I was ready to go. I had spent months preparing for the day. I had recced the entire ninety-kilometre route during the dismal winter we had, when snow and glacial winds battered the Mourne Mountains. Returning from each run, I meticulously marked up my map with compass bearings. I had developed lists of food, drink, and gear that I was sure would perform on the day. And I had trained hard, hitting the gym, bike and trails throughout the off-season. My painstaking preparation meant that I felt pretty confident about giving the Denis Rankin Round a go this year.
My support team had been notified of my intention to attempt the Denis Rankin Round the last weekend of May. Days before, I had hand delivered to each of them individual bags of food and drink and other assorted items I might need throughout the Round. I had chosen the Bank Holiday weekend in May for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, there was a full moon predicted, which would aid any night-time navigation I would potentially do. That time of year is also the ideal time for Rounds. The weather is usually summery with only five hours of darkness, and the mountain foliage typically hasn’t had the time or energy to grow to its full omnipotent strength. My husband, Pete, was also meant to arrive home from a business trip to Myanmar on that weekend’s Saturday afternoon. With him safely back in Ireland, there was someone to look after our two and four-year-old kids while I went for my mountain run the following day.
I planned to start at 3 am from Donard Park, Newcastle on Sunday 28 May. This would mean climbing to the top of Slieve Donard, with daylight filtering through just as I descended towards the Brandy Pad, giving hopefully good visibility as I went off trail towards Chimney Rock. I had poured over my recce times and those of previously successful Rounds, trying to work out how long I would take to cover the course. I had also clung to the words of Billy Reed, multiple Round finisher, who told me during a clandestine conversation that a ‘sub-20 hour Round was very feasible.’
Completing the Round within 20 hours, with a start time of 3 am, had a distinct advantage. It would mean successfully descending off the last mountain, Commedagh, before night fall. There was also something nice about running into Donard Park at the respectable hour of 11 pm, before closing time.
Leading up to the attempt, the weather for that Bank Holiday weekend looked dry and warm. In fact, for two weeks previously, the weather had proven to be a veritable heat wave according to Irish standards. I secretly welcomed this rise in temperature knowing that, while I waited, the sun was slowly drying out the bogs that would slow me down. My sole worry was that it would also dry out the riverbeds. Billy had also told me that, during his own attempt in June 2014, the mountains were so dry that there was precious little water out there to refill his empty bottles.
On the eve of my planned attempt, I decided to check the weather forecast one last time before hitting the sack. Pouring over the Met Office’s predictions, I saw that Sunday was to be dry and warm, with no mist to speak of. I couldn’t have wished for better. It was only when I scrolled further down that I saw a weather warning that was the height of stupidity to ignore. From out of nowhere, the forecasters warned of thunderstorms to bear down that Sunday afternoon. I’ve done enough mountain-training courses to realise that thunder and lightning on high ground is bad news. Mid-Round, I could act as a lightning beacon out on the Mourne’s slopes. If anything happened out there weather-wise, when I had been sternly forewarned, I would have little comeback. And I could equally put others in danger if I had to be rescued at any stage.
A mere seven hours before I was due to depart, I dialled my support team and emailed the Round committee to tell them I would delay my attempt. My start time was only put forward by twenty-four hours, until Bank Holiday Monday, but it would probably be enough to let the storm clouds pass by. It seems now like such a minor inconvenience, but at the time, it felt like a major disaster, as if I might as well give up doing the Round entirely. I was so mentally psyched to start on Sunday morning, and now this delay meant my whole build-up was deflated. I was annoyed at the weather for forcing me to make this decision. I felt guilty for messing around with my wonderful team of individuals who were already giving up their time and energy to support me with the run, many of whom however had no problem moving their shift by a day. Fortunately the next morning I was vindicated as I woke to news of thousands of lightning strikes having hit the UK the previous night. This was the storm that was approaching Northern Ireland, so it was prudent to hunker down.
I reset my alarm for 1.45 am to go off on Monday morning. In the end, I didn’t need its help. Even though I had gone to bed good and early on Sunday evening, I slept not a single wink. My mind kept going over tasks ad infinitum, everything from reminding myself to take a photo under Donard Park arch to adhere to the committee’s rule, to not forgetting to put on sun-cream to protect my skin against the forecasted glaring sun.
