Weekend Preview: Athletes gear up for the 73rd annual Slieve Donard Mountain Race… and more!

Weekend Preview:  Slieve Donard Mountain Race… and more!

Last weekend brought one of Northern Ireland’s most iconic road races, the Deep RiverRock Belfast City Marathon and what an epic day of racing it was – the event showed Northern Ireland in it’s best light.  That said, the news of the passing of a fellow runner during the race was devastating – our heartfelt thoughts go out to his family at this sad time.

Looking ahead to this weekend, we have another famous race to look forward to – the 73rd annual running of Newcastle AC’s Slieve Donard Mountain Race, a classic ‘to the top and back’ race to Northern Ireland’s highest peak, which stands at 850m (2,790ft).

The Slieve Donard Mountain Race will form the basis of our preview, but there are other events taking place this weekend, with the highlights being the Termoneeny 10k and the 3 Lakes Challenge and the Strabane-Lifford Half Marathon.

A number of local athletes will also be in action at the British Milers Club (BMC) event in Sports City in Manchester (England).

Slieve Donard Mountain Race (compiled with assistance from Newcastle AC):

The annual Slieve Donard race will start at 2.00pm on Saturday 12th May, on the main street in front of the Newcastle Centre as usual but this year will finish on football field in Donard Park making for a more relaxed environment for both competitors and spectators. The route also changes out on the mountain, with a checkpoint at the Saddle on the way the way to the 852-meter summit. On the descent, checkpoints must be visited at the Quarry and the first bridge on the Glen River.

Interestingly, whilst the Slieve Donard race route has changed over the years this is the first time the route will not be “out-and-back” for 20 years, earlier being via the Bloody Bridge. Of course, for a number of years there was free route choice on the open mountain; however, the majority of runners opted for the shortest and most direct route via the Black Stairs. This means that this year runners will not be able to gauge their race position against their peers coming off the summit and navigation skills may be required if the cloud is low.

A brief history…

The first race was held in 1945 and won by S McAteer in a time of 1hr 59min. For a number of years the course went via the Bloody Bridge with a 2 mile run along the road to finish. James McKenny recorded 6 consecutive victories on this course between 1953 and 1958.

In 1980 women first started running the race, the first lady crossing the line that year was Beth Stevenson. Since then the number of ladies competing in the race has increased from 3 to a record 51 in 2017 – showing how more and more women are getting involved in mountain running.

In the 1998 the decision was taken for safety reasons to revert to the up and down route starting at the Newcastle Centre and back to Donard Park (cutting out the long road section from the Bloody Bridge). However, in 2002 a further route change took the finish back at Newcastle Centre to allow more spectators to witness the race. For many years Mike Short held the record with his 1977 run via the Bloody Bridge in 1 hour 4 min 14 seconds. In the 70’s & 80’s, the British Fell Championship format included all mountains in the British Isles hence the reason for more visitors, this later changed to 4 nominated races each year.

In 2000 the British Championship included Slieve Donard as the Northern Ireland race in the new format. The race was won by Ian Holmes in 50mins 10 seconds, the fastest ever up and down, although the start was on the Main Street the finish was in Donard Park, if Ian had run on to the Newcastle Centre, he would have taken less than 2mins 30 seconds and a sub 53 minute up and down time. The race is now part of the Ireland Mountain Running Association (IMRA) Championships, which includes the highest peaks in the four Provinces and one of the reasons why the date was moved to May.

From 2001 onwards, the route was extended back to the Newcastle Centre. Scottish International runner John Brooks set an impressive record with 56 mins 34 seconds in 2004. Brooks’ record stood until 2008 when Woods shaved off an impressive 49 seconds on his way to his first win. Amazingly he went even better in 2009 and set a new standard by breaking the 55 minute barrier in an amazing 54:49. In 2010 Cunningham lowered the mark by a further 16 seconds to record a time of 54:33. Bailey lowered the mark again to 53:45 in 2015, and again by a further 5 seconds to 53:40.

Arguably the most successful competitor in the race’s long history is Newcastle’s Deon McNeilly, having won the race a record 9 times. In the lady’s race, it is a much closer affair, with Mary Havern, Shileen O’Kane and Diane Wilson all with 4 wins to their name.

