I have always admired the wild eyed hard nuts who run Mountain Marathons. Men and women. Young and old. They seemed to be really good people. I liked their attitude to life. That joie de vivre … a passion for the outdoors. The wonderful sense of bonhommie. The humbling unpretentious approach to a seriously rugged pursuit. They also appeared to possess a certain glint in the eye that suggested borderline psychotic.. but in a nice way. As I have always felt at one with madness this aspect attracted me immensely. Racing up and then throwing yourself off mountains without any regard for personal safety probably places you fairly high up on the crazy scale. I felt I would fit in. I had spent quite a few happy years bumbling around the hills of Northern Ireland, getting some expert instruction from a couple of Marathon Vets … my oldest chum Kevin Balmer, an outdoor pursuit instructor of considerable repute, and another highly qualified and very patient man – Graham Smyth. Generally I was falling in love with it all. Now I had declared myself as a trainee Mountain Marathon Man … and the MMM … or Mourne Mountain Marathon would be the goal.
The fabled Seven Seven’s is often built in as part of the training regime. It does what it says on the tin. You attempt to negotiate the seven Mourne summits that climb to above seven hundred metres all on the same day. I had done it in 2010 in the hugely unremarkable time of 11 hours and 20 minutes. The designated date for the 2011 event was Saturday 6th of August but I had a SKY 3D commentary date at Twickenham for England against Wales in a World Cup warm up game. No matter. There is always a way round such triffling issues…. so I decided to do it on my own on the Tuesday. I started from the Meelmore Lodge car park on a dank and grimy morning doing the Seven summits from Bernagh to Meelmore, Meelbeg, across to Binian, up Lamagan, then Donard, Commedagh and finally the long drag back to Meelmore. Apart from getting a bit discombobulated in thick mist on the bog land between Meelbeg and the Silent Valley Reservoir all went well. Until I got to my sixth hill – Donard. By now the weather had cleared and there were plenty of dodgy tourist types on the “honey pot” route up to Northern Ireland’s most famous summit. Unfortunately, by this stage, my legs and gone completely. While I wasn’t looking some bastard had injected molten lead into my thighs and I was moving at the pace of a pile ridden sloth. A man in brown slip on leather shoes and an equally inappropriate leather bomber jacket cruised past me. Bloody holiday makers. “Is this your first time up this mountain ?” he quipped. I didn’t even have the energy left to mumble an explanation. And anyway I was thinking of ways to incapacitate him with my walking pole. It’s amazing how malliciously inventive you can be when faced with someone who has confused arseholism with comedy ! …. but … despite this irritating hiccup and deceased quadriceps I managed to struggle up the last two hills and eventually made it back to the car in a new personal best of 9 hours and 12 minutes. I was very pleased. On the actually day of the Seven Seven’s the following Saturday one of my main (and bitter) rivals in the forthcoming Marathon itself – a Mr. Steven Spence – recorded a splendid time of 8 hours and 55 minutes. I am so pleased for him and I am planning on calling round to his house sometime soon to show him various fabulous alternative uses for a walking pole ! I must train harder.
Training Day: Wednesday 17th August.
Well what a stunning morning. Off early doors as always. I drove around the sweeping bend on the main Downpatrick Road just before the Dellamont Outdoor Centre and there she was – Slieve Donard – bathed in full summer sunlight. I actually let out an involuntary whoop of excitement which was completely at odds with my usual Meldrew like demeanour. I had planned to do a good solid navigation day and build in maybe five summits for endurance building purposes. With the start point for the Marathon being in the village of Attical me and my partner Ian Luney have a suspicion that they will send us around the Eagle Mountain area and probably the terrain at Slieve Muck as well. Not areas where I would have particular local knowledge. So I set off – on my own – up the steep Western approach to the summit of Muck picking up some nav points on the way – stream source, re-entrant – that sort of thing. All was well for about 20 minutes ! Then I had a nasty arrythmia attack. I have these now and again. My cardiologist says it’s exercise induced and nothing to worry about. NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT ! I would have liked to have put Super Doc Cardio Man inside my (brand new) Salomon (Green – yugh !) Speedcross super studded fell shoes. It was horrendous. My heart hadn’t beaten as quickly since my first Kylie Minogue concert. Racing heart, chest pain, dizzyness, loss of leg power and nausea. So using all the intelligence of a COMPLETE IDIOT I kept going thinking it would go away. Two hours later – and now stuck on the East side of Muck with an absolute Mother of a climb ahead – things had not improved. If anything they were worse. Even the slightest uphill angle set it off. Muck normally takes about 40 minutes for me to get up. Today it took me 90 minutes. At times I was left rather pathetically clinging to the Mourne Wall – my heart thrashing about. I managed to get back to car and sat down to recover. Then I replaced the complete idiot personna with the even more unstable RAVING LUNATIC. “Maybe it will be ok now after the rest. I’ll crack on up Pigeon – but if it starts again I WILL turn back to the car” Actually I meant it. Incredibly, for the next three hours, there wasn’t a murmur from the heart (see what I did there !) and I powered up Pigeon and over to Cock Mountain. The recovery was quite staggering really. How can this happen ? Maybe letting out the yelp on the way down to the hills had tempted fate and the Demons of the Mountains felt I had served my sentence. Anyway 6 and a half hours done but I e mailed my partner that night to re-tell the tale and warn him that if it happens again I may have to pull out of the race. Which would be gutting for both of us. Partner Luney has significant sympathy for all this as a few years ago he suffered from a similar condition and needed surgery to sort it. My cruel nickname for him is Dickie Hart. Now we may have to re-enter as Dickie Hart Senior and Dickie Hart Junior. Humour is important at all times.
