Hill & Dale, Oz and the Mourne Mountain Marathon 2012

Sky Sports Broadcaster Mark Robson has kindly provided us with an excellent account of his attempt at the 2012 Mourne Mountain Marathon. Mark gives a superb insight into his unique training regine, from taking part in the Hill & Dale series, completing the challenging Mourne Seven Sevens despite a torn hamstring through to trying to fit training in around his work schedule.

You can’t get enough training days ! Above the Ben Crom Dam. I was holding the sticks for someone else. They are only for softies.

On the 31st of July the washing machine clogged up with bits of peat bog. For me this was a sign that the preparation was going well. Actually that was maybe an exaggeration. It was an indication though that at least I was getting the miles in. I mean it must take a lot of peat encrusted sock washes to disable a modern Zanussi. But I was nervous. Every time I thought of the “MMM 2012″ there were accompanying pangs of anxiety. This year the lead in to the big event had been cursed with nasty speedbumps. The intentions were good mind. I set out determined with the goal being completion of the B class with my trusty wing man Ian Luney (his idea !) and so I enrolled for the early season Hill+Dale series completing half a dozen.

Herein lay the first issue. You see the word race suggests speed allied to at least a soupcon of competitiveness. Sadly I was desperately lacking on both counts. The Donard Race took place on a fine day in May with the wind coming from the East which meant that the competitors could quite clearly hear the race announcers tannoy while they were up on the mountain. This can thrash confidence especially if you are still going up while the winner is being loudly cheered home on Newcastle Promenade ! I was blowing through my arse somewhere near the lower cairn when I heard “And the winner is … Andrew Annett !” They told me there was a prize if you beat your age in minutes to the summit of Donard. I would have acheived this notable landmark comfortably if only I had been 67 !

Johnny Cash rings true
On arrival back at the Prom I was greeted by a few scattered chip papers and plenty of well rested competitors. As I “sprinted” for the finish “Ring of Fire” blared from the speakers. Finishing a few places ahead of me was Johnny Cash (it’s true – check the results www.newcastleac.org ) so here I was being soundly trumped by a chain smoking pot bellied rockabilly country and western singer – no actually it’s worse – I was soundly trumped by a DEAD chain smoking pot bellied rockabilly country and western singer. The choice of music didn’t help my mood either as my own personal ring of fire (yes the piles were back !) had chronically hampered progress. Indeed the Hill + Dale had been a less than spectacular success all round with an average finishing position of 147th. It might have been worse. Thank God for the “DNF’s” (what category is that ?)

The final race of the series for me was the Loughshannagh Horseshoe – now that is a bugger – with the final climb being an ascent up the dreaded East face of Carn. I passed two Nepalese porters begging for a Mourne Rambler timetable. My old MMM “C” class partner Steve Spence did a few of the races with me and he beat me every time he finished. He didn’t finish this one though. Steve, as always, turned up in the best of gear. On this occasion he selected a natty combo of Gortex Cumberbund with Hydro Wicking Under Fleece and Turbo Pertex Vibro Shorts. He warmed up vigourously while I hid from the wind behind a hedge. Unfortunately Steve pulled a hamstring within 5 minutes of the start. “What happened mate ?” I asked him after I had tottered in at the back of the field. “Foolishly I only warmed up one leg” was Steve’s reply – no, seriously, that’s what he said. I have a reliable witness.

On top of the “Ruined Castle” Summit in the Blue Mountains. I am sure the plinth wobbled !

Off to Oz
That was it for the Hill + Dale’s for 2012 because thanks to SKY Sports I was off to Australia to commentate on four rugby union test matches – Australia v Scotland and the three game Australia v Wales Series. I had decided to tack on a three week holiday off the back of the trip so for the next seven weeks the training would be all Antipodean without a Mourne in sight. I would have to be inventive in an effort to replicate the rugged mountain terrain. Fortunately I had done a little bit of Googling and homed in on the Blue Mountains, which lie about an hour and a half West of Sydney. I managed four days hiking there. It is mostly populated by Asian tourist types loaded up with cameras who, quite literally, take photos of ANYTHING. Like way markers, and tree roots and landrover hubcaps and, of course, zillions of photos of each other. I imagine Hari Kari was invented as an alternative to browsing through Japanese photo albums.

With Ieuan Evans in the Blue Mountains. We have 33 International tries between us !

