Peter Walker: Track 4460 in area near Slieve Donard, Mourne Mountains (Ireland)
Mourne Seven Sevens 2021 - Clockwise
Length: 32.1km, Creator time taken: 7h34m, Ascent: 2497m, Descent: 2525m
Places:Start at J37260 30101, Slieve Donard, Slieve Commedagh, Slieve Beg, Slievelamagan, Slieve Binnian, Slieve Binnian North Tor, Slieve Meelbeg, Slieve Meelmore, Slieve Bearnagh, Slieve Bearnagh North Tor, end at J37401 30384 316m NE from Start Logged as completed by 1
What do you do if you’re slightly irked by being ‘fitter than most hillwalkers, but still not THAT fit’?
Thank heavens for once in a century pandemics…
I sometimes buy books on a whim, and one such purchase last March was ‘Training For The Uphill Athlete’ by Steve House, Scott Johnston and Killian Jornet, intrigued to discover how that Jornet fella does it. Then I posted a ‘witty’ (sic) social media pic of said book on my lap with a huge box of wine gums next to it…’an angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other’. Then we got locked down and suddenly I decided that, at 48 years old, this might be the chance to locate the ‘next level’ that I believed might be in there. I wasn’t going to run a four minute mile, but could I turn myself into a rubbish mountain runner rather than an above-average mountain walker? ‘Gentlemen, we can rebuild him…’ The immediate discovery was that (unsurprisingly) the training I had done up to this point wasn’t much use for endurance athleticism…I’m the sort of guy who’d go out three or four lunchtimes a week and run four miles or so at a hard (for me) pace…no pain, no gain etcetera, and there’d be periods when I wouldn’t even bother with that. No, I needed consistency, I needed to (mostly) run far more easily, and I needed much more mileage. So I began following the book’s programme for ‘your first ultra-marathon’. There’d be a long run (initially around 10km) at the weekend, then the rest of the mileage would get worked in during the week. One of the weekday sessions would be intervals, (a suitable hill was located to sprint-up-and-walk-down-and-repeat on). On and on I went with ever increasing mileage. I got used to it. It was semi-fun. I started going out with the inimitable Bleck Cra’s Sunday ‘Challenge Walk Training’ crew.
As is my wont I started to go off on research tangents. I looked at heart rate zones to try to optimise my training effort, upgraded my watch and got a chest HR monitor (it’s an inescapable rabbit hole). I discovered that my belief that I was already very aerobically fit was mistaken, so I devoured the writings of low HR training guru Phil Maffetone. After a pause following a trip to a physio (a birthday present from my wife!) which led to an injection in my hip, I got up to around 70km a week, sometimes doing two long runs at the weekend if I wasn’t out on the hill.
I then mis stepped a bit, deciding to commit to Maffetone’s Max Aerobic Function method to see what would happen. This involves training at a heart rate below your aerobic threshold (the rate at which your metabolism starts using anaerobic rather than just aerobic respiration). Most folk have poorly developed aerobic systems and this method is designed to remedy that…I ended up walking 95% of the time, and after two months my performance was deteriorating rather than obviously improving. So I sacked that off, trained ‘by feel’ for a couple of weeks, and got lab tested so I would ‘know’ my thresholds and VO2 Max level (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise)…perhaps I just had my aerobic threshold guessed at the wrong level.
The test (a ‘run on a treadmill with a mask on until you’re physically sick’ one) told me that unfortunately Maffetone’s formula for estimating the aerobic threshold HR was right, and I’d just been kidding myself; at least my ego could wallow in being told my VO2 max level was ‘Excellent’ for my age. A chat with the bloke doing the testing led me to decide to train at under my ANAEROBIC threshold (where your body can no longer disperse lactic acid faster than you’re producing it). So, going forward, most of my sessions would have to avoid going over a HR of 166 like the plague, apart from ‘hard’ sessions (one a week) where anything went. And there’d be one session a week below my aerobic threshold of 132, used as recovery from harder days. Back I went onto the ultramarathon schedule, the speed / heartrate ratio got gradually more favourable, and I started to be able to run up hills where I’d always had to walk at least part.
And then it became apparent that the Seven Sevens would take place this year. I needed a target, so I registered, as did Nuala and Shauna from my Sunday group. They’d never done an organised challenge walk before.
‘Better than he was before…’ I had though. I’ve always had a bit of a predilection for very long days in the mountains, and in 2015 I was ‘gently coerced’ by the inimitable Cra into taking part in that year’s Seven Sevens. It’s a pseudo-replacement for the Mourne Wall Walk, and takes its name from the fact that it covers the six Mourne summits over 700m in height, and another one. It was a while since I’d done anything particularly extended in the hills, and with six weeks to prepare I rationalised that that wasn’t long enough a period to achieve full fitness. My solution was to crash diet during that time, and it kind of paid off in so much as I got round in a semi-comfortable 9 hours 7 minutes…not groundbreaking, but still 71st out of 251 finishers.
