Rankin Round: 56 miles at 56 years old

I remember being part of BARF team invited to Dawson Stelfox’s office in 2013, Denis was part of BARF and a legend in the mountain running community, he had done so much to promote mountain running and had achieved so much, he was missed and we wanted to honour his name. the meeting was to fine-tune the aspects of the round all the Mourne peaks over 400m, 56miles and 6500m ascent.

I had just completed the Mourne 500m, all the Mourne peaks over 500m so was amazed at what Dawson was suggesting; I really thought it was not possible! The first Barf team relay recce to see if the round was possible was carried out on a wet and cold September day but many Barfers came out to support, we did it in 23hrs and 13mins, ah, but that was a relay, could one person do it? Next year Billy and Greg smashed it in 20hrs and 29mins. Well, that lit a light in me; I’d love to try it. Over the years, in between injuries, I did lots of recces of the route, trying to find the best lines. My knee had prevented me running for two years but now I was getting stronger and I decided to set the date. My husband said I should go on Mastermind, specialist subject “The Rankin Round”, I was always pouring overtimes, routes, the website, it was time.

L-R: Gerry, Gareth, Kathleen
BARF recce (2013) – The very first Denis Rankin Round

Failed attempt
A failed attempt four weeks earlier when I pulled out at Hares gap due to palpitations and lightheadedness (perhaps due to too much caffeine) was hard to swallow, I had let so many people down so close to the finish. I was fast and strong most of the day, but definitely not good going into Spelga. Taryn had been there all day and was looking forward section 5, my legs were strong but I knew something was not right. I was thinking of my daughter Grace who made me promise I’d stop if I wasn’t okay. Despite Taryn’s best efforts which got me to Bearnagh, I really thought I could collapse on Taryn in the dark with heavy mist on top of Bearnagh, I had to stop. When I started talking gibberish, she knew she had to let walk out at Hare‘s gap, even though I still had plenty of time to finish.

Support
Organizing support can be the hardest thing, the logistics take a lot of time and effort. I was lucky that I was able to get so many supporters. It was a privilege to spend time with such amazing mountain runners who are there to help and support you. I had Mourne runners, Dromore AC, Nelson’s running group as well as BARF helping out. My best memories are of everyone who supported to the highest level in both attempts, I was so blessed.

I wanted a dry sunny but cool day for my next attempt and I got the best day, cool in the morning, and sunshine in the afternoon with a cool breeze and the longest day to boot.

Section 1: 5hrs 24mins
Jackie Toal and Steven Morgan ran section 1 with me as they had the first time, starting at 1am. After my failed attempt I wanted to go slower and not push as hard yet somehow we ended up slightly faster up Donard. The sunrise was so beautiful. I wasn’t feeling the strongest, I had been worried that four weeks might not have been enough to recover from the 54 miles and 6000m ascent I had done, this lack of confidence and sense of not being strong enough persisted, it was hard work and I was walking where I would have run before. We surprised campers in a tent at the top of Binnian.

Silent Valley

Section 2: 3hrs 12mins
I had porridge at Silent Valley where Sam Trotter was waiting and off to do the second section. We disturbed someone bivvying out on the top of Doan. I was happier with our line to Ben Crom, little things like that cheers one up. Whilst running to Muck summit a voice said, “keep going, you’re going well”, it took me a minute to locate the voices, it was Mourne runners on the other side of the Mourne wall doing the Spelga Skyline recce, I asked about Steven, Ricky and Ciaran (they had completed the Rankin Round the same night as my failed attempt) and I was told they were behind and would be coming soon. My run down to Muck was fast as I was eager to get to my support team, I was treated like a queen and was amazed at the care of Steven Wallace helping me with my shoes and socks, that was a first, this enabled me to eat my vegetable soup.

Section 3: 3hrs 38mins
I was so happy to be running with Aaron Shimmons, Stephen Wallace and Dominic McInerney, such mountain pedigree and previous completers of the Rankin Round, I was in very good hands. Clifford Morrison had been there for me at my last attempt and was there again to do part of section three. It was great to bump into Steven Bickerstaff and Ciaran whilst making my way to Eagle, I was able to personally congratulate them on their completion of the round four weeks ago. The craic was mighty and even though I didn’t feel strong the guys lifted my spirits and delivered me safely to the Slieve Martin Col where I was meeting Denise Mathers who would run section 4 with me and my old friend and BARFer Ian McCullough.

