Start the watch, touch the arch, and we were off. 5:03am.
I had felt a bit silly texting Eddie from Primal Tracking that the revised start time was 5:03 and not just 5 – we were hardly going to be counting the minutes when we cruised in nicely under schedule in about 19hr 30, but what is it they say? Ignorance is bliss?
We had arrived in Donard park about 20minutes earlier to pouring rain, a mountain range we couldn’t see, and a load of locked toilet cubicles. What a day this was going to be.
Having spent the past week looking at nothing but maps and forecasts, it had been decided to push the start time back from the original 4am to 5am, hopefully missing some of the rain and getting a much-wanted extra hour in bed the night before. With the rain beating down, we obviously started to wonder should we push back to 6, or better yet, sure will we just cancel all together? Is this not a bit stupid? There were definite nerves on my part.
My company for the day was Harry, a friend from university who I recently had the pleasure of supporting on his own Bob Graham round, which I had kind of used as a big training weekend for this.
On Harrys round, alongside his support team, he had also had another friend Barney attempting the full round with him. I liked the idea of someone to suffer with, instead of just a fresh support runner on each leg, and so the invite was extended.
Harry is from Newcastle, admittedly the wrong one to be of any help on this round. This was his first time in the Mournes, and I wasn’t sure how much he expected from my ‘local knowledge’. Not a lot I hoped, as this was pretty much an onsite attempt from me as well. Of course, I had been over parts of the round on other days, but none of these were a purposeful reccee.
Anyway, start the watch, touch the arch, and we were off. 5:03am
(The brand new – out of the box Friday morning – watch I may add)
10minutes in and we were moving well. The rain had stopped at just about the start of the glen river path proper, so we had seemingly hit the brief weather window perfect.
The only complaint we could have was that we couldn’t see our hands in front of us, but that’s no matter on the glen river. Just follow the track up. If I can’t lead Harry up this I thought, he really would be better off without me.
Donard was summitted in a little over an hour, and then we had my first test of the day. The descent. A famously terrible descender, I had failed to note that a day of 21,000ft of climbing would also mean 21,000ft of Harry waiting for me at the bottom. Catch him on the climbs. That was the plan, or just hope he waits for me.
Anyway, down from Donard, and with a good bearing taken to Chimney and back (after we decided whose compass was pointing in the right direction), the nerves started the settle.
We still couldn’t see anything, but the line to Chimney was seamless, so off we went to rocky. The line back to the brandy pad was slightly less seamless, but I did manage to squeeze in a nice boulder problem to avoid some bog.
However, to save weight, I had left my chalk bag at home, and so to avoid any more of these, I decided to double check the Garmin to see if there was a better line to the Brandy Pad.
But wait, whats that? Brand new Garmin stopped working already?
At least I’ve got something to think about for the next 22hrs. What am I going to say in this angry email to Garmin? This new one was already a warranty replacement.
But we were back on the Brandy Pad now, and time to stretch the legs. Beg, Cove and Lamagan came and went with little difficulty, even in the mist. As we dropped back down before Binnian we could see it starting to clear towards the south, with a good day seemingly in store for us. We just had to get up and over Binnian first, which didn’t look so clear.
Anytime that we had gained on schedule up until now was quickly wiped away as we tried to decide what part of Binnian was the top, and then, how do we get off this thing. This was the worst weather we experienced all day, with howling winds and next to no visibility. Finally, we pulled the tracker out on our phone and just walked about until we registered at the top. Now down. Easier said than down.
Eventually we began to see wee Binnian appear from the mist, and the sun came out as we got lower. After a small bit of wall hoping to decide which side was cleaner, we were back in business.
Then came the first BIG question of the day. Would road support Ryan (my little brother who has never step foot in the Mournes before) actually be at Silent Valley when we needed him to? Quick phone call to confirm and jackpot! The toilets were even open.
After tripping and falling our way down to silent valley on a line of Harrys recommendation, we made it to the checkpoint perfectly on schedule.
Though as soon as we were on schedule again, we were off it. I hadn’t factored in any time for stops at the checkpoints. That was the first time we felt the original 20hr schedule begin to slip.
