From The Dark Side ! Mourne 2 Day 2017

It was the first time I’d held a loaded gun. It was a .44 Magnum and Jim Brown, the Chief Organiser of the event, disappointingly, had pleaded with me not to kill anyone. As Jim explained the committee hadn’t paid for the adequate insurance cover. Flesh wounds were fine though and so off I went on Day One feeling very powerful indeed as an official Secret Marshall. Having competed in previous years, so far matching my GCSE results of 5 C’s and 2 B’s, this was a Virgin appearance as a member of the “working crew” A chance to see how an amazing event like the Mourne 2 Day actually functioned and how the BARF Club, assisted by a seriously competent and multi tasking back up crew, managed to pull it all together, apparently seamlessly.

MMM 2017 Stunning Mountain View

I set off to my appointed roosts, a four control cluster area on the slopes of Binian, with the express instructions to enforce Golden Rule Number One, “Teams must visit all controls in their pairs and carry all of their kit”. As I rumbled up Binian I practised looking fierce and what I would say if anyone dared to sneak into a mountain side control alone while his knackered buddy guarded the rucksacks in the thicker air back at sea level.

“You gonna go back and get your partner ? This being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk? “

The Return of Butch and Sundance

What a shame. I had planned to shoot Eamonn McCrickard but he and his “Golden Era” Elite partner Deon McNeilly, remarried after years apart, know the rules. Bugger !

The morning was bright but the conditions soon deteriorated and it became a wet and windy soul munching kind of day. There’d been so much rain already this summer. Tollymore had introduced Glen River White Water Rafting as an outdoor alternative. The Mournes had morphed into a vast expanse of peaty quicksand with mud thicker than Bill Gates wallet. There was a lot of suffering to come for the hundreds of teams taking part.

Rugged 2017 MMM

The clouds begin to roll in …the waterproofs would soon be on… and not taken off !

Late in the day I encountered my old C Class rivals Gerry Mahon and Mike Nangle. Mike saw me and immediately broke into nuclear grumble mode. A regular state for him. His Mountain Marathon had had a disastrous start. Gerry smirked over his shoulder while Mike detailed his Saturday morning horrors. The night before Mike had put his beloved Mudclaws into the car so that he definitely wouldn’t forget them.

Nangle and Mahon 2017

At the finish with Gerry Mahon, in Seagull pose, and Mike Nangle. Gerry clearly still enjoying the suffering of his pained partner.

Then ! Disaster. Wife loads Mike’s car up with with rubbish and takes it to the dump. The beloved fell shoes are now the dearly departed fell shoes. Apparently Mike’s Mudclaws (he used to sleep with them under the pillow) are currently being re-cycled. Cue fast dissolving harmony in the Nangle household. The result – divorce – but even worse he had to wear Gerry’s spare pair of Mudclaws – good – but one size too big – bad. His feet were like “Well squashed roadkill” He looked so miserable I almost took out my Magnum. Better dead I thought. I hate to see animals suffer. Actually I liked that vision a bit too much !

Camp Site MMM 2017

Cuppa Tent MMM 2017

There weren’t too many leaving their tents that night. On Day One they had endured the kind of relentless Irish icy precipitation that actually penetrates the blood on a molecular level. Bio-chemists says it’s unique to the Emerald Isle. Mike and Gerry retreated to their sleeping bags. They sucked their thumbs and when they got bored with that they sucked each others. Mike picked up a freak and unique condition. Trench Finger. He told me all about it while grumbling on Day Two. “Can’t grip the bloody compass” That’s what I love about these titanium tough mountain people. They just get on with it. 

Taryn Jackie 2017 MMM

Taryn McCoy and Jackie Toal competing in the Elite Class. Are women tougher than men ? Read “Survival of the Fittest” by Dr. Mike Stroud (Ranulph Fiennes old polar partner) Stroud is an expert on human endurance. He has some intriguing theories.

Teams Hit Checkpoint

The sky cleared on Day Two and spirits soared

BARF Marshalls MMM

Pauline O’Hara and Denise O’Hagan applying Marshall Law with Kerry Hall. I think they might be in the BARF Club

The teams who had taken part in the one day “Score” event had now departed the scene. This was a first for the Mourne 2 Day and the reviews appeared to be generally very positive. My training partner Greg McCann and daughter Aine had finished a superb third. The difference between me and Greg, a top orienteer, is that I think I know what I’m doing but he actually does. And here was proof.

Bamboo Cane 2017 MMM

NO ! You put the dibber in the control box. It doesn’t work if you ram the cane up your nose.

I slept in the car which was Five Star accommodation compared to what the rest were enduring in the campsite. For Day Two I had an official checkpoint job halfway up Chimney at an old Quarryman’s hut. I was teamed with Mourne 2 Day Treasurer Kerry Hall and fellow first time volunteer Marshall Chris McFarland. Chris is an interesting character and the exact personification of ideal Marshall material. He found himself a perch close to the control. Chris called it his “Power Rock” …. I’m serious here… and shouted at incoming pairs. “Ver is zee partner” in a loud and terrifying voice. He occasionally added “Schweinhundt” which I thought was unnecessary. But the method worked. Next year Chris has asked for a loud hailer and sound system. He needs neither.

The Marshalls MMM 2017

The Chimney Mountain Three. “Quiet Man” Chris is in the foreground. I’m wearing double headgear to protect my hearing.

At the finish line there were many stories of heroism and terrifying tales of ascents and descents of the Devil’s Coachroad and off piste adventures into the Cove Cliffs. It really is a seriously demanding event and now that I’ve seen it from both sides I’ve even more respect for those who compete and those who make it work.

McCallum and Begley 2017

Regular Scots pairing of Alasdair McCallum and Tommy Begley beginning to smell the finish line

The calmest man is the one person who would be excused for binge eating Immodium. The Head of Results, Timing and Safety Mark “Brains” Pruzina. I would have been a wobbling, dribbling, tearful mess. And then there’s our beloved Course Planner. This yearly post marathon blog would not be complete without mention of the evil plotter. Terry McQueen with his Hannibal Lecter smile. A census taker once tried to test Terry. He ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti. Every competitor will understand my carefully selected annual metaphor.

McQueen etc MMM 2017

“Brains” with Apple … how appropriate for a computer buff and Terry McQueen… with a stick… how appropriate for a man whose courses beat the sh*** out of everyone competing

Now for my excuse. There’d been a reason for missing the 2017 Mourne 2 Day … I’d “accidentally” competed in an Ultra three weeks before the Mourne 2 Day … and I was knackered…. and it was all Greg McCann’s fault. You see Mr.McCann is an Ultra runner. We met for an introductory run. “We’ll go at a slow pace” smiled Greg, “That’ll suit you” A well meaning comment but a huge insult all in the same breath. “You should do a couple of races” he cackled. A winter of training was followed in March by a gentle 50 miler in the boiling heat of an African Safari Park ….. this turned out to be an NDE (Near Death Experience but without the tunnel of Golden Light and welcoming Angels). That race is detailed elsewhere on this blog site. If you like killer snakes and jolly tales of predatory animals ripping carotid arteries you’ll have a real laugh reading it. I have included the photograph of a fellow NDE sufferer below so that you know I am not lying about the heat…!

HOT ADDO

Unfortunately during my Spring time in Africa I picked up Hepatitis E. I didn’t even know there was an “E”. Maybe there’s a whole alphabet of it …. I dread to think what Hepatitis X is like. Anyway back to my vowel based version. “Very common in African Pygmies” said my Doctor. I couldn’t remember eating one of those. “AFRICAN PIGMEAT” ….  no need to shout Doctor ! Anyway the result was a nasty liver virus and 16 hours a day in bed for the best part of a month. There’d been a ten week incubation period. June wasn’t a huge amount of fun.

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During our winter of tortoisian slouching round the Mournes Greg (family flowers only please) had persuaded me to enter the above race. A race he had done. “You won’t get in though. It’s the 10th running so there will be big demand” I entered just so I didn’t look like a complete wimp and hoped and prayed Greg was right. I did the Camino Trail, visited Lourdes, joined the DUP, embraced creationism and faced Mecca for additional spiritual support. The “Tour Des Lacs” … the race Greg had suggested … was a tough technical 82k route with 5,100 metres of climbing including a beastly summitting of the Pic Du Midi De Bigorre at over 2,800 metres.

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I turned all atheistic when to my horror my entry was accepted. Maybe Mecca was in the opposite direction. Navigation has never been a strength. Greg grinned and I vomited. “A nice introduction to high mountain Ultras” said Greg without changing his expression. “Nice” ?? Don’t you love people who can lie with absolute sincerity. 

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The Pic Du Midi De Bigorre …. terrifying for a man who finds Butter Mountain intimidating !

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Due to the after effects of the Hepatitis (My Doctor said I was the first person to eat a Pygmy and survive) I honestly didn’t have the strength to do much training for the http://www.grandraidpyrenees.com The later Hill and Dale runs nearly killed me. I met a tadpole at the start of the Moughanmore race. He was a frog when I finished. It looked like I’d have to bin the planned Pyrenees Plod. But there is one advantage to being a Non Practising Presbyterian of Scottish ancestry. You see I had paid for the flights and there was no re-fund. So I HAD to go. The plan was to get my money’s worth by enjoying a few days in the Pyrenees and try to make it to Checkpoint Two at 31k. Anyway I wanted to uphold my reputation as the Karl Pilkington of Trail Running. Everyone at the start was encrusted in that Southern European way with impossible sun tans… and rope muscled. I was pasty and chubby. I hid at the back behind a lamppost.

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“Tour Des Lacs” The clue is in the title.

Virtually no-one spoke a word of English. The race village Saint Lary-Soulan just about hangs onto France close to the Spanish border. Apparently the language is a sort of Basque/Catalan/Franco-Spanish combo dialect. I thought my GCSE classroom French would suffice. Every time I tried it I got these strange looks. My confident proclamations were probably translating into something like, “Can you help me my undergarments are full of diesel” or something to that effect.  

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0430 on race day. Nervous as hell and failing horribly to look cool.

So off we went … three mega climbs on the route. Stunning scenery. There were a lot of lakes. It was like Fermanagh on amphetamines. Very quickly I discovered that my clever summer training plan of doing virtually nothing had been a miscalculation. Add in the after effects of eating that Pygmy (I’ve written to the family – it was an honest mistake. It was dark. I was hungry. He was asleep. These things happen)

GRP Best Photo

I had ONE pace. 1.87 miles an hour. Uphill, downhill, flats. It didn’t matter. I kept surviving the humiliation of check point elimination by ever decreasing margins beating the cut off at the Pic Du Midi by four minutes. France clearly suited me I was moving at the pace of a sedated escargot.

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Look closely … the Pyrenees are upside down which makes them very hard to hold onto. I told you it was a technical race.

One of the problems with being old and slow is that you spend a lot more time in the dark. For me that meant approximately 13 hours in the pitch black… two at the start and the other eleven after nightfall. The final long lonely wet and windy climb up to the Col De Bastenet at 2,500 metres was an experience I won’t forget for a while. At the checkpoint there were several people lying in the tiny marquee in survival blankets shivering and throwing up. They looked like they’d just read one of my blogs. 

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The lovely Marielle and Cecille who kept me company to the end.

Fortunately at this point I was able to hook up with two locals. The fine ladies above. Twenty kilometres to go, mostly in the dark, but with company. The mental lift was incredible to be honest. We stumbled into the final checkpoint at Merlans half an hour OUTSIDE the cut off. The Race Director was there. Fortunately a man of empathy. I tried to explain, through a cascade of tears, that I had made a long journey from Ireland and to eliminate me now would be a cruel cut indeed. Or maybe I was saying, “My cheeseboard is collapsing inside my hovercraft” Anyway he got the message and said we could carry on as long as we took a sweeper. One of those impossibly tanned rope muscled types I’d hidden from at the start. How embarrassing.

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The only member of BARF in the field. You may only become a BARF member if you can prove a certain level of eccentricity. “Bohemian lunacy” It’s in the constitution.

Twenty six hours and thirty two minutes and 934th out of 937 finishers. But FIRST Irishman. Maybe they’ll build a plaque at the finish.

The end of another shuffling summer. My lawyer says it’s risky under libel law to describe myself as a runner. My admiration for anyone who takes part in any mountain endurance event has been enhanced even further. I still feel like an imposter looking in. Having the pace of a snail with superglue for slime is a kind of confirmation. Helping out at the Mourne 2 Day was one of the highlights. Seeing an event from the observers position was enlightening. Now to think about next year. My chances of making the Salomon Ultra Team may have gone but “Saga Holidays” and “Complan” are showing interest. A sponsorship deal. Time to negotiate.

 

 

 

 

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AFRICAN ULTRA HORROR

17310360_783289175169725_8527597828000415083_o
 THE ZUURBERG MOUNTAINS – SETTING FOR THE ADDO ELEPHANT PARK ULTRA TRAIL 
I paid full attention to the final race instructions. Snakes ! Listing the ones we might meet on the trail. The ones that can kill you. Hissssssss ! Cape Cobra, Boomslang (Male and Female – nastier bite from the ladies apparently – surely not !) and the good old Puff Adder.

PUFF ADDER

Most snakes scarper when larger mammals approach but not Puff the Magic Dragon. He lies there, cleverly camouflaged, and waits for you to stand on him or generally irritate him. The bite can kill you or lead to massive inflammation and loss of fanged body part. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to take a dump in the bush. The thought of two prongs in the nuts and then having to watch them turn into fleshy basketballs. Followed by death probably. This wasn’t going to be a Hill and Dale.
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 CHECKPOINT ONE AND STILL ABLE TO FORCE A SMILE 
The race was the 50 mile version of the Addo Elephant Park Trail Race. 8,000 feet of climbing included. The route was through the Zuurberg Mountains scene of a famous massacre of the British troops during the Boer War. Apparently the stench of rotting corpses was horrific. I wondered what I’d smell like after a few days dead with melons for testicles.

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There were two shorter races and a beastly 100 miler for Broadmoor escapees. Location an hour North of Port Elizabeth in the thickest African Bush on the Eastern Cape. A “friend” thought it would be a good idea for a first Ultra. What are friends for ? Killing is the answer.

HOT ADDO

 
The organisers e mailed to say they would endeavour to keep the predatory animals in the park well away from the runners. ENDEAVOUR ! Now there’s a word. “Excuse me Mr. Lion there’s a race on do you mind feasting elsewhere” In the small print they said you were not allowed to wear headphones during the event so you could be aware in the “Unlikely event of disturbing a dangerous animal” I felt a bowel movement and I hadn’t even left for SA yet. I suspected those Puff Adders were going to get loads of opportunities to taste Irish bollock.
 

SUNSET ADDO

The advice was to train appropriately to attempt to replicate the potential conditions of a race in a Safari Park in the African summer so I cleverly did the opposite by packing in a winter of peat plodding in the icy Mournes with the patient Ultra king Greg McCann giving me plenty of great advice. Like “Have you ever thought of having yourself sectioned”
 
Race week arrived and a heat wave was forecast. How happy was I ? The average temperature on race day was 100 degrees Fahrenheit but in the well named Valley of Tears it reached 120. That’s where Jan Smuts of Boer fame slaughtered the Brits. It nearly slaughtered me. Even after sunset the lowest temperature was 82F. That acclimatisation training in the week before I left in that snowstorm on the summit of Donard would surely work to my advantage.
 
My 50 miler started early…. before sunrise. I was staying at a nearby Game Lodge and headed to my car early doors. There was a Zebra standing right beside it. It saw me … farted loudly … and bolted. To be fair that’s the way most mammals react when they first meet me. The race began at 0530 just before the African dawn. It was so romantic I almost kissed myself. And we were off. 81 of us. I was the only Irishman. I didn’t really have to tell you that did I ?
 
The sun came up fast, as it does on the equator, and we faced just short of 12 hours of baking heat. It was a heat that just totally enveloped you. Crushed you. Smothered you. Burnt your soul. I had this feeling that God had placed a super heated concrete block on my head and was trying to drive me into the baked African dirt. God, to give him credit, was well within his rights. I’ve been a sinner.

LONG WALK TO FREEDOM

 
There were checkpoints every 6 miles or so. All of them well stocked with loads of goodies including boiled salted spuds. Didn’t they realise this would give an Irishman an unfair advantage ? Like Lance Armstrong on EPO. Before the race my lovely chum Oonagh Hunter, herself a noted trail athlete, a multiple completer of the three day AfricanX and an Ironman (Woman) as well, had arranged coffee with her old schoolchum SA Ultra star Linda Doke who had raced on the same Salomon team as Kilian Jornet.

With Linda Doke .. all smiles … cos she hadn’t told the Leopard story yet….!

Linda inspired me with a personal experience from the 2016 100 mile race – which she won. At night in the pitch black of the bush she spotted a large dark patch on the trail. Not being able to identify what is was with the narrow beam of her headtorch Linda ran round it. Turned out it was a pool of fresh blood. The result of a Leopard kill. It had leapt from the bush and pulled a Buck to its death. The kill had been witnessed by runners ahead. Thanks Linda. Another bowel movement.

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But there were also bundles of rather more invigorating advice from Linda. Hydrate like a madman, take regular salt tablets, eat real food at the stops and use the gels as emergency boosts. Keep the electrolyte levels high. Dip your wrists .. in fact as many body parts as possible … during the multiple river crossings. But don’t moon at the Hippos … apparently that makes them very cross. And they drown you. More advice: Get the aid station volunteers to pour water over you at the checkpoints. Keep cap and neck buff as damp as possible. Be strict with your pace. Slow and steady. Shame that last bit as I’d planned to sprint the whole way.
 
Despite the quality briefing I was really struggling not long after the half way point. I think I was showing the first symptoms of heatstroke. Dizzy. Skullcrushing headache. Nausea. One lad collapsed unconscious on the trail. Luckily there was a Doctor, a fellow runner, in the following group. The Doc stabilised him and a Medic arrived. By now ten runners had dropped out. I was stuffed and feeling very lonely. Then I heard footsteps behind me. I’m not last ! What a boost. Turned out it was the race sweepers … or Grim Reapers as I called them.. Dylan and Misty. Dylan recommended that I pull out at the next checkpoint … number four. He told me I was over an hour behind the next runner and had no chance of making the seven p.m. cut off at checkpoint seven.

