My Rankin Round:

New Ways to Climb Old Mountains.

I should probably start by saying this was not my first attempt at the Denis Rankin Round.  Several weeks before my round had been cut short at the first hurdle by what I can only describe as apocalyptic winds.  So much so that I questioned if the Mourne wall would still be standing in the morning.

Fast-forward to the 23rd of March and things were much different.  Still the same revving of engines and screeching of tyres at Donard car park but this time my car wasn’t shaking with the gusty wind.  I started at 2300 hours.  The plan was to start at midnight.   However, the wind was forecast to pick up around 2/3 am so I brought it forward an hour to get a head start on the weather, which couldn’t have been better at that time.  It was a beautiful crisp, clear night with a full moon but for a small shaving from the bottom right corner.  Going up Donard was very peaceful.  The only problem being that my young son had been playing the England Euro ’96 song all week and it was well and truly stuck in my head.

The first summits came easily.  These were mountains that I had been over many times.  Going up Binion was a bit more eventful.  I think it was just a lack of concentration but I wasn’t really climbing anymore and the path had disappeared.  There was nothing else for it but to make a 90degree turn and start scrambling up boulders.  Eventually, I reached the trail again and I was back on track.  Heading up to the South tor I saw the biggest, brightest shooting star.  I made a quick wish that the now heavy, icy wind would ease and returned to my earworm of ‘Football’s coming home…’

Leaving the summit there was another problem.  It seemed to be just slabs and drop offs.  I recall my wife Sarah’s words as I was leaving home ‘Don’t do anything stupid!’  So I retraced my steps to find a lower line.  After the short accent to Wee Binnion it was down to Silent Valley via Moolieve.  Silent Valley was magical, sheltered from the wind and lit up by the moon.  After a few minor navigational errors to the foot of Slievenaglogh it was plain sailing to the summit of Doan, only pausing to look at a memorial picture of a lady.  Perhaps Doan had been her favourite mountain too.  On the runnable approach to the summit of Ben Crom Mountain I could see a figure ahead in the distance.  Their hands were shielding their eyes from the sun or perhaps they were taking a photo of me! As I got closer, I thought that it must be binoculars and they knew it was me because they quickly retreated to their tent.  As I jogged past I made as much noise as I could hoping for a ‘good morning’ from the tent but nothing.  How rude I thought. 

I can best describe the line I took up the steep slope of Cairn Mountain as that of a spaniel desperately searching for a lost toy… embarrassing!  I had images in my mind of seasoned mountain runners Dale Mathers and Gerry Kingston shaking their heads at me in disgust. 

I met my first support at Dears Meadow, Lee O’Boyle.  He had been waiting for about two hours and had all my stuff lain out with military precision in the boot of his car, which I kept thinking was rolling back.  A sure sign that I was dehydrated.  I stocked up and we were on our way.  He would run with me through sections three and four.  I could tell he was surprised and worried at my poor condition.  He had run Larne Half Marathon and got a great PB the day before so I was hoping that he would be tired and his legs would be heavy.  He wasn’t and his legs weren’t either.  He glided up the hill like a hare, was taking summits he had never been on and was like a kid in a candy store.  Which actually made it exciting for me too.  When we got to the pond after Slievemeel we met with Aaron Shimmons.  This could not have happened at a better time.  I had just climbed out of waist-deep bog and the heavy ground of Rosstrevor had taken its toll.  The mood seemed to lift instantly, the conversation was buzzing and the pace had lifted.  We were moving well.  Aaron left us at Rocky to meet us again at Splega.

We took both summits of Cock as we had done on Moughanmore not necessary but we did.  At Spelga we met Neil Campbell who had my bag drop.  The type of guy who would give you the shirt off his back and literally did at the finish.  Aaron was there as promised with Alan Ladd who would run with me to finish.  A quick stock up and we were off.  Alan was taking the same approach as Lee, running just ahead.  Only slowing if I dropped off too far or for directions.  This worked brilliantly.  It felt just like a race trying to catch or keep in touch with the person in front. 

When I got the first real look at Bernagh I turned my gaze instantly, looked back and away again quickly.  I’d been thinking about it for months.  This was the mountain that would end me.  I would get a shock sooner than I though with Meelbegh!  By far on the whole round this was the toughest climb. Strangely, the switch backs on Bernagh had made it easier than anticipated.

After Hare’s Gap the darkness and thick fog came down.  When we got to Commedagh the still heavy wind was the least of our worries.  We went over the stile and ran straight for the summit cairns.  Unbelievably making it without a compass bearing.  At this point complacency caught up with us.  We headed straight for the exit off Commedagh without consulting the compass.  We seemed to be descending too quickly.  After a quick change of direction back up the hill and some more faffing about we had to accept the fact that we had lost any point of reference.  It was at this point that Alan asked was it too late to go back and head down the Glen river? Much longer but we had time to spare and it was the smart thing to do.  A quick look at the compass to get us back to the wall and we were off hammering down the trail to Donnard car park.  We couldn’t understand how it was taking so long but a retrospective look at the splits showed that we weren’t hammering along at all in fact we were running ridiculously slowly.  When we got to the finish Lee, Neil and Aaron were all waiting and after a hug of the arch it was over.  22hours and 7 minutes.  I was very pleased to be the 39th person to complete the 39 summits.

In terms of running, this challenge is by far the best I have ever done.  I would like to thank the committee and Denis’s club BARF for giving me the opportunity to not only challenge myself but to be able to honour the man in such a wonderful way.  In finishing, I wish good luck and every success to friends and fellow mountain runners who decide to take on the challenge.

Micky McAuley

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.