Denis Rankin Round, Northern Ireland 2021

21st July 2021. Jon Heaney, Graham Lewis-Dale and Danny Richardson

Pre-amble

After a year of thwarted goals and cancelled races, we planned our summer running adventures in the early winter months of 2021 with a little trepidation.  Would everything get cancelled again? Would mass-start-racing return?  Not being sure of any of these things, we decided on the Denis Rankin Round.  At least we could be pretty sure of starting this. The Rankin is a 24-hour challenge to run around many of the major summits in the Mourne mountain range in Northern Ireland.  It is approximately 55 miles and 20,000ft of elevation.  This put it into the ball-park of our capabilities, whilst remaining a significant challenge.  With the objective sorted, we set about organising the day.  Jon’s parents and wife Helen would provide the majority of road support, but navigation was a concern, especially in the southern section of the route.  A friend, Paul Harris has family in Northern Irelend.  He spoke to his brother-in-law, Donal Cassidy, who is local to the Mournes, and he kindly offered navigational support.  We also reached out to the Northern Ireland running community over social media and a crew of Kathleen Monteverde & Hazel McLaughlin (leg 2), Ciarán McAleenan (leg 3 & 4), Judith Robinson (checkpoint support between Slievemeen and Slievemartin), Donal Cassidy (leg 4), and Niall Gibney (leg 5) was assembled.  Jon picked up Danny and Graham from Belfast International Airport on the evening before the run, drove to Maghera for a few hours sleep, and then we were ready to start.  We had noticed the good weather forecast for the day had changed to an amber warning for heat…

Leg 1  Donard Park, Newcastle to Silent Valley reservoir

Due to Jon’s usual tardiness, the leg started 9 minutes late at 0409, but that didn’t really matter, as at last we were starting something that had taken a good deal of training and planning.  Part of the delay was applying copious amounts of sunscreen in the dark and trying to figure out how much fluid to carry.  Being sweaty creatures, Jon and Danny opted for 2 litres, and Graham opted for 1.2 litres in a lighter bag.  We didn’t check the temperature in the car in Donard Park but it certainly felt Mediterranean.

We knew that Tolleymore Forest would be tricky in the dark, but managed to escape without tripping over tree roots or boulders.  The sunrise over the Irish Sea was a mixture of reds and oranges as we emerged from the treeline, and soon we were able to take off our headtorches. 

We took turns in leading the way along the Glen River path and up to the saddle between Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh.  The gradient increased from there to the summit of Donard and Graham gradually pulled away from Danny and Jon as they stopped to take some photos.  On such a stunning morning, it was hard not to. 

As we crossed the Bog of Donard, we missed the most direct line to Chimney Rock Mountain, but the path we took was good and quickly took us to the west summit and along the ridge to the true summit.  We took a contouring line around to Rocky, through some deep tufty grass and past some fell ponies. From Rocky, I suggested a direct line to the Brandy Pad whereas Danny suggested following the Mourne Wall back to the Bog of Donard.  As we would have to cross a bog to get to the wall, and the ground that we’d been on so far was dry and easy running, we opted for the direct route.  Looking at other people’s time over that section, I’m not sure it made much difference.

Everything was going really well.  The Brandy Pad (an old smugglers’ path) was easy running, and we again took it in turns to lead the way whilst chatting about the usual things.  Suddenly, on an innocuous bit of path, there was a scuff and crash as Graham hit the deck.  Fortunately, it was nothing that needed stiches, but some sore looking grazes on hands and knees.  Graham dusted himself down and declared that he was fine, so we set off to Slieve Beg.  Danny won the navigation kudos on that climb. 

The sun was now above Donard and Commedagh, which had shaded us until that stage, and the temperature rose steadily.   Cove Mountain and Slievelamagan followed in short order but the heat was more noticeable on each climb.  The Binnian section was interesting and terrifying in equal measure.  The formation of the summit Tors was beautiful but the descents were brutally steep.  It must be a notorious descent from the comments of Kathleen and Hazel when we rolled into Silent Valley.  One glance at the cuts on Graham and they both asked in unison ‘Binnian?’.