I arrived at the start at 2.45 am, a mere fifteen minutes before I was due to start. I wanted to give me just enough time to switch on my tracker, to do final checks and take the prerequisite photo. I delayed my arrival because I also didn’t want to hang around in a darkened car park all on my own with the sound of boy racers ominously revving their engines on the streets outside. I switched on my garmin watch and saw my heart rate for the first time that night. It registered a heart rate of 150 beats per minute, a very strange reading. If I’m standing around at a race start, it might hit 100 due to nerves. 150 would be if I was running along with a bit of pace; definitely not idly standing around waiting to start a Round. Either my heart rate monitor wasn’t working, or my body was freaking out from the lack of sleep, the coffee I’d just drunk, or the stress of knowing that I was meant to run up Northern Ireland’s highest mountain in the pitch dark.
I didn’t have either the time or a spare heart rate monitor to resolve the issue. 3 am soon clicked on my watch, so I touched the arch and started to jog off in the direction of the Glen River. I was hoping that getting into my stride would settle my nerves. It didn’t. Within five minutes, I’d lost the track through the forest and hit a felled tree that blocked my path. I’m well aware that something as simple as this can be enough to wreck a whole Round.
‘Just keep going up,’ I told myself. ‘Keep the sound of the river on your left, there’s a good girl,’ I said, trying to calm my nerves. The roar of the river was amplified in the dark, providing a handrail to guide up the mountainside, regardless of any physical track. It was a briefly reassuring sound.
Emerging from the forest, I glimpsed the outline of Donard on my left. The full moon shone brightly over the wall’s stile, illuminating Commedagh to the right. I failed to register its beauty. Instead I took a quick look at my heart rate – still ridiculously high. I slowed to see if I could lower it, and eventually, after seemed like forever, it started to dip. With such a long day ahead of me, I decided to be cautious and to heed its warning sign. I climbed towards Donard at a sedentary pace.
It took a good two hours, it took me three mountains out of thirty-nine, before my head and heart started to settle. I tried every trick I have in the book, cajoling, congratulating, reassuring, and comforting myself before I finally felt like I was happy enough to continue on. But even when I resolved this issue, another began to surface. For some reason, even though my stomach has a normal constituency of a lion, I started having a persistent nauseous feeling. Drinking made me ill. Eating made me feel worse. I couldn’t help recalling, during my recce of this first stage from Newcastle to Silent Valley, how I bounced over the mountains and was gunning to continue on. Now, when I was less than half way through this first stage of five, I felt horrible. I knew the Round was going to throw unknowns at me, but such rebellions from my own body I had not anticipated.
Regardless, I continued on, hoping that my issues would self-resolve. It didn’t help matters though when I glanced at my watch ascending Slieve Binnian and realised I was already twenty minutes behind my self-imposed schedule. It is at times like these, when nothing seems like it is going to plan, that all I can do is rely on previous memories. I remembered how I’ve been in far, far worse situations: like the time I got stuck on cliffs on Cove Mountain during the Mourne Mountain Marathon and was convinced I would fall to my death; like when I was battered by galeforce winds during the twenty-four hour Rogaine in the Wicklow Mountains; like when I was so sleep deprived during an adventure race that I started to hallucinate and nearly fell off my bike at high speed. In the scheme of things, I wasn’t doing too badly. Sure, I wasn’t feeling great, but the weather was good, I knew where I was on the map, and I was still lucid and clear.
It was wonderful arriving in to Silent Valley after nearly five hours on the route. As I descended towards the reservoir, I heard the reassuring calls of Se and Wiola below, my good friends who had agreed to meet me at 8 am at this first fuelling stop. They quickly helped me refill my bottles and food pockets, while I stripped down to a t-shirt. Though it was still early in the morning, the day was already warming up. Again, I tried to reassure myself that everything was okay. I was already a quarter of the way through the route, and effectively still on track for a sub-20 Round. I even managed to convince myself that I was back in control of everything.
For the next three hours, from Silent Valley to Deer’s Meadow, things finally went to plan. I noticed that the ground was indeed much drier than I had ever seen it before. However, the rivers still managed to yield enough water to allow me to drink freely from their flow. I summited Doan and Ben Crom in quick succession, and by the time I started the march up Carn, I realised I was back on track. In doing so, I arrived in Deer’s Meadow exactly on schedule, at 11.10am as I had promised Pete.
