In a year of cancelled events, the Mourne Mountain Marathon managed to go ahead for the 41st year and provided a ray of sunshine (literally) in an otherwise difficult year.
Race Director, Jim Brown gives us the lowdown.
When we had our first planning meeting back in February we had no idea what a difficult journey we were setting off on. We had heard of the Coronavirus in China but that was far off news like Ebola and SARS and numerous other threatened pandemics which had never really materialised in our Western world and I for one didn’t give it much thought.
How quickly that all changed and by our second meeting at the end of March we were in lockdown and Zooming from our homes. We were thinking in terms of the lockdown suppressing the disease to a manageable level by September and the logical way forward for us was to use venues that would be easy to manage.
With this in mind we decided to use Shimna College in Newcastle as it had all the facilities on site and the obvious campsite was the Silent Valley for similar reasons. Terry set about planning his courses and the rest of us set about organizing the entire infrastructure and securing the necessary permissions.
Over the next two months we found things becoming more and more difficult, particularly in securing permission from government agencies to access their lands which remained in lockdown as far as organized sports were concerned.
In the end we had to abandon our plans for Shimna College as we could not secure access to the hills through Donard forest and the Water Service made it clear that we would not be able to use their facilities in the Silent Valley due to lockdown conditions. We switched our start venue to Meelmore Lodge in July as the Patterson Family were more than keen to welcome us and went to considerable lengths to make sure everything was just right.
Another advantage of Meelmore Lodge was the fact that we would be using a marquee for registration, plenty of fresh air and everything outside. We also got permission to use a farmer’s field at Carrick Little which was large and spacious, ideal for socially distanced camping.
Terry set about planning his courses again keeping his fingers crossed that there would be no more late changes.
Planning for Covid
We had to address the problem of how to actually safely hold a mass participant sport when there were so many changing rules regarding social distancing and hygiene. Initially this seemed an impossible nut to crack but once we came up with the idea of transporting an extra tent to the campsite we realised that the rest of the weekend could be planned in such a fashion that people could social distance at all stages of the event right from the moment they arrived in the car park to the moment they walked away from the finish line with their T Shirt and sandwiches.
Plenty of thought went into making everything as touch free as possible, probably highlighted best by Frank Morgan’s brilliant peddle operated water taps at the overnight campsite and there was loads of sanitizer on handy posts which could be placed where and when it was most needed.
The big advantage a Mountain Marathon has over other races is that it has timed starts so the flow of teams can be easily processed over a number of hours and this year we used contactless control boxes for the first time which worked well.
We had to do away with anything which would cause teams to congregate so there were no results boards at the campsite which would normally be great social gathering points and no prize giving or speeches at the finish.
Many of the things which make this event so sociable had to be curtailed but it was felt that our competitors would adapt and make their own socially distanced entertainment.
Volunteers and Sponsors
Another heartening thing about this year’s event was the number of people who came forward and volunteered for the numerous tasks which had to be attended to, some of them not the most exciting but all necessary to the success of the event. No doubt we were over manned this year but I was happy to have backup available if required so thanks everybody for your help.
We didn’t press our main sponsors as we recognised that they had their own problems to deal with, but Dion Jackson of Jacksons Sports went out of his way to secure a range of items from various suppliers and granted us favourable terms to buy vouchers once we had an idea of what we had left in the kitty.
We also were given PPE by Manor Health Care which helped considerably in controlling costs in that area and McAuley Financial once again came forward with sponsorship.
Going for it
We held off making entries live for as long as possible but we had to decide at the beginning of August that the risk had to be taken and to go for it.
From that point on we would have incurred significant financial losses if the rules had changed and shut us down and in the weeks leading up to the event there were moments when government announcements had us on tenterhooks and the prospect of a second wave overtaking us increased but we made it to the starting line with the nice bonus that the weather was forecast to be good.
One hundred and forty three teams turned up and after being processed through the socially distanced registration process, began setting off into the hills at one minute intervals.
