By Gareth Hardy
It started on a beautiful night in Castlewellan in April and ended on a (slightly less) beautiful night in Donard Park in June. From forest trails to mountain terrain, brutal climbs to fast, technical descents, sunny skies to sudden downpours, the 2023 Newcastle AC Hill and Dale Series had a little bit of everything. And so it was that a healthy contingent of Barfers (a theme throughout) made their way to Castlewellan Forest Park for Race 1, an undulating trail race to ‘ease’ the runners into the series. Some things in life are guaranteed – the sky is blue, the grass is green and somewhere in the hills on a Thursday evening you will find Steven Morgan patiently waiting for runners, with a sunny disposition and a penchant for taking photographs. Red-faced poses completed, the runners made their way back down to the finish line. Andrew Tees made the podium in a fantastic 2nd place while there were strong finishes for Terence Murphy, Richard Stringer and Jack Proctor to name but a few. Shirley Farnan, Karens Houston and Coulter, Kathleen Monteverde, Fiona Simms and Lisa Fleming ensured that Barf were well represented in the female categories, whilst evergreen Jim Brown took great pleasure in pipping a fellow Barfer (yours truly) to the finish line!
Race 2 at Tollymore Forest Park followed in similar vein before Race 3 took the runners to Rostrevor for the Slieve Martin race where there were top twenty finishes for Andrew Tees (3rd), Jack Proctor (13th) and Rónán Davison-Kernan (18th). Race 4 saw Barfers descend en masse to the Carrick Little car park for Binnian, a one-way ticket to the top! It all started so well on a warm and calm evening, however by the time runners were reaching the summit, a cold rain was whipping in between the rocks. There was no time for sentiment (or group photos) as finishers were instructed to make their way straight back down to the car park. A quick reminder to all of how quickly the conditions can change in the mountains and on the importance of carrying (and using) the correct kit! All being said and done, a mountain race in stormy conditions has the grand ability of making one feel like a ‘proper’ fell runner and it was nothing that a warm shower and hot cup of tea couldn’t put to rights when arriving home!
On to race 5 – Rocky – and my personal favourite of the series. Heading off in a clockwise direction, thereby tackling Rocky Mountain first, runners were afforded the pleasure of a brakes-off, non-technical descent, via a choice of 2 different routes, back down to the river where they could remove their shoes and socks and soak the corns and calluses on their aching feet in the cool waters! Top twenty finishes for Jonathan McCloy (13th) and Jack Proctor (14th) a mere 7 seconds apart!
If Rocky was a non-technical descent, Race 6 at Luke’s Mountain was a somewhat trickier affair. Runners set off from Meelmore Lodge in fantastic conditions again and made the arduous climb to Slievenaglough before descending Luke’s Mountain. The terrain here was a test of concentration as runners were subjected to some thick gorse which guarded closely the mysteries that lay beneath – foot fall varied between rock, mud and ditches at random and the potential for injury was perhaps something to be wary of. The run back to the car-park along the wall (depending on choice of route) was equally awkward, with Barf’s own Karen Houston, acting as auxiliary photographer for the race, adept at observing a few falls along the way! Another second place finish for Andrew Tees who was joined again by Jonathan McCloy (9th) and Jack Proctor (13th) inside the top twenty.
Luke’s was followed by Millstone before some fantastic news for Sam McVicker and family with the birth of his baby daughter! Congratulations Sam! A selfless act no less, as Sam’s subsequent omission from the remaining Hill and Dale races has allowed for at least 1 Barfer to finish a place higher! Race 8 saw runners descend on Spelga for the Loughshannagh race. A fantastic race that started with a relatively gentle climb of Carn Moutain that belied one of the most challenging descents of the series. From the foot of Carn Mountain the runners skirted Lough Shanna before summiting Slieve Doan, Slieve Loughshannagh and Ott Mountain before descending at pace back to Spelga. Well done to the usual suspects Andrew (3rd), Jack (10th) and Jonathan (12th) for their fantastic finishes and to Shirley Farnan, Ashley Teague, Fiona Simms, Karen Houston and Susan Lambe for their strong representation in the female categories.
Back to Meelmore Lodge for race 9, Meels, and perhaps the most spectacular climb of the series. To observe from the car park, it would look almost impossible to scale the wall of rock that stood afore us, but scale it 214 runners did, displaying courage, resilience and tenacity to drag themselves up to the Slieve Meelmore summit. The reward? A further climb to the Slieve Meelbeg summit (the name of the race should give it away)! Back down along the wall to the finish line the exhausted partipants descended, safe in the knowledge that the last of the Hill and Dale mountain races was now behind them. Messrs Tees (3rd) and McCloy (11th) with strong finishes.That leads us to Friday night and Drinnahilly, race 10, the last of the series. A short, fast trail race on a warm, muggy evening that somehow felt no easier than those that had come before it. Still, it was a suitable way to draw to a close a thoroughly enjoyable race series. Congratulations to Andrew (3rd , something he’s making a habit of), Jack (15th) and Jonathan (19th).
And so, after 12 weeks or so of hard racing (with the odd Horseshoe or Donard race in between), the Newcastle AC Hill and Dale Series drew to a close. I shall miss logging onto my laptop on a Thursday morning knowing that I had a race in the Mournes that evening to drag me through to the weekend, almost as much as I shall miss Gary Longridge’s weekly Tuesday reminders! Thank you to Newcastle AC for the organisation and marshalling of some fantastic races and congratulations to all the Barfers who took part. It was great to see so many purple vests bobbing up and down the mountains each week and for their owners to be smiling while doing it! Sure, there were a few bumps, bruises, scrapes and sprains along the way, but I think we mostly escaped unscathed. More importantly, there wasn’t a poultice in sight!