Special feature – The story of MTR season tackled my Mark Weir

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What leads a track runner into the mountains?

It was late on Friday 27th May 2016 and I had just completed 17k through local trails, hardly breaking sweat, taking photos, smiling. I was fit again and it felt great.

The track season had started well, race 1 a 3k had been a titanic struggle with a few of the Acorns AC lads on home turf at Bangor, I registered a win and a masters PB of 9:50. The second race a few weeks later at the same venue yielded a 1500m time of 4:31 just shy of a masters PB.

The end of May each year sees ex players of the UUC soccer team return to Coleraine to play some football and catch up with old friends. For me it is the only time I put the boots back on as I know playing can be costly and ultimately this time around it was. Saturday 28th was a perfect storm, a long drive, a deluge that made for heavy(ish) ground, minimal hydration and warm up and a competitive edge that never dwindles whatever the sport. I ran all match, I was 18 again. I remember someone ask the ref “how long is left?” and the response was “30 seconds”. The ball was played over the top and I couldn’t resist but metres from the ball the left hamstring gave out, I had a few injuries there over the years and I knew immediately my season was done.

I don’t usually do What Ifs but if I hadn’t made that last effort I may have gone close to 2 minutes for 800m that season but I may also have never run the Mourne Skyline MTR.

Forming The Plan.

A few pals planned a weekend away down in Newcastle, some walking, some camping and some craic. We went down on 24 September 2016 but it was pea soup, visibility around the roads was grim and the rain was torrential. Straight to O’Hares for pints and some pool before retiring to Kilbroney hoping tomorrow would be better. Typical NI, Sunday the 25th was the other side of the coin, a light breeze and blue skies. We set off from Donard Park up through the forest, we traversed a cobbled stone trail, passed a waterfall and arrived out on to another trail that I hadn’t seen in about 25 years. “Glen River Trail”, “Ice House”, “Black Stairs” and “The Saddle” were simply not in my vocabulary at this point the other lads seemed to know the way and thus I simply followed.

Just prior to  some stone steps as the trail starts to ascend more rapidly one of the lads shook his head and said he was injured and wanted to head back. He seen it in my eye that I wasn’t coming with him, that competitive edge again. He said he could make it back allowing myself and another to go for the summit. We strode on, made the summit and made the return but halfway down my pal started to jog, picking his way over the stones. I started to jog too, wary of the hamstring but enjoying the increased speed, we soon found ourselves back at the car.

We chatted about how this was basically on our doorstep and we hadn’t been here in years. A plan was forming. I quizzed my mate about fell running, he had done some in his career before it was cut short by illness. I thought it might strengthen the hamstring and I actually might be okay at it. I know now that “Okay at it” was a townies estimate.

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The Plan.

I had heard about and seen photos online of the Newcastle AC Hill n Dale series. Basically a group of races that catered for not only those seemingly born in the mountains but the uninitiated as well, those maybe looking for something different.

The plan was to do all 11 races in that series, some of the longer NIMRA events and finally the Mourne Skyline MTR(a race I had heard about from a club mate) and with a shed load of training along the way.

Hill n Dale

No need to describe the series race by race but I cannot blog this without telling you overall that the organisation, the marshaling, the different race routes were fantastic. The sense of community created was just amazing. I remember before the Binnian race I found myself chatting to people I didn’t know(yet), we were on a road not far from nowhere and there were around 200 runners on the line. The guy on the mic brilliant in his summary of what was about to take place. I thought no way you would get this at a road 10k, just no way. Well done Newcastle AC.

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March 17th 2017 : St Patrick’s Day

I waited at my computer, 9am came and I entered my details, only 250 could run the Mourne Skyline, I clicked submit and a registration email hit my inbox. I WAS IN!

Hill And Dale Race 6 : May 20th – Slieve Donard

Nearly a year to the day my hamstring went I ran the Slieve Donard race. A day that will live in infamy, well that’s how I saw it anyway. I had been learning all the time.William McKee and young Zak Hanna were the stars, I knew there was another guy out there called Ian Bailey, his name cropped up all the time but he was currently injured. Ascending was the easy part, descending was for crazy’s. Walking was a necessity not a weakness. Fell running definitely wasn’t easy.

