There’s always two sides to the story & following on from John Tollitts excellent race report & not to be outdone, Tony Carter sends in the equally brilliant update & account of the days events in Northern Ireland last weekend.
Having found a job in Dublin and hearing of John’s challenge to run in all the highest peak races of the British Isles, I said to him that I would join him for the Carrauntoohil mountain race as I fancied a dab into fell racing. However, on his suggestion, I said I would also join him in the Slieve Donard mountain race in Northern Ireland. Prior to the May 11th race, things were a bit hectic for me, but I had managed to get in some decent running in.
Since coming to Ireland, I have been in some form that has even surprised me: a 5km PB (16 min), a new Marlay Parkrun record just short of a PB (16:03) and a 3Km PB in one of the Crusaders’ monthly 3km time trials (9:26). With confidence high and the Garmin showing the 3km time trial just slightly longer than what it is meant to be, I went into the Irish National Relays expecting a sub 10 minute two miles, but being in an isolated last leg in the wind meant I had to settle for 10.15, bringing in the team in 9th place at the low key event (apparently, not many teams had entered for it compared with the year before).
Into May and after two stints of finding somewhere else to live, I knew my running was not up to scratch. Fortunately, I had run a 9.39 3km in the Crusaders’ time trial on next to no training along with some good training sessions, so some form was still there, and the upcoming mountain race was my first of the sort so I felt no pressure to perform to a high standard. I travelled up to Belfast from Dublin early Saturday tired from staying in a youth hostel in-between moving places and not sleeping well during my stay, especially before race day due to knowing I had to be up and pre-race excitement (I’ll spare the rest of the details).
After meeting fellow runner John Tollitt, we made our way to Newcastle of County Down, a seaside town beside the mighty Slieve Donard. At a local café, we were discussing what effect the weather would have on our race, and what would it be like while we were out there anticipating rain and sunny spells. After dropping our stuff at our respective places where we were staying, we met up at the registration area and went through our race strategies, with John going for the shorter but steeper Black Stair way and myself opting for the easier but longer path along the Glen river and up towards the Saddle and back down, as I heard the Black Stair was quite dangerous, and with the changing weather conditions and my lack of experience on such runs, I decided not to push my luck and decided to keep things simple.
Waiting before the start, I anxiously checked the weather to see what it was like, checking I had everything, and going through my race strategy, deciding to go for a time of under 1 and a half hours. At 2 and in broad sunshine, the race got started. I went out and lead the race if not by an inch as I had pre-planned, and as we made our way through the car park and up towards the first hill in the forest, I let the two lads from Newcastle AC go ahead and I followed them, eventually letting them go off and getting caught myself by many others. Eventually, I got myself settled into a rhythm and followed the steps of another runner before they verged right over the Glen river as I ran straight on to the Saddle.
I kept going up the path as steady as possible, navigating my way around the paths avoiding the rocks that stuck out and passing many walkers on my way who were coming down from the mountain, some giving encouragement on the way up. I looked back to see where everyone was every so often and I saw that the next person back was some distance off, and it looked to me that I was leading from those who chose to avoid the Black Stair route. While ascending, I was starting to feel a new type of pain I never knew existed before, and just thought about getting to the top as quickly as possible, and many quick glances of the Garmin showed me doing 12/15 minute miles at that point.
It was about 3 miles into the race along this route that I was running on somewhat finely cut rocks forming stairs that were apparently recently placed for walkers wanting to climb the mountain. Suddenly, the weather changed and to my surprise a blizzard came roaring down the valley, thinking it were best to stop and put on the rain coat. Back into the race after the quick stop, it was a challenge to run up them and resorted to power walking up the steps in the fell runner fashion of hands on knees, trying to reach the top of them as quickly as possible.
After the stairs, I ran along and stuck to the flat path to the stone wall ahead that provided much relief and got back to some speed before, before turning left along the path and reaching the final climb to the top of the mountain. Looking somewhat grassy and quite easy at first albeit slow to climb, it soon became as tough as the previous hill, but I stuck on it and I was trying to find the best and quickest path up. Looking back, the runner behind had made some massive ground on me, and I was now holding on to try to get to the top first. The hill eventually was more forgiving near the top even though it remained just as steep as I was running on soft grass. Unfortunately, I was trying to sort out my jacket which got tangled with the bag straps, losing some stupid seconds in the process.
Running around the checkpoint at the top, I knew then that I was first over the top via the valley up to the Saddle judging that I couldn’t see anyone else in front of me, but I did not realise I was in the top 30, and I barely gave myself the chance to take in the views at the top. At that point I knew my race was over as I am quite the hesitant descender over rocky, mountainous terrain, and took my time going back down to the valley, knowing as well that those who took the other way and who are more confident at descending would now gain time on me. I also knew the person chasing me took the Black Stair back down as I would have been passed much earlier, but someone passed me near the bottom where I tried to follow him. Once on the flat, I did catch him up skipping over the moorland, but got away from me again as we descended the stairs, taking my time to avoid falling.
Once past the stairs, over the river and back onto a flatter and firmer path, I had the confidence to descend the path jumping around the rocks and running around walkers. The runner in front had gained massive ground on me but I thought I’ll try chase him anyway. On my way back to the forest I saw a few of the runners who took the Black Stair route, now aiming to catch them. Then in just one moment when I momentarily lost focus, I tripped over a rock and hit the ground, landing hard on my hands and knees and bleeding from them, worse yet feeling a sharp pain in my right calf. Getting up quickly, my first thought was would I be able to keep running, but after a few steps limping I got straight back into running.
Trying to refocus, I got back into a rhythm and was taking over those in front. I was taking the final descents before and through the forest as fast as I was before as I was desperate to take over those in front, however the previous fall made me a bit nervous and I was aware that I may be injured, and because of this I did take a few steps slower than what I would have wanted. At the very bottom and on the flat I pushed on still trying to catch whoever was in front, now feeling the pain of the ascent, descent and the damage the fall had done. I put on a final spurt along the final straight, catching a few more before finishing in just under 80 minutes.
Happy, hurt and relived, I then went to get my stuff, met up with John and limped my way to a local pharmacy to get patched up, before heading to a pub for post-race drinks and sharing race stories. Good news is that I didn’t get injured and my right calf is alright, but it feels like I’ve ran a marathon. Discussing times, John ran a faster time but that was because he took a shorter way than I did, and if we compared splits I would have got the faster average, however I accept that he did beat me, and I even said to him before the race he’ll finish before me. Needless to say, I enjoyed the whole experience of fell running and I’d like to have another go at one, but judging from my performance I’d say I’m more suited to uphill only mountain races!