Pete was there with our two young boys, Aran and Cahal. However, neither of these children could begin to comprehend exactly what I was up to. All they could fathom was that I had a big bag of food, and that they wanted some of it.
‘Crisps!’ Aran shouted. ‘I want crisps,’ he said, trying to grab them off me.
‘No Aran,’ I replied, snatching them back. ‘I need them!’
‘Chocolate,’ Cahal screamed. ‘Mine!’
I tried to focus on what I needed to do while Pete tried to distract the kids. The day had gotten even hotter, so I threw on a lighter t-shirt and a hat, while hoping that the factor 30 sunscream I put at 2 am was still doing its job.
I handed Pete some squashed brownie I hadn’t eaten. ‘Here,’ I said. ‘Give them that.’ And with the decoy in place, I skipped over the stile and headed towards Pigeon Mountain. The air was stifling and still in this section of the mountains, and soon it took its toll. Even with the lighter garments, all I craved was a cold river and to get out of the direct line of the sun’s beams. And while I struggled to keep cool and hydrated, I noticed soreness starting to seer down below. Climbing Slievemoughanmore, I could take the pain no more. I whipped out my emergency phone and dialled Leona who was to meet me at the end of stage 3 near Slieve Martin.
‘Leona, it’s me, I’m doing the Round,’ I said as way of introduction. ‘Can you bring some anti-chaffing cream with you. Yeah, sudocream would be perfect. Thanks!’
With the chaffing issue potentially resolved, I turned to the next growing discomfort on my body. My feet were beginning to hurt in a way that I’d not experienced in years. Nearly a decade before, I used to spend hours and hours running through the mountains. Back then, my feet had developed callouses that no blister could ever breach. But, what with having a young family nowadays, I simply can’t spend that amount of time out on the mountains, hardening up my external shell. Matters were being made worse by the fact that, everywhere I turned, the mountain terrain, normally so soft and forgiving, was dry and rock hard. It gave no respite to my feet. I was just about able to bear the climbs, but descents were proving soul destroying. Running downhill was where I normally gained time, but even this skill was rapidly being stripped from my repertoire.
I stuttered my way off Finlieve, with Slieve Martin in direct sight. All I could think about was the brook that winds its way through the valley dividing these two mountains, at the bottom of the Fallows forest. All I wanted to do was plunge my burning feet into its cool waters, drench my hair, and drink heavily from its stream. I lurched down the grassy slopes, thanking almighty god when I found the brook in full flow. It provided momentary respite while I continued on through the forest and up and over Slievemeen.
Arriving at Slieve Martin, Didi and Leona were in full cheerleader mode. They politely ignored that I looked like shite and jumped up to help me in whichever way they could. Bags of sudocream were stuffed into my hands and provided instant relief. I reorganised my bag for what I needed for the penultimate stage, and reluctantly clambered up the next hill.
Stage 4 is infamous for foiling many a Round attempt. Cranville, on this stage, is well known for its gigantic grassy mounds that break the spirits of even the hardiest mountain goat. Navigating off this mountain also requires nerves of steel if you are find the right forest break that leads back to the safety of the nearest hard-packed trail. The advantage I had over others is that this is my home turf. Living in Rostrevor means that I was able to recce this section over the winter until I could do it with my eyes shut. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was how much the terrain would change after a couple of weeks of summer weather. The growth made parts of this stage change in shape and colour, forcing me to recheck my map several times.
I had expected this stage of the Denis Rankin Round to be my crowning moment. Instead, by now the Round had had enough of my ego and unleashed its vehement might. I would have expected the Round to bombard me with bad weather, surround me in disorientating mist, confuse me with sleep deprivation, or make me tear a muscle on a reckless descent. However, such long-distance mountain runs have an amazing ability to throw at you what you least expect. Instead, I was inflicted with the most excruciating pain from blisters and chaffing, a level of infliction that I’ve never endured before, or hope to experience again.
It was too much. Running off the concrete-clad Pierse’s Castle, all I could think was how close I was to my house. Giving up now meant that I could go home to bed and be relieved of this unending misery. All I had to do was reach Spelga Dam, where Pete was waiting for me, and get a lift home with him. And then, climbing up Cock Mountain, I glanced once more at my watch. I had already covered nearly seventy kilometres, with around fifteen kilometres to go. Yes, I was over sub-twenty hour pace, but it was barely 6 pm. Technically I still had nine hours to cover a mere fifteen kilometres. Even I knew that was do-able.