At this point low cloud blanketed the hills but as the morning progressed it gradually lifted and in due course dispersed to provide a fine mountain day.
There were a number of good teams in the Elite and Terry McQueen had them quickly into the inner Mournes to deal with a Lamagan or Commedagh first route decision before getting to a marker in the Bog of Donard. He then took them south to Binnian for a challenging cluster problem before descending to the campsite on the Carrick Little Track.
Vokes and Pruzina flying
The Elite winners of two years ago, Paul Pruzina and Philip Vokes tore round the course, seemingly oblivious to the roughness of some of the areas they traversed, like cruise (or should I say Pruze) missiles heading unerringly towards their target.
They made short work of the Binnian cluster and roared into the campsite with a half hour lead over the second placed team of Steven Shields and Neil Talbott. This was Steven’s first big event since his record breaking Rankin Round earlier in the summer (read all about it on the Rankin Round website) and it was a first visit to the Mournes for his partner Neil Talbott a man with quite a track record in mountain marathons and endurance events himself.
The mixed team of Shane Lynch and Karalee McBride did very well in the Binnian Cluster gaining two positions but at the campsite they had just a slender one minute advantage over Matthew Vokes and Ben Windsor and last year’s winner Colm Moran and Jonny Quinn were just five minutes further behind.
Former multiple MMM winners Deon McNeilly and Eamon McCrickard were the leading vet team in 11th place overall, one place ahead of the top ladies team of Helen Ockenden and Heather Cordon.
Tight competition in the B Class
The B class was a tight affair with a numerous teams all having their moments of navigation glory – and gory – out on the course. They had cluster points to sort out around Luke’s Mountain and Slievenaglogh before joining onto the Elite course at the manned control on the side of Slieve Commedagh.
This meant they had Slieve Binnian cluster to deal with before they descended to the campsite and like the Elite there were considerable variations in how the problems were solved. Graham Murphy and Keith Johnston were the early pace setters but seem to have run into problems around Hares Castle and were dropping places from there to the finish.
Regular Scottish competitors, Tommy Begley and Alasdair McCallum and the team of Jonathan McCloy and James Turner both started slowly but were soon matching each other stride for stride. Even though they strode through the clusters by different routes by the time they reached the campsite only a minute and a half separated them.
Less than fifteen minutes adrift were another three teams so all was to play for on day two. In tenth place overall was the first mixed team of Lynne Spence and Neil Dobbs and Denise Mathers and Hazel McLaughlin were the leading ladies.
Fathers and sons lead C and D classes
The C class didn’t have far to go until they found themselves in the same cluster problem which the B class were dealing with, but after that they were on a conventional route winding through the mountains on the west side of the Annalong valley until they reached Binnian, then down to the campsite. The leaders were the Devon father and son team of Chris and Tom Perry, leading with a nice eighteen minute buffer over Jack Proctor and David Gallagher who were sixteen minutes up on Phil and Simon Hodge.
Right behind them were the leading mixed team of Colin and Molly Brennan and Niamh and Caoimhe O’Boyle were in sixth place overall and leading ladies. The team in fifth place, Darragh Hoare and Eoghan Whelan was the one to watch though as they had been flying until they ran into difficulties finding the control on the crag on Slieve Lamagan and had lost a lot of time there before resuming their fast pace.
The D class was led by the family team of Craig and Zak Fairless after their jaunt along the Mourne wall to Commedagh then around the lower slopes of the Annalong valley. Gillian Wasson and Ruth Aiken were in second place over forty five minutes behind.
The Big Campsite
Our campsite at Carrick Little was ideal as a Covid campsite as it had plenty of room for all the extra tents and everybody was really good about their social distancing.
It has one of the best views in all of the Mournes and when I drove into an empty field on the Thursday morning before the event to start setting up, I felt privileged to just be there, looking across the Annalong Wood spread out below, then beyond up into the hills with their great enclosing embrace from the bulk of Binnian right round to Chimney Rock.
