|The Mournes skyline, Donard is the big pointy one|
Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland's highest mountain stands at 853 metres tall and towers over the seaside town of Newcastle, County Down. It forms the centrepiece of the iconic Mourne Mountains skyline which can be viewed from miles around and inspired Percy French's famous poetry. In ancient times the summit was said to be the home of Saint Donard who provided the name for this spectacular lump of granite.
In real terms 853m barely makes it a mountain really but the proximity to the coast and the relentless gradient of the main walking track make it an enticing challenge for hikers, charity walks, people in flip flops with a bottle of Lucozade and all sorts of others. A clear view of the summit from the comfort of Newcastle's many cafes seems to have the effect of dragging the foolish and unprepared towards it in a frenzy of summit fever, keeping the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team busy and teaching some harsh truths about the mountains to the uninitiated.
Personally, I'm not uninitiated, I'd like to think I know the mountains well. I've been up Donard many times in near 30 degree heat (honest), howling blizzards, daytime, nighttime, racing, training and so on. In fact, it's got to the stage where I don't really consider running up and down Donard once to be much of a challenge and that's where the hat-trick idea originally came from.
My Mourne Wall efforts in the Summer set me looking for new challenges but the onset of Winter and a rare attack of sense have kept me away from the Mourne 500 (more on that to come). I wanted something controllable and safe but also horrifically difficult whilst also being theoretically possible, easy! A while back I read an account of someone doing ten ascents of Donard in a day and that set me thinking, what about ten timed ascents with a target to beat? I quickly realised that my boredom threshold would prevent this becoming a reality but what about something shorter, quicker and slightly less ridiculous, what about three sprint ascents?
A few years ago I read with shock that people actually run up and down Donard in less than an hour. It was even more of a shock when I realised that I was also capable of being one of those people! I regularly run it for training in just over the hour mark and so my triple ascent time target needed to be close enough to the hour to be very tough but not so close as to be unachievable. I settled on 70 minutes for each circuit, a total of 3 1/2 hours, non stop, starting and finishing in Donard car park each time. There are different routes available and even on the Donard race consensus is split between heading up the main walking track or dragging over bog and moorland up the steeper but half mile shorter Black Stairs route. Personally I think the Black Stairs are quicker but for the sake of not falling off a cliff I decided to make the rules strictly main track only, up and down. This makes one lap 5 miles with over 5500 feet of combined ascent and descent, possibly one of the toughest runnable 5 mile laps anywhere!
Rules decided, the only thing left was to slap on the Inov8's, eat a bar and get going...
Except it's madness! 70 minutes is a pretty respectable time for a main track lap when only doing one, surely it's not possible to maintain that pace over the three? I decided the best way to find out was to do two laps first and see what effect it had. So it was that I found myself jogging up the rooty initial track after work on a grey November afternoon. I was keen to maintain a steady pace so I didn't really push myself, summiting in just under 46 mins and not really sprinting the way back down. I was hoping for about 1:08 so was pretty annoyed with myself when my warm up lap was actually 1:12:40, way off the average target for the three laps! No problem I thought, I'll push hard on the second lap and make the time up. Wrong! As casual as the first lap seemed, even keeping within my limits clearly took its toll and despite pushing hard my second lap lost me more time. The increasing headwind which always funnels down the valley certainly didn't help the ascent and the impending darkness definitely slowed the descent, particularly in the forested end sections so the 1:16 second lap wasn't really a surprise. Total two lap time, 2:28:15, over eight minutes off target, back to the drawing board!
For a while I pondered increasing the average time allowed to 1:15 but what's the point of moving the boundaries just because I'm not good enough to complete the challenge? Better to keep trying until I can do it. A different approach, less headwind and not doing it on a work day could maybe see me get closer to the target. Two out of three isn't bad and so on a blustery Saturday morning I left the car park at a decidedly brisker pace. The headwind was still a definite factor but despite not going too hard I still summitted in sub 43 and hit the bottom in 1:06:30, three and a half minutes banked and I could sniff a possibility! The second lap was tough, the wind was really sapping and there is only so much motivation you can glean from the shocked expressions of the people you're passing for the second time on the way up. I got to the top at 1:54:20, it was going to be close. The initial descent is steep and littered with boulders, not the greatest combination for seized knees, creaking hips and tired quads so I maintained the best style I could and tried not to fall and smash myself. Finally the wind became a friend as I stretched out my paces along the beautifully constructed mid section, skipping over rocks and driving as hard as I could over the short sprinty rises. I kept the pressure up all the way to the bottom, only the early onset of cramp slowing me on the final car park sprint. And the result was... 1:19:26! On target for two laps, very pleased and yet even more daunted by the prospect of having just 1:10:34 to do the last lap with legs like rocks.
Can I do it? I don't know. I didn't eat or drink on those two laps and obviously refuelling will be essential to complete the three but with a constantly running clock it will have to be done on the go either whilst panting hard going up or concentrating hard going down, not easy. I feel close enough, and yet also far away enough to stay inspired by this one, pretty soon I'll go for the three laps and see what happens.
And that's where it stands. Except I'd like to see this challenge achieved, not just by me, by anyone. I've recently mentioned it to the elite of Mournes mountain runners and received a luke warm response so I'm throwing it open to all. Ironmen, Mountain Marathoners, Endurance Cyclists, Mountain Bikers, if you are someone who thinks they're fit or know someone who thinks they're fit then get them to drop me a line and have an official attempt. I'll be there at the finish to cheer you home and buy you a pint. There must be someone out there who'll have a good dig at this...
firstname.lastname@example.org if you think you're up to the challenge and I'll give you all the info.