TRAIL ADDO TWO

 
I really did think my race was over and at checkpoint four I sat down in the shade of the gazebo and contemplated the horror of failure. Dallas… yes he really was called Dallas… one of the Chief Marshalls repeated what Dylan and Misty had said… but he did add an extra line. I went all Clint Eastwood … it made my day. Dallas said best to stop as the next segment … a three mile long straight uphill section … would be sure to finish me. I sat there thinking “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’m capable of. A steep uphill section ? I’d like to see you slogging up Bernagh in a blizzard. Feeling lucky punk” See … Clint Eastwood. I visualised how Dallas would look locked inside a barrel of Texas oil but by accident I had found a great motivator. Anger. And off I went. From some where the strength returned. I imagined being back in the Mournes. Except these Mournes were in a blast furnace. But it was a seminal moment.
 
After the climb we were on an escarpment and at last there was a breeze. Two undulating sections. I got to checkpoint six. I was bright red and ruptured .. it was still over 100 degrees …. and there he was my nemesis … Dallas…. astride his quad bike like Bruce Willis. “You have an hour to cover the next six miles or you’re out. It’s an hour to the cut off time. You’ll have to shift” I seriously considered ramming my walking poles into as dark a place as my depleted energy stores would have allowed. The anger returned. My feet were by now two slabs of mashed mincemeat. I’d been “powerwalking” – without the power bit – for a long time now. I was now at truffle pig pace.
Dallas had gone on ahead waiting with the Sword of Damocles at checkpoint bleedin Charlie. I wobbled in ten minutes after the cut off. I stared at Dallas almost daring him to pull me out. I had secretly sharpened my walking poles on the sharp scree of the last climb. The Death of Dallas would be a slow and painful one. Like a a Matador with a bull I knew exactly where my little spears were going. I think he saw the psycho in the eyes. I think we tight band of Irish fell runners all have the capacity of that look. A subtle mix of determination and madness. Dallas waved me on. He had just saved his own life. (The Dallas bashing is of course for comic affect. He was in truth a great lad. Dallas cajoled and encouraged. He kept me moving. Mind you the bit about making me angry. That’s true !) 
 
The final leg. All in the dark. About 8 miles through forested bush. Snake country. Add about a dozen river crossings. The organisers – Beelzebub and Pol Pot presumably – thought it would be fun to save brutality for the finish. There was a fair chunk of climbing too. It took me over three hours to do that relatively short distance. Empty tank. Frightened … I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was stumbling about looking for race route markers. Little orange ribbons hanging from thorn bushes. I joke you not. At least they had tiny reflectors on them. Which helped. But they weren’t easy to pick out. Especially when you had to watch every footstep on rough ground while trying to look up at the same time. The river banks were high above the rivers themselves so one slip and it was a long way down into a watery abyss. And then there’s the chance of your headtorch picking out eyes in the bush. What is it ? A harmless Zebra or one of those bloody Leopards ? In the Mournes you know it’s a sheep or, in the forests, a deer. Scary … it really was. 
 
After a while I spotted two wee lights through the trees in the distance. I caught them. Two guys in the 100 mile race and, thank the Lord, they were as slow as me. Two Afrikaners and we made the Long Walk to Freedom (had to get that line in) The last couple of miles felt like eternity. The mind was now playing devilish tricks. At one point my fuggish brain convinced me that I would be here for all time. Fumbling from one orange ribbon to the next in the pitch black until the Universe exploded.

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Eventually, after, to be precise, several decades the finish inflatable appeared. I wanted to make love to it. I wanted it to have my children. I wanted to include it in my will. 71st and last of the finishers in 16 hours 35 minutes. They talk about emotions at the end of something like this and I know many readers of this blog will have completed many more difficult and challenging races than the Addo Elephant Park Trail Race but only one word had any meaning to me at this stage. Relief. No happiness. No endorphin release. No tears of satisfaction. Just pure relief that the agony and fear had come to an end.
When I look back there were two keys to completion. The anger I talked about … but that lead to a feeling of ownership. If you take ownership of ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING there is a much better chance of success. Own the pain. Own the terrain. Own the race. Own your fear. See everything “negative” as partners on your journey and success will be much more likely. It worked for me. Maybe I’m a little weak. Don’t know. But it was the toughest thing mentally and physically I have ever done. 56 years old and my first Ultra completed. Maybe this wee blog will inspire someone to give it a go or maybe encourage some of you old hands to go for something a little more exotic. Like the risk of death by snakebite or dismemberment by Lion in 100 degree heat in deepest Africa. And meeting Dallas. Think about it. You’ll love it.

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FOOTNOTE: Dallas turned out to be a great lad. He was just nudging me along in that South African no mercy way. We even swapped e mail addresses. Buddies now that it’s over. Thanks to to my NLP guru Brendan McCourt. The ownership bit has a lot to do with him. To Karen who got the energy into my body. Brian, the owner of the Kudu Ridge Game Lodge, also became a good friend. We had rugby in common. And finally to Sheena O’Keefe and the organisers for making a brutal event as comfortable as possible. The organisation was spot on and the friendliness of the people was probably the fondest memory.
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AFRICAN ULTRA HORROR

17310360_783289175169725_8527597828000415083_o
 THE ZUURBERG MOUNTAINS – SETTING FOR THE ADDO ELEPHANT PARK ULTRA TRAIL 
They didn’t mention the snakes when I paid my entry. Well they wouldn’t would they. They did in the final instructions. Listing the ones we might meet on the trail. The ones that can kill you. Hissssssss ! Cape Cobra, Boomslang (Male and Female – nastier bite from the ladies apparently – surely not !) and the good old Puff Adder.

PUFF ADDER

Most snakes scarper when larger mammals approach but not Puff the Magic Dragon. He lies there, cleverly camouflaged, and waits for you to stand on him or generally irritate him. The bite can kill you or lead to massive inflammation and loss of fanged body part. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to take a dump in the bush. The thought of two prongs in the nuts and then having to watch them turn into fleshy basketballs. Followed by death probably. This wasn’t going to be a Hill and Dale.
56B0F3E6-995D-4BD3-A75B-2E2048A078CB
 CHECKPOINT ONE AND STILL ABLE TO FORCE A SMILE 
The race was the 50 mile version of the Addo Elephant Park Trail Race. 8,000 feet of climbing included. The route was through the Zuurberg Mountains scene of a famous massacre of the British troops during the Boer War. Apparently the stench of rotting corpses was horrific. I wondered what I’d smell like after a few days dead with melons for testicles.

17240652_783350308496945_7111604263206627380_o

 
There were two shorter races and a beastly 100 miler for Broadmoor escapees. Location an hour North of Port Elizabeth in the thickest African Bush on the Eastern Cape. A “friend” thought it would be a good idea for a first Ultra. What are friends for ? Killing is the answer.

HOT ADDO

 
The organisers e mailed to say they would endeavour to keep the predatory animals in the park well away from the runners. ENDEAVOUR ! Now there’s a word. “Excuse me Mr. Lion there’s a race on do you mind feasting elsewhere” In the small print they said you were not allowed to wear headphones during the event so you could be aware in the “Unlikely event of disturbing a dangerous animal” I felt a bowel movement and I hadn’t even left for SA yet. I suspected those Puff Adders were going to get loads of opportunities to taste Irish bollock.
 

SUNSET ADDO

The advice was to train appropriately to attempt to replicate the potential conditions of a race in a Safari Park in the African summer so I cleverly did the opposite by packing in a winter of peat plodding in the icy Mournes with the patient Ultra king Greg McCann giving me plenty of great advice. Like “Have you ever thought of having yourself sectioned”
 
Race week arrived and a heat wave was forecast. How happy was I ? The average temperature on race day was 100 degrees Fahrenheit but in the well named Valley of Tears it reached 120. That’s where Jan Smuts of Boer fame slaughtered the Brits. It nearly slaughtered me. Even after sunset the lowest temperature was 82F. That acclimatisation training in the week before I left in that snowstorm on the summit of Donard would surely work to my advantage.
 
My 50 miler started early…. before sunrise. I was staying at a nearby Game Lodge and headed to my car early doors. There was a Zebra standing right beside it. It saw me … farted loudly … and bolted. To be fair that’s the way most mammals react when they first meet me. The race began at 0530 just before the African dawn. It was so romantic I almost kissed myself. And we were off. 81 of us. I was the only Irishman. I didn’t really have to tell you that did I ?
 
The sun came up fast, as it does on the equator, and we faced just short of 12 hours of baking heat. It was a heat that just totally enveloped you. Crushed you. Smothered you. Burnt your soul. I had this feeling that God had placed a super heated concrete block on my head and was trying to drive me into the baked African dirt. God, to give him credit, was well within his rights. I’ve been a sinner.

LONG WALK TO FREEDOM

 
There were checkpoints every 6 miles or so. All of them well stocked with loads of goodies including boiled salted spuds. Didn’t they realise this would give an Irishman an unfair advantage ? Like Lance Armstrong on EPO. Before the race my lovely chum Oonagh Hunter, herself a noted trail athlete, a multiple completer of the three day AfricanX and an Ironman (Woman) as well, had arranged coffee with her old schoolchum SA Ultra star Linda Doke who had raced on the same Salomon team as Kilian Jornet.
Linda inspired me with a personal experience from the 2016 100 mile race – which she won. At night in the pitch black of the bush she spotted a large dark patch on the trail. Not being able to identify what is was with the narrow beam of her headtorch Linda ran round it. Turned out it was a pool of fresh blood. The result of a Leopard kill. It had leapt from the bush and pulled a Buck to its death. The kill had been witnessed by runners ahead. Thanks Linda. Another bowel movement.

IMG_0223 (2)

 
But there were also bundles of rather more invigorating advice from Linda. Hydrate like a madman, take regular salt tablets, eat real food at the stops and use the gels as emergency boosts. Keep the electrolyte levels high. Dip your wrists .. in fact as many body parts as possible … during the multiple river crossings. But don’t moon at the Hippos … apparently that makes them very cross. And they drown you. More advice: Get the aid station volunteers to pour water over you at the checkpoints. Keep cap and neck buff as damp as possible. Be strict with your pace. Slow and steady. Shame that last bit as I’d planned to sprint the whole way.
 
Despite the quality briefing I was really struggling not long after the half way point. I think I was showing the first symptoms of heatstroke. Dizzy. Skullcrushing headache. Nausea. One lad collapsed unconscious on the trail. Luckily there was a Doctor, a fellow runner, in the following group. The Doc stabilised him and a Medic arrived. By now ten runners had dropped out. I was stuffed and feeling very lonely. Then I heard footsteps behind me. I’m not last ! What a boost. Turned out it was the race sweepers … or Grim Reapers as I called them.. Dylan and Misty. Dylan recommended that I pull out at the next checkpoint … number four. He told me I was over an hour behind the next runner and had no chance of making the seven p.m. cut off at checkpoint seven.

TRAIL ADDO TWO

 
I really did think my race was over and at checkpoint four I sat down in the shade of the gazebo and contemplated the horror of failure. Dallas… yes he really was called Dallas… one of the Chief Marshalls repeated what Dylan and Misty had said… but he did add an extra line. I went all Clint Eastwood … it made my day. Dallas said best to stop as the next segment … a three mile long straight uphill section … would be sure to finish me. I sat there thinking “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’m capable of. A steep uphill section ? I’d like to see you slogging up Bernagh in a blizzard. Feeling lucky punk” See … Clint Eastwood. I visualised how Dallas would look locked inside a barrel of Texas oil but by accident I had found a great motivator. Anger. And off I went. From some where the strength returned. I imagined being back in the Mournes. Except these Mournes were in a blast furnace. But it was a seminal moment.
 
After the climb we were on an escarpment and at last there was a breeze. Two undulating sections. I got to checkpoint six. I was bright red and ruptured .. it was still over 100 degrees …. and there he was my nemesis … Dallas…. astride his quad bike like Bruce Willis. “You have an hour to cover the next six miles or you’re out. It’s an hour to the cut off time. You’ll have to shift” I seriously considered ramming my walking poles into as dark a place as my depleted energy stores would have allowed. The anger returned. My feet were by now two slabs of mashed mincemeat. I’d been “powerwalking” – without the power bit – for a long time now. I was now at truffle pig pace.
Dallas had gone on ahead waiting with the Sword of Damocles at checkpoint bleedin Charlie. I wobbled in ten minutes after the cut off. I stared at Dallas almost daring him to pull me out. I had secretly sharpened my walking poles on the sharp scree of the last climb. The Death of Dallas would be a slow and painful one. Like a a Matador with a bull I knew exactly where my little spears were going. I think he saw the psycho in the eyes. I think we tight band of Irish fell runners all have the capacity of that look. A subtle mix of determination and madness. Dallas waved me on. He had just saved his own life. (The Dallas bashing is of course for comic affect. He was in truth a great lad. Dallas cajoled and encouraged. He kept me moving. Mind you the bit about making me angry. That’s true !) 
 
The final leg. All in the dark. About 8 miles through forested bush. Snake country. Add about a dozen river crossings. The organisers – Beelzebub and Pol Pot presumably – thought it would be fun to save brutality for the finish. There was a fair chunk of climbing too. It took me over three hours to do that relatively short distance. Empty tank. Frightened … I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was stumbling about looking for race route markers. Little orange ribbons hanging from thorn bushes. I joke you not. At least they had tiny reflectors on them. Which helped. But they weren’t easy to pick out. Especially when you had to watch every footstep on rough ground while trying to look up at the same time. The river banks were high above the rivers themselves so one slip and it was a long way down into a watery abyss. And then there’s the chance of your headtorch picking out eyes in the bush. What is it ? A harmless Zebra or one of those bloody Leopards ? In the Mournes you know it’s a sheep or, in the forests, a deer. Scary … it really was. 
 
After a while I spotted two wee lights through the trees in the distance. I caught them. Two guys in the 100 mile race and, thank the Lord, they were as slow as me. Two Afrikaners and we made the Long Walk to Freedom (had to get that line in) The last couple of miles felt like eternity. The mind was now playing devilish tricks. At one point my fuggish brain convinced me that I would be here for all time. Fumbling from one orange ribbon to the next in the pitch black until the Universe exploded.

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Eventually, after, to be precise, several decades the finish inflatable appeared. I wanted to make love to it. I wanted it to have my children. I wanted to include it in my will. 71st and last of the finishers in 16 hours 35 minutes. They talk about emotions at the end of something like this and I know many readers of this blog will have completed many more difficult and challenging races than the Addo Elephant Park Trail Race but only one word had any meaning to me at this stage. Relief. No happiness. No endorphin release. No tears of satisfaction. Just pure relief that the agony and fear had come to an end.
When I look back there were two keys to completion. The anger I talked about … but that lead to a feeling of ownership. If you take ownership of ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING there is a much better chance of success. Own the pain. Own the terrain. Own the race. Own your fear. See everything “negative” as partners on your journey and success will be much more likely. It worked for me. Maybe I’m a little weak. Don’t know. But it was the toughest thing mentally and physically I have ever done. 56 years old and my first Ultra completed. Maybe this wee blog will inspire someone to give it a go or maybe encourage some of you old hands to go for something a little more exotic. Like the risk of death by snakebite or dismemberment by Lion in 100 degree heat in deepest Africa. And meeting Dallas. Think about it. You’ll love it.

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FOOTNOTE: Dallas turned out to be a great lad. He was just nudging me along in that South African no mercy way. We even swapped e mail addresses. Buddies now that it’s over. Thanks to to my NLP guru Brendan McCourt. The ownership bit has a lot to do with him. To Karen who got the energy into my body. Brian, the owner of the Kudu Ridge Game Lodge, also became a good friend. We had rugby in common. And finally to Sheena O’Keefe and the organisers for making a brutal event as comfortable as possible. The organisation was spot on and the friendliness of the people was probably the fondest memory.
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AFRICAN ULTRA HORROR

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 THE ZUURBERG MOUNTAINS – SETTING FOR THE ADDO ELEPHANT PARK ULTRA TRAIL 
They didn’t mention the snakes when I paid my entry. Well they wouldn’t would they. They did in the final instructions. Listing the ones we might meet on the trail. The ones that can kill you. Hissssssss ! Cape Cobra, Boomslang (Male and Female – nastier bite from the ladies apparently – surely not !) and the good old Puff Adder.
PUFF ADDER

MY VERY GOOD FRIEND THE PUFF ADDER. PARTICULAR FONDNESS FOR IRISH CUISINE.

Most snakes scarper when larger mammals approach but not Puff the Magic Dragon. He lies there, cleverly camouflaged, and waits for you to stand on him or generally irritate him. The bite can kill you or lead to massive inflammation and loss of fanged body part. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to take a dump in the bush. The thought of two prongs in the nuts and then having to watch them turn into fleshy basketballs. Followed by death probably. This wasn’t going to be a Hill and Dale.
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 CHECKPOINT ONE AND STILL ABLE TO FORCE A SMILE 
The race was the 50 mile version of the Addo Elephant Park Trail Race. 8,000 feet of climbing included. The route was through the Zuurberg Mountains scene of a famous massacre of the British troops during the Boer War. Apparently the stench of rotting corpses was horrific. I wondered what I’d smell like after a few days dead with melons for testicles.
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SOME TOUGH RIVER CROSSINGS – WITH BIG HIPPO DOWNSTREAM – DON’T LET GO !!!!

 
There were two shorter races and a beastly 100 miler for Broadmoor escapees. Location an hour North of Port Elizabeth in the thickest African Bush on the Eastern Cape. A “friend” thought it would be a good idea for a first Ultra. What are friends for ? Killing is the answer.
HOT ADDO

HOT !

 
The organisers e mailed to say they would endeavour to keep the predatory animals in the park well away from the runners. ENDEAVOUR ! Now there’s a word. “Excuse me Mr. Lion there’s a race on do you mind feasting elsewhere” In the small print they said you were not allowed to wear headphones during the event so you could be aware in the “Unlikely event of disturbing a dangerous animal” I felt a bowel movement and I hadn’t even left for SA yet. I suspected those Puff Adders were going to get loads of opportunities to taste Irish bollock.
 
SUNSET ADDO

SUNSET – SALVATION FROM THE HEAT ? NOT EXACTLY STILL READING 82F ON MY GARMIN !

