I have a love/love relationship with Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland's highest peak. Rising 853 metres directly out of the striking coastline of Newcastle, County Down it has provided me with some of my most satisfying athletic achievements. Last year I completed a 3hr 25min Donard Hat-Trick as an extreme training exercise in preparation for the World Running Champs in mountainous Colorado. This year I completed a different kind of Donard hat-trick, winning Ireland's oldest and most prestigious mountain race for the third consecutive year. It's the peak that initially inspired my interest in fell running when I read about the exploits of superhuman athletes who could somehow reach its distant summit and return in under an hour. Now I can count myself amongst that elite group, a triumph of hard work and self belief over age and inexperience.
My first attempt at the Slieve Donard race was back in 2012, two years after Stevie Cunningham tore up the record books with a blistering 54:33 winning time. I ran pretty well for a newcomer, finishing 7th in 1:00:46 but it was a result that brought more frustration than satisfaction. Position mattered little to me as I never considered that I'd be a contender for honours but I badly wanted to break the hour. The worst aspect of this was the knowledge that I'd be compelled to return the following year and go through the sheer agony of dragging myself over the steep and treacherous ground once again. So twelve months on I returned fitter, wiser and with better technique, aiming purely to knock 47 seconds off my time, thus allowing me to retire from competition happy in the knowledge that I could do 'the hour'. That year saw a mini blizzard decimate the lead group high on the slopes and I found myself alone out front. The shock of winning took literally weeks to sink in. My name was on the trophy with a 57:01 and some kind folk were even suggesting that I could've troubled the course record if conditions had been slightly less ridiculous for a mid-May day.
With that optimistic inspiration in mind I returned the following year with the sole goal of beating Cunningham's mark. A weaker field left the result in little doubt. I'd continued to improve rapidly in the sport and my closest rivals were away with the International squad so it was mainly the fast time that I sought. I buried myself on the climb, summitting in 38:42 but my legs were hollowed out and I limped down, collapsing over the line incredibly in an identical 57:01. I never considered it possible that I'd win the Slieve Donard race and be left disappointed but in truth I felt none of the buzz of my previous totally unexpected victory. My ambitions had shifted and I'd fallen way short of the 55 minute times that characterised the wins of the top previous champions.
|Apparently pushing the pace from the start!|
Race day was simply perfect. An early morning jog felt good with the pain of recent Plantar Fasciitis in my heel flaring less than expected. My kids were really placid, minimising race day stress and as I drove to Newcastle I felt an excitement devoid of the usual nauseating nervousness. I managed to secure the last parking place right next to the start area and was signed on and registered with ninety minutes to spare. And that's when strange feelings started occurring. With time to kill I went to visit my wife Anna at work for a chat and as I did I became aware of a total calm, all nerves dissipating and anticipation disappearing. The best way to describe it is that time was no longer relevant. Instead of the usual longing for the event to be over so I could release the pent up tension, I felt that I wasn't even sure that the race hadn't happened already. Reading that back sounds ridiculous but it was genuinely how it felt. Most people have heard of being 'in the zone', a state of intense focus on a singular goal but this went beyond that to a state where the goal was no longer tangible. I felt almost absent, out of body as we lined up and the whistle sounded.
|Leading out towards the open mountain|
|The masses hit the Black Stairs|
My pre-race visualisation had always included a mantra that stated if I was leading as I crossed the river then the race would be mine. I'm so familiar with the bottom section and it seems to favour my slightly skinnier and shorter body as we weave through trees and jump through slippery rocks and roots at full speed. The auto pilot continued to guide me off the final steep section, leaping the ditch and hitting the car park where this blog began.
|Coming back from the mountain alone|
I've been told I looked fresh at the finish. I certainly felt fresh. Adrenaline, endorphins, pure delight, who knows what was in control of my mental faculties, but physically I felt good for another lap. I bounced from handshake to hug and was vaguely conscious of Joe McCann announcing the new record. On the one hand it was a huge shock as all the way up I'd been telling myself I'd better start putting some effort in if I wanted a decent time. On the other hand it was no shock at all, I'd already heard him announce it tens of times before in my head the week before the race.
Reading this back I'm aware that it could be seen as disrespectful, claiming that the biggest performance of my life was actually pretty effortless whilst others were burying themselves behind. I haven't written this blog to boast. I'm actually trying to find some kind of explanation for myself, if only so I can replicate that performance again someday. Another bizarre happening in the run up to the race is that I couldn't get an image of Pete Bland out of my head from the photos in Richard Askwith's brilliant 'Feet In The Clouds' homage to all things fell running. Bland is leaping in the air in total ecstacy after finally winning the Ambleside race in 1968. He was quoted as saying 'it was like being in a dream - I had no pain'. All I know is that I now understand what he meant.
|Pete Bland after Ambleside 1968 (wearing kit borrowed off Barney Rubble?)|
Let me state this in clear, unquestionable terms. I'm not suggesting for one minute that my abilities are on par with those legends of the sport. I've undoubtedly now made my mark but those men won all the big races in many record times that have stood for decades and may well stand for all time. What I have done is helped prove that there is a new generation of Mournes based runners who will hopefully be viewed in the same league as those few (and there are others I've not mentioned). I've also moved my psychological goalposts and now believe that I can compete in the biggest races. I dearly hope that I'll get one last run out for the NI squad at the Snowdon International race and I'll attack it without fear. Likewise, with an entry for Ben Nevis and the World Masters taking place in North Wales I may well be looking for a blaze of glory end to my running career!
I've stated my desire to stop competing on numerous occasions. The pressure I put on myself to achieve can be debilitating and effects my health, my mental state and those around me who have to put up with my moods and singular focus. Unfortunately I can't compete purely for enjoyment, and the quest for results sometimes hinders my appreciation of the pure joys of being able to get amongst the peaks at will, moving at speed and appreciating the connection between man and nature. It's a sad affliction but one that I have to accept. I just wonder whether having had a brief glimpse of that unique mental and physical state which I've best heard described as 'flow' will leave me happy to stop, content in the knowledge that I once reached that level or will it leave me forever chasing the unique set of circumstances that generated it in the first place.
Only time will tell but in the meantime I'm just enjoying these memories...