A good stop at Silent Valley at what was now a more reasonable breakfast time, and we were on our way. This time with Kieran for some company, although this was also his first time in the Mournes.
Jack, Harry and Kieran at Silent Valley
We managed to make it across the reservoir without any problems, and then came the next question, which way up Slievenalogh? There didn’t seem to be any nicer line in sight, so a head on attack it was, although we had some nice berry picking along the way.
This was a pretty rough climb and possibly as a result, I was starting to feel pretty bad already, which wasn’t a good sign, as we were still well within long run territory for me.
After summiting Ben Crom and Doan, I really started to drop into bad form, with flash backs of a similar bonk at this location in the Seven Sevens last year haunting me. I wasn’t moving well at all.
See me power hiking on a flat below for evidence.
Adding fuel to the fire, for some reason, we had decided to go against what everyone else seems to do, and go up over the top of Lough Shanna on our way Carn, instead of below it. Here, we bumped into Kathleen Monteverde, who was out recceing the Sevens.
She kindly informed us that we had indeed gone the ‘wrong’ way, and wished us luck on the rest of our round – Kathleen had completed the round just a month prior.
Also blaming this one on Harry.
After getting back on the path to Carn, the rest of the leg seemed to go OK, other than the final descent, but soon we were drinking coke and eating rice pudding at Deers Meadow, while I explained to Ryan what a bonk was. It was nice that I was able to offer a complete visual aid to the description.
Leaving Deers Meadow, I had convinced myself that w were basically finished as we had only the two shortest legs left and then we were at Spelga, which I had also somehow convinced myself, was basically the end.
If you are reading this in the planning of your own attempt – don’t do this.
Deers Meadow is not basically the end.
We did however, also manage to convince Kieran to carry on to Slievemartin with us, and the company was much appreciated, although I’m sure the nice weather done most of the convincing.
All things considered though, we were actually going OK, and despite some complaining that Wee Slievemoughan seems an awful detour, we were possibly even making up some time, right up until the approach to Finlieve.
If you had watched the tracker all day, you would certainly have been scratching your head as to what was going on up in those peat hags. If you weren’t watching the tracker all day because you somehow had better things to be doing on a Saturday afternoon, then the below outcrop from Strava will give an insight.
Between taking pictures and using the facilities, Harry had managed to leave his phone behind, which we thankfully realised before we got much further. Its hard to know, but at Spelga we were told we lost about 40minutes on that section, going in circles, looking for a phone in a peat bog.
The nice drop in pace did allow me to recover a little and moving on for the rest of leg 3 I was feeling a lot better, but that’s nothing another nav error couldn’t fix.
Between Finlieve and Slievemeen, there is supposedly a nice path which runs right up through the forest on the approach to the radio tower. We had discussed the idea of the path, but decided that battering on up through the knee high boggy grass was a better idea.
Finally, climbing up towards the radio tower, the end of the leg was in sight. Kathleen had come to meet us again, which was very nice of her, and she kindly pointed out how we had once again taken what we will call, a ‘sub optimum line’.
We did arrive at the style between Slievemeen and Slievemartin feeling a lot better though, with the short ascent and descent of Slievemeen possibly the fastest I moved all day.
Though despite arriving feeling good, we also arrived to no coke and rice pudding. (The definite flavour of the day).
I had told Ryan I would call him in time for him to walk from the carpark up to the style, which had completely gone out of my head until we arrived. That meant a 20minute sit, however it was a blessing in disguise. It gave us the chance to go over leg 4 on the Harveys map with Kathleen, who was able to point out some of the better routes on the upcoming section. Much appreciated!
Eventually Ryan arrived, we refuelled, left Kieran and picked up Tim, who thankfully had also paid attention to the route instructions for the following leg.
Tim, Jack, Harry and Kieran between Slievemeen and Slievemartin
I decided pretty quickly that Crenville is easily the worst ‘mountain’ on the entire round. It hardly constitutes a mountain, and more an overgrown grassy lump. Though after some hideous bushwhacking, we were able to find a nice runnable trail moving towards the next few peaks, and so the rest of the leg actually moved by somewhat well, until Rocky.
When I look back at leg 4 though, the only thing I can think of is the section from the summit of Rocky to the summit of Cock. In fact, I think this this section will be keeping me up at night for the weeks and months to come.
