From KIMM to OMM

This article appeared in the Vol 28, Issue 1, FEB07 issue of CompassSport. Back issues have sold out so I am reproducing it here as I have had various requests for it.

From KIMM to OMM

by the Editor

Most people know a little about the history of this 2-day, pairs navigational challenge. It was started in 1968 by the late Gerry Charnley, who was a police training instructor. He was a committed orienteer alongside his mountaineering and in fact, was one of the founding members of PFO (Pendle Forest Orienteers – organisers of the Capricorn), who were pipped to the post as first English orienteering club by a matter of 2 weeks by South Ribble OC (SROC). Gerry decided that he wanted to introduce the sport of orienteering to outdoor people in an event that would test both navigation and all round mountain/outdoor skills. So in the summer of 1968, he advertised in Climber and Rambler Magazine for competitors for a 2-day Mountain Marathon. That autumn, 30 teams lined up at the event based at Muker in the north Pennines.

Our story takes us back in time now to 1932, and to Waterfoot in the Rossendale Valley, Lancashire. For it was there and in that year that a small cycle shop opened, owned by the Parsons family. They eventually started to make cycle bags, then rucksacks, in a small workshop above and as the manufacturing business grew, split apart from the retail and moved into bigger premises in Haslingden. The company was called Karrimor. Gerry needed prizes for his race and so knocked on Mike Parsons’ door at Karrimor and asked him if he would provide some useful, good quality prizes he knew the competitors would want to win. The first two races were won by Ted Dance and Bob Astles, who were back in 2006 to present the prizes. Given their sprightliness, they may even run in next years 40th anniversary race!

Gerry kept going back to Karrimor for more prizes each year and at the 4th time of asking, in 1971 when the event was based at Plas-Y-Brenin in Wales, Mike Parsons ran his first Karrimor. Since then, he has completed 21 plus some Swiss and Norwegian KIMMs and SLMMs and started a few others! By 1973, Gerry, ever the innovator, felt the race needed some foreign International input and so approached Mike at Karrimor again to ask if he would help fund the transport of some Scandinavians to the race. Mike agreed with Gerry that the likes of top British Fell runners, such as Joss Naylor, needed to be shown what real navigation could do in such a race. That year, the race HQ was at Plas Gwynant and the route to the first control seemed a no-brainer. The mist was down and so a climb up and over a ridge on the side of Moel Siabod to pick up a path which would take you above but nearby the control was the natural choice for Jos Naylor and all the other British Fell runners. However, Stig Berg and his partner from Norway boldly risked the contour route around to the west to spike the control and gain a 6 minute lead which they held until the end of the race to win. The Brits learnt a lot about the orienteering side of Mountain Marathons from these foreign runners and the international participation meant that events were set up in Switzerland, Norway, France, Sweden, Australia, sometimes with the KIMM name, sometimes with a different sponsor. The concept spread and these ideas possibly helped provoke the idea of multi sport adventure racing which many say started in 1984,

In 1974, the late Chris Brasher, who was a keen participant in the event, requested a superlight pack akin to his superlight shoes which had helped him on his way to a Gold medal in the Melbourne 1956 Olympics. Mike, already accustomed to serving the needs of leading edge mountaineers, Brown, Whillans et al, responded by halving Chris’s weight target by developing a nylon pack and so was born a line of lightweight gear.

After Galloway in 1976 which experienced exceptionally bad weather with only 30% completing, Gerry spoke in a TV interview with the BBC: “Don’t you think this event is too tough?” asked the interviewer, “Everybody knows this is the KIMM, the toughest event on the calendar and it’s not a Sunday afternoon picnic.”

In 1977, to solve the problem of inaccurate maps, a special map from Harvey Maps was commissioned. This was the birth of the 1: 40,000 scale and the opening up of the Howgills effectively with a single map. The event was slowly getting bigger and numbers were increasing when Gerry tragically died in 1982 on Helvellyn in the Lake District. However, Gerry had lit a passion for the race that could not be quashed and Jen Longbottom, Mike Parsons’ sister, who had been involved in the organisation from the start, took on the main role of organising this now legendary race. (Although she has also run the race 4 times herself.) The KIMM as it was now called continued to grow and with it, the number of courses. Score classes were introduced and more and more people tried and got hooked on its unique challenges. If you haven’t taken part yourself in a KIMM/OMM at least once, you will certainly know someone in your club who has.

