I knew I wanted to do something meaningful to mark one year on from my husband’s tragic passing, something that spoke of the horror of depression and the terrible consequences of suicide. I also wanted to do something that offered hope, that showed a way forward even in the midst of such suffering.
Within mountain-running circles, there are routes known as ‘Rounds’, challenges to summit a large number of peaks within a range, typically covering around 100 kilometres in distance, to be completed within 24 hours. Unlike a race, you can do it any time of the year, on the day and time of your choosing.
Within the Mourne Mountains where I live, we have something called the Denis Rankin Round. It is a challenge named after Denis Rankin, a formidable mountain man from Belfast who died tragically during a race on Slievemoughanmore in 2013 at the age of 68. This route which so aptly remembers Denis involves starting in Newcastle, climbing to the top of thirty-nine of the Mournes’ highest summits, then returning back to Newcastle before a full day has passed. I wanted to do something difficult, something like this, to remember the struggles Pete went through too.
Given that Pete died two days after Christmas, I wanted to remember him at that time of the year, around his anniversary. What it meant was that I wanted to do something specifically known as a ‘winter round’, done during the months when there is little daylight and unpredictable weather.
Though initially it seemed like a good idea, I quickly felt sick, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. I’ve learned, however, that when self-belief fails, I need to find supporters and cheerleaders. So I contacted my friend Paul Mahon, the man who initially introduced me to mountain running over ten years ago. I asked him to run with me. Being someone who is always up for a challenge, he quickly agreed. He too had been Pete’s friend, and had visited us at home only three days before Pete’s tragic death. He also wanted to remember Pete in this way.
And then I reached out to other mountain runners and orienteers, telling them what I wanted to do. Sharon Dickenson quickly came on board and, with the help of her formidable spreadsheet and a Facebook messenger group, we rallied friends and even strangers to run with us, to navigate on our behalf, to carry food and clothes for us, to meet us at road crossings to cheer us on. They believed in us, and our cause, even when I was seriously considering backing out.
Thirty-nine summits. That’s a lot. The route you take between the summits is up to you, but generally it covers 90 kilometres with 6,000 metres of climb, three-quarters the climb of Mount Everest in a day. It really is overwhelming. The only way you can approach such a challenge is to break it down. One mountain at a time, then another, then another.
And so, on Friday 24th January at 9.30 pm, Paul and I and our capable team of supporters (Billy Reed, Shane Kelly and Jackie Toal) started to run towards Slieve Donard, our first summit. It is only the highest mountain in Northern Ireland, one that most day-trippers consider an accomplishment to hike up and down in a day. We were running towards it knowing that Donard would be one down, thirty-eight more to go.
We journeyed together, none of us talking about the enormity of the challenge or the reason why we were there. We didn’t need to, so I didn’t think about it. It soon just became a case of just putting one foot in front of the other.
The reality of such huge challenges is that the devil is in the detail. Stay big picture and you’ll forget all the other things you need to do to get there, like keeping warm with the right amount of clothing but not overheating; eating regularly; staying hydrated; not pushing too hard or going too slow; making sure you know where you are; being careful with your footing to make sure you don’t twist an ankle or get too many blisters. All these small things, if one of them goes wrong, could ultimately scupper your whole entire plan. Forget them at your peril.
Once we had summited Slieve Donard, things quickly became hard. There was no moon that night, and so it was dark, really dark. And then to make matters worse, the mist rolled in. Billy took a photo of what it was like on that night, but I am sure if was just black. Quite quickly we were reduced to five-metres visibility, effectively seeing only what our head-torches would light up around us. On a clear evening, you would have seen the silhouette of summits stretching into the distance, but on the night of our round, there was just misty darkness.
Even though it was approaching midnight as we journeyed towards Chimney Rock, the second mountain, we had to stay alert and awake to find the sliver of a path to the summit, through rough heathery, bouldered pot-holed grass. I stayed firm in the knowledge that the worse would pass. If we just got through this section around Chimney Rock, on our way to Rocky Mountain we would eventually hit the Mourne Wall, a formidable edifice of thirty-six kilometres’ length constructed of solid granite stone. We couldn’t miss it even though, despite it being three metres high, we had to be in touching distance before we could physically see it.
