The Mourne Mountains Skyline and the tale of the imaginary tow rope

Since taking up entering running races a few years ago January has been my month of searching the internet, randomly picking races to enter, seduced by the words “toughest in the UK” or “one of the top races in the country”.  As I’ve got a bit more experienced I’ve reduced my search criteria, for example in 2016 it was more about trail races only between 20 and 30km, involving some kind of travel and always hills.  Last year the biggest mistake I made was entering too many races, plus allowing my job to take over my life, resulting in more injuries.  So this year I decided to get wiser, less races, slower paced, balancing off work and social events better.

The first thing I did was make up for 2016 when I couldn’t enter the Madeira skyrunning events due to work.  I loved skyrunning, not sure if it’s the title “skyrunning” which excites me, or the actual locations, or even just the fact it’s an international circuit which makes me feel really proud to be able to enter such events.  Either way, imagine my joy when I noticed the Mourne Mountains skyline on October 21st 2017, which just happened to be the same day as my 45th birthday.  This was not a coincidence, it was fate, so like a kid waiting for Xmas day I waited until entries were open on St Patricks Day and entered immediately.  My philosophy has always been to try doing things that scare me, with my continuous improvement head on I will usually find a way to complete these things, at the very least I will give them a go.  This event was 35km, but also 3,400 metres of climbing.  Since I was a circular route that worked out about 200m of climbing for every 1km we were moving forwards on an incline, in other words a 20% gradient.  As time ticked on and after completing the Madeira races where I’d climbed 1,000m over 4.5km and then 1,500m over 22km, the enormity of this challenge hit home, never enough to put me off standing on the start line, just enough for me to get even more excited than before.  One thing Madeira did teach me is regardless of the amount of elevation and subsequent declines, it’s the terrain that will cause the biggest problems – wet rocks, muddy grass, leaping down boulders.,  Now I live on the South Coast of the UK, we have one of the biggest hills in the area, it’s a huge grass hill, usually bone dry except for the slippery cow and sheep shit, and it stands a massive 260m high, total ascent to the top of this mountain in 120m, so I ignored the warnings from Madeira where I struggled and continued my training on the Matterhorn of the South Downs.

Race day rapidly approached, my birthday seemed insignificant, and at the same time tail ends of hurricanes hit Ireland bringing a ton of wet and windy weather, while down on the South Coast of England we basked in dry warm weather.  I’ve never paid so much attention to weather outside of my little bubble world, I started buying yet more kit such as a waterproof coat and new trainers to make sure I’d be okay.

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On the day of the race we had Storm Brian battering the UK, the 5km race which was part of the Great South Run weekend back home had been cancelled, but up in Northern Ireland they are far more used to such weather, our race was going ahead regardless.  I registered early and waited patiently, trying to decide whether to start with my rain jacket on or off.  I knew if I started not wearing it then I’d finish not wearing it, I’m a lazy sod like that, my thinking is that if I pulled it on once it’s started raining then I’m wet anyway so protecting myself from rain is pointless.  I only had a short sleeve T shirt and shorts on and had noticed most of the other runners had their jackets on, so I took their advice and pulled it on.  I stuffed my gloves in my coat pockets ready for later when the Raynauds would kick in, the issue with this was that up in the mountains the weather was even worse than down at the start line (which was at sea level), so when I needed my gloves I couldn’t feel my hands, so the gloves were never actually used.

744 words and I haven’t even started describing the race, this isn’t going to be a blog, it’s going to be another book all about one race if I’m not careful, so I’m going to keep this brief.

What can I say about the race without appearing to be overly dramatic, maybe a little bashful.  It was the most wonderful race I’ve done, and I’ve now done a few wonderful ones.

