There felt like quite a buzz in the lead up to this event, the Mourne Mountains over in Northern Ireland being a very new and quite unheard of place to me, NiRunning/Mourne Skyline MTR team were hosting the last race in the Skyrunning Uk series. The information and statistics confirmed this would be a tough one, with 11,000 feet of climbing over 22 miles, a serious amount of ascent and descent – equating to 500 feet per mile, almost double the climbing of the Yorkshire Three peaks route over a slightly shorter distance. In addition to the tough course, there was also a tough field: exciting to think that we would be lining up with the Skyrunning World series ladies champion Stevie Kremer, British Ultra trail champions Kim Collison and Jo Meek, plus more well know British and international runners such as Paul Teirney, Paul Navesey, J Marshall Thomson, Allan Bogle, Eoin Lennon and more. Was it time to feel a little overwhelmed? No, just extremely excited as the Skyrunning UK series finale looked set to be really interesting.
Following on from the 3×3000 DNF and issues, I spent the two weeks before working on the stiffness that had ground me to a halt, teasing this out with the help of physio Clare and also trying to get the ankle somewhere near use-able. Even if I could get it pain free, the proprioception would need some work too. I decided to make myself run every day, just slow and steady with lots of stretching going back to basics with some early morning drills, balance and strength work. Every day I went out felling better and better, staying disciplined to not push when I felt good. I knew it was not an ideal situation and lacked any intesity but I was determined to go out to Ireland and give it my absolute best.
Arriving in Newcastle (County Down) on Friday, Kim and I had a gentle run up the hill to check out the first and last couple of miles. My legs were feeling the best they had for weeks, and I was only slightly nervous on my ankle, but pain free at least. We bumped into some of the very friendly organisers who were out working hard taping the course; this friendliness set the scene for the whole weekend on how welcoming the locals were to us out of towners. The Mourne Mountains were obviously a big part of the community here and with it came respect for the mountains and terrain.
Saturday morning and a sociable start time in the daylight, not too cold but a lot of wind! And that was down at sea level, so going higher was going to be interesting. Everyone seemed in great spirits, for such a competitive field it had a very friendly and nice atmosphere. After a quick briefing we were off. I settled into a comfortable rhythm in the lead group of 7 or 8 before we spread out a little more over the first few miles, heading up through the first pass, weaving along a nice boulder strewn track, which was also part of the descent back down to the finish.
I was not really sure how best to pace this race, being 22 miles it was certainly relatively short on distance, but with so much climbing I didn’t want to overdo things too soon. Without doing any short races recently or speed work, I was lacking the pace to start quickly and knew that the best plan for me was to start a little more reserved and try to push on after half way. The first three pulled away and I settled into a group just behind, though still strung out a little more now. As we summited the first ascent, we climbed over the Mourne wall to be met with a face full of wind. Almost stopping us in our tracks, it took a lot of leaning forwards to get moving through this and onto a really nice trail descent. Feeling my way into a good rhythm here, I started to gain some places and make up ground on the leading three now a good minute or so ahead.
Once down here it was the start of a few very steep ups and very steep downs, some very rocky too and we ran veering into and then away from the Mourne wall several times. This at least offered some shelter from the wind, the direction of which seemed to be all over the place; I wasn’t sure if we were changing direction all the time or if it was the wind! On one of the descents I remember having to lean right back to stop from being picked up and dumped at the bottom of the hill! Positions chopped and changed throughout this though I think there were 4 ahead, Paul Navesey and I chopped and changed position as we all tried to survive being battered around.
We headed down another long gradual descent towards the drop bag and water stop approximately halfway. I again got into a good pace here and put a bit of chase onto those in front. This was a lovely grassy descent and I finished it off with an unplanned (though in my mind stylish) 20 foot slide on my bum in front of a few laughing supporters! (obviously not thinking it looked to stylish!) Luckily this did no real damage, getting me down the hill faster.
Starting to have fun now, I grabbed some water from the checkpoint and made my way up the only bit of road with David Steele. By the top Paul had caught us up and we pushed on at a good pace with the front four still just in sight. I felt we were now pushing harder and working well together. Feeling better here, we started another set of roller coaster climbs and descents. Following the Mourne wall and luckily sheltered from the wind for a little while, I got into a really good climbing rhythm here as I left the others behind and started closing in on the next person Allan Bogle, though catching him a little more quickly than expected, I felt for him as he told me he was having a real rough patch and was struggling, which he must have as was in the leading three only a mile before, not a nice place to be in with still a long way to go.
Next, I could see J Marshall Thomson in fourth place only a minute or so ahead, we came back onto some of the real technical terrain we already covered on the way out. The climb up Slieve Meelmore was horrendous, it seemed so steep and there were poor foot holes so it was tough to get any sort of rhythm, just trying to put one foot forward/up and grit it out, then over the other side onto a very scrabbly rocky descent. I made good time up here and closed in on J Marshall, following him for a little while. He turned around and asked if we were on course, which I thought we still were, then he kicked away strongly as I started to tire, now paying for my enthusiasm on the descent, again following the wall up and down. I was feeling the climbs now watching him gradually pull away, but we were both closing in on Andrew Annett in third so still a good incentive to keep pushing and the race is never over until the finish line.
