Denis Rankin Round- Saturday 15th June

Denis Rankin Round- Saturday 15th June

Race report Tom Lynch

The Denis Rankin round is the Northern Irish equivalent of the Bob Graham/Paddy Buckley/Ramsay Round, and is a circuit of the highest hills and mountains in the Mourne Mountains over 400m. The round is around 90km long, with around 6600m climbing so it both shorter than some of the other rounds, but also with less climbing than all of them. The aim like the other rounds is to complete it within 24 hours, and the round has it’s own club to which results of successful rounds can be submitted to gain membership. The round is a fairly new creation, with the first recorded individual completion in 2014, by Billy Reed. 

Over the past few years, my friend Alistair (actually a past local resident – growing up in Weeton, now in Scotland) and I have completed all of the other UK rounds, to be added to the ‘UK Big 3 Rounds’  register, a niche goal, but completed by very few people people: The next logical step for us was to look at the only remaining UK round in Northern Ireland, and so together decided that we’d go and try and complete this round too. 

Being both unfamiliar with the Northern Irish mountains and not being frequent visitors, we decided to attempt the round together, in an on-sight unsupported fashion, which was potentially the quickest way for us to pop over and attempt it, without much logistical planning. We got maps and gps tracks of the round, and planned to attempt the round in July, squeezing it in between quite a few Paddy Buckley and Bob Graham supports that were planned earlier in the year. 

As the year progressed, several of our friends cancelled their running plans for rounds, and we ended up with a window in June, that would allow us to go over and fit the round in earlier, leaving us more time for other plans in the year, so we fairly quickly put together a travel plan to go over on SailRail, which is a nice environmentally sound way to get to NI, but I also have a dislike of flying, so avoid it where it’s not too much of an inconvenience. 

It was probably my least prepared for round and in hindsight we were probably a bit too casual in our planning for it, being deceived by the easier looking stats, and potentially shorter running time. 

As it turns out, the SailRail system is a bit bonkers, and we only found out which tickets we were able to book on the 2nd June when the UK rail timetables were updated, somehow all of the NI sailing were already sold out by the time we look at booking one day later, and my only option was to go via Dublin, with Alistair booking his trip in bits via sailing to Belfast. My journey was probably the worst, potentially now involving a hire car and taxi combination to get up to the Mourne’s. After a bit of reflection we opted for meeting up in Lanark and driving to the ferry in Cairnryan, which still needed x3 trains for me to arrive in Lanark in time to head over on the Friday morning. The journey over was millpond like, and I was pretty impressed with Stena Line, the boat even had an on board spa! 

Once over our mammoth journey continued, involving two more buses before we finally arrived in the seaside town of Newcastle on the very south eastern part of the NI coastline, where the round starts, where we checked into our hostel, and quickly got to know Steph and Cathal who run the hostel. Cathal was quite interested in our endeavour being a keen runner/hiker himself, although I don’t think he was entirely convinced by our plan, and did enquire as to whether we’d ever run something quite as long/similar before…we obviously weren’t giving off an aura of professionalism at this point!

Newcastle is one of those towns that has a lot going for it – right on the beach, but also backed by mountains, but it also has some odd quirks, such as the car park full of boy racers which we found when we went to check out the start of the round at the Donard Park car park. It was apparent that our start or finish might be accompanied by the sounds of lads in BMWs doing doughnuts and revving their engines, which wasn’t exactly in keeping with the wilderness experience we were planning. 

After making some more preparations, packing our kit, buying breakfast for the next day, and food for our return late at night (hopefully) we got an earlyish night. Our plan was to get up and be at the start of the round for 0330, we had a rough idea that it should be possible to get back in before the end of Saturday if we could do ~20 hour round, which we were fairly hopeful for, all being well. We were carrying all our kit and sourcing water on the go, and at about 0230 were both up, getting a very disorientating breakfast in the hostel kitchen, finding a fair few  people asleep in various random parts of the hostel, presumably avoiding snores of room-mates or tackling insomnia. 

