Mourne Way Ultra, 2013

If running the world 24 hours championships 2 weeks beforehand isn’t exactly perfect preparation for the Wicklow Way Race, then running both of those with a further 2 week gap is heading into total madness territory as preparation for the Mourne Way Ultra. No conventional rational thought process could lead you to think that would be a good idea.

But if you used conventional rational logic to decide when you were ready to run ultras then you wouldn’t get a lot done. At least the distances were declining (234km ->130km -> 84km). Besides, I simply like the Mourne Way Ultra, and wanted to race it. It takes place at a time of the year when the weather is normally on the up and up (but it hit a dip for last year’s race!). The Mourne mountains are amongst the most scenic in Ireland. And the 26 Extreme crew who organise the race are both very affable and very professional.

I’ve run this race twice before, setting the course record of 7:41 on its inaugural year 3 years ago, holding off the challenge of local speedy marathoner Don Travers. I was unable to run the race the following year, having broken my leg a few months earlier. Barry Murray took the honours that year. Last year I made it back again. In much wetter weather than any other year I schlomped my way to regain victory ahead of the fast chasing Don and Barry.

Helen Dixon, my girlfriend, had been suffering with an ongoing long-term knee injury which was seriously hampering her ability to run at all, never mind race. However her latest medical advice was that it was OK to get out and run. So we decided to make a weekend of the event together. She would run the half marathon. There are 5km, 10km, half, full, and ultra (double) marathon races all as part of the event. All events finish at the same place in Rostrevor.

On previous trips to this race we (Whoever was kind enough to give me a lift, and myself) would have set off in the very early morning from Dublin to get to the startline in Rostrevor  at about 5:30a.m. However Helen has more sense than the ultra-loonies, so this year we made our way up on Friday evening after work. This also allowed us to register and get our race packs in the 26 Extreme shop in Warrenpoint town square, saving us having to do it before our races on Saturday.We would stay in a B&B for both Friday and Saturday night. This would make for a much more relaxed race day.

We found a lovely little cafe/restaurant in Rostrevor village for some nice pre-race food. Helen reckoned her pasta was the nicest she had ever had (and my sample taste was indeed delicious), and I had a small and surprisingly light battered cod with chips… keeping well away from pasta!

Our B&B took a few goes to find, as it was a little hidden away, but it was worth the search. Siobhan, our host, was extremely hospitable, and I had to dissuade her from getting up at 5:30am to drop me to the race start. She did leave some fantastic breakfast treats for me in the fridge, as well as making up a packed lunch to bring along for after the race. And it was all delicious!

Getting up at 5a.m. is a lot better than the 2:30a.m. that would have been the case in past years, but it’s still pretty early! Helen, since she was doing the half marathon, was able to sleep on until a much more sociable hour. I tiptoed about the place, getting my gear on, having breakfast (more than I intended since it was all so tasty!), and finally leaving the B&B to walk down to the start line.

Rostrevor is a beautiful village in a beautiful setting, and it was lovely to walk down through the village with the views of Carlingford Lough in front of me, the Cooley mountains rising from the sea on the opposite side of the bay, and the Mourne mountains sweeping down to the sea on my left. It was lovely and peaceful with hardly anyone around at this hour of the morning.

The final part of the walk through the park to the start area turned out to be the wettest part of the day, as the early morning dew on the grass made my running shoes a little damp. The start area was quite but still active. There were almost 70 runners getting ready to start the race, so there was plenty of pre-race preparation in progress. I found somewhere to put my bag of post race clothes and food. And with that I was ready to start.

The race organisers got us all moving towards the start line, and gave us a brief race breifing! With a few minutes to go they asked us to move to the start line itself. I was the only one who marched foward with intent to the line. It felt like I had just stepped forward to volunteer for a particularly odius task, and that everyone else knew better than to make that step 🙂 Looking back it was interesting to note that pretty much all the other runners were using backpacks of some kind. I seemed to be the only one running light.

A quick countdown and we were off. It’s always interesting to see will anyone join me when I head out up the grassy hill from the start at my fast but steady race pace. I had looked over the entry list to see if I could recognise any potential challengers, but hadn’t noticed any. Don was down to race one of the shorter races (he raced the marathon on the day), and Barry has moved to Italy with work so wasn’t back this year.

As it turned out I was joined by one other runner as we headed up the initial hill, and he seemed to be comfortable with the pace. He also had no back-pack… at least there was one other runner going light! So I started a conversation with him. He introduced himself as Kevin Doyle. He had won the marathon race in this event for the last 3 years. Fantastic… I wouldn’t have this race all my own way. Kevin would definitely keep me on my toes!

About to start the first climb, with Kevin tracking along

I figured out quickly enough that there had been only 4 previous runnings of the Mourne Way Marathon (the ultra started in the 2nd year of the events, so it only had 3 previous runnings). I had won the Marathon in the first year (after being pushed hard all the way by the flying Don Travers), and Kevin had run every subsequent one. So there would definitely be a new marathon winner this year!

