The Mourne Mountains Seven Sevens race takes place every year on the first weekend in August. I have always wanted to run it. But alas, I was often busy or away on that fateful weekend. Last year, knowing I would miss out again, I ran the route for fun instead, taking pictures as I went. But this year, I knew I’d be in Ireland for the event so made the firm decision to run it.
I woke on Saturday morning to see the Mourne Mountains shrouded in mist. It was not the sight I had hoped for. Having been based overseas for the last 12 months, my navigation had become a little rusty and I wasn’t sure how my map and compass skills would fair. I had gone to the trouble of marking up my map with the appropriate compass bearings in case of such conditions. That was however before they changed the race route a few days before hand and decided that the runners would go clockwise around the mountains instead of the usual anti-clockwise route. A few last minute corrections the night before meant I eventually had the correct bearings in place: I was ready to run from Donard Car Park, to Slieve Donard, Commadagh, Lamangan, Binninan, Ben Crom Dam, Meelmore, Meelbeg, Bearnargh, and then back to Donard Car Park, to cover 29 kilometres of mountain terrain and to climb 2,700 meters of it.
55 racers turned up to join the 300 walkers taking part in the event. I recognized a few familiar faces amongst the Northern Ireland runners, but it appeared I was the only one representing the southern mountain running contingent. I had hoped a few more would join, seeing that Mournes are now less than a 90 minute drive from Dublin thanks to the revamped M1.
The race set off at 10am, heading straight for the Mourne Mountains. After barely a few minutes, the race group deviated off the path I knew and that was marked on the map towards a fire road and then a path trodden through the forest. This was to be the first of many deviations I saw that runners familiar with the Mournes knew but that weren’t drawn on the map. I decided to simply follow.
The track in the forest emerged at the ice house at the bottom of the Glen. Here the choice to reach the top of Donard was either via the civilized stone clad Glen path or the steep and rough terrain of the Black Stairs. At this point I was sitting nicely behind Taryn McCoy who was happily chatting away to another female runner. They headed straight for the Black Stairs and I followed suit, wanting to keep in contact with the other leading female runners.
The stairs involved a slight scramble up some rocks before we mounted towards Donard summit through rock and heather. A faint trail led from the stairs, another track that was absent from my map but that the local runners knew well. The mist was thick at this stage and it was easy to get disorientated. But my compass bearing confirmed we were definitely headed in the right direction.
The wind battered us sideways as we ran past the cairn and reached the tower on top where the first checkpoint was located. I quickly punched my race number and made sure the marshall noted my number before sprinting on towards the first downhill of the day. At this point I overtook the girls but knew they wouldn’t be far behind. Soon began the slog up Commedagh, again covered in mist but easily found with the Mourne wall leading us straight to the top.
I reached the summit at the same time as a local guy from the area. “Be careful coming off here”, he said. “Have you checked your bearing?” I knew we had to head south off Commedagh and catch the col with Slieve Beg. I was petrified of getting lost in the quadmire of fog and ending up on the wrong side of the ridge. But as soon as I had fixed my compass, the guy took off downhill and disappeared into the mist. All hopes I had of following him evaporated instantaneously.
On my own again, I took my time and made sure I stuck religiously to the bearing. It was hard, as I was simultaneously trying to not fall over on the steep slippery grass that had lethal rocks lurking underneath. Though my descent was slow, I was in the right place. From the col, it was a mixture of paths and compass bearings to get over the indistinct mounds of Slieve Beg and Cove Mountain. My navigation wobbled slightly and I felt I lost too much time, taking in too much height to make sure I didn’t get lost. I was convinced the other girls had taken far better lines. But with the mist too thick to see more than 20 metres, I just had to forgo the time lost and continue with the race.
I soon saw the dark shadow of Lamagan looming in front of me. Having never approached the mountain from the north before, I was happy to note it was a much shorter climb to the top than from the other side. Another nod to the marshall huddled in his tent on top, and I headed down to the hill towards Binninan.