We arrived on the start line in good time, ready to head off on time. No boy racers in sight, I guess they were probably in bed after the pub by this point! We set off up through the path in the park, which quickly turned into a rough path following the stream, aiming to find our way onto the flank of Slieve Donard, the highest mountain in NI, which we would tackle first on the round. My preparation hadn’t been ideal for the round, with the change of date, I was struggling a bit with a dodgy knee, with tightness in the muscles around it causing some pain. I had been to see the physio who had fairly strongly advised against doing it, and taking some more time to fix the problem. However, I had decided to give it a go, and was regretting this somewhat immediately when we hit the track of cobbles/rocks, which flex and bent my knee in a few directions. As we made our way up and over the first summit, I would occasionally got pretty painful jarrs in my knee, and I was worrying that I was going to have to pull out almost immediately. After a couple of these over the second summit Chimney Rock Mountain, and on towards Rocky Mountain (original aren’t they?) I had realised they would ease off after a few minutes, but my knee felt generally a bit sensitive/at risk. Alistair by contrast seemed super strong, and I was also struggling a bit to keep pace with him, on top of the knee issues. Quietly I thought to myself that I’d give it a couple of hours, maybe resort to some painkillers, but was also starting to plot out routes to abandon it, before we got too far in. 

We carried on setting a fairly rapid pace over the next few summits Slieve (lots of these) Beg, Cove Mountain, Slievelamagan (a horrible descent for my knee off here), and on to the Binnians. My knee still wasn’t enjoying it at this point, but we were making good progress with Alistair pushing the pace, until we arrived at Binnian North Tor. Here we were slightly stumped, it looked like we had to do a fairly bold solo rock climb to reach the summit, and we wasted a few minutes working our way round the back to find a more heathery way up. Looking back at the summit notes, I think it’s probably actually acceptable to just pass close to the rocky summit tor, rather than climb it! Binnian itself was also tough to find, requiring a climb up onto some tors and tagging a few different spots just to make sure we were hitting the right summits, and we then descended down a rocky scrambly descent to head to Wee Binnian. 

It’s at this point a few hours (5?) that I think I stopped thinking about my leg any more, not consciously, but we had just settled into a rhythm of battling through heather and bog and up and down scrambles, and I guess we’d also reached a more normal part of the day. Thankfully after this point my leg seemed to decide it was going to give up complaining, and I didn’t really worry about it again after this point. 

We now headed down into the Silent Valley, a support point if you are lucky enough to have helpers, we were in need of water, and despite running across a reservoir dam here, past a visitor centre, there wasn’t much in sight until we climbed out the other side of the valley. It was never a big worry, as it was very wet, but this was probably the driest point, and just when the day was getting warm. 

The next section of the round was pretty boggy, with a lot of vegetation to battle through (or so we thought at that point), but we progressed fairly well over Slievenaglogh, Doan, Ben Crom, Carn Mountain, Slieve Muck and off down to a road crossing. I had convinced myself that at some point on the round we were bound to hit a car park with an ice cream van and a nice cold can of coke on offer, and I was disappointed at this first road crossing to find nothing but a few parked cars. 

The day was getting hot by this point, and again, a couple of spots where we had a gap between water stops, which was a little uncomfortable, as we left the road, we felt we were heading into a more untrodden part of the round, away from the big rocky mountains, and the Mourne Wall.. We ticked off Pigeon Rock North top, Slievemoughanmore, Wee Slievemoughanmore, Eagle Mountain, and thankfully by this point our paces had equalised somewhat. 

The next part of the round was probably the least enjoyable for both of us, we were nearing the half way point as we headed off to the barren peat hags off Shanlieve and Finlieve, winding our way between peat hags, for what felt like a couple of miles (probably a a km or two) when then had a long descent down into boggy, vegetated ground, and a large river crossing, and at this point the heavens also opened, with it being a totally dry day up until this point. This was probably my lowest point on the round, a long way to go, slow progress and terrible underfoot. The route was also confusing at this point, all the hills were fairly small, and it was hard to get our heads round exactly where we were headed next. We wandered through some woodland, both feeling a little lazy at this point in terms of running, and finally emerged on some shorter grassland to climb up to the Slievemeen checkpoint. 

