Last weekend hosted the second year of the Seven Sisters Skyline races which took place in Donegal and it was the first year of the Ultra distance of 50km. The 26km race took place on Saturday. I decided to enter the 50km, mainly due to the fact that it involved 4000 metres of elevation gain, but also because it is now 4 weeks out from TDS and this would be the perfect training. Now as mentioned before the fact that a 50km race in the mountains of Donegal is now a training session, is kinda worrying, but it is what it is!
My last 8 weeks since Wicklow Way Race have been crazy busy with long shifts through the night and early starts, meaning I have trained when I can, but all in all I have managed it reasonably well. I concentrated almost solely on climbing and descending, going up Nephin mountain 5 times one week and doing repeats on the mountain on numerous occasions. No major distance running due to the fact that I have most of that training done, but relentless climbs are the key.
I have tried to mimic the Alps in my little Mayo mountains and hopefully this training will improve my climbing abilities.
So myself and Donegal have a definite connection. I always enjoy my trips north and I’ve had some good races up there. The Seven Sisters wasn’t a goal race where I had hoped to do too well, knowing there were many UK and international runners coming for the Skyline series. At the same time I was hoping to be in top 10 throughout and with some endurance in the legs hopefully claw myself into the top 5. So here’s how things turned out.
As you can see it is very much up and down all day. We set off from the base of the mighty Errigal mountain at 7am, around 90 runner’s introduced to one hell of a course by Eunan Quinn and Shaun Stewart. Shaun having won the race last year and helped with the course design, was unable to run this year with a broken collarbone. The course would immediately climb from the carpark, through the bog, skirting past Errigal on your left before climbing the first peak of Mackoght mountain. Being a Skyrunning UK/Ireland national series race the lads looking for points took off up the hill, with myself just behind, doing my own thing. Shaun was marshal at the top of the first short climb and even though early in the race it was nice to see a familiar face.
From here we ran some nice wet downhills, onto a grassy road section and picked up some good speed as the course wound it’s way all the way down to the ruins of the old Altan Castle on the shores of a gorgeous lake. The mist was starting to close in and drop down the mountains. I knew there was a wet day ahead but it wasn’t cold. Next up was the longest climb of the day to Aghla Mor mountain where we would reach a marshal and then do an out and back to the very top of the peak at a cairn. This was where the field began to split. There was the front 3 lads, already 5 minutes ahead, then myself and three guys on my tail before a bit of a gap to the next bunch. It was easy tell where people were as we passed on the out and back section in the mist.
After Aghla Mor we descended along some nice technical bog and heather ground. Aghla Beag was next up and this included two peaks both divided by some steep descents. I was pushing hard on the ascents and using the poles to my advantage before slotting them away and letting myself go on the downhills. The terrain was so bad underfoot that huge concentration was needed on the downhill in particular. Stones hidden under the heather could be your end!
It was a super battle in 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th place with a Polish guy passing me as we descended towards the base of Muckish. We would run a 1km section on the road before taking a right across ‘the bridge of tears’ and starting the incredible climb and scramble up the side of Muckish mountain. This was tough, demanding but bloody class at the same time. We ran along tiny ridges, scrambled up steep ridgelines with drops on either side. I looked up mostly, as I ‘m not hugely in favour of the massive drops below! We bumped into Ian corless, the photographer and ultra podcaster, not far from the top and I was impressed by his quality positioning on the trail. Here’s one of his shots below.
At the top of Muckish we passed the mighty Cairn, which was the turn around point in The Race 2019, and from here took a left towards the Miner’s pass. You couldn’t see more than 20 metres ahead at this point and following the marker flags was tricky. We went wrong for 2 minutes at the top before finding our way to the path. The descent off Muckish is epic with rocks, sandy trails, boulders and scree thrown in for good measure. A pure trail runners dream!
At the bottom of Muckish we had 20km under the belts and we would turn around, do it all again and add in Errigal mountain and another 6km on some backroads and trails before the finish.
I was feeling good, not going into the red too much, eating jellies, drinking Tailwind and filling one of my bottles with coke for the return journey. The return trip came off Muckish on the same route as The Race, making it a pretty quick descent and we started the climb up onto Aghla Beag range in pretty good form. I was feeling strong and knew I could maintain this climbing speed for a few more hours. It was now a battle for 4th place between myself and Marek, the Polish guy stuck to my tail!
Marek was hard to shake, clearly a really strong competitor. We would be close for the majority of the return. I was running well on the downhills and hiking strongly uphill and enjoyed the crazy rain that fell at times. This was solely due to the 17 or more degrees temperatures.
The return climbs were very similar to the way out and after passing through CP3 where the always encouraging Fiona Nic Fhionnlaoich was marshal, I knew I had about 13km with only 2 big climbs left to conquer. Fiona was nice enough to send on a few photos at this point in the race.
Back up to the top of Mackoght and a cool descent down to the North face of Errigal I went before looking up at the sheer climb ahead. This would be a scramble to over 700 metres but I absolutely loved it. I could see I had put a gap between myself and Marek at this point, but it was only a small one. I needed to push up Errigal and slingshot off the little mountain to try and secure 4th place. The climb was rocky and steep and the views down the valley soon disappeared into the mist. Up and up I climbed along some steep and crazy edges. And once at the top I paused for a few seconds to remember the last time I stood on top of Errigal. This was in 2017 when we broke the FKT for the 26 peaks, finishing on Errigal at sunset. This and other positive thoughts are what push you through tough races. Now it was time to sprint down off the mighty peak.
A little clip as I came off Errigal.
From here the course wound it’s way down the road and descended down to a trail that brought us around the lake and over the dam before crossing the finish line in Dunlewy village at Errigal Hostel. I slowed up for the first time all day in the last few kilometres on the road. I didn’t push myself to speed up as I knew I had 4th place wrapped up and wanted an injury free race. I found the main road and crossed the line and as I did Eunan called out that I was 3rd place. I had passed a guy walking after Errigal and would then realise that he had been in 2nd but had fallen on Errigal. I felt happy to finish 4th but this was a nice little bonus all the same. The main thing was that the guy in question was ok and finished in 5th place in the end. Fair play Adam Quinn for finishing in those circumstances. This will stand to him in the future.
So 3rd place, a podium and a good long workout in the bag. 7 Hours 12 minutes in total. Fair play to the one and only Rachel Nolan for coming 2nd Female and putting in another great performance. A slog in the bog with 14 peaks thrown in is the best way I can describe this one. But I would say it is by far the toughest 50km you can do and one of the most spectacular in Ireland. Yes I will be back next year, all going well!
Next up, France and the TDS. Just 3 times the length of this one and over twice the climbing, 146.3km and 9100 metres up!!!
Check out Ian Corless summary below, nicely summed up.
JuJu Jay film of the Seven Sisters 2019. This film really gives you a feel for the race!