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.
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!
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.