The confusing thing about the whole arrythmia saga is that it had happened, on this scale, only once before. Bizarrely during an easy stroll with my girlfriend’s 12 year old boy Alex. It hit going up our final hill – Rocky near Leitrim Lodge. That was in April. Since then I had had a Six Day Hiking trip on tough terrain in the Picos Mountains in Northern Spain and four days in the Tramuntana Mountains in Mallorca, plus innumerable training runs and trips to the Mournes over the summer without any problems. Why would it kick in again now ? Of course my nearest and dearest are pleading with me not to do the Marathon. Of course RAVING LUNATIC says no. Not my decision you see.
Training Day: Sunday 28th August
A big day for me and my big race partner. A full on test run for the Mourne Mountain Marathon. A chance to check out each others fitness and do a bit of navigation and team work. The details of the hike/run/walk/whinge are of little significance. Of more importance was the fact that, after four hours, Ian’s “groins” seized up (he has TWO – lucky man !). His back went into spasm and his hips began to give in. I am sure I could hear the ball and sockets grinding. Luckily I am a hypochondriac and carry, at all times, a wide variety of extremely potent and barely legal drugs. In cycling it’s called a “Belgian Mix”. Google it. There is everything apart from blood bags but only because they are far too heavy, and, due to my industrial sized flapjacks, there is no room in my ruck sack. So I filled Ian with my powerful codeine/paracetamol combo and one of my “Magic Bullets” (Voltorol SR 100) Jeremy Clarkson thought that was a Ukrainian sports car. Jeremy is not as bright as he thinks ! Ian seemed happier but that was probably because he was now in the middle of a morphine induced trip. Then my problems started. The dreaded hemoreoids – hammoriods – haemorroids (knew I’d get there in the end) If Ian thought he had problems they were but a tummy tickle compared to my pulsating little beasts. Mountain Marathon running with piles is rarely found on wish lists. If you want to replicate the feeling, for scientific purposes, crush a small wine glass and place the contents between the cheeks of your bottom. Then run around for several hours and the result will be an excrutiating lacerating sensation that Max Mosley would pay big money for ! Anyway we got through it and, back at the car park, between winces, we agreed to drop from the B Class to the C Class. Still a big challenge but we now know that we simply aren’t quick enough or fit enough to tackle the B …. and anyway the donkey carrying our medical supplies is unlikely to help our speed over the ground.
Training Day: Wednesday 1st September
Today was supposed to be spent glued to the computer preparing for three commentaries in the next five days – in three different countries. SKY enjoy their pound of flesh !!! But then I chanced upon the mountain forecast. Also this would be my last chance for a scoot up the hills for at least a week. The preparation could wait so it was an o600 start and I was at Bloody Bridge car park bursting to go by 0730. It really was a stunning morning. The Mournes at their absolute best. The sun draping the summits. This was to be a proper training day and it was also a chance to test the dodgy ticker. I blazed up to the Mourne Wall, then Donard, down to the stile and up Commedagh. As I began the climb I felt the dreaded tightening in the throat and chest. Ok. Don’t panic was the advice I had been given. Take massive breaths and slow the pace. It passed. Commedagh completed it was a run down, back to the stile and up Donard from the North side, down to the stile at the wall, then Chimney Mountain and down past Carr’s Face and onto the quarry track. Plenty of well paced climbing and running the downhills and flats. A cracking four hours in perfect conditions. Then, bizarrely, with about 100 yards to the car the bloody heart thing started again and this time I could feel the strength draining from my legs. Usually a sign that the system is about to shut down. Apparently this is triggered by something called the Vagas nerve – a neat little device in the brain that picks up imminent catastrophe and stops the body from doing anything daft – like moving – until the danger has passed. So your lungs don’t work. Your feel sick. You feel dizzy. Your throat closes over. Your legs cease to function. I need to cut out the Vagas nerve. It sounds like a pain in the arse. Or chest in this case. Looks like I will have to get one of those heart monitor things that pick up irregular beats and stuff. Then my cardiologist will tell me, once again, that there is nothing wrong. Exercise induced arrythmia he said. You are talking out of your sphincter I said. Oh well. Ho Hum. It was still a great day. Two weeks to the Marathon. Will I be able to do it. I am confident of making it to the start line, and then, probably, making it to a stretcher and then a nice free helicopter ride to intensive care. Or I could be smart and pull out ? Bollocks to that !
