Last year we had our first Covid times Mountain Marathon and now one year on we are still doing battle with the pandemic. Fortunately, society is in a much better place with vaccinations providing a good level of protection. Based on this the government’s approach seems to be to get back to normality as soon as possible, accepting that there will be an underlying manageable level of infection.
The virus is still here threatening the vulnerable, so we at the MMM had no trouble deciding to keep many of the practices we used last year, to create social distancing and cut down close contact as much as possible. We kept the two-tent rule (where we brought a team’s second tent to the campsite), masks had to be worn in any indoor or confined spaces and Frank Morgan’s amazing Touch Free Water Dispensing Systems were the stars of the campsite. Also to reduce crowding we had no results screens (but live results were streamed online) and on Sunday afternoon there was no prize giving, Rankin Round presentations or having to listen to one of my speeches….. 😊
The days preceding the event had seen the hills blanketed in mist and the team putting out the markers had their navigation skills well tested. Indeed, I had problems even seeing the car parking field as I laboriously hosed and swept sheep poo off the concrete around the cattle shed we were going to use for registration. Multiple skills are definitely required to organize this event and sometimes a good pair of wellington boots come in handy. The cattle shed and the parking field is the property of local farmer Sean Fitzpatrick so a big thank you to him for allowing us to use them.
Saturday morning dawned to a forecast of settled conditions for the weekend and although cloud swirled around the tops at this stage, it was expected to rise sufficiently to allow for clear visibility navigation. No doubt our course planner Terry McQueen would have liked the more challenging navigational test that mist shrouded markers would have presented, but I knew that the courses were mainly in the rough and less travelled lands of the Western Mournes and some of those re-entrants and obscure boulder markers would be difficult enough to find even on a sunny day.
We had a one-way system organized from the car park into the cattle shed and the first person the teams met was our main prize sponsor, Dion Jackson handing out valuable pre-ordered canisters of gas (they had to be specially shipped in due to supply problems) and dealing with any other last minute kit requirements. Next the overnight second tents were dropped off and then the teams passed through the registration process and kit checks before the short walk to the start line. Frank and his team did the final bit of processing with the start times and by 10.30am everybody was out into the hills in search of the early markers.
A Close Elite Day One
I had speculated in the previous days that the favorites for the Elite class were Paul Pruzina and Philip Vokes but Paul had picked up an injury and was out of the game, so the new favorites were Philip’s brother Matthew Vokes and his partner John Ockenden. They made a quick start, almost too quick for they followed the wrong river for a bit – as did a number of other teams – no doubt distracted by plotting coordinates onto their maps. However, a quick adjustment got them back on track to the first cluster of the day before heading west into heavy ground and potentially time-eating route choices.
All the Elite teams went through the cluster by the same route with the mixed team of Shane Lynch and Karalee McBride going very well as were Alex McVey and John Ryan though they lost some time trying to get the re-entrant on the side of Rocky Mountain. The veteran team of Paul Mahon and Moire O’Sullivan also ran into problems with the next marker also a re-entrant on the south side of Rocky, while another veteran team Billy Reed and Alan Elwood were rattling along at a pace which matched the top teams. This changed during the second half of the day as Vokes and Ockenden and Lynch and McBride virtually matching each other for pace built up a small lead.
At the second cluster based around Hen and Cock mountains, all the top Elite teams went through by the same route with the exception of Mahon and O’Sullivan, and then it was the run for camp in a field at the bottom end of the Hen Track. Vokes and Ockenden were able to claim the fastest time of the day but only just, with Lynch and McBride less than a minute behind. John Ryan and Alex McVey were in third place just ten minutes adrift and Billy Reed and Alan Elwood were also within striking distance. Pre-race favorites, Helen Ockenden and Heather Corden, ran a good accurate race to be top females and 6th place overall at the campsite.
McCloy And Turner Lead The B Class
Last year’s second placed B team, Jonathan McCloy and James Turner had a good steady run as did the team who finished just behind them last year, William Shields and Craig McCauley. In fact, they set the early pace as far as the markers in the Rowans, where a difficulty locating one marker allowed McCloy and Turner to take the lead and then gradually move ahead to reach the campsite with a ten-minute lead.
The B class had the same clusters as the Elites but did not have to swing so far south and, once again, virtually everybody did the first cluster by the same route and, like the Elite, quite a few teams lost some time following the wrong river. Another team going well was Niall Wheeler and Jonny Steede, as were the vets Alasdair McCallum and Tommy Begley. After the Rowans and Slieve Meel the course headed up towards Eagle Mountain then round Slieve Moughanmore to get to the cluster on Hen and Cock Mountains.
There was a more even spread of route choices through the cluster compared to the Elite course, but ultimately there was very little difference time wise, unless fatigue was kicking in during these last few hard climbs before the descent to the campsite. Regulars Jon and Freya Shepherd were the leading mixed team and in 14th place the top female team were Michelle Hetherington and Madeline Robinson just over 30 seconds ahead of the under 23 duo of Emer Perkins and Clodagh Moran.