History of the Ladies Trophy…

Although women have been competing in the Slieve Donard race since 1980, it was only in 2000 that a shield was created to recognise the achievements of female winners. As such, the names of the ladies who won the race before 2000 never had their names on the shield. After a bit of sleuthing we have been able to find the names of the most of previous winners. 2018 will be the first time the shield will be presented with all the names on the shield. Thanks to the Mourne Observer, Anne Sandford, Richard Rodgers and Brian Ervine for helping us with our research! There are still a few names missing so if you have any information please contact Newcastle AC.

Last year…

In 2017 the route changed to follow to Glen River and the saddle to the summit and back, to accommodate the Irish Mountain Running Associations selection race for the European and World Mountain Running Championships, and as such, attracted a quality field. The race was won by Zak Hanna in 59:24 – the only runner to finish under the hour, followed by William McKee and Andrew Annett. The lady’s race was won by Irish International Sarah McCormack followed by Charlene Haugh and Esther Dickson.

This year – who will win?

Reigning Champion Zak Hanna, from the host club Newcastle AC, will return to defend his title and after several impressive performances over the last few weeks, in particular a win at Slieve Martin, he is the form to do so.

However, Zak will face tough opposition, in the form of club mates Ian Bailey and Seamus Lynch, and Mourne Runners star William McKee.  All of these men possess the potential to take victory on their day, which makes for an epic race up-front in what is one of the strongest line-ups at the event in a number of years.

If you add Timothy Johnston (Mourne Runners), Neil Carty (North Belfast Harriers), David Hicks (Newcastle AC) and David McNeilly (Newcastle AC) to the mix, it makes the race for a top ten spot a tough ask.

Other men to look out for include Andrew Tees (Orangegrove AC), David Turtle (East Antrim Harriers), Dale Mathers (Mourne Runners), David Simpson (Newcastle AC), James Trainor (North Belfast Harriers) and junior star Jared Martin (Scrabo Striders).

In the ladies race, in-form Esther Dickson (Newry AC) will start as favourite, but the talented athlete will come up against four time winner of the event, Shileen O’Kane (Lagan Valley AC).

Martsje Hell (North Belfast Harriers) and Sarah Graham (Mourne Runners), podium regulars in the opening encounters of the season so far, will also toe the line and will challenge at the head of the pack.

Gillian Wasson (Ballymena Runners), Mari Troeng (Newcastle AC), Elizabeth Wheeler (Glens Runners) and Hazel McLaughlin (Lagan Valley AC) add further talent and depth to the strong line-up, while Bethany Haugh (Mourne Runners), Niamh Kellett (East Down AC) and Sinead Murtagh (Newcastle AC) cannot be discounted given their potential.

Mourne Runners pair Joanne Graham and Karalee Porter will place well.

Other events taking place in Northern Ireland this weekend…

Friday 11th May 2018:

  • Termoneeny 10k Road Race: Termoneeny Community Centre, Termoneeny – 7:30pm (Entries AVAILABLE on race day!)

Saturday 12th May 2018:

  • 3 Lakes Challenge: Lakeside Inn, Ballyduggan – 11am (Entries AVAILABLE on race day!)

Sunday 13th May 2018:

  • Strabane-Lifford Half Marathon: Meeting House Street, Strabane – 9:30am (Entries NOT available on race day!)

Other events taking place outside Northern Ireland…

BMC Sport City GP (England):

On Saturday 12th May 2018, a host of familiar faces will line up at Sport City in Manchester for the British Milers Club Sport City Grand Prix.

Amongst those competing are Callum Crawford-Walker (Annadale Striders), Conall Kirk (Annadale Striders), Rahcel Gibson (North Down AC), James Hamilton (Ballymena Runners) and Neil McCartan (East Down AC).

A full start list for the Sport City GP is available HERE.


As always, Northern Ireland’s twenty five parkrun events will take place this weekend. For more information on these, or to locate your nearest event, please visit our dedicated ‘parkrun’ section within our fixtures page.