Having lost the thread of exactly where we were, we were surprised to find ourselves suddenly on a nice track which took us to Slievemeen, and started to return back on this track to run up to Slievemartin. We hadn’t realised how close we were to the bike trails at Rostrevor and a recreation area with made woodland trails, and this was the track we benefited from. This is actually a potential support point, but again there was no ice cream van or coke can vendor wandering the trails, much to my disgust. However we were suddenly buoyed by the good running, and trotted off the summit, getting back into a good rhythm again….until we realised we had to pop over a fence back in to knee deep grass and bog to head to the next summit Crenville. More or less the pattern of the next few kms. 

There’s not much to say about Crenville, there is no path, there are probably a lot of ticks, I have no idea if we took the right line here, but we definitely didn’t take the best line off it, and all I can remember is waist and shoulder high vegetation, and tired legs. Glad I have ticked it off. After what felt like forever battling off it, we got back onto some nice track again, and started moving onto the next hill, Slievemeel, track, unimaginable heather, ridiculous lines off it into untrodden woods, and then another track, and this was pretty much the same until we finally reached Tievedockaragh where we could see in the distance that things were probably going to improve, the woods had gone, and the bigger hills were returning. 

I was glad of the change in terrain, as I think we, perhaps Alistair more than me, were reaching a pretty demoralised state, and in our minds we were losing time on our schedule hand over fist, with what felt like incredibly slow going and bad lines across this section. we have planned a schedule that sat somewhere in between Carol Morgan’s record breaking run of 16 hours 21, and the 24 hour time limit, being content to just sit somewhere within this, and I think in our fatigued state we were worried that we were creeping close to 24 hours with out slow pace.

In contrast, the next summit was probably my favourite one on the round (at least at that point in time), simply by virtue of the fact that it was reached by some very runnable dirt tracks, and was probably only a climb of 20-30 metres or so, up Pierce’s Castle, which gave a good view over the next set of mountains we’d had to run – Rocky Mountain, Cock Mountain (NE top) and Slievenamiskan, before heading to another car park, where there was surely going to be an ic cream van, possibly even a cafe, it was marked on the map, it definitely had the feeling of a touristy honeypot car park, I was optimistic! 

Contrary to earlier in the round, by this point I realised our roles had reversed somewhat, and Alistair was starting to seem pretty tired, and suggested that he was less consistently getting food down, which was a bit of a worry, but we were still moving and ticking off summits. We made our way off the last summit on this section, and the signs of the fabled refreshments weren’t good, firstly the path across the dam to the car park was padlocked, and we had to descend into the valley and back up and climb over a couple of walls, and then getting to the car park we found it was full of tourists, but empty of anything else interesting,. Still, one more road crossing to go. 

Here we made a bit of an error, the car parks/support points on the website were listed as checkpoints, and these were also included on the tracker, the last car park we visited unfortunately shared the name of a summit Spelga, which we did not need to tick off. Getting a bit confused, we thought we nearly missed it on the way to the other summit, Spaltha, and so we doubled back to get it. It wasn’t a huge detour, but we realised almost immediately on reaching it that the tracker actually referred to the car park we’d already been in…oh well! 

We were now on the last section of the run, although we had one more road crossing to make, which had another promising car park shrouded by trees. Again were struggling for water at this point, and this became quite a priority, as after the road, we were back in the big mountains, without any chance of a stream crossing, so we were hoping to find a stream on the way to the car park, or just to buy some waters from the ice cream van that was definitely going to be in the car park. Dropping into the back of the car park from Slievenamuck, I was again disappointed, both to find no ice cream van, but also to find only a pitiful stream leading out of the promising soggy looking ground leading into the trees. Here I had to lay down and shover our bottles down into a dodgy looking trickle of water coming out of the woods – it did at least look like it was coming from the hill rather than the car park, but it wasn’t ideal hydration for the next and final section which was going to take in the the rest of the Seven Sevens (seven Mournes all over 700 meters). 

On the climb up to Ott Mountain it was apparent Alistair was in a fairly bad way, with the gel he tried to eat, refusing to go down properly, and it was clear he was probably going to finish the round (hopefully) without any further food. 