  • The people were so friendly, this includes the organisers, the crazy volunteers who seemed quite at home and happy stood on a mountain top in the rain with 70+mph winds hammering them, and all the runners I chatted to along the way (it seemed to be a popular race for the local Irish club runners, I met hardly anyone from England along the way)
  • The course was varied, dramatic, scary, and beautiful with stunning views of Scotland and Wales from the top of the mountains apparently, I had to imagine this though since the weather was horrid.  We started off ascending through forest as we left the sea front promenade which I felt right at home on, then through rocks and streams (luckily I’ve become less averse to getting my feet wet so just splash through these), and then it was a relentless up and down countless mountains on terrain as varied as rocks which involved an element of scrambling, bogs which involved constantly slipping up in (even the flat bits), and something in between the two where we had mud, heather and rocks combined which kind of involved grasping onto the heather trying to pull yourself up while your legs slipped behind you on the mud
  • I don’t mind hills at all, it’s a good leveller for us oldies since everyone slows down, but the faster people seem to slow down more than us middle of the pack people.  I was pretty happy with the inclines, I regularly overtook people and rarely was overtaken, even on the more technical terrain which I can’t practice on.
  • But on the other hand, the downhills I was rubbish on.  In Madeira I had the same problem but without relocating myself for a period of time I can’t see how I can rectify this.  Leaping down rocks, skidding down wet fells, not giving a toss if I hit a rock as I fall, these are all things I have become risk averse at, whereas the locals in Ireland, Madeira, and even the Peak District where I’d experienced similar, all seem to love these challenges.  I don’t believe attending a recce for an event would prepare me for this, the weather changes so much in between, plus one sweep of a course will never make you a mountain goat.  I actually think if I’d done a recce I wouldn’t have done the race, not because I was scared of it but because my whole reason for these races is to explore and challenge myself, I don’t do the same races twice (Chichester half being the only exception) so improving on time or competing for podiums is never going to motivate me.  The recce would be my exploring, there are too many beautiful places on the planet to explore so I’d probably just go explore somewhere else (Madeira Eco Trail was also an option at this time of year, I could have gone there and explored a different part of Madeira – without Storm Brian !)
  • As I stumbled on the downhills, being overtaken constantly by all the people I’d overtaken on the uphills, plus many many more, I became a little disheartened.  The winds picked up around 3 pm, the rain had turned into hail which stung my face and numbed my hands, my legs and hands were cut and bleeding, and I found myself talking to myself, asking the question “why are you doing this on your birthday”, “you’re not enjoying this are you”, and other stupid things.  I wouldn’t say I was struggling physically at this point, the pace meant I had plenty of energy, had no problems with cramp, and was still climbing well, but the mental side certainly hurt
  • One thing that sticks in my mind was thinking “this is impossible” as I tried to find a route down a hill, meanwhile another runner zipped past me again.  My conscious self noticed him, rather than turning a blind eye to it, and I then started thinking to myself “this isn’t impossible, that bloke and many others have done it, it’s just different to what I’m used to and challenging”.  The challenging stuff is the good stuff, it’s when you learn new things and improve
  • I found myself thinking of work, it’s no secret that the thought of leaving Zurich has been an emotional rollercoaster for me recently, I think of myself as a failure for moving on, for not feeling needed in my final months, like a toy tossed aside at Xmas as the latest upgraded model is launched, but then with the help of others I pull myself through by thinking of the positives.  I used this way of thinking during the race, remembering why I entered in the first place (it was the toughest thing I’d ever entered and when I complete it I will have improved so much), and using the goal to literally pull me out of the low points (usually this coincided with another slide down a hill getting even more covered in mud and cutting myself further).  This imaginary tow rope worked a treat, I found myself within a group of other runners to exchange a few words with as we passed each other, I’d leave them going uphill (most just told me to go ahead as I was better uphill, but then stuck the boot in by saying they’d catch me again going downhill)
  • We got to the final 5km, coming off the highest mountain which was Slieve Donard, we were following the same route as when we set off and a few runners skipped past me as we ran over the rocks, their pitty patty footsteps made me both jealous and laugh – it was like they were practicing dance moves.  Karma struck as we moved into the final 3km, we moved onto the forest floor and then a road for the final descent.  To digress a little, one thing that amazes me with mountain runners is that when it comes to more “normal” terrain many seem to struggle.  We had a point coming off the cut-off checkpoint (reach 15km in 3hr15m or you get pulled from the race, which many did), where you ascend for a km or two along a road.  I chugged up that hill and overtook many ahead of me who were walking, the terrain wasn’t technical, but they wouldn’t run it.  The same happened at the end, these tap dancing runners slowed right down, and I sped up, saying hello and waving goodbye on a descent for possibly the only point in the race
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  • I had told Sally to meet me at the finish line between 6 and 7 hours after starting, I finished in around 6h50m, which was okay.  I wasn’t in a bad condition when I crossed the line, no injuries apart from cuts and bruises, no dehydration (not sure if that would even be possible with so much rain), and with energy to spare.  It was still the toughest race I’d done, but as I said the mental side made it really hard, I knew my current limits on the physical side and ran within them, I didn’t want to take risks and possibly not finish the race.  The race limit was 250 people (which filled up within hours of entries opening), around 180 stood on the start line, and around 150 finished.  There was a cut off at mid point of 3h15m, I got there in 2h30m, and an end cut off of 8hr and I finished well inside that
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  • What would I do differently ? I think the following day summed that up well.  Sally and myself went for a hike up Slieve Donard so I could do my usual, boring her with a blow by blow account of the race while she experienced the winds and rocks (but amazingly, no rain, Sunday was clear blue skies).  As we were walking back down there were two local runners out on a social jog.  Sally and I had taken a miners track up the mountain, whereas these two guys were happily chatting away while running up through a river.  They weren’t running along the river, they were running through it, splashing away, getting wet and muddy, not giving a toss.  Back home I will usually pick the driest, hardest route to run on, and if the weather is bad I will find an excuse to reschedule a run (not on races, but for training runs).  These local runners are brought up in this environment, they are tough people but also fun and friendly people, they aren’t worried about getting dirty or wet, they aren’t worried about their gear getting damaged (my poor brand new OMM rain jacket got ripped during the race, I was more gutted about that as I finished).  Yes, because they grow up running these kind of routes their bodies are adapted better, and my 45 year old body will struggle to adapt much now, but just as importantly their mindset is different and I can definitely adapt my own mind – this is what I teach and tell people all the time at work.  There is no point in blaming my age, where I live, my genetics, these things will not change any time soon, if I can’t accept this and keep on blaming these factors then I’m being as stupid as many others I see quote such excuses after struggling to reach expectations after a race.  Accept what you can’t change, improve what you can change, or just shut up and stick to the easy or more local paths in life.