Karrimor, the company, continued to grow and expand. Mike Parsons, one of the owners was the main driving force and innovator at Karrimor in this period and had expanded the company to a workforce of 300, building up an ever expanding brand of outdoor products. However, like with any company, it has its ups and downs. With increasing competition from other outdoor manufacturers and the need for constant development and innovation of products, Karrimor succumbed to some Italian venture capitalists, who were going to take over the company and inject new life into it. However, the Italians did not envisage having Mike involved for long and as he didn’t have a controlling share of the company, he was forced to leave the main business and Karrimor has, as he says, “…been heading south ever since”. Nevertheless, he left with a licence to produce KimmLite products and continue in producing lightweight KIMM gear and Karrimor continued to sponsor the KIMM every year as before.

It seemed a reasonable outcome and Mike could focus on this niche – a niche he seemed to excel in. Unfortunately, Karrimor’s new owners were not to last for very long. The Italians may have regretted loosing Mike, who had been with the company all his life, as in 1999 after further financial troubles, the company was sold to some South Africans. It was the same year that the KIMM introduced electronic timing.

The South Africans naturally had their own modus operandi and overhauled the management again. Some bad decisions later and in 2004, the year the legendary Mark Seddon MDOC completed his 10th win of the Elite section and was awarded ‘freedom of the event’, Karrimor went bust. The event was thus in dire straits because everything was built around Karrimor, including product sourcing for the KIMMLite range. Almost overnight, 7 years of work, building up a brand, supply-chain routes and sales channels had all gone. Karrimor was therefore sold again, but this time to Sports World International (SWI), a large multinational sports company who own such brands as Dunlop and Slazenger and is headed by Michael Ashcroft.

SWI, after buying the bank debts of Karrimor, put it into receivership, making most of the staff redundant and letting the Accrington premises. SWI was a very large group focused on brands, labels and royalties. Mike commented “I was uncomfortable in this new scenario and was not able to buy the brand, even after 6 months of lengthy negotiations, so we decided the only viable alternative was to take control of our own destiny” It was emotionally very tough. So I found some more investors and we decided to do our own thing. This meant finding a new name and as we always thought of ourselves as the original Mountain Marathon, the OMM was born. This means we now own the OMM brand and event, whereas we didn’t in the past. As I like working with leading edge sports people and designing cutting edge products, I am now in a position to get back into doing just that. I am lucky to have somebody like Jen Longbottom who likes organising the event, so she is doing just that. Now we are in control of our own destiny.”

Has it always been the KIMM until 2006? “Well we started with the KIMM name in 1976, up until which time it was referred to as ‘the Karrimor’ and some older generation still call it just that today but KIMM name took 10 years at least to catch on.” Despite the ups and downs, like most KIMM/OMM competitors, Mike is as enthusiastic as ever about the OMM and lightweight outdoor gear. He has used his life experience to help others too. Currently, he is Honorary Fellow at the IEED (Institute of Entrepreneurship and Entrepreneurial Development), Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) where he is the first business person to co-design a course which he now teaches with Prof Mary B Rose and the course won a prize in its first year. He is also co-author with the Professor of a book, “Invisible on Everest; the innovators and the gear makers”, which is the definitive 200 year history of the great innovations of mountaineering and outdoor equipment. He is also the co-organiser of the ‘Innovation for Extremes’ Conferences at LUMS - the essential innovation conference for the Outdoor Industry. So from now on, it will be the OMM (a sound one might make when one is thinking perhaps, which is rather apt for a navigational event.) and when somebody asks you what happened to the KIMM, you can use some of the facts above to explain how a group of dedicated people, and in particular 2 people, a brother and a sister, tried to keep the name and event alive, but came up against unworkable odds. The KIMM is truly dead. It will never come back. But what is in a name? Surely by any other name would a rose smell so sweet; would a pair of old Walshes still smell faintly of sheep poo!? The event is well and truly the same; and the people who take part in it still have one marble short in their collection; some are even one bottle short of a 6-pack; and a select few are definitely one slab short of a patio! And that is half the fun of it. Long live the OMM.

Finally, let us look forward to the 2007 event – the 40th anniversary on the 27th/28th October. Entries will be opening shortly and some people have already started speculating as to the location. We’ll have to wait and see. One thing that many will be pleased to hear is that there will be changes in the timing system used. Jen Longbottom has just released this statement: “For the 2007 event we will be using Sport Ident hardware combined with the well proven Joe Lee results and event admin system.” Now get out there and start training – not long to the next OMM now…

(This article was based on an interview with Mike Parsons and website.)