Mourne Mountain Marathon 2013

MOURNE MOUNTAIN MARATHON 2013

…. the journey !

004

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

From Kamir Rouge to Red Face

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

I don’t believe it !!!!!

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

See you in court

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

Electric start…..

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

Sad night on Moughanmore

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

Pyrenean Mountain Puppies

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

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

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

Luney Tunes In

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

The Dream Team hits the hills

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

Seven Sevens Summit Fever

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

It’s only pain !

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

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

Seven Sevens climax ! Slightly unnerving !

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

The Mourne Mountain Marathon 2013

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

The Mystery Tour

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

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

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

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

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

Partner Peril !

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

Silent Valley Oasis. Just needed a palm tree.

Silent Valley Oasis. Just needed a palm tree.

Campsite Cameos !

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

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

Day Two….. MMM means Mourne Marathon Mist !

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

Home at last !!!!!

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

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

Thanks guys … and Denis.

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

Peat and grime removed the sweet smelling duo celebrate completion.

Peat and grime removed the sweet smelling duo celebrate completion.

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Mourne Mountain Marathon 2012

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

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

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

Johnny Cash rings true

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

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

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

Off to Oz

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

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

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

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

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

Winter sunrise at Coogee Beach

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

Return of the Arrythmia

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

Epileptic Monkeys on Amphetamines

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

Hamstring Woes

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

Voltorol and Codeine Love.

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

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

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

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

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

DAY ONE….

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

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

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

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

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

DAY TWO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mourne Mountain Marathon 2011

Training Day: Tuesday 2nd August 2011

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

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

When the weather is good the Mournes make a wonderful playground

Training Day: Wednesday 17th August.

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

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

The stunning view from the top of the Ben Crom Cliffs

Training Day: Sunday 28th August

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

A ghostly mist cradles the summit crags of Slieve Bernagh

Training Day: Wednesday 1st September

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

Getting the quads in shape !

Training Day Thursday 8th September

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

Final Recce Monday 12th September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CYCLING THE TOUR DE FRANCE ALPINE COLS NEAR LAKE ANNECY (A painful tale of mishap)

Machismo Dissolves: Take a novice, a clapped out rented bike, horrific weather and a few of the toughest Alpine cols and this is what happens !!!

Not quite the traditional yellow jersey. They were the only clothes I had that were windproof and waterproof.

I’ve often watched sporting disasters unfold from a safe spot somewhere behind my microphone but never really thought I’d be in the middle of one myself. It all began with such serenity before the rapid descent into hell. This after all was a summer holiday to the South of France. Two weeks in a converted farmhouse high in the hills above idyllic Lake Annecy. The plan was simple. My delightful girlfriend would relax while I combined the pleasures of the lakeside setting and sunshine with a few cycles around the area. Perhaps I should point out that my idea of a “few cycles” was actually a little more extreme than the occasional jaunt around the lake shore. Unfortunately sports commentators are usually frustrated misfits. Talking and writing about sport is just a cover story. In reality most of us desire to be the people we commentate on … and deep down we think we are ! It’s pathetic and psychotic but is sadly the truth and can lead to irrational and obsessional behaviour. You see I thought I could be Lance Armstrong. I ended up more like Lance Percival ! A “friend” had told me that there were nine Alpine ascents around Lake Annecy that had been used on the Tour De France. Ah hah !!!! A goal for the crazy, seriously under trained 47 year old non-cyclist.

