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02/06/13 Carauntoohil Mountain Race - from John Tollitt

Chapter 2. Carauntoohil Mountain Race

photo: Vicki Deritis

Having ticked off Slieve Donard ( the highest mountain in Northern Ireland ) last month, the second of my big 5 at 50 was Carauntoohil in County Kerry.

Friday afternoon saw me flying over from Cork to Newcastle and then driving to Kenmare which was to be our base for the weekend. The Saturday was spent driving clockwise round the stunning Iveragh peninsula, which is marketed as the Ring of Kerry to the endless coach parties driving anti clockwise. Apart from the beautiful scenery the highlights included statues of local wresting champion Steve 'Crusher ' Casey resplendent in his pants at Sneem and Charlie Chaplin at Waterville ( apparently he used to holiday there as did Tiger Woods and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Presumably their statues are on order).

Attempts to find a weather forecast for Sunday's race proved futile as radio weather reports only appeared to tell you what the weather was doing that day, rather than what it was expected to do tomorrow. Calling in the Climber's Inn in Glencar, where the following day's presentation would take place, the tv weather report indicated that low cloud and drizzle would be the order of the day. The landlady remarked that at least, the weather looked good for the race. It would appear that this counts as good weather round these parts in June!

Driving over the narrow, tortuous Ballaghbeama Gap to the start of the race, I was able to see that the 1039 metre summit of Ireland's highest point was cloud free. However, this was not to last as the low cloud timed its appearance to coincide with the start of the race and remained in-situ until long after the finish.

Registration took place in a farmer's yard and I recognised a few friendly faces from the Slieve Donard race. The actual start was some way up the hillside on the Kerry Way, a long distance foot path. After some brief, navigational instructions from the race organiser we were off up the hillside and before long into the cloud. Shortly after passing the carcass of a dead sheep we came to a junction with a fence where we left the rough path of the Kerry Way and started ascending the west ridge of Caher over tough, stony and boggy ground. As the race thinned out I tried to keep one of the Bowland Fell Runners in my sight as his bright orange vest stood out like a Belisha beacon in the cloud. The route levelled out for a bit before the steep pull up to Caher; Carauntoohil’s sister summit. Negotiating the steep, ridge-like descent to the low point between the two summits proved tricky as I lost a few places to more nimble footed runners. Glances through gaps in the cloud showed a sheer drop to the left and concentrated the mind on attempting to keep a sure footing. Ascending up to the summit of Carauntoohil, the lead runners passed me by making their return, as it was an out and back race. One of them shouted that it was very busy on the top. He was not wrong, as I was to discover shortly afterwards, as I had to barge through hordes of people that were congregating around the giant crucifix which adorned the summit, and which, according to our pre race briefing, had to be touched before making our return.

Returning to the narrow saddle between the two peaks, which was now crowded as runners were travelling in both directions, I found myself taking a somewhat more precipitous line than would be desirable. I scrambled up to the top of Caher, before making a more straightforward descent down the broad ridge. Midway down the ridge, it broadened and flattened, and I became aware that I could neither hear or see anyone or thing in front or behind me. I slowed to a halt expecting to see runners emerging out of cloud behind me but no one appeared. I waited for, what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few minutes. Just as I was about to get my map and compass out a runner's silhouette emerged out of clag and I was relieved to tag along behind him. ( After the finish he admitted to me that he had had no idea where he was going and had been equally relieved to see me).

The descent steepened and it was tricky going over the wet rock and thick bog. Running was difficult and I took a few tumbles. Picking up the route of the Kerry Way an unmistakable and familiar aroma reached my nostrils. Never have I been so relieved to see the rancid corpse of a dead sheep as it confirmed that I was on the right route. As the cloud lifted I could see the valley below and I knew it wasn't far to the finish line. I finished a respectable 33rd out of the 82 starters. The winners of the men’s and women’s race both recorded course records. I was then able to load up on tea and cake at a handily placed cafe just below the start, which to my surprise was run by a couple from Newcastle.( ‘ Geordies here, Geordies there, Geordies........’) We then drove back to the Climber's Inn for the traditional and protracted prize giving, during which I was surprised to be summoned up and given a choice from the ecletic mix of prizes (kitchen scales, towels, glass tumblers etc.), in recognition of my 5 peaks challenge (I came away with a very nice t-shirt). I also got chatting to a journalist from the Irish Sunday Times who is writing a piece on fell/mountain running and might include me in it.

Flying back from Cork to Newcastle the following day on a clear evening the plane passed over Anglesey and, beyond the Menai Straits, the mountains of Snowdonia were visible in the sunshine. This got my mind thinking about the next leg of my adventure; the International Snowdon Race on the 20th July.......

John Tollitt

You can read John's chapter 1: Slieve Donard on the Tyne Bridge Harriers' website here

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