The 71st Slieve Donard Race will be started by one of the ‘fathers’ of mountain racing in this part of the world, Jim Hayes of Ballydrain Harriers. It could almost be said that Jim’s association with the race goes right back to the start – ironically he was born in the year of the first Donard race – 1946 – but confirming the benefits of great mountain air, by looking at him you wouldn’t believe he was born that long ago.
Hayes came from the Harrier tradition, he loved to race cross-country in the winter and the muddier the better. He aspired to be an excellent road runner but after picking up an injury he was encouraged by a club-mate, Geordie Geddis, to give the Donard Race a go. The year was 1973 and the fresh-faced 26-year-old led to the summit and also emerged at the Bloody Bridge for the painstaking 2.6 miles run along the road by to the Newcastle Centre. Alas, he was to be passed at the Harbour by leading North Belfast runner, Mick Teer and came home in 2nd place.
Hayes, though, had caught the fell running bug, he had enjoyed the buzz and this started a life long love for this branch of running. He came back in 1974 to win the race and again won in 1975 and 1976 to make it a hat-trick of victories. 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980 saw the victories of Mike Short from Horwich RMI (England) and Colin Donnelly (Cambuslang, Glasgow) before Hayes secured his 4th and final ever victory at Slieve Donard.
His legacy is still being enjoyed today as in the winter of 1979 he was one of the founder members of the Northern Ireland Fell Running Association (now the Northern Ireland Mountain Racing Association) that led to the annual Championship Series, many of the classic Mourne race routes and helped spawn successful other series such as the Hill & Dale. He was also one of the pioneers of going racing on the mountains ‘across the water’ conquering Ben Nevis and winning the Goatfell Race on the island of Aran in Scotland.
There are not many races with an unbroken run of 71 events and tomorrow many souls will turn up for the annual challenge that is to get to the summit of the highest mountain in this part of the world (2,796 feet up) and back to sea level as fast as possible. The evergreen Jim Hayes will get proceedings underway at 2pm.