For my first day’s walking I was accompanied by my co-commentator from SKY – the Lions legend Ieuan Evans. His fear of snakes and heights was unfortunate as the Blue Mountains are famous for snakes and heights. Our chatty (understatement !) guide Adam carefully explained the horrors of the most lethal slitherers – the Brown snake, the Diamond Python, the Copper Headed, Tiger, Red Belly Black and Death Adder varieties and then, with callous disregard for Ieuan’s painful phobia, rustled the bushes with his walking stick to feign a sharp fanged attack. The Welsh legend would sweat, squeal and jump – demonstrating the quick fire balletic movement that once mesmerised the likes of David Campese. Evans woe was capped by our climb to a windy plinth topped outcrop. Now it was vertigo’s turn. “Spread your arms Ieuan” said the guide. Evans looked like he would have preferred a good trampling from Jonah Lomu ! After Ieuan’s return home I moved to my selected holiday resort in the Sydney South Suburbs (posh git !) and did another day in the “Blue-ies”.

Winter sunrise at Coogee Beach

My base at Coogee Bay was a good spot for training with a long cliff top path between there and Bondi Beach (namedropper !) which included loads of steep steps. OK it isn’t the thigh sucking bogland of the usually drenched Mournes and it’s hard to replicate the pleasures of the hazardous rough ground peculiar to the hills – but it was all I had.

Return of the Arrythmia
The training in Australia went as well as could be expected – apart from the return of the dreaded heart arrythmia. The symptoms had virtually disappeared over the winter months but here they were – on some days in full incapacitating force – hampering progress. When the irregular beats do their full crazy dance the body basically just says “NO MAS !” Nausea, throat tightness, chest pain, pins and needles and a complete withdrawal of leg power combines to grind the body to a gasping, painful halt. (As an experiment place a steamroller on your chest, then drink a bottle of Bushmills in one slug while beating yourself on the head with a baseball bat … and you can replicate the feeling) When the arrythmia hits hard the body tries to shut down to self protect reducing the victim to a shuffling, lumbering husk. This is a problem I need to sort. Back home I contacted my heart specialist Nic Cromie and the heart monitor was fitted up. Usually when I wear the damn thing the symptoms magically disappear, but this time I got a couple of good traces. Over to you Nic !! While awaiting news of the next step on the heart front it was back to the hills. Proper hills. The Ulster Hills.

Epileptic Monkeys on Amphetamines
The next target was the “Seven Sevens” on August the 4th and this year it was for Charity – specifically the Lighthouse Charity set up to help those bereaved by suicide or sudden death. With £1,000 plus in the pot there was extra incentive but I only had a small training window due to A) Heart and B) … being laid a little low due to an insidious, strength draining, Antipodean virus. So I covered the race distance (about 18 miles) over three days about a week before the event. I could feel the “Mountain Legs” coming back. I wasn’t going to let a visit to my heart specialist dampen my ardour. Nic did an ECG which had a few alarming bumps in it. Mr Cromie explained that they were “interesting” but this was nothing compared to the results of my heart monitor “trace” results taken after an arrythmia fuddled weights session. Here the transthoracic interpretation (loving the jargon !) was more alarming. I was getting palpitations studying my palpitations. Imagine thirty epileptic monkeys on amphetamines playing the drums. The beat pattern looked like a recording of the soundtrack ! Nic suggested fairly immediate surgery … and I mentioned the following day’s “Seven Seven’s” Nic looked at me coldly and said nothing. But in his eyes I could see the words, “Are you a complete t*** ?” Sadly I could not find a coherent responding argument.

Hamstring Woes
my designated charity “Lighthouse” www.lighthouseireland.org had organised a football match on the night before the “Seven Sevens”. Crusaders Legends v Cliftonville Legends at Seaview on the Shore Road in Belfast and, ignoring my complete lack of ability as a possible hinderance, the Crusaders management had included me in their squad. I told them of my marathon quest on the following day and insisted on a short ceremonial appearance somewhere safe and well away from the ball – like right back. So we kicked off and the bloody ball immediately came my way. Foolishly… I thought this would be a good time to play to the crowd. I opened my Messi tribute trick box and threw in a mesmerising back heel. My standing leg slipped on the wet 4G surface and I tore my hamstring. The only person who wasn’t sniggering was me ! … and I hobbled off to much caustic abuse from some lovely people in the crowd “Stick to the commentating you half wit” etc etc. My girlfriend Louise was on the touchline. The same girl who had pleaded with me some moments earlier to warm up properly. She could see by the look in my eyes (devastation) that I was sure I would have to pull out of the Seven Sevens.