I can only apologise to Harry and Tim for having to be even remotely close to me during this. A combination of very tired legs, uneven ground, knee high grass, fading light and a clock that was running tighter than we had ever intended it to, meant my conversation consisted solely of complaining, the occasional outburst and more profanity than id care to admit.
In all my running days, I have never felt worse.
If Aaron Shimmons had come to Spelga to see if the whole round attempt was legit, rest assured, one look at me would had confirmed that I’d done at least a few miles. If I looked even half as bad as I felt, there would be no doubt.
The only saving grace was that I knew that was us out of the long grass and back to the steep climbs which I was confident I could manage pretty well. I had joked about being excited for Bearnagh all day, but really, through legs 3 and 4, all I could think about was how nice the ground would be back in the high Mournes, and I knew id been climbing well all day and still hopefully had a bit left in the tank for it.
At Spelga, some hot coffee and some good food turned me around. I felt like a new man. Thanks to Ruth and Jacob for coming down to support at this point!
Head torches on properly, we left Spelga with new company in Mark, Gillian and Willie, and full credit to them – with us so behind schedule at this stage, they had a chance to reccee this section as recent as 2 hours earlier in the daylight.
This meant we dropped back to the road before Ott with the first two peaks tagged flawlessly. Here, Aaron joined us for his second run of the day, and it was nice to get chatting to the man I had been bombarding with messages and emails in the run up to the round. Sorry for keeping you up so late!
Between the company of the other runners and the company of the wall, soon we were at Meelbeg, where the rest of the guys would be turning around, leaving just me and Harry for the final section.
Back to the OG’s. At this point we were back to feeling confident that we would atleast finish the round. I hadn’t said it out loud, but on that climb up Cock, I had felt like asking Harry to push on without me. I was as good as dead.
In a complete turnaround though, at this stage, I was feeling the best I had felt all day, a mere 20hrs ish into the run. I felt like I could have climbed all day – relatively speaking of course.
Other than the descent off Meelbeg (obviously), the remaining peaks seemed to fly past. Of course, following the wall in the dark is pretty easy, but the climbs also seemed to come and go without much thought, as did the descents, until we got to Commedagh.
We arrived to the Commedagh tower with about 2hours remaining on the clock. Confident that this was more than enough time to get down, we stopped to put on a few more layers. The winds had picked up a bit again, but this was nearly welcome, as it kept us awake.
More or less at the same time we crested the top, it had also hit me as to just how tired I actually was. Every time I blinked, I felt like I would just rather have kept my eyes shut. This descent was the fastest way to bed I told myself, but the decision was still made to take our time coming down. The dreams of a fast time were already gone so, careful with the nav, and careful with the descent. The arch in one piece was the only goal now.
With the Newcastle lights never seeming to get any closer, it was a lifetime before we arrived back out of the trees and into the early glow from the rising sun. Jogging back across towards the arch, I couldn’t stop thinking how I was due a season of road running after this. Even a season on the track. Just anything but the long grass again.
Anyway, touch the arch and stop the watch. 4:23am
23hours and 20 minutes.
Man that was hard. Really hard.
Harder than expected.
I’d like to say a huge thanks to everyone that helped out on the day.
Thanks to Ryan, Kieran, Tim, Mark, Gillian, William, Ruth and Jacob whose support was invaluable on the day. Thanks for staying about, despite our overly keen schedule which resulted in a late bed time for all!
Also a thanks to Eddie from Primal Tracking for the tracker, and to Kathleen (and her friend who’s name I never caught) for the support out there.
In the days following, it was confirmed that I was the youngest person to have completed the round, with Harry the second youngest. I’m not sure if that’s an accolade to be proud of or not, as I watch other guys our age smash out fast 1500m and 5K times I’ll probably never get close to, but I forget how hard running fast is as well.
In the same days following, I also managed to push the thoughts of that season on the track aside. I am fairly confident that we could go faster had we better route knowledge and with less silly errors on our end, and hey, the Bob Graham looked good.
Funny how, less than a week on from the worst I’ve ever felt during a run, thoughts like this creep their way back in. We will have to see.