At least the sunsets around wonderful Lake Annecy were stunning

Little did my exquisite companion know that the trip – in my mind – now had nothing to do with relaxation. If I had managed to secure a sponsor it would have been “Broadmoor”. First thing to do was rent a bike. Found a shop. They hired out dodgy looking “velos” designed for sedate pedals on the Lake promenade not manic ascents of some of the Tour’s toughest Cols like Du Forclaz, Croix-Fry, Le Chatillons, Cormet De Roselend, Col Des Saisses and the Col De La Colombiere !  All of them rising from the waters edge to heights close to 2000 metres. The first outing for my rusty hybrid mountain bike was a beastly crawl up the ominous looking Col Du Forclaz which spiralled into the cobalt blue sky from the stunning village of Talloire… and off I went in a sizzling forty degrees wearing a pair of old shorts, natty white socks and enough water to sink the Titanic. The first disaster occurred about half way up. It had been going so well ….I had ignored the strange squeaking noises from the bike … a sort of grated screeching which sounded very much like a cage of over excited budgies. Then, without warning, the entire gearing system “sur ma bicyclette” literally exploded. The connecting bolt for the back wheel sheared from its mounting. It went spinning down the hill and I plummeted into a shallow ditch. It was time for “dazed and confused” to make a mercy call on the mobile. My glamorous companion, who from this point on will be known as “The Support Crew”, was handily placed 10 miles away sun-bathing beside the Lake. I mean if she REALLY loved me she would have been driving three yards behind me with spare bikes on the roof ! … Resting … on holiday. What had got into her ? The Support Crew soon arrived and we jumbled the broken bits into the hire car. It was back to the bike shop and I offered a monologue entitled “Votre Velo Est Le Sac De Merd ! ” I was given an upgrade. S.C. (Support Crew) dropped the maniac back at the point where he had fallen off ! See I told you … obsessional psycho !

"Un autre sac de merd s'il vous plait" ... "No problem, big lad" replied dodgy Pierre of the "Boulangerie De Velo" Pierre had a keen eye for Irish suckers ! He also supplied hilarious collapsing bicycles.

Bicycle number two was a magnificent specimen compared to bike one – this time there was no basket on the front and considerably less rust. The only “problems” were that only two of the three cogs worked, which meant getting off the bike everytime I needed the small cog (which was a lot !!!) and flicking it over by hand…. and ahead lay a climb that was steeper than the North Face of Dolly Parton ! Despite these setbacks the sweaty, pale and exhausted Ulsterman “summitted” in the hot haze of mid afternoon. Thighs like jelly but Col number one conquered. Rucksack off – jacket on – for fast cooling descent. Got back to the Lake and realised with horror that I had left the bloody rucksack at the top of the Mountain. And what was inside it ? Just my passport, driving licence, mobile phone and credit cards. S.C. abandoned the beach towel yet again. Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t have stood a chance. I drove up the hill slabbering like a madman … insane at my own stupidity. While I panted and swore on the road side S.C. calmly retrieved the missing items from a nearby gift shop. “Where else would a passer by have left it darling?” she breathed laconically. The drama of day one was merely a gentle introduction.

Is that him ?

The next challenge was the Leschaux and Les Chatillons climbs on the West side of the Lake. The sunshine had gone to be replaced by ominous rumblings and charcoal skies. The nutter would not be deterred. S.C was beginning to feel that she had been trapped in a re-make of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Ahead lay 25km’s of hard climbing .. up and up .. followed by up. By half way the rumblings had been replaced by roars of thunder and frightening snaps of lightning that flashed across the road in front of me. I was actually IN the storm.

Fairly sure !

The rain bounced off the tarmac like conkers dropping from a chestnut tree making the same delightful splatting noise a frog does when you hit it with a spade. And then the visibility went and the wind got up. Now, close to the ridge, I was enveloped in a morass of crashing, flashing and splashing. There wasn’t a sinner on the mountain. I could hear cow bells in the distance and then … an engine. A 1930’s Bentley drove serenely past, followed by what looked like a Morris Minor ! Had the electrically charged air bounced me through a time tunnel ? Or was I seeing things through sheer cold, misery and exhaustion. (Turned out, of course, to be a Classic Car Rally) 

Where's the broom wagon ?

I passed a Cheese Factory. Hypothermic hallucinations I thought.  My testicles had long since migrated North to nestle in a warm place behind my tonsils. At last the top. Relief and then the realisation that the descent would be in driving rain and thick fog. It was like cycling in a car wash. Blind and travelling fast to try and get home in time to beat the onset of frostbite I tumbled into a tight right hander …. when the rear brake cable snapped ! The force of the collision with the hairpin armco sent me into oblivion and I landed close to a gently masticating cow, her bell tinkling in the hurricane.