All my Mountain Leader training from last year quickly kicked in. Thanks to it, I have grown comfortable roaming the mountains in the dark. I had also learned how many layers I need to feel toasty in sub-zero temperatures. It was interesting to see how changing tack for a year, doing something slightly different at walking pace, was helping me to return to the sport I love and be more comfortable in extreme conditions.
We journeyed on for over five hours, reaching Silent Valley at 3 am. There, Susan Lambe and Cara Lavery were waiting for us, having smuggled themselves in via a back track to the Northern Ireland Water’s reservoir. They had carried in food and drinks for us, as well as oodles of support. Within two minutes, we were recharged and ready to go. We only had 4.5 hours left before dawn. Jackie hung back while we picked up Billy’s daughter, Chloe for our next leg.
Setting off on stage 2, I started to feel unwell. It’s so important to keep eating and drinking through a challenge like this so you have enough energy. But all of a sudden, I felt sick and unable to stomach anything. Experience told me however that, if I slowed, if I waited a while, it would probably come good again. My late husband Pete was never someone who had such level of patience. He was a high-flying executive, a former CEO. He made things move and happen and suffered no fools. He had no patience for things like depression that made me feel so unwell.
Fortunately waiting a while paid off, and soon my stomach calmed down. We knew that the next two mountains, Doan and Ben Crom were over pathless rough ground, and we needed to concentrate to find our way. Needless to say, we struggled to find the massive mountain that is Doan what with the mist swirling all around us. It is a mountain notorious for mountain rescue call-outs, with people often getting lost on its slopes.
And even when we did find Doan and eventually scrambled to its summit via its steep cliffs, we couldn’t find our way safely down. We were stuck on the mountain, our torch beams not strong enough to show us the right way off. All they did was light the darkness that engulfed us. My desire to do something difficult, to mimic the hardships that Pete went through, was unfortunately coming to pass. I couldn’t help wondering, had Pete felt this lost, this scared when he was ill? Could he only see darkness and the prospect of a fatal fall no matter which way he turned? The difference though was Pete chose to go alone, to not confide in friends or counsellors or medics. I, however, was with my friends, and together we were eventually able to spread out, retrace our GPS track and safely guide each other down off this treacherous peak.
I had a choice right then. We had lost a lot of time trying to get up and down Doan, and now over to the next mountain, Ben Crom, a track-less mountain rarely visited. Was it worth going on? Was it even possible to finish within twenty-four hours now that we had lost so much time? Maybe this whole winter round thing was just a really bad idea. I knew deep down no one would criticise me for giving up at this stage.
The only thing was, I was feeling okay. My stomach had settled. I knew where we were. My legs were tired but still moving. It was worth at least finishing the night section, getting to the next road crossing at Deer’s Meadow, and making a decision there. We were a bit battered and bruised, but I knew we could recover and move on.
Chloe was struggling a little, so she bowed out at the stile that leads down to Ott Carpark. I was worried that we had put her off mountain running forever after the hairy section around Doan. She subsequently wrote to me days later to say that it had in fact done the opposite; that she was looking to give the Denis Rankin Round a crack at some stage. Her Dad Billy would be proud of her.
Shane, Billy, Paul and I continued on up Carn. The mist was so thick that we struggled to find Muck’s cairn that is normally plainly visible. After all the stage two drama, we arrived at the road forty minutes behind our schedule. It was bad but not irredeemable. I didn’t even have a chance to consider whether to go on or not. Our fresh team of Kathleen Monteverde, Steven Morgan, Rónán Davidson-Kernan, Sam Trotter and Pippa (his dog!) were raring to go. There was nothing to do but to follow.
And then we got lucky. The dawn came and the mist cleared. Finally we could see the Mournes in all their moody majesty. And we started to move, faster and faster, making up the time we had lost during the night. Kathleen played a blinder navigating us safely across the wasteland that leads across to Finlieve, then down into the forest at The Fallows. By the time we reached Slieve Martin, we were only seven minutes behind schedule. I hate being late, so was glad not to keep our support team for stage 4, Denise Mathers and Geoff Smyth, waiting for too long.
Even though stage 4 is infamous for its rough terrain across Cranville and Slievemeel, we took these peaks in our stride. Much to my surprise, we even started to have some fun out there. With it being such a hard challenge, you’d assume that you’re not meant to have some craic. You’re meant to be sweating, sleep-deprived, exhausted, in pain. The challenge is meant to be grueling and overwhelming. But, in the company of other amazing mountain runners, in the midst of such stunning mountains, we started to really enjoy our day out in the Mournes. We also realised it was an immense privilege to be doing what we were doing.
