NIMRA British Championship Race preview

On Saturday 27th April 2019, Northern Ireland Mountain Running Association will host the first race of the 2019 British Fell Running Championships, in Newcastle, County Down.

On a weekend that see’s the off-road running season really ‘kick-off’, with the Classic Yorkshire 3 Peaks Race taking place in England and the popular Highland Fling Ultramarathon also taking place in Scotland, Northern Ireland’s British Championship Fell Race has again attracted an array of mountain running talent.

The Mourne Highline race will see some of the UK and Ireland’s top fell runners descend on the seaside town, in an attempt to summit some of Northern Ireland’s highest peaks and return to Donard Park in the quickest possible time.  

This course, being used for the second successive year, was designed by the Northern Ireland Mountain Running Association (NIMRA) to provide a testing ‘medium’ fell race specifically for the British Championship Series. The race will start at the scenic Spelga Dam and finish in the well-known Donard Park in Newcastle town centre.  Covering 15k in distance with 1300m of climbing, the route offers a challenge to both the new and experience mountain athlete. Unfortunately in 2018 no one could see the scenery, due to the thick ‘clag’ that covered this area of outstanding natural beauty. In terms of an overview, the course will take in many of the areas tallest and most challenging peaks before descending all the way to the finish in Donard Park (sea level). 

The route:

Participants will be dropped off at Spelga Dam car park (Map ref 267274) . From the Start (Map ref 268274), runners will take on short grassy climb to the summit of Slievenamuck (Map ref 275279), followed by a quick descent to the road crossing at Map ref 281279.  From the Road crossing, it’s a testing, heathery, climb to the summit of  Slieve Meelbeg(CP1 – Map ref 301279). The route then follows the Mourne Wall in an clockwise direction, from Slieve Meelbeg onto Slieve Meelmore Tower (CP2 – Map ref 306287). Having crossed the Mourne Wall (stile) at Meelmore Tower, a steep rocky technical descent follows, before another steep climb to the Summit of Slieve Bearnagh (CP3 – Map ref 313281), then a long and at times slippery descent into ‘Hare’s Gap’. From Hare’s Gap, the route again follows the Mourne Wall to Slievenaglogh Summit(CP4 – (Map ref 327291)and onwards to Slieve Corragh, before the final climb to the summit cairn of Slieve Commedagh (CP5 – 150m North East of the tower, Map ref 347288). From Checkpoint 5, the route is predominantly downhill to the finish in Donard Park. Prior to reaching the Finish area, runners must dib at CP6 (Map ref 362296), a stileon the edge of the forest, prior to entering Donard Wood. From the stile a firebreak leads to a forest road and descends on small paths through Donard Wood to the finish in Donard Park (Map ref 373306). This section of the course from the stile at CP6 to the finish will be marked.

In normal circumstances, Carnethy 5 Hill Race (Scotland) and the Black Combe Fell Race (England) can be considered as relevant in terms of current form, given the distances, terrain and climbing.  That said, the Edale Skyline and Carrock fell races on 24th March 2019 attracted many of the top level competitors, although massively different (from each other) in terms of course distance and profile, both events will gave a good indication of form recent form.

The Ladies:

The ladies race will see top mountain athletes, such as the Carnethy Hill Running Club’s Helen Fallas(nee Bonsor), Sharon Taylor (Helm Hill), as well as the experienced Mercia Fell Runner Mel Price battle it out against Eryri Harrier Miranda Grant and Taylor’s Helm Hill team mates Kelli Roberts and Hannah Russell.  

Other top ladies set to start include Judith Jepson (unattached), Helen Berry (Holmfirth Harriers AC) and Rachel Normand (Carnethy HRC). Northern Ireland athletes Esther Dickson (Newry AC), Martsje Hell (North Belfast Harriers), Shileen O’Kane (Lagan Valley AC), Ciara Largey (Omagh Harriers), Megan Wilson (Dark Peak Fell Runners) and Sarah Graham (Mourne Runners), amongst others, will ensure the eventual victor will have to work hard for it. 

Sharon Taylor is an obvious contender.  The veteran Helm Hill star is in fantastic form coming into this Championship opener.  With an array of good performance to date (in 2019), the one that stands out is when Sharon raced speedy Irish International Sarah McCormack to the line at the iconic Carnethy 5 Hill Race in February, only losing out by a second to take runner up. Earlier this month, in a competitive field at Howgills Fell Race, Sharon took third place on the podium behind 2018’s UK mountain running star Victoria Wilkinson and the talented Nichola Jackson. Sharon took the win at Black Combe on 9th March 2019, beating local lady and former international Anna Lupton to the line. At Carrock Fell Race on 24th March 2019, Sharon again proved to be to good for the rest of the pack, taking another impressive victory, ahead of English International Sophie Noon and the youthful Eve Pannone.

