Surviving the 2017 Mourne Mountain Marathon

The Mourne Mountain Marathon hurts. I can still vividly remember the pain from nine years ago, when I last did the two-day race. Entering my forties has, however, made me curious to see whether I could survive it again. So this year I penciled the event into the list of races I wanted to enter. All I had to do after its inclusion was to find myself a suitable team-mate.

Deon McNeilly and Eamon McCrickard competing in the elite category of the 2017 Mourne Mountain Marathon.

I found my victim in the form of adventurer racer, Paul Mahon. I’ve raced with Paul before in teams of four, but never as a duo. Paul himself is a Mourne Mountain Marathon veteran, having competed in the event ten times before. He is also an oul lad, and after a quick mental calculation, I worked out that our combined age meant that we would just about scrape into the Vets category. I cornered him in the pub after the Quest Glendalough Adventure Race, presented to him my rationale for teaming up, and made him shake hands on it. This was back in April, five months before the marathon start, but I needed that time to prepare.

I am a meticulous planner. I wanted to make sure all my gear was up to scratch. I found out that, since I raced last time, survival bags and head torches have shrunk considerably, so I purchased the latest, lightest versions. Fortunately my tent and sleeping bag were still good to go, having spent a small fortune on them back in 2008. I messaged Paul with the exact weights of each item of mandatory kit, and we made decisions on which ones to bring.

I then turned my attention towards the Harvey’s Mourne Map. Years before, we ran off the OSNI version of the mountains, with lovely ten metre contours and fifty shades of brown on the mountains. Using this new Harvey’s map, I spent hours poring over previous courses, trying to work out optimal routes using the updated chart. I bored Paul with questions, asking him why he made certain route choices and cluster decisions in previous years. He tolerated my Spanish inquisition, probably hoping if he answered all my questions, I’d shut up when it came to race day.

The Harveys Map, with Day 2 routes taken by the elites.

Needless to say, despite all my preparations, I was a bag of nerves on Saturday. I checked my four-kilogram rucksack a million times, convinced I had forgotten some essential piece of kit. I knew, however, that once we got started, I’d feel instantly better and would chill.

The control freak that I am meant that I insisted on carrying my own map with all the coordinates marked up. I hate it when men lead me astray on mountain ranges on the premise that they are the principal navigator. So at 9.30 am, Paul and I grabbed our elite-route cards, and circled all the features to visit that day on our respective maps. The advantage of this two-map strategy meant that, for all routes and especially for the clusters, we could discuss the options available. It also meant I couldn’t blame Paul for any final decisions made.

Very soon, Paul and I were confronted with a cluster of two, namely checkpoints three and four. After discussing our options, we decided to contour to number three, the stream junction first, and then head up on to Commedagh for the stream source. It soon became clear that Paul was climbing much stronger than me, despite the fact that he was carrying more weight. I, however, was able to negotiate the rough terrains on downhills a little better, so we quickly learned what pace our team could sustain on which parts of the course. When we exited the cluster at checkpoint five, we made a clear decision that would affect the rest of our day. We concluded that it was better for us to take slightly longer routes if it meant minimising on climb. Given that this is a two-day race, it was also important to conserve some energy for Sunday.

Looking for these things all over the Mournes.

My ‘local knowledge’ of the Mournes contributed to our first real mistake of the day. I thought the terrain to the east of Carn Mountain and above Lough Shannagh would be grand to descend on to get to control eight. It turned out to be a total heather and rock-filled mine field. Paul got a massive whack to his knee as he fell down one hole, which turned into an impressive bloody mess. I felt horribly guilty and terribly responsible for the rest of the weekend.

Having regained our composure, Paul and I opted to travel over to the four-cluster control section south east of Slieve Binnian via Silent Valley rather than Ben Crom. The weather had been good to us thus far, but as it approached 1.30 pm, four hours into our race, it started to get cold, wet, and windy. We battered on, struggling to find a place to leave the service road to the east of the reservoir to start our climb towards Wee Binnian. All we could see for ten minutes was thick gorse on the mountainside. I started to get very worried.

By this stage, both Paul and I were getting tired. Having eventually found a gorse-free way on to the mountain, we climbed too high and missed a path that could have given us some respite. We battered on, hitting control ten bang on, which lifted our spirits slightly. But then Paul’s map started to disintegrate in the rain, and I wondered if we were done for. Something drastic was needed.

“I’m putting on my coat,” I shouted out, dropping my bag and reaching for my waterproof. Paul surprisingly did the same. We were so weary that we had forgotten to look after ourselves, a surprising rookie error for a team as old as ourselves. It was a good move, however, as the weather continued to deteriorate. We picked up controls eleven and twelve, and then moved to the second last one of the day.

There were a good number of other teams from other classes looking for control thirteen in an enclosed quarry on the hillside. I was so focused on dibbing and catching up with Paul that I didn’t check my map properly. My hands were also swollen from carrying my rucksack for over five hours, making it hard for me to hold my map against its plastic case to really check out our route. Long story short, we took a wrong path and ended up overshooting the control from above. For ten minutes, we went forward and backwards, until a kind soul pointed the quarry out.

Cursing ourselves, we ran as fast as we could to the day’s final control, then on to the finish line. We had made one major error and one bad route choice, but it could have been a lot worse. Downloading our data, we found that we had completed the course in 5 hours 30 minutes, quite a respectable time. We were the first mixed team in to camp, but more surprisingly, we were third team in overall. We didn’t, however, expect this to last. There were plenty of very fast elite male teams that had started the course after us. But when I went back up to the van a couple of hours later to check the rankings, there we were: still in third, with a forty-eight minute lead over the next mixed team.

