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.

Steve Wathall’s Round Report

Introduction

Charmian and I have been coming over to the Mournes for a few years and have enjoyed the Mourne 2 Day and the various British Championship races.  I had heard vaguely of the Denis Rankin Round but my interest was piqued when Konrad Rawlik set the current record in April 2017.  We made a concerted effort to recce all the legs at least twice and Dale and Denise Mathers were able to offer valuable advise regarding route choice especially around the tricky Crenville area.  It has been in the back of my mind for two years and so with an extended holiday planned after the 2019 British Champs race, I hoped to give it a good go.

The Champs race was shortened due to strong winds and driving rain so I recovered quite quickly and decided to make an attempt on the DRR on Monday 29th April.  As I climbed Donard the clag enveloped me and I had little more than 30 yards visibility throughout the first leg.  I dropped down into Silent Valley and could not even see the dam but hoping it might clear I pressed on despite having a very sore ankle from putting my foot down a hole descending Chimney Rock.  By Deer Meadow it was obvious that a sub 24 hour round was not on the cards and so I decided to quit and save my energy for another attempt later.

We set off on a tourist trip of the Antrim coast for a few days to allow my ankle time to recover and kept a close eye on the weather forecast.  Problems with our van brakes made me think I was jinxed but the intervention of a very helpful mechanic on Saturday got us back on the road and I settled down for an early night although the anticipation meant I got little sleep.

Report

Leg One

Just before 3am on Sunday 5th May, I stood in Donard car park watching the few remaining boy racers getting their last circuits of the car park in before their bed time, whereas I was just about to start my day.  After the obligatory photo at the white entrance archway, I trotted out of the car park and the day suddenly got dark and quiet as I steadily ascended the track beside the Glen River to reach the summit of Donard in just over an hour.  Just on the horizon there was a faint glow that became full daylight as I reached the summit of Rocky Mountain and my third top about an hour later.  From Here to Slieve Binnian, where I saw another runner out enjoying the early morning sunshine and the crisp clear views over the mountains, I had the hills to myself.  Following a slight nav error here, I was soon on my way over Wee Binnian where I was looking forward to meeting Charmian for some food at the stile overlooking Silent Valley.

Leg Two

Suitably fortified I was soon running over the dam and still feeling good and enjoying the day.  The first part of this section, the long track up to Doan and then round to Ben Crom never inspired me but it was soon over and before I knew it I was coming over Slieve Muck to be greeted by Stevie Wallace who guided me on the best lines down to my next food stop at Deer Meadow.  It was also good to see Ricky Hanna who had come along to offer words of encouragement.

Leg Three

With plenty of food stowed away I was soon off again.  From previous recceing the last nine hours had been over fairly familiar ground but I would need to concentrate more over the next three legs.  Running over Pigeon, Slievemoughanmore and it’s wee baby, Eagle and Shanlieve, I knew that the next few miles would be a trial with all the rough going.  Getting over the peat hags to Finlieve and down to the forest didn’t seem too bad and I gave the wet boggy section by the forest a wide berth.  Finding a quad bike track was a bonus and I hopped over the stile to be met by Charmian with Dale and Denise Mathers.  It had taken me around twelve hours to get to this point so with another twelve hours available I began to feel more confident of completing although anything can happen.  Dale and I popped up the out and back to Slievemeen before I sat down and had another good feed.

Leg Four

Dale then joined me for the start of leg four where there is some horrible going but with some nice short cuts and steady running we were soon over Slievemartin, Crenville and out the other side of the forest.  Just before Pierce’s Castle, Dale dropped off to the car park after pointing me in the right direction to Rocky Mountain.  After the Castle and as I was on my way to Rocky, up pops Denise to accompany me to the top and point me in the direction of Cock Mountain.  I knew that after one last flog up Cock Mountain, Spelga Dam would be in sight, where I would be met by Charmian again with more food.  It was a great surprise to see Mark King who had heard that morning from Stevie that there was a run on!!

Leg Five

Suitably fortified by pizza and chips, Mark and I set off on the final section.  By now I was feeling weary with aching feet and tired from not getting much sleep the night before.  As I knew there are some big climbs on this last leg, I reminded myself that I would need to man up.  With Mark doing an excellent job guiding me around the rough stuff, the first four tops went by fairly easy.  Then came Meelbeg and Meelmore which both seemed endless climbs and this was where I had to give myself a good talking to.  We put our headtorches on about now so the climbs didn’t look so big in the dark but I was still very steady going up but managing to run the downhills OK.  Mark led me up the right hand side of the wall climbing Commedagh and from the top I knew that the only way was down.  So, it was over the top and try to follow the path down to the forest which went well and the stile soon appeared in front of us.  We trotted down through the forest and back to the car park where the boy racers were still doing their circuits.  I wondered whether they had been there all the time I was out in the hills.

So, after 20 hours and 21 minutes, favourable weather and great company, the day was very satisfying.  It is a fantastic round and I will be spreading the word when we get back home in the hope of encouraging a few more fell runners to give it a go.

Thanks all