I reached the summit of Donard in 50 minutes(no free pint), it was cataclysmic thereafter, a hail storm and then lower down torrential rain. The GRT turned into a river threatening to upend runners at will. The forest trail had dissolved leaving only flowing mud and water while the final run in on the promenade had high winds and sideways rain. I made the descent in 30 minutes. Toughest race ever!

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Stepping It Up

All the time I had been increasing mileage, changing terrain and taking in more elevation. Trips to the Mournes were starting to be more frequent. I looked the fixtures for the next race outside Hill n Dale, I knew I had to start going longer. Carlingford to Flagstaff came and went due to family commitments but the feedback from Jamie and Marty fellow HnDers was that I had dodged a bullet. The heat on the day was unreal and had taken its toll. One race caught my eye as it had the word Skyline in it and so on July 1st I packed my kit and a mountain of food into the car and headed for Spelga Dam.

Post registration I sat in the car studying the map, hydrating and questioning my sanity. This was now completely different, the last HnD had been Drinahilly the week prior, 1 mountain just short of 5 miles. This race was 12.4 miles and multiple ascents totally 1400m. I warmed up and made my way to the start meeting Gavin Hynds on the way. Gavin seemed to be on the same journey as myself, same plan and same final aim. We were both apprehensive.

Lost on Moughanmore in the mist, the strength sapping long grass pre Cock mountain and lost again pre dam and it had all gone horribly wrong. Bad navigation had cost me 45 minutes easy, it was a total disaster.

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I raced the route in my head a 1000 times that night. Every runner has those demons after a bad one and mine were circling trying to drag me down.

It isn’t like 10k road running, fixtures don’t saturate the calendar and I had to wait until August the 12th and a race that on paper looked as tough as any, the 77s. Navigation wasn’t going to be an issue this time as there were hundreds of walkers traversing the route from early doors, that was a plus. I felt a bit more confident, that would be my undoing. Gavin was in again this time with club running partner Niamh. We set off and I slotted in behind Ester Dickson who had been running really well all season. I took the Black Stairs for the first time, it definitely was the quicker way to the summit. We dibbed at the summit and dibbed again on Commedagh before heading for Bernagh, staying high against the wall rather than dropping on to the brandy pad.

Ester’s group dropped me on the ascent and so I was solo for the descent, this was my first time seeing it. Loose scree, boulders, minimal grass. Crazy. Next up, Meelmore a daunting rock ridden ascent that was unrunnable then Meelbeg which was a haze and that run to the Ben Crom Dam. Hardly any trail path. A mixture of water, mud and long grass sapping the energy. Making the dam before the cut off was great, I had topped 5 peaks. Off the dam and heading for Binnian I slipped, tried to grab a hand hold, missed and raked my wrist down a rock. I had to stop momentarily, it was deep but only pumped so much before clotting. I took off again but then went into the red, big mistake. I was cooked. Had I not fed? Had I not hydrated? I really couldn’t remember, too late now. Gavin and Niamh passed on the way to the North Tor, gave encouragement and forged on. The leaders were coming back from the South Tor. The demons were back but scarily this time in an actual race. It was brutal, from one Tor to the next was quite a distance and when you got there you had to get all the way back, down the steps dodging walkers only Lamagan to go. Out of water I begged some from two marshals, I was at a crawl now, Lamagan, the brandy pad, the saddle and down the GRT finally across the pitch and that final dib. Just short of 6 hours, the longest I had ever run. I was shattered and I had to turn around and walk back 300m to my car.

My wife knew I had had a bad one. Quiet now, not wanting to talk about it. I think I even messaged Jamie and said the Skyline was a no go, he talked me off the ledge.

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Final Preparations

The rest of the longer races all clashed with other commitments, I wouldn’t get another race until the big one itself and that was two months away, that’s a long time to wait for redemption.

I was making more regular trips to the Mournes now however. One Sunday early I raced the first part of the course all the way to the Bernagh descent but halfway down with the elements worsening I turned back, didn’t go low enough and missed the Brandy Pad. Actually a stroke of luck, with heavy mist I stayed close to the wall and basically came back via Slievenalough and Commedagh then straight down the GRT. Checking Strava later I realised that is actually how the race made it’s return but with Donard thrown in there too.

On a second occasion with Jamie and Marty we did the same, they hadn’t seen the Granite Trail and they were bemused when they did. At the summit Tor to Bernagh they went back via the race route while I forged on ahead taking in the rest of the course and ending up back at Hares Gap. I took the Brandy Pad, GRT and back to the car. 6:15 and I didn’t feel tired. All my learning, feeding at the right times, rehydrating and training was coming together, I had now seen the entire course too.