Everyone hid in their tents at the cold and windy camp at Carrick Little.

Paul and I are experienced enough to know that such Day 1 results can very quickly evaporate on Day 2. It was now a question of surviving the night and not making any major mistakes on Sunday. But even that was easier said than done. The weather was really miserable. I put on all my spare clothes, we put up the tent, and started making hot food and drinks. By 5 pm, it was so cold outside that, as soon as I left the tent, my teeth started chattering. I had secretly hoped that the campsite weather would be fine so that I could cruise around the other tents and catch up with old friends. That plan was quickly abandoned when I realised everyone had the same idea as us and was hunkered down for the night.

The next day, however, was wonderfully bright and sunny. There was barely a patch of mist on the mountains, meaning it promised a nice day of mountain running. The first bit of tactics that came into play was what time to start our course. In previous years, the elites all sprinted off together at 8 am on the dot. This year, everyone was free to start at their own leisure, any where between 8 am and 8.45 am.

Paul and I wandered up to the start and watched the teams funnel through the gate. ‘Should we start now?’ I would ask Paul. ‘No,’ he would say. ‘Let’s wait.’ Start too early, and you may be chased down. Start too late, and you might miss seeing the routes faster teams take. Eventually, on spotting the Irish international orienteer, Colm Hill, and his partner (who were in second place overall overnight), Paul told me it was indeed time to depart.

We marked up our maps, then ran out along the Annalong Valley towards our first set of controls. It all seemed to be going well until we hit the second control. Paul and I had agreed that we would go northwest from the pond and climb on to the col between Slievelamagan and Cove. From there we would contour around Cove to Slieve Beg and hit the first cluster control at the top of Devil’s Coachroad gully.

Just as we were leaving the pond, however, I spotted Paul Pruzina right behind us. Paul’s team had a massive lead in the elite race of over thirty-five minutes from Day 1. So when we saw Paul not climbing to the col but instead opting to contour below Cove to the bottom of the gully, we decided to follow suit. There were already three other teams heading in that direction in front of us, so I figured we couldn’t all be wrong. But matter of fact, we were.

Instead of safely contouring across to the control, we meet a massive set of cliffs. Some one shouted out that we could go up and over, and so teams began to climb. Now I am ridiculously scared of heights, but I was also aware that we could lose too much time if we had to back track. As we started our ascent, I made the terrible mistake of looking down. My foot was on the edge of some grass, with a twenty-metre sheer drop to my right. I totally lost the plot. Poor Paul had to come to my rescue and calm me down. He went ahead, showing me where to put my hands and feet, and yanking me up when needs be. I looked down at my heart rate monitor and released my pulse was off the chart. I sounded like I was hyperventilating, and fought hard to control my breath.

The East face of Cove on the left that we climbed up, and Devil’s Coach Road on the right that we scrambled down.

After what seemed like an eternity, the cliffs gave way to a gentle sloping top. As the other teams appeared from the rock face, the looks of sheer horror told the full story. Some even thanked God out loud for his intervention for getting us safely out of there. I pulled out my emergency chocolate to calm my frazzled nerves down. I then forced myself not to think anymore about the cliff incident, and to just get on with the race.

After our encounter with Cove Cliffs, the descent down Devil’s Coachroad gully was a piece of cake. The scree slipped quickly beneath my feet, but at least I knew that this time, if I fell, I wouldn’t instantaneously die.

We were no sooner out of this two-control cluster than we were into another one. Paul and I opted to visit them in the order of seven, six and eight to maximise the use of the runnable Brandy Pad. We both needed to just stretch our legs a while without thinking, after the punishing mental and physical ordeal that we’d endured since the day’s start.

Some people obviously took it easier and enjoyed it just as much at the Mourne Mountain Marathon!

We arrived out of the cluster at control nine with two other teams. From there it was a simple descent to the stream bend east of Chimney Rock before the final cluster of the day. Again, Paul and I opted to rejoin the Brandy Pad and run down the Glen River to get to control eleven at Eagle’s Rock. With the weather still clear and mild, it was a simple enough cross-mountain contour towards control twelve at the wall corner at Millstone Mountain.

A couple of years ago, Paul and his team-mate Adrian came second in the Mourne Mountain Marathon, beating the third-placed team by a mere four seconds. Bearing such narrow margins in mind, we sprinted as hard as we could down the Granite trail and through Donard Forest to the finish at Newcastle’s Shimna College.

I downloaded our splits and looked at our results on the printed piece of paper. Below our time it said, ‘You are 4th out of 5 teams’. ‘Ah well,’ I thought, slightly disappointed, ‘at least we tried.’ I always thought it was a stretch to take third place overall. I looked up at the results board to make sure we had at least won the mixed category. But when I looked closer, there we were, our names in third place.

Paul Mahon and myself collecting our 2017 Mourne Mountain Marathon prize!

I returned to the marshall and asked what the story was. ‘You are fourth out of the five teams that have arrived in today,’ she said. ‘But the board shows the overall result for the two days.’

After waiting to see other teams arriving, the final results were confirmed. We had won the mixed category by over an hour and a half, and had managed to hang on to third place overall. I was very pleased, and also very tired. But more importantly, I had survived the Mourne Mountain Marathon and have, as you can see, lived to tell the tale.

Day 1 Results can be found here. Our route can be found here.

Day 2 Results can be found here. Our route can be found here.

Overall Results for the two days can be found here.

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