Easter weekend. A whole weekend off work with no other commitments: perhaps my only chance before the Mourne Way Ultra to actually have a look at the route and test my shoes. I had planned to dander the Mourne Way on Saturday, and then push myself on Sunday to do something like the Seven Sevens. To ask no more, even the weather was warm and settled.
As Friday was so great, I decided to leave early and got an evening bus all the way to Rostrevor. I was deposited directly outside a chippy, so a fish supper in the sun became first port of call. The weekend was made already.
Having dined, I made my way to the start of the Way in Kilbroney Park. For those who haven’t been, Kilbroney is a rather beautiful park, and in the warm evening glow I got carried away and followed a lovely winding stream path almost 90 degrees the wrong way and many contour lines higher than necessary. None-the-less, it brought me out to this marvelous vista, that allowed me to run quickly down to where I should have been:
There was a great section bounding through trees on sprung earth paths, then an undulating boundary track leading to the far end of the forest. With trees on the right and open sunset curios on the left I was compelled to enjoy every minute possible, so pushed on until the lights went out at 21:00; making a stealth camp just off a quiet road overlooking a freshly harvested stand of trees. I bedded down in my bivvi, the easterly bringing the odd light shower, but mostly warmth and the sweet scent of tree sap stirring around me. My Petzl Tikka had the red lens on, and flickering as the batteries discharged, gave the impression of reading by candle light. What was I reading? Why, Ron Turnbull’s excellent Book of the Bivvi, of course.
Cars trundled past occasionally until the wee hours: strange as this road has no real purpose. The same scooter went up and down a few times, and I woke at one point with a vehicle stopped close by and it’s occupant shuffling about. I remained unseen, and it eventually moved off, hopefully not having just disposed of a body! Although feeling slightly trapped tucked in a bivvi bag, you are easily missed, and it is nice to be able to see and hear what is around you rather than lying in a tent blind and letting your imagination run away. The stars appeared for a brief but sublime time around 03:00, and I awoke at a 05:45 dawn to clouds coming in from the west; the wind having done a ‘180’ at some point. Would this herald a wet front coming in? I decided to make tracks early, so ate a pie for breakfast, aired out my kit and removed a slug from my hair: ick. Ron hadn’t mentioned slugs in his book, or the fact that sometimes hundreds of ticks will suddenly appear all over your kit as it airs. Luckily, they all shook off easy enough and I only seemed to have one feasting on my leg. He dispatched, my pack packed, departure expedited along lightening track.
At the first stream I refilled my water, brushed my teeth, and stashed my jacket (with the map in the pocket – sure there were marker posts everywhere). Ahem. Shortly later I began slowly running up a long track. Delighted at this training opportunity, and watching my heart rate monitor bounce into the 170s for a painfully long time, I arrived at the top to a view that did not match memory. Indeed, the markers failed at a typically critical point and I ended up on Pierce’s Castle, much higher than I needed to be and in the wrong direction…. I had a good laugh. I’d never been up here before, and the hill climb was good training, so not at all a wasted effort. I ran down and across to Tournamuck, then rejoined the Way in the saddle to Rocky Mountain. Brilliant mountain running section, although I went over on both ankles on the way down to the river as I was singing to myself in the early silence, and generally having too good a time to be concentrating on such a demanding task. Water, malt loaf, shot bloks.
The path was now very good and mostly downhill all the way to Hen Mountain… could run that too. As the reader may be becoming aware, the amount of dandering on this recce was becoming rather small. Dandering I was though, on a climb up towards Spelga pass, when two runners passed me in the other direction. The first confirmed the joyous morning and temperature, the second that they were also entering the race in 6 weeks, and that was that. A stream of cyclists, tucked in like hawks, flew with silent grace in a colourful swirl around the hairpins. Having crossed the road I saw a long figure grinding the other direction up the long hill. I whistled and shouted encouragement down to him, hoping it reached his ears through the pounding of his pulse; and taken in the spirit as intended and not one of mockery. Stirling effort. At this point in the race I believe the route follows the road up past the dam. I know the road, and will cover it in the race, so chose to follow the trackless original section over Spaltha and Slievenamuck. The last time I was up here was micro-navigating during the mountain marathon as the blasting mist tried to tear us off something so featureless that there was nowhere to go. Today though, the early season meant very lightly vegetated open hill under my feet and joyous walking as a result. At the bottom, another food break beckoned so I took 10 mins to eat and chat with a DoE group. Bless them: 3 days to do the Mourne Way with big heavy packs!
Shunning the road once again, I slipped and sunk over the
track open bog towards Fofanny Dam, whereupon I hit lovely trail all the way past Meelmore, down the Trassey track and into the back of Tollymore forest. More food, more lovely forest: this is the nicest, most natural area in Tollymore with the King’s grave and Maria’s falls to enjoy. I chugged up another long climb with the heart under 160 this time, but walked the last bit up to my final high point of the day near the Curraghard viewpoint. I took another 10 minute break to finish my water, before the long downhill to the finish in the centre of Newcastle (again the actual finish, and not the race route).
Threats of rain were long gone, but my early start was still justified as it was now seriously hot. Reclined in the sun, as my body slowly cooled I realised that my knees, twisted ankles and back (still sore from Wednesday’s workout) were all beginning to protest. While hurt doesn’t slow you down, I could see no advantage to pushing any more training and didn’t fancy hanging around Newcastle for 24hrs. I went up to Donard Park for water and washed up a bit in the stream so I would be presentable enough to go into the Strand cafe for a Mourne Fry and ice-cream.
Promenade-basking in the sea air, reading and relaxing in the sun, I knew I had the back of the race broken. I now knew the route, the really hard bits, the moderate bits and the downright fun bits. I had completed the whole route, including pathless mountains in just over 6hr 30min with a 6.5kg pack and not even intending to do it fast. With 2kg max on the day, a further 6 weeks of training, a taped route of less bog and hilltop, intent, competition and big goal, I will surely be quicker over the distance and hopefully strong enough to turn around and do it all again!