What is it?
The Mourne Skyline Mountain Trail Race is set in the mountains of Mourne starting and finishing in Newcastle Co Down. It is 35km long and there is 3370m of ascent. It climbs eight peaks along the Mourne wall including the highest two in Northern Ireland, Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh.
What do you need to do beforehand?
You must sign up for the race on the day registration opens. It is a hugely popular race and on 14th February 2019, it sold out in just four hours. Once you’ve been accepted into the race you’ll need to make sure you have the items on the mandatory checklist such as full body waterproofs, a hat, gloves, compass, whistle and possibly more. Oh and some training is a good idea.
What to expect before the race
The registration on the day was very efficient, so much so I almost didn’t know what was happening as I got moved from person to person! Your mandatory kit will be checked so make sure you have your pack with you.
You’ll get a tracker taped to your backpack to allow people to follow you on the website. You’ll also get an electronic dibber strapped to your wrist which you will need to check in at each of the checkpoints around the course. You can place a drop bag with food in it to pick up halfway round the course. Be sure to number it!
The race in detail
You start off on the promenade at Newcastle before quickly entering the forest park. After a short while of undulating trail you’ll turn right to be confronted with a long set of steps up. This leads up out of the trees where you’ll turn right for a short downhill to the start of the Glen river path.
The path takes you up the valley to the saddle between Slieve Donard on the left and Slieve Commedagh on the right. In most parts the path is excellent and ascends gradually. Gaining elevation after this point is nowhere near as easy. You cross the river around two thirds of the way up where the path starts to get steeper.
The first dibber checkpoint is at the col at the top of the valley. The wind picked up here from behind and it suddenly started to feel cold and more remote. Crossing over the huge Mourne wall here provides some short term shelter.
The next section along the brandy pad provides some of the easiest running of the day. The path skirts round the side of Commedagh and is good in most places. The path gets a little more broken up and steeper towards Hare’s gap. There’s a checkpoint here but no dibber then you start the first summit ascent of Slieve Bearnagh.
The ascent of Bearnagh from this side doesn’t seem too bad. There are a few steps near the bottom which take you to some steeper climbing. Then a track runs off to the left and plateaus for a while before bending back round for the final climb. A dibber on top marks your first peak for the day.
I had a battle in the wind trying to get my jacket back on halfway up the climb as the freezing rain started to fall. After I put it on at this point I never took it off again! It can be bleak and unforgiving up there and it can turn rapidly as I would find out a lot later. I could also feel that my big toe had punctured a hole in my sock. I tried to forget about that.
As soon as we started descending Bernagh I knew I was in for a tough day. My technique or maybe just my courage for descent is very weak. Additionally, I and perhaps my shoes were not ready for the soaking wet steep slope of Bernagh. It seemed like twenty people passed me just on the downhill.
Over the course of the entire race I went over at least three times and tripped countless other times. However, on reflection I think was probably lower than average listening to the general chat afterwards. I was certainly very cautious to try and avoid injury which meant I lost a lot of time on the downhills.
The ascent of Slieve Meelmore from the col seems quite long and relentless but in truth it is probably one of the easier climbs with the help of the steps by the side of the wall. There is not much room for passing but I did manage to retake a few positions on the ascent.
The second summit dibber awaits on top and then the heavens opened. I felt like I couldn’t see a thing on the descent of Meelmore due to the rain on my glasses. Again, I was passed by at least a dozen other runners. After a relatively short slither down the very top, there is a right turn onto a ‘path’ which takes you towards Fofanny Dam.
At the top this is still fairly steep and the path is very poor in places and I found myself making very hard work of it. This was my worst section of the day. Better looking paths turn off to the right and the orange flags that guide you round the course lead off to a small stream crossing. I actually managed to miss a couple of flags and come down slightly to the right and had to work my way back over.
A short path from here takes you to the dam which you run along to get to a checkpoint, dibber, drop bag and cut off point. You must make this point in three hours fifteen minutes so I was satisfied to make this point in just under two and a half hours. Barring any disasters in the second ‘half’ I should make it round in the eight hours allotted time.
I say ‘half’ because realistically I had marked out the next summit of Slieve Loughshannagh as the real halfway point in terms of effort as that’s what previous years’ times seem to indicate. A lot of the easier running is in the first half and most of the big climbs are in the second half.
I quickly located my drop bag; they have them out in a rough order but it definitely helps if you know what yours looks like as I think the number had mostly washed off. I had been looking forward to the banana I knew was awaiting me though I’d left my coke at home and I was going to crave that round the second half.
I picked it up and walked up the short hill to the road. I didn’t want to stop at this point but keep on moving and I picked up a steady pace up the road towards Ott car park. Clearly a lot of other competitors had marked this out as a breather and I passed quite a few walking up the road.
Turning left onto Ott track it feels like you are now heading for home. True, it is still a long way off but completing the course is now probably the easiest way to get back. The track is reasonably good for the most part and found I was able to run most of it. This section was my best of the day and I still had time to take half the banana and a bar on board as I was going.
In general I soon decided to ditch my usual road marathon fuelling plan of every half hour as I didn’t fancy trying to take anything during the descents. Firstly, you should be going faster (which I probably wasn’t) but secondly, you need both hands free for any tumbles you may incur. Consequently, I ended up eating something on most of the ascents.