Chris And Tom Perry Storm Ahead In The C Class
The C class also used the same two cluster problems used in the Elite and B classes, but delved less deeply into the wilder parts of the Western Mournes – though they did get a good workout criss-crossing Finlieve’s tussocked slopes. Last year’s C class winners, the parent/junior team of Chris and Tom Perry from Dorset, tore around the course and arrived in the campsite half an hour ahead of the second placed team of Rachel Collins and Kathryn Barr.
Nevertheless, this was a great run by the girls as they are an under 23 team amalgamated at the last minute due to injuries to their original partners and they had established a healthy lead over the third placed team, who were the mixed under 23 pairing of Dom Dakin and Sarah Pedley. The father and daughter team of Colin and Molly Brennan were just 13 seconds adrift in fourth place and the top vet team at this stage were Brian Layton and Gordon McCabe.
Blasting The D Course
In the D class Christopher Glass and Richard Edgar were going so fast that there was a danger they might get to the manned controls before the marshals. Their route took them round the south end of Finlieve then up through some heavy ground to the delightful Pierces Castle and the run to Tornamrock before dropping to the Hen Track and the run to the finish. No clusters bombs to blow them off their course! Patrick and Henry Ward were second over an hour behind.
Last year it was deemed too difficult to put on a Score class due to the Covid regulations, so it was great to get it going again for our one-day enthusiasts. With the Score event a series of controls are allocated points values with the value dependent on how difficult or remote the marker is. Teams have six hours to get around as many as possible and the team with the most points wins. Overshoot the six hour limit and penalty deductions rapidly eat away at your hard earned points.
Davison And Nixon Rack Up A Big Score
The top team this year was Rónán Davison-Kernan and Paul Nixon who managed to visit nearly all the points available and racked up a very impressive score of 590 despite losing 18 penalty points for being 8min over the 6hrs. In second place were the team of Richard Hetherington and Paul Daniels with a clean run and 540 points and in third place, with 490 points, were Gareth Ritchie and Ben Johnston. The winning female team were Denise Mathers and Hazel McLaughlin on 400pts who were also 1st veterans with handicap score of 484pts. The veteran category prize was awarded to Stephen Gilmore and Michael Burton 410pts (472pts vet adjusted) whilst evergreen Ricky Cowan and Sharon Dickinson were the top mixed team with a tally of 360 points.
The campsite was a field owned by the farming family of John and Mary Savage and was a site we had previously used in 2010. Back then the field had been rather boggy and as it was a wet year we had had some problems with vehicles getting stuck, but since then it has been upgraded. There is now a mains water supply which was very handy as in 2010 we had had to roll out nearly 200m of pipe to get connected and of course this year we had Frank’s hands-free water dispensers to connect up. Some sheep had been in the field a week previously, nibbling the grass down and leaving a few land mines for the unwary but generally the field was in excellent condition and with the dry weather and the second tent everybody got a good night’s rest.
Some people have told me how they like the second tent arrangement and hope we will keep it indefinitely, but I am not so sure. Last year people just gave us tents but this year the smart-alecs were trying to smuggle all sorts of contraband into the campsite. We even found one bag with a disposable BBQ, steaks and a bottle of wine. Probably worth mentioning at this point that you are meant to be self-sufficient for the duration of the MMM and if you feel the need for luxuries, then carry them on your back.
While I am at it, I should remind teams once again that both team members have to visit every control on their course. We did receive a few complaints this year about teams flouting this rule which is a fundamental fair play and safety rule of the event. We don’t like disqualifying anybody but have done so in the past and will do so again if our marshals come across it, so please keep our event friendly by playing fair. We did not have any notice boards up or display results for social distancing reasons but there was a real good buzz as competitors chatted away to each other and the sunset with its spectacular illumination of Hen Mountain was a sight worthy of a few sore muscles.
Day two dawned to the prospect of more settled weather and the forecast of sunshine later. Paddy Mallon strolled around the campsite singing “Danny Boy” and “The Mountains of Mourne” to encourage late sleepers to wake and woken sleepers to applaud his efforts especially when he hit the high notes in a final flourish of Mountains sweeping down to the sea.
Terry McQueen had set up his start area at the gate on the Hen Track on the bottom slopes of Hen Mountain and launched all courses bar the D class into a cluster problem straight away. Teams could start anytime between 8.00am and 8.45 am and this avoided heavy congestion at the start line. Peter McClenaghan continued the musical theme by playing his flute at the start line to calm jangling nerves or was he actually hoping to lead everybody off into the mountains himself?
Vokes And Ockenden Extend Lead
If so, the Elites didn’t pay much attention for they were soon racing off in all directions to track down those elusive markers. As far as the first cluster went most Elite teams followed the Mourne Way around the base of Hen Mountain to the marker on the small stream on the south side. After that about half opted to climb to the tor on Hen Mountain then on to the high crag on Cock Mountain before descending to the manned checkpoint on the Hen Track. McVey and Ryan opted for this route whereas Vokes and Ockenden and Lynch and McBride climbed Cock first then Hen and at the checkpoint it was Vokes and Ockenden who appeared first closely followed by McVey and Ryan.