The Lantern Rouge arrives ... a one man Gruppetto !

I arrived back at team HQ … a coffee bar in Seyvrier. I had covered 70 miles in about five hours and negotiated two of the Tour’s classic climbs. S.C. had negotiated a shopping centre, several Latte’s and half of her book. She looked at me askew as I squelched towards her. “Your lips are blue, darling” . I actually couldn’t speak through the numbness. My girlfriend – who had slipped into the ‘long suffering’ bracket had kindly packed some dry clothes but there was a man in the toilet. I was desperate to change so stripped naked beside the pool table. There is only one thing worse than a madman … and that is a madman who is beyond the point of caring ! My French is average and I wasn’t quite sure what the Manager was shouting. It was either “You have an amazing physique – you could have been a contender” or “I am going to call the police you Irish lunatic”. I returned to the bike shop. Again utilising my rough grasp of the language I managed to concoct the insult… “Je voudraix a pousser l’ampoule dans votre derriere” or in English “I am going to insert a lightbulb in your bottom” The man gave me a discount. I had now dismantled two bikes and several sections of my anatomy. We decided that I should have a rest day – just like they do on the Tour. For me that meant Mountain Biking in La Clusaz. There was a 3 km Olympic descent that I couldn’t resist. It was steep. My forearms flushed with blood as I squeezed the brakes hard on rental bike number three. I was about to learn two things. One: Never rent a bike from a Frenchman and Two: Never rent a bike from a Frenchman. The rear brake locking pin snapped in half and there was only one place to go. Lance somersaulted over the handlebars, bounced through yet another ditch, and landed, covered in mud, close to another bemused cow… who had clearly seen it all before. The fall resulted in a hairline fracture of the elbow .. for me, not the cow. Now for the Croix-Fry – the most brutal climb of the nine. Two and a half hours in the saddle to get into it and then a 13km ascent that felt vertical. It was hot and humid once again. Whatever the death zone is I was in it. Sir Ranulph Fiennes would never have made it. My body craved illegal substances. I was fairly certain that there would be no drug testing at the finish for tourists. If someone had tossed me a bag of amphetamines I would have eaten them like jelly beans. By now I was on bike number four and had gone seriously upmarket. A real racing bike from the famous Claude Pierre of Talloire. Cycle renter to the stars ! Or so he said. The Croix-Fry eventually surrendered but yours truly was seriously knackered. The next day .. without much thought for my perilous state after four and a half hours in the saddle 24 hours earlier… S.C. decided she wanted a cycle now too. So off we set on the flat 45km route around the perimeter of Lake Annecy. I was expected to carry her “essentials” and suddenly I was a pack animal – feeling more Sherpa than cyclist. I think she thought we were touring the Andes not Annecy. And lipstick ? What has that to do with survival ? Ray Mears never carried lipstick ? Shortly after the start from Talloire I pointed to the cycle path which starts just outside the village. While I detoured gently towards it S.C. made a sudden maniacal lunge, mounted the pavement, and hit a tree. Valiantly she continued only to become hypo-glycemic later on in the ride. S.C. had forgotten to bring any dried fruit or sustenance. She had “hit the wall”. I was tempted to force feed her the lipstick on the assumption that it probably had some sugar content. We made it to the final day of our “holiday” and I had one climb to do. The legendary Col De La Colombiere. The weather was by now the lead story on the French National news with vast tranches of the Southern part of the country flooded. Annecy had not escaped but the Colombiere simply had to be done to complete the “Big Nine”. Snow was forecast above 2500 metres. The conditions – again – were abominable. I think the Support Crew wanted to take me to the vet and have me injected in the humane way that animal lovers prefer. Instead we set off for the starting point in Thones .. the rain slamming off the windscreen.

A spot ad for the Bele Tele (and the only way to keep my feet dry !!!)

