Threading the Slieves: Getting my bearings on the Mourne Mountain Marathon.

Doing a Mountain Marathon is in many ways like living in a marriage. Well maybe not MY marriage, but you get the point. There is a fair amount of sweaty closeness with your partner, arguments and debates, compromises and, in the end, teamwork brings success. That’s the theory anyway, but in actual fact things went so well on this trip because we didn’t do some of these things. I deferred entirely to my partner on the key element to doing well – navigation, and for that reason things went as smoothly as I could have imagined. But more of that later, let’s wind back a bit.

In the same way that I had shunned triathlons for so long as I couldn’t swim very well (I still can’t!), I have avoided anything with an element of forced navigation because, well, I’m shit at it too. However, as time passes and you consider life’s missed opportunities, I thought it was time to try to address that. So I suggested to Joel (or did he suggest to me?) that we do a Mountain Marathon (MM). I knew that Joel would be a great partner – he navigates very well, is a solid runner (and more, as I found out) on the hills, and, erm, has all the expensive kit that I don’t have. So we agreed on doing the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon (LAMM) in June and started planning accordingly. As time approached we found out that the LAMM was looking shaky due to landowner issues and dwindling numbers, and sure enough, the organisers were forced to cancel it. Having experienced the weather in Scotland on that particular weekend when the Ben Ledi Race (which I signed up to on hearing the news that the LAMM was cancelled) was called off by the Mountain Rescue on the morning of the race, I’m bloody glad it didn’t happen! But that left us with a decision to make: where next? Joel had previously competed in the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM), and that was still on in October, but he felt it was too big and crowded, so we opted for the Mourne instead.

I’d heard good things about the event, but more importantly, about the venue, from fellow hill runners in the club who had competed there in some of the British Championship counters. And of course, I learned all I need to know from Celtic Thunder, who recorded a stirring rendition of Percy French’s 1896 lyrics. Are hair streaks still in? I wouldn’t know.

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I’ve had so much on, in terms of events, this year that I’ve not really had a chance to focus on much in the the way of specific training or enhancing my laughable navigational skills, one session with Joel excepted. I guess I thought the actual running and slogging element would be within my capabilities (it was), but I would struggle to track a good route and find anything in the wilderness if left to my own devices. I also had a concern about kit (or lack of) and how I would get all that together. In the end, Joel had everything that was required and I had most of my personal kit already anyway, from hill racing requirements. This was the recommended list from the organisers, enhanced by Joel:

Individual Clothing and Equipment

  • Waterproof coat with hood (not pertex or other showerproof materials) and full length waterproof trousers
  • Hat and gloves
  • Thermal vest or similar
  • Tracksters or trousers of at least 3/4 length
  • Footwear designed for off trail use suitable for mountain conditions
  • Sleeping bag (full body length with a minimum Lower Comfort Temperature of 4degC as defined by EN13537 OR at least 1 season)
  • Torch capable of giving operational light for at least six hours plus spare bulb (if not LED type)
  • Compass (not electronic)
  • Whistle
  • Pencil or pen (chinagraph pencil recommended)
  • Rucksack
  • A sleeping mat, either a piece of karrimat, or a thermarest or similar
  • A lightweight duvet jacket or thin fleece
  • Two polythene sandwich bags to go over your dry socks so you can walk around overnight camp with warm, dry feet
  • Water bottle. Nuun (electrolyte) tablets

Team Equipment

  • One tent with sewn-in groundsheet: it must be manufactured as a tent and not as a bivvy or something else. 2 x single person tents are not allowed
  • Survival bag (not a space blanket)
  • Cooking equipment – with enough fuel to provide both people with at least one hot meal and drink
  • Food sufficient for 2 people for 36 hours PLUS a small amount emergency rations to remain at the end of day 2
  • First aid equipment consisting of a minimum of one large wound dressing, adhesive dressings and one full roll of two inch bandage and safety pin
  • Mourne Map 1:25,000 recommended either waterproofed or with case/bag

He also suggested foam ear plugs. In his words ‘I don’t snore, but someone in a tent close to us will be guaranteed to.’ Yeah, we’ll see Joel.

So a fair amount of kit, and all to be shared out into a 32L backpack each, leaving us capable of running and climbing at pace while navigating. Lightness was the watchword. In the end I only had to buy a titanium mug, food, and a chinagraph, and borrow a thermarest and pack. Joel supplied the rest or I already had it. But having now completed a MM (and got a taste for them) there’s a whole new world of light racing kit porn out there for me to slave over.