And then, like a curtain pulled open, the mist dissipated and revealed the rest of the mountains ahead. I could see the path clearly off Lamagan and quickened my step. Only my steps were too quick for my head and before I knew it, I fell. I hit the ground and rolled down hill, banging my hip and staving my finger badly. My hand was raw from scrapping over the rocks and I was shaken, not known if I was still in one piece or had shattered some vital bone or organ. It was a short sharp reminder of how the Mournes terrain full of sharp rocks and slippery bog on steep slopes can severely test the foot skills of mountain runners.
Up Binninan, I took another wobbly route, forgetting to climb through the rocks to get on to the ridge. The path I took was along the side before it finally rejoined the main track. With this being an out and back route, it was time to see where I lay in the race. The misty conditions thus far had prevented knowing what position I was in. Mountain running men streamed towards me having already bagged the summit. When I reached the summit myself, I had not seen another woman in front. It meant I was leading the race at this point. It was on running back along the ridge that I met Taryn. She wasn’t far behind, only a matter of minutes. It was time to put the foot down.
I raced down to Ben Crom Dam, picking up some water as I crossed over the reservoir. I had assumed that the other runners and walkers would contour from Ben Crom and go straight to the river and walk up the water’s side where I knew there was a faint path. However when I looked along the contour, I saw no one. Panic set in. It was only when I looked straight up from the dam that I saw where the others were. They were travelling on another path not on the map but one that local wanderers knew well. The route they were taking involved a steep climb up the hill, followed by contouring around 390 metres to reach the river at its uppermost bend. In hindsight, it was the better route as opposed to contouring straight from the dam. But I couldn’t help doubting it at the time, what with the matted grass and pot-holed bog that I stumbled and exhausted myself through.
Once at the river bend I took a bearing to make sure I went up Meelmore and not another random mountain. The snake of people making their way up the mountain in front of me confirmed the one to go for. I was beginning to feel the effects of the race in my legs. But I was over half way and knew that now was the time to pick up speed.
From Meelmore it was a brisk yet careful run down, then back up to Meelbeg rejoining the Mourne wall after leaving it at Commedagh. The descent from Meelbeg was cumbersome, trying to negotiate the uneven stones that lay all along the slope. But still I pressed on, convinced that the girls would be also pushing hard. The final summit of the day was Bearnagh, a steep monster that involved scrambling in parts. The wind was blowing hard to the side, so I nestled close to the wall for shelter. Finally I reached the top, and felt a tinge of joy knowing I had done all the climbs for the day.
I saw a red t-shirt running away in the distance and decided to give chase. I ran after it, along the Brandy Pad, slowly clawing back the distance. I needed a target to keep going on this long run back to the start. When I finally reached him, I realized it the was the guy who advised me about the bearing coming off Commedagh. He waved for me to go on, but I wanted for us to run together. I figured we both needed the support to push us to the finish. And I didn’t want to get lost in the forest just before the end.
We picked up speed and sprinted down the stone slabs lining the Glen Valley. The concentration of hopping from one step to the next finally became too much and I stumbled and fell yet again. My finger jammed into the ground once more and I screamed from the pain. But I didn’t want to lose my new mountain running companion so I leaped up and continued on with the race.
From the ice house we retraced our steps through the forest, downhill all the way to the car park. It was full of cars, people having come from far and wide for the town’s August festival and the prospect of an afternoon of Red Arrows flight display over the Irish Sea. We negotiated the people and the traffic, and finally crossed the finish line.
I had no idea what time I had done. My watch was set all day at providing altimeter readings to aid my navigation. Before starting the race I had given myself the goal of completing in 5 hours 45 minutes. But what with the misty conditions, my erratic navigation and my bad fall that had shaken my nerves, I figured I had missed out on that target early on in the race. Instead from Lamangan I had concentrated on getting around and forgot all about the time. But no sooner had I finished the race, than the marshall informed me that I had run the seven peaks in 5 hours 19 minutes, well under my hoped for time, as well as under the previous course record of 5 hours 44 minutes.
I couldn’t have wanted more. First place, a new course record, and a day out in the Mourne Mountains. The next day, I flew back to Kathmandu. It was a perfect way to end my fortnight’s break back home in Ireland.
Photos of the event can be found here.
Coverage by NI Athletics event can be read here.
Want to read more about mountain running tales from Ireland, including the Mourne Mountain Marathon and Wicklow Round? Check out my book, “Mud, Sweat and Tears”.