From this point on these two lead teams were well clear of the pack and little separated them though they continually opted for different routes between markers. The two mixed teams of Lynch and McBride and Mahon and O’Sullivan were neck and neck all day and it was only at the sprint into the finish that Mahon and O’Sullivan got the upper hand to claim third place on the day.
Ahead of them, due to the flexible start times, McVey and Ryan finished first and were then waiting for a while to see how the other teams would finish. Even after Vokes and Ockenden came storming in to claim first place overall we had a bit of an anxious wait as the clock ticked down before McVey and Ryan could be confirmed as having won second place overall. Lynch and McBride dropped back a place to third and O’Sullivan and Mahon retained fourth overall and top vet title. Helen Ockenden and Heather Cordon continued their very accurate navigation weekend holding onto 6th place and claiming the top female prize.
Close battle for the B Class.
The teams in the B class had the same cluster problem as the Elites to start their day and like the Elites the lead teams went about it via various route choices. By the time they exited the cluster at the marshaled position on the Hen Track the overnight leaders Jonathan McCloy and James Turner were running with virtually identical times to the third placed team of Niall Wheeler and Jonny Steede even though they used different routes through the cluster. However, it was the overnight second placed team of Craig McCauley and William Shields who were in the lead by about four minutes and they held it until they ran into difficulties trying to find the clump of trees marker to the south of Altataggart Mountain.
This allowed the other two top teams to get past them then it was nip and tuck all the way to the finish line with McCloy and Turner only breaking away for the win in the latter stages. McCauley and Shields’ day two third place was enough to ensure second place overall with Wheeler and Steede in third, coming home ahead of the top vets team of Alasdair McCallum and Tommy Begley. Jon and Freya Shepherd in sixth place overall, were the top mixed team and a great day two run saw the under 23 team of Emer Perkins and Clodagh Moran overhaul Michelle Hetherington and Madeline Robinson for the female title. Another under 23 team of Luke Collins and Peter Reed were the fifth fastest team on day two, which moved them right up the overall leader board to eighth place.
Under 23 Category
This is the first year we have had an under 23 category and it was very encouraging to see a good number of teams entered, particularly in the C class. Mark Pruzina has put a considerable amount of work into promoting the idea with the mountain running authorities and other mountain marathons across the British Isles so that there is a uniform approach. Manor Health Care have very kindly provided sponsorship for the prizes, which the under 23s will be very pleased to know are Jackson Sports gift vouchers rather than places in retirement homes!
Chris And Tom Win And U23 Teams Excel
Under 23 teams would play a major part in the C class but in fact the overnight leaders of the father and son team of Chris and Tom Perry continued from where they left off to further extend their lead to over an hour. Like the Elite and B Classes they had to deal with the same cluster at the start of the day around Hen and Cock Mountain, then up to Tornamrock and along the ridge to the marshal at Pierces Castle. From there to the finish was the same as the other main courses. Behind the leaders the female under 23 team of Rachel Collins and Kathryn Barr continued to impress with an accurate well paced run to retain second place overall, but the mixed U23 team of Dom Dakin and Sarah Pedley seemed to have problems and dropped back to fifth place allowing another U23 team Aaron Graham and Joshua Flanagan to claim fourth place.
Sandwiched in between them all in third position overall were the mixed team of Colin and Molly Brennan after two good days of steady running. The veteran’s title was decided between two all female teams with Kathleen Monteverde and Jacqueline Toal producing a day two run which pipped Stephanie Pruzina and Sarah Gamble by just two minutes once the numbers had been crunched in the veterans mangle. Brian Layton and Gordon McCabe were not far behind in third place.
Glass And Edgar Win D Class
The runaway overnight leaders in the D class, Christopher Glass and Richard Edgar continued to extend their lead as they surged around Hen Mountain on their route which then took then over to the marshals on Pierces Castle then the tricky decision of how to get the two markers either side of Slieve Moughanmore before running down the valley to the finish. Patrick and Henry Ward claimed second place overall but were nearly two hours adrift of the leaders.
Wrapping It Up In The sunshine
For the second year in a row there was no prize giving and teams just pottered around until they were ready to head on. The T shirts were being distributed by Paddy Mallon and his team of helpers and Alison McQueen made sure there was a good supply of tea and sandwiches. Dion Jackson had set up an outdoor stall and I noticed plenty of people checking out the bargains. I was able to get Dion to join me for a few photos with the top three Elite teams and all other winners will be receiving their vouchers from Jacksons Sports in the near future. It was a pity that we couldn’t have a proper prize giving but we are hoping that next year we’ll be back to normal for a proper celebration of everyone’s efforts.
Finally, a big thank you to all the people who gave their time to make the 2021 event happen and in particular those previous competitors who got in touch and helped do the myriad of tasks required. The committee is to be applauded for their dedication and ability to overcome the various obstacles which these Covid times have brought and they have done it in a positive good humored way. Time for me to wrap up this report and set about thinking about venues and fields and tricky courses so that in 11 months’ time we’ll be ready for another Mourne Mountain Marathon adventure.
MMM Race Director