So to logistics. This year’s Control Centre (CC) was to be at Tollymore Outdoor Centre, near Newcastle, so Belfast was the obvious destination (sometimes Dublin can be quicker, if the CC is on the South Mournes). We decided to fly, rather than take the ferry and we were all set for a lunchtime arrival in Belfast and late flight home on the Sunday. We landed safely on the Friday and made our way into Belfast centre. We had time to kill so decided to go and see Everest, which was on general release from that day. It was a cracker and having read ‘Into Thin Air’ I knew the story (lots of people die in miserable conditions), but it still made for compelling viewing.

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Pinewood Studios has never looked so foreboding.

We hoped the strapline ‘The Most Dangerous Place on Earth’ wasn’t a portent of what was to come! We then stuffed our faces and jumped in the free shuttle to the campsite at Tollymore. Joel had brought a couple of tents – a larger North Face one for the Friday, which we would then stash at the CC, leaving the tiny one for the actual MM. We had a sound sleep and were up and packed for the shuttle to the CC the next morning.

Tollymore National Outdoor Centre, situated at Tollymore Forest Park, is the Northern Ireland Centre for Mountaineering and Canoeing, and a fine place it is.

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Tollymore Outdoor Centre. A vision in glass and wood.

We registered, received our timing dibber, had a kit check and emptied our bowels. We were ready.

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The Most Dangerous Place on Earth.

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So to Day 1. As we were in the bus to the start (we were off at 9am) we wondered where they would drop us. It turned out to be not far – in a layby at the Bloody Bridge. We were set off and dibbed to be given our set of controls for the day. We quickly marked up our maps (this bit I could do, although I still glanced over to Joel’s map to confirm we agreed on positions).

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Photo: Ryan Maxwell

We got going as quickly as possible and made our way to the first control, a straightforward stream junction at Bloody Bridge River. The first couple of controls were easy, and there were several pairs around,  but by the third control below Millstone Mountain (512m), things had spread out and the control wasn’t found immediately.

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Photo: Ryan Maxwell

A word about navigation here. Finding points on a map is one thing, but charting the best line between controls is another. This is where the Elite guys come out on top, in addition to being good athletes on the hills. The problem comes where you have two strong navigators and you waste time arguing about route choices. We avoided this as I left all that to Joel, helping out where I could with my legendary eyesight, spotting controls far away. I also generally tried to assuage my guilt on relying on Joel by putting in extra work by running to and from the actual controls from the line we were on. I had to anyway, as I was wearing the dibber! All in all it was a good arrangement (I hope Joel agrees) and while I learned a lot from him on the weekend, it would have been crazy to have used me as navigator.

The next control was on top of a rocky gully on the face up to Slieve Commedagh (819m) and we then threaded our way over Slieve Beg (642m), between Cove Mountain (707m) to the next control on an east-facing overhanging crag on the face of  Slievelamagan (756m). The next control on a cliff top, above gully, on Ben Crom (578m) was the first real test of Joel’s route choice. We decided to go south and head over the reservoir road, and then climb the steep rocks to the cliff top. The alternative would have been to go north around the reservoir, or south, but by sweeping round to the cliffs in a more shallow path. We found a rocky trod that took us down to the reservoir and given that things were going well, we decided to have a moment of fun.

Ben Crom is a mass gravity dam, meaning it is made of concrete and designed so that the dam’s own weight stabilises it against the force of the water, and an impressive sight it is too.

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Photo: Joel Sylvester

After crossing the road we looked up and saw what was ahead of us – a serious climb over the rocks to the next control. Joel was in his element here and was stronger than me in ascending. It took a while and I was beginning to wonder if we should have swept around lower, but soldiered on. At the base of the cliffs Joel skipped up their face like a mountain goat, but I decided to sweep round lower, meeting another pair on the way. The four of us found the control together. This control was a good example of where the description was a better bet than the map reference. It certainly was further away than we were expecting.

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Ben Crom by its technical SE face. Photo: Joel Sylvester

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Photo: Joel Sylvester

The next control was going to be a slog. It was over generally boggy ground and a fair distance, around the base of Doan (645m) and Carn Mountain (576m) to a boulder below a gully in the cliff over on a face of Slieve Muck (726m). Joel was strong over this terrain (I’m not such a fan of non-firm ground) and I was in need of a drink. Luckily, we found a burn and filled the bottles and took on some food.