Two other Helm Hill ladies will be in contention.  Kelli Roberts and Hannah Russell have both showed some form this year, to back up good 2018 performances.  Last weekend Kelli took victory over the short course at Grisedale Grind event in Keswick, beating the aforementioned up and coming Eve Pannone. This backed up a good 5th place at the Carnethy 5 Hill Race in February, where Hannah (Russell) impressed, holding off Angela Mudge for 3rd place.

Carnethy HRC athlete, Helen Fallas has been more accustom to longer, multi day events but has also shown that she can compete over this kind of distance and terrain.  Although a former champion at Transapline and Salomon 4 Trails events, Helen has raced well over shorter, technical fell running courses.  In July 2017 Helen broke the Fastest Known Time for the Tranter’s Round in Scotland (63k / 6100m). The Great Britain & NI athlete has raced sparingly this year, but did win the long Pentland Skyline race in October 2018. 

Historically, Miranda Grant (Eryri Harriers) has raced well in the Mourne Mountains.  Miranda took 2nd place at Donard Chellenge in 2017 and went on to compete well in the overall Championship that year. In 2018, Miranda had a disappointing run over this course, but in better conditions, she will be one to watch.

Mercia’s English International Fell runner and current V40 British Champion Mel Price is another contender, but her competitiveness in the open female category is what makes her worthy of mention.  Mel’s expertise lies in this type of course, the veteran star showed good form in a previous visits to these shores, taking fifth place at the longer Seven Sevens event in 2015. The 2016 British Fell Running Silver medallist will be a podium contender. Likewise, former V50 British Champion Jude Jepson (formerly of Dark Peak Fell Runners), has ran well in the Mournes before and will enjoy this course in current conditions.

At local level, Esther Dickson (Newry AC) will lead the way.  The Northern Ireland international has been untouchable in the mountains this year and will competed well on home soil. Esther started the NI season off with a win at Slieve Gullion, before winning both of the NIMRA Championship races at Glenariff and Donard-Commeddagh. The evergreen Shileen O’Kane (Lagan Valley AC) and the speedy Martsje Hell (North Belfast Harriers) are both capable of leading the Northern Ireland charge for honours.  Both ladies know this course, they’ll have the attributes to be in contention and always bring their ‘A’ game to the big races.  Other notable local talent would be, Ciara Largey (Omagh Harriers) who appears to have returned from a stint in Scotland.  Formerly of Lochaber AC, Ciara has a fantastic history in the Mourne mountains and will run well.  Another Northern Ireland International, Sarah Graham of local club Mourne Runners, has been returning from an early season niggle but is capable of producing an impressive result, similar to that of a year ago, when she took 7th place over this course. Sarah recently won the NIMRA organised Donard Wood Trail Race and the competitive Cooley Legends Trail Half Marathon in Carlingford.

Megan Wilson (Dark Peak Fell Runners), will be another local lady looking to impress. Megan’s results of late have been a little unpredictable but this course will suit her style. Could we see a Northern Ireland female winner?


The Men:

Although the 2019 Northern Ireland leg of the British Championship start list doesn’t boast regular names such as Scottish International Mountain Runner Finlay Wild (Lochaber AC), former English Fell Running Champion Rob Hope (Pudsley and Bramley AC), regular travellers such as Morgan Donnelly (Borrowdale FR), Tom Addison (Helm Hill Runners), Danny Hope (Horwich RMI Harriers), Kim Collison (Borrowdale FR), nor the Isle of Man’s popular Lloyd Taggart of Manx Fell Runners, it does contain an outstanding crop of international fell running talent.

The main contenders are likely to be Rob Jebb (Helm Hill), Carl Bell (Keswick AC), Rhys Findlay Robinson (Dark Peak), Joshua Jardine (Helm Hill), Ben Mounsey (Calder Valley Fell Runners), Carnethy Hill Running Club pair Andrew Fallas and Dessie Flanagan and regular attendees such as Matthew Roberts (Calder Valley Fell Runners) and Adam Perry (Helm Hill) amongst a few other notables.

Rhys Findlay-Robinson (Dark Peak Fell Runners), Martin Mikkel-Barron (Borrowdale), the speedy Sam Stead (Keswick AC) and the youthful Max Wainwright (Dark Peak Fell Runners), as well as Northern Ireland men Seamus Lynch (Newcaslte AC), Eoin Lennon (Carnethy HRC), Mark Stephens (Newcastle AC), Allan Bogle (City of Derry) and Mourne Runners duo Jonny Scott and Timmy Johnston will also be at the sharp end of the field.  

Former British Champion Carl Bell and 2018 Mourne Highline winner Joshua Jardine, as well as Robb Jebb and Andrew Fallas look like the favourites for this years event. Each of the four have shown some kind of form in recent months, but its Carl who has impressed the most.  Following a good Cross Country Season, the Keswick AC man took an impressive victory at the 20 mile long Edale Skyline Fell Race in March, he followed it up with a win at the very competitive Howgills Fell Race earlier this month. In taking victory at Howgills, Carl saw off some of this weekends contenders, such as Robb Jebb, Mark Lambe, Max Wainwright and Rhys FR, amongst others.

