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.
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.

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.

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.

african-elephant_435_600x450

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

 
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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

african-elephant_435_600x450

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

 
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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

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.
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

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.
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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.
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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 !!!

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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 !”

image

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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