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There you are you little bastard. Photo: Terry McQueen

Our next control was over the Mourne Wall to a point over the top of Ott Mountain (576m). I had a spring back in my step now. The climb had taken a bit out of my knees, which concerned me, but 600mg x 2 of Spanish Ibuprofen (they like ’em strong there!) sorted me out and I was running up the next hill feeling fresh. This control was tricky to find, but we got there and we could see the next control, and road crossing in the distance, down a fast, rough descent. The pair that had met me at Ben Crom were just ahead of us here, and the marshals told them they were 4th MV pair, meaning we were 5th. We crossed the road and had to make a decision – should we head up the obvious track towards Butter Mountain (552m) or sweep left and right and make it more runnable? We chose the latter, but the control was further round than anticipated, so we may have lost some time here. We pushed on and the next two controls could be done in any order. We chose an order and stuck to it and picked up the pace past a few other pairs and down towards the finish and camp.

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Photo: Mourne2Day

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Photo: Mourne2Day

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Coming into the finish on day 1. Photo: Mourne2Day

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Photo: Liam Smyth

We downloaded our dibbers and were 4th from 4 in B Class at that point, with another 23 pairs still to come in. At the end of the evening we sat at 12th, and 5th MV. We had covered 15.4 miles with 5, 293ft of elevation in a time of 6:24:32. This was adjusted to an MV time of 6:05:18, just 6 seconds behind 4th Vet team (Vet adjustments only count against other Vet teams). There was all to play for the next day.

Day 1

It was a tough day, tougher than I was expecting, but it was great to be in camp at a decent hour, and we could relax and enjoy some recuperation, as well as meet some of the other pairs. We picked a spot for the tent and over the next few hours ate, sorted our feet out, re-hydrated and lounged about, keeping an eye on the results as pairs came in.

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As I stuffed my face with granola, brunch bars, malt loaf and my pathetic meal (300 effing calories!), it gave me a chance to mull over things that I would do differently/surprised me/pleased me. Namely:

  • Because I thought the main challenge would come from the navigation, I barely considered the effect that the pack would have on me. It was noticeable and too heavy. I’ll need to work on kit. It was better on day two but I need lighter equipment. My sleeping bag is a monster.
  • I thought my knees would suffer more, but they were okay. They had a wobble after the hard climb at Ben Crom, but the pills sorted them out.
  • There is relatively little water on the Mournes. I would probably take a bladder next time, as well as my water bottle, for when we came across any.
  • The course needed gnarlier shoes. Mudclaws were in evidence and their lugs would have been ideal. My X-Talons were comfortable and just about grippy enough.
  • The plastic-bag-in-the-shoes tip from Joel was a winner. It made for a comfortable trudge around the camp that night.
  • I was pleased that we stuck to our guns on route choices. They didn’t always come off 100%, but it made for a feeling that we’d done things our way, when we could easily have followed other pairs to some controls.

Day 2

It was an uneventful night’s sleep and I woke at 4.45am well rested and had a peek outside the tent. It remained dry with a bit of a wind, but pretty cold. We slowly arose and made breakfast and started to break down the tent and joined the queue for the toilets. Things started to come to life in the camp. B Class was going to be a mass start at 8.15am. We knew that if we were slicker on day 2, the chances were we could make up some places, and so it proved. We also guessed that we would be out in the hills for a shorter time, as a) the distance would be shorter on day 2 (it was – an advertised 19.4km as opposed to 22.6km on day 1) and b) there would be less climb and more running (also the case, and it felt more like a long hill race than the day before). The pair camped next to us, Adam Dixon and David Somerville, had finished a minute and a place ahead of us the day before so they were in our sights (they were partners on multiple MMMs and David was a local, so they were a good benchmark), as were the mixed couple sitting in 6th, Emily and Gareth Penn. In the end we finished ahead of both on day 2, but not far enough to overhaul the mixed pair, who finished in 5th.

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David and Adam on our tails. Photo: Liam Smyth

We received our controls and got cracking with map marking. Then slogged up the hill we had descended at the end of the night before to look for the first control. I regretted putting on my jacket so that came off quick smart as soon as I could manage.