The advice was to train appropriately to attempt to replicate the potential conditions of a race in a Safari Park in the African summer so I cleverly did the opposite by packing in a winter of peat plodding in the icy Mournes with the patient Ultra king Greg McCann giving me plenty of great advice. Like “Have you ever thought of having yourself sectioned”
 
Race week arrived and a heat wave was forecast. How happy was I ? The average temperature on race day was 100 degrees Fahrenheit but in the well named Valley of Tears it reached 120. That’s where Jan Smuts of Boer fame slaughtered the Brits. It nearly slaughtered me. Even after sunset the lowest temperature was 82F. That acclimatisation training in the week before I left in that snowstorm on the summit of Donard would surely work to my advantage.
 
My 50 miler started early…. before sunrise. I was staying at a nearby Game Lodge and headed to my car early doors. There was a Zebra standing right beside it. It saw me … farted loudly … and bolted. To be fair that’s the way most mammals react when they first meet me. The race began at 0530 just before the African dawn. It was so romantic I almost kissed myself. And we were off. 81 of us. I was the only Irishman. I didn’t really have to tell you that did I ?
 
The sun came up fast, as it does on the equator, and we faced just short of 12 hours of baking heat. It was a heat that just totally enveloped you. Crushed you. Smothered you. Burnt your soul. I had this feeling that God had placed a super heated concrete block on my head and was trying to drive me into the baked African dirt. God, to give him credit, was well within his rights. I’ve been a sinner.
LONG WALK TO FREEDOM

TOUGH GOING

 
There were checkpoints every 6 miles or so. All of them well stocked with loads of goodies including boiled salted spuds. Didn’t they realise this would give an Irishman an unfair advantage ? Like Lance Armstrong on EPO. Before the race my lovely chum Oonagh Hunter, herself a noted trail athlete, a multiple completer of the three day AfricanX and an Ironman (Woman) as well, had arranged coffee with her old schoolchum SA Ultra star Linda Doke who had raced on the same Salomon team as Kilian Jornet.
Linda inspired me with a personal experience from the 2016 100 mile race – which she won. At night in the pitch black of the bush she spotted a large dark patch on the trail. Not being able to identify what is was with the narrow beam of her headtorch Linda ran round it. Turned out it was a pool of fresh blood. The result of a Leopard kill. It had leapt from the bush and pulled a Buck to its death. The kill had been witnessed by runners ahead. Thanks Linda. Another bowel movement.
IMG_0223 (2)

ROBSON STRUGGLING BADLY BUT STILL DOING MY TRUFFLE PIG IMPRESSION

 
But there were also bundles of rather more invigorating advice from Linda. Hydrate like a madman, take regular salt tablets, eat real food at the stops and use the gels as emergency boosts. Keep the electrolyte levels high. Dip your wrists .. in fact as many body parts as possible … during the multiple river crossings. But don’t moon at the Hippos … apparently that makes them very cross. And they drown you. More advice: Get the aid station volunteers to pour water over you at the checkpoints. Keep cap and neck buff as damp as possible. Be strict with your pace. Slow and steady. Shame that last bit as I’d planned to sprint the whole way.
 
Despite the quality briefing I was really struggling not long after the half way point. I think I was showing the first symptoms of heatstroke. Dizzy. Skullcrushing headache. Nausea. One lad collapsed unconscious on the trail. Luckily there was a Doctor, a fellow runner, in the following group. The Doc stabilised him and a Medic arrived. By now ten runners had dropped out. I was stuffed and feeling very lonely. Then I heard footsteps behind me. I’m not last ! What a boost. Turned out it was the race sweepers … or Grim Reapers as I called them.. Dylan and Misty. Dylan recommended that I pull out at the next checkpoint … number four. He told me I was over an hour behind the next runner and had no chance of making the seven p.m. cut off at checkpoint seven.
TRAIL ADDO TWO

KEEP HER LIT BIG LAD – JUST TWENTY MILES TO GO

 
I really did think my race was over and at checkpoint four I sat down in the shade of the gazebo and contemplated the horror of failure. Dallas… yes he really was called Dallas… one of the Chief Marshalls repeated what Dylan and Misty had said… but he did add an extra line. I went all Clint Eastwood … it made my day. Dallas said best to stop as the next segment … a three mile long straight uphill section … would be sure to finish me. I sat there thinking “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’m capable of. A steep uphill section ? I’d like to see you slogging up Bernagh in a blizzard. Feeling lucky punk” See … Clint Eastwood. I visualised how Dallas would look locked inside a barrel of Texas oil but by accident I had found a great motivator. Anger. And off I went. From some where the strength returned. I imagined being back in the Mournes. Except these Mournes were in a blast furnace. But it was a seminal moment.
 
After the climb we were on an escarpment and at last there was a breeze. Two undulating sections. I got to checkpoint six. I was bright red and ruptured .. it was still over 100 degrees …. and there he was my nemesis … Dallas…. astride his quad bike like Bruce Willis. “You have an hour to cover the next six miles or you’re out. It’s an hour to the cut off time. You’ll have to shift” I seriously considered ramming my walking poles into as dark a place as my depleted energy stores would have allowed. The anger returned. My feet were by now two slabs of mashed mincemeat. I’d been “powerwalking” – without the power bit – for a long time now. I was now at truffle pig pace.
Dallas had gone on ahead waiting with the Sword of Damocles at checkpoint bleedin Charlie. I wobbled in ten minutes after the cut off. I stared at Dallas almost daring him to pull me out. I had secretly sharpened my walking poles on the sharp scree of the last climb. The Death of Dallas would be a slow and painful one. Like a a Matador with a bull I knew exactly where my little spears were going. I think he saw the psycho in the eyes. I think we tight band of Irish fell runners all have the capacity of that look. A subtle mix of determination and madness. Dallas waved me on. He had just saved his own life. (The Dallas bashing is of course for comic affect. He was in truth a great lad. Dallas cajoled and encouraged. He kept me moving. Mind you the bit about making me angry. That’s true !) 
 
The final leg. All in the dark. About 8 miles through forested bush. Snake country. Add about a dozen river crossings. The organisers – Beelzebub and Pol Pot presumably – thought it would be fun to save brutality for the finish. There was a fair chunk of climbing too. It took me over three hours to do that relatively short distance. Empty tank. Frightened … I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was stumbling about looking for race route markers. Little orange ribbons hanging from thorn bushes. I joke you not. At least they had tiny reflectors on them. Which helped. But they weren’t easy to pick out. Especially when you had to watch every footstep on rough ground while trying to look up at the same time. The river banks were high above the rivers themselves so one slip and it was a long way down into a watery abyss. And then there’s the chance of your headtorch picking out eyes in the bush. What is it ? A harmless Zebra or one of those bloody Leopards ? In the Mournes you know it’s a sheep or, in the forests, a deer. Scary … it really was. 
 
After a while I spotted two wee lights through the trees in the distance. I caught them. Two guys in the 100 mile race and, thank the Lord, they were as slow as me. Two Afrikaners and we made the Long Walk to Freedom (had to get that line in) The last couple of miles felt like eternity. The mind was now playing devilish tricks. At one point my fuggish brain convinced me that I would be here for all time. Fumbling from one orange ribbon to the next in the pitch black until the Universe exploded.
african-elephant_435_600x450

GRATUITOUS PHOTO OF AN ELEPHANT. HAD TO BE DONE. AFTER ALL IT WAS THE ADDO ELEPHANT PARK ULTRA TRAIL RACE. WILL YOU BE THERE NEXT YEAR ?

Eventually, after, to be precise, several decades the finish inflatable appeared. I wanted to make love to it. I wanted it to have my children. I wanted to include it in my will. 71st and last of the finishers in 16 hours 35 minutes. They talk about emotions at the end of something like this and I know many readers of this blog will have completed many more difficult and challenging races than the Addo Elephant Park Trail Race but only one word had any meaning to me at this stage. Relief. No happiness. No endorphin release. No tears of satisfaction. Just pure relief that the agony and fear had come to an end.
When I look back there were two keys to completion. The anger I talked about … but that lead to a feeling of ownership. If you take ownership of ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING there is a much better chance of success. Own the pain. Own the terrain. Own the race. Own your fear. See everything “negative” as partners on your journey and success will be much more likely. It worked for me. Maybe I’m a little weak. Don’t know. But it was the toughest thing mentally and physically I have ever done. 56 years old and my first Ultra completed. Maybe this wee blog will inspire someone to give it a go or maybe encourage some of you old hands to go for something a little more exotic. Like the risk of death by snakebite or dismemberment by Lion in 100 degree heat in deepest Africa. And meeting Dallas. Think about it. You’ll love it.
IMG_0228

ADDO ULTRA OVER AND TIME TO RELAX AT THE KUDU RIDGE GAME LODGE. DON’T PANIC NATURE LOVERS THE HEAD IS A PLASTIC MOULD – THE RHINO’S – NOT MINE. THOUGH BY THIS STAGE ANY GREY MATTER I DID HAVE WAS WELL AND TRULY FRIED.

 
FOOTNOTE: Dallas turned out to be a great lad. He was just nudging me along in that South African no mercy way. We even swapped e mail addresses. Buddies now that it’s over. Thanks to to my NLP guru Brendan McCourt. The ownership bit has a lot to do with him. To Karen who got the energy into my body. Brian, the owner of the Kudu Ridge Game Lodge, also became a good friend. We had rugby in common. And finally to Sheena O’Keefe and the organisers for making a brutal event as comfortable as possible. The organisation was spot on and the friendliness of the people was probably the fondest memory.
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Mourne Mountain Marathon 2016

The overnight camp. Tents packed with throbbing thighs.

I was supposed to be tapering for the MMM. The Seven Sevens in August was in the diary to prove to myself that the legs were strong. So there I was using the Mourne Wall as a granite pulley system grasping the dry stone brickwork with both hands to help me haul myself up Bernagh – the Seventh Seven on the route.

The Battleground

The Battleground

Legs are supposed to me made of muscle bone and sinew. Mine felt as if they had been injected with wallpaper paste. But you keep going don’t you ? As I stumbled down the Glen River path towards the sanctuary of the finish line, Ian Bailey, the soon to be record breaking winner, who had started several weeks after me, levitated past and I swear that the great man wasn’t even perspiring. Bailey beat me by over THREE HOURS which means that he could have included a family picnic as part of his race route and still beaten me comfortably. The MMM was but five weeks away. I had every right to be nervous.

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That is me at the rear and totally overdressed. All the gear and no idear ! .. And being beaten by a pensioner. To be fair to both parties that pensioner is local fell running legend Ricky Cowan. 

Trickie Rickie’s Quickie

To be honest, as usual, the season hadn’t gone well. I really thought 2016 would be a breakthrough year. Ricky Cowan was a constant thorn. I wouldn’t say Ricky was old but he was one of the few to actually witness the Big Bang. As evidenced by the above photo the great man of the hills was still doing enough to beat Robson a man ten years his junior. Ricky has met the Queen (Victoria) and took his Mountain Leader assessment alongside George Mallory. Maybe I should consider retirement.

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The Mourne Mountains. A playground for the insane middle aged.

MMM and KGB! I Don’t believe it!

This was all very disappointing as I had put a cunning plan in place. Shortly after last years MMM I kidnapped a member of the famed Newcastle AC club. The poor girl thought I fancied her but the truth is she had been identified as the perfect training partner. Someone who could help me improve my fell running times and also make the odd cup of tea. Victoria Canavan was her name. The fell running community was in uproar when they discovered that one of the posh gits from the BARF club had moved in on the local talent. But I wasn’t stupid. It was a pre-meditated strike. This was a girl who was suspected of being part of the Russian doping scandal. In fact, in the Mourne area, she was known as Victoriana Canavanavich. It was all state run apparently. Joe McCannavanavanavich of the Newcastle Club had been spotted lunching with Vladamir Putin at O’Hare’s Bar in the Main Street. And there was talk of EPO which made me giddy. I knew I couldn’t get better on talent alone – mainly because I didn’t have any ! Drugs and romance. The perfect combination.

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Zaphod Beeblebrox ? Or Canavanavich suffering from Stockholm Syndrome ?

Pain in Spain

We went for a training week – sorry romantic break – to the Picos De Europa range of mountains in Northern Spain. It was there, according to her, that I tried to kill my Russian girlfriend – the sort of thing you normally leave to Bond. A jolly day out was marred slightly when our route back to the car – via a precipitous and narrow mountain path – was blocked by an impassable Avalanche. We were four hours into our jaunt and close to salvation.

But sure it was a nice sunny day. What could possibly go wrong ? As I uttered the words, “Sorry dear there’s nothing else we can do but go back the way we came” we heard the first cracks of thunder. Within minutes we were engulfed in a full blown blizzard. Canavanavich’s mood changed.

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The Russian in the blizzard smiling through veiled frozen tears.

In fact she went all Siberian. But I didn’t panic. Victoria, apart from telling me a hundred times, through a veil of freezing tears, that we would die a horrible death in the wilderness, kept her composure. I knew I had to save her. I used every ounce of mountain craft to keep my new love alive. Chivalry…? No not really. The Russian had not yet revealed the name of her EPO contact. I had to keep Canavanavich breathing.

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Can you spot the horse’s arse ? A welcome break in the Picos De Europa. Canavanavich must still be alive. She’s taking the photo.

Into the Valley of Death

Things had looked a lot better in early May. The Annalong Horseshoe Fell Race had been successfully completed. A 13 mile jolly through driving rain and fog thicker than the skin on the school custard. Yet again I went about my humble yet heroic business of helping people in a crisis. Coming off Cove I heard the cries of the Wherethefuckarewe Tribe lead by local international star Paulette Thomson. A bunch of hardy and experienced competitors who had slipped off the racing line. If I hadn’t got them back on course Thomson and Co might have accidentally won the Annalong Valley Cliff Diving Championships and met a grisly death under the Cove crags. Being a hero goes against my modest inclinations.

The truth is getting a body off the mountain is such a pain. The bloody thing weighs a ton. Better to keep folk moving. Until you get near the finish line of course. Then all bets are off. The real Robson emerged. I was with the Russian. We encountered a group of Southern Irish hill walkers at the North Tor of Binian. The last climb. One hiker yelled through the clagging mist and screaming gale, “Is this the way to the car park ?” I remember thinking “I wish I had packed the small revolver” – and shouted back, “I’m here to race – not to save lives” Where had Mother Theresa gone ? The Russian was horrified. No gallantry medal for me. Instead I had made Victoria Cross.

But the miles were in the legs although I had picked up an injury. “Right Thumb Knuckle Lock” incurred through feverishly gripping the compass for over four hours. Anyway job done and nobody died. As far as I know. 

Great weather and perfect vis for Day One

Great weather and perfect vis for Day One

THE BIG SHOW – MOUNTAIN MARATHON TIME

The Course Planner Terry McQueen once again thought he was Steve (although his dress sense would suggest he is more Alexander). By his own admission the “B” course was “Right on the edge” McQueen didn’t elaborate but I suspect he meant “Right on the edge of sanity”. Brutal stuff on day one with 1,500 metres of climb and some kinkily placed controls.

Try finding that wee orange flag in THICK FOG !

Try finding that wee orange flag in THICK FOG !

McQueen is a closet vampire. The sun rose at the campsite on the morning of Day Two and the crusted dried blood at the corners of his mouth revealed McQueen’s night time habits. Here is a man who likes his jugular. Terry had howled at the moon keeping the tented residents awake but it worked. On Day Two he had his wish. Thick fog was rolling in with the promise of rain. The mist would soon be down in the valleys.

A test of the navigation on Day Two

A test of the navigation on Day Two

There was an unnerving mix of alligator infested swampland and mudslide descents. There was also an evil four control “Super Cluster” on the top of Bernagh. One description read, “North Tor, extreme NE, base”. It would have been easier to find Atlantis !!!! Another said “Boulder” when it was actually a pebble. And all in thick murky mist. This was like doing a Rubix Cube blindfold. A malicious cackle drifted through the mist. Mean McQueen.

Canavan demonstrates perfect map marking body position. Robson eases the pressure on his piles.

Canavan demonstrates perfect map marking body position. Robson eases the pressure on his piles.

And then there was my Marathon partner. I had reduced her to screaming silence. Victoria had demonstrated remarkable patience alongside the “Meldrew of the Mountains”. She only threatened to kill me once. Staggering patience over 45k (with over 8,000 feet of climbing !) But, incredibly, our combined skill set of grump and guile ended up with Robson and Canavan on top of the podium. Amazing isn’t it. We won the Mixed Vets. And there was me thinking a mixed vet was a transgender animal surgeon. You live and learn. My first prize of any kind since finishing an excellent third in the year eleven sack race in 1971 (the rest of the field stumbled and fell – idiots !)

We never quite got the hang of the strapping system on those damn rucksacks

We never quite got the hang of the strapping system on those damn rucksacks

After two days of steep climbing, puffing, panting, scrambling and sliding we felt like the survivors of a sparring session with Conor McGregor. Peat and Heather were encrusted beneath our fingernails. Lovely couple Pete and Heather.

A successful outing then for Robson/Canavan. Butch and Sundance ? Hinge and Bracket ? Or maybe the Crankies. I’m Jimmy – the irritating one.

Next ? K2 on a tandem.

Next ? K2 on a tandem.

Elsewhere the powerful combo of Joe and Gwenda Kenneally showed that a husband and wife can win their category without domestic violence. Mixed Vets winners in the “C” Class.

Joe and Gwenda get their prize from Kerry

Joe and Gwenda get their prize from Kerry

While my old nemisis (or is it nemisi ?) Nangle + Mahon again finished the “C” class. Astonishingly they remain competitive without doing any training whatsoever. The evidence to back that up is there for all to see on Facebook where Nangle’s posts ALWAYS include a large pint. Maybe it should be “Off Your Facebook” ?

Dastardly and Muttley or rather Mahon and Nangle

Dastardly and Muttley or rather Mahon and Nangle

And then there was the “B” class pairing of John Keating and Ian McCracken. Both members of Mourne Mountain Rescue. They know every nook and cranny. The gynecologists of the hills. But McCracken was injured. Coming off Binian on Day One he went over on his already gammy leg and let out a cry of pain. Being members of Mountain Rescue they could have easily called for help by phoning each other. But on they went. At the campsite McCracken’s ankle swelled up alarmingly. It was the size of Rathlin Island. But he soldiered on alongside the eternally optimistic sympathy free zone that is J.Keating. To finish was a feat. 

McCracken is on the left of picture - the expression on his face proof that something is swollen

McCracken is on the left of picture – the expression on his face proof that something is swollen

Yet again it’s many thanks to the MMM team who once more put on an amazing beautifully run event. Now we are off to Jackson Sports with our £50 vouchers. If you do codeine Mr.Jackson a bulk order is coming your way !

