KIMM – for hillwalkers? – Heong (December 2004)

The KIMM (Karrimor International Mountain Marathon) is a 2-day event with an overnight camp held annually in a mountainous area. It is divided into several classes for varying abilities so that both slow plodders and the elite can take part. Because it combines elements of orienteering, adventure racing (AR), fell-running and lightweight backpacking, it attracts big names in those disciplines from around the world (including the polar explorer/ultra-marathoner Sir Ranulph Fiennes).

The 2-person team format means that teamwork is as important as individual ability. Both team members must visit all control points (CPs) on their route, so the slower member cannot take short cuts, even if that was feasible! In AR, teams are usually 3 or 4 with at least one female, and it is standard practice for the stronger members to help the weaker ones by carrying more and also towing them with a short length of rope. The latter is uncommon in the KIMM because team members tend to be more evenly matched, and mixed teams are optional.

Prior to taking part in this year’s KIMM (which was held in the southwest Brecon Beacons on the last weekend of October), I’d already tried my hand at orienteering, AR and fell races, so I felt up to the challenge when the invitation came from a friend who had taken part (not entirely successfully) in last year’s KIMM in Scotland with a different team-mate. But having done it, I realised that the event is not as difficult as its reputation might imply, and the easier classes are well within the capabilities of any fit hillwalker with good navigational skills – and that means most NKHC members!

A few facts & figures: the C class ‘fixed-length’ course which we did was 44 km long (as the crow flies) and involved 2500m ascent/descent over the 2 days, which is little more than our average NKHC weekend’s total walking. These fixed-length courses have 10 CPs on each day which must be visited in the right order, but the actual route between them is up to the individual teams. So, all teams will end up doing longer than the given distances in order to avoid minor obstacles like crags and lakes – I estimated that our team’s actual route was 50 km long, of which we ran only about 10 km, walking the rest. On the Saturday, we had 10 hours to complete the 23 km course to the overnight camp, with 7 hr for 21 km on Sunday. The vast majority of the non-elite teams walked most of the course, and quite a few did no running at all ( and wore boots rather than shoes).

The KIMM aims to test competitors’ choice of equipment as well, and this is reflected in the compulsory kit list. It is possible to get under 3 kg (not including food & water) but this would entail a cold and uncomfortable night with no sleeping mat (which is not mandatory) and no extra warm clothing in case of a cold snap. In previous KIMMs, some elite teams have been forced to retire when their ultra-lightweight approach was unable to cope with unexpected storms, snow etc., as they often rely on their ability to run fast all the way to generate enough heat to compensate for their skimpy clothing.

My rucksack actually weighed 8.6 kg, but I was carrying the whole tent for our team (2.6 kg: not the lightest 2-person tent around but it was my team-mate’s choice – she wanted the space!) as well as a Therm-a-Rest. Food for 2 days made up 1 kg of the weight, while for water I relied on rivers along the way, purified through my Katadyn bottle. True minimalists would drink straight from the rivers! My one luxury was my compact camera – and it was worth its weight for the photos I took on Black Mountain during a brief period of sunshine. Every item I brought was used apart from the compulsory emergency items (survival bag, whistle and first-aid kit). I actually left behind my lightweight synthetic-fill jacket at the last minute when I found there was no room for it in my rucksack after stuffing the tent in, and was lucky that the night was much warmer than forecasted (12 deg in the tent) – my 450 g down sleeping-bag was only just warm enough. Like most competitors, I wore fell-running shoes (Salomon XA Harrier, which is more comfortable than the traditional Walsh PB) but unlike most, I managed to keep my feet dry with long-length SealSkinz waterproof socks. Because of the several river crossings and knee-deep bogs, even Gore-Tex boots and gaiters would not have ensured dry feet (though wellies might!). Masochistic fell-runners of course expect to get wet feet (and possibly trench foot) but not me!

I found the pathless and often difficult terrain to be the biggest challenge rather than the numerous hills. Endurance is more important than aerobic fitness: the ability to keep going, whether on a steep uphill or knee-deep in mud, is paramount. That said, the 2000-odd people doing this year’s KIMM are the fittest-looking large gathering I’ver ever seen assembled in one place – not a single overweight or flabby individual amoungst them (not something you could say of eg., the London Marathon)! Being able to navigate – and eat – whilst moving saves valuable time. I didn’t see anybody stopping for lunch, or even a coffee break (a la Mr Abbott) – not that anyone would bring a vacuum flask for the KIMM! It can be very tempting to ‘follow the crowd’, which can lead to going completely the wrong way as there are 7 different courses with staggered starts for each team. On several occasions, we saw a long trail of people going the same way while we seemed to be the only team taking a different route, only to discover at the next CP that other teams were converging from several directions. Some teams obviously felt more comfortable following a handrail like a river, while others would elect to follow a compass bearing and take as direct a route as possible. Luckily we didn’t have any navigational disasters and made both days’ cut-off times comfortably, though on the second day an elusive CP situated in a sinkhole cost us half an hour because there were so many sinkholes situated in the vicinity.

It is a good idea to spend at least one night in a tent with your prospective team-mate beforehand (assuming you are sharing a tent) to discover each other’s foibles like snoring, restlessness etc. To my cost, I didn’t, and had to call upon my experience of sleep deprivation training during my hospital years to enable me to get through the second day’s navigation in the mist. Don’t assume your team-mate will warn you beforehand (even if s/he is relying on you for navigation): if in doubt, bring ear-plugs! The camp ground itself, on high ground, was remarkably quiet at night despite the huge profusion of tents. Or maybe the close proximity of my team-mate’s snoring drowned out the ambient noise!

The 1:40,000 map with the CPs and overnight camp marked on it is given to each competitor only at the start on each day to prevent prior planning and reconnaisance. It is specially made for the KIMM by Harvey and has different graphics to OS maps, which caused me confusion at times. The scale takes some getting used to, for those of us who have only ever seen 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 maps. Altitudes aren’t given, so an altimeter (unlike GPS, not banned) isn’t much use unless you bring your own map as well. Teams have to be self-sufficient for the 2 days because no shops or villages will be encountered – even roads are out of bounds except for a few crossing points. The overnight camp really is in the middle of nowhere, so if you don’t bring enough food (dehydrated or freeze-dried of course) you’ll go hungry.

What’s in it for the general hillwalker other than a lot of effort and (possibly) pain? Well, the feeling of achievement, and of challenging oneself in a wild environment on difficult terrain without being found wanting (hopefully!). And also exploring a new area and finding the best solutions to problems on the ground whilst ‘on the hoof’. In essence, the KIMM is ultralight fastpacking stripped down to its elements. It is short enough that one can take risks (with clothing, equipment and food) in the interest of speed, if that is what one is aiming for. For the rest of us plodders content just to finish, it’s the feeling that one has qualified to join an elite club. There is no medal or T shirt at the finish – just a certificate with your split times for all the CPs on both days. But you get a free meal, and a coach to take you back to the car park no matter how late you finish on Sunday. Indeed, of the 306 teams in the C class, 45 DNF (i.e. overrran their times, missed CPs or just retired). And Sir Ran? – apparently this year he was absent – he was in Peru training for his forthcoming Everest attempt! So, how about a NKHC team for KIMM 2005?