After Ott Mountain we again hit the Mourne Wall, which I had not mentioned much earlier is a huge 5-6 foot wall, about 2 feet thick, which surrounds the Mourne reservoirs and keeps animals out. A huge construction undertaking, build back in the early 1900s, we’d already had to hop back and forth over it to reach previous summits, and it’s a pretty constant feature of the round (you are not allowed to run on top of it, as it would be quite helpful in some boggy places). These next summits involved very steep sharp climbs up along the Mourne Wall to the next few summits, and these were going to be pretty taxing, the wind had also picked up which didn’t help matters and it was getting cold. 

These final mountains are deceptive, as they look like huge Scottish munros from a distance, and although hard to climb and very steep, take less time than you expect, even with Alistair struggling on low energy, we continued to make progress. We passed over Slieve Loughshannagh, Slieve Meelbeg and Slieve Meelmore. All of this time I had my eye on Slieve Bearnagh, trying not to highlight it to Alistiar, it looked like a huge steep, rocky, brutal climb, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. Even the constant Mourne Wall gave up on one of the steepest parts, giving way to perilous rock slabs. The way down to start the climb was even tricky, and as expected, it was a real steep slog up the side, so steep, rocky, and no sign of the top, or a break in slope. 

Eventually we topped out on Slieve Bernagh, which felt like a huge achievement, and we stopped to take stock of what was left, having felt we were just going to get round, probably somewhere under 24 hours, hopefully, but not really having much thought that we were on for a good time. We reviewed the remaining summits, and I think to Alistair’s relief we realised that there was only really 1 more proper climb, the pointy up and down giving way to a hump backed climb up to the last summit Slieve Commedagh, via the other two summits, with only a small drop in between. This cheered us both up, as we knew we just need to start the next climb and the finish would be in touching distance. 

We were both a bit gone mentally at this point, and I think we pretty much climbed the last summits in silence, just grinding out the last climb, the sunset at this point was amazing, and we got some memorable views. On Slieve Commedagh we could look down over Newcastle, and knew we just had one final quad busting, shuffling descent to complete. We also stopped again to try and get our minds round potential finishing times, and were quite surprised to realise that we were probably going to finish under 19 hours, even with a fairly steady descent, we thought we could get in before 1030. This didn’t really speed us up, and this descent was probably one of the hardest on the round, as it was probably the largest drop, as well as seeming to go on for ever, but we were now so close. 

Eventually we dropped back onto the same rocky path we started on, and we managed to muster a run most of the way back down into the park. Hearing the sounds of engines revving and smelling burnt rubber, we knew we were now so close to the end, and after a short sprint across the car park, managing to not get run over, we collapsed by the arch at the entrance to the car park, slumping onto the tarmac. The BMW and Audi drivers revving their engines driving past, probably wondered at what a random hobby we had, a fairly mutual feeling from our side also. 

The end of a round like this, unsupported, is quite a funny feeling, all the way down Slieve Commedagh, I had actually been thinking quite a lot about the remaining admin I would have once we had ‘finished’. A shower, cooking some food, the walk back, getting out of mucky kit, trying not to coat the hostel in mud. We hobbled back to the hostel, and somehow managed to complete all the above, before collapsing into bed, trying not to wake our room mate. Despite being in time for last orders, etc. we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do more than sleep. Much harder when you don’t have a crowd of people cheering and helping you. We had at least left time for a few drinks the next day after some recovery time in the seaside town, but that’s another story…..

Finish time 18 hours 51 mins (approved by the committee, but the website is a little out of date).

We definitely didn’t plan it this way, but looking back on our round and timings, we also realised that we completed our round to within about 10 years and 10 minutes or so, since the first completion of the round. 

One thought on “Denis Rankin Round- Saturday 15th June

  1. Fell runner Tom Lynch has done another amazing adventure with this new round the Denis Rankin a 90k lap and 6600m of climbing , it was a fantastic achievement , that few runner have done it so far the brutal round , he really deserved a medal and he well deserved as well a crowd of people cheering him on . I have enjoyed reading the report from North I. that is very useful to everyone who does ultra distance running . he crossed the finish line in an astonishing 18.51, although he had knees problems . Well done Tom !

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