Running uphill and downhill through the rugged Mournes over and under summits through gulleys and marsh while trying to navigate - in a constant exhausted state - over two days and carrying all your gear including tent and food. And sometimes you can't see anything - and then it rains. Apparently it's fun. See you all next year for more happy truffling.

Running uphill and downhill through the rugged Mournes over and under summits through gulleys and marsh while trying to navigate – in a constant exhausted state – over two days and carrying all your gear including tent and food. And sometimes you can’t see anything – and then it rains. Apparently it’s fun. See you all next year for more happy truffling.

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Mourne Mountain Marathon 2015

MOURNE MOUNTAIN MARATHON 2015

“The credit belongs to the man in the arena. Whose face is marred by sweat and dust and blood. His place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”  Theodore Roosevelt. 

Keep smiling ... and pretend it's not hurting ! September means Mountain Marathon time.

Keep smiling … and pretend it’s not hurting ! September means Mountain Marathon time.

Alfred Hitchcock, noted for his love of the Dark Side, would have been thrilled by the attacks of the killer buzzard. Identikit scenes from Hitch’s fabled horror “The Birds” were being played out just up the road from Mauds. As families bought pokes the crazed bird swooped in the nearby forest. The local residents were terrified and parents kept their children close. The route for the Millstone Hill and Dale race in May had to be altered …. taking us up the Granite Trail…. to avoid the psychotic creature.

There he is the wee bugger ! Protecting his young. To be honest we were invading the buzzard's terrain. Attacks probably warranted.

There he is the wee bugger ! Protecting his young. To be honest we were invading the buzzard’s terrain. Attacks probably warranted.

The buzzard had attacked several folk on their training runs. One poor lad needed multiple stitches in his bald pate. Apparently the buzzard took particular offence at the follically challenged. I was nervous and came over all Tippi Hendren because I myself come close to the baldy bastard category. Should I have a “Wayne Rooney Weave” or run under an umbrella ? “Man Up” I thought so I ran the race wearing nothing more than a protective yellow helmet. At least it would save me from concussion during the race. I’d been making downhill head plants a speciality. Marathon Men … And Women … need courage and I wasn’t going to let the ragged talons of a bi-polar buzzard affect my preparation. As usual the wonderful Hill and Dale Race Series provided the bedrock for my Mourne 2 Day build up. I could handle the scratch marks.

He's being chased by the buzzard. It's already nicked his shirt.

He’s being chased by the buzzard. It’s already nicked his shirt.

PEA SOUP FOR BREAKFAST 

I decided to take a more “goal oriented” approach to this year’s Mountain Marathon. Do as many Hill and Dales as possible. Climb a few Munros. Do as many legs of the Denis Rankin Round as possible. http://www.denisrankinround.com Go for a PB at the Seven Sevens and, for the first time ever, (well I am 55, it’s about time!) enter one of the mid range races. I went for the classic Spelga Skyline a 13 mile rumble round the Western Mournes. I woke on the morning of the race…. the 4th of July – right in the middle of Ulster’s baking summer.. and slowly parted the curtains. Rain and Fog. “Get dressed wimp” I screamed internally. “Go back to bed” I screamed outloud.

On the drive down from Bangor to the Mournes the fog became as thick as an Eskimo’s jock warmer. The temptation to do a joyrider style “Rathcoole Special”handbrake turn was almost overwhelming. I arrived at the Spelga Dam Car Park where I found several fell running luminaries doing the handbrake turn I had fantasised about ! I thought the only rubber you tough boys burned was from the sizzling studs on your Mud Claws. Not as flinty as you thought…Eh ! No names guys but you know who you are. One highly rated fell racer, whose name has been obscured to prevent embarrassment, wound down the car window… peeked out… wound up his window… and drove off !

Finding the way from the Spelga Dam Car Park to the starting point was a test of navigation in itself ! Whose idea was the F in Fog ?

Finding the way from the Spelga Dam Car Park to the starting point was a test of navigation in itself ! 

So there I was. Mark Robson the one paced truffle pig surrounded by the cream of Northern Ireland’s fell runners. Well I think I was surrounded by them. I couldn’t see them. But I was glad I started. I hooked up with Patricia McKibbin and Tim Kerr and we conquered the route as a team shuffling in at the back of the pack. The Course Sweeper, a man of camel breath but a kind and considerate sadist, cracked his bullwhip within earshot just to make sure we beat dusk. The only thing we beat that day.

The Mist Lifts at the Spelga Skyline.

The Mist Lifts at the Spelga Skyline.

The mushy pea soup backdrop of early morning was but a foggy memory by then. Remarkably it lifted quickly and completely about an hour into the race. As the eloquent Mourne Mountain Marathon Chief Organiser Jim Brown put it, “It was as if God had pulled back a huge duvet”. I know you’ll be in shock right now. It was the purest test of my expert journalistic skills to get the words Eloquent Jim and Brown into the same sentence. OMG I’ve just done it twice ! The good news, from a personal point of view, was that the Spelga Skyline had just been removed from the tick list.

The Spelga Three

The Spelga Three

THE COLOUR PURPLE

The Spelga Skyline Race Director was Aaron Shimmons a member of BARF. Yes… as in BOKE… but that’s the joke … I think ! The Belfast Association of Rockclimbers and Fellrunners. You may have seen them in their Purple running vests. Anyone who has read “The History of Witchcraft and White Magic in the Mourne Mountains” will know all about BARF. Can I further recommend “Human Sacrifice Isn’t All Bad” for additional information. Many times over the years members of BARF had slithered in my direction tempting me into joining. They promised mystical powers and the guarantee of one pound off my entry fee at ALL races. Mystical powers I could take or leave but the financial benefits fitted the budget plan of a tight arsed North Down Ulster-Scot. I rabidly filled in the entry form. Signed it with a drop of blood and I was in ! The sinister looking but rather friendly BARF committee suggested I write a post on their web site to encourage others to sign up. The post is below:

http://www.barfni.co.uk

MUMBLINGS OF A NEW BARFER: I used to admire those Purple People from a distance. I marvelled at the way they shone with such vibrant health. They never seemed to sweat. They were so smooth even the wettest peat refused to stick to their legs. I would end races bedraggled, puffing and drenched. If I joined the World of BARF would I too glide serenely across the Fells of Ulster…? But what if I was joining some bizarre cult ! A coven of Purpley mudclaw clad witches and wizards. But I was drawn into the vortex. For years I had resisted. Intimidated by words like “Ultra” and “Run”. Then one of the more shadowy club members whispered in my ear, “Just joining BARF will make you quicker”….. “It’s Magic !” he said as he sat hunched and muttering over a boiling pot of frogs. I took the plunge. I even enjoyed the blood letting initiation under the full moon on the summit of Donard. As the BARF members danced naked around me I at last felt that sense of brotherhood that had been missing from my life.

The BARFers were right ! The very act of joining will make you quicker. Robson post race at Seven Sevens.

The BARFers were right ! The very act of joining will make you quicker. Robson post race at Seven Sevens.

The Seven Sevens on August the 1st 2015 would be my first outing as a fully fledged BARF member. On the day of the event I felt a strange spiritual tingle. I had done no extra training but I still managed my quickest ever time for the event. Those incredible men and women of BARF were right. Results don’t lie. I had entered their esoteric world with, literally, a skip in my step. “Welcome to BARF”, said their hooded leader. “The benefits are vast …. the Fell Warlocks will reveal to you the many secrets… as long as you pay your annual sub… and you will learn from the Great Masters of the Bog… BUT… don’t ever try to leave !!!”

Bizarre .... but perfectly placed. A comfy sofa had been dumped at the col below Slievenaglough. The 54 inch Plasma is just out of shot. I sat and watched SKY Sports while I ate my sandwiches.

Bizarre …. but perfectly placed. A comfy sofa had been dumped at the col below Slievenaglough. The 54 inch Plasma is just out of shot. I sat and watched SKY Sports while I ate my sandwiches.

VICTORIA’S SECRET !

The Denis Rankin Round is an 86 kilometre challenge with 6190 metres of climbing taking in all of the Mourne peaks over 400 metres. It’s in memory of Denis Rankin a pioneer of fell running and mountain marathon’s  in Northern Ireland. Tragically Denis died during a fell race in 2013. The challenge is to complete the Round within a 24 hour window… which is, of course, impossible and complete madness. Bugger that I thought. Instead I’ll do it my way. Picking off each one of the five legs on separate days over as many summer months as possible. This didn’t quite go to plan. One week, while feeling particularly resilient, I planned to do two legs on CONSECUTIVE days ! Tuesday was lovely. The sun was out. I bum shuffled the 15k from Silent Valley to Deer’s Meadow. Feeling good. Unfortunately, while out for a recovery ice cream in Newcastle, I ran into former Mountain Marathon nemesis Vicky Canavan. It was then that I discovered one of Victoria’s Secrets. Her self patented post run recovery nutrition of double Gin + Tonic and red wine smoothies. Whoops !

The Denis Rankin Round is a 54 mile circuit of all the peaks in the Mournes over 400m. To be completed within a 24 hour period. Which is, of course, impossible and complete madness !

The Denis Rankin Round is a 54 mile circuit of all the peaks in the Mournes over 400m. To be completed within a 24 hour period. You cannot be serious !

Facebook Fiend

It got worse. Thanks to bloody Facebook and Strava the word was out. I woke feeling somewhat tender and scrambled. There was a message. It was from Kathleen Monteverde. A noted fell running distance specialist. “I see you are doing a Denis Rankin Round Leg today. I’d love to join you” I felt like the man who has just spotted his assassin in the crowd. Deer’s Meadow to Slievemartin was the route. 15.5k. I did my best. I really did. The start was uphill. The slopes of Pigeon. Kathleen was off. Running. Chatting merrily. I panted, clutched my heart intermittently, and did dangerous amounts of industrial arse blowing. Kathleen was making sure we were keeping within the time frame allowed on a “proper” Denis Rankin Round. So I dug deep and found the Killian Kornet within. We whizzed across the turf. Skipped over the hags. Soon we were on the summit of Slievemartin. I expected a representative from the Guinness Book of Records to greet us. But no ! Instead a grimace from Monteverde. “Oh Dear ! 3 hours 55 minutes” Kathleen scowled, “Couldn’t expect much more I suppose. We did walk most of it.” There was a hissing noise. It was my ego deflating. Crushed …. again !

Johnny Cash’s Out !

Nightmare ! Ten days before the Marathon my trusted partner Johnny Cash gets injured and pulls out. A serious thigh strain. Cash strapped – quite literally ! I was gutted for him… and for us. Johnny had scheduled in the Mourne 2 Day as part of his preparation for his season’s goal – the Berlin Marathon. Tears all round. Johnny also knew that if he HAD started the Marathon carrying an injury – and pulled out halfway through – I would have sliced him, diced him and fed him to that f****** buzzard ! Good decision JC !!!

image

Hawking Headache

John McBride, a man of considerable mountain experience, agreed to step in at short notice. McBride’s presence carried several benefits. A fantasy fulfilled – at last I had found an attractive older man… and it was also excellent news on the Vets Handicap front. Last week Stephen Hawking tried to code break the convoluted mathematical machinations of the Vets system – but quickly gave up and instead focused on the much simpler multiverse theory. Anyway… no matter … lots of juicy minutes to be shaved off our time. John is 60 (I had him carbon dated to be sure) and apart from the false teeth, titanium hips, plastic knees and leaky prostate (dangerous in a small tent) was in excellent shape. He mentioned that his revolving hairpiece could be an issue in high winds. I packed the duct tape.

Sorting the gear. It's always a struggle to get the duvet into the rucksack.

Sorting the equipment. It’s always a struggle to get the duvet into the rucksack.

Top Gear

Following far too many catastrophic training days I had selected a pair of Salomon Fellcross shoes for the Marathon. It was about time. I’d been farting and falling and sliding about in my old Speedcross’s for far too long. They aren’t terribly well suited to the fells. Try running on greased seaweed. My colour coded black and blue buttocks were proof. Like something you’d get after a weekend of S+M social with Max Moseley. The Fellcross my friends. Go for the Fellcross.

High Pressure was forecast and high pressure for the competitors too !

High Pressure was the forecast… High pressure for the competitors too !

Marathon Men

Followers of this annual blog will know all about the devious Course Planner Terry McQueen. His range of cunning clues and control flags hidden better than a Nazi Gold train has made him about as popular as gangrene. He loves others to suffer. What Terry really wants is for a vicious Atlantic low to smash into the Mournes just in time for the Marathon. A biblical storm but there’s nothing biblical about his approach. Avid readers will know all about Terry’s Voodoo prayer mat. He woos the weather Gods with maniacal mantras. This summer Terry sacrificed SEVEN goats. Terry was thwarted. A high settled in. “Drat and double drat. My dastardly plan has been foiled again” wheezed McQueen.

The weather was far too nice. A waste of seven perfectly innocent goats.

The weather was far too nice for McQueen. A waste of seven perfectly innocent goats.

Terry does have his uses. He managed to negotiate a late drama when Stormont announced that no Orange Flags were to be flown in the Mournes outside the July fortnight. That was good  …. but Terry later embarrassed himself yet again. It’s becoming a habit. Yes… he had set fabulously challenging courses. Definitely the toughest yet. Yes … he had good reason to be pleased with himself. But when he sprang from the Organiser’s tent at the campsite in his high heels and spray on denim shorts shouting “I’m so Money Supermarket” … well, he just let himself down. Terry … you’re better than that.

Race Weekend

C Class Route Day One - a beast !

C Class Route Day One – a beast !

Robson and McBride were all set. A combined age of 115. Gold dust in the Vets Handicap. We had brought the essentials. Denture fixative. Incontinence diapers. Just the things we knew we’d need. McBride would be the perfect foil. John was noted for his mountain craft …. and, perhaps just as important, his patience and sense of humour. The C class, over 35k, included 2000m of mostly steep climbing and what felt like 500 miles of tussocky boggy terrain. Thanks McQueen. Terry should have played Lawrence Olivier’s role of the demonic Dentist Dr.Szell in the movie “Marathon Man”. It would have been a perfect casting. Good vis made for excellent racing conditions but it was hard going. There were lagoons of lactic acid at the campsite. It was most certainly a serious challenge.

The overnight camp. Tents packed with throbbing thighs.

The overnight camp. Tents packed with throbbing thighs.

Nightsweats followed. Terrifying dreams of vertical climbs and peaty quicksands. Actually it was just an accurate reflection of day one and day two brought another combination of soggy marshes and plaintive cries of “Up there ? You’ve got to be out of your mad cow diseased mind”. Robson + McBride were on fire. Slowed only slightly by the weight of their saturated surgical stockings. John was by far the stronger member of the fledgling duo on day two. With McBride at the helm the terrible two ploughed on and by day’s end they had beaten, by just over two minutes, the dreaded bete noire combo of Mike Nangle and Gerry Mahon who had gloated mercilessly when they pipped the world ranked Robson/Cash pairing in 2014. I could also have gloated in victory but I find the fell racing community a humble bunch so for me it’s a simple handshake and a consoling “Bad luck boys”. Although Nangle, on hearing the news of his defeat, did look as if he’d just washed down a lemon with half a pint of vinegar. To be fair that could be Mike’s normal expression.

Robson rests his buggered pins at the campsite.

Robson rests his buggered pins at the campsite.

It had been another epic weekend. Yet again the Mourne 2 Day had been superbly organised by the unfailingly efficient and consistently humourous organising committee. The courses were, by common consent, proper hard core. Post event a traumatised Robson + McBride returned to their respective care homes. Robson was so knackered he didn’t even have the strength to chase the nurses and slept soundly after a rejuvenating bed bath. McBride, an inspiration throughout, deserved a night of rest and carbohydrate re-loading. He was last seen slurping Complan through a straw.

Robson + McBride demonstrating the relentless shuffle for which they are famous

Robson + McBride demonstrating the relentless shuffle for which they are famous

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Mourne Mountain Marathon 2014

 

Has the weather for a Mourne Mountain Marathon ever been better ?

Has the weather for a Mourne Mountain Marathon ever been better ?

I felt for the Course Planner Terry McQueen. Here we were a few days out from the anniversary 35th Mourne Mountain Marathon and the dastardly synoptic charts were predicting a huge high pressure system to settle over the Mournes. That was the last thing Terry wanted. Previous readers of this blog will know that underneath Terry’s angelic smile and charming exterior runs a viciously sadistic undercurrent. Rain, hail, typhoons, polar vortex, tsunamis and impenetrable fog are McQueens idea of ideal conditions for a Mountain Marathon. It’ll test their navigation you see. Good vis is for wimps – that’s the McQueen philosophy. I’m reliably informed by Terry’s wife Alison that our Course Planner spent long nights naked in the garden indulging in pagan ritual at that little altar beside the barbeque casting sacred circles and invoking the elements with his Earth Energy Crystals. All to no avail. I’ve told you before Terry. Those False Gods are a waste of space. The BIG MAN had already made his mind up. This event would be bathed in sunshine. So we were set fair and the big weekend was almost upon us …. but of course as we all know …. the big back story to any successful MMM is the preparation………

Far too high up for a wee Ulsterman but a couple of days in the Andes was good MMM groundwork.

Far too high up for a wee Ulsterman but a couple of days in the Andes was good MMM groundwork.

 

 

So there I was standing in the reception of the Tucuman Hilton in North West Argentina at six in the morning – rucksack packed – waiting for a man I had never met who was going to take me into the Andes for two days. I had found http://www.montanastucumanas.com via Google. Pablo would be my guide, An Argentinian ! How could he be called anything else. I had received one single solitary e mail from Pablo which said, “Two days. Two summits climbing. Bring blood group. We sleep in farm mountain. I collect you hotel. You pay cash. $200 US Dollars” It soundly vaguely like a threat. Were they Andean Bandits ? Anyway Pablo turned up with his young chum Esteban. The good looking gigilo (see below) boasted that he currently had FIVE girls on the go. I noted that he slept very well at the overnight refuge. Climbing big Andean hills was probably a respite from the relentless demands of his whirling private life. Anyway it turned out I was the only client for our twenty five mile two day trek which included the summits of Nunorco and Pabellon both at around 3,500 metres. Pablo didn’t seem to have packed any EPO. But sure wouldn’t the suffering give me an advantage for the third weekend in September ?

