So the final race of 2016 took place on the 27th. After a few days of overindulgence it was only right that I should be joining over 1100 others who were feeling the same way about the recklessness of the Christmas period and ready to “punish” themselves with an approx. 8.5 mile of the best Castlewellan could offer.
I count myself very lucky to live where I do. I’m surrounded by many a mountain, hill, greenery and endless forest trail paths. Local club Newcastle AC where playing host to the Christmas Cracker which basically took in EVERYTHING the surrounding area had to offer. With the event selling out well in advance of Christmas with record numbers of entries all headed to Castlewellan to take on the unconfirmed route. We were definitely going to be in for a treat and a host of surprises.
The best of both road running and cross country that Northern Ireland had to offer where registered for the event. The only catch with the Cracker is that it is a paired event so it doesn’t matter how fast you can personally finish, if you don’t cross with your partner, tough shit! So the key is to run with someone of the same pace or be prepared to drop your pace to match them. So the person you have probably spent all year running to beat, soon becomes the person you rely on to get you over the line.
Now of course, I’m hardly “the best” that Northern Ireland has to offer unless its for craic whilst running, I’m your woman. So although there were many out to put in a strong performance, for most it was a bit of post Christmas craic, where you left the club vest at home and dressed up for the occasion in fancy dress and embraced the day as just sharing the fun and challenges together.
The Cracker was the first race I booked after DCM to give me a focus. Needless to say, the natural pairing of me with Caitriona was inevitable and her inability to tell me my ideas are pure mad, landed us both on the entry list. I honestly think she ignored exactly what the race involved and got more excited about getting dressed up for the occasion. Bottom line is, if you are going to be near the end, you might as well look like you made an effort. So against my better judgement and my hatred for dressing up, I agreed to tutus, hats, socks and embraced looking like a complete fool all on the promise that afterwards we could go out for the night. Fair deal!
So as we woke on the morning of the 27th, the sky was blue, it was fresh and the fear of the unknown hovered in the air. Getting dressed I really did panic that we’d be the only ones who dressed up and people know me here! After some gentle prompting from Selena and Caitriona and then realising that Micheal was making a slight effort, unannounced to run as Santa, I didn’t feel like such an idiot.
As Santa and his two MAC elves, headed up the Town. The amount of odd looks from passing cars could have easily caused an accident. However once I got up the town it was clear that the passers by must have thought the population of Castlewellan had totally lost their minds! There were Snowmen, Elves, Vikings, Cowboys and Donald Trump and some Mexicans to name but a few. In amongst this were the vest and short runners which to the non runner at the end of December is madder than those dressed up!
As we registered at the local GAA club, we picked up our numbers and mugs which lets face it will make tea taste so much sweeter. Soon we met more and more from the club, it seemed that this was a big Murlough AC day out as many of the club had come out to take part in all categories, some mixed pairs, ladies, men and transgender (not an official category but should be added for next year).
After the obligatory group photo, we headed off to the start line and we where soon on our way moving through the town. I had prepared myself for a climb of Slievenaslat so when I heard rumbles of complaints about the climb to the top of Drumee, I laughed. It wasn’t even a hill as such so couldn’t wait to hear what they had to say once we went into the park.
Billed as having road, forest trails, mud and a surprise, it first caught the city folk off guard as we turned to run down a field only half a mile in. This wasn’t the last time I was amused by those who had travelled down to “run in some muck.” To those of us who are used to chasing sheep and shifting cattle, the softness of field underfoot was welcomed.
Turning back to head into town, we kept smiles on our faces and were greeted by many a spectator. I did enjoy the fact that we wouldn’t move for a white van that was trying to push his way past us as we headed towards the bottom roundabout. I get that it must have been so frustrating for them trying to get somewhere and then being greeted by police holding up traffic to accommodate a pile of runners. But tough shit really is my view on that and as we turned to head up the exit of the Forest Park I did turn to wave at him to acknowledge his lack of patience.
As memories of Causeway Coast 16 soon flooded my head as we cut up the dirt track to Crow Road, the field of runners, not for the first time in the race was to come together as one by one we tried not to fall or slip. Familiar faces were about for some reminiscing and a good laugh. Running past the holy grail that is the lake, we were greeted by the hill to the Castle which I can only assume is the Castle that inspired the town name.
From here we went up and down and up again through the trails of the back hills. At 3 mile, we were impressed to be on point for half marathon pace and given the amount of hills we had encountered, both Caitiriona and I where very pleased with ourselves. However the familiar route of the back hills soon entered into the unknown as we passed the boundary wall and went into the “arse end of nowhere” or as known to many as heading towards Leitrim and this is when the real fun began. Negotiating fields which have seem to become inhabited by the “works of art” that appear for the Soma Festival each year, added laugher and a few scares to those who aren’t used to oversized fake animals in random places, with no valid reason.
With at least 1000 in front who had cut up the ground prior to our arrival it was tricky to find safe ground underfoot. Not one to worry about the trainers, or level of mud, I pushed on through as I watched 2 snowmen panic like the sun was going to melt them as they sunk further into the mud as they didn’t move quick enough. However at our next obstacle, it was comical to watch as everyone held on with bated breath trying to get down a rather steep hill which had mud rivers going down it quicker than the runners. It was here we met Lorriane and Caroline, who we were to spend the remaining few miles with as we continued to meet, tackle and conquer the “surprises” that the route organisers had in store for us.
Reaching 6 mile, I knew it was going to make or break me. After a few tough months post marathon, I feared the unknown beyond what I had ran. I had walked several times in the past month beyond the distance but I wasn’t sure what I had whilst running. As we came onto the Drumbuck Road, we had seemingly swapped partners briefly as I spent a mile or two running with Caroline and chatting about our aims for the coming year. The sun had began to drop in the sky and as we entered into the park, the thought of the end being near as very appealing.
There was one more little surprise left for us and although the finish line was in sight, we had to run the whole way around the god damn horse show field which wasn’t without a few wee inclines. I was however feeling strong, comfortable and content within myself and my wee legs. I had become quite attached to my green tutu and was smiling away. Having to gather the now “team” together, Caitriona and I, alongside new found running friends Lorraine and Caroline, pushed towards the finish line to come across it together to mark what was a tough, challenging and extremely fantastic run.
There is nothing I can fault about the whole event from start to finish, apart from missing out on soup as they had run out as it seems spectators and joe bloggs off the street had heard there was complementary soup and although I’m sure both the club and Newcastle AC had planned to cater for more than entered, they had under estimated the hunger and excitement that a bowl of soup could generate.
It was the best well attended prizegiving I have ever been at, though on scanning the room it was probably because a pint or 3 where available and everyone deserved a wee tipple for their hard work. I was delighted to see Michael Power and his sons take home the main category win for dressing up. I’m still laughing as I see more and more pictures of them appear.
Caitriona and I took home a bottle of wine each also for the effort made to dress up along with some other of the club members, you could say that although MAC didn’t win any of the running categories, we definitely owned the fancy dress, showing that yet again that Murlough AC fully embraces everything that there is on offer from running right down to being the best turned out club in Down. *my own opinion of course*
A quick shower and pizza and soon we were back out to toast how badass we were for completing and surviving the Cracker. I don’t think it was really necessary to be the last ones to leave the bar or not get home to after 2.30am, but I was celebrating, celebrating the realisation that I can still run, that I may have found my mojo again and that I was amongst those who have been by my side the whole way through what is without a doubt the most amazing year of achievements that I have ever had.
Photo credit to Mal Mc Cann, Paul Fegan, Colm McMullan and Liam Smyth
And some dodgy drunk snap chat pictures