to get up or down the next scree slope. There just isn’t room for any other worries and stresses, which in an odd way is very relaxing,” said Christine Whaller who is a regular mountain marathon runner.

“I think Scots will travel [to mountain marathons abroad] if they have to, but as many people travel to Scotland for our events as travel from Scotland to go elsewhere. Scotland offers a different kind of terrain to elsewhere in the UK and a different kind of challenge (not to mention the midges) and I think it would be a real shame to lose that,” she said.

Could it be that these two hardcore marathons are just too much for the modern Scottish runner? Surely there are runners of tougher stock than the slinky thin ultra runners who are shirking the scaly heights of munroes for flat tarmac.

“Another race of a similar style might replace it,” conceded Martin Stone, organiser of the LAMM.

No doubt fans of the mountain marathon still hold out the hope that another yearly mountain marathon will be organised in Scotland in the future.