Helen had laid out a good selection of fresh fruit, tinned peaches, porridge, tea, chocolate brioches, sandwiches, coke, water, gels, flapjacks, sunscreen and fresh clothes.  We selected the food we wanted (unfortunately the porridge, brioches and tea were wasted); stashed some gels and sandwiches; and refilled the water bottles.  We took a bit longer than we had planned, but we were already feeling the effects of the heat and were in need of refreshment.

Leg 2 Silent Valley reservoir to Deer Meadow (with Kathleen Monteverde and Hazel McLaughlin)

Kathleen led the climb up Slievenaglogh as we settled into the pace behind her.  The ground was baked dry. The summit was not terribly interesting but the descent to the main path to Lough Shannagh was great fun.  Nice and runnable, not like the steepness of Binnian or the few hills before.  The run up to Lough Shannagh is a nice easy gradient and should be runnable as well, but it was at that point it became clear that Graham was overheating.  We slowed and stopped at a river to cool down.  We discussed dunking fully in the Lough when we arrived at it, but Graham was feeling better, so we pressed on up the Doan.  Doan, which I learned from our local guides is pronounced Dough-an, has another unusual granite summit Tor from which there is a good view of the surrounding valley and the route across peat hags, long bog grass and dried up river beds to our next summit: Ben Crom.  Kathleen navigated the rough terrain excellently and found a trod out of the river bed leading to the main path towards Ben Crom.  This again provided a good section of running, and opened suddenly to the summit.  The vertiginous views down to Silent valley and across to Binnian were stunning.  We took a few minutes to take photos and refresh ourselves with peanuts and fluids before setting off again. There was another section of long bog grass to navigate until we found the path rising to Carn Mountain.  Graham looked to be moving well again, but felt nauseous, and was having trouble eating and drinking.  As we made the climbs over Carn and Slieve Muck, he was having more trouble and starting to slow.  The descent to Deer Meadow is steep but grassy and not too difficult to negotiate.  We aimed to get to Jon’s parent’s campervan, cool down in some shade there, eat, drink and take stock at that point.  A blanket over the tailgate of the campervan offered a degree of welcome shade and again the food table was heaving.

Leg 3 Deer Meadow to Slievemartin (with Ciarán McAleenan)

Graham was moving well again and it was Jon that was now going through a bad patch.  He had eaten well and had coke at Deer Meadow, so it probably wasn’t dehydration or lack of calories.  In any case, bad patches usually last about 30 – 60 minutes, so it was just a case of keeping moving and usually everything settles down.  The problem was keeping moving over the long grass from Wee Slievemoughan to the climb up Eagle Mountain.  The Mourne mountains seem to be either unremittingly steep or surrounded by ridiculously long grass.   The short kicker from Eagle to Shanlieve was, however, excellent and that perked Jon’s spirits up no end.  The journey from there to Finlieve took us across a surreal series of landscapes: from runnable fellside; to seemingly impenetrable man-deep peat hags; to desert landscape; and back to runnable fellside.  Then there was a nice run down to the Cassy River which Graham, Jon and Danny all lay down in for a few minutes to cool down.  We hugged the forest line for a few hundred meters as we dried off before entering the forest to make the most of the shade and the forest trails.  Feeling better for being a bit cooler, we were able to run again, and run away from the hungry horse-flies that were feasting on us.  The forest then opened to pretty steep ground up to the antennae and over to Slievemeen- the most southerly summit of the round.  From there, we turned round to head back to meet Judith at the saddle between Slievemeen and Slievemartin.  She and Donal had brought up supplies of water, coke, food and dry clothes.  We were able to rest in some shade whilst water bottles were being refilled.

