August 15th 2020
Starting on the Creeslough side and moving northeast to southwest, the Seven Sisters mountain chain consists of :
Muckish Mountain (666 m)
Crocknalaragagh (471 m)
Aghla Beg (564 m)
Aghla Beg South (603 m)
Aghla More (584 m)
Mackoght (Wee Errigal, 555m)
Errigal (751 m)
We are blessed to have such stunning natural beauty and amazing unspoilt terrain in our locality. There is just something special about this route and once you get a taste for it with a bit of hiking in either direction, it will undoubtedly draw you back for more.
I only became fully exposed to the magic of these hills with the emergence of the Seven Sisters race series in recent years. It is an absolute gem of an endurance event and consists of 2 races, the 27 kilometre Sky Challenge and the 54 kilometre Skyline Ultra Marathon.
In 2019 I signed up for the Sky challenge race which starts at the bottom of the miner’s path on Muckish. You have to travel up and over all seven mountains, hitting a checkpoint at the highest point of each one. When you come off Errigal at the end you must then run down the main road towards Dunlewey before taking a left at one of the look-out points and dropping down to a 6 kilometre loop through the old Guinness estate and right around the lake to the finish. The final loop is a brilliant run in its own right and it is certainly an extra challenge after the hard work that goes before it.
I had done plenty of regular road running in the last few years but in the weeks leading up to the race I got a feel for trail running & mountain running for the first time. I found it very enjoyable out on the hills and it was all about learning to keep the effort comfortable and not going into the red or you would invariably pay the price. You get a mix of everything with steady hiking on the way up the climbs and then letting yourself go on the descents which is great fun once you get used to it.
When the race came around I had a ball out on the course and loved the spin across from Muckish. I gave it everything on the day and got to the finish line over in Dunlewey in a fraction under 4 hours. The legs were a bit battered and bruised but like a child when they brave a roller coaster for the first time I would definitely be lining up for another go!
Early in 2020 I again signed up for the Sky Challenge race which was scheduled for the 15th of August alongside the Skyline Ultra on the same day. I had a couple of marathons on the road pencilled in for the year ahead and the mountain race would fall nicely in the middle of things to freshen up the training.
Lockdown soon put most sporting plans up in the air however and before too long both of my marathons were cancelled. There was much uncertainty about the chance of any events taking place at all while we still hoped things would open up towards the end of the summer. At the height of the restrictions I kept the fitness up by doing regular runs in Ards forest which I grew to enjoy more and more as the weeks went on. There was no pressure on distance or times, I would just run as I felt and explored many new routes.
As things began to open up it was announced that all being well the Seven Sisters races would take place as planned. This would now give me something concrete to focus the training on. I had followed the Skyline Ultra race with interest for the last few years and it was a race I really wanted to have a go at some time in the future. For some reason though I thought now would be as good a time as any and without weighing it up too much I changed my entry from the 27k race to the 54k Skyline Ultra!
I have completed 10 marathons on the road but this would really be a step into the unknown in terms of both time on my feet and distance. A regular marathon covers 42 kilometres, 195 metres. Any race longer than that is classed as an ultramarathon. This would be my first ultra with the added challenge of 4000 metres of elevation across the course.
At times I wondered if it would be too big an ask but all I could do was get stuck into the training. Fellow Ards man and endurance race specialist Shaun Stewart was also taking part and he was a great source of help with advice on both training and the type of gear to use.
For the Skyline race we would start in Dunlewey and first run the 3.5 km up the main road to the Errigal car park. We would bypass Errigal itself the first time but branch to the right and climb wee Errigal. We would then run and hike across the rest of the sisters bringing us to the famous miner’s path descent from the top of Muckish. When we reached the bottom of the miners’ path we would unbelievably turn around and follow the same route as the 27 km race all the way back to Dunlewey. The only difference would be that instead of climbing Errigal on the tourist route we would run around to the back of it and climb the very technical north ridge. It was hard work just thinking about it!
I was glad that I took the challenge on though and I would soon find out what it was all about. I mostly kept up my normal running training during the week and I would get onto the hills at the weekend. For 6 Saturday mornings in a row in the build-up I got up early and trained on part of the course. I went a bit further each week and got the legs used to the climbing. For my longest training run, Sarah and the boys dropped me off at the Errigal car park. I started by climbing Errigal and made my way right across to Muckish. When I reached the bottom of the miner’s path I then ran the 5 miles down home to Ards. This was great training but was still a long way short of what I would need on the day. I would also climb Muckish a couple of times on the Sundays on tired legs and sometimes get up there once in midweek.
These training runs were brilliant and proved so enjoyable. You got a real sense of adventure and it was great getting used to the route and becoming more familiar with the landscape in all types of weather. The stunning scenery made the effort more than worthwhile. I grew a great sense of pride that such beauty and character lay in Creesloughs back yard with my favourite stretch being the miner’s path on Muckish and all the magic that went with it.
Race morning as always rolled around quickly and I would soon find out how ready I was. I had enlisted the help of Darren Murray for the day and his first act was to drop me over to Dunlewey for the 6:30 am start. He would spend the day out on the course meeting me at various points with no shortage of encouragement which would prove invaluable.
The weather on the day was extremely warm and sunny. This was great for visibility but would provide an extra challenge for the body. With it being the first real event of its kind permitted to go ahead in 2020 it easily filled out the 200 available places. There was a good atmosphere at the start especially on such a brilliant morning and we soon found ourselves heading up the road towards wee Errigal.
I had said to myself before the race to make sure to stay comfortable in the first half and not get carried away. You certainly didn’t want to be pushing too hard early on. I kept a nice steady jog all the way up to the car park before dropping back to hiking mode on the approach to wee Errigal. It was still hard to judge my pace though especially on such a hot day. I was always moving within myself in the early stages and was feeling good.
I reached the top of wee Errigal alongside eventual female winner Laura O’ Driscoll and I was cruising along. I moved ahead of her on the drop down to Lough Altan but she would show the benefit of proper pacing and would overtake me again a couple of hours later. Although I was feeling comfortable I really was travelling too well on such a hot day and should have dialled my effort back for a while. I was enjoying it though and it was great to be in the middle of such a race.
We passed by Altan lough with the ruins of the little castle on the shore in what must be one of the most beautiful race settings you will ever see. You then move on to a pretty steep climb out from the lake all the way up to the foot of Aghla More where the only choice on the menu is more climbing! I climbed steadily all the way up here alongside a couple of other competitors from down the country and we chatted our way towards the top.
You go up and down Aghla More on the same side of the mountain and on my way up I met Shaun Stewart coming back down in the lead of the race. He was moving well and was in superb shape for this event. Nobody knew the course better than him and it would take some athlete to be ahead of him back to Dunlewey.
There is a nice flat boggy section between Aghla More and Aghla Beg and I skipped across it nicely before the hike up Aghla Beg South. I was in the same little group on the way over to the second peak and had to sort of pull myself back at times from moving ahead of them. We then dropped down the spine of Aghla Beg which is a real sharp descent and the quads get a bit of a battering when you let yourself go.
This is followed by a fair little climb once you cross the stream at the bottom which isn’t really mentioned in the context of the race but still takes a lot of work to get to the top. There is then another couple of pretty runnable sections either side of Crocknalaragagh before the drop down towards the grotto at the main road below Muckish. I was in real familiar territory now and I pulled ahead of my 2 friends on the way down.
Darren was waiting for me here and told me I was going great but to just settle it down and relax. I couldn’t believe it when he told me I was sitting in 11th place overall. I was definitely moving too well! When you come out at the grotto there is a 1km section on the road across ‘the bridge of tears’ before you turn in at Muckish quarry. Darren jogged this with me as we chatted. He gave me a fresh water bottle for the climb of Muckish and took my own 2 off me to refill them. Without settling too much I went straight into the climb which is really tough and technical from the quarry.