Training Day Thursday 8th September
Another night of insomnia. I keep checking my teeth for pointy bits. I am sure I must have some vampire DNA. Well, to be fair, I don’t creep about in a cape lusting after fresh blood but sitting in the remote Leitrim Lodge Car Park at five thirty in the morning… in the pishing rain … suggest that there is a little crazyness in the genes. At least I had my rocket fuel with me. Harrogate’s “Hot Java Lava” Factor Six coffee. It’s as strong as a Turkish wrestler’s armpit and you can either drink it or use it to fill in pot holes ! But the weather looked grim. I could tell that even the Great Sun God (rarely seen in Northern Ireland) was going to struggle to pierce a mist as thick as Irish Stew. By six thirty there was enough light to get going but the weather was diabolical. I was getting flashbacks of those horrific family holidays in that bloody caravan in Millisle. “Well … it might be like this during the Marathon .. good practice” I kept telling myself. The planned route was up to Altnataggart Mountain, across to Batt’s Wall, up Shanlieve, through Windy Gap and on to Pigeon before heading back via the Mourne Way and the summit of Rocky Mountain. Four hours of serious misery and I knew that after an easy start along paths and the Mourne Wall the navigation would have to be spot on. I have to say I do not like this part of the hills. It is a very eery place. There had been TWO helicopter crashes on the slopes of Shanlieve in the space of a week in October 2010. Three people were killed. The locals talk about the “Ghost Fog” and I always get twitchy in this area. And it doesn’t help the nerves when you are in the middle of the ghost fog yourself, on your own, at dawn in the half light of a drizzly and totally miserable autumn morning. It certainly helped me keep the pace up. All went well though. I picked out some good attack points, did some aiming off and navigated to a couple of stream junctions and track bends and was back at the car by ten thirty. I must say I had a great feeling of satisfaction. I was fairly sure that NOBODY else in the Marathon field would have gone any further than their duvet on a morning like this. Which put me at a distinct advantage. Four hours of hard work done. I was sure this would all pay off when the weekend of the Marathon came and I drove home to have myself sectioned.
Final Recce Monday 12th September
Armageddon was approaching. Northern Ireland braced itself for the tail end of Hurricane Katia. A really friendly super storm that had caused death and devastation on the USA’s East Coast. In fact Katia had been the second sexy femme fatale to wiggle her bottom over Ulster in recent weeks. Hurricane Irene had blown out across the Emerald Isle but this is not a problem for us. Remember our small nation has already survived the destructive force of Hurricane Higgins so anything else feels like a mere zephyr. Anyway this was my final chance to recce the start area for the Marathon at Attical in the South West Mournes and the slight inconvenience of 80 mile an hour gusts wasn’t going to stop me. In any case, as I reminded my girlfriend Louise, madness is probably the only thing I am actually any good at. Off I set and parked up at the top of Sandy Brae Lane which would be the first control for the Marathon. It actually felt as if the wind was going to lift my car off the ground and I had a surreal vision of my Audi taking off across the summit of Slieve Moughanmore like Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Time to move. Three hours planned. In and around Windy Gap. Do a few navigation points, get a feel for the area and get out of there. Of course with the persistent rain of recent weeks having now been topped up with the wall of water that had accompanied Katia across the Atlantic the Mournes had become somewhat damp. Even my super duper Salomon Speedcross Fell Shoes were struggling to keep me upright and I had several crashing falls. On the wide shoulder close to Pigeon Rock an incredible gust whipped across the plateau and I ended doing an Ulster version of a Bhuddist prostration – lying face down clinging to the heather while emitting a low whimper. Not a lot of fun it has to be said but got my three hour loop done – in good visibility – and was happy with my navigation. So I could do no more. All the training and prep had been completed. Now for the MMM. Time to get nervous !
