Mourne Mountain Marathon

23Having not gone to the Saunders this year because it was on the far side of the Lake District, it seemed a bit strange to decide to head over to Northern Ireland for the Mourne Mountain Marathon but the temptation of £0 flights from Southampton with flybe was too great. Even with a three hour flight delay it probably still took us less time to get to Belfast than it would to Ennerdale!

Christine’s cousin Cath and her husband Steve had also entered the B course at the event. Steve is originally from Northern Ireland and his parents have a place very conveniently located in Dundrum on the northern edge of the Mournes. They were kind enough to accommodate us and chauffeur us around for the weekend. It was therefore only a half hour drive to the start on Saturday at Silent Water reservoir.

The sun was shining as we queued up at the start and, after a short track run, we picked up the grid references for our course. There had been some debate about the map before we started – the event recommends the use of the new 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map of the Mournes which, although bright and colourful, appeared to be devoid of much of the detail from the old map. This soon became apparent as, for some controls, we struggled to find the corresponding feature on the map.

The first control was relatively close and not particularly difficult to find (particularly given the train of people heading up the hillside). The next control, however, involved a steep rocky uphill through knee deep heather. Given that Steve had described the runnability of the Mournes as good "in mountain marathon terms", we started to wonder what other mountain marathons Steve had been unfortunate enough to take part in!

Cath and Steve had started just five minutes behind us and, having not stopped to copy down the controls, they were hot on our tails at this point. Fortunately the third leg contained a reasonably long track run so were able to put enough distance between us that we didn’t have to keep looking over our shoulders.

The middle of the course had a good route choice leg. You could head straight up along the Mourne wall (that marks the boundary of the water catchment area) and over the tops, drop down in to the woods to try and find a track route, or try and contour around the hillside somewhere between the two. We went for the last option and, in retrospect, I think it was probably the best option.

The penultimate control was another long leg. We didn’t really see any route choice and kept pretty close to the straight line. We picked up a couple of small paths on the way but there was a lot of steep climb and uneven descents. In the post race analysis we discovered that some teams had dropped back down the way we had come and then followed the valley up to the north before contouring around the hill. This added lots more distance but would have reduced the climb significantly. I suspect there wasn’t much difference in the timings but it may have left us less tired. Only one small wobble at the end of the leg when we stupidly listened to another pair who told us where the control was – only it was the wrong control. At least they then ran past the right control while we nipped in behind them and punched it.

We had a good night at the campsite. We managed a five course meal of pasta soup, noodles, cous-cous, cake/custard and a hot energy drink. The cloud came down overnight which kept us warm and toasty in our tiny KIMMLite tent. We could also lie in bed and watch the lights dancing on the hill as runners came in late in to the night. The overnight results had us in third place overall and first mixed pair. Cath and Steve were in fifth place and second mixed pair but about twenty minutes down on us. The winners were miles in front – about an hour ahead of us.

There was a mass start in the morning but the first five controls could be taken in any order (the cluster). There was no obvious sequence and looking at the results afterwards the fastest four pairs round the cluster all took them in a different order. We managed to stay out in front on our choice. The terrain was much more runnable than the previous day and it was much easier to avoid the climb.

Cath and Steve had to retire as Cath’s knees were playing up. At the midpoint we were neck-and-neck with the third mixed pair from the overnight results however they tried to contour around on the next leg whereas we dropped down low to make the most of a path around the reservoir. This gave us a lead of five minutes which they slowly clawed back until, just after a rocky descent to a tricky control below a crag, they overtook us again. They were running faster than us and we couldn’t keep with them but we knew we had at least a twenty minute advantage from the previous day in hand so were happy to finish just behind them.

Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for the prize giving but it was certainly generous. The sponsorship from Lowe Alpine meant that we got a new rucksac, technical cap and T-shirt. Not a bad haul for an enjoyable weekend!

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