The ultra course is an out and back route along the marathon route, going from Rostrevor to Newcastle and back. So even though we run all the course twice, its actually nice to get it in both directions. The easy bits become hard and the hard bits become easier (but not easy… after all a marathon has been run before we turn back!).

A few steep climbs here and there take us out through the forests above Rostrevor before we settle into more gently undulating fireroads bringing us northwards along the edge of the Mournes. It’s a good idea to keep the pace at conversational speed at this early stage, so it’s quite nice to have someone to run along with and chat. And boy, did we chat! Kevin is a great guy and we ended up sticking together and chatting pretty much the whole way out to the turnaround point at Newcastle. It made the first half of the race fly by (relatively speaking).

Normally I manage to fill my race reports with details of all the twists and turns, but in this case we were just running along at a good steady pace, immersed in conversation and enjoying the running and the views. I had decided early on that this was perfect race tactics from my own point of view anyway. If there was any serious tactical racing to be done then the second half of the race is where it would play out. Kevin was setting a perfect pace. It was nice and fast… the upper limit of the pace I would be happy running the outward half. So we were pushing along nicely without working too hard.

The weather was awesome too, which helped enormously. There was none of last year’s mud and schlomp. Instead we glided over lovely dry dusty trails. The Mournes were looking fantastic under the blue skies and sunshine too.

The Mourne Way Ultra really must be the most rewarding of all the races in the Mourne Way events. The longer the race you pick, the better the scenery gets! And in the ultra you get to experience everything twice! On the way out we went from Rostrevor forest, out beyond the new mountain bike trails and up into the cols heading for Cock and Hen mountains. A long descent past those hill leads us to a nice off-road climb, and then a few very bumpy technical trails take us to a sharp climb to the road up towards Spelga Dam.

Kevin and Myself hitting the open ground after Rostrevor forest

A road section takes us right past the edge of the Dam, an the lake behind, and on up to the high point of the race (which is almost exactly where Helen would be starting the half marathon later in the day). After a quick descent we’re back off-road again with a sharp descent down to short section of highly technical forest track, and then out along a flat section near another small Damed lake. We’re then heading for the heart of the Mourne mountains where we cross the start of the Trassey track with the spikey 700 meter peaks beyond.

From here the trail takes us into the scenic highlight of the race… the wonderful run through Tollymore forest. The trail mostly takes us down through the mature trees and forest landscape along the edge of lovely wide clear mountain river. In the middle of the forest we cross the river using a set of stepping stones, and then head steadily upwards from there through the higher sections of the forest, arcing our way around to head for Newcastle.

When we exit the forest and head up along the outside edge we meet the first of the Walking challengers. The walking challenge uses the marathon course, with entrants setting out at 8a.m., a few hours before the runners depart at 10:30a.m. As ever, I note that these early “walkers” need to look up the term in the dictionary!

After another steady forest climb finishing in a short sharp kicker of a hill we break onto the open mountain for one my favorite sections of the race. The ground is lovely and technical here. first we steadily descend a rocky track, and then climb up a steep lumpy section bringing us to the Apex of the last hill before Newcastle, with great views of the coast and Newcastle town itself out to our left as we climb.

It’s a lovely long descent from here which takes 10 or 15 minutes heading downhill. Kevin has decided that he is going to walk up the corresponding climb coming back from the turnaround. I’m definitely going to try to run the entire thing (indeed I fully intend to run the entire race). So it looks like the turnaround will be the point where we split. The conversation has been great to here, and it was the most enjoyable run out I’ve had in the ultra so far. We said our good-byes and good lucks as we approached the turn around point.

Everyone gets to leave a drop bag with the organisers which they transport out to the turnaround point. As ever, I have put more into the bag than I think I could need, mainly to give myself a variety of options to choose from. On the outward leg I simply carried a small bottle of cordial drink. I didn’t need any solid food or too much additional liquid. I just grabbed a cup of water at one or two of the aid stations, since it was a warm morning. I located my own drop-bag quickly enough and grabbed a small bottle of coke from it. Coke tends to be something I crave in long races if I don’t have access to it!

And with that, I ran back out again and headed back up the hill, opening a bigger lead with each step. A check on my watch showed that I was pretty much bang on the pace I had set when I set the course record 3 years ago. I knew at this stage that I was likely to win the race, since Kevin was being sensible and conservative. I just had to be sure to keep moving steadily and not push myself into bonking territory. Kevin was likely to be very comfortably in second place… there had been no sign of any runners behind us for a long time, and with the pace we had set he more than likely had a significant margin over the next runner.

I enjoyed the long climb back out of the turnaround point. It was quite a while, near the top of the climb, before the 3rd placed runner passed by heading down towards the turnaround. Kevin did indeed have a comfortable margin, so he was looking very good indeed for second place. The gaps between the following runners were much closer, and I was steadily passing people running in the opposite direction for a long time.

The run down from the first climb back was a blast… lovely and technical with fabulous views ahead. Running back through the first forest section I was passing outbound runners much more frequently, sometimes in groups. It’s great to exchange greetings with them all. Ultra-runs are great for camaraderie. Fundamentally we’re all racing against ourselves and the course. A few are looking very tired, but most of them look like they’re going well. Every time I think I’ve passed them all, another person appears. It’s fantastic to see so many people taking part.

