Bitten by the outdoor bug…

Stephen Wilson describes he was bitten by the Outdoor bug after taking part in the iPlod event and how this has inspired him to take part in the upcoming Oxfam Trailtrekker 100km challenge. The article outlines the training schedule undertaken by Stephen and his team members for Trailtrekker. The challenge itself begins in Newcastle, County Down and traverses the foothills of the Mourne Mountains, the famous Ring of Gullion and the spectactular hills of the Cooley Peninsula.

In early June 2010 I was approached by a good friend and asked to stand in as a replacement on his iPlod team due to injury. I had heard about the event but had missed out on registration so obviously jumped at the chance. The challenge involves hiking 50km thru the mourne’s starting at midnight with an orienteering exercise in Tollymore Forest.

Little did I know when I said yes that the event was in less than 3 weeks, and while I keep myself relatively fit at the gym I had done zero training for such a trek! The most walking I had done in years was along the Bangor coastal path with my dog, so I immediately organised a day of hiking with the team captain on part of the events route just to familiarize myself with hiking and climbing again.

We got a beautiful June day to climb Donard, explore the Brandy pad and hike down to the Quarry towards Bloody Bridge. I was well and truly bitten by the outdoor bug again, and couldn’t wait to get stuck into the challenge. While I was confident that my fitness would see me through, the only concern I had was starting at midnight and hiking thru the night, so I booked the Friday off work to rest and load up on calories.

The event rolled around all too quickly and me and five other walkers plus two support drivers ventured into the unknown as it turned out that none of us had done anything like this before!! Orienteering in the pitch dark through Tollymore forest park was an experience in itself and our initial enthusiasm to get all the bonus markers ended up getting us a bit lost and putting us behind schedule for the rest of the trek.

The Mournes at dawn

There were definitely highs and lows along the way, but I am proud to say that our team completed the challenge in just over 14 hours, ranking 16th out of 26 entrants. I will never forget the feeling of elation as we crossed the finish line to be handed a beer, which was without question the finest beer I have ever tasted! I also learned some valuable lessons for future hiking and other challenges I may take on. Namely, learn how to read a map, and the value of a good support team on such a challenging distance.

And speaking of challenging distances, literally two days after the iPlod, while my legs were still recovering, my good friend and fitness instructor Darren decided to challenge me again…

The Trailtrekker Route

One of the things that surprised me about my own body was just how quickly I recovered after the event. Confirming that regular fitness training is invaluable. So, having completed 50km with comparative ease, Darren thought it would be a good idea to double that and go for 100km!! So we registered for the Oxfam Trailtrekker 100km challenge.

This challenge will begin at Donard Park in Newcastle, Co Down and traverse the foothills of the Mourne Mountains, the world-famous Ring of Gullion and the hills of the Cooley Peninsula. It will include undulating, rugged forest trails, picturesque country roads and challenging mountain terrain, until you reach the finishing line in the medieval village of Carlingford, Co Louth. It’s a cross-border route, with highlights including the extinct volcano, Slieve Gullion, a boat trip across Carlingford Lough and many superb views along the way!

From left to right: Stephen Wilson, Eve Young, Melissa Forest, Darren Graham

Our team consists of 4 walkers, Darren Graham (Team Captain), Melissa Forest, Eve Young and Myself, with 2 support drivers John Moore and Mark Graham. We have varying degrees of walking and hiking experience, Melissa was on my team for the iPlod and we have all been training together since we registered for the event back in June. We all attend the same gym, hence our name “Class Fitness Crew” and team captain Darren quickly put together a training plan to get our legs well prepared for the 100km.

Sun 4 July – Class Fitness Mourne walk 11km
Our training started on the 4th of July with a fairly easy ramble along the Banns road, around Lough Shannagh then up and over Carn mountain, which is 587m. Apart from a quick shower at the start of the walk, we were blessed with good conditions for the day and had a great time along with about 20 other members of the gym. It is a great walk, suitable for all experience levels and takes approx 6hrs to complete.

Sun 18 July – Mourne Training Walk 20km
Two weeks later our training resumed with a more challenging trek through the mourne’s. The planned route would take us from Donard park up to the mourne wall between Donard and Commedagh, turning right to ascend Commedagh and Bernagh then down to the Brandy pad, along Tassey river then follow the Mourne way through Tollymore and back to Newcastle. However, the conditions were extremely poor with constant rain and very limited visibility so after Commedagh we decided to miss out Bernnagh and get back down to the Mourne way via Hare’s gap. This was a challenging day for all of us and a great test for all our kit as we learned that in 7 hours of driving rain there is no such thing as waterproof!! And if you want a pair of dry socks to change into, put them in a plastic bag inside your pack. John, one of our support drivers, joined us for this walk. He probably has the least walking experience in the team and found the day very tough but I was amazed by his drive and will to finish with us. It gave him a good perspective on how we would be feeling during the big event. Here is an overview of the route:

Sat 24 July 6pm start – Omeath Night training walk 26km
As the event itself will obviously involve trekking through the night to complete the route in less than 36 hours, Oxfam organised a night training walk along part of the actual route near Carlingford. This time, the weather gods decided to give us a fairly easy time, as it was a nice clear night while a little humid for walking. About 160 people attended the event, starting with a fantastic BBQ at Carlingford sailing club to fuel us up we heading off in groups of 15 to 20 walkers at about 8:30pm walking through Carlingford town and ascending Slieve Foye. Lead by Liam, our guide, we were surrounded by some stunning scenery during the last hours of daylight but as the sun sank down behind the mountains we began to realise how tough it actually is to walk at night. As most walkers will appreciate, one of the joys of walking is taking in the beauty around you as this helps to melt away the distance. In darkness, it’s just you and your head torch! On top of that, a large part of the route was on tarmac, which is surprisingly painful to walk on, but this was also good training as approximately 50% of the challenge will be on roads. Despite all this we made good pace as a team and completed the 25km in under 6 hours accompanied by both our support drivers this time.

We plan to do various other walks in preparation for the Trailtrekker 2010 including the Mourne Seven Sevens challenge on the 7th August, more on that later…

Of course, the most important part of all this is the money we raise for Oxfam and the work they will be able to do with that money. The most recent example being the disastrous floods in Pakistan. As a team, we have a target of £2000 for this challenge and along with sponsorship from family, friends and colleagues we have organised a number of fundraising events:

On Friday 6th August, myself and other team members will be packing bags in the Co-op on Lisburn Road in Belfast. All donations welcome.
On Saturday 14th August we will be in the new decathlon store with info about the trek and again, all donations welcome.
On Sunday 15th August we will be selling ballot tickets at our Fundraising walk from Helen’s Bay to Whitespots Country park. All welcome, we start at 12:30 and here is the route:

Finally, if anyone reading this article would like to support our team, you can easily sponsor us online by following the link below: