Friday 9th/Saturday 10th August 2019
Intro: Adam Ervine
“The Denis Rankin Round” – those words were first muttered about 2 years ago as a pipe- dream by me, but I have learnt that Dave just saw that as a window into getting an attempt lined up. Lesson – don’t joke with Dave about endurance challenges. As the chat got a little more serious this year we quickly had a group of 7 people keen to take the challenge on. In terms of experience the group was fairly varied. At the higher end, previous race experience included the Bob Graham Round, TDS and Dragon’s Back while at the lower end the Annalong Horseshoe was the biggest feather in my cap. This led to some trepidation in the lead up but before starting we were all of the understanding that we would stick together as best as possible. After the Hill and Dale Series finished Sarah and I turned our attention to planning recces of the course. Our preparation was pretty thorough with Google Docs being invaluable in keeping the other 5 (all based in England) in the loop. However, judging by some of the group’s knowledge of the route on the day though, maybe the amount of detail I had gone into ensured they didn’t read it at all! In hindsight what might have been handy in the recces would have been a personal cold shower, a blindfold and constant ankle covering groundwater throughout just to mimic the conditions on the day. The recces were great fun though and the highlight had to be coming off Donard with the night torches and startling half a dozen deer as they went scampering off through the forest. The week prior to the attempt was filled with some intense weather watching. Thunderstorms and heavy rain were to be the recurring theme but unfortunately as the majority of our group were coming from England, we had no option but to forge ahead as planned. We went for a 21.30 start, which went against what most Members had done previously but from the previous experience of the group, getting the dark over when you are freshest and hopefully finishing in the light held an advantage. In hindsight the early navigation in the dark was very tricky but given we were in cloud throughout the first three legs, it being light would not have made much difference in any case. We arrived at Donard Car Park half an hour before our departure time and we were all full of nervous energy. Waterproofs were donned, trackers turned on (cheers Rowan and Eddie for sorting us with those) and the obligatory photo at the arch taken. 21.30 and we were off. Safe to say, our bodies were to feel slightly different at this spot nearly 24 hours later.
Leg 1: Dave
With a chorus of ‘heigh-ho’ we set off, a septet of very eager dwarfs. It wasn’t actually raining at this point and the winds were light. Spirits were high as we trotted up through Donard Forest following the path alongside the Glen River. We opted to follow this up to the wall to avoid the Black Stairs, owing to the extremely soggy underfoot conditions and the darkness. There was more water coming down this than I had ever seen on any of my previous forays into the Mournes. Not a good omen. We made the summit of Donard in a very casual 1:15 all feeling pretty pleased with things. But things changed very quickly turning to go down the wall. It felt like we were running into the jaws of a roaring beast, with things feeling very real all of a sudden. Waterproofs zipped up and heads down we descended the wall. It was obviously too much for Dan and Rob who descended at a pace that could only be described as geriatric. The group was scattered and with visibility genuinely only being a few metres, due to the scatter of our headtorch light in the rain, it really did feel like we were very far from civilisation. This led to a rather heated interjection between Rob and Chris. I think the magnitude of what lay ahead was to blame rather than any genuine bad feelings and after some hugs and kisses we were all friends again. Nav was tricky from the wall over to Chimney, opting on the fly to essentially do an out and back, which with hindsight, although adding a bit of distance was the right thing to do on the night. Between Chimney and Rocky, Chris managed to fall waist deep into a bog/river. From here on he spent more time in water than on dry land, falling into more rivers and streams than I thought existed. This wetness was likely the beginning of his chaffage downfall… Rocky came and went without any further issue and we were soon trooping round to the Brandy Pad on our way to Beg. The next major incident came when coming off the top of Cove, I managed to take a pretty large and reportedly spectacular tumble, trying to avoid the significant drop over my shoulder. Fortunately I dusted myself off with only a wet bottom to report. Despite this we were still making OK time as we trudged up Slievelamagan. Another pat on the back at the top with spirits lifting again. We cut right from the summit and managed to find the grassy descent down Lamagan with aplomb. At the bottom Adam was gleefully proclaiming how easy a descent we had just had, reporting the regular path to be a miserable affair of rocky, bouldery terrain. Sadly Rob wasn’t quite so happy. He had slipped 2⁄3’s of the way down and snapped one of his carbon running poles. We offered nothing but abuse and mockery regarding this for the next few 19 hours, much to his annoyance. That’s what friends are for right? We made good time on the up again and before we knew it the Binnian Tors were behind us. However we were soon to find that the descent to Wee Binian is maybe the most unpleasant thing in the world. This extremely steep descent, that was both slippy with mud and water, was pretty slow going. Without trying to be overly dramatic, Chris saved Sarah from what could have been a nasty, Round ending tumble, as he just caught the strap of her bag milliseconds before she flew head first down the mountain. Eventually we trudged into Silent Valley and picked up our stashed food and water, a very welcome relief from what had just been a very full on 5h30mins. I for one had been looking forward to a few mouthfuls of Coke. Sadly this wasn’t to be, as every other bugger decided to eat a load of peanuts and then drink enthusiastically from the bottle before I had a chance to, contaminating it to a degree that my pathetic immune system wouldn’t tolerate due to a peanut allergy. To rub salt on the wound is an understatement, but my spirits were quickly lifted after Rob accidentally put his soft-flask lid in the bin. Had anyone else been watching a man in lyrca, with one pole, hoke through a bin at 0300 in the pitch black and pouring rain, they might have thought they were hallucinating.
Leg 2: Dan
Having had a relatively short stop we had quickly become cold in our sodden attire and were keen to get moving and warm up. We binned the unwanted supplies and set off at a trot. After heading round the reservoir and picking up an overgrown “path” we soon found ourselves wading uphill alongside the wall again. Before long we summited Slievenaglogh. We picked up a decent trail for the journey to Slieve Doan which we felt Doan Doan and on. The weather was relentless in its constant rain, the wind a howl, the dark broken by the misty glow of our headtorches that merely lit the rain that hung in the air and reduced visibility to a mere 2-3 metres. It was hard going and I felt I was going particularly slow on the wet rocky descents slowing the group up a tad. Sarah had some headtorch issues with the loss of power and the need for a spare. Onwards we trudged the ground sodden and boggy slowing our pace and sapping our reserves. By this stage we were I think all desperately willing the day to come to bring with it some more visibility and raise our spirits. To reignite us and ease the need to concentrate so feverently. Thankfully on the way to Ben Crom we were rewarded with the hints of daylight creeping in. On reaching the top it had grown light enough to turn the headtorches off. This helped the run over to Carn but by this stage I was entertaining the familiar negative thoughts of packing it in and desires of sleep, warmth and finishing tempting me to quit. I know I was not alone in these thoughts having later shared them with the group and others also admitting their running demons had taken root during leg two also. We grew eager to reach the end of the leg and our first manned checkpoint with the promise of hot food and drink. We made a swift descent from Muck and were welcomed by our family and friends, beans, porridge, coffee, hugs, cheers, morale, change of clothes, socks, more hugs and cheers and we were all bolstered back towards something resembling our former selves back at Donard car park all those dark hours ago. We were ready for the rest of the day!
Leg 3: Chris
Heading back into the clag was hard but it felt great to have fresh company with Aidan supporting the leg. It was so good to finally have support who could share the nav and periodically feed us. Sweets were passed round and most people made use of Aidan to take things in and out of our bags. Before we knew it we were on Pigeon Rock Mountain and back in the clag. As we ascended Slieve Moughanmore we enthused about how great it was that this challenge had been conjured up in honour of Denis. None of us were fortunate enough to know him but because of this Round he would definitely be forever ingrained in our minds now. On the descent to Wee Slievemoughan some of us took advantage of the wet grass and descended almost too rapidly on our bums for about 80m. From Wee Slievemoughan there was some very rough ground back to the comfort of the wall; on to Eagle Mountain then Shanlieve. Morale was lifting as this point as we were gaining time on our schedule with each peak. This kept driving us forward and for the first time after the long and wet night we all started to believe we might actually be able to do this. Next were the infamous peat haggs. It was like walking through the wardrobe to Narnia. Thankfully Dave and Aidan were on it and picked a good line through them. Despite all the rain they weren’t too boggy and were some of the most runnable terrain we had on the round, not that any of us had much desire to take advantage of this. We were soon at the “impressive” cairn of Finlieve. From here we had the long, gentle descent down to the forest. It was during this that we came out of the clag and for the first time on the round we could finally actually see what we were aiming for and beyond to the sea. Adam burst into song with some Jimmy Cliff to acknowledge his seeing clearly and spirits further lifted. Unfortunately there was some very wet ground on the corner of the forest and I once again went in up to my waist, by now I had endured several similar soakings on the round and my nether regions were really feeling the effects of all of that wet friction. Soon we were in the forest and on a motorway of a path. We emerged onto the slopes of Slievemeen which was much harder than expected. The group started to slow and Adam became anxious that we were losing significant time. He was in a frenzy as we neared the top and declared we were behind schedule despite having had such a good start to this leg. How could this be? Our heads dropped. Thankfully, Adam was wrong. He was working from an old schedule so we immediately gained an hour and were back ahead of time; such good news. Before we knew it we were at the end of the leg in the dry, out of the clag, ahead of time and with pizza, cheering and fresh support waiting for us.