MOURNE MOUNTAIN MARATHON SAT/SUN 16th + 17th Sept 2011
We were certainly carbo loaded for the big weekend. Sarah, the wife of my ace partner, Ian Luney, prepared us an immense spaghetti meal. Pavarotti would probably have struggled with the mountain of pasta on the plate. Apple tart and cream followed. We both knew exactly how Mr.Creosote felt just before the wafer thin mint. Next day we met at the Attical Community Centre for the 0730 registration and there was the usual nervous buzz crackling around the check in desks. The two of us were on the lookout for our arch rivals in the race – the dangerous pairing of Seven Sevens specialist Steve Spence, my chum from the Picos adventures documented elsewhere in the blogs, and Rob Hunter – a wiry, steel muscled rock climber of serious reputation. He had just competed in the World Bouldering Championships and knew his way around the Mournes. To the Marathon: The very good news was that, while it was windy and chilly, the clouds were high and the visibility was excellent. Spence + Hunter were off 20 minutes ahead of us and while beating them was a little sub plot and all part of the craic of the weekend the real goal for us was a good clean run from a navigational point of view and as much pace as we could muster without blowing up. We made a good start. Ian’s top notch skills with a map in his hand left me playing the crucial dual role of navigational consultant and flapjack supplier. This was Ian’s sixth Mourne Marathon as a competitor and he was previously on the organising committee. As an enthusiastic climber he has extensive experience of mountain environments from the Pyrenees to the Eiger … and everything in between ! Incredibly Ian VOLUNTEERED to be my partner. A bit like Taggart pairing up with Inspector Clouseau. Our first issue occured on the evil mega steep climb up the long and slippery slopes of Slieve Muck. But skill had nothing to do with it. Ian had a nasty arrythmia attack and his face turned a strange shade of magnolia. What do I do if he goes down I pondered ? I quickly checked the rules. Yes it does state that both team members must finish the event as a partnership but it doesn’t state exactly HOW MUCH of your partner needs to complete the course. So in the worst case scenario my plan was to contact Mountain Rescue – give them Ian’s Grid Reference and put him in a survival bag. That is called empathy. Then cut his ear off, put it in my pocket, and carry on. As the computerised control box dipper was attached to my arm at least it would give me a chance of getting to the first night camp site and in theory I would still have my team mate with me. Leaving Ian on a bleak mountain side looking like Van Gogh would, naturally, have been a last resort. Anyway Ian recovered after being force fed some flapjack. It was then that we encountered Spence + Hunter who had stopped for lunch. Yes, it’s true … STOPPED … sandwiches out and everything but a picnic blanket. We scuttled on. Amazingly, after clearing up and tipping the waiter, the boys caught up with us again. The rival teams were paralell but hugging opposite sides of the Mourne Wall near the summit of Muck. We then engaged in a moment of purile childishness by trying to run in a crouch so that they wouldn’t see us accelerating past them. Unfortunately Hunter spotted my bright orange beany bobbing up and down and the game was up. I am sure I heard our protagonists mutter the word “Pathetic”. The rest of the day was tough but uneventful… which is what you want of course … though the ground conditions were incredibly soggy. Due to months of rain the Mournes were close to saturation point. There was a serious risk of contracting trenchfoot. With two controls to go we met the boys again. Checkpoint Eleven turned out to be their Checkpoint Charlie. They had missed the tenth control and had to slosh their way back up some mushy bogland to reach it. To be fair missing controls in the Marathon is easily done and quite a few teams had dropped below the 10th checkpoint as it was nestled below the lip of the river bank. But of course, even though competing against Spence and Hunter was just a bit of fun, I should point out, for the record, that their mistake cost them 31 minutes and 17.8975642878765439 seconds. By now Ian had recovered his health but his 50 something partner was getting alarming arrythmia symptoms of his own. Luckily I was able to stave off anything debilitating by utilising that deep breathing method that the Boy Spence had taught me. (What sort of person am I ? Spence gives me life saving techniques and, by way of thanks, I try to whip his ass !) We reached the Day One finish in the unremarkable but pleasing enough time of 6 hours 16 minutes and 56 seconds to leave us about a third of the way down the field but a creditable 5th in the “At your age shouldn’t you be weeding the allotment” Category.