From here I lost track of where we actually were on the route. I knew Slieve Donard was the last climb and was an out and back. It wasn’t until I caught sight of Eoin Lennon coming down on the other side of the wall that I realised we were on it already! The last summit was there before us hiding in the mist and wind, this gave me a boost though I didn’t feel like I had much climbing left in me! It had become a real battle of will power and the legs were starting to turn to jelly. Managing to catch Andrew before the summit I was now in fourth with J Marshall ahead. Still feeling strong on the descent and I was looking forward to the last 3 miles of descent to the finish where I felt I could make up some more time and push hard to chase for another position.
Knowing in my head that my legs were fairly wobbly still, I was trying not to get too carried away before getting into downhill mode, then I think I lost concentration slightly and slipped on a rock, only to feel the sinking, sickening sensation of my ankle roll and pop, dropping me to the floor like a sack of spuds. Damn, game over…
I appreciated Andrew for coming over to check I was ok, good man, but I knew all I could do was try and get off the hill without my ankle going over again. This was unfortunately not one of those that you can run off, believe me I would have tried everything to get going again but with it having gone only two weeks before it really was on borrowed time, so I ambled my way down as those I had worked hard to race quickly caught and passed me, also saying hello to Ian Corless again: he gets everywhere! I also had the pleasure to see the first two ladies come flying past, first was Stevie Kremer who looked so fresh with a big smile! She was followed not far behind by Jo Meek looking really strong and too, both very impressive as they glided down the rocky descent.
Carrying on, I managed to run again once on the fire road, eventually crossing the line in 14th. Obviously not the result I hoped for but a real thrilling experience nonetheless. I was also really pleased to hear that Kim Collison had taken the win, with Eoin Lennon second and J Marshall Thomson pushing well for third. I had the pleasure of running against Kim on my first ever marathon (Hardmoors Osmotherly) and he showed his amazing speed then, so trying to hang onto him is always a challenge I enjoy!
Kim (my girlfriend Kim, yes slightly confusing – keep up!) was also racing, though she had been out of action since finishing third in the Hardmoors 60 with ITB problems. She was determined to start this race with the aim of finishing in her own time. I don’t think either of us realised how tough this would be, not only from the climbing but technically too. Probably not the best thing for an ITB problem! without doubt the most technical race she has taken on. She yet again pulled it out of the bag and I managed to catch her belting down the hill towards the finish with a huge smile on her face and cheering “I have beaten my ITB!” Happy days! Knowing how hard she has been working to get running again it was a real achievement for her.
This was a great finale to the whole series. There was definitely an air of something special throughout the whole event: the entire field of runners was really friendly, with Niandi and Ian both there supporting from Skyrunning UK and the Mourne Skyline organisers were all really good, of course a huge thank you and respect to the marshal’s for helping point us in the right direction and enduring such strong winds. The course was well marked out all the way, especially where it mattered, which is no mean feat over such terrain. There is obviously a great local running community in such a friendly town, I will be putting this on the calendar for next year – and hopefully spend some more time out there exploring afterwards.
Skyrunning on home turf: The first year for this in the UK. Huge thanks to Ian Corless and Niandi Carmont for bringing us a great series with some beautiful locations. Great sponsors throughout the year including some really good prizes for Kim and I from Inov8 and Raidlight. Skyrunning seems similar to fell running in many ways I guess, one off the differences being that these are over set routes, rather than point to point as some fell races are. This is quite appealing when going somewhere new, not needing to rely too much on navigating or local knowledge to get around the course. The 4 races offered such a variety of terrain, competitors and challenges, I feel lucky to have been a part of these, relishing the experiences each has offered. At the prize giving Ian also revealed that there will be 6 maybe 7 races in the series next year with possibly 11 in 2016, so very exciting times for the UK and Sky race series, hopefully with more vertical K races the night before!!
What’s next? Well as I said before it was always in the plan to have a good long rest after this race, though I would like to finish the year on a good blast and get back to my roots, so providing I can get my ankle to stay together, I will be taking on the Hardmoors Goathland trail marathon on the 8th of November, I always enjoy the relaxed friendly atmosphere Jon and Shirley bring to the series, plus the route is around the stunning moors and forest where I grew up so has extra sentimental appeal. Despite the area lacking the total height of mountains there are some tough climbs and great routes, one of the Hardmoors events would make a great Skyrace or Ultra trail champs races! The Goathland event is now sold out with strong field of 400 plus runners too. With a time to beat from last year and regardless of position I will be pushing myself hard, using it as a good way to measure any gains from last year. After this I will see about a rest and a plan for next year, already talks between Kim and I for our first 100 miler close to home and a sprinkling of European/UK Sky races!