The heat began to takes its toll on the second half of this climb as I did struggle a bit and moved gingerly enough up and across the top. As I approached the top of the miner’s path I met Shaun Stewart coming back the other way so he was now a good half an hour ahead of me at this stage. He already had a healthy lead over his closest competitors as well. I had looked forward to the miner’s path all day and although my legs were feeling it a wee bit I said to myself “when do I ever get to run down here in a race?” so I was determined to enjoy it. Once I got my rhythm I let myself go and had a nice spin to the bottom. My brother Michael was at the turn-around to shout me on and I also saw Patrick Durning, Patrick Stewart and Denis Ferry and it was great to hear their support.
Being so familiar with Muckish I climbed back up the miner’s path probably too well and my legs were hurting rightly by the time I reached the grotto again at the far side. Seamus Wilkinson and his son Anthony were here to offer their support and we chatted as they walked up the short road section with me. Support like this really is priceless in these kind of races and gives you such a lift. I made a brief stop at the aid station for some food and drinks where I was also shouted on by Shaun Stewart’s family who were spectating along here.
On the climb back towards Crocknalaragagh I met Darren again and when I reached him I really settled it back for a bit and got some recovery. 3 or 4 runners passed us here fairly close together but I just relaxed and let them carry on. Darren went with me all the way until I reached the climb up the middle of the twin peaks of Aghla Beg which quite appropriately is known as ‘heart attack hill’! I actually climbed up here pretty strongly again before cresting Aghla Beg south and heading for Aghla More.
I now had just 3 of the 13 climbs left but they were going to be 3 really tough ones at that. I got over Aghla More in good enough shape and made the steep drop all the way back down to lough Altan once again. At this stage I wasn’t too concerned about how beautiful it looked with my legs screaming from the descent. The heat was now something else as well and getting in plenty of water was vital. My bottles were now empty so myself and another runner refilled in the stream here to keep us going.
I made the climb up wee Errigal slowly but surely along with another couple of runners and everyone was now feeling the pain. The toughest sections from here were actually the downhills as the legs really rejected the effort. I got off wee Errigal and then made my way around the back of Donegal’s highest mountain for the final climb.
It was my first time to climb up the north face of Errigal and I’m glad I went up it blind! It is one tough climb and it was better not knowing what was ahead. It gets really narrow and technical and is such hard work on the legs. They were really in agony by the time I hobbled down the tourist path and out onto the main road once more. As I began to jog down the road I saw both Darren and Seamus up ahead. I started to shout out a bit of a song as I approached them and this gave them a laugh as they said they had been concerned about what kind of shape I would be in when I appeared. The support again worked wonders. Now all that was left was the final loop around the lake. Darren was on hand to run it with me supplied with more drinks to get me home.
My legs were really beat up at this stage so I got around with a combination of running and walking until I was finally making my way over the causeway towards the finish. Sarah had made her way back from the finish area to the final section on the road along with Caolan and Jamie and it was great seeing them at this point. Aaron was on up at the home straight with Michael and his wife Suzanne and he was snapping away with his wee camera as I ran past. With the finish in sight I happily cruised through the last few hundred metres. I finished in 20th place overall which I was delighted with in a time of 9 hours and 3 minutes. What an adventure. It wasn’t easy at times but I was now an ultra-runner!
It was great to also catch up with Shaun Stewart and reflect on his brilliant victory in a scintillating time of 7 hours 11 minutes. He was 40 minutes ahead of anyone else! The top 10 finishers were all serious mountain runners in their own right and it was some achievement to have such a margin of victory. It was very fitting for a great local race to have such a great local winner.
The best thing about this race is that it has put the seven sisters route on the map and I would encourage anybody with an interest in the outdoors in any way to go check it out for yourselves. The magic of the hills will do the rest!