Hicks and Hell in Seven Heaven

Saturday 4th August seen round 8 of the NIMRA championship take place in Newcastle, the 7×7’s. After last weeks washout at Bearnagh runners were greeted with 100% visibility, conditions underfoot were excellent with plenty of grip on the steep descents and although there was plenty of cloud in the sky it was still very hot and clammy. Traditionally this race starts in Donard Park but this year seen a new venue, Shimna College. To make up the distance so as records would still reflect a like for like comparison runners started with a lap of the football field and finished with a lap of it. I can tell you 19 mile and 8700 ft of climbing later that final lap of flat grass was by far the hardest part of it.

As the name suggests the 7×7’s takes in the 7 mountains in the Mournes over 700 m high, this year the route was in the following order: Slieve Donard, Slieve Commedagh, Slieve Lamagan, Slieve Binnian, Meelbeg, Meelmore and Slieve Bearnagh. Undoubtedly one of the toughest mountain races on the calendar and very hard to pace with plenty of positions exchanged in the latter stages as cramp sets in.

At 10am the whistle blew and after a lap of the field there was a marked route to the first bridge in Donard Park. From here it was free route choice to the top of Donard. Most people went via the Black Stairs, (shorter, steeper and quite dangerous when wet), although the first man to the summit, Mourne Runners’ Johny Scott went via the Glen river. Scott, East Downs Neil Andrews and LVO’s Mark Stephens had a 1 min lead over the next group of 4, NAC’s David Hicks and Colm Murtagh along with Newry AC’s Keiron Kelly and Mourne Runners Sam Herron. No positions changed as everyone climbed steadily over Commedagh, down towards Cove and Beg en route to Lamagan, before the long slog up Binnian and over to the summit tor. It was on Binnian that things began to change; Hicks and Kelly started to close in on Scott, while Murtagh held back, feeling unwell and suffering in the heat. At the summit Hicks was now third with Kelly in fourth. Dropping down off Binnian to cross Ben Crom dam gave more options; stay on the path which is easier running but longer; drop down the gulley, which is very technical, steep and wet; or pick somewhere in between both points. The lead group chose to go via the gulley and by the time they reached Ben Crom Hicks was now second with the leader Andrews in his sight.

The rest of the field were well spread out at this stage. In the ladies race North Belfast Harriers’ Martsje Hell was leading, Ballymena Runners’ Gillian Wasson was second followed by Mourne Runners’ Sarah Graham in third.

Ben Crom was also a water station and saw many people stopping here to refuel with food and water, it was also an easy option for people to retire as they have the opportunity to get a lift back to HQ!

After being well beaten by Andrews at the Spelga Skyline Hicks wasn’t giving up easily. The two of them pushed hard on the rough ground towards the foot of Meelbeg, before Hicks passed his training partner to take the lead, a position he then held all the way to the end, increasing the lead gradually to finish in 4:08:20. Andrews, although starting to cramp at this stage, managed to hang on to second place and finish in 4:13:14. Third place went to LVO’s Stephens in 4:15:31.
Next home for NAC, having a very consistent race, was Pete Grant, finishing tenth in 4:40:35 and first MV50. Holding on to the finish for fifteenth was Murtagh, who on the slopes of Bearnagh decided it was time for a massage! Unable to go any further with severe leg cramps until Shane Donnelly came along to provide relief! This was enough to see him to the finish in 4:56:31. The next three in, finishing close together, were Stephen Wallace in 5:24:27 and first MV55, John Crutchley in 5:28:03 and Dominic McInerney in 5:34:32. Just under the six hours was Mark King in 5:54:11, followed by Sean Russell in 6:20:31, Gary McEvoy in 6:27:14, John Gilroy in 7:32:34 and Eamon Mallon in 7:33:09.

In the ladies’ race positions remained unchanged throughout as Hell went on to take the win in 5:07:18, although not a native of the Mournes she seems to be settling in quite well. In second place Wasson completed the course in 5:15:36 and the final podium position went to Graham for third in 5:23:33. NAC had two females running today and both were well rewarded for their efforts. Just missing out on a podium place was Grace Neville who finished fourth in 5:35:11 (fortieth overall) and inside the top ten was Bronagh McInerney finishing ninth in 6:32:11 and second FV45.

Although many believe once you have summited the seven mountains the race would be almost over, this is far from the case! After descending Bernagh most people follow the Brandy Pad to the Saddle before dropping down the Glen river path which can be very busy and quite technical in places. This section can take anything from one to two and half hours depending on how the legs are feeling!

To finish off an excellent race, runners were supplied by endless amounts of tea, sandwiches and cakes courtesy of host club BARF. A big thank you must go out to all The organisers and marshals as an event of this size takes a lot of people.

The final race of the NIMRA championship takes place on 29th September the Buzzards Roost. All results and details on NIMRA website.

By Hillrunner