Over 2,200 words now, wrap it up quick Mark before people the few people still reading this hang up

So to end this I just want to add a special thanks to James Heggie you came up from Dublin to run the race and celebrate my birthday with me.  We’d met before on a race, he’d since moved from England to Ireland, so it was great to see him.

Another special thanks to Kirsty-Jane Birch who at very short notice flew over from the UK to take part in the race.  I had run with Kirsty on my first skyrace in the Peak District, her birthday was the day before mine, so we had double the reason to celebrate after.  It was great to also meet her friend Rob during the race, and even more special when Kirsty was crowned UK female skyrunning champion for 2017.

Finally, as always a thank you to Sally, my wife, for allowing me to follow my dreams, sometimes living  like a child as I go through what may would call a mid life crisis, and producing a fabulous birthday cake for me to enjoy while over in Ireland.

We stayed on in Northern Ireland for another 6 days, exploring the causeway coast and Belfast.  While we were there Lonely Planet announced this was the number one country to visit in 2018 and I can see why, it’s a beautiful place.

Now I head into my final 2 months working at Zurich, back to stressing, worrying, and a few dark days.  I still have no idea what happens to me after this. I have dreams of more skyraces and other mountain runs, I have dreams of using my coaching and training skills more in an active environment maybe doing more volunteer work with Karibu, Maverick Racing and Salomon, I even wouldn’t mind continuing training and coaching others in continuous improvement in an office world but on a part time basis (part time so I can balance off work/life and continue with the volunteering, but also because I believe such roles are more effective when you dip in, help others, then leave them to go try what you train them in – that’s the difference between leading and managing), and I have nightmares about failing at all of this and people laughing.  What will pull me through this ? Back to my imaginary rope and tying the other end to one of my favourite quotes, I hope it pulls me through again.

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