Donard Challenge: ‘Mayhem in the Mist’ by Joe McCann…

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‘Mayhem in the Mist’ by Joe McCann (photo taken from NIMRA website):

‘It’s the ‘oul dog for the hard road and the young pups for the wrong pad’ says Joe McCann as he provides a special report on how it all went wrong at the Donard Challenge…

Mist, rain, sleet and poor visibility: conditions that would lead to the postponement or abandonment or most sporting events.  However, fell runners in general and open-mountain runners in particular are made of sterner stuff and consequently the running of the Donard Challenge, the latest round of the British Championship, was never in doubt.

With more than 270 athletes, the majority from England, Scotland and Wales, registered and all of the competitors accustomed to the unpredictability of the UK weather, a strong field took to the line in Donard Park for a demanding course that would pass over Millstone before climbing to the summit of Donard.

The descent was back through to the quarry to the finish in Donard Park.  On any clear day navigation would be a formality, but with visibility as little as 7 feet in places, uncertainty crept in and many of the pre-race favourites drifted off course and ran considerably further than was needed.  Despite the fact that all the competitors are competent navigators and were festooned with the mandatory equipment, full body cover, food, map, compass and whistle, many found the conditions challenging to say the least and the result was some highly unexpected results.

The mind Bogles!

International orienteer and highly talented fell runner Allan Bogle from the City of Derry club made the most of the inclement weather and upset many of the favourites from the mainland to record an impressive victory in a very fast 65:25.  He had 10 seconds to spare over Carnethy’s Iain Whiteside. Neil Northrop of Dark Peak Fell Runners completed the podium places a further 22 seconds adrift.  The top three were followed in quick succession by a stream of runners and a mere 70 seconds separated the top 11 athletes. Bingley’s Rob Jebb, a seasoned competitor and regular visitor to British Championship races in the Mournes had led the field over the top of Donard, summiting in a fantastic time of 42 minutes.  He would finish 6th after taking a less direct route home.  Lochaber’s Finlay Wild was billed as the pre-race favourite, but alas it was not to be his day and he would finish in 37th place, almost 14 minutes behind the winner.  First NI runner was Jonny ‘the Steede’ Steede; the Ballymena AC athlete finishing in a very credible 20th place and like many others taking a ‘scenic’ route from the top to the finish.

Not as predicted for the ladies…

There was also an upset in the ladies’ race with Jacqueline Lee claiming the honours ahead of Emma Gould and Claire Green.  Shileen O’Kane was fourth lady overall and first NI lady, beating race favourite Helen Fines who came seventh.  The top 8 was completed by Dromore’s Diane Wilson.

A Jumbo performance from Jimbo:

Now that the serious reporting is out of the way we move to the more investigative and artistic journalism that posed the question where did it all go wrong for the locals?  Thankfully Bogusboy was present at the finish to ask the tough questions and proffer sympathetic and encouraging words to those who trundled in dejected long after their projected times.  First home for Newcastle was evergreen and tactically astute veteran Jim Patterson.  A seasoned campaigner of many British Championships, Jim finished as first V60 and also first Newcastle athlete, no mean feat given the pedigree of some of his chums on parade. Such was his delight in his performance that he made his annual pilgrimage out after dark and was indeed spotted in a local socialising venue as the witching hour approached.  When questioned by our roving reporter he dryly commented, ‘that’ll do me for another 12 months.’  Unlike many of his team mates he actually means that!!!  Next home was Seamus Lynch in 96th place.  He huffed and he puffed as he came down the finishing straight, bemused by the fact that he had been unable to utilise all the hard work and training that left him extremely well prepared and very well placed for a good result.  Little did he know that some of the ‘big guns’ got just as lost as he did.  Bob Brown ran a steady race and came home a little behind Seamus in 119th place.

Any sign of the ‘Big Fella’…

‘Is there still no word of Deon’ was a popular remark as the minutes ticked by and one by one the bewildered runners arrived back, thankful that they were out of the mist and in smelling distance of the stout.  Had he tailed off and gone directly home?  Surely the man with 9 wins in the Slieve Donard race and one of the greatest runners in NI history had not made a schoolboy error and taken a poor line!  And then he came!  With typical aplomb and panache he emerged from the forest, grinning and shaking his head, conscious of the diatribe of invective that would greet his arrival.  Needless to say it came and, for once, the great man was an also ran, finishing 179th (words I thought I would never type, but am enjoying typing immensely!!!!).  It later transpired that this very athlete had organised a seminar called ‘navigation in the Mournes; making sure you never get lost’ which had been well attended and very well received.  I am also led to believe that bookings for the second part of the course have slowed down and some are looking for a refund.   He was followed home by David Steele, who simply commented, ‘wrong shoes’.  While many jumped to the conclusion that the 9 time champion had led him astray, David was quick to blame his misfortune on Mourne runners’ Sam Herron.  Both men came hurtling off the top of the mountain and made steady progress downwards until they came out of the dense mist, by which time they were staring at the Bloody Bridge, an apposite title for that particular piece of human engineering in the minds of two weary and exasperated young men!  Presumably Lynch, Steele and Herron had attended McNeilly’s navigation course!

Completing the Newcastle contingent was Laurence Hamilton, who unfortunately was just outside the two hour mark for the 6 mile course, averaging a speedy 3 miles per hour!!!  Laurence claims to have run at least twice that distance and given that he once led one of his club mates up an additional mountain during the seven sevens few would question him!!!  The Newcastle men claim to know the mountains like the back of their hands; pity they were wearing gloves.

It’s not Just Newcastle!!!

Close on their heels was another ‘mountain goat’, namely Pete Grant or P as he is better known in the fell running fraternity.  When asked if he had followed Deon and been led astray, he became indignant and wanted it made clear that he is perfectly capable of getting hopelessly lost on his own!!!!  All of the athletes took their verbal bashing is good spirit, none more so than Newry City athlete teak-tough Dale Mathers.  Dale, a fearless and fearsome competitor, traipsed home in 205th place in 2 hours two minutes to find that his wife Denise had beaten him by 27 minutes and had finished in 107th place overall. When asked about the conditions Dale retorted, ‘it was nice in Rostrevor.’ Methinks he had gone a little further off course than most!!!

All in all a great day of unpredictable racing that was very well organised and extremely well marshalled by the many volunteers within the NI fell running fraternity.  To conclude on a serious note, everyone returned safely and most were smiling and not to disappointed about the day’s events.  Certainly by the time the band played ‘waltzing Matinda’(and many young men had already carried their pack and discarded their dresses!)  in the wee small hours stories had been exaggerated and the race was as etched in folklore as the 1993 Grand National, with McNeilly being compared to Laura’s Beau!!!