Voltorol and Codeine Love.
It was bloody sore with the hamstring wrenched at the point where it joins the femur. I sat on an industrial sized bag of ice all the way down to Newcastle. At six thirty the next morning my old mate Spence arrived (fellow competitor) and taped me up but I was sure that it was all a waste of time. The sight and sound of heavy rain thundering down outside didn’t help the mood. There were plenty of nervous folk at the start due to the thickness of the mist and the forecast which predicted a light dusting of Armageddon later in the day. But off we went and I limped up to the edge of the Donard Forest and onto the open hillside. Each step was painful and with every minor slip a little red faced devil drove a stiletto into the back of my leg. This was not pleasant. Most folk gorge on jelly beans on days like this but my snack of choice was a potent combo of Voltorol and Codeine – the Food of the Gods ! It must have been working because I was actually quite pleasant to my fellow comptetitors.

I can only attribute the revolutionary change in personality to a “morphine high” – it certainly wasn’t natural. I did discover quite early that I couldn’t rest. When I stopped, even for a few seconds, the leg would spasm crazily. My one enforced pee proved embarrassing. In the vulnerable “mid stream” position the leg cramped horribly so I stood urinating, in full view of several fellow hikers, while emitting small yelps and shaking my right leg violently. This attracted some concerned stares.

The first five summits were climbed in fog with the visibility never more than twenty metres but then, glory be, the clouds lifted and the final hours were raced (did I say “raced” ?) in glorious warm sunshine. I reached the finish in 8 hours 40 minutes and, thanks to many generous sponsors, raised a good whack of cash for the Lighthouse Charity. It was an incredible relief to get the job done. Fortunately there were no additional injuries of a serious nature. Minor ailments though did include the loss of some skin from the lower back due to rucksack rubbing and, rather nastily, nappy rash of the testicles. Hiking tip: Avoid merino wool underpants !

Spence at the first summit on the “Seven Sevens” – Donard. Steve made a remarkable recovery following a short detour through the thick mist on the path to Lamagan and recorded an impressive time.

The boy Spence (posing like an egit in the accompanying snap) got round in 8 hours 15 and he would have been quicker but for a slight discombobulation in the thick mist between Commedagh and Lamagan. As for my heart – well it was fine though towards the end the slow beat arrythmia kicked in. It’s the fast beat version that hits like a snipers bullet. Loads of deep breathing usually keeps the slow beat from developing into something more inhibiting. So that was a result. Now for the MOURNE MOUNTAIN MARATHON !!!

Ian Luney, my redoubtable partner from last year was forced to pull out. He told me he would be in America that weekend on a work trip. Personally I think this was an excuse and the truth was that he was determined to avoid another year of torture with the grump fest that is Robson. Word from a reliable source has reached me. I hear he locked himself under the stairs with four days supply of chocolate buttons. Pathetic ! So I turned to the MMM website www.mourne2day.com to look for a replacement. It’s a bit like a sort of alternative internet dating site, “Single man seeks like minded male with intimate knowledge of re-entrants” I had quick replies from Julian Clary and George Michael but the man that really interested me was Richard Worledge, a 55 year old B class veteran. So we hooked up … did a couple of training days in the hills … and were good to go.

The forum and facebook pages on the MMM website are great places to visit if someone you call a friend decides to hide under the stairs (I HOPE YOU ARE READING THIS LUNEY !!!) Myself and Richard hadn’t even begun before I recorded my first blooper moment. As we hovered around the start line a couple of competitors started squealing excitedly at a chum who was scurrying down the hill from the Mountain Centre. “Steady on folks”, I quipped, “We don’t do that whooping and hollering American nonsense in these parts !!” Turned out they were American … DOH ! Not my fault – due to a DNA issue on my Father’s side I was born without the crucial “subtle-panache” gene. Time to race. The route card was the first shock. Full of horrifying phrases like “Break in slope”and “Faint earth bank”. It wasn’t like this in the good old days of the C Class. Already I missed much more sensible stuff like “Massive big bend in huge wide track at junction of an incredibly big stream… near the M5″ Much more suited to my style of micro-navigation. We hit the first cut off in a large re-entrant near Spellack where the wonderful ladies in the tent told me how much they had enjoyed last year’s blog. Girls… I really did appreciate the kind words.

Unfortunately it was around this time that the arrythmia started. It lasted most of the day and reduced my pace somewhat. Indeed I was overtaken by a fat three legged tortoise suffering from what appeared to be swollen bunions. Richard looked concerned. In 2011 he had failed to officially “complete” when his partner forgot to dip at a checkpoint late on Day Two. That partner’s grave has never been discovered. This time Richard was determined to finish the course. To be fair he offered much encouragement and demonstrated (outwardly) a lot of patience. Inwardly he may have been considering blasting me between the eyes with a bolt gun and at one point I did see him ferreting suspiciously in his rucksack !!! Several times I was sure I would have to pull out but on we went at a criminally slow pace. The tortoise beat us up Lamagan by fourteen minutes. We limped into the overnight camp in flat last place in the B class half an hour adrift of our nearest challengers. In a mildly delirious semi-conscious state I put up the tent, sorted out my sleeping bag, and found some space for the tortoise. By now he was a pet … Terry the Titanic. Great company – though you do need to leave loads of time for “walkies”. I talked to Terry a lot during a long night. (Steve .. I don’t care what you say he DOES exist).