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I am a loner. I usually train alone with only 1 group session a week. I warm up on race days on my own. In races I don’t do chatting and waving for camera’s. That’s just me. I needed to change. If I had learned anything it was that having a running partner over these longer more arduous races  was a definite advantage. I had seen the teamwork in Gavin and Niamh. Nick Arkenspar from North Down had also entered the race, a seasoned road marathoner and a friend for many years I knew his miles in the bank would allow him to go well on the day. I got in touch, we agreed to run together. The final piece of the jigsaw.

In the weeks and days before the race social media was awash with previous years photos, video’s, stories all the way until a few days before when the course was being set up and flags were being deployed. The skyline team were using the hashtag and giving runners a glimpse at what was to come. Even the weather seemed to be holding.

The Mourne Skyline MTR

Registration was at the Baptist Church hall between 7 and 8:30, no exceptions for lateness. Nothing was being left to chance, not now. Nick decided to stay in Bangor the night before the race, I agreed to drive and pick him up at 6am. The alarm went off at 5:40, I had slept okay. Porridge and a coffee for breakfast, changed and packed the kit and box of food into the car. It was rough out. The wind was up and it was raining.

Nick stashed his stuff in the boot too, there was enough supplies for a nuclear winter. One final “Got everything okay?” and we were gone.

Google maps decided on the wrong church hall so I went with my old school print outs and at around 7:15 we parked up opposite and made our way towards the hall. It was mild and there was no rain.

On the way in we met Sean Nickel an NDAC ultra runner. Chatted briefly and wished him all the best. He would also have a good run I was sure.

Table 1, mandatory kit check, I had checked mine a 100 times but even as I spilled the contents out I still thought I would be missing something but everything was good. Phew. Table 2, name and number, map and pins. Table 3, protein bar and T-Shirt. Next came assigning your dibber then bag drop(this was your personal one that would go to the dam). Seamless.

We got back to the car and made for Donard park, the streets were teeming with runners now. Crossing roads, carrying kit, jogging and making the same journey as ourselves. At Donard Park I found a space right beside the pavillion, I wanted to be close to the finish, something I had learned from that disastrous day at the 77s.

It was 7:45, plenty of time. We simply chilled, updated social media and kept our eye to the weather which was starting to turn. I tucked into some skittles and Haribo as well as a can of Coke.

At 8:20 I got out to start to pack the mandatory kit, I spotted Ian Bailey exiting his van and heading towards the pavillion. I went over and intercepted him, this guy was an NI mountain legend, strangely I thought he would be bigger, bulkier but he was trim and looked in great shape. We shook hands and I wished him well, I thought a local winner of the race would be fantastic. He melted away as I returned to the car, the next time I saw him was less than an hour later as he disappeared down the fire road headed for the granite trail.

Kit packed, I changed into my trail shoes and added my number to my shorts, it was colder now and raining so I decided to wear my jacket from the outset. The final few items, bum bag with phone and some gels, pack on to back, lock the car and we were off to the promenade. Time 8:45

Some athletes hid in doorways from the wind and rain, others nestled beside loved ones ,  we joined the queue and registered our dibbers to await the start. The all important safety briefing laced with banter regarding the marshals being the real stars today(no truer fact), a real buzz now, everyone huddled like penguins below the blue arch. Just to my right I spotted Gavin and Niamh, I wanted to wish them good luck as I knew they would have a great run, I will be honest, the plan was not to be ahead of them anytime before the dam.

10, 9, 8……………whistle. SHOWTIME!

We trotted away from the line, no 10k charge of the masses in these races. Slow and steady. As we reached the road either Nick cut across or I went wide but I clipped his ankle and he started to fall, I grabbed for his jacket but he had righted himself and came back up. We gave ourselves slightly more room as we made our way into the park. Not a good start and when we didn’t go up towards the forest but made our way along the path that led to the road I had the fear that I hadn’t prepared for this race at all.

Bridge, Waterfall, Fire Road, Granite Trail, Quarry, Fire Road, Glen River Trail all past off without incident. A slow trudge with some traffic to negotiate and a chance to get in some skittles and liquid. We made our way on to the Brandy Pad, “The Castles” to the right like sentinels watching our every stride. It may look easy enough while walking but at pace it still needs respect as granite, gravel and water attempt to upend those with any brief lapse in concentration. Bernagh loomed in the distance, shrouded as usual.