Pete and I also had some really good times together. Sometimes with death, and particularly with suicide, you feel like you’re not allowed to celebrate the fun you had with that person, that you are meant to feel permanently sad. But I think that does a huge disservice to Pete and the amazing time we did have.
Coming into our last road crossing at Spelga, into our final stage, somehow we had made up time. We arrived at Spelga Dam forty-five minutes ahead of schedule. Happy, cheery supporters greeted us, even though they were being blasted by glacial winds spinning off the reservoir.
It was amazing how they were waiting around in these horrible cold conditions, turning up early so that they could be with us. Even crazier was the fact that Paul and I didn’t even know the team of four people who were going to run with us, Ciaran McAleenan, Niall Gibney, David Bell and Stephen Bickerstaff. Strangers were giving up their Saturdays to help us achieve our round. People can be really amazing sometimes, a fact that we can too easily forget.
By now I was starting to feel the effects of over seventeen hours of running. I guessed we had at least five hours more to go. Popping into the tent that mountain rescue team member Liam Smyth had kindly constructed, I refocused, ate, drank, put on dry layers, popped some painkillers and got back out there to finish the final ten peaks.
Judith Robinson and Sharon Dickenson joined us for a while before making the wise decision to seek out shelter and warmth. By 4pm the weather had turned bad, with strong cold winds blowing across the tops. I knew also that we had left the biggest climbs to last, Meelbeg, Meelmore, Bernagh and Commedagh, four of the largest in the range. It was a daunting final run. So I turned to Paul and said it as clearly as I could, ‘I want to go home.’ The tone in my voice said it all. I wasn’t going to pretend that I was doing okay, that I was loving it all now. I was starting to feel broken, and I needed help.
And again, maybe this is a lesson Pete could have learned but never had a chance. That by acknowledging how you really feel, messy or damning as it can be, help can be found. I’ve had the good fortunate to learn this lesson thanks to counselling I’ve had. I’ve also learned, from being in the outdoors, to acknowledge and voice my feelings. I know if I don’t say something when I’m struggling, there can be serious consequences.
On hearing this, one of our supporters Stephen took my bag and then simply stayed by my side. He didn’t talk; he was just a comforting presence that made my spirits pick up. Sometimes that is all that it is necessary, not a grand gesture, just to know someone is there, to right you if you stumble.
There is something about running in the dark with others through formidable mountains that gave us a powerful message that night. It reminded us of the importance of looking after ourselves as well as minding each other as we go.
There’s nothing like seeing the bright lights of civilization as you come off the final hill. Newcastle soon appeared below us as we emerged from the mist with our team. Even better was the bright light of Mark Stephen’s head-torch as it shone in the direction we needed to go. Nothing like a crack orienteer turning up at just the right time on a mountain that many stray on.
We sped down through the forest, picking up orienteer Richard Gamble as we went, arriving back at the arch where we had started at 9.30pm the previous night. We had completed the circuit in 21 hours 24 minutes, the first time a woman had completed a winter round in Ireland.
But regardless of the stats, what we did together as a mountain-running fellowship that day was far more significant. It showed the importance of friendship, with people like Paul selflessly helping me grieve in a way that we both understood. It illustrated the strength of community, of how mountain-running friends and strangers came together to help remember Pete, even though most of them never had the fortune to meet Pete while he was alive.
And in the midst of this mental-health crisis that we find ourselves in, it reminds us that it is the simple things that can help us – It is being there for others, walking beside them, sometimes just getting out there ourselves and going for a simple run.
Now that I have remembered Pete in this profound way, I know that I need a new goal to help me with this larger purpose I have found to do something to improve our community’s mental and physical well-being. This is where my work, Happy Out Adventures, comes into play. I had always wanted to teach others, especially women, how to travel safely in the mountains and how to embrace the outdoors. Up until Pete’s death, I was too busy running around the mountains myself to actually share with others with the knowledge and skills I had. But sometimes green shoots can come from terrible tragedy, and I feel responsible to foster them so that such a tragedy never hits another family.
The mountains have taught me so much and have been my solace for many years. Indeed the mountains have often shown me how fragile and vulnerable I actually am, how I sometimes need the help of others so I can journey safely through them. It is this knowledge that gives me the strength to continue on, come what may.
Our route and splits can be viewed here.