This time I had to be more ambitious. I wanted a time sufficiently quick that I’d be satisfied even if I never did the bloody thing again.
So the mileage slowly increased. I had a holiday in the Scottish Highlands with several challenging days out, particularly relevantly one of 40km with 6000ft of ascent (the Sevens is listed as 30km+ with 8100ft+ of ascent) across some shocking terrain in remote country. I did another lab test and was pathetically pleased to discover I’d raised my aerobic and anaerobic thresholds considerably, and had now a VO2 max described (the computer’s words, not mine) as ‘Superior’.
‘Better... stronger... faster…’ (??) Notwithstanding the vagaries of the day itself (and one Sunday walk that I had to drop out of because my Saturday long hilly run had taken way too much out of me) this was as physically prepared as I was ever going to be. Training was tapered. I hydrated, a lot. I switched my diet to carbs for the last few days (I should have bought shares in peanut butter and bagel manufacturers). I got some gels to consume on the day like an actual athlete, supplemented with flapjacks, Lucozade Sport and jelly babies. I slept. And I rocked up in Newcastle on the 14th August ready for my 0745 start time. Conditions were great so I couldn’t blame that if I was rubbish. The tactics were ‘steady, try to do everything (eating, drinking, navigating, etc) on the move’. I’d told The Cra I thought I’d do 8-8.5 hours, but internally I thought I just might, just beat the 8 hour mark if everything went well.
Donard first, normally a comfortable 75 minutes for me. Up the Glen River to the Wall, rucksack left for the out-and-back to the summit, quick hello to Nuala and Shauna who were coming down from the top, dobber into summit checkpoint, quick look at watch…67 minutes. I was risking blowing out too early, so I eased off slightly up Commedagh. Pleasantries were exchanged with a work colleague I bumped into on the climb who was doing the Sevens with his girlfriend. Veer away from the Wall, Commedagh summit, dobber dobbed, gentle jog down gentle slope back to the Wall, over stile, down.
Here some knowledge helps, with the quickest descent to the Brandy Pad arcing left to avoid rougher ground. This is still steep, and the grassy bits were slippy after a wet week. Straight over the Brandy Pad, skirt the top of Slieve Beg, down then up the steeper path up Cove Mountain and taking the contouring path to miss its summit to save energy. A longer climb to the top of Lamagan, still going steadily. I had decided coming down from Donard that I wouldn’t look at my watch again to stop myself fretting over how fast I was going; I was just gauging my effort by feel.
I had a stroke of luck on top of Lamagan, a mountain whose SW flank is a steeply unpopular 300m mostly pathless mountainside. A clockwise round descends this (a minor mercy), and as I checked in on the top I noticed the girls just ahead of me. A quick jog down caught them up, and I ‘allowed’ Nuala to pace me down; handy, given how naturally talented a descender she is. The rucksack was dumped again for the long out-and-back plod up and down Binnian, by now busy with ‘ordinary’ hillwalkers and a smattering of Seven Seveners. Once back at the Binnian-Lamagan col I quickly stopped to remove a stone that had been burrowing into the sole of my left foot, before shlepping down to the Ben Crom Dam which is commonly considered the half-way point.
Next came a section where spirits (and time) are liable to ebb away. At the far end of the dam you come up against the bulwarks of Ben Crom itself, skirted using a steep little path hidden in the rocks which finally contours down to the banks of the Ben Crom River heading climb up its notoriously boggy and irregularly-pathed valley. Various trips over numerous years had stuffed my GPS’s memory with all the critical waypoints here to minimise time wastage, so I just had to grind it out. Finally I arrived at the path that contours Meelbeg about 200m below its summit, and it’s generally considered quickest to just keep plodding straight up.
But now the wheel nuts were loosening. The legs were suddenly heavy and I couldn’t face ploughing straight up the mountainside above. To keep moving I used the path to traverse round to the Wall, hoping some flatter ground might lessen the lactic build-up. But once I started uphill again it was obvious that my legs weren’t so easily tricked. Halfway up I just had to stop, thighs and calves melted by 2000m of rest-free ascent. Hands on knees I leaned into huge gulps of air, and then because I’m daft gave it around 30 seconds and started up again. Inevitably I couldn’t keep that up either, so there was another stop, then another, and this staccato progress finally, painfully ended on top of Meelbeg.