At Hare’s Gap Nick took a natural break, again giving me time to feed and hydrate I was ensuring a constant flow of goodness. As we turned and made for the steps we were joined by several others. We were all chatting and in good spirits, I made a quip that as long as we didn’t see Ian (Bailey) come down the steps on his way back we were okay. There was a silence and then nervous laughter. Bernagh is a real mixture on the ascent, the North Tor and then the Summit Tor, a dib and then that descent. I decided to stay left away from the wall, out of the gravel and more where the foot could get a purchase, I was decidedly tentative and the group we had been in started to fracture.

On to Meelmore and having been up it on the 77s I knew there really wasn’t any other way than, stay by the wall, keep your footing and do as best as you could. I am always wondering how the top guys can run this, it amazes me.

We dibbed at the summit in some mist, thanked the marshalls and for the first time grabbed a jelly baby before crossing the stile. The Mourne wall was now on our left. I let Nick lead as this was where on my own recce I failed to find the path. BANG. I went down, face first, teeth bit lip, blood flowed and eyes watered. I got up and continued on, no real damage and thanked my lucky stars there hadn’t been rock there or I was a DNF.

All the way to the Dam was more like cross country, very muddy and sodden path that was a gradual downhill and needed a longer stride but as speed picked up so did the need for traction. Nick, I and others swapped the lead a few times. I realised we had passed Gavin and Niamh nearer the summit, not part of the plan but it was done.

A marshal ensured runners negotiated the stile and the river on to the other bank and up the muddy incline. “Careful now”, “Great running”, always encouragement. We made our way along by the pipe, my foot planted on a sideways incline and I was gone again. This time my shoulder bore all the impact and I heard a loud slurp that was cartilage and not mud. Nick was looking back and shouting if I was okay, I got up very slowly, in a ring the count would have been 8. The imaginary ref felt my hands and ushered me forward, adrenaline is a wonderful thing.

At the dam my plan had paid off, my bright red drop bag was easily visible, I grabbed a cup of Blue WKD or maybe it was Powerade, gulped it down and got my bag over my shoulder(just, it hurt). Nick was getting his allowing me time to say hi to Mags, exchange some words before we exited on to the Slievenaman Road. Time 11:20, well inside the cutoff. The tarmac was respite for the track runner and the road marathoner, we fed from the drop bag and pushed on picking up the pace. The road was awash with surface water flowing downhill which indicated the rocky trail would be saturated.

Further on we were greeted by another marshal deserving of a medal, big smile as he pointed towards the stile. We took the higher trail to the right running as often as we could. Every step created a splash, it was a river on the path. More very heavy peat bog laden with water slowed our approach but now we had made the wall. This was it, the run for home and all those peaks.

We were on our own now, no one could be seen in front and those behind were still on the road. This was Loughshannagh, we ran, walked, ran walked. On the descent my shoes really were not liking the mud and water. Prior to the race I had the quandary of new shoes with more grip or those that were worn in with less grip. I had opted for the latter and I was paying for that decision. I let Nick go to get some space, it was the same on Meelbeg. About ready to climb Meelmore I met Amy Beggs(a friend I had made on Scawt many years before when i swore i would never run another fell race) she was doing tail runner but had been bitten and had had a bad reaction, she gave me a hug, wished me luck and said it was great to see me and said I looked strong. It was worth 10 Jelly Babies.

The treacherous rocky descent came and passed off without incident for me, Nick fell but bounced straight back up ensuring me he was good. Bernagh loomed again, after 22k there was simply no respite.

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There were other runners now, one stopping to put on cover, a girl who looked to be flying and easily passed us, we simply slowed to a walk, hands on knees and trudged on. It was Deja Vu but in the opposite direction. Summit Tor, North Tor, those granite steps now treacherous as energy dwindled.

We arrived at Hares Gap unscathed, I heard my name and it was being called by Gillian Wasson from Ballymena a great mountain runner who had been an inspiration during the season, Mark Alexander was there too(also an M45). It had taken me until the last HnD race in the series to eventually get past him, I had huge respect for them both. The wind had picked up, the rain had got heavier and they were here making sure we were all okay. I posted on social media that meeting them and getting Jelly Babies and encouragement was like “Getting a hug from family, a reassurance that I could do it.”. I reiterate that.