And then I thought of friends of mine, and their own ultra-running ordeals. I had just watched the Cape Wrath Ultra unfurl in Scotland, four hundred kilometres of running over eight long days. I was doing a mere quarter of that ordeal – who was I to complain? And then I remembered what British ultra-runner Jim Mann had said when asked what he did when he got blisters. ‘Run through the pain,’ is what he replied. Was that not the exact advice I needed to follow right now?
My soup of thoughts, of wanting to quit but not wanting my peers to think I’ve gone soft, sloshed around in my mind as I approached Spelga Dam. And as I neared the dam waters, seeing Pete there with his encouraging smile, I realised my decision was already made.
‘I need to change,’ I shouted to Pete as I approached the car. ‘I need clean shorts, clean socks, different shoes. And remind me to take my headtorch,’ I added. ‘I’m going to be running off Commedagh in the dark.’ Ripping off my own socks and shoes, I didn’t dare stop to look at the damage already done. I didn’t want to know, to have a reason for self-pity. These small yet vital changes gave me a renewed vigour to finish the Round. Now sub-20 notions became sub-24 hour survival. Now it was a case of getting the job done.
Once I left Spelga Dam, I knew I had no option but to reach Newcastle. The first goal I had was to reach the wall below Loughshannagh before dark. At least then I would have a stone edifice that would keep me heading in the right direction. Though it was around 8.30 pm when I reached the stone bricks, it was still bright and light. I climbed the next three mountains in quick succession – Loughshannagh, Meelbeg, Meelmore. Descending them was a matter of cursing and swearing at each shot of agony that emanated from each and every step.
On reaching Meelmore summit, I dragged myself up and over the towering wall to drop down to the other side. And then there before me lay my ultimate nemesis – Slieve Bearnagh. There is never a time when I look up at this summit and not feel the fear god within me. My secret hope was that I would be allowed to go up and over it before it dark. Looking around at the skyline, I realised that my wish would be granted. The Round had suddenly given me a brief reprieve. It was around 9.30 pm as I scaled its mighty steep slopes. To my left, an incredible sunset of vibrant orange lined the ground. To my right, a full moon was rising over the sea, its reflection dancing on the waves. I knew what I was witnessing was incredible, a sight to be marvelled at. But instead I filed it away to think about it in greater depth once I’d finished the Round.
Daylight faded once I passed Hare’s Gap, and with its disappearance, my garmin watch died. By this point, I had already stopped looking at times or distances. All I knew was that I had to get off the mountains and safely back to Newcastle, regardless of the hour. It was pitch black by the time I arrived at the tower on Commedagh summit. The only lights were those reflecting off the herd of sheep that were stationed beside its wall, a sea of double dot eyes peering back at me as I flashed my headtorch towards them.
I was surprisingly lucid given the day I’d already had. So I was calm and collected as I switched on my GPS, and followed the exact track Greg Byrne and Billy Reed had traced all the way back to the arch in 2014. The long descent took its toll, however, as every step unleashed more torment from my ever-growing blisters. After what seemed forever, I entered the forest, then sucked up the agony of standing on narrow tree roots that were like rods of fire across my soles. I kept close to the sounds of the Glen River again, just as I had 21 hours before. Just like before, I shuffled towards the sounds of the boy racers, who were back in town for some more night-time revelry.
Wiola joined me at the forest edge and jogged me back to the finish. And as I finally touched the arch, I slumped to the pavement, barely muttering, ‘thank f*ck that’s finished.’ I had taken 21 hours 24 minutes to complete the Denis Rankin Round, way over what I had expected to do. It was Aaron Shimmons, a committee member who had unexpected come to Newcastle to greet me, who informed me that it was a new female record.
Regardless of the time, doing the Denis Rankin Round has been an immensely humbling experience. I had completely forgotten that such Rounds demand profound respect and humility when faced with the mountains you wish to traverse. Unfortunately, I had gotten so caught up in my own capabilities, and on working on my own weaknesses, that I had forgotten about the bigger picture. Last Monday, the Mourne Mountains allowed me to cross them in less than twenty-four hours. For that, I will always be profoundly gratefully.
My route of the Denis Rankin Round can be found here.