The overnight camp site was at Spelga Dam. We pitched beside B Class veterans Nigel Hart and Charlie Henderson who were lying 5th in their class. Nigel, a Doctor, includes summiting Everest amongst his acheivements. Impressive … though he hasn’t scaled the rusted scaffolding that takes you across the stand roof to the suspended commentary position at Grimsby Town. That, I suggest, is proper climbing ! The craic was good in camp. Spence + Hunter set up their tent close by and there was a steady stream of abuse and banter. All very good natured. It turned out that Rob … a top class climber remember… has the same heart thing that me and Ian have. It is something to do with “ventricular ectopics” and Rob has coped with it no problem for years. Yes … it’s all about that deep breathing. It seems that ONLY extremely talented, tough and humble outdoor athletes suffer. Well that’s the only linking evidence I can find. It’s too much of a coincidence – me, Ian, Rob – you see the connection ? The atmosphere in the campsite was exceptional. Over 300 tired but happy mountain lovers. The mood was boosted by the news that Ireland had beaten Australia in the Rugby World Cup. In camp the key is food and warmth. Tent up … clothes changed and then the best bit … eat for Ireland. We were just a bit hungry after burning an approximate 5000 calories during our 18 kilometre day that included 1200 metres of vertical climbing.
It was a long night. The rain began to fall around midnight and persisted at varying degrees of intensity right through to dawn. Sleeping isn’t easy when you have a sky full of Irish rain hammering off the top of the tent. At dawn Ian poked his head out through the flap. Either Nigel’s tent and the residing humans had been stolen OR (and I wish it had been the former) … the visibilty was about 15 feet !!!! I texted the lovely Louise who, because she loves me, was delighted to haul herself out of bed at 0630 on a Sunday morning and trawl round various weather websites for the latest updates. She’s a good girl that Louise. It was raining persistently at the mass 0830 start and the vis hadn’t improved. Marking up the map with grid references and control points wasn’t easy with cascading water threatening to turn our map into porridge. But off we set. Ian’s Vasco Da Gama like navigation skills meant that we again made a positive start which was enhanced by excellent route selection. By the time we reached the South side of Pierce’s Castle and the dreaded Castle Bog (not one of Northern Ireland’s top ranked holiday destinations) the vis was not far from nil. Controls 2 + 3 were going to be difficult to find. We nailed No.2 thanks to a team combo of bearing and pacing but No.3 was easily the toughest of the Marathon. The flag, according to the map, was at the junction of the fourth most Southerly tributary at the top of Yellow Water River. Hard to find in clear weather … but today !!!!! Precise bearings, pacing, timing, topography …. the whole box of navigational skills was raided. Ian sent me up the river like a sort of Ulster version of Tonto. My job was to follow it’s flow and find the tributarys while he kept a close eye on the compass. As we closed in on the flag I waded against the river’s rush… and then I saw it. That lovely little orange control marker. I let out a shout of triumph and in my excitement I dropped my concentration levels and plummeted through a weak section of the river bed. It was while I wallowed up to my armpits in a stinking pit of peat that Ian let out an audible snigger. My partner enjoyed his moment. But it was while I made my escape that I noticed we had an audience. You see Ian has this orange jacket. He also has a bright yellow sleeping mat which he carries across his shoulders. The combination makes him look like a psychedelic “Angel of the North” or, to give you another analogy, he stands out like that bloke with the bulb on his head from the “Ocean Finance” ads. I think, but of course this could never be proven in a court of law, that a few other teams had followed us. This, briefly, made us grumpy …. but also quicker and we burst away from the pack. The weather was lifting and we nailed the final four checkpoints. We were both much stronger on Day Two and not a flicker from either of our Dickie Hart’s …. Ian even relaxed enough to allow me sole responsibility for control 5. This was maybe not a great idea. The track record isn’t good. It once took me four hours to find the exit of the Melbourne Casino. To be fair it is big and I was pissed. The good news is I managed to hit the flag without too much bother and we were basically home and hosed.
It is always a great feeling to complete a Mourne Mountain Marathon and we even managed a wobbly semi sprint to the finish line. Euphoria. 28th in Class C doesn’t gain you automatic entry to the Marathon Des Sables but it’s all about the personal satisfaction. The committment of the organisers and marshals was staggering. They clearly work incredibly hard, and probably without enough thanks, to create a wonderful and tremendously challenging Mountain Marathon. The atmosphere in the Event Centre was bubbling. Tea and sandwiches AND a free Mourne Mountain Marathon 2011 tee-shirt. “B Class next year” said Ian. “Naturally” I responded. Never agree to anything when the endorphins are flowing.