‘800 grams?’ I asked. ‘Are you sure it’s 800 grams?’
Paul messaged me back, confirming its weight. His proposed tent for our Mourne Mountain Marathon race indeed weighed less than a kilo. My laser competition tent that we used last year was 1.2 kg, and that was considered super-light. But no, Paul wanted to shave another 400 grams off of our living arrangements for the overnight camp.
‘Can you check there’s not a pole or two missing?’ I said. The weight sounded suspiciously light. The last thing I wanted to do was arrive at the end of running across mountains for the whole day to realise we were missing a very important part.
Paul went offline, presumably to erect the said tent in his back garden. Later that afternoon, a message popped up. ‘Tent all good, all pieces present and correct,’ he said. I still wasn’t convinced. Some things are too good to be true.
Paul sent through a picture of the tent to confirm that it was not a figment of his imagination. He had bought it off one of the UK’s top adventure racers, and had slept it in a race in Abu Dhabi. One thing I did know, however, was that the conditions in the Mourne Mountains in September do not resemble in the slightest the dry heat of the Middle East.
‘Is it waterproof?’ I asked. The tent’s picture showed that it was a single skin. Paul pottered off and duly tested it by shoving a section of it under a tap. ‘Yes,’ he replied, confirming that no water passed through the fabric while testing it in his bathroom. At this stage, I gave in and agreed to the 800 gram tent. At the end of the day, Paul was carrying it in his rucksack on our behalf, and I didn’t want to force him to carry more than was required.
Day 1 of the mountain marathon arrived, and Paul and I dutifully rocked up for our pre-race gear check. The marshalls looked at our bags sceptically. Both of them looked awfully small. Without water, my bag weighed in at 3.5 kilos. Paul was just over 4kgs. They asked about first aid kid, waterproof jackets, torches, all of which we presented without issues. But when they asked about the tent and whether it was double-skinned, Paul replied that the rules only stated that it had to have a sewn-in groundsheet. They didn’t argue any further.
We were bussed out to beyond Silent Valley for the start of our race. Marking up our maps, there was just one cluster to contend with, a set of four coordinates in the mid-section of the mountains. With my fitness not as good as last year, my main hope was that we would have a navigationally good day instead. Paul and I took off at a good pace, taking in the first four controls without any major issues. Our fifth control, we had a bit of a wobble as we got slightly confused over which crags to head for over the Glen River. However, we quickly recovered from this, before entering the cluster. We opted to head west first and along the Mourne wall to pick up the first cluster control, but heading south over Cove towards Lamagan. We followed part of the 7x7s route that I was familiar with until east of Doan, giving us good splits all the way.
By the time we started the climb up the side of Doan, I started to die a death. The heather was high, the gradient steep and, after four hours of running, I was starting to struggle. I slotted myself behind Paul and concentrated on following his steps to the flag. It was only when I looked across the valley over to our last cluster control on Slieve Bernagh that I thanked God Paul was my team-mate. The mountain was covered in thick mist, and in that rock-strewn peak in ten-metre visibility, we were meant to find a certain boulder.
‘We have to climb to the summit to get a bearing,’ Paul told me as we ran towards the peak. The boulder was sixty metres below the summit, but the idea of climbing up so that we could go down destroyed me. When we encountered a few other teams on the mountain slopes wandering around aimlessly, I realised Paul’s plan was right. He hit the boulder spot on, and we cantered back to camp.
Finishing the day in 6 hours 13 minutes, all I could think about was getting our shelter up, some food in me, and hunkering down for the night. I left Paul to the tent-rigging, which he did remarkably fast. When I saw the finished product, the first thing I noticed was that it looked like a long purple slug. ‘It’s very long,’ Paul said proudly. I didn’t dare mention that length isn’t that important to me. At five foot four, I can curl up into very small spaces quite happily.
Despite my small stature, I struggled to get inside the lightweight tent. Even crawling on all fours, my back hit the ceiling. I am someone, however, who firmly believes that on two-day mountain marathon events, you just suck it up. It’s one night of discomfort after all the months of training and preparation. So I made myself as comfortable as possible and started force feeding myself.
All went well until it got dark. The weather forecast had been for rain, but not for the gaelforce winds that then bombarded our campsite. In an effort to save on weight, the manufacturers of our tent had used Velcro to attach the matchstick thin poles to the fabric. Of course, the Velcro was the first thing that detached from the poles, leaving us with a piece of fabric that blew this way and that over our heads. Then, in another weight-saving effort, the tent did not have any zips to close up our front door. Another three pieces of Velcro served that purpose, leaving gapping holes through which the wind duly funnelled. I put on all my clothes, wet gear, sleeping bag and threw myself into my survival bag. I was just about surviving until 11.30pm when Paul proclaimed, ‘Abandon ship.’
The rain was coming down. The wind was howling. ‘Go in with Hil and Ruth,’ Paul instructed me, another female team that was camped right beside us. Obediently, I shuffled off to them and snuck into the gap between them. Paul then proceeded to look for a place for him to take cover. After some thought, he headed to the portaloos. He stuffed his wet clothes into a ziplock bag and threw them into his hood. Using this as a pillow, he placed his head on the sink bowl and sat on the chemical toilet for the rest of the night. For Paul, sleep is evidently over-rated.
The next morning, we realised we had not been the only ones who had suffered throughout the night. One team’s tent poles were completely bent in half and the tent was totally broken. One team member was wrapped up in the actual tent fabric, while another one was found laying on the ground enclosed in his survival bag. The only advantage to this whole windy episode was that we didn’t have to spend any time taking our tent down in the morning. Paul had done that for us both at the stroke of midnight.
With breakfast in us and our bowels evacuated, Paul and I headed towards the start line. We were leading the Elite Mixed race by ninety minutes after Day 1, and were sitting in fourth place overall. All we had to do was have a clean run home with no major errors, and we would have the result we wanted.
Day 2 course led us away from the base of Meelbeg towards the Western Mournes. A couple of controls led us toward the Mourne Way towards Hen Mountain, where a group of four closed packed controls provided a cluster choice. Paul suggested we stayed low and went high, a choice that was confirmed when Day 1’s leading Elite pair, Paul Pruzina and Philip Vokes, passed us going in the same direction. The day was calm and mild with no mist, an improvement on Day 1’s conditions. Paul and I paced ourselves well, navigated calmly, and managed to finish Day 2 in 4 hours 10 minutes, the third fastest overall completion of the course that day. It also allowed us to retain our Mixed Elite title for another year.
The most poignant moment for me throughout the weekend was a speech made at the end by a fellow competitor. The Mourne Mountain Marathon is an amazing local event, organised by local people and a host of volunteers, which requires our support. The entry fee per team is a paltry 100 GBP, and yet, numbers of teams signing up can be low. When the glitz of high-entry-fee, social-media promoted events attract larger numbers, maybe it is time we encourage others to not forget excellent, inexpensive events like the Mourne Mountain Marathon that provide just as much challenge and reward.
Overall results can be found here.
Day 1 Routes for Elite Course can be found here.
Day 2 Routes for Elite Course can be found here.
Loads of nice photos can be found here.