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Photo: Ryan Maxwell

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Road crossing at Fofanny Dam. Photo: Terry McQueen

We made light work of the first 7 controls and reached the road crossing in good time. There we noticed that pairs were stopping to work out their next move, as it was here we had a choice of three controls in any order. Adam and David caught us here but Joel chose wisely and we decided on a route that no other pair around us seemed to be taking. It was a decisive move and meant we overhauled other pairs to finish 4th on the day.

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Adam and David behind us. We were about to out-think them.  Photo: Terry McQueen

Joel decided that climbing would suit us better than most, so we started to climb to the col between Slieve Loughshannagh (671m) and Slieve Meelbeg (760m), following the line of the stream, filling our bottles as we climbed. At the col, we followed a runnable countour track round for about 850m and saw the control at a pond below us. Joel’s navigation was, again, spot on. Through experience he has worked out times for running and trudging per kilometre, and averages 65 paces when running per 100m, so we always felt in control of distance. From there we carried on the path round Slieve Meelbeg before dropping down to a crowded control, indicating that most pairs had chosen to be here earlier than us. We moved off quickly and faced a steep grassy descent which I decided to bum-slide down, using the pack as balance. This was going well until I caught a stud and hyperflexed my knee. It was a nasty feeling and Joel heard me scream from above. I took a moment to check if I could carry on and all felt well. I popped another pill and carried on descending. At the bottom I realised I’d lost my water bottle. Not ideal, but Joel had one and it was relatively cool conditions. We ran across some land and climbed the Mourne Wall again and headed for the next control, which we found on a bend on a disused track. This was the end of the optional-order controls so we headed to Hare’s Gap to the next one. We ran along the Trassey River and took a rocky path which led to a stony climb up to the control, which was manned. We noticed a high path to the right on Pollaphuca, which wasn’t obvious from the map, and it looked faster from what we could see of other runners, but we actually reached the control at the same time as them. We dibbed and had a quick chat about our options.

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Hare’s Gap, looking back towards Spellack and Slievenaglogh.

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Photo: Liam Smyth

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Again we had to decide between a climb against an easier, longer run, and went for the climb, reached a ridge an over a wall where we passed Gareth and Emily Penn, who were lying 6th after day 1. We descended with them on our tails on a contour around Pot of Legawherry, where I smacked my knee on a hidden rock. No lasting damage done but I could feel blood under my running tights. The control was high up, on a nasty climb up to a crag on the side of Slieve Commedagh (819m) and it was a real slog to get there. The mixed pair were on our tails but we had managed to pass the youngsters Paul Pruzina and Jack Anderson (we finished ahead of them on day 2, but they were 4th on day 1) and got to the control at the same time as an Elite pair. It was then the final run in to Tollymore Forest Park, but we knew that navigation could be tricky therein. We headed down quickly and ran level with Emily and Gareth and stayed with them through the next control on a forest track before overtaking them and another couple of pairs through the logged forest section. There then followed another kilometre or so of forest trails with an uphill section to the finish. We’d had a good second day and were well chuffed with a 4th place!

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Hardly a hair out of place.

We showered, got some food, our t-shirts and went to check out the results. We were in 7th position overall (12th and 4th) and 3rd MV. As more and more pairs came in we stayed there as the gaps between finishers became longer. We stayed for the prizegiving and 6th place won the MV prize, meaning we missed it by a place. Aw. Meanwhile, the courses from day 2 had been posted for positions 1 to 4 and Joel was taking the plaudits for his route choices. I think (quite rightly) he felt real satisfaction from his hill craft. Combined with that, we put in a bloody good shift with the legs on day 2. We’d covered 13.1 miles and 3,996ft of ascent in a time of 4:31:06 (Veteran adjusted to 4:17:33). Overall splits for the combined race are here.

Day 2

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Read it and weep. The Sylvester Line in blue.

Conclusions? Well it was a blast. Thoroughly enjoyable, tough enough but with enough capacity to move up to Elite next year I think (if Joel will have me). And we were competitive godammit! Great venue, lovely people and a perfect partner in crime. I know where I’ll be this time next year. In the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.

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3 thoughts on “Threading the Slieves: Getting my bearings on the Mourne Mountain Marathon.

  1. The view is one thing I’ve always loved about these Mountain Marathons! Thanks for the photos. I’ve always enjoyed the sceneries more than the competition.

    By the way, what happened to your toes? Was that caused by the foot spa? 😀

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