Zak ‘storms’ to victory

The 73rd Annual Slieve Donard Race by Walnut Soap

The Slieve Donard Race is an Annual Classic by any measure. Every year since 1945, locals and many from further afield have descended (no pun intended!) on Newcastle to race to the summit of Slieve Donard, the highest point in Northern Ireland (852 metres or 2,796 feet in old money above sea level) and then plummet back to sea level as quickly as possible. This year the race would also serve as the first race in the Irish Mountain Running Championship and selection for the Irish World/European Mountain running team. The entry of 258 runners was a new record smashing last year’s previous record entry of 208. Runners from as far away as Tasmania paid their £8 entry fee and with the sun out toed the start line on the Main Street – no turning back now.


They were all happy, even those that were not happy!

This year the route was more prescribed (much to the chagrin of the purest – rumours abound that some did compete in protest, while others wore rival colours as a sign of their disapproval – then again it is impossible to please everyone!) and followed a largely set route through Donard Forest, passing the ice house en route to the cairn at the saddle then following the wall to the top of Donard. The runners would then retrace their steps back to the Newcastle Centre. Things were further complicated by other events taking place in the forest on the day.  Thankfully, due to the high levels of organisation and co-operation on all sides, everything went to plan.


A new name

Favourites were Ian Bailey (Newcastle & District AC) who set a record for the course last year and Diane Wilson (Dromore AC), both of whom were looking to make it five wins in a row. Alas Ian and Diane did not make the start list due to injuries – different names would be on the trophies. The focus was now on Zak Hanna (Newcastle AC), William McKee (Mourne Runners), Andrew Annett (North Belfast Harriers) and James Kevan (Clonliffe Harriers) to take the prize. In the ladies’ race Charlene Haugh (Mourne Runners) has been making the podium in the local Hill and Dale races and perhaps the revised route would suit.

Around 12 minutes after the start, the first reports were radioed in from the ice house “Hanna, Annett, Kevan and MacMahon running in a pack of 4 with McKee appearing to be feeling the pace”. Had he fully recovered from the effort made to win the Annalong Horseshoe the previous Saturday? The weather was sunny and warm for spectators with the big bright light in the sky making an impressive appearance; how it would all change and so quickly! 37 minutes and 29 seconds after the start, Hanna reached the summit (only 22 seconds slower than Bailey’s time from last year) – a great effort that saw him 17 seconds clear of his nearest challenger. McKee was back in fifth nearly 3 minutes down.


McCormack climbed hard

Sarah McCormack (Munster Mountain Running) was dominating the ladies’ race and reached the summit in an excellent 42 minutes and 13 seconds with Mourne Runners Charlene Haugh in second place in 48 minutes and 19 seconds closely followed by Esther Dickson of Newry AC.

To win this race you also have to be able to descend and this is where McKee’s are good and Hanna is still learning. On the return leg at the ice house Hanna was still leading in 51:48, but McKee had scythed his way through to second 53:30. Third was MacMahon (53:42). There are no certainties with the racing and weather in this part of the world and suddenly race was hit by thirty minutes of torrential rain, hailstones and lightning. The paths became waterfalls almost instantly and the underfoot conditions became treacherous at best. While the leaders had the end in sight, many were rounding the cairn at the top of the mountain.


The Met Office got it right

Hanna emerged from the storm onto the promenade and still had the time to smile for the camera as he crossed the line under the hour mark (59:24).  Behind him, McKee had recorded 21 minutes on the descent to come home second (61:14 seconds) closely followed by Annett in third. It was great to see Annett back in action. Initially, his plan was to run hard to the top in search of selection for the uphill only event later in the summer, but with the adrenalin pumping decided to let the brakes off on the way down. The former winner of the race was rewarded with the final podium spot. A word of congratulations to David McKee who recorded the fastest descent of the day, recording an impressive 19:49 on a descent that is half a mile longer that the more favoured drop over the Black Stairs.

Young Hanna was delighted with his maiden win of the Slieve Donard and he held the trophy for the press, still shaking with the adrenaline or was it from the icy rain. McKee while disappointed with another second place will know that his time will come and perhaps the outcome would have been different had the storm hit earlier.


Packing well

Mourne Runners packed 3 runners in the top 10 with an excellent run from Timothy Johnston in 9th spot. Newcastle AC’s also packed well at the front with David Hicks 7th (62:48) and Colm Murtagh (66:36). Note should also be made of a fine run by John McKee 1st junior from Mourne Runners 30th overall in 70:02 – a name for the future.

Meanwhile, leading lady McCormack turned at the summit and got into her least favourite part of the race – the rough descent. 26 minutes and 57 seconds later she crossed the line coming home in 69 minutes and 10 seconds – a fantastic performance aided by the superb ascent. Behind her the order remained unchanged with Haugh descended well coming home in 2nd in 73 minutes and 2 seconds (24:45 descent) and Dickson 3rd in 74 minutes and 52 seconds (26:33 descent).


A lot of helpers needed

A race like this doesn’t just happen and Race Director Paul Watson & the NAC Committee would like to thank everyone who helped out. This included marshals at the summit, saddle and ice house. The entry team, the finish-line crew, the registration results crew, drone master, photographers and forest & road marshals. A lot of people put in a big shift to make sure that everyone had an enjoyable and safe experience in testing conditions. Then there’s the sponsor – Hill Trekker.

It was a busy summer’s day in Newcastle with large crowds (chasing mainly ice cream then umbrellas). The MTB race team who had a practice day in Donard Forest and Newcastle AC would like to thank their organiser and marshals for great co-operation. Thanks also to the Newcastle Centre and Newry, Mourne & Down Council for their support on the day. Thursday sees the equilibrium restored with the return of Maughanmore under the watchful eyes of Messers Rodgers & O’Hare. Registration is at the Deer’s Meadow from 6:15 onwards. Competitors are reminded of the need to comply with kit regulations and bring the required body cover in the event of poor weather.