Leg 4 Slievemartin to Spelga Dam (with Ciarán McAleenan & Donal Cassidy)

The summit of Slievemartin only took a few minutes to achieve and there was another lovely shallow grassy descent before we started the deep grassy section of the round.  On the way up to Crenville, the grass got to about 4 ft deep in places and there didn’t seem any sign of a trod.  Never-the-less, Ciarán navigated confidently through and down to the forest on the way to Slievemeel.  At this point, Donal took over the navigation.   Slievemeel is short and steep with rough ground on the flanks, so Donal’s route to minimise time on this hill was much appreciated.  We dived back into the forest to find the mountain bike trails and some much-needed shade.  A bit of running took us to the Yellow Water River for another refreshing dip.  After that, we left the forest shade and up to Tievedockaragh.  Graham started to suffer again although he maintained a good walking pace to Pierce’s Castle.  At that point, it became clear how much the heat, persistent nausea and vomiting had taken out of him.  Getting any food or fluids in was very difficult.  We have supported Bob Graham rounds that have aborted and finished by the shortest route, ending their chance of completing in that decision.  It seemed possible that a good re-fuelling at Spelga Dam might get Graham on track again, so he was convinced to walk the final hills and complete the leg.  Niall ran up from Spelga Dam to meet us on Slievenamiskan with some ice lollies.  He must have made good time on the ascent as they were still frozen.  Helen met Graham on the road up to Spelga Dam car park and he told her that he was unable to continue.  A couple of Pot Noodles and a bit of fruit got Danny and Jon’s energy levels up, and with the sun’s strength waning, they set off up Spaltha with Niall.

Leg 5 Spelga Dam to Donard Park, Newcastle (with Niall Gibney)

Niall set of at a good pace.  Danny and Jon followed and the 3 lower hills of Spaltha, Slievenamuck and Ott Mountain were completed with a mixture of trotting and walking.  The sun set over Spelga and the moon rose over the hills we had visited on leg 1.  After Ott mountain, the final sequence of hills were a testing way to finish.  Although there was a clear sky and good moonlight, headtorches were required on Slievemeelmore, and the rocky summit and steep flanks of Slieve Bearnagh were an imposing sight in the evening gloom.  By Hare’s Gap, the sky was fully dark, and we just kept plugging our way up the final trio of summits.  The natural spring on Slieve Commedagh was still flowing despite the weeks of hot weather and was very cool and refreshing.  Then, as we looked forward to the final summit, we came across a couple of stargazers, who were camping out for the night.  They had been watching our head torches from Bearnagh.  We had been looking forward to the final descent into Newcastle, so attacked it with probably more speed than necessary after a long day on the hills, but it was good to be running for the finish line.  Some rowdy wild swimmers in Tollymore forest didn’t put us off as we ran though the trees, somehow avoiding tripping on rocks and tree roots.  Helen and Graham were there at the Donard Park arch.  It was great to see him looking a lot better for a few hours of recovery. 

Post script

It was only at the end that we found out just how high the temperatures had been.  It was the hottest day on record in Northern Ireland, maxing at 31.3 degrees centigrade.  We had been expecting temperatures in the mid – high 20’s, so were prepared for a hot day.  If we had known how hot, I’m not sure whether we would have set off with such confidence.  The strength of the sun from 7.30am was something unexpected, and from then until the shade of the Rostrevor Forest we were suffering in the heat.  What little breeze there was, was coming from the South and not adding any significant cooling.  Copious water, electrolyte drinks, and sunscreen were vital parts of the day.  We had planned on completing as a trio, and tried to do so, but unfortunately Graham was affected by the heat more than Danny and Jon.  By the next day however, he was already planning a return to complete the round.  What we did have were spectacular views of the Mournes; an amazing sunrise over Slieve Donard; cloudless skies; and a glorious sunset on leg 5, all of which was made immeasurably more fun and easier by the company of the new friends in running that we met on the day.  We are very grateful to the support runners; Judith who met us at the south of the round with much needed encouragement and supplies; my parents for their support at Deer Meadow and Spelga; and Helen and my sons for their support and co-ordination of everyone on the day.

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