Familiarity with the path is lost when the sun sets. In daylight your spatial awareness uses the landscape, the horizon and the route ahead. Now all you have is a small pool of light from the head torch and a compass bearing.
Slieve Donard was easy navigation, up and down to the Brandy Pad. Slightly more concentration was then required to clear Chimney Rock and find a route to Rocky.
We fairly flew up Rocky, overshooting the summit cairn. Quickly back on track we set off to retrace our steps to the wall, making good speed over the easy descent. A wee sense of something not quite right started to creep in! The inky darkness made it difficult to check our location and direction. Rocky should have been out and back on a reverse bearing, looking at the GPX trace afterwards I think i must have knocked the bezel of the compass about 20 degrees off course. Thankfully we made an educated guess and arrived back to the wall on target, albeit by a slightly curvaceous route!
In the early morning we continued to make great progress, ahead of targets and under no pressure. I was in great form although the legs were a bit heavy, and where normally I would be happy to bounce downhill, I felt slightly uncoordinated. Most likely a subconscious anxiety about the task ahead !
The sun started to rise as we advanced on Lamigan, not the jaw dropping event I was expecting, but a welcome boost to the morale nonetheless.
At The Silent Valley we ate a wrap and filled up with water we had stashed the previous day.
Leslie was strong all day, he hit an economical line to Slievenaglogh and then a great curving line to and from Ben Crom. Crossing the Ben Crom River on the return leg was the one major scare of the day as he slipped on the greasy granite slab on top of the waterfall, with a spraughle he was very close to going head first over the edge !
Life was good as we crossed the Deers Meadow. Soup, sandwiches and more water were taken from Leslie’s parked van. Backpacks were stuffed with enough supplies to keep us going for the next eight hours.The sun was climbing high in the sky, marking the start of a very arduous phase.
Heading up Moughanmore and then Eagle my heart began to pound in my chest and the sweat poured out, initially I thought I was ill ! The mountain weather forecast had been clear skies and 15-16 degrees C, perfect conditions. We didn’t realise that the temperature was now rising to over 25 degrees.
Not excessive, but a tough few hours were lying ahead when you’re not accustomed to the heat ( and you forget to pack a sun hat !)
The Lower Mournes really are a place apart.
Finlieve and Crenville are mentioned in nearly every previous report as particularly difficult to traverse and navigate. Hence I have a silent grumble as I struggled my way through the waist high tussocks and late summer heather, strewn with hidden streams, waist deep bog and rocks.
Two steps forward and one stagger back.
My negative attitude does these areas a massive disservice. They may lack the iconic views of the High Mournes and they are physically draining to cross, however the abundance of plant life, flowers, birds and butterflies more than compensates for the exertions.
We had one laugh out loud moment. Having slogged all the way across to Slieve Meen we discovered that our target and the prize for all our efforts was a tiny, scrappy wee pile of stones in the heather! Nice view though.
Over Slieve Martin we continued to the summit of Crenville. Protected by slopes of barely passable tussocks, Crenville’s highpoint is another anticlimax marked by two very unimpressive fence posts.
However in the sunshine it was a wonderful little patch of silent, isolated wilderness.
Thankfully the route now entered the cool, moss lined forest paths, fairly flat and a welcome respite from the heat of the direct sun.
Eventually leaving the shady paths we tackled Tievdockaragh, and on to Pierces Castle and the familiar ridge to Rocky. This area has more paths and shorter grass, making it less strenuous and allowing better speed.
The advice was to take each hill, one at a time. Don’t watch the clock! Quietly though we had both been doing the mental arithmetic.The midday heat had blown our target times and we were slipping behind our ‘worst case’ scenario. The legs were still strong but general tiredness and a bit of mental fatigue had set in.
We were fully aware of the importance of constantly refuelling on endurance challenges and also knew that the enthusiasm to eat would be low, however one effect of the heat was to further depress appetite. I found it increasingly difficult to stomach food, water on the other hand was like nectar. I drank plenty and at every river and stream plunged my head and neck into the cold water, great relief.
Onwards to the slog up Cock Mountain and more energy sapping long grass. It was then a surprise to see Adam Irvine and Sarah Quinn on Slievemiskan (they had completed the Round two weeks earlier in horrendously wet conditions). Also up the mountain and cheering us on were Diarmuid Macauley and the whole de Courcy-Wheeler family !
The support we received at Spelga changed the tempo up a gear and the buzz lifted our spirits immensely.
Entering Spelga car park was like a Formula 1 pitstop.
Sitting down, someone to take off my shoes and socks, iced towels for the feet, a vast array of food ( i could only manage a bowl of granola and yogurt ) fresh socks and away we went.
The 2am start time had been planned to allow us start the last stage in daylight. Spaltha is hard enough to find in good conditions, now behind on time, we faced navigating it in the dark.
With the help of Adam, Sarah and Poppy we cleared this section and marched on for Ott, a wee hill we knew well. We have used it for years as a warmup to many a Sunday morning run. Tonight in the dark it was unfamiliar and much higher than I remember! Over then to the security of the Mourne Wall and the last line of seven summits. By now it was fully dark but still very warm. We were entertained by the huge number of moth
s, beetles and black slugs out and about on their nocturnal travels.
Mentally we felt sharp, though it was later revealed that conversation at Spelga was met by our vacant stares and slow motion responses!
Leslie was consistently at least 5 minutes faster to the tops at this stage, after a quick bit of maths I told him to kick on for home. Team player that he is, he decided to hang around and watch me suffer ! Moving on well, we were now feeling strong and gathering a bit of pace, making up earlier time losses.
With the Bernagh climb behind us, the descent shredded the last of a bin lid sized blister on my left foot. A light shone in the darkness and we were absolutely delighted to see Diarmuid and Horace again. Unknown to us they had decided to climb to the Hares Gap to cheer us home.
The Denis Rankin Round is a mighty day out, physically it’s a tough undertaking. Neither of us are ultra runners and this was more than twice the time or distance of anything we had previously attempted.
Leslie and I had decided to attempt this challenge unsupported. If the weather forecast was fair and we were both available, we would give it a lash.
We had very little by the way of preparation. Together we had one recce of stages 1 and 2, and I had a run around stages 3 and 4.
With no long distance training in the legs we were unsure of how we would get on and therefore reluctant to ask people to give up their time providing support.
This approach resulted in a heightened experience for us, on our own to tackle the challenge.
Your concentration needs to be sharp and a considerable amount of mental energy is expended, constantly checking navigation, food, water and pace. Crossing the mountains in the dark was another unfamiliar experience and brings an increased level of difficulty to the challenge.
It seems to me that every one taking on The Denis Rankin Round encounters their own individual problems with varying weather conditions, ground conditions, injuries and fatigue. All these factors make each challenge a unique day out.
We enjoyed the absence of company and were able to absorb so many things in the quiet without distraction.The images that flash by on the journey create vivid memories of a great experience.
However, when the cavalry came galloping over the brow of the hill at Slievemiskin it brought a very welcome boost.
All the small acts of kindness and support from our friends made the experience unforgettable.
Thanks to Adam and Sarah for sharing their knowledge and experience. Thanks to Ali, Gordon, Diarmuid, Horace, Poppy, Rose, Hector and Helen for their invaluable support.
Thanks to Rowan of Primaltracking for going beyond the call of duty to keep us running,
Last but not least, thanks to the committee of the Denis Rankin Round for putting this challenge in place. In the short time it has been in existence it has given great enjoyment and a sense of achievement to many people. It will be a fitting memorial to Denis for many years to come.
Good luck and best wishes to all those taking on the challenge in the future. Win or lose, you’ll have a day to remember!