Mountains Trails and remote locations can be beautiful places, but also very dangerous places. Each year, inexperienced runners enrol for a race for which they lack the experience, and not all survive. There are countless unfortunate news stories each year where runners are found injured, or even dead, whilst participating in what they thought was to be a fun day out.
Some key learning can be gleaned from some of these failings. One near fatal episode occurred in the UK in 1987 during an inaugural edition of a mountain race, called The Dead Sheep 100. Even the title of the race should have provoked some caution in those who entered. The race organiser had apparently titled the event as such because of the remote location, and having seen numerous expired animals decided it must be the place where sheep go to die.
Twenty runners were not put-off by the title and entered the race. One such participant was a 22 year old man from Powys called Mark Montrail. Mark had participated in several road marathons, and recorded finish times around 2 hours 45, so was clearly very fit. He had done some hill walking, though not in the area of the race. He could read a map well, and use a compass, so those elements of his preparation were sound. Because of his fitness and speed, he had a tendency to under-dress, and this may well have been his undoing.
The format of the Dead Sheep 100 is 5 laps of a 20 mile course, with nine remote unmanned checkpoints (CPs) on the loop. Most of the course was at a moderate elevation of 500-600 metres, on exposed moorland, where underfoot conditions were described as extremely challenging. The elevation of the course was around 8000 ft per lap. On the day of the event, the weather starting off relatively bright and sunny, though the ground was wet from a lot of rainfall earlier in the month. The initial sections of the course were relatively safe with roads that could be used in an emergency, but after the 4th checkpoint “Rain Gauge”, there are then lengthy featureless moorland traverses between the remote checkpoints with no paths to follow.
Mark was wearing only a race vest and shorts, and carrying his map and compass. He had a rucksack with a waterproof jacket, trousers and a few items of food, as well as water. The race began and twenty individuals set off. Mark set off very quickly, almost at marathon pace, and the only time that he was seen by other participants was later at the race headquarters, or in some cases when he lapped them. Due to the demanding nature of the race, almost all of the runners had withdrawn after two laps (20 miles). Mark was the only runner left in the race to depart for a 5th lap. Mark has assessed by the organisers medical volunteer before departing for lap 5 and judged to be fit, though he was clearly tired from his efforts.
He set off, shortly before midnight. 12 hours later, he had not returned from the lap, and the organisers took the decision to contact the local mountain rescue team. Within an hour 12 search volunteers were scouring the course, following their own search patterns for maximum coverage. It would not be for a further 14 hours (26 hours after leaving) that Mark was found. He was located by a dog handler 3km from the 5th CP (The Standing Stone), collapsed in a sheep fold. He had gone seriously off course and it was the dog that had managed to pick up his scent and locate him.
He was alive and suffering from hypothermia. The shelter provided to him from the sheep fold had probably just about kept him alive. The sheep fold was not on the course, but Mark had sense enough to use it when he saw it. A helicopter was called due to his condition and the remote location. It was impossible for the helicopter to land on the water-table on the hilltop and so he was winched into the aircraft and taken to hospital. He went on to make a full recovery, retired from running, and didn’t discuss the event with anyone else.
It is only by piecing together the evidence from the rescuer that we can understand what went wrong, and learn from it. Because the day had been relatively warm, and Mark had been moving at such a fast pace, his body temperature had remained normal, if not event higher than normal at times. However, overnight, the skies were clear the temperature dropped to below 7C, though that dropped to almost 0C with a wind chill on the hill. It is estimated Mark had started to feel the effects of the cold as the night wore on, but pressed on for too long before putting on his waterproof jacket. He did not have a mid-layer, only his thin race vest. By the time he left for CP6 (Wynn’s Trig) the effects of the cold were exacerbated because he had ran out of food. His bag was devoid or all food and water when he was found. Probably as a result of onset hypothermia, he took the wrong compass bearing from CP5, possibly following bearing of 210 instead of around 110 degrees. At some point he realised he was in serious trouble, and was fortunate that daylight highlighted a sheep fold which he hunched down behind, sheltering from the most severe effects of the wind.
Mark would succumb to the effects of the cold and be found unconsciousness, but of course thankfully alive. His failing was inadequate clothing and insufficient food. Also failure to recognise when he was tired at a less remote area, perhaps a road crossing, where he could have made it back to safety. So the key lessons are to ensure you are carrying enough clothes; specifically enough layers. Ensure an adequate supply of food and water. Also to recognise when you are tiring and make a sensible decision to retire. Planned “escape routes” from the most remote sections of a course is also very wise. Hopefully this advice will ensure that you stay safe on your next mountain trail race.