The atmosphere was crisp and clear and the autumnal sun bathed the whole scene in gentle light. It was so wonderful… then I got to work setting up the toilets.
When we discussed how to limit touching things at one of our meetings the subject of water taps came up.
There was some ideas bandied about then Frank Morgan quietly said he had an idea of making a foot operated tap. Over the following weeks I received snippets of info on how this was going but it wasn’t until Frank turned up on the Thursday evening that we were treated to the problem solving genius of the man.
The taps worked brilliantly and he even had a hands free leg washing variation. I hope you all enjoyed your stay at this great location, leg washing and all and a big thank you to farmer Robert Agnew for use of the field.
Day two started with a classic sunrise and soon the pre dawn chill was fading as teams sorted out their gear and got nourishment on board for the day ahead.
From 8.00am onwards they were heading for the hills and by 8.45am they had all gone, leaving just a great heap of damp tents and a couple of bins of rubbish.
We packed the tents into vans, grabbed some breakfast then it was back to Meelmore to set up the finish line.
Fast running in glorious weather
A few cluster points in the vicinity of Percy Bysshe got the day underway then it was a wee route selection problem on Cove Mountain, setting teams up for the problem of what route to use to get to a river junction in the rough ground to the south of Bearnagh.
Some more boggy ponds followed before the course swept round Lough Shannagh then headed for the finish via a final cluster on the slopes of Slieve Meelmore. Paul Pruzina and Philip Vokes continued on from where they left off the previous day, charging from point to point with seemingly effortless ease.
When they reached Cove Mountain they chose to dive right down to the top end of the Ben Crom Reservoir and climb the rough steep slopes on the other side to reach the river junction marker. Many other Elite teams seemed to prefer the longer but more run able route via the Brandy Pad to Bearnagh.
Paul and Philip may have been flying but so were Steven Shields and Neil Talbott and also the team of Matthew Vokes and Ben Windsor. They were contesting the top three fastest leg times continually throughout the day but by the finish line it was Pruzina and Vokes who were fastest and therefore were crowned the MMM champions of 2020.
Steven and Neil came second and Matthew and Ben moved into third place overall after their good second day run. Shane Lynch and Karalee McBride bagged the mixed prize and fourth place overall and Heather Corden and Helen Ockenden were the top ladies team. Deon McNeilly and Eamon McCrickard rolled back the years and did what they so often did in the past by having a storming day two run (6th place on the day) which moved them up to 9th place overall and top vets team.
Boggle and Lynn snatch the B Class
The B class provided the day’s biggest talking points with quite a few changes at the top end of the field. The course was the same as the Elite course as far as the ponds to the south of Bearnagh, then it was a more straightforward route back to the finish with no more clusters to worry about.
The top two overnight leading teams of Alasdair McCallum and Tommy Begley, and Jonathan McCloy and James Turner, were quickly into their running again but it was the fourth places team of Allan Bogle and Jonny Lynn who shot off like rockets, determined to eat into the lead times.
McCloy and Turner used the same route as the Elite leaders to get to the Bearnagh river junction whereas McCallum and Begley chose a higher crossing point to get past the Silent Valley and this seems to have paid off as they had a reasonable lead by the time they got to the marker.
I am not sure which route Bogle and Lynn used for this section but for the latter part of the course they were the fastest team. Mind you, the teams of Craig McCauley and William Shields, and Josh Morrison and Patrick Ward were having great day two runs and would ultimately end up as second and third fastest on the day.
McCallum and Begley reached the finish line with the win seemingly in the bag but the bottom fell out of their day when it was discovered that they had missed a marker. It was such a simple mistake; they had been very close to the marker but it had not been dibbed so they had to be disqualified.
Now Bogle and Lynn’s fast running paid off for they learned that they were the champions of the B Class having piped McCloy and Turner by just over a minute. Third place went to Craig McCauley and William Shields and their fast running had got them to within a minute and a half of McCloy and Turner.