We stopped at a “Tabac” as I needed something to hold the plastic bags securely round my training shoes .. the only way I could think of to keep my feet dry. I asked the shop assistant for rubber bands and she helpfully pointed at the condom machine on the wall. It crossed my mind, that, at a stretch, I could have pulled one over each foot. We found some plant wire … the plastic bags went on. To placate S.C. I handed her some cash and off she went to the chic ski resort of La Clusaz to find next seasons “must have” mix of Cashmere and Gortex. I cranked slowly up the Colombiere. As the summit approached the heavy rain turned to sleet and it was snowing above me on the Grand Bornand Ridge. The middle of August for God’s sake. The names of famous Tour De France cyclists were painted on the road. “Allez Virenque” etc. The French have always begrudged Lance Armstrong’s achievements – an American winning THEIR race… and seven times ! One quaint tarmac slogan read “Armstrong You Will Die in One Kilometre”. Pleasant reading for Lance to cycle over. Not a concern “pour moi”. Natural causes were sure to get me before some deranged French sniper ! I managed to swerve around heart failure and made it to the top.

Where's the Polka Dot Jersey ?

Goal achieved but at a cost. The Support Crew is threatening to resign and the physiotherapy bills are already into three figures … oh and there was also the strange case of the cereal bowls ! They were in our farmhouse. We had our Muesli out of them each morning and they were artistically inscribed with “Jennifer” and “Sarah”.

On the day of departure the owner told us they were the names of the Farmhouse cats – I now have fur balls ! “Mon Dieu”

Dry, warm and happy at last. Target Cols completed. Pain and suffering over !!!

 

 

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TRAMUNTANA MOUNTAINS THUMBNAIL – THE GOOD, THE BAD + THE UGLY

NORTH WEST MALLORCA – THE TRAMUNTANA MOUNTAINS

Mark Robson dips into the Tramuntana to find stunning scenery, some good hiking as well as razor vines, rabid dogs and insane farmers !

What a view ! Looking at the Gorg Blau reservoir from the summit of the Des Ses Vinyes mountain. Really it's the high point at the end of a long, impressive ridge. The hill is on private land though. The farmer is mad and his dog should also be in a straitjacket.

A week after the Picos experience I was off to Spanish territory again. Mallorca. With my girlfriend Louise. A beach holiday, which I had organised. She needed the rest. Single Mum. Three kids. Poor girl. I had loads of sympathy. Accidentally I had booked us into Port De Soller which is right beside the 90 kilometre long Tramuntana mountain range. “Bugger”, I said, looking devastated, “I suppose now that we are here I had better explore them” Louise, a pharmacist, cursed herself for failing to pack the arsenic and prepared her bucket and spade. Well, I thought selflessly, the dear girl needs peace and quiet. Louise though hadn’t planned on solitude !

Anyway the exploration threw up some interesting detail on the Tramuntana range. First of all the Mallorcans are very proud of it and to be fair to them they have worked hard at creating a number of impressive trails which you can find in the “Walk Mallorca” map. There is also GR221 – which sounds like a Siberian Gulag – but is in fact a very well marked route which takes you on an excellent journey through various parts of the Central and Northern areas of the Tramuntana.

In the Calabra Barranca. Boulders as big as garden sheds. Make sure you are somewhere a little higher when the flood waters hit !

This may be personal taste but I found the area a little frustrating. The GR221 is fine and grand and can help you access some meaty terrain. The Tramuntana mountains are steep and rugged and have similarities to the Picos. The Tramuntana are low hills though. Clearly they did not eat their greens. This means that a lot of the walking is in the trees and scrubland. Hard going and you won’t see much apart from the next bush. A lot of the shrubbery is razor sharp and after one particularly difficult day my lower legs looked like they had been interrogated by the Gestapo. The best map, in my view, is the green E-25 series, which comes with a guide book produced in four languages. It’s a 1:25,000 map while the light blue “Mallorca North + Mountains Tour + Trail Map” Copyright David Brawn is a 1:40,000 scale. I am more used to the 1:25,000 type and found working with the 1:40,000 a bit confusing and couldn’t quite get used to it. I was glad I found the E-25 series in a local souvenir shop on the beach front.