Section 3 with Dominic McInerney & Stephen Wallace
Section 3 & 4 support at Slieve Martin

Section 4: 4hrs 13 mins
The sun was coming out at this point which always helps. I now look forward to this section as Crenville always defeated me in the past. The tussocks and waist-high grass, it’s impossible to stay upright and the grass had grown so much in just four weeks! Denise on a previous training run had shown me a dream line off Crenville that made such a difference then we were on mountain bike trails for some of this section and my wonderful husband who had been supporting me at the support points rode by on his mountain bike. He drove 120miles that day, ferrying support runners back to their cars. Denise looked after me so well, she took my bag, fed me and gave me first coke of the day, I had been avoiding caffeine after the last failure. She and Ian were so encouraging getting me up the horrid climb of Cock mountain. At Slievenamiskin Denise could see the chippy van was parked at Spelga, oh I craved a sausage supper, no phone coverage so Ian ran on and a sausage supper with lashings of salt and ketchup was waiting for me as the next supporters Aaron again and Aine McNeill got my gear ready for the next section. I was happy, the sun was shining. Gareth one of Rankin round committee was there to cheer on and I felt ok, no palpitations, I could do this. I missed my good friend Taryn as she had been there for me all day on my first attempt and had done section five with me when I had to pull out, she was so good then and I was sorry she wasn’t there this time, I felt I had let her down and wanted to do this for her, though she had promised she’d come to the finish. She had other commitments that day supporting Eoin Keith in his 24hr Energia run.

Great support from Denise Mathers

Section 5: 5hrs 19mins
This was another joy as I got to know Aine better, she was so attentive and caring and the conversation helped that long section to pass quickly. It’s weird not having a pack and getting water and food from others.

Section 5 with Aine & Aaron

Aaron kept the show moving, his lines were great and I needed his encouragement at this stage as everything was hurting, he lent me his poles which were stronger than mine. Also, there was a fault with my head torch but Aaron had a spare one. Another joy was this figure at the top of Meelbeg, calling out my name and skipping down the mountain, it was Joanne Curran.

Descending Slieve Bearnagh

At Commedagh David Glass and Ian McCullough again showed up which was nice, that ridge is long in the dark, normally we run down it in joyful abandon but not tonight. Then Stephen Wallace showed up again with more encouragement. Eventually, we got to the car park, friends starting clapping and shouting, I was starting to get emotional running towards that arch was the most amazing feeling ever. Taryn was there with the biggest smile on her face, so happy for me.

Ricky Cowan was also there the oldest completer, we had a photo taken of the oldest man and the oldest woman to have completed the Rankin round. I had done it, and I had been so blessed with my support, I have so many memories of the little kindnesses which make me smile.

Stephen Bickerstaff & Ricky Cowan

Big thanks to Rowan and Eddie from Primal tracking for providing the tracker.

Dean & Bertie’s On-Sight Round

Having a significant birthday, I had wanted to do something special, memorable and maybe a bit gruelling.  I had been throwing the idea of the Bob Graham around, but with too little time in the lakes and a recurring knee niggle, I started to search for other lesser known rounds that were shorter. With my closest adventure buddy, Bertie Goffe, like me having never visited Northern Ireland, the idea of turning up and running all the Mourne Mountains in under 24 hours sounded exciting and satisfied the pre-requisites. Standing under the entrance to Donard Park at 2.00am with 90km and 6,500m of ascent ahead of us I started to wonder if going out for a nice meal with friends would have been a better idea than attempting to onsight the Denis Rankin round!

Starting up through Donard Forest with head torches shining their narrow beam in the distance over the roots and rocks, up the path through the trees was a good warm up in the still night.  As soon as we ascended past the forest the mountains opened up and we saw a set or two or three head torches ahead towards the summit of Slieve Donard that could only be others attempting the round too. Descending from the first peak Bertie’s head torch started to flicker, a telltale sign of the batteries running low.  Between putting it on a lower setting and running next to me to utilising my beam we managed to continue without slowing. Heading up to Chimney Mountain we got to meet the 3 people who we had seen from afar with a local lady attempting to break the record that stands at 21 hours and 20 minutes set by Karina Jonina.  We cut the corner of the nondescript path onto Rocky Mountain and passed the other team.  The Mourne Mountains has a large, impressive wall that was built between 1904 and 1922, is 35km long and passes over 15 mountains.  It was used to keep livestock out of the catchment for the reservoirs that serve Belfast with their fresh water. I jumped onto the wall and ran along the precarious 8-10ft high wobbling stone structure, hollering at Bertie to join me. Normally given a choice I would always run on soft ground but I had heard of the bogs in the Mournes and the longer we could keep our feet dry the better.