Robb Jebb, took 8th place at Carnethy, before an impressive win at Black Combe in early March.  Later that month Robb took 2nd place at a tightly contested Carrock Fell Race, finishing close behind a young Noah Hurton and just ahead of another Highline contender Joshua Jardine.  At the aforementioned Howgills Fell Race, Robb took 2nd (to Carl Bell) and last weekend again took 2nd place, this time at the Grisedale Grind, behind another of Saturday’s contenders Rhys Findlay-Robinson.  Helm Hill Runners normally travel in mass, this event looks to be no different.  Another standout athlete on their team sheet is young Joshua Jardine.  Joshua came to light early in 2017, then took an impressive 3rd place at the Donard Challenge and subsequently went on to win the U23 British title. JJ returned to Northern Ireland in 2018 to take victory over this course. So far in 2019, Joshua has been competitive over shorter courses, with a couple of 3rd place finishes (Carrock Fell and Loughrigg), but will be ready for this one and will no doubt be in contention as the lead participants descend to Donard Car Park.

2016 British Championship winner Rhys Findlay-Robinson (Dark Peak Fell Runners) always has a strong run in a talent packed field like this.  Rhys took 7th in the Donard Challenge in 2017, then in 2018 took 2nd place over this course.  A win last weekend (Grisdale Grind) and a 2nd place finish at Black Combe in March shows that he’s in good form.

Calder Valley Fell Runners, without their ‘wingman’ (and talented International) Karl Gray, the charismatic Matthew Roberts and El Capitano Ben Mounsey may not be in contention for the win, but will be looking for a podium spot. Matty took 4th place here in 2018, whilst former GB International Ben has been quiet of late, but will undoubtedly be ready for the British Championship challenge. 

Three times winner of the gruelling Fellsman Ultra, Adam Perry (Helm Hill) is another man worth considering.  The Inov-8 athlete’s talent over the long distance speaks for itself, he can climb, but will need a turn of pace to stay with the likes of those previously mentioned. 

Another man with the ability to make the podium in this classic event is Daniel Haworth (Matlock). Daniel was 37th here in 2018 but has since produced good results, particularly at Loughrigg Fell Race, which shows progression.  Although Loughrigg is a shorter course than this, there will be a lot of ‘running’ involved in the latter parts of the Highline course and that will suit Daniel.

Andrew Fallas (Carnethy HRC) has stepped up a level in recent years, some might say it’s the time spent in the hills away from wedding planning, not me….. obviously! With some top finishes at Syrunning Extreme World Series events, in Tromso and Glencoe, behind him, the Scottish international runner is good over the longer distance, this course and distance will compliment his talents. His victory at the 2018 Pentland Skyline race (October), although a few months ago now, is still notable, given that he impressively beat Great Britain & NI athlete Tom Owens and our own (Irish International) Eoin Lennon to the top of the podium.   

Along with the ever present Martin Mikkelsen-Barron (Borrowdale), participants such as competitive trail runner Dessie Flanagan (Carnethy HRC), Mark Lambe (3rd at Howgills) and Max Wainwright (Dark Peak Fell Runners), who only a few weeks ago took victory in the Eskdale Elevation Fell Race, having won the Ian Roberts Memorial Fell Race in March, are all worthy of note.

Last but by no means least, are the Northern Ireland hopefuls. A few absentees, most notably Newcastle AC man Zak Hanna.  The Northern Ireland and Ireland International has been competing well both on home and foreign soil over the last 2 years, but has not signed up to race here.  Seamus Lynch (Newcaslte AC) made an unforgettable return to fell running, having spent a few years racing on the roads.  In 2018 Seamus won the ‘Irish triple’, taking the top honours in the NIMRA and IMRA Championships, as well as the local Hill & Dale Series crown.  Seamus has won two out of two NIMRA Championship events so far in 2019 (Glenariff and Donard Commedagh). 

Mark Stephens (Newcastle AC) has impressed recently.  Mark won the season opener at Slieve Gullion before pushing Seamus to the finish at Glenariff Mountain Race, following that up with a good performance at the Donard Commadagh race (2nd). Mourne Runners duo Jonny Scott and Timmy Johnston have also stepped up a level this year, competing well in the local cross country, trail and mountain running events. Both men will have trained well for this event and will be looking for a top Northern Ireland finish.

Eoin Lennon, a Portaferry man competing for Carnethy Hill Running Club, is a very strong climber and has speed to burn. Eoin has established himself as Northern Ireland’s best long distance mountain and trail runner. If Eoin does make the start line here, he will be in contention for a top ten finish, or better….!

Allan Bogle (City of Derry Spartans) is another participant who runs best against top quality competition.  It was only a few years ago that the Northern Ireland International won the home leg of the British Championships, in what has been the toughest conditions in some years. Allan will be amongst the top NI runners and another contender for the top ten.

NIMRA have advised that no on the day entries are available for this event and that all mandatory kit should be brought to the Race Headquarter for registration. No Kit – No Race!

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