Despite taking on what I thought was quite a lot, a banana; several coco pops bars; a couple of gels and some fun size milky ways, I was getting hungry at some stages and I didn’t end up with much spare by the end.
As the Ott track steepens and starts to dissipate, it meets the Mourne wall which takes you on a short steep ascent to the top of Loughshannagh. This is the fifth dibber point and what I would regard as the halfway point. Having reached here in just over three hours I was still hopeful that I may get round in six.
I found the descent of Loughshannagh one of the easiest of the day. Not only is it short but there were quite a lot of long, grassy tussocks which didn’t seem overly wet to allow you to get a decent grip going down.
Each peak seems to have a slightly different characteristic to the others. Loughshannagh was grassy but some are bouldery and some are slithery mud. And a couple do have a discernible path to follow.
I don’t remember the climb to the summit of Slieve Meelbeg and the sixth dibber point but at the top there is a right turn along the northside of the Mourne wall which was straight into a gale. This made for another awkward descent back toward the slopes of Meelmore.
Again, the ascent of Meelmore seemed deceptively long despite it clocking in as the shortest section of the day. I think it is the close proximity of these peaks and the steepness of the slopes that make them short but feel long.
Getting back to Meelmore seemed like another target crossed off. I knew what to expect for the next section at least and I also knew that I only had three more ascents to go although they are the biggest three.
However, the bouldery steps that proved helpful in climbing Meelmore on the way out prove tough on the legs on the way down. I was still able to make decent progress down with their aid and reacquaint myself with the tough side of Bearnagh. I knew it was going to be a tough climb and I’d planned to get some caffeine in if things were getting tough which I did.
I reached the summit of Bearnagh two and a half hours after I was last here and almost as soon as I started descending the weather suddenly cleared and I was treated to amazing views off to the right of Cove Mountain and Slieve Lamagan heading in the direction of Slieve Binnian.
If you remember from earlier, this side of Bearnagh is by far the easier to the extent that you can actually get a bit of comfortable running in round the rocky outcrops. I knew that six hours was now no longer attainable and I decided to really try and enjoy the views and the last couple of climbs.
At the bottom of Bearnagh is the checkpoint at Hare’s gap where the Brandy pad which we ran on in the morning diverges off to the right. This time we head on straight up towards Slieve Commedagh though this ascent has a few parts as it passes over the minor tops of Slievenaglogh and Slieve Corragh.
The first part up to Slievenaglogh is quite steep but I took it slowly and kept enjoying the views to the right. Ben Crom and Silent Valley reservoirs where the Dambusters half marathon turns round come into sight below Lamagan and Binnian.
Once Slievenaglogh was conquered, the path turned right towards Corragh. This means you can see back towards Bearnagh and the Meels from where we have come. This is a fine sight and makes you realise the extent of the challenge. The terrain to Corragh and beyond is fairly good and running becomes possible again. It is like a long gradual shoulder to the final push up Commedagh.
There is a big tower at the ‘top’ of Commedagh (the actual top is off to the left but the penultimate dibber point is the tower). Unfortunately, it disappeared into the mist again as I started the short sharp climb to the top.
The descent of Commedagh was not bad on the south side of the wall. Some remnants of paths can be found and it is not quite as steep as some of the other downhills. Soon I was back to the col between Commedagh and Donard and I couldn’t see how far up I had to go for the final climb.
I’ve done the climb up to Donard many times before but this was by far the toughest. Whilst the ground isn’t too bad it just feels relentlessly long and steep given all the climbing already done. You can see other runners descending on the other side of the wall and wish that you were there.
Finally at the top you dib for the last time and head over the wall and back down the other side. Having not passed or been passed by anyone since Hare’s gap runners suddenly appeared from nowhere blasting past me again on the descent. I went over slightly on my ankle reminding me that I was not home yet.
I stayed close to the wall to make use of the steps but I think there was better ground to be had off to the right. Eventually I crossed over to it as I approached the col then turned right down the glen river path. As noted on the way up it is still relatively steep at the top and I was very cautious simply trying to get home in one piece.
After crossing the river, I picked up a bit more speed and confidence to lead back down to the fire road. This is a gravel track that zigzags down to the finish. I can’t tell at this point if I have stones in my shoes or blisters on my feet or both. At the top, Newcastle still seems a fair way to go but covering distance suddenly becomes a bit faster and easier.
The tanoy and music can be heard a little way off then you hit the grass. One last left turn takes you down to the finish area, no sprint finish just a very hard shift put in and a resolve to not get talked into another race like this without a lot better preparation.
I thoroughly recommend this event as long as you know what you are getting yourself into. The registration, marshalling and course marking is all excellent and unless you are seriously good on this terrain you should think of it as a challenge rather than a race.
Invest in some proper fell running shoes and go and practise in the Mournes. Try running in various conditions. You won’t know what it will be like on the day but it is worth preparing for the worst. Finally, plan for it taking a long time! I seriously underestimated my ability on a course like this. It is tough and if you are not used to it, doubling your marathon time is not unrealistic.