Leg 4: Steff
As we set off, our bellies full of pizza and noodles, we waved goodbye to the awesome support crew who had marched up the hill with our supplies. Grant and Ciara had joined us at this point which was nice to have more smiley motivating faces to spur on us. First Slievemartin, then the delights of Crenville. To be honest, this wasn’t as bad as the day we had recced it at the start of July, when the nipple-high grass was less than ideal. Thankfully the grass had collapsed under its own weight which allowed us to pass a little more easily, although the river of water that still existed below did continue to slow us down considerably! That all said, it was still less than pleasurable and I’m pretty sure we all fell at least 10-20 times each, with Dave seemingly spending most of the descent on his back. Off to Slievemeel next, we took the gravel path down to it which allowed for some slow but steady jogging. This was unfortunately when Chris’s issues with chaffing began to rear its ugly head. Slievemeel is not a nice ascent, heathery-tussocks and straight up and down. Short but not sweet. We rejoined the good trail and marched off into the forest, a slightly different way than our recce but recommended by Aidan and definitely the best route with hindsight. Poor Chris then began to really suffer. His cowboy-style of running didn’t look pretty from behind and we eventually had to stop. After brief consultations from Grant, Dave, Rob, Dan and Adam – the consensus was that if Chris wanted to ever have children in the future, he needed to either find an emergency gallon of vaseline or abandon the round. I did offer to use the skin from my eaten-banana to fashion a sling/hammock for Chris’s nether regions, however this idea was quickly dismissed. Instead the boys opted for several compeed plasters to try and ‘stem’ the friction. With no local shops in the forest, Chris made the difficult decision to retreat to the nearest road, kindly accompanied by Ciara. Lizzie (Chris’s girlfriend) was there to give him a big hug and drive to the nearest pharmacy. We trundled on, but we were all pretty deflated having lost Chris. I was definitely starting to struggle at this point, mainly with tiredness plus a niggling knee injury which was starting to worsen. This was also the start of Adam’s bowel-issues… giving him high-dose ibuprofen earlier was now proving to have been a bad idea. We ticked off the next few hills, moving over to Pearce’s Castle then up to Rocky where we were met by a few friends and family which was a welcome boost. Then – Cock. The infamous Cock. There has been some debate over whether we took the best line up this, but having recced it a more ‘direct’ route, I concur taking the ‘round about way’ was marginally better. It was a slow, tiring slog up this with Grant’s fresh legs leading the way. Rob had managed to adopt Grant’s poles at this point, which proved invaluable for the remainder of the round. Dave and I both hit an all-time low at this point. We were at the back of the group, in silence, wishing for this all to be over. We finally started descending down into Spelga, to be greeted by around 25-30 or our friends and family at the carpark who had bought us chips and Mum had brought along some homemade soup. I hobbled towards the crowd and noticed my Mum had brought our 13 month old daughter to say hello to us. This was the tipping point for me and I just broke down in tears. Happy, but tired tears. This then caused a domino effect for my husband (Dave), who’s blood-shot eyes were also evident at the end of the stop. Leg 4 certainly wasn’t the longest or hilliest leg, but it was certainly filled with deep psychological lows and the unfortunate loss of one of the original seven.