Tollymore forest yet again is beautiful to run through. The sun is higher, the day is warmer, and I have to run up rather than down the scenic river trail, but it’s still a pleasure just to be running through such beautiful terrain, even though it must be at least twice as hard as the outward run on the same track.

Progress back along the Mourne way always seems much harder heading back than heading out, which isn’t too much of a surprise. The occasional “walker” heading in the same direction gives me targets to lock onto and overtake. Even though they’re not in my race it’s a nice little distraction which also serves to keep my pace up a bit. I’m not taking anything for granted, so I make the occasional check behind to see if any of the ultra runners are within sight behind, but I never see anyone except the walkers all the way back on the return leg.

The coke turns out to be a great choice from the half way drop bag. I mainly use the 4 or 5 official aid stations on the way back to grab a cup of water. It’s very hot now, and I have to be careful not to get too thirsty. A sip of coke every now and then is a refreshing change (I’m not really a fan of the taste of water), and an enjoyable psychological boost.

The return run has really become an exercise in ultra-pacing. I know that I’m running quite well, and given my time to the turnaround point its quite possible that I could be coming close to my own course record. I use this as another motivation to keep the pace up. The other motivation I use is the simple one that the faster I can run, the sooner I can finish and enjoy all the goodies I’ve left in my bag back at the finish line!

The final 10km of the return leg along the fireroads through Rostrevor forest is where I know I can really push things along. All the big climbs of the return leg are behind me. Yet again I try to imagine a virtual chaser behind me to give myself that extra push. I pass the last of the walkers as he downs gallons of water at the last aid station 5km from the finish. He briefly tries to run after me as I pass, but I’m going at a good clip now, and he is quickly dropped.

I can hear the mountain bikers using the brand new purpose built mountain bike trails along the next section, and I try to get a glimpse of them when I can. Helen and myself have brought our mountain bikes up with us to Rostrevor and I’m looking forward to the two of us getting out on the trails together tomorrow. I’ve heard that they are the best in Ireland by a long way.

The site of Carlingford Lough in the distance, and Rostrevor village at the end of the valley to my right indicates that I’m getting nice and close to the finish. My pace is nice and fast, but still controlled. Things are looking and feeling good.

The forest gets bigger and more beautiful as I get closer to the finish, but the ground turns from fire-road to more solid tarmac. It’s harder to run on at this late stage, but at least its also faster! The final run down hill is a beautiful wide open grassy slope, and I really power away and let fly down the hill, rapidly closing on the finish line.

There are plenty of spectators around (the 10km race buses have yet to depart so all the competitors are in the area, along with quite a large number of supporters for the runners in all the races), and they generate a great atmosphere as I run the final loop around and through the finish line. Wooohoooo! Another win with another solid and enjoyable run.

I’ve no idea what my finishing time is, and I can’t remember what the course record I set was in any case. But I have a rough idea that the record is around 7:40, and I also have a rough idea that I finished around 7:40… could go either way! As it turned out the record was 7:41, and I managed to break it with a time of about 7:39… close but good enough!

After a few finish line chats I make my way off to have a massage. My poor legs have done one hell of an amount of racing in the last six weeks, so they deserve any help they can get! The next interesting to will be to see what kind of time Kevin will manage to complete (and I’m very much assuming that a runner of his class will defend his second place to the turn around with aplomb!).

About 25 minutes after I’ve finished Kevin crosses the finish line (with a time of 8:05, an excellent run), looking comfortable. I’m delighted for him and make sure to greet him at the finish line. After getting hold of his post race non-alcoholic beer we head over to a bench and continue on with our chat!

Kevin and Myself, just after Kevin crosses the finish line

We’re both curious about when the next runner will arrive. I reckon Kevin will have a massive margin. That does indeed turn out to be the case, as Sean Brosnan finishes in 8:55, giving Kevin a margin of about 50 minutes! The ultra finishers arrive with more frequency for the rest of the afternoon, along with the finishers from all the other races.

Of course the biggest highlight of the other races for me was seeing Helen finish the half marathon. She finished in 2:06, and was easily in the top 10 female finishers. It was a great result, especially given how little training she had done because of her injury.

Kevin, myself and Sean on the podium for the Mourne Way Ultra

After the prizgiving Helen and myself had a nice leisurely trip back up to our B&B. After freshening up we headed back into the village where we had a great meal in one of the local pubs (adjacent to the cafe where we ate on Friday evening). I had a nice big steak, which is one of my ideal post-race meals!

After a solid night’s sleep, and a delicious breakfast at a more sociable hour, Helen and myself had a great day on Sunday on our mountain bikes riding the new trails in Rostrevor. It was yet another gorgeous warm sunny day when Ireland is at its very best. The trails were as good as I had heard, some of the best I’ve ever been on, and we had a blast. All in all it was a great weekend, one we hope to repeat again next year.

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