 

The Three Amigos in the Northern Andes.... Gigilo Esteban, Never Has Been Lothario Robson and the faithful guide Pablo
The Three Amigos in the Northern Andes…. Gigilo Esteban, Never Has Been Lothario Robson and the faithful guide Pablo 

 

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL 

I was in Argentina for a fortnight working for SKY with the Irish Rugby Team on their summer tour and this felt like the best way to spend a little downtime. Pablo, an Andean Mountain Guide with 20 years experience, assured me that he would go slowly after I explained that, after my winter frollicking around the Mournes, my red blood cell count would be a lot lower than Lance Armstrong’s was at his peak. I even showed him some photos of Donard and the way in which it swept down to the sea to make my point. Pablo simply didn’t get the concept of a gentle pace and my lack of altitude training so, with a permanent Jaegerbomb headache, I spent two days chasing Pablo’s arse while rasping through sandpapered lungs on legs that moved with the fluency of Frankenstein’s. Through the pain I reminded myself that this was all excellent foundation work for the Mourne Mountain Marathon.

LUNEY TUNES OUT

My MMM partner from last year was Ian Luney. He accused me of “doping” him after day one when in fact all I was trying to do was ease his leg/back/knee/brain/groin/hip pain enough to get him to the finish. Anyway it was nothing more than an elephant halting dose of codeine and anti inflammatories. He was pale on the morning of day two and later admitted that it wasn’t until a week after the event that he was able to return to his daily ablutions. It explained his constipated demeanour. So, instead of facing up to another MMM, as any real man would have done he instead got his wife Sarah pregnant (again ! Boy doesn’t learn !) and the baby was due around the time of the Marathon. Luney, not for the first time in his MMM career, withdrew….. A tactic he should have deployed on the night of the conception. Personally I suspect he got Sarah pregnant on purpose. I mean couldn’t he have back timed it and resisted his lustful urge on that fateful January eve. Luney knew rightly what he was doing. Another MMM with Robson was more than he could bear. I also suspect he dreaded the prospect of another defeat by the malevolent pairing of Mike Nangle and Gerry Mahon. Our smug arch enemies who had beaten us in 2013. Nangle and Mahon had been as humble in victory as people like that can be. The Facebook gloats only lasted a few months.

UP STEPS THE MAN IN BLACK 

And so I had to find another partner. I asked BARF member, fellow Hill and Dale campaigner and well know Hillsborough medicine man Dr. Johnny Cash. Johnny was immediately suspicious thinking that I just wanted him as a wing man so I could take the piss out of his name in the blog. I quickly assured Johnny that I was too big a man to stoop to lazy cheap shots like that and I promised to walk the line. Johnny turned out to be a top class and,more importantly, patient partner. My girlfriend’s daughters were hoping that I was actually competing with Joaquín Pheonix who played the real Johnny Cash in the excellent biopic. Sadly for them no. Anyway the last thing you want after a hard first day in the Mourne Mountain Marathon is a tent full of screaming teenage girls. Right ?

GERRY’S NOT A PACEMAKER

So I bumped into Gerry Mahon in McKee’s Garden Shop in Craigantlet one fine morning. We were doing our grocery shopping. We got chatting about the upcoming “Seven Sevens”. For those of you who don’t know it the “Seven Sevens” is a one day 18 mile race covering the summits of the seven highest peaks in the Mournes. It’s tough. Understatement ! Gerry seemed keen to do it and suggested partnering up on the day. Good to have company. I was wrong about this man I thought  – what a fine chap. I stayed in the Tollymore Mountain Centre the night before the race and was woken at 0530 to the drumbeat of rain hammering off the window. A quick look outside revealed that the entire Mourne Mountain range had gone. Gone I tell you ! You could just about see the top of Tollymore Forest. Thank God for Gerry I thought. Glad I’m not doing this on my own. “Beep ! Beep !” Text message. From Gerry. “Mark I have turned home. Got to Ballynahinch. Pissing down. Have a good one. Best of luck.” Do you ever have dark thoughts that you regret later ? Well I had dark thoughts …. except that I didn’t regret them later. I ate my breakfast working out ways to booby trap the Mahon/Nangle tent at the MMM. Gelignite might work but would add too much weight to the rucksack. Sarin Gas…? Could be the answer.

SEVEN SEVENS CARNAGE

We queued to sign in at the start. Pissing rain. No vis. Race commandant/machine gun tower attendant Jim Brown offered the cheery refrain, “Well at least there’s no wind” Seven hours later there I was pondering just what Jim’s definition of wind was as I leaned at a 45 degree angle into the gale on the summit of Lamagan. Jim wriggled out of it in his race report, “We were victims of quite a complicated weather system which was difficult to forecast accurately” Thank you Michael Fish ! It was generally accepted that these were amongst the toughest conditions seen in recent decades at the Seven Sevens. Almost one third of the field failed to make it to the finish. Andrew McGibbon of BARF got totally lost between the Dam and his next summit Meelbeg and ended up on the top of Bernagh. But heroically he back tracked all the way to Meelbeg, back over Meelmore and back up Bernagh again and then onto the finish. My personal hero was last man home Jim Baird who started at 0711 and finished in the dark amongst the scary monsters in Donard Forest at 22:28… Jim was out there for 15 hours 17 minutes and 35 seconds. Remarkable determination. Keep her lit Jim !

 

Even after the Seven Sevens was over I couldn't remove the "Wherethef ***am I" expression. It had frozen into place.

Even after the Seven Sevens was over I couldn’t remove the “Wherethef ***am I” expression. It had frozen into place.

RED ARROWS DISPLAY

Last year beautiful weather blessed the Seven Sevens and we were treated to the annual Newcastle air display. The Red Arrows were one of the highlights. A year on and the Red Arrows were even more important. The little ones on your compass ! It needed a fair amount of accurate navigation to get yourself round. The vis simply refused to improve. Down to a few metres at times. Wind howling. I felt so happy for Gerry  Mahon sitting up reading the papers after breakfast in bed. Be careful you don’t spill any hot tea down the front of your jim-jams Gerry. Now that would be unfortunate. I eventually made it to the finish where I drained several pints of hot soup and hugged everyone except the Met Office’s brightest new prospect Jim Brown. But what fabulous endurance mileage for the Mourne 2 Day. Now down to Jackson Sports for that Sarin Gas.

GAME OF THRONES

So I arrived at the Leitrim Lodge car park in the Western Mournes for a training day. The car park was shut I was told. Game of Thrones were filming there and their trucks and equipment jammed the whole area. Horses crapped freely on the quarry track. Not good news for me and my MMM partner Johnny Cash to find that our parking place was encased in a ring of fire. Now I know Game of Thrones brings in millions for our economy and, as Mourne Mountain Marathon Administrator Mark Pruzina pointed out, the landowners are entirely within their rights to let or lend an area to any group. Mark’s right – we need to respect that and contribute to the various access initiatives. But that wasn’t my issue. The problem were the “Jobsworth’s” – the security heavies – and their attitude. I was informed that if I even tried to access the hills via the Leitrim stile I would be trespassing and was told that “The police were aware of the situation” I could have been the first person in history arrested for attempting to summit Tornamrock. I decided not to risk a night in the clink.

Games of Thrones attempt to usurp Leitrim Lodge

Games of Thrones attempt to usurp Leitrim Lodge

LOSING OUR HEADS

Myself and my MMM partner then accessed the hills from the path underneath the stone cross and walked along the Ulster Way to get closer to the “action”. Not too close – we thought. But the Game of Thrones ring of steel was wider than we thought. Three members of the protection squad came our way. It looked like they were after us. We teased them for a while making the determined trio sweat chasing us up a hill and then, when they got reasonably close, we kicked on demonstrating impressive Hill and Dale leg power to leave them frustrated. Quite funny really. Although we might have ceased our chuckling if we had been pursued over Altnataggart by Sean Bean or Charles Dance and their horse backed chums waving their head cleaving swords. To be fair though the be-heading of two ramblers would have made for a juicy storyline.

"I'll take you all on. You'd be no match for a mad Ulsterman"

“I’ll take you all on. You’d be no match for a mad Ulsterman”

GARVAGHY ROAD 

Then, on the way back, we encountered a group of girls and their guardian Pauline. Duke Of Edinburgh Silver campaigners resting at a stile. Next stop for them on their journey was Leitrim Lodge ! They knew about the problem and the fact that they would have to go round and not through the area. They weren’t concerned. In fact the opposite. They were quite excited that they might see a little of the making of Game Of Thrones. We got chatting. Remarkably – and Johnny Cash can verify this – the group was from DRUMCREE Girls Brigade !!!! It seems they can’t go anywhere without being re-routed !

MOURNE MOUNTAIN MARATHON RACE WEEK

 

Cash and Robson get the miles on on a training day

Cash and Robson get the miles on on a training day

On the Monday of race week my brave partner Johnny Cash invited me down to his place so we could practice putting up the tent and discuss tactics. Fail to prepare and prepare to fail etc etc. Johnny’s lovely wife Ash made us a fine lasagne. The carbohydrate loading had started. There was also the small matter of a large boil on my back. Right between the shoulder blades. I wasn’t looking forward to the rubbing action of a rucksack on the festering mass during the demands of an MMM. That’s where having a Doctor as a partner can help. Johnny clearly enjoyed (a little too much I noted !) some muscular squeezage and quantities of rhubarb and custard were removed. It was during the “treatment” that Johnny happened to mention that he was a baptist and that he owned a caravan. I didn’t know what was worse – or funnier – doing the MMM with a man called Johnny Cash. Doing the MMM with John the Baptist or doing the MMM with a man who owned a caravan. I was very aware that the latter would eviscerate my street cred.

RACE WEEKEND: MOURNE MOUNTAIN MARATHON 2014 

imageAh the South Western Mournes ! All that deliciously squishy bogland and wonderful trapdoor elephant grass which conceals hundreds of thigh deep holes full of peaty quicksand. What fun we had negotiating that. It’s a wilderness up there. Wild open heathland. If it had been misty I feel sure we would have lost several competitors to Baskerville Hounds. It could have been carnage. Terry’s wee orange controls were hard enough to find in the sunshine. But hey ! The Mourne Mountain Marathon is not supposed to be a weekend spa … The clue is in the title. I enjoyed my Tango with Cash on Day one. We only had one issue really. On one long, long, long, long… Oh my God it was long …. leg across the wilderness Johnny stopped and yelped, “Mark …. I’ve lost something ….. I think it’s my soul !”

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The craic at the campsite was class as it always is when the sun shines. Crucially we had finished the day nine minutes ahead of the nemesis pairing of Nangle + Mahon but we knew, and they pointed this out, that they would be using their vast mountain craft and natural endurance to destroy us on day two. Nangle told me not be fooled by his seemingly undercooked preparations. He had managed to turn his hardcore training – A completion of the West Highland Way – into a seven day pub crawl. He backed up this groundwork with a quick walk up the Trassey Track to the Hare’s Gap and back followed by twelve pints in the Maghera Inn. “I’m a natural goat”‘ said Mike. No-one disagreed. Sadly Nangle + Mahon had an unfortunate second day and lost loads of time arguing over who had the better mountain craft. They stumbled into camp in a state of distress. I almost felt sympathy for these two broken men – sweaty globules sitting disconsolately on the grass at Killowen. I could have said that goat is only one letter short of gloat but I’ve got much more class than that.

 

Cash and Robson stagger into the finish and straight to wardrobe manager Paddy Mallon to collect a glorious pink MMM 2014 tee shirt.

Cash and Robson stagger into the finish and straight to wardrobe manager Paddy Mallon to collect a glorious pink MMM 2014 tee shirt.

But then horror of horrors the vet handicap corrected times were revealed. My mistake had been failing to enter Johnny Cash using the birthdate of his famous bourbon soaked and cocaine riddled namesake. Nobody would have noticed I’m sure. Thanks to my oversight the bus pass duo of Nangle and Mahon were deemed to be 30 seconds quicker after the controversial adjustment. They may have been soundly crushed/whipped/mangled (delete where appropriate) by a margin of one hour thirteen minutes and thirty three seconds over the ground – and that’s what really counts of course – but knowing those two they will take great pleasure from their Senior moment ! In fact I feel sick.

ANOTHER CLASSIC MARATHON 

We were blessed this year. Fabulous weather. A challenging course. Phenomenal organisation. The Mountain Marathon Committee may have been flapping underneath but if they were it didn’t show. It all looked very smooth and professional from our end.  Johnny Cash has promised to add the MMM to the re-mix of his greatest hits.

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Mourne Mountain Marathon 2013

MOURNE MOUNTAIN MARATHON 2013

…. the journey !

004

“Under no circumstances are you to run that Hill and Dale Race next week” Those were the final words of my physio after another half an hour of enduring the “Sarah Key Technique”. That’s were Julia drills her heels into the base of my spine. I prefer to call it the “Kamir Rouge” method (Avid followers of global torture techniques will know where I’m coming from !) I had locked a facet joint. I thought that was something you smoked. So no racing. No training. Just rest…. said the Boss Girl at North Down Physio.

From Kamir Rouge to Red Face

Julia’s instructions did cross my mind two days later as I stood on the start line for the McVeigh Classic in Castlewellan Forest, the first race of the legendary Hill + Dale Series. It was lovely. Cold, dark with driving rain and a back that was quietly spasming beneath the waterproofs. As usual in my typical “Inspector Clouseau goes Fell Racing” fashion I got lost, missing a critical right turn close to the finish. I ended up on the distant Bannstown Road. It was dusk and darkness was closing in fast. I reckoned if I ran down the road for a while I would become familiar with my surrounds and somehow find the finish. Not so. In my panic I flagged down a landrover and climbed into what I can only describe as a landfill site. How the lady at the wheel (plump, effervescent, farmer’s wife type and my latest guardian angel) got so much rubbish into such a small space defied belief. But she was my saviour and she drove me back to the forest (not a short drive) and dropped me just far enough from the finish so I could sneak up on it and cross the line without anyone noticing my subterfuge. I realise that my engaging honesty (admittedly months after the event) will probably force an historic disqualification but hey I’ll take that on the chin. I am probably the first man in the history of the Hill and Dale Series to thumb a lift. In a way I am quite proud of my ingenuity. And that’s how my training for the 2013 Mourne Mountain Marathon began.

I don’t believe it !!!!!

** So I bumped into race organiser Eamon McCrickard at the start of the Slieve Martin round a few weeks later. He told me about someone (not me) who had thumbed a lift at the Castlewellan event. How we laughed at this individual’s stupidity. I sloped off feeling guilty and sheepish. Staggeringly it appears I wasn’t the only one to hitch a ride that night ! Maybe he/she was hiding under the rubbish in the same landrover. To be honest I would never have noticed. The lad McCrickard will no doubt be only too happy to verify this information if you require further substantiation.

See you in court

*** Due to evidence revealed after further investigation I have decided that if anyone tries to disqualify me from Race One of the Hill + Dale Series, well, let’s put it bluntly …. there may be legal action suckers. No-where in the regulations does it state that you CANNOT hitch a lift. In fact in the safety section it states quite categorically that, “All efforts should be made by runners to car share”. Which is exactly what I did. In fact next year I may take it one stage further and use a quad bike on the Loughshannagh Horseshoe. That way I may beat Jim Brown.

Electric start…..

The goal was to complete ten of the eleven Hill and Dale Fell Races as an effective kick start for the Lowe Alpine Mourne Mountain Marathon. It turned out to be quite a journey. The actual races, in terms of results, all followed a similar pattern. I would set off hard looking good for the first five or six metres – and then drop back wheezing panting and shuffling to eventually finish at the rear of the pack. I was asked if I would like to join BARF (British Association of Rockclimbers and Fellrunners) … actually I was thinking of forming my own club … BATT (Barely Able Truffling Tailgunners) for all those enthusiastic but less gifted who were destined, like me, to forever trundle in during the fading light of dusk.

Sad night on Moughanmore

But it’s the sad memories of the Moughanmore event that will be forever branded on everyone that took part in that race. At the start I had noticed Denis Rankin warming up. Denis, the Chairman of the Mourne Mountain Marathon organising committee, was not a man I knew well personally, but I had heard so much. An absolute legend and now, at 68, with a recent history of heart trouble and the additional burden of several stubborn and creaky joints, he was down in the Hill and Dale nether regions with the likes of me. The important thing was Denis was still out there. Determined to compete and run in his beloved Mournes. He passed me on the short shallow descent off Pigeon and I remember mumbling something along the lines off, “How is that venerable gent able to overtake me. He has a limp and is 15 years older”. I may not have used those words exactly and may have included some industrial language. Secretly I hugely admired his impenetrable spirit. Denis was pulling away but I was determined to catch him on the climb up Moughanmore and I was within five or six metres of him when the horror unfolded. Denis collapsed – virtually at my feet. At first I thought it was some sort of seizure and didn’t quite know what to do. I had done my first aid and basic CPR but in the classes one thing they fail to do is tell you what a cardiac arrest actually looks like. I shouted for help. It arrived quickly in the form of two descenders coming down from the Moughanmore summit. Caroline Stout and Johnny Cash. A GP and an oncologist plus a member of Mourne Mountain Rescue who was also competing. Just the people needed in this situation. I set off for the summit to make sure the Marshall there radioed down to the start for help and then ran back to Denis. In the circumstances he was receiving the best assistance possible. I headed to the finish to make doubly sure everyone knew that there was a serious incident unfolding on the mountain. Everything that could possibly have been done was done but sadly Denis Rankin passed away on the mountain side. As his daughter Kerry said at the service – where she spoke beautifully – her father died doing what he loved. I noted that it was easily the fittest funeral I had ever been to. Lots of lean, shiny and emotional fell racers who had raced with and against Denis for many decades. The following week at the Millstone Race a huge crowd turned out including many “BARFER’S” who were there to run in memory of Denis and many did the distance non competitively in a poignant mountain tribute . It was a powerful eulogy to a hugely respected man of the hills.

Pyrenean Mountain Puppies

With the Hill and Dale Series over it was back to the ad hoc hill work which was interrupted by a wonderful fortnight’s holiday with the lovely Louise in Collioure near Perpignan in the South West of France. If there’s one thing I love it’s sweating profusely on a baking hot beach to a symphony of screaming babies. Add in an apartment situated right beside a nursery school and a motorcycle scooter park… and .. well… you get the idea ! Nirvana ! Fortunately the Pyrenean foothills were nearby and I made several escapes. Long suffering Louise loves her sun, sea and sand … which is fine as long as I can get my fix of pain. We climbed the 9,500 foot Pic Carlit staying in a refuge the night before the climb. Louise was definitely the only resident with a hair dryer and nail polish in her rucksack !! … but fair play. Despite vertigo, altitude sickness and a couple of unnerving snow field crossings Lou made it to the top. She didn’t complain or swear at me once !

