The Mourne Seven Sevens is not for the faint-hearted. It is a challenge to climb the seven peaks in the Mourne Mountains that are 700 metres or more. With the route starting at sea level in the seaside town of Newcastle, it means covering 29 kilometres of ground and 2,495 metres of climb.
The event is traditionally organised by the walking club, Spartan Red Sox, with four hundred walkers taking on the test from day-break. And then there are the hundred odd fell runners who set out mid-morning, racing to gain valuable NIMRA mountain-running championship points.
The route this year followed an anti-clockwise direction. The first peak to scale was Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest summit. From there it was Slieve Commedagh, Slieve Bearnagh, Meelmore, Meelbeg, Ben Crom Dam, Slieve Binnian, and Slieve Lamagan, before scampering back to Donard Park in Newcastle.
I did the Seven Sevens once before back in 2010. The mist was down, the ground was wet, and I suffered a bad fall coming off Slieve Lamagan. The run was so long and taxing that I could barely walk for days. Seven years on, I needed to replace those memories with slightly better ones.
This year’s weather forecast stated that the day would be dry and sunny. I tried to remind myself of this prediction as I drove to the start line on Saturday morning, as the heavens opened and the rain poured down as I passed Spelga Dam. Fortunately the sky looked clear and the mist was burning off Donard as I registered in Newcastle. Regardless, I had my map all marked up with compass bearings in case of any white-outs.
I knew it was dangerous to go out too fast. I was hoping to come home in around five hours, so I needed to go at a pace I could manage. So as we set off at 10 am from the race start, I just took my time whilst keeping an eye out to see which way the leaders were going.
As expected, as we left the forest, the front-runners headed up Donard via the Black Stairs. I had heard the rocks were slippery this way, but I figured they must know a secret route. I saw NIMRA championship leader, Diane Wilson, heading for the cliffs, so I thought I would join her on this first ascent.
I reached the first checkpoint in fifty minutes, and braced myself for the steep descent along the wall. The advantage of this anti-clockwise route is that it follows the Mourne wall for most of the first half, so no need for compasses or maps.
As I started the next ascent of Commedagh, I could hear Esther Dickson chatting to a fellow runner right behind me. She seemed remarkably relaxed. I reminded myself the importance of running my own race within my own limits. There was no point trying to push away at this stage to try to secure second place when we were less than a fifth of the way around.
The ascent to Commedagh was short and sweet, and then it was on to Slieve Bernagh. The weather was clear, and I could see a line of brightly clad hill walkers heading towards its steep slopes along the Brandy Pad. The rest of the day would be spent following and catching up with these walkers as we shared the route with them.
Again, Esther and I reached the checkpoint at Slieve Bernagh at the same time. I wondered when she would overtake me and leave me decisively behind. But I knew such thoughts had to be stowed away so I could concentrate on descending Bernagh without coming a cropper on its steep, unstable slopes.
On to Meelmore and Meelbeg, and I seemed to open up a small gap. I looked to my left, and saw Doan and Ben Crom mountains, with the Ben Crom River winding its way between them. I headed down the hill towards the Dam, and landed straight into thick grass and heather. And then to make matters worse, it started to rain. Then I fell into a deep bog hole.
I extracted myself from this pit, only to see Esther had found a boggy track right along the river. I stumbled my way over to the quasi-path, and slotted myself in behind her. Immediately she showed her running prowess, and she took off on this level ground. I knew however that we were only half way round the course, so decided to conserve my energy.
Crossing the dam, I looked up the slopes of Slieve Binnian to see where the other runners were going. Two years ago, the vast majority climbed straight up the gully, made possible due to a recent fire burning the heather down. But I couldn’t see any figures scaling the gully, so I opt for the longer, safer route on the path to the shoulder. Esther had similar ideas, so we started the climb together. Soon I saw her taking a lower path, and I decided to take one that went straight up the hill. Now back in second place, I put my head down and started the long climb to Slieve Binnian.
With it being an out and back section, I began to see the frontrunners. First came Seamus Lynch, then Paul Pruzina, followed by David Hicks. David eventually managed to catch Paul to come home second, with Seamus hanging on to the lead to take the win.
I met Diane on the col between the tors, and she was looking really strong. Knowing there was no way I was going to catch her, I focused on trying to maintain runner-up position. I scaled the rocks on Slieve Binnian, then turned around for the long run home. Esther was still there behind, but I by now I had opened up a gap of a minute or two.
I picked my way carefully up the bouldered side of Lamagan, the last 700m peak on the route, trying to keep a steady pace. This is where your limits of endurance are really tested, with a 300 metre climb after already so many miles covered. By now the walkers were few and far between, so there were less and less people to follow. Also there were no runners in front of me, just the knowledge that Esther was tracking me down.
I carefully navigated my way over Cove Mountain and on to the Brandy Pad. I crossed the wall, and took my time descending the Glen River path, knowing that one slip at this stage could cause a nasty and unnecessary fall. Into the forest, I took a wrong turn, but quickly realised my error. From there, I took the safest path down through the trees, and across the carpark and football field to the finish.
I clocked a time of 4 hours 52 minutes, well under my goal of 5 hours. I also secured second place, well behind the formidable Diane who stormed home in 4 hours 25 minutes. Esther arrived home five minutes behind me. Esther has had an amazing season, this being her first year as a mountain runner. Not only has she secured the Hill and Dale title, she has also represented Northern Ireland and Ireland on the international stage.
I took a quick dip in the sea before heading home with a set of tired legs. Having completed the NIMRA series with five races, I can now turn my attention to the Mourne Mountain Marathon in September, and the remaining events in this year’s adventure-racing calendar.
Race results can be found here.
And my strava route can be seen here.