Leg 5: Sarah
Spelga support station passed like a whirlwind. To be honest I can barely remember being there but I do recall everyone’s emotions were beginning to wobble, as were our joints and bodily functions (especially for Adam). After some salty chips and quick chats we were off again. Feeling a little under pressure that time was closing in on us so we set off at pretty ridiculous pace up the stream towards Spaltha Mountain. We were a few hundred metres up the track when we noticed we were a man down – we had left Dan behind, (he was still receiving foot care, changing his socks and more crucially finishing his fish and chips). Thankfully a couple of our support crew stayed with him and then chased us to catch up. Adam and I knew the line up to Spaltha pretty well but by that stage of the day we were grateful to our support Esther and Ciara for running on ahead to locate the tiny cairn in the clouds. We trudged at pace down the boggy ground before climbing up to Slievenamuck. Once we crossed the road at Ott Car Park we had a psychological boost knowing that we were now on the home stretch, we just had to get up Ott then follow the wall. Sounds pretty simple but it was climbing up Ott where some people’s wheels started to really fall off. As a result of some violent bowel trouble, Adam was starting to rapidly fade. Our adrenaline fuelled pace was starting to slow and Lough Shannagh was a struggle. Coming off Lough Shannagh Adam’s knees and ankles seized and he could barely put one foot in front of the other. Panic began to set in then because we genuinely weren’t sure if he could go on. Discussions began about whether or not those who were feeling fit should just push on themselves but we decided we still had time and would stay together for the Meels and then make the call. We reconvened at the top of the Meelmore, checked our timings, gave each other a pep talk and carried on together – feeling weak but mentally strong and determined to just get this whole thing over with. We had a good line off Meelmore and a pretty direct one up Bearnagh as well. Adam knew the best route but he was in no fit state to guide so we followed our compass to the top and were rewarded by the chirpy cheers of Lorcan and Aoife who had climbed up from Hare’s Gap to support us back down to the finish. We slowly zigzagged to the saddle, not enjoying the motion of stepping down from rock to rock. Just a few smaller climbs and then up Commedagh. This last section really dragged, time slowed down, as did our bodies. We all got very cold as the sea wind picked up and the rain continued to lash down. Some of us decided to don our waterproof trousers at this point (yet we had all went 23hours practically underwater without them, they now seemed seriously necessary). We were slow, freezing and quiet – Adam was hallucinating. I remember just trying not to cry and keep putting one foot in front of the other. We were nearly there! We got to the summit and some of the group cheered but being local I knew we still had a long descent down and I could barely muster a mutter. Adam and I had recced the line off Commedagh dozens of times but never as a flowing river. We stomped through the fast flowing water until we eventually met the woods. The group were getting giddy and spirits were high once again as we came through the trees and rejoiced as we touched tarmac! More friends had jogged up to meet us and help us run down the little bit of road to the car park. We could hear more of our friends and family cheering and could finally see that white arch. We crossed the finish line all together. We dropped our poles and hugged each other. We had completed The Denis Rankin Round in what was possibly the worst weather of the year! I finally allowed my tears to flow. We did it!
When the dust settled and the hugging finished we all congregated in the pub backing onto the car park. I was so delirious I thought I saw Arlene Foster having a pint, but was quickly told by Steff that it wasn’t her. The pints of Guinness we had craved for the last five hours arrived, the idea of a pint was certainly better than it went down, which was slower than it took us to ascend Cock. A supreme move by one of the support crew – Aoife, was to buy four plates of chips which disappeared quicker than you could say Slievelamagan. The group finally split into its constituent parts. Rob and Dan were driven back to Belfast by Suz, Rob’s wife, who had to drop Dan off at KFC for a family bucket of chicken whilst Rob slept in the front. Adam finally warmed up, arrived home and proceeded to not leave his house for 5 days, his legs ‘like swollen rubber.’ Chris, the victim of some serious chaffage, made a quick recovery over the next 24 hours and vowed to carry body glide with him every ultra forever onwards. It really had been an incredible 23 and a bit hours. At different points in the final 8 hours we were convinced this was not going to get done, we weren’t moving quickly enough and injuries were going to win out. But serious grit, determination, and the thought of all that hard work, fantastic support and training going to waste pushed the group through. The term ‘foregone conclusion’ had been uttered by one of the stronger members of the group before the race began. He regretted this by halfway round leg one. On reflection, the DRR should not be underestimated, it may be shorter and less hilly than the other UK rounds, but it is certainly very tricky to navigate, the terrain is tougher, and in bad weather is nothing short of brutal. We are all indebted to Denis Rankin, our incredible supporters and each other for a memorable day. In particular a big thank-you to Lizzie who was ‘coordinator-extraordinaire’.
To finish, a limerick, which we tried to write as a group walking up Binnian North Tor to forget the misery we were in:
There once was a man called Dennis, Who ran hills like these without blemish, In his name was this round, Which was worse than it doth sound, A hilly, wet, bog-ridden menace.