The Seven Seven’s is a 30 kilometre race over the seven peaks that are over seven hundred metres in the Mourne Mountains. Traditionally, the Seven Seven’s is a challenge walk run by the Spartan Red Sox Walking Club. However in recent times, the Northern Irish Mountain runners (NIMRA) have also opted to race this classic route.
The walk and running race normally takes place on the first weekend of August and, for some reason, I always tend to miss it. This year as well, I know I won’t be around for the event. Not wanting to miss out on all the Seven Seven’s fun, and what with the fine weather Ireland is having at the moment, I decided to just head up on my own and to do the course at a leisurely pace.
So to start the run early on Tuesday morning, I drove up from Dublin on Monday all ready for a bit of overnight camping. I chose to stay at the Meelmore Lodge, with fine views of Slieve Meelmore and Hare’s Gap from the luxury of my one person tent. In stark contrast to the gently rolling hills found in Wicklow, the Mournes are a stunning sight with their magnificent cliffs and lake-filled valleys.
Starting at Donard Park in Newcastle, the route first summits Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest mountain. From there it goes on to climb Commedagh, Bearnagh, Meelmore and Meelbeg. Runners then passes through Ben Crom Dam for the final ascents of Binnian and Lamagan before the long haul back to Donard Park. The women’s record for the race lies at 5 hours 44 minutes, so I was aiming realistically to get around in a 6-7 hour pace.
I knew it was going to be a long day out. It wasn’t so much the distance that was daunting, but the amount of climb that the route presents. With over 2500 metres of ups and downs, the route has some seriously savage ascents and dead-defying descents. Much of the route is fortunately on well worn paths with a few short-cuts here and there through heather and bog. I took the easy option up to Donard, climbing the tourist path via the Glen River, then up via the Mourne Wall. I presume the actual race route would cut through the Black Stairs to the West of Thomas’s Mountain, but this I only figured out later.
With a momentary pause at the top of Donard to take in the stunning scenes and the remaining six peaks so clearly in view, I followed the wall back down to the gap and on up Commedagh, cutting the corner to the cairn on top.
The skies were already becoming blue, and with no sign of wind, the day was starting to heat up. I looked at the map and started to work out where I would pick up water on the way. With my cardinal rule of half a litre every hour, I saw there were enough rivers to fill my bottle up as far as to Ben Crom. From Binnian to Lamagan no rivers flowed, so I planned to stock up from Ben Crom River then ration myself until the stream south of Slieve Beg.
I crossed the stile on Commedagh and took an off-road descent to the well worn Brandy Pad. My shoes were sliding a bit on the descent, reminded me that the Mournes demands nothing less than proper fell running studs. Ah well, I wasn’t racing and was out for a gentle jog, so my more comfortable Inov-8 roclites just had to do.
The Brandy Pad brought me to the foot of the third peak, Slieve Bearnagh. Suddenly I had flashbacks of the 2008 Mourne Mountain Marathon. Our twelfth control (out of 16) was west of Slieve Bearnagh’s north tor, and so demanded both an ascent and descent of the same mountain. ‘Steep’ would be an understatement, as the closely packed contour lines littered with boulders and shifting silt made our drop back to the col dangerous to say the least. The two mountain marathon backpacks containing ten kilograms between us also didn’t help to steady us on the way down. This time around, I had enough time to look down as I headed off the summit. Bad idea, as momentary vertigo kicked in making me decide to just concentrate instead on where I put my feet. I kept my mind busy too by thanking God I didn’t have a tent, sleeping bag, and two days of food in my rucksack this time around.
The ascent of Meelmore and Meelbeg were simple enough to navigate following the line of the Mourne Wall. The Wall itself was built between 1904 and 1922 to protect the water catchment area and to mark the boundary within which no habitation or farming is allowed. It is a most impressive edifice, being built almost completely without cement, standing up to 1.5 metres in height and around 1 metre in width. Also building it on the top of all those mountains must have required some serious stamina and strength from all those lads at the start of the century.
From Meelbeg I headed straight for Ben Crom River flowing right between the pointy peaks of Doan and Ben Crom. This part of the course many people hate. They talk of the energy sapping bog and heather that wets legs and trips up feet. After all my years of running around Wicklow, I was however happy to be back on terrain I know and have begrudgingly started to love. In fact, the stony sloping paths I had been on thus far that day were starting to heat up and slightly hurt my feet.
Finding small paths along the river and the walkers’ track that leads to the dam, I was soon making my ascent up Slieve Binnian. I had never been to the top of this mountain, and was utterly amazed by the weird and wonderful rock formations that litter the summit. A quick pause for a picture, and then it was the return journey to the col north west of Blue Lough for the final ascent of the seventh peak, Slieve Lamagan.
It was a long old haul up this mountain, and I was starting to feel the day’s heat. My hands were beginning to swell slightly, my own little external sign that water is required. Cutting across Cove Mountain, I filled my bottle at the next stream and made my way back on water and gels to the Brandy Pad. Past the Castles and over the stile, it was then a long luxurious descent back down the Glen River, through Donard Forest and back to my little old car. I had run around in under six and a half hours, and had a wonderful collection of tan lines for good measure.
Seeing that it was such a sunny day, with not even a cloud in the sky, I decided to stay and do just one more night of camping. And with my tent set up and a cold bottle of beer in hand, I took in the magnificent view of Slieve Meelmore once more, marvelling how I’d just been up there just a few hours before.
It was a wonderful way to spend a few days, camping and running alone in the Mournes. It also reminded me why I had spent so many years trying to learn how to navigate: it was so that I didn’t have to depend on races or others to show me around the mountains, so that I could do it at my own pace and in my own time, and so that I could always enjoy the mountains in my own little way.
I managed to race the Mournes 7×7 in 2010. Race report can be found here.