Home News Down to the Wire… (Hill & Dale)

Down to the Wire… (Hill & Dale)


From Athletics Northern Ireland Meelmore and Meelbeg (‘The Meels’) sit majestically alongside the ‘Devil’s Bite’ above the Trassey Area of the Mournes. Despite the simple concept of a horseshoe loop around the valley over the two tops, this race has been infamous for providing candidates for the ‘lost in the mountains’ award. Mostly, though it is when the route is clockwise and the cloud is down and runners get sucked into the Happy Valley along a rogue wall too early. Going the other direction (anticlockwise) it is more straightforward and this evening the tops were clear so surely not?

141 runners toed the line for the start of the penultimate race of the 2008 Hill & Dale Series and as ever the banter and camaraderie were going at a pace much faster than the one that the field set up the tortuous climb of Meelbeg. This climb is actually the longest in the series and takes the best over 15 minutes to reach the summit, but the fact they can then descend along the wall and climb Meelmore and then descend back to the finish in around only half an hour shows how fit these people are. Even the stragglers all got home in under an hour, proving that with a bit of careful preparation and ambition, anything is possible.

After winning the 2007 Hill & Dale Series, Newcastle AC’s Alwynne Shannon returned this year to try and retain her title. It has again been a competitive season with several different winners; Shalene Ward has won three races with Fiona Maxwell, Tish McCann and Anne Sandford all winning one each. Shannon meanwhile took just 36 minutes this evening to win her 4th race of the season and take the edge in the Series over Ward. It’s all now down to the last race with a Ward victory putting her alongside Shannon – but a Shannon victory would secure the title outright.

Like the final of the Apprentice, the showdown had arrived – you’ll not find much “I’ve done well to get this far for only being 24” around the Happy Valley though. The 40-something Alan McKibbin appeared again this evening, after a two-week gap, to lay down the gauntlet to the ‘not so young’ pretender, 30-something Stevie Duncan and not to be add in a bit of 40-something Deon McNeilly and there was the makings of a fascinating race that would be pivotal to the outcome of this year’s men’s title.

Before moving on, in amongst all these ageing bodies, there does seem to be some hope for the future. Teenagers (yip teenagers) from Omagh, Newcastle and Bryansford no less, are starting to also make a big impression. First there is Omagh’s James Speight, a young lad not lacking in any confidence and looking like the traditional wild boy of the mountains as his flowing locks create a danger of visibility problems as he charges around the mountains. Then there is 15-year-old Eoghan Totten, who having trained though the spring doing classy Tollymore Forest sessions, has improved dramatically as the Series has progressed. This week after a nip and tuck battle Speight finished an 4th and Totten 5th just 12 seconds behind. Also improving fast is another teenager, Orienteering Specialist Sean Knight, who came home 3rd junior in 24th place overall.

The Speights were grabbing the headlines a lot this evening as later on, back in 138th, James’ mother brought smiles to everyone’s faces as she approached the finish line like a sheep that will just not be penned. Morgan’s Finishing Funnel was as professional as ever, but this sheep was first to the left and then to the right. The crowd joined in and tried to shepherd her into the funnel – thankfully she wasn’t moving at too great a speed – red-faced James finally moved in and helped her into the funnel to the cheers of the gathered crowd – parents!

So back to the showdown at the Happy Valley and the three older men, despite the early attentions of the younger pups, slowly built a small lead as the climb of Meelbeg took shape. There was not much in it as they hit the first top, but just maybe Duncan was showing signs of struggling to stay in touch. McNeilly has got fitter as the year has progressed and McKibbin (never the most confident navigator) was happy for McNeilly to be acting as guide. The two of them had established a lead as they reached the top of Meelmore, the second and final summit. Was Duncan to have travelled all this way to lose? Not if he could help it – and he took off down the final descent like a man possessed.

Have you ever descended this ridge off Meelmore? It is full of little dips and tussocks and crags and care must be taken to take a gentle left turn after a few minutes to descend properly into the Happy Valley and the finish. Duncan was concentrating on moving fast and not turning an ankle and running straight. Initially he could see the two guys ahead. Then they would disappear into a hollow and then reappear again. At speed the water builds up in the eyes and blurs the vision. But the runner must keep moving at speed – this is a race. Duncan drove on even harder – victory tonight would seal the Series title and take it west of the Bann for the first time ever.

He pushed and pushed and suddenly it dawned on him that he hadn’t seen McKibbin or McNeilly for a while. Where had they gone? He pushed on faster, sure that they would be close ahead, but there was no sign. Then a mild panic rose from his stomach and as he charged on ever faster he suddenly glanced to his left – way to his left – and a snake of runners were way down below him in the valley – he felt sick in the pit of his stomach – ‘all this way and…’. Descending Spellack, he reached the Ulster Way and he turned left and arrived home in 93rd place nearly 12 minutes behind the winner, the gap had been 12 seconds at the top of Meelmore. How hard is this sport?

So who won? Did the mighty McKibbin manage to get the better of the very competitive McNeilly? As they approached the finish, the spectators could see a fascinating race for the line developing. McKibbin hit the front, no time to think, McNeilly responded, but it wasn’t enough, McKibbin just held on to take his 4th victory of the Series.

So the crown is still very much up for grabs – McKibbin has 4 wins and Duncan has 4 wins too (both have 2 seconds). It’s all down to the last race at Donard Forest. The Irish Trial for the European Mountain Racing Championships is the next day after Donard Forest, so it maybe that both will not run? Watch this space to see if McKibbin will make it five in a row or Duncan will take his first.

So Friday night next (20th June) sees the end of the series with the 12th race in Donard Forest followed by the prize giving in Leslie’s Bar in the Avoca Hotel. Registration is from 6.30pm.