Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A Timely Reminder

If we didn't train on awful days in the Mournes, we probably wouldn't be very fit!

And so it was that my final scheduled long-run as part of preparations for the Garmin Mourne Skyline in ten days time took place in a total stinker of a storm today.  In itself, nothing abnormal, as previously explained, if a session is in the diary, it's going to happen and sometimes that means wrapping-up and doubling the suffering.  This morning though brought a familiar tightrope act on the cusp between enjoyment and danger as conditions contrived to create potentially lethal circumstances.

Departing the van at 8:30am I was instantly exposed to the swirling wind and cold bullets of rain that had the local school kids balancing bags on their heads and scattering for cover.  Glancing up to the cloud-smothered peaks, there was evidently no respite due imminently, despite the forecasted improvements.  Plummeting temperatures would accompany the rising elevation and with an extended ridge-line to cover, there was a strong likelihood of a rasping wind battering me from all angles.
There's a storm brewing up there!
No point dithering, straight into action and a sprightly pace through the lower slopes of Slieve Donard, where the Forestry workers have conspired to decimate a once picturesque path, churning sodden ground with heavy plant and dispatching parts of tree in all directions.  Ankle deep sludge saturating feet and sapping legs so early in a run is a guaranteed motivation killer but today I felt positive, the subconscious drive of suspected good legs.  Beyond the tree-line and on to open mountain, for the first time exposed to the full brutality of a crucifying head-wind.  Gusts that could strip paint forcing a virtual standstill, cold pellets stinging my eyes.  Head-down and pushing on to the col, all intentions of a fast time literally blown away.

Mounting the stile was a treacherous manoeuvre, knees down on the criss-crossed metal and gripping tight to the greasy wood to lever on to the far side of the wall and into the maelstrom.  Virtually blinded by now sleety needles I stumbled on, before suddenly being granted a pardon by the complexities of mountain air-flow; unexpected stillness and a chance to open the legs on a pacy fifteen minute effort round the Brandy Pad to the base of Slieve Bearnagh.  Steep initial slopes rapidly dispatched, the final drag to the summit was unfeasibly slippery, a bogged top-layer breaking free with the lightest of pressure, forcing a power-walk in place of the usual run.  The far-side descent was loose as ever, whipping cross-winds exacerbating the struggle to remain upright, and there was a fair degree of relief in safely exiting the gravelly bottom section.

An eight-minute ascent of Meelmore was matched by an eight-minute sprint to its smaller brother's summit, hoping more than expecting a tailwind on the return ridge.  The surface of Slieve Meelbeg has been dangerous for weeks now, a combination of steep gradient, unforgiving granite boulders and a saturated grass and sheep-shit combination more akin to ice-rink than mountain trail.  Despite tentative technique, I still succumbed to the unpredictability, an impromptu bum-slide that extremely fortunately had no solid objects in its path.  Receiving a long-awaited push from the elements saw yet another eight minute section back on to Meelmore and I was pleased to be ahead of record pace despite nature's onslaught.

In every run of this nature there comes a tangible turning point; a moment when the grin subsides and teeth grit as the seriousness of the undertaking dawns to an endorphin-fuelled brain.  The unforgivingly slippery drop back off  Meelmore, feet skating from sodden turf to teflon like granite signalled this change.  I became aware of an encroaching chill from within, a subtle fall in core temperature that can only signal danger if unaddressed.  Under normal circumstances I'd have layered up further but by now it was a futile act, taped seams laughed at by the horizontal waves of precipitation, any extra clothing instantly reduced to sopping dead-weight.  Balancing between dangerous errors in footwork and the need for rapid progress became mentally taxing as I re-mounted Slieve Bearnagh and hit the final ridge.

It was only twenty-two minutes from Hare's Gap to the summit of Slieve Commedagh but it felt an age, the decision to press-on over the peaks rather than a lower escape route driven by a desire to push hard uphill and stoke the internal burner.  Northern Ireland's second highest peak was a hellish scene, small ripples forming on the upper slopes as the gale squeezed the sponge-like ground.  Despite its proximity to Donard's well-trodden trail, I still had the unsettling awareness of the experienced solo runner that a simple fall and serious injury would likely be fatal.  Sub-zero wind-chill and unending rainfall conspiring to render useless the technical garments and a gradually deteriorating body that would rapidly succumb to exposure.  Needless to say, Slieve Donard itself was scrapped from the menu and a measured descent took on the hallmarks of a personal rescue mission.

Standing in a hot shower for an age, X-Talons still firmly wedged on wrinkled feet, it took twenty minutes before the fuzziness of cold was lifted and brain functions fully returned.  Despite only being October, a timely reminder had been dished out over the perpetual seriousness of the mountain environment.  These lessons are nothing new to me, hence the emergency kit on my back, the phone safe in a dry bag, the spare layers, extra food and ability to make key decisions despite cerebral functions fading.  Nevertheless, that essential learning needs reiterating continually to ward off any cockiness, it only takes one error, one bout of poor preparation and even mountains as friendly as the Mournes are potential killers.

I'll never fear the hills, my love for them is too deep to be overridden by negative emotion.  Respect though is earned, and no matter where they are, how high, how familiar, how seemingly benign, all mountains deserve the utmost degree of it.  Stay safe, plan well and enjoy.  Can't wait to see what conditions we get come race day!


  1. Thanks for writing and sharing. I enjoy these accounts more than the bog standard race report - at mile 1 blah, blah - and the content is more informative. Glad you survived the experience and let's hope the gnarly nastiness stands you in good stead come race day.

    1. Thanks very much Neil! Racing is the reward for all the hard work!

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