My voided trip down Bernagh previously and return journey back had been relatively easy but today we had covered 24k and much more elevation. I was sure we had started to slow. Sleivenaglogh, Slieve Corragh(well I consider it another peak) and then the second highest in the Mournes, Slieve Commedagh. It was a trudge now, running only on descents. Conditions had really moved in on us but the wall built over 100 years before had been protecting us from as far back as LoughShannagh.

At the saddle we again got encouragement so we forced a run until the ascent kicked in, this was Donard. 895m after 28k. I could hear a Maelstrom on the other side of the wall. Nick had been a beast all day, partnering up had been the best decision. Only now did I see a flicker of a chink in his armour but in the next stride it was gone. Other runners had been scarce, we caught one guy who we must have caught several times before as he chuckled (even at this stage) “Can you lads not leave me alone?” We gave encouragement, he reciprocated and the mist enveloped us. I was having to use the wall to pull myself forward now, I wasn’t in the red but I knew I was tired. A cowbell rang out and the summit tower showed itself, that final dib was glorious. That final marshal an angel. As we crossed the stile the tower protected us from the wind, then something freaky happened. Off the stile Nick went ahead and ran round the tower but seconds later he came back in reverse, he shouted something but it was inaudible. I couldn’t fathom it so I went round him and then round the tower and then it hit me. The wind was vicious and had basically blown him back. I had to stoop and sprint just to get moving. It worked to our advantage on the descent we could lean in, get up some more speed it didn’t take long until we were back on the steps.

More runners now, I had noticed a few caught us on the descent, Nick was picking up pace and I was caught in traffic, walkers attempting to get off the mountain away from the elements. Nick looked back, the gap had grown, this was the moment we had chatted about, when one of us was stronger than the other. There were no more peaks, the need for a partner had faded I pointed down the trail towards the forest and shouted “Go On”, he was off the lease.

I let another runner through and then another, I wasn’t shattered, not like the 77s, I still had strength, I was just tired, so tired. I was halfway down the GRT when I had a vision that the next person to pass me would be Gavin, “Come on Mark, not far now” and there he was, then came Niamh, they had paced it perfectly(They had wiped out a 6 minute lead I had at Meelmore). They opened up a gap but it wasn’t far to the fire road now. A short time later and by the left hander I had caught Gavin, Niamh was pushing on, I commented how strong she was and gave Gavin encouragement. The tarmac again underfoot was great, I looked at the watch for the first time, sub 6 was definitely on. All three of us came back together out on to the road where we could see the finish. I could hear Ryan on the mic bringing home other runners, it was no more than 400m to go. We hit the taped funnel, the well maintained grass of the football pitch and i sprinted for the finish.

As I crossed the line Ryan quipped about me being a track runner, spectators and marshals clapped as they had done for the previous 51 runners. I got my medal around my neck, it is a thing of beauty. Time 5:55:49, Sub 6.

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I grabbed a Mars and some water, met up with Nick who had had a stormer and had made over 2 minutes 30s on me in the final run in. I congratulated Gavin and Niamh(results were to show she was 4th lady and first in her category, an amazing run)

I heard that Ian had won and so had Shileen, a double home win, what a day!

We retired to the pavillion for a cold shower and sorted our gear. Clean and warm clothes felt great. Back at the car we ate and drank our remaining stash and I told Nick I would need a kip before we drove back. I slept soundly for 20 minutes until my alarm went off, it was the first time I hadn’t run the course as I slept.

I exited Donard Park and headed for home. I had achieved the goal.

Big Thanks to Ryan, Justin and Ricky and all the marshals for an amazing day in bad conditions. 

Thanks to Newcastle AC for the brilliant Hill and Dale series.

Thanks to Nick for partnering me and making a real difference.

Thanks to Gavin Hynds for making me work all season. 

Thanks to Jamie and Marty(7:17:24 on the day, great running) for trips into the mountains and friendly chats.

Well done to Sean, 6:10:54 on the day. Excellent run.

Thanks to my club mates who had to listen to every detail since this began, see every mountainous profile and every post about every race but always made time to message me and keep me going.

Lastly thanks to Paula, Aoife and Erin who basically ran every stride with me and supported me 100%.