I decided to properly engage my brain at this point. I knew I was puffed rather than genuinely exhausted, so I decided to attack the situation with calories. Nutrition had been one flapjacks and a bottle of Lucozade Sport by this point, now moderation went out of the window. I pulled 3 gels from my rucksack side pocket, pretty much opened my throat, and squirted all their contents down there in quick succession; these things are meant to be absorbed quickly so they seemed the most sensible way of shocking my system. Down at the col you have to cross a stile to the other side of the wall, and as I climbed down the rungs on the far side, the grinning Galloway gremlin that is Bleck Cra lay in wait with a camera. Pleasantries and jovial abuse were exchanged before I set off up the shortest climb of the day, to Meelmore. I needed to stop it with all the stops (as it were), so I reduced the pace further while checking my watch, waiting for the time when my heart rate dropped below my anaerobic threshold; once it did this I knew I should be ok to just keep going at that pace. I felt a bit better by the top of Meelmore, and it was a fairly carefree descent to Pollaphuca, the col under Bearnagh.
This is the last of the Sevens on a clockwise circuit, and while it’s not that long a climb (just over 200m of ascent) it is quite viciously steep, a rubbly slope with a whole raft of paths that almost-but-don’t-quite exist; the sort of ground you never cover the same way twice. It was also quite busy, and I leveraged said busyness to encourage a steady ascent with only a couple of brief rests. After a brief panic when the dobber initially refused to make the summit checkpoint beep I had cracked the final major obstacle, with only a couple of brief climbs on the Brandy Pad left to do.
I’d told myself that if I had energy left at this point then I had to make that count in time terms, so I tried to kick up a gear. It didn’t take long to skip down to the checkpoint at Hare’s Gap, briefly chatting to my friend Derek who I passed on the way. Onto the Brandy Pad now, brisk walking to keep the momentum going before the last little climb back up to the Saddle at the head of the Glen River. There’s another checkpoint here, and as I called my number out the girl taking it shouted across to her note-making colleague: ‘230, at 2:45’. This slithered across my brain for a moment…’2:45? That’s…seven hours elapsed since the start. This is going to be genuinely quick if I don’t balls it up!’ My decision to disregard my watch since Donard seemed suddenly, wonderfully right.
‘Tra la la, la la la la…’ But I had to capitalise. The last gel was quickly dispensed into my alimentary canal, and I began the descent. I’ve been up and down the Glen River more times than I care to remember (although I have actually had more hot dinners, to be fair) but never at such a breakneck speed. Running every section that felt comfortable, slaloming though the other walkers on this busiest of Mourne thoroughfares, and allowing my internal jukebox to repeatedly play the theme from the Banana Splits, I careered down into the woods at the glen’s foot, nearly massively stacking it on some polished granite next to the river towards the bottom of the descent, and finally emerging from the trees within sight of the finish at Shimna College. Here I obviously started walking rather than running; you don’t want to look too keen when there’s an audience, do you?
With the finish checkpoint dobbed, I suddenly became aware of my legs, and particularly how tight my right hamstring was. No matter. Over to the finish line van, dobber dobbed for a final time, results uploaded, and certificate printed.
7 hours 36 minutes. 14th out of 173 finishers (222 started). I was quite happy with this (he understated), so I went back to my car in the Donard Car Park and had a bit of an unmanly moment.
Masculinity restored, I made my way back to the finish to meet up with The Cra and others. Nuala and Shauna came in a little later in 9hrs 16mins, hugely creditable for a first try at this sort of thing.
As for me, that time is good enough that I won’t fret if I never better it. I think in performance terms I can confidently say that I’m an above-average mountain walker. And as my time would have placed me 61st out of 65 in the parallel NIMRA race, I think I’ve attained the rarefied ranks of ‘rubbish mountain runner’ too.
And then two days later I turned 50. Maybe that’s it then?
Perhaps I’m just getting started…
Uploaded on: Tue, 24 Aug 2021 (10:07:57) Linkback: https://mountainviews.ie/track/4460/ To download GPS tracks you must be enrolled and logged in. See "Login or enrol", top right - quick and easy.
Comment created by simon3 Oct-25
In raging against the dark, Peter manages to cover the considerable preparation, angst, trials and tribulations of the day involved in seriously doing a challenge walk. Personally I have also been there with HR monitors though a max HR of 166 would have exhausted me very quickly. If you don't know Peter, nowadays he looks as thin as a greyhound. Well done on an interesting read. Congratulations on the time. Now try the 'Turks.
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Your time to complete will depend on your speed plus break time and your mode of transport. For walkers: Naismith's rule, an approximate though often inaccurate estimate, suggests a time of 10h 35m + time stopped for breaks
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