“I’d much rather spend a day suffering in the mountains than sunning myself on a nice beach”, quipped Louise as she forced a smile at the summit of Pic Carlit.

Behind the beach at Collioure there was a Fort. A sharp 200 metre climb to the gates. Ideal for repetitions. I created my very own private Catalonian Hill + Dale Course and enjoyed many happy hours scooting up and down. Something to keep the legs in shape before a return to the Mournes.

Luney Tunes In

My partner for the Mourne Mountain Marathon 2013 was Ian Luney … yes the same Ian Luney who pulled out last year at quite short notice due to a late change in his work schedule. Not Ian’s fault and I have long since stopped inserting pins into the wax doll ! If you read last year’s blog you’ll remember that I only found a partner at the last minute through the MMM website. My advert (“Young looking 52 year old man with powerful thighs and love of re-entrants seeks similar for mountain fun.”) worked a treat ! Thank you Richard Worledge for your patience. But Luney was back on board looking rather prosperous after his year off !! During his one break from the sofa he had managed to Father a child. Sarah + baby Alice are doing well. Dad was still carrying the remnants of his phantom pregnancy !!!!!

The Dream Team hits the hills

There were initial concerns during our first training day in the Hills. A five hour July jaunt in the Loughshannagh area. While climbing Doan Ian’s back started grumbling. Fortunately I was carrying my usual trip inducing mix of codeine and voltarol. Ian was forced to sidestep a few pink elephants on the way home but he made it. As long as his “groin’s don’t pop” he’ll be ok he says !!! God forbid.

Seven Sevens Summit Fever

August the 10th 2013. The day of the Seven Sevens. If you don’t know it that is a 20 mile jaunt through the Mournes ascending the seven summits of 700 metres or over along the way. The weather was perfect. High cloud, a nice temperature and a cooling breeze. I had a game plan. Electrolytes. Take a gel sachet every hour on the hour to make sure the salts and sugar levels remained constant. So why for the first two hours and three summits did I feel like SHIT ? Empty legs, nausea and slight dizziness. Maybe it was the 0650 start ? At that time of the day I am usually still dreaming about Baywatch (yes I AM that old !) and visions of those tight red swimsuits would give anyone the vapours. Strangely the symptoms abated at the base of summit number four – Binian. Maybe Pamela Anderson just doesn’t do it for me anymore.. but then she is 46. I’ll bet she wears industrial strength spandex support pants these days. Funny I saw a pair of those at the Marathon campsite a month later … more anon !!!!

It’s only pain !

The final couple of hours of the Seven Sevens were suffered in lip chewing silence. It really isn’t very good for your knees if you spend the day crushing the cartilage together during a series of perilous mountain descents. Especially 53 year old knees. Some wee bugger had slipped steel wool underneath my patellas somewhere in the middle of the slope off Meelmore. He then tickled my spine with barbed wire. It all made for an uncomfortable climax. The temptation to kiss the feet of the marshals at the finish was overwhelming. But that would have been embarrassing. Job done. There is no doubt about it. The Seven Sevens is not only a great race in it’s own right but is also a perfect preparation day for the BIG ONE !

New map for 2013 Marathon. No place is a bad place to compare and contrast the Harveys with the old OSNI map. Forensic checking for discrepancies essential !
New map for 2013 Marathon. No place is a bad place to compare and contrast the Harveys with the old OSNI map. Forensic checking for discrepancies essential !

Seven Sevens climax ! Slightly unnerving !

The run through Donard Forest to the Seven Sevens finish was very revealing. Completely  exposed was my inability to move quickly downhill. The true fell runners, who had started three hours BEHIND me, were overtaking me in huge blurred numbers in the last few K’s. I felt sluggish and humbled. For an accurate analogy think of Mo Farah racing Stephen Nolan !

The Mourne Mountain Marathon 2013

“The weather is looking good for the weekend” said one, “You’re in luck”. He hadn’t bargained with my clinical OCD. So I obsessively checked the synoptic charts and compulsively discovered that the outside fringe of Tropical Storm Humberto would flick by us on the morning of day one of the 2013 Lowe Alpine Mourne Mountain Marathon. Disorder kicked in when I discovered that this would probably mean thick mist and drizzle on BOTH mornings. By the way who would ever think of calling a storm Humberto ? Is that after Englebert Humberto-dink the legendary Mexican crooner ? The storm originated in the Azores – maybe that’s a clue.

The Mystery Tour

The start point was supposed to be a mystery – a half hour ride away by bus we were told. So when the driver bounced into the Tollymore Mountain Centre at 0800 shouting “Any marathoners for the bus for Leitrim Lodge” it sort of blew the mystery element ! Not the kind of bloke who would have lasted long under interrogation. I suggest that you would only have had to say “waterboarding” and he would have traded all national secrets. Anyway we were all funneled onto the bus. Personally I didn’t really think they needed the alsations.

OMG !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

OMG !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Day One… Who’s idea was the “F” in Fog ! (Play on words .. got it yet ?)

The organisers were delighted. Notably a chuckling Mark Pruzina and course planner Terry McQueen. You could see sweet F.A. at the start. A lovely combo of clag, mist and drizzle. “This’ll sort your navigation out”, they chirped, “It’s how it should be” they chorused as they huddled under a warm blanket sipping Hot Bush. But they were right. It certainly was a test… notably for the first five or six controls. One look at “narrow re-entrant, middle part” had me scrambling in my dry bag for an early hit of Imodium. Magically the mist dissolved and good vis accompanied us on the second part of the day. One control was described as “Between ponds”. Well it was between ponds but it was so mega boggy it felt like it was IN a pond. Luckily I had packed my armbands, and, with the help of a short rope and a lifebelt, we nailed it. Then our friendly course planner sent us up Slieve Muck. We hadn’t visited the delight of the “Hill of the Pigs” (Muc is Irish for hog … you’ve just been educated) for a couple of years and, of course, the clue is in the title. Climbing Slieve Muck carries all the fun of a naked wallow in cold pig swill. But, hey, it’s all part of the craic !

Partner Peril !

By this stage, and by his own admission, my partners legs had “blown”. Of course he blamed me. I shouldn’t have run down Eagle to Windy Gap. He had been forced to follow and the old pins perished. I explained to Ian what had actually happened. Due to his carefully balanced marathon preparation diet of pizza, pies and chocolate buns he had ended up a little “top loaded”. I quickly talked him through the main elements of Newton’s Laws of Physics. Basically the extra weight in his arse had exponentially “downloaded” through his quadriceps leaving him, medically speaking, bollocksed ! Fortunately Ian recovered slowly and we made it to the day one finishing line in a respectable time. The old duffers had made the campsite !

Silent Valley Oasis. Just needed a palm tree.

Silent Valley Oasis. Just needed a palm tree.

Campsite Cameos !

What a campsite. Silent Valley. Manicured lawns. There was even a foot spa…..a clever Paddy Mallon design…. basically a tap beside a skip. Aaron Shimmons asked for a leg wax. Maybe next year. The weather was stunning which definitely encouraged sociability. The craic was mighty ! Happy campers. Ian had warned me that there was a publicity seeker called Mike who was desperate to appear in the blog and, if he saw me, would try to make an impact. When a stranger appeared in front of me, dropped his trousers, and displayed his (tidemarked !) Speedos I knew this was the man. I’ve embarrassed him enough so it would be unfair to reveal the full identity of Mike Nangle, Managing Director of DNT Chartered Accountants. Later in the evening he sashayed over wearing a bizarre pair of silver paisley leggings. They had obviously been stolen from Liberace’s wardrobe. I’m sorry but the question has to be asked. What was Mike Nangle doing in Liberace’s house ?

Steve Spence and Aaron Shimmons were in a tent nearby. A little too young and trendy for the likes of us, the Stadler + Waldorf outfit, to communicate meaningfully with. Aaron has a good reputation as a fell racer. I think I have found his secret … or is it a hindrance ? Does the large smearing of gel in his hair act as a slipstreaming device or does it slow him down. Mmmmmm !

Day Two….. MMM means Mourne Marathon Mist !

By morning the beautiful overnight campsite weather had been replaced by more mist which was wrapped ominously around Binian. It was more of a Sea Haar and as we huddled around the start box you could see it creeping up from the coastline. More fun during the early controls was guaranteed. Again course planner Terry McQueen could be seen cackling as he breakfasted on raw intestines and a pint of iced yak’s blood. Mike Nangle and his partner Gerald Mahon had finished Day One behind the Dream Team of Mark Robson + Ian Luney. Nangle had a look of icy determination on his face. I just knew he was determined to beat us. Despite two comic falls as he tried to remove the silver paisley tights which appeared to have been melted onto his skin – he set off for the start with his mind in the kill zone. I heard later from Mike’s partner Gerald that they had made up good early time in the beastly haar enveloped climb up Binian. “No danger of us getting lost”, quipped Gerald, “It helps when your partner is a foghorn”

Home at last !!!!!

There’s no doubt about it there were some tough controls on day two. Good old Terry McQueen, when he isn’t feasting on entrails, secretes those little orange flags in all sorts of evil nooks and crannies. This year I am going to steal his Christmas presents, hide them all over the Amazon jungle, and give him my old school Atlas. Now you’ll see what it’s like matey !!!!

But what a wonderful journey it was on day two. A beautifully mixed up course with loads of route choices to make. Yes the start was rather testing … like most of the field I won’t forget Binian for a while ! But we made it and it was a hugely satisfying weekend. Massive thanks to my partner Ian Luney .. without whom I’d probably still be stuck in a bog somewhere with bottom lip trembling. A great adventure but it wasn’t without pain. At the finish my thighs were screaming like the front row at a Justin Bieber concert and even worse was the smug look on Mike Nangle’s face … he and Gerry had beaten us by a not inconsiderable margin. The only disappointment, Mike said, was that he had laddered his silver tights but he wasn’t too worried. Mike was sure he could get another pair on-line from Victoria’s Secrets.

Thanks guys … and Denis.

The Lowe Alpine Mourne Mountain Marathon is all about the volunteers. From Chief Organiser Jim Brown, Course Planner Terry McQueen, Paddy Mallon, who married humour to his campsite management, the patience and affability of Frank Morgan, the arid wit of Mark Pruzina, transport manager Gerry McAlinden, and Treasurer Kerry Hall. All brilliant. The atmosphere at the event was wonderful. The organisation top class. Of course the 2013 event will always be remembered with considerable poignancy. The death of long time Chairman Denis Rankin must have been such a savage and emotional blow. I’m new to fell running but I have heard so many tales about Denis and when I saw him I have to admit to being a bit awe struck. Jim Brown had known Denis for ever and made a touching speech during the prize giving on the patio at the Mountain Centre. Dawson Stelfox announced details of the “Denis Rankin Round” a tough challenge with the goal to take in all the peaks over 400 metres in the Mournes. A crack relay team did a test run in just under 24 hours. But it was Denis’s wife Madeline who captured the mood “Denis has brought us the sunshine. He’ll be looking down !” It felt like the perfect phrase with which to end the Mourne Mountain Marathon of 2013.

Peat and grime removed the sweet smelling duo celebrate completion.

Peat and grime removed the sweet smelling duo celebrate completion.

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Mourne Mountain Marathon 2012

You can’t get enough training days ! Above the Ben Crom Dam. I was holding the sticks for someone else. They are only for softies.

On the 31st of July the washing machine clogged up with bits of peat bog. For me this was a sign that the preparation was going well. Actually that was maybe an exaggeration. It was an indication though that at least I was getting the miles in. I mean it must take a lot of peat encrusted sock washes to disable a modern Zanussi. But I was nervous. Every time I thought of the “MMM 2012” there were accompanying pangs of anxiety. This year the lead in to the big event had been cursed with nasty speedbumps. The intentions were good mind. I set out determined with the goal being completion of the B class with my trusty wing man Ian Luney (his idea !) and so I enrolled for the early season Hill+Dale series completing half a dozen.

Herein lay the first issue. You see the word race suggests speed allied to at least a soupcon of competitiveness. Sadly I was desperately lacking on both counts. The Donard Race took place on a fine day in May with the wind coming from the East which meant that the competitors could quite clearly hear the race announcers tannoy while they were up on the mountain. This can thrash confidence especially if you are still going up while the winner is being loudly cheered home on Newcastle Promenade ! I was blowing through my arse somewhere near the lower cairn when I heard “And the winner is … Andrew Annett !” They told me there was a prize if you beat your age in minutes to the summit of Donard. I would have acheived this notable landmark comfortably if only I had been 67 !

Johnny Cash rings true

On arrival back at the Prom I was greeted by a few scattered chip papers and plenty of well rested competitors. As I “sprinted” for the finish “Ring of Fire” blared from the speakers. Finishing a few places ahead of me was Johnny Cash (it’s true – check the results www.newcastleac.org ) so here I was being soundly trumped by a chain smoking pot bellied rockabilly country and western singer – no actually it’s worse – I was soundly trumped by a DEAD chain smoking pot bellied rockabilly country and western singer. The choice of music didn’t help my mood either as my own personal ring of fire (yes the piles were back !) had chronically hampered progress. Indeed the Hill + Dale had been a less than spectacular success all round with an average finishing position of 147th. It might have been worse. Thank God for the “DNF’s” (what category is that ?)

The final race of the series for me was the Loughshannagh Horseshoe – now that is a bugger – with the final climb being an ascent up the dreaded East face of Carn. I passed two Nepalese porters begging for a Mourne Rambler timetable. My old MMM “C” class partner Steve Spence did a few of the races with me and he beat me every time he finished. He didn’t finish this one though. Steve, as always, turned up in the best of gear. On this occasion he selected a natty combo of Gortex Cumberbund with Hydro Wicking Under Fleece and Turbo Pertex Vibro Shorts. He warmed up vigourously while I hid from the wind behind a hedge. Unfortunately Steve pulled a hamstring within 5 minutes of the start. “What happened mate ?” I asked him after I had tottered in at the back of the field. “Foolishly I only warmed up one leg” was Steve’s reply – no, seriously, that’s what he said. I have a reliable witness.

On top of the “Ruined Castle” Summit in the Blue Mountains. I am sure the plinth wobbled !

Off to Oz

That was it for the Hill + Dale’s for 2012 because thanks to SKY Sports I was off to Australia to commentate on four rugby union test matches – Australia v Scotland and the three game Australia v Wales Series. I had decided to tack on a three week holiday off the back of the trip so for the next seven weeks the training would be all Antipodean without a Mourne in sight. I would have to be inventive in an effort to replicate the rugged mountain terrain. Fortunately I had done a little bit of Googling and homed in on the Blue Mountains, which lie about an hour and a half West of Sydney. I managed four days hiking there. It is mostly populated by Asian tourist types loaded up with cameras who, quite literally, take photos of ANYTHING. Like way markers, and tree roots and landrover hubcaps and, of course, zillions of photos of each other. I imagine Hari Kari was invented as an alternative to browsing through Japanese photo albums.

With Ieuan Evans in the Blue Mountains. We have 33 International tries between us !

For my first day’s walking I was accompanied by my co-commentator from SKY – the Lions legend Ieuan Evans. His fear of snakes and heights was unfortunate as the Blue Mountains are famous for snakes and heights. Our chatty (understatement !) guide Adam carefully explained the horrors of the most lethal slitherers – the Brown snake, the Diamond Python, the Copper Headed, Tiger, Red Belly Black and Death Adder varieties and then, with callous disregard for Ieuan’s painful phobia, rustled the bushes with his walking stick to feign a sharp fanged attack. The Welsh legend would sweat, squeal and jump – demonstrating the quick fire balletic movement that once mesmerised the likes of David Campese. Evans woe was capped by our climb to a windy plinth topped outcrop. Now it was vertigo’s turn. “Spread your arms Ieuan” said the guide. Evans looked like he would have preferred a good trampling from Jonah Lomu ! After Ieuan’s return home I moved to my selected holiday resort in the Sydney South Suburbs (posh git !) and did another day in the “Blue-ies” when I was confronted by a feared obstacle of my own. Afterwards I e mailed Ieuan with an update:

Hi Ieu
Almost a week since you abandoned me. But I am coping. Weather has been ok apart from one monsoon like day down here in Coogee where it appears I am, by some margin, the oldest backpacker in town.
 
Yesterday I went for my “Valley of the Waterfalls” walk in the Blue Mountains. You can imagine my horror when I found that my hiking partners for the day were a married Japanese couple who were both on the wrong side of 70 ! All smiles with their rucksacks cleverly counterbalanced with bloody cameras. The guide was called Glenn … or Grrr…en .. as my new best friends called him. Glenn talked almost as much as Adam but he had a much more boring voice .. what a bonus … and as Mrs. Oriental couldn’t speak any English Mr. Oriental insisted (how loving) on translating EVERY word “Gren” came out with.
 
The beginning of the walk was mostly Gren warbling, Mr Oriental babbling incessantly in a bizarre Asian/Anglo cross language and me muttering darkly about how “They could have built that Bridge over the River Kwai quicker than it’s going to take us to get round here” sort of stuff. Glenn looked at me mysteriously.
 
Also it was wet and very misty so no views. But .. the day improved. The walk was fabulous – it did what it said on the tin … lot’s of breathtaking waterfalls and it turned out that the Orientals were mad keen mountain walkers … they had just come back from Nepal and before that had been in the Andes. They were super fit … especially the tiny wifelet Lisa. (See Photo) They turned out to be exceptional people. Good company with loads of energy. My mood improved. Just because you fit a national stereotype clearly doesn’t make you a bad person. Anyway they probably saw me as a thick spud munching Paddy.
 
Glenn was, shall we say, better equipped than Adam. Our lunch on the Ruined Castle walk should have included a hot drink, boiled on the spot plus food of a better standard. Glenn cooked up some stuff below an amazing waterfall. Result. Part of the walk took us along a path that had been gouged out of a cliff face about 500m from the valley floor … not for the faint hearted ! And the drop down to the Valley included 282 steps (Mr. Oriental counted them .. out loud .. in Japanese !) that were so steep you had to go down backwards. At the end good old Glenn … seeing the competitive gleam in the eyes of me and the Sherpa like Lisa … gave us our head at the bottom of the viciously steep climb out of the canyon.
 
