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 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 



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.


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.


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 ?


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.


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.


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.


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


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”


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 !



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.


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 !”


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.


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.


About Mark Robson Broadcaster SKY Sports

I have been a professional sports broadcaster for over 30 years working for a variety of channels including the BBC, ITV, Eurosport and, currently, SKY Sports where I commentate on rugby union and football.
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