After struggling last year, I vowed to come back and complete the Mourne Way Ultra. With a bit more running training, and a new found love of gels, I was pretty ready to go (bar some last minute worries). My good friend Mike kindly dragged himself up at an unholy hour to drive me down to the start in Kilbroney. There was a bigger field this year of nearly 80 runners. I recognised a few faces from the year before, and recognised the look I must have had the year before on some first timers. After preceding weeks of alternate scorching and stormy weather, the day was shaping up perfectly to be mild and overcast, with a homeward breeze. The midges were eating us alive so we were glad to get moving just after 6am.
Learning from my mistakes, I filtered to the back and just settled into an easy rhythm. I chatted to a few people about their previous races and described the route a bit to those who didn’t know it. Some had no belts/packs/water/anything with them, and one guy was just wearing an old tracksuit! Maybe he stashed it at an aid station once he warmed up? As we cleared the forests I eventually fell in with Violet and Greg who were going about the same pace as me. We stayed together until Spelga Road, when I pulled away a bit and met some other runners on the muddy Meelmore section. Two lads were having a laugh as they slipped and fell in turns… “you next!”, they joked to me. “No doubt”, I replied, “I’ll make sure it’s a good one”. Sure enough I slipped in a stream near Trassey right up to my shorts. It was about this point I said hello to Claire (a regular MWM personality) and met George from NI-Wild who was helping out at the lively Trassey aid station.
Down into the forest and we were diverted over a footbridge, rather than the stepping stones. The river was running strong so it was probably a safety measure as the stones often get over-run. I made it into Donard forest before I saw the leader Eoin coming the other way: I thought he looked rather leisurely to be at the front of the race, but when I came back to that place I realised just how much of a headwind he was running into (and I had pushing me along)… it was really howling! I arrived at the turn-around 30mins earlier than the year before and feeling much fresher. I took 10mins to bin empty wrappers, restock on gels and water, and check if anyone else needed anything. Many runners were coming in, having pushed to achieve the first half in 5hrs, but I could see a lot of fatigue setting in already, with another mountain marathon to go.
Back up the big hill, encouraging those still coming in that the half-way was just ahead. Over the top I felt stationary in the headwind, but gradually made progress and dropped back into the trees and over to Tollymore. I ran up the hill where the lead marathon runners past me walking the year before. It felt good to be going strong, but I expected them constantly after that point. Our varying strengths led to light racing over the next 8 miles as some people gained on the flatter trails with road-bred speed, and I chugged up the hills and beat through the mud. It kept me alert, entertained, and motivated anyway. Hannah Shields was always close, and as one of our most accomplished endurance athletes, I wanted to keep her in my sights for hope of getting a good time!
The long road to the high-point was eased by the half-marathoners not having set-off yet: both from the realisation of being in that place by that time, and because they all cheered us on. The atmosphere really built as we trundled down past Spelga Dam, knowing they were all about to set off. A few of us were close and wanting to clear the first tight section of rough ground before we got swept up. Over the bridge, we looked up to see them streaming down the road. On, on…. here’s the fast ones…. it was a little difficult to keep checking over our shoulders to skip out of the way of the front-runners, but they were appreciative and friendly. Soon the main contenders were past and we were in wider ground as the main pack slowly trickled by. On this technical ground it wasn’t long before I was keeping up with most of them. It was a real rush… like a herd of antelope (all associated grace romatically imagined) we descended upon the aid station at Hen Track. It was triage there with sprains and bangs, water and gels everywhere; people pulling over and many passing straight through. Hannah and I wished each other well for the last slog as we refilled water and I set off into the zone.
Thankfully, with all the hubbub, the deceptive climb up Hen Track proved managable, and I eventually made it over the Rowan-Tree River onto the final hill climb. It was here that the first Marathon runner finally came past. It was all coming together, and as I descended, the realisation that I was a downhill 10K from the finish started to sink in. Unfortunately, a jump over the ditch at the bottom pulled a muscle and in an instant, those dawning visions of finishing threatened to shatter. This last 10K was really hard. I felt it and remembered it, knowing it would all seem rosie when writing about it 2 months later.
I yelped and cursed myself; trying immediately to stretch the muscle and becoming aware that the others in my body were nearing such fragility. Onwards, easing it into action again, I ploughed through rocky mess and huffed laboriously along the trails. Total-body huffs as every other step slapped breath from my body. Flat slaps as any remaining spring left my legs. Breath that I wasn’t sure I needed any more: it seemed irrelevant in this new place, but I sucked it in greedily, feeding a primal rhythm beat out in my chest and upon that of the earth. Landmarks ticked by, but don’t think: stop calculating the finish… you’ll have forgotten something… there’s always more and it’s always further than you want it to be. Other runners ticked by, from 10K to Ultra, but I only spared energy to buoy the later home. Finally, the campsite, people without numbers pinned to them, music rising up the grassy hill. Steady as you like I watched someone trotting down the hill… no way… I gave in to gravity and, what must have resembled an elephant just shot with a tranquiliser dart, felt to me as a triumphant galloping horse sweeping down the grassy banks. Keeping the stampede lit once the ground leveled out took all my effort, but the announcer called my name as I rounded the tree, and there was a cheer as my screwed up face crossed the finish. I could finally stop my Garmin, and I could finally stop running.
Mike was there to congratulate me and shepherd my fuzzy state through the post-race procedures of collecting race-pack, ice bath, shower block, chips. Unwittingly, I gave him a bottle of sparkling water to mix up a recovery shake: that created quite a mess that I don’t recall having to clean up. I believe he may also have tried asking some insightful questions to capture the raw moment: how does it feel now that you’ve completed it? Compared to last year? “Yeah…it’s like… yeah…” Sorry Mike!
We cheered on others as they made it to the end, and chatted to finishers. One fella had feet lacerated with the worst blisters I’ve seen. He had the spaced-out calm determination that can only be brought on by the grit to run 20miles on feet like that, and the shed-loads of endorphins his brain dumped out to get him through it. I also got chatting to Sebastian from France who had contacted me before the race. He had really enjoyed the marathon and crossed the line with a wonderful crazy person in head-to-toe checkered lycra. Soon after I was chauffeured home, where I tried to eat some solids and, with fatigue eventually winning over caffeine and adrenaline, collapse to sleep.
52miles, 2400m +/-, all-terrain in 10h09m. I was delighted to come 14th from 76 starters… all the training paid off!
Now to practice my smile for the next finish line 😀