 

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Tramuntana is finding where walks and hikes begin. They can be hidden away at the back of small villages and, unless you have detailed maps of each hamlet, discovering starting points, in some instances, even for the GR-221 is more luck than anything else. The GR-221, though, is very well marked and signposted once you get onto it.

On the E-25 series there are a lot of red trails. Big “LOOK AT ME” red means dual carriageway or main road. Solid smaller red means “Earth Track”. Large dotted red means “Footpath” and small dotted means “Footpath (difficult to find, steep)” Take my advice on this one – PLEASE ! Unless you want to end up as lunch for the Egyptian Vultures that arrive magically as the first bead of sweat runs down your brow….. don’t go ANYWHERE NEAR small dotted red. They can be an absolute nightmare. I had an easy enough run to the summit of a hill called Tossals Verds via the GR-221 and then decided to take “small dotted” which actually translates into “this is a path that will take you into Spain’s version of death valley and is a route planned by the devil himself”. I spent two hours trying to negotiate a desperately steep Barranca the bottom of which was filled with impenetrable Spanish gorse, scrub with fronds like a Stanley knife and huge boulders the size of garden sheds. Each of these had to be climbed up, over and round, individually. Extremely exhausting work and very, very slow going. And yes the path was very poorly marked. The odd tiny cairn with little small stones on them. Obviously lifted into place by some poor dehydrated wretch. Strength and hope gone this would have been his last act before submitting himself to the eager talons of the circling vultures. I will bet you a million dollars that anyone who takes one of these routes once never voluntarily does it again !

Mallorca's North West corner is famed for it's stunning though dangerous barrancas

And another thing. When you study the map looking for exciting routes slightly off the beaten track those solid red lines will look very tempting. There is a problem. Mallorca loves tourists but only the ones that lie like strips of fatty bacon on the sizzling beaches. Move outside that “safe zone” and you find that the rest of the population is full of hatred for “gringos”. Most of the Tramuntana is owned by farmers… and most of the “solid red” paths are on their land… and most of their land has welcoming signs like “Prohibido De Paso” (Translation: Walk here and my animals will eat your family) One day I decided to go “Solid Red” at a point on the map called Tuixant De Dait, which is just through the tunnel past the Gorg Blau reservoir. Check it out yourself. The gate on the path was open even though I did notice “Prohibido De Paso” on it. Undaunted I moved forward encouraged by the thought of adventure. Within seconds a huge black Doberman was heading my way. I was concerned for the future of my barrancas. Luckily the Hound of Hell was on a chain lead and almost garrotted himself trying to get at me. Having survived this test I then enjoyed a tough but fabulous walk to the summit of the Puig de ses Vinyes. The views over the North coast and down to the double reservoirs are truly spectacular. But on the way back the dog tried again. This time the farmer reacted. He was on the charge venting a spewed torrent of abuse at me. I am sure he mentioned the word “Policia” and the phrase “You will die British Pig” may have been in there somewhere. When I told him that “An octopus had eaten my toilet” his spleen almost exploded. I made my escape. The point I am making is this though. A large part of the Tramuntana is closed off due to military exclusion zones (seriously !) and farmers gates and fences. Mallorcans are VERY protective of their land. Under local by-laws they may be allowed to capture you, torture you and force you to watch Spanish soaps on a loop until you promise never to invade again. Worth checking that. In otherwords your trail and hiking options are actually quite limited and they won’t be offering that gem of info at the tourist office.

 

 

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Picos De Europa Mountains Six Day Hiking Tour

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PICOS DE EUROPA MOUNTAINS DAY ONE – FUENTE DE TO DIEGO MELLA REFUGE (5 hrs 30 mins) You meet quite a few Dutch folk in the Picos and there is your instant dichotomy. Flat Holland and mega steep Spanish limestone. … Continue reading

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