The evil arrythmia meant little sleep. The thrashing motion is inclined to keep you awake. So I know EXACTLY when the rain started… 0438 a.m. and at times it hammered down on our little tent. Terry the Titanic was Terrified. Cooking breakfast bleary eyed under a flap ten inches square to the distracting and miserable sound of rain dancing off nylon takes massive culinary skill. You don’t see that on Masterchef. Mid Marathon, sleepless and starving it’s unlikely that even the great Anthony Worrell-Thompson with his “Al Dente” this and “Carmelize” that and “Flambe” the other could prepare anything better than “Porridge in a Bag”. In the pre start panic to pack the tent in the pouring rain I think I may have wrapped Terry in the material. I hope he’s alright.

We set off. I was nervous about my ticker but we made solid initial progress and hit the early checkpoints without any problems despite the dodgy vis. Richard is a phenomenally good bloke. Quiet. Unassuming. Top class when it comes to route selection. He is thick set, very tall, wears glasses and models a hiking outfit that consists of black military boots, fluffy socks, extremely functional Baden-Powell style shorts and a Buffalo jacket complete with a black canvas rucksack that would definitely fetch a sumptious price on the Antiques Roadshow. Richard is also tough and very strong in the hills so if he WAS a serial killer, and I very much doubt that he fits the profile in any way, then he would not be a man to mess with. The look in Richard’s eyes on that second morning was intimidating but in a friendly way. But the message was clear … we finish this thing or YOU are a dead man !!! No pressure then.

The Robson + Worledge B Class Dream Team – Richard found his boots buried in a trench during a holiday visit to the site of the Batte of the Somme

All went well until we reached our first checkpoint of the third cluster “Break in slope, E shoulder of corrie, 620m” Clearly the course designer (and I know where you live !) is related to the Marquis De Sade. What a bugger to A) Find and B) Climb up to. We took a tough line up a firebreak in the Glen Forest and then headed towards Commedagh and the Pot of Legawherry via the slopes of Shan Slieve. I won’t labour the point but at this late stage on day two this was a sadistic, savage, cruel, beastly, ruthless, inhuman and barbarous place to put a marker.

Richard picked the route for this one and let me tell you I whinged mightily the whole way up. I had pleaded that we use the wimps choice up the “honeypot” path beside the Glen River. But good old Rich saved the day. We were coming at it from a great angle. Rich spotted the flag from quite a long way back. It was, as advertised, right on the 620m contour line. If you look at the map it shows that the contours are marked on the grass in faint brown ink but I have yet to find one. Maybe the rain has washed them away. MMM Course Designers need to be aware of this anomaly !!!!! From there it was basically all downhill with three checkpoints to go.

The arrythmia had started up again but with the end in sight the adrenalin was pumping. A suit of armour (gortex) and a sandbag rucksack would not have stopped me now. Just the forest to go and after negotiating a rather heinous ”Minor stream bend, midway between tracks” checkpoint we made it to the finish. We had pulled back quite a bit of time on Day Two but still ended up a glorious 25th and last in the B class but we finished. The key word in that sentence though is FINISHED. Richard was very, very relieved and I left him looking at www.dateahiker.com searching for a new partner for next year. It seems that an MMM weekend with Mark Robson is an experience not to be repeated. My third year and three different partners. It’s OK guys I am getting the hint. You can come out from under the stairs now Luney !!!

The back markers attempt and fail to feign enthusiasm in the pishing rain at the start of Day Two

Once again the MMM was organised superbly .. I met a couple of guys from Leeds who are LAMM veterans. They were effusive in their praise. Denis Rankin, Mark Pruzina and all the others who contributed to the running of the event should be mightily praised. Let’s offer thanks to all of the cheerful marshalls and volunteers out on the course… the MMM’s very own “Gamemakers”.. and FINALLY… well done to Steve Spence and Gary Ray who finished 43rd in the C Class. Gary had only ever been to the Mournes ONCE before in his life and completed the course. Amazing ! Helped of course by the sharp navigation craft of my old partner Spence. Steve’s skills have improved markedly since the days, only a very short time ago, when he struggled to find the eggs in Tesco. To be fair Tesco do have a habit of moving the eggs from aisle to aisle – why do they do that ? And FINALLY FINALLY if anyone finds a tortoise answering to the name Terry – last seen in the Rourke’s Park area of the Southern Mournes – could they please let me know !!!!