Off we set … Lisa made a good start (she was really into it) but I kicked on and blasted past … impressively. It was only then that it struck me. I was racing a 70 year old Japanese granny up a cliff face. Really quite bizarre behaviour when you think of it. But ….. importantly I kicked her ass … yes that ability to go the extra yard, to battle through the pain barrier, to fight when all seems lost … basically … that’s why we won the war and they didn’t !!!!
Cheers Robbo….

In the Blue Mountains with my new best friends … including Lisa the Japanese Sherpa

Winter sunrise at Coogee Beach

Well everyone is entitled to the occasional rant aren’t they ? My base at Coogee Bay was in fact a good spot for training with a long cliff top path between there and Bondi Beach (namedropper !) which included loads of steep steps. OK it isn’t the thigh sucking bogland of the usually drenched Mournes and it’s hard to replicate the pleasures of the hazardous rough ground peculiar to the hills – but it was all I had.

Return of the Arrythmia

The training in Australia went as well as could be expected – apart from the return of the dreaded heart arrythmia. The symptoms had virtually dissapeared over the winter months but here they were – on some days in full incapacitating force – hampering progress. When the irregular beats do their full crazy dance the body basically just says “NO MAS !” Nausea, throat tightness, chest pain, pins and needles and a complete withdrawal of leg power combines to grind the body to a gasping, painful halt. (As an experiment place a steamroller on your chest, then drink a bottle of Bushmills in one slug while beating yourself on the head with a baseball bat … and you can replicate the feeling) When the arrythmia hits hard the body tries to shut down to self protect reducing the victim to a shuffling, lumbering husk. This is a problem I need to sort. Back home I contacted my heart specialist Nic Cromie and the heart monitor was fitted up. Usually when I wear the damn thing the symptoms magically disappear, but this time I got a couple of good traces. Over to you Nic !! While awaiting news of the next step on the heart front it was back to the hills. Proper hills. The Ulster Hills.

Epileptic Monkeys on Amphetamines

The next target was the “Seven Sevens” on August the 4th and this year it was for Charity – specifically the Lighthouse Charity set up to help those bereaved by suicide or sudden death. With £1,000 plus in the pot there was extra incentive but I only had a small training window due to A) Heart and B) … being laid a little low due to an insidious, strength draining, Antipodean virus. So I covered the race distance (about 18 miles) over three days about a week before the event. I could feel the “Mountain Legs” coming back. I wasn’t going to let a visit to my heart specialist dampen my ardour. Nic did an ECG which had a few alarming bumps in it. Mr Cromie explained that they were “interesting” but this was nothing compared to the results of my heart monitor “trace” results taken after an arrythmia fuddled weights session. Here the transthoracic interpretation (loving the jargon !) was more alarming. I was getting palpitations studying my palpitations. Imagine thirty epileptic monkeys on amphetamines playing the drums. The beat pattern looked like a recording of the soundtrack ! Nic suggested fairly immediate surgery … and I mentioned the following day’s “Seven Seven’s” Nic looked at me coldly and said nothing. But in his eyes I could see the words, “Are you a complete t*** ?” Sadly I could not find a coherent responding argument.

Hamstring Woes

My designated charity “Lighthouse” www.lighthouseireland.org had organised a football match on the night before the “Seven Sevens”. Crusaders Legends v Cliftonville Legends at Seaview on the Shore Road in Belfast and, ignoring my complete lack of ability as a possible hinderance, the Crusaders management had included me in their squad. I told them of my marathon quest on the following day and insisted on a short ceremonial appearance somewhere safe and well away from the ball – like right back. So we kicked off and the bloody ball immediately came my way. Foolishly… I thought this would be a good time to play to the crowd. I opened my Messi tribute trick box and threw in a mesmerising back heel. My standing leg slipped on the wet 4G surface and I tore my hamstring. The only person who wasn’t sniggering was me ! … and I hobbled off to much caustic abuse from some lovely people in the crowd “Stick to the commentating you half wit” etc etc. My girlfriend Louise was on the touchline. The same girl who had pleaded with me some moments earlier to warm up properly. She could see by the look in my eyes (devastation) that I was sure I would have to pull out of the Seven Sevens.

Voltorol and Codeine Love.

It was bloody sore with the hamstring wrenched at the point where it joins the femur. I sat on an industrial sized bag of ice all the way down to Newcastle. At six thirty the next morning my old mate Spence arrived (fellow competitor) and taped me up but I was sure that it was all a waste of time. The sight and sound of heavy rain thundering down outside didn’t help the mood. There were plenty of nervous folk at the start due to the thickness of the mist and the forecast which predicted a light dusting of Armageddon later in the day. But off we went and I limped up to the edge of the Donard Forest and onto the open hillside. Each step was painful and with every minor slip a little red faced devil drove a stiletto into the back of my leg. This was not pleasant. Most folk gorge on jelly beans on days like this but my snack of choice was a potent combo of Voltorol and Codeine – the Food of the Gods ! It must have been working because I was actually quite pleasant to my fellow comptetitors.

I can only attribute the revolutionary change in personality to a “morphine high” – it certainly wasn’t natural. I did discover quite early that I couldn’t rest. When I stopped, even for a few seconds, the leg would spasm crazily. My one enforced pee proved embarrassing. In the vulnerable “mid stream” position the leg cramped horribly so I stood urinating, in full view of several fellow hikers, while emitting small yelps and shaking my right leg violently. This attracted some concerned stares.

The first five summits were climbed in fog with the visibility never more than twenty metres but then, glory be, the clouds lifted and the final hours were raced (did I say “raced” ?) in glorious warm sunshine. I reached the finish in 8 hours 40 minutes and, thanks to many generous sponsors, raised a good whack of cash for the Lighthouse Charity. It was an incredible relief to get the job done. Fortunately there were no additional injuries of a serious nature. Minor ailments though did include the loss of some skin from the lower back due to rucksack rubbing and, rather nastily, nappy rash of the testicles. Hiking tip: Avoid merino wool underpants !

Spence at the first summit on the “Seven Sevens” – Donard. Steve made a remarkable recovery following a short detour through the thick mist on the path to Lamagan and recorded an impressive time.

The boy Spence (posing like an egit in the accompanying snap) got round in 8 hours 15 and he would have been quicker but for a slight discombobulation in the thick mist between Commedagh and Lamagan. As for my heart – well it was fine though towards the end the slow beat arrythmia kicked in. It’s the fast beat version that hits like a snipers bullet. Loads of deep breathing usually keeps the slow beat from developing into something more inhibiting. So that was a result. Now for the MOURNE MOUNTAIN MARATHON !!!

DAY ONE….

Ian Luney, my redoubtable partner from last year was forced to pull out. He told me he would be in America that weekend on a work trip. Personally I think this was an excuse and the truth was that he was determined to avoid another year of torture with the grump fest that is Robson. Word from a reliable source has reached me. I hear he locked himself under the stairs with four days supply of chocolate buttons. Pathetic ! So I turned to the MMM website www.mourne2day.com to look for a replacement. It’s a bit like a sort of alternative internet dating site, “Single man seeks like minded male with intimate knowledge of re-entrants” I had quick replies from Julian Clary and George Michael but the man that really interested me was Richard Worledge, a 55 year old B class veteran. So we hooked up … did a couple of training days in the hills … and were good to go.

The forum and facebook pages on the MMM website are great places to visit if someone you call a friend decides to hide under the stairs (I HOPE YOU ARE READING THIS LUNEY !!!) Myself and Richard hadn’t even begun before I recorded my first blooper moment. As we hovered around the start line a couple of competitors started squealing excitedly at a chum who was scurrying down the hill from the Mountain Centre. “Steady on folks”, I quipped, “We don’t do that whooping and hollering American nonsense in these parts !!” Turned out they were American … DOH ! Not my fault – due to a DNA issue on my Father’s side I was born without the crucial “subtle-panache” gene. Time to race. The route card was the first shock. Full of horrifying phrases like “Break in slope”and “Faint earth bank”. It wasn’t like this in the good old days of the C Class. Already I missed much more sensible stuff like “Massive big bend in huge wide track at junction of an incredibly big stream… near the M5” Much more suited to my style of micro-navigation. We hit the first cut off in a large re-entrant near Spellack where the wonderful ladies in the tent told me how much they had enjoyed last year’s blog. Girls… I really did appreciate the kind words.

Unfortunately it was around this time that the arrythmia started. It lasted most of the day and reduced my pace somewhat. Indeed I was overtaken by a fat three legged tortoise suffering from what appeared to be swollen bunions. Richard looked concerned. In 2011 he had failed to officially “complete” when his partner forgot to dip at a checkpoint late on Day Two. That partner’s grave has never been discovered. This time Richard was determined to finish the course. To be fair he offered much encouragement and demonstrated (outwardly) a lot of patience. Inwardly he may have been considering blasting me between the eyes with a bolt gun and at one point I did see him ferreting suspiciously in his rucksack !!! Several times I was sure I would have to pull out but on we went at a criminally slow pace. The tortoise beat us up Lamagan by fourteen minutes. We limped into the overnight camp in flat last place in the B class half an hour adrift of our nearest challengers. In a mildly delirious semi-conscious state I put up the tent, sorted out my sleeping bag, and found some space for the tortoise. By now he was a pet … Terry the Titanic. Great company – though you do need to leave loads of time for “walkies”. I talked to Terry a lot during a long night. (Steve .. I don’t care what you say he DOES exist).

Terry the Titanic Tortoise for those who thought I had invented him !

The evil arrythmia meant little sleep. The thrashing motion is inclined to keep you awake. So I know EXACTLY when the rain started… 0438 a.m. and at times it hammered down on our little tent. Terry the Titanic was Terrified. Cooking breakfast bleary eyed under a flap ten inches square to the distracting and miserable sound of rain dancing off nylon takes massive culinary skill. You don’t see that on Masterchef. Mid Marathon, sleepless and starving it’s unlikely that even the great Anthony Worrell-Thompson with his “Al Dente” this and “Carmelize” that and “Flambe” the other could prepare anything better than “Porridge in a Bag”. In the pre start panic to pack the tent in the pouring rain I think I may have wrapped Terry in the material. I hope he’s alright.

DAY TWO

We set off. I was nervous about my ticker but we made solid initial progress and hit the early checkpoints without any problems despite the dodgy vis. Richard is a phenomenally good bloke. Quiet. Unassuming. Top class when it comes to route selection. He is thick set, very tall, wears glasses and models a hiking outfit that consists of black military boots, fluffy socks, extremely functional Baden-Powell style shorts and a Buffalo jacket complete with a black canvas rucksack that would definitely fetch a sumptious price on the Antiques Roadshow. Richard is also tough and very strong in the hills so if he WAS a serial killer, and I very much doubt that he fits the profile in any way, then he would not be a man to mess with. The look in Richard’s eyes on that second morning was intimidating but in a friendly way. But the message was clear … we finish this thing or YOU are a dead man !!! No pressure then.

The Robson + Worledge B Class Dream Team – Richard found his boots buried in a trench during a holiday visit to the site of the Batte of the Somme

All went well until we reached our first checkpoint of the third cluster “Break in slope, E shoulder of corrie, 620m” Clearly the course designer (and I know where you live !) is related to the Marquis De Sade. What a bugger to A) Find and B) Climb up to. We took a tough line up a firebreak in the Glen Forest and then headed towards Commedagh and the Pot of Legawherry via the slopes of Shan Slieve. I won’t labour the point but at this late stage on day two this was a sadistic, savage, cruel, beastly, ruthless, inhuman and barbarous place to put a marker.

Richard picked the route for this one and let me tell you I whinged mightily the whole way up. I had pleaded that we use the wimps choice up the “honeypot” path beside the Glen River. But good old Rich saved the day. We were coming at it from a great angle. Rich spotted the flag from quite a long way back. It was, as advertised, right on the 620m contour line. If you look at the map it shows that the contours are marked on the grass in faint brown ink but I have yet to find one. Maybe the rain has washed them away. MMM Course Designers need to be aware of this anomaly !!!!! From there it was basically all downhill with three checkpoints to go.

The arrythmia had started up again but with the end in sight the adrenalin was pumping. A suit of armour (gortex) and a sandbag rucksack would not have stopped me now. Just the forest to go and after negotiating a rather heinous “Minor stream bend, midway between tracks” checkpoint we made it to the finish. We had pulled back quite a bit of time on Day Two but still ended up a glorious 25th and last in the B class but we finished. The key word in that sentence though is FINISHED. Richard was very, very relieved and I left him looking at www.dateahiker.com searching for a new partner for next year. It seems that an MMM weekend with Mark Robson is an experience not to be repeated. My third year and three different partners. It’s OK guys I am getting the hint. You can come out from under the stairs now Luney !!!

The back markers attempt and fail to feign enthusiasm in the pishing rain at the start of Day Two

Once again the MMM was organised superbly .. I met a couple of guys from Leeds who are LAMM veterans. They were effusive in their praise. Denis Rankin, Mark Pruzina and all the others who contributed to the running of the event should be mightily praised. Let’s offer thanks to all of the cheerful marshalls and volunteers out on the course… the MMM’s very own “Gamemakers”.. and FINALLY… well done to Steve Spence and Gary Ray who finished 43rd in the C Class. Gary had only ever been to the Mournes ONCE before in his life and completed the course. Amazing ! Helped of course by the sharp navigation craft of my old partner Spence. Steve’s skills have improved markedly since the days, only a very short time ago, when he struggled to find the eggs in Tesco. To be fair Tesco do have a habit of moving the eggs from aisle to aisle – why do they do that ? And FINALLY FINALLY if anyone finds a tortoise answering to the name Terry – last seen in the Rourke’s Park area of the Southern Mournes – could they please let me know !!!!

ADDENDUM: Two days after the Marathon I found myself on a slab in the cardiac unit of the Royal Victoria Hospital. My old chum Nic Cromie, the heart surgeon, carried out an ablation for an atrial flutter via the femoral vein (they access through the groin – nice !) Nic was confident that this would sort the “fast” arrythmia. Nic also noted a “left bundle branch block”, which sounded like an elite class marker description, and a low conduction system ( that’s the “slow” arrythmia) for which he suggested the potential fitting of a pacemaker. But despite the trauma of all of this the Mourne Mountain Marathon was still on my mind. While the nurse gently lathered my crotch for shaving I quietly recited B class route card grid references to myself. She was blonde and pretty and to be honest this was nothing more than a desperate distraction technique !!!!!

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Mourne Mountain Marathon 2011

Training Day: Tuesday 2nd August 2011

I have always admired the wild eyed hard nuts who run Mountain Marathons. Men and women. Young and old. They seemed to be really good people. I liked their attitude to life. That joie de vivre … a passion for the outdoors. The wonderful sense of bonhommie. The humbling unpretentious approach to a seriously rugged pursuit. They also appeared to possess a certain glint in the eye that suggested borderline psychotic.. but in a nice way. As I have always felt at one with madness this aspect attracted me immensely. Racing up and then throwing yourself off mountains without any regard for personal safety probably places you fairly high up on the crazy scale. I felt I would fit in. I had spent quite a few happy years bumbling around the hills of Northern Ireland, getting some expert instruction from a couple of Marathon Vets … my oldest chum Kevin Balmer, an outdoor pursuit instructor of considerable repute, and another highly qualified and very patient man – Graham Smyth. Generally I was falling in love with it all. Now I had declared myself as a trainee Mountain Marathon Man … and the MMM … or Mourne Mountain Marathon would be the goal.

The fabled Seven Seven’s is often built in as part of the training regime. It does what it says on the tin. You attempt to negotiate the seven Mourne summits that climb to above seven hundred metres all on the same day. I had done it in 2010 in the hugely unremarkable time of 11 hours and 20 minutes. The designated date for the 2011 event was Saturday 6th of August but I had a SKY 3D commentary date at Twickenham for England against Wales in a World Cup warm up game. No matter. There is always a way round such triffling issues…. so I decided to do it on my own on the Tuesday. I started from the Meelmore Lodge car park on a dank and grimy morning doing the Seven summits from Bernagh to Meelmore, Meelbeg, across to Binian, up Lamagan, then Donard, Commedagh and finally the long drag back to Meelmore. Apart from getting a bit discombobulated in thick mist on the bog land between Meelbeg and the Silent Valley Reservoir all went well. Until I got to my sixth hill – Donard. By now the weather had cleared and there were plenty of dodgy tourist types on the “honey pot” route up to Northern Ireland’s most famous summit. Unfortunately, by this stage, my legs and gone completely. While I wasn’t looking some bastard had injected molten lead into my thighs and I was moving at the pace of a pile ridden sloth. A man in brown slip on leather shoes and an equally inappropriate leather bomber jacket cruised past me. Bloody holiday makers. “Is this your first time up this mountain ?” he quipped. I didn’t even have the energy left to mumble an explanation. And anyway I was thinking of ways to incapacitate him with my walking pole. It’s amazing how malliciously inventive you can be when faced with someone who has confused arseholism with comedy ! …. but … despite this irritating hiccup and deceased quadriceps I managed to struggle up the last two hills and eventually made it back to the car in a new personal best of 9 hours and 12 minutes. I was very pleased. On the actually day of the Seven Seven’s the following Saturday one of my main (and bitter) rivals in the forthcoming Marathon itself – a Mr. Steven Spence – recorded a splendid time of 8 hours and 55 minutes. I am so pleased for him and I am planning on calling round to his house sometime soon to show him various fabulous alternative uses for a walking pole ! I must train harder.

When the weather is good the Mournes make a wonderful playground

Training Day: Wednesday 17th August.

Well what a stunning morning. Off early doors as always. I drove around the sweeping bend on the main Downpatrick Road just before the Dellamont Outdoor Centre and there she was – Slieve Donard – bathed in full summer sunlight. I actually let out an involuntary whoop of excitement which was completely at odds with my usual Meldrew like demeanour. I had planned to do a good solid navigation day and build in maybe five summits for endurance building purposes. With the start point for the Marathon being in the village of Attical me and my partner Ian Luney have a suspicion that they will send us around the Eagle Mountain area and probably the terrain at Slieve Muck as well. Not areas where I would have particular local knowledge. So I set off – on my own – up the steep Western approach to the summit of Muck picking up some nav points on the way – stream source, re-entrant – that sort of thing. All was well for about 20 minutes ! Then I had a nasty arrythmia attack. I have these now and again. My cardiologist says it’s exercise induced and nothing to worry about. NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT ! I would have liked to have put Super Doc Cardio Man inside my (brand new) Salomon (Green – yugh !) Speedcross super studded fell shoes. It was horrendous. My heart hadn’t beaten as quickly since my first Kylie Minogue concert. Racing heart, chest pain, dizzyness, loss of leg power and nausea. So using all the intelligence of a COMPLETE IDIOT I kept going thinking it would go away. Two hours later – and now stuck on the East side of Muck with an absolute Mother of a climb ahead – things had not improved. If anything they were worse. Even the slightest uphill angle set it off. Muck normally takes about 40 minutes for me to get up. Today it took me 90 minutes. At times I was left rather pathetically clinging to the Mourne Wall – my heart thrashing about. I managed to get back to car and sat down to recover. Then I replaced the complete idiot personna with the even more unstable RAVING LUNATIC. “Maybe it will be ok now after the rest. I’ll crack on up Pigeon – but if it starts again I WILL turn back to the car” Actually I meant it. Incredibly, for the next three hours, there wasn’t a murmur from the heart (see what I did there !) and I powered up Pigeon and over to Cock Mountain. The recovery was quite staggering really. How can this happen ? Maybe letting out the yelp on the way down to the hills had tempted fate and the Demons of the Mountains felt I had served my sentence. Anyway 6 and a half hours done but I e mailed my partner that night to re-tell the tale and warn him that if it happens again I may have to pull out of the race. Which would be gutting for both of us. Partner Luney has significant sympathy for all this as a few years ago he suffered from a similar condition and needed surgery to sort it. My cruel nickname for him is Dickie Hart. Now we may have to re-enter as Dickie Hart Senior and Dickie Hart Junior. Humour is important at all times.

The confusing thing about the whole arrythmia saga is that it had happened, on this scale, only once before. Bizarrely during an easy stroll with my girlfriend’s 12 year old boy Alex. It hit going up our final hill – Rocky near Leitrim Lodge. That was in April. Since then I had had a Six Day Hiking trip on tough terrain in the Picos Mountains in Northern Spain and four days in the Tramuntana Mountains in Mallorca, plus innumerable training runs and trips to the Mournes over the summer without any problems. Why would it kick in again now ? Of course my nearest and dearest are pleading with me not to do the Marathon. Of course RAVING LUNATIC says no. Not my decision you see.

The stunning view from the top of the Ben Crom Cliffs

Training Day: Sunday 28th August

A big day for me and my big race partner. A full on test run for the Mourne Mountain Marathon. A chance to check out each others fitness and do a bit of navigation and team work. The details of the hike/run/walk/whinge are of little significance. Of more importance was the fact that, after four hours, Ian’s “groins” seized up (he has TWO – lucky man !). His back went into spasm and his hips began to give in. I am sure I could hear the ball and sockets grinding. Luckily I am a hypochondriac and carry, at all times, a wide variety of extremely potent and barely legal drugs. In cycling it’s called a “Belgian Mix”. Google it. There is everything apart from blood bags but only because they are far too heavy, and, due to my industrial sized flapjacks, there is no room in my ruck sack. So I filled Ian with my powerful codeine/paracetamol combo and one of my “Magic Bullets” (Voltorol SR 100) Jeremy Clarkson thought that was a Ukrainian sports car. Jeremy is not as bright as he thinks ! Ian seemed happier but that was probably because he was now in the middle of a morphine induced trip. Then my problems started. The dreaded hemoreoids – hammoriods – haemorroids (knew I’d get there in the end) If Ian thought he had problems they were but a tummy tickle compared to my pulsating little beasts. Mountain Marathon running with piles is rarely found on wish lists. If you want to replicate the feeling, for scientific purposes, crush a small wine glass and place the contents between the cheeks of your bottom. Then run around for several hours and the result will be an excrutiating lacerating sensation that Max Mosley would pay big money for ! Anyway we got through it and, back at the car park, between winces, we agreed to drop from the B Class to the C Class. Still a big challenge but we now know that we simply aren’t quick enough or fit enough to tackle the B …. and anyway the donkey carrying our medical supplies is unlikely to help our speed over the ground.

A ghostly mist cradles the summit crags of Slieve Bernagh

Training Day: Wednesday 1st September

Today was supposed to be spent glued to the computer preparing for three commentaries in the next five days – in three different countries. SKY enjoy their pound of flesh !!! But then I chanced upon the mountain forecast. Also this would be my last chance for a scoot up the hills for at least a week. The preparation could wait so it was an o600 start and I was at Bloody Bridge car park bursting to go by 0730. It really was a stunning morning. The Mournes at their absolute best. The sun draping the summits. This was to be a proper training day and it was also a chance to test the dodgy ticker. I blazed up to the Mourne Wall, then Donard, down to the stile and up Commedagh. As I began the climb I felt the dreaded tightening in the throat and chest. Ok. Don’t panic was the advice I had been given. Take massive breaths and slow the pace. It passed. Commedagh completed it was a run down, back to the stile and up Donard from the North side, down to the stile at the wall, then Chimney Mountain and down past Carr’s Face and onto the quarry track. Plenty of well paced climbing and running the downhills and flats. A cracking four hours in perfect conditions. Then, bizarrely, with about 100 yards to the car the bloody heart thing started again and this time I could feel the strength draining from my legs. Usually a sign that the system is about to shut down. Apparently this is triggered by something called the Vagas nerve – a neat little device in the brain that picks up imminent catastrophe and stops the body from doing anything daft – like moving – until the danger has passed. So your lungs don’t work. Your feel sick. You feel dizzy. Your throat closes over. Your legs cease to function. I need to cut out the Vagas nerve. It sounds like a pain in the arse. Or chest in this case. Looks like I will have to get one of those heart monitor things that pick up irregular beats and stuff. Then my cardiologist will tell me, once again, that there is nothing wrong. Exercise induced arrythmia he said. You are talking out of your sphincter I said. Oh well. Ho Hum. It was still a great day. Two weeks to the Marathon. Will I be able to do it. I am confident of making it to the start line, and then, probably, making it to a stretcher and then a nice free helicopter ride to intensive care. Or I could be smart and pull out ? Bollocks to that !

Getting the quads in shape !

Training Day Thursday 8th September

Another night of insomnia. I keep checking my teeth for pointy bits. I am sure I must have some vampire DNA. Well, to be fair, I don’t creep about in a cape lusting after fresh blood but sitting in the remote Leitrim Lodge Car Park at five thirty in the morning… in the pishing rain … suggest that there is a little crazyness in the genes. At least I had my rocket fuel with me. Harrogate’s “Hot Java Lava” Factor Six coffee. It’s as strong as a Turkish wrestler’s armpit and you can either drink it or use it to fill in pot holes ! But the weather looked grim. I could tell that even the Great Sun God (rarely seen in Northern Ireland) was going to struggle to pierce a mist as thick as Irish Stew. By six thirty there was enough light to get going but the weather was diabolical. I was getting flashbacks of those horrific family holidays in that bloody caravan in Millisle. “Well … it might be like this during the Marathon .. good practice” I kept telling myself. The planned route was up to Altnataggart Mountain, across to Batt’s Wall, up Shanlieve, through Windy Gap and on to Pigeon before heading back via the Mourne Way and the summit of Rocky Mountain. Four hours of serious misery and I knew that after an easy start along paths and the Mourne Wall the navigation would have to be spot on. I have to say I do not like this part of the hills. It is a very eery place. There had been TWO helicopter crashes on the slopes of Shanlieve in the space of a week in October 2010. Three people were killed. The locals talk about the “Ghost Fog” and I always get twitchy in this area. And it doesn’t help the nerves when you are in the middle of the ghost fog yourself, on your own, at dawn in the half light of a drizzly and totally miserable autumn morning. It certainly helped me keep the pace up. All went well though. I picked out some good attack points, did some aiming off and navigated to a couple of stream junctions and track bends and was back at the car by ten thirty. I must say I had a great feeling of satisfaction. I was fairly sure that NOBODY else in the Marathon field would have gone any further than their duvet on a morning like this. Which put me at a distinct advantage. Four hours of hard work done. I was sure this would all pay off when the weekend of the Marathon came and I drove home to have myself sectioned.

Final Recce Monday 12th September

Armageddon was approaching. Northern Ireland braced itself for the tail end of Hurricane Katia. A really friendly super storm that had caused death and devastation on the USA’s East Coast. In fact Katia had been the second sexy femme fatale to wiggle her bottom over Ulster in recent weeks. Hurricane Irene had blown out across the Emerald Isle but this is not a problem for us. Remember our small nation has already survived the destructive force of Hurricane Higgins so anything else feels like a mere zephyr. Anyway this was my final chance to recce the start area for the Marathon at Attical in the South West Mournes and the slight inconvenience of 80 mile an hour gusts wasn’t going to stop me. In any case, as I reminded my girlfriend Louise, madness is probably the only thing I am actually any good at. Off I set and parked up at the top of Sandy Brae Lane which would be the first control for the Marathon. It actually felt as if the wind was going to lift my car off the ground and I had a surreal vision of my Audi taking off across the summit of Slieve Moughanmore like Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Time to move. Three hours planned. In and around Windy Gap. Do a few navigation points, get a feel for the area and get out of there. Of course with the persistent rain of recent weeks having now been topped up with the wall of water that had accompanied Katia across the Atlantic the Mournes had become somewhat damp. Even my super duper Salomon Speedcross Fell Shoes were struggling to keep me upright and I had several crashing falls. On the wide shoulder close to Pigeon Rock an incredible gust whipped across the plateau and I ended doing an Ulster version of a Bhuddist prostration – lying face down clinging to the heather while emitting a low whimper. Not a lot of fun it has to be said but got my three hour loop done – in good visibility – and was happy with my navigation. So I could do no more. All the training and prep had been completed. Now for the MMM. Time to get nervous !

MOURNE MOUNTAIN MARATHON SAT/SUN 16th + 17th Sept 2011

We were certainly carbo loaded for the big weekend. Sarah, the wife of my ace partner, Ian Luney, prepared us an immense spaghetti meal. Pavarotti would probably have struggled with the mountain of pasta on the plate. Apple tart and cream followed. We both knew exactly how Mr.Creosote felt just before the wafer thin mint. Next day we met at the Attical Community Centre for the 0730 registration and there was the usual nervous buzz crackling around the check in desks. The two of us were on the lookout for our arch rivals in the race – the dangerous pairing of Seven Sevens specialist Steve Spence, my chum from the Picos adventures documented elsewhere in the blogs, and Rob Hunter – a wiry, steel muscled rock climber of serious reputation. He had just competed in the World Bouldering Championships and knew his way around the Mournes. To the Marathon: The very good news was that, while it was windy and chilly, the clouds were high and the visibility was excellent. Spence + Hunter were off 20 minutes ahead of us and while beating them was a little sub plot and all part of the craic of the weekend the real goal for us was a good clean run from a navigational point of view and as much pace as we could muster without blowing up. We made a good start. Ian’s top notch skills with a map in his hand left me playing the crucial dual role of navigational consultant and flapjack supplier. This was Ian’s sixth Mourne Marathon as a competitor and he was previously on the organising committee. As an enthusiastic climber he has extensive experience of mountain environments from the Pyrenees to the Eiger … and everything in between ! Incredibly Ian VOLUNTEERED to be my partner. A bit like Taggart pairing up with Inspector Clouseau.  Our first issue occured on the evil mega steep climb up the long and slippery slopes of Slieve Muck. But skill had nothing to do with it. Ian had a nasty arrythmia attack and his face turned a strange shade of magnolia. What do I do if he goes down I pondered ? I quickly checked the rules. Yes it does state that both team members must finish the event as a partnership but it doesn’t state exactly HOW MUCH of your partner needs to complete the course. So in the worst case scenario my plan was to contact Mountain Rescue – give them Ian’s Grid Reference and put him in a survival bag. That is called empathy. Then cut his ear off, put it in my pocket, and carry on. As the computerised control box dipper was attached to my arm at least it would give me a chance of getting to the first night camp site and in theory I would still have my team mate with me. Leaving Ian on a bleak mountain side looking like Van Gogh would, naturally, have been a last resort. Anyway Ian recovered after being force fed some flapjack. It was then that we encountered Spence + Hunter who had stopped for lunch. Yes, it’s true … STOPPED … sandwiches out and everything but a picnic blanket. We scuttled on. Amazingly, after clearing up and tipping the waiter, the boys caught up with us again. The rival teams were paralell but hugging opposite sides of the Mourne Wall near the summit of Muck. We then engaged in a moment of purile childishness by trying to run in a crouch so that they wouldn’t see us accelerating past them. Unfortunately Hunter spotted my bright orange beany bobbing up and down and the game was up. I am sure I heard our protagonists mutter the word “Pathetic”. The rest of the day was tough but uneventful… which is what you want of course … though the ground conditions were incredibly soggy. Due to months of rain the Mournes were close to saturation point. There was a serious risk of contracting trenchfoot. With two controls to go we met the boys again. Checkpoint Eleven turned out to be their Checkpoint Charlie. They had missed the tenth control and had to slosh their way back up some mushy bogland to reach it. To be fair missing controls in the Marathon is easily done and quite a few teams had dropped below the 10th checkpoint as it was nestled below the lip of the river bank. But of course, even though competing against Spence and Hunter was just a bit of fun, I should point out, for the record, that their mistake cost them 31 minutes and 17.8975642878765439 seconds. By now Ian had recovered his health but his 50 something partner was getting alarming arrythmia symptoms of his own. Luckily I was able to stave off anything debilitating by utilising that deep breathing method that the Boy Spence had taught me. (What sort of person am I ? Spence gives me life saving techniques and, by way of thanks, I try to whip his ass !) We reached the Day One finish in the unremarkable but pleasing enough time of 6 hours 16 minutes and 56 seconds to leave us about a third of the way down the field but a creditable 5th in the “At your age shouldn’t you be weeding the allotment” Category.

The overnight camp site was at Spelga Dam. We pitched beside B Class veterans Nigel Hart and Charlie Henderson who were lying 5th in their class. Nigel, a Doctor, includes summiting Everest amongst his acheivements. Impressive … though he hasn’t scaled the rusted scaffolding that takes you across the stand roof to the suspended commentary position at Grimsby Town. That, I suggest, is proper climbing ! The craic was good in camp. Spence + Hunter set up their tent close by and there was a steady stream of abuse and banter. All very good natured. It turned out that Rob … a top class climber remember… has the same heart thing that me and Ian have. It is something to do with “ventricular ectopics” and Rob has coped with it no problem for years. Yes … it’s all about that deep breathing. It seems that ONLY extremely talented, tough and humble outdoor athletes suffer. Well that’s the only linking evidence I can find. It’s too much of a coincidence – me, Ian, Rob – you see the connection ? The atmosphere in the campsite was exceptional. Over 300 tired but happy mountain lovers. The mood was boosted by the news that Ireland had beaten Australia in the Rugby World Cup. In camp the key is food and warmth. Tent up … clothes changed and then the best bit … eat for Ireland. We were just a bit hungry after burning an approximate 5000 calories during our 18 kilometre day that included 1200 metres of vertical climbing.

It was a long night. The rain began to fall around midnight and persisted at varying degrees of intensity right through to dawn. Sleeping isn’t easy when you have a sky full of Irish rain hammering off the top of the tent. At dawn Ian poked his head out through the flap. Either Nigel’s tent and the residing humans had been stolen OR (and I wish it had been the former) … the visibilty was about 15 feet !!!! I texted the lovely Louise who, because she loves me, was delighted to haul herself out of bed at 0630 on a Sunday morning and trawl round various weather websites for the latest updates. She’s a good girl that Louise. It was raining persistently at the mass 0830 start and the vis hadn’t improved. Marking up the map with grid references and control points wasn’t easy with cascading water threatening to turn our map into porridge. But off we set. Ian’s Vasco Da Gama like navigation skills meant that we again made a positive start which was enhanced by excellent route selection. By the time we reached the South side of Pierce’s Castle and the dreaded Castle Bog (not one of Northern Ireland’s top ranked holiday destinations) the vis was not far from nil. Controls 2 + 3 were going to be difficult to find. We nailed No.2 thanks to a team combo of bearing and pacing but No.3 was easily the toughest of the Marathon. The flag, according to the map, was at the junction of the fourth most Southerly tributary at the top of Yellow Water River. Hard to find in clear weather … but today !!!!! Precise bearings, pacing, timing, topography …. the whole box of navigational skills was raided. Ian sent me up the river like a sort of Ulster version of Tonto. My job was to follow it’s flow and find the tributarys while he kept a close eye on the compass. As we closed in on the flag I waded against the river’s rush… and then I saw it. That lovely little orange control marker. I let out a shout of triumph and in my excitement I dropped my concentration levels and plummeted through a weak section of the river bed. It was while I wallowed up to my armpits in a stinking pit of peat that Ian let out an audible snigger. My partner enjoyed his moment. But it was while I made my escape that I noticed we had an audience. You see Ian has this orange jacket. He also has a bright yellow sleeping mat which he carries across his shoulders. The combination makes him look like a psychedelic “Angel of the North” or, to give you another analogy, he stands out like that bloke with the bulb on his head from the “Ocean Finance” ads. I think, but of course this could never be proven in a court of law, that a few other teams had followed us. This, briefly, made us grumpy …. but also quicker and we burst away from the pack. The weather was lifting and we nailed the final four checkpoints. We were both much stronger on Day Two and not a flicker from either of our Dickie Hart’s …. Ian even relaxed enough to allow me sole responsibility for control 5. This was maybe not a great idea. The track record isn’t good. It once took me four hours to find the exit of the Melbourne Casino. To be fair it is big and I was pissed. The good news is I managed to hit the flag without too much bother and we were basically home and hosed.

Taggart + Clouseau close the case. 10 hours 53 minutes + 15 seconds for a sensational 28th place in the C Class.

It is always a great feeling to complete a Mourne Mountain Marathon and we even managed a wobbly semi sprint to the finish line. Euphoria. 28th in Class C doesn’t gain you automatic entry to the Marathon Des Sables but it’s all about the personal satisfaction. The committment of the organisers and marshals was staggering. They clearly work incredibly hard, and probably without enough thanks, to create a wonderful and tremendously challenging Mountain Marathon. The atmosphere in the Event Centre was bubbling. Tea and sandwiches AND a free Mourne Mountain Marathon 2011 tee-shirt. “B Class next year” said Ian. “Naturally” I responded. Never agree to anything when the endorphins are flowing.

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