Lynne Spence and Neil Dobbs replicated their solid day one performance to win the mixed category as did Denise Mathers and Hazel McLaughlin to win the ladies prize.
The top three vets teams ended up occupying tenth, eleventh and twelfth places overall but after the adjustments for veteran’s age were applied, Trevor Wilson and Declan McGrellis were the clear winners.
Chris and Tom win the C Class
The C class saw the fast running young team of Darragh Hoare and Eoghan Whelan set the fastest time but close behind were the overnight leaders Chris and Tom Perry ensuring that they became comfortable outright winners of the C class.
Their routes through the hills were similar to the Elite and B courses as far as the marker situated below Slieve Beg which meant they had to deal with the small cluster early on, but after Beg it was a fixed course to a marker on the slopes of Bearnagh then on to the final few on the slopes of Meelmore and down to the finish. Darragh and Eoghan’s efforts moved them up from fifth overnight to second place overall pushing Jack Proctor and David Gallagher back into third place.
The mixed teams of Colin and Molly Brennan and Andrew McKay and Tamela Maciel ran virtually identical times on day two but Colin and Molly became the mixed team champs on account of their better day one performance.
Just behind these two teams in 7th place overall and first ladies were Niamh O’Boyle and Caoimhe O’Boyle. Brian Layton and Gordon McCabe were comfortable vet winners ahead of some good mixed teams after all the sums had been done.
The Parent / Junior category winners were in fact the overall Class winners of Chris and Tom Perry but worthy of special mention were the mother and daughter team of Joanne McCauley and Meadow McCauley in 28th place overall.
Chris and Zak win the D Class
In the D class, the father/ son team of Craig and Zak Fairless carried on their dominant day one run, rattling up the Annalong valley to the Brandy Pad then round Bearnagh and Meelmore to join everybody else racing down to the finish where they claimed the D category title.
Behind them David McKinney and Colin Burch had a good run to move themselves up to second place overall just ahead of the ladies team of Gillian Wasson and Ruth Aiken.
Prize free Prize giving
There was no prize giving ceremony or speeches or anything like that which would have congregated people but fortunately the sun was out and after the teams had picked up their T Shirts, sandwiches (provided by local company Nutty Crust) and drinks they were able to flop onto the grass, spread out amongst the parked cars. I could see little groups of socially distanced people discussing their weekend experiences so although we had to run a far from normal event, it did seem that people enjoyed it.
In the weeks following the event Jacksons sports posted out the various prizes they had amassed, so a big thank you to them for doing all that extra work. Also a big thank you to everybody who helped with the running of the event, their names are mentioned elsewhere on the website, but without them there would have been no MMM.
Finally what can I say about the MMM committee?
They were brilliant and worked like a good committee should, debating and deciding our next steps as we navigated our way through turbulent waters, then carrying out all the work that needed done to provide as safe an event as we could manage.
Particular thanks goes to Mark Pruzina who spent days navigating the minefield of COVID bureaucracy and whose drive, determination and attention to detail enabled us to stage our event in a difficult year.
Light in the Gloom
So that’s that. Come September next year we can but hope that the pandemic is behind us and maybe we will be able to provide T shirts with the date on them again.
Did you notice that there was no date on this year’s shirts? We couldn’t take the risk of being stuck with a heap of unused out of date T Shirts but you will not forget which year this shirt relates to.
They were grey with a bright yellow motif…. a bit of sunshine in a dark year.
This report is originally appeared on the Mourne Mountain Marathon website and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the organisers. All photos belong to the organisers unless otherwise stated.
A huge congratulations to the team at the Mourne Mountain Marathon.
We know as well as any what a minefield this year has been for event organisers and the number of hoops required to jump through to make them not only go ahead but to do so safely and successfully. The fact that the weekend went ahead at all is credit to the team and competitors.
Thank you to all involved and thank you for letting us share the story of how it was done and a weekend of great racing!