Although we had been going a bit faster than expected we had settled into a good rhythm and with dawn fast approaching we saw the most spectacular sunrise.  With hues of pink and purple, clouds covering the view one moment and clearing the next it made the early start worth it. The going was pretty good over Slieve Beg, Cove Mountain, Slievelamagan, North Tor and up to Slieve Binnian. Being about 20 minutes ahead of our 20 hour schedule we were concerned about our support, Emily Gordon, even being there.   Dropping off Slieve Binnian it wasn’t until we reached the road that our support vehicle screeched to a halt with warm, sweet albeit curdled tea, fresh water and snacks provided to get us on our way.

Wee Binnian

We were a bit steadier on this next leg, Bertie was recovering from a chesty cough and doubting if he had put in enough training and so told me of his doubts.   The pace naturally slowed, but not due to Bertie but the boggy ground underfoot, a running theme for a large proportion of the day. Up to Slievenaglogh we cut another corner and after the long and gentle track most of the way up to Doan, the out and back of Ben Crom had some gruelling peat hags. The hags were sometimes 5-6ft high and either you choose to weave in and out of them, try and hop between the tops, or more often than not, climb (with hands) up and down them. It was hard work either way so we were glad to be back onto the Mourne Wall for a couple of peaks before dropping to meet Emily again and some more curdled tea at the road. Emily was not on her own and support for 3 other teams also attempting the round were all congregated offering us tremendous support.  One of the locals offered us some wise words as we left for Pigeon Rock describing it as “a wee bit damp”….. the understatement of the day!

Slievemoughanmore

We paused to give a thought for Denis on Slievemoughanmore, where he sadly passed away, and the next three tops we were pretty steady. After getting to Shanlieve, Bertie, being a national orienteering champion back in the day, was ready to focus on the tough navigation leg to Finlieve which he did to perfection. Descending off Finlieve my knee did what it has done so many times before and started to play up. After Berties earlier worries about getting round it was now my turn.  The same issue happened at the halfway mark of the UTMB and I knew with some proper strapping and a short rest I would at least be able to carry on, nay have a crack at completing the round. Heading to the mast before the checkpoint, one of the Denis Rankin committee jogged down through the mist who wished us well before we did the out and back to Slievemeen and more curdled tea – a running theme of our support – but still warm, sweet and very much appreciated.

Shanlieve

We knew the next section was going to be the toughest and local knowledge really would have helped here. The tussocky slog up to Crenville was slow and thinking we could pick up paths in the forest we wrongly decided to struggle through windblown trees. In total we spent 20 minutes getting scratched and frustrated, crawling through the tight net web of trees.  I was seeing the funny side but Berts was struggling somewhat and it was our first mistake which was good going having not done a recce.  Up to Slievemeel was straightforward before the track through the beautiful Kilbroney Red Bog. Halfway to Cock Mountain we met Ricky Cowan and his support, an amazing man to be attempting the round at 70. We took a direct, steep line while Rick took the gentler slope and so we came in just ahead at Spelga Dam car park.  Again the local support was amazing and finally Emily had realised that the Soya milk was off and switching to a fresh carton we had non curdled tea for the first time with cold pizza……result!!

Rocky Mountain

The next three tops were steady and we enjoyed doing them with our supporter, Emily. On the top of Ott Mountain we knew from here we just needed to follow the Mourne Wall for most of the way.  This last section was easier to navigate but there was still a lot of steep terrain with some technical ground to negotiate. Down Slieve Meelmore and back up to Slieve Bearnagh was particularly tough and we were mightily impressed to be caught by Ricky who was blowing hard, but going like a train determined to get in under 24hrs (which he did comfortably in the end with a time of 23 hours 12 minutes). We managed to stick just behind him as the darkness came in, as the wind rose and as the temperature dropped while we traversed the last three summits.

Slieve Meelmore

One of Ricky’s two supporters, Dale Mathers was kind in showing us the quicker, direct route off the last summit Slieve Commedagh. We had planned to play it safe, stick to the wall and go the longer, safer way round, but he led us safely out of the clag and back through the forest. Approaching the arches of Donard Park was incredibly satisfying with a large crowd clapping and cheering us over in  21 hours and 28 minutes.

That finish!!

Fell running is the kind of sport that only attracts people who do it because they love it, no fame, no money, no bullshit. The numbers that attempt rounds are even smaller and the DIY nature of them with no formal start time or date, self-reliance and support crews of your own make them special in so many ways.  The Denis Rankin was everything that we had hoped it would be and our support Emily and the people that were supporting the other teams and being so kind to us made it everything and more.