The Art O’Neill race isn’t the longest ultra run in Ireland, but it is probably the gnarliest! Back in my hillwalking days I had heard all about the Art O’Neill walk, when an informal group would meet up at Dublin Castle at midnight on an early January weekend night and retrace the footsteps of Art O’Neill’s 16th century escape into deepest Wicklow. I loved the sound of it, with its great history and arduous timing, but never got around to giving it a go.
Then a few years ago my good friend Gearoid Towey (adventure racer, former Olympian and trans-Atlantic rower) decided to organise a more formal event. It would raise money for charity, and include an ultra-run version along with the traditional walking event. I was enthused from first hearing the concept. I was one of only a dozen or so runners to take on the challenge that first year. It was a freezing night, with temperatures well below zero, ice on the roads, and the bogs frozen hard. Moonlit clear skies meant I was able to run the entire event without torchlight, and I went on to win that first race.
In the years since there have been two or three more editions of the race, and each time I have managed to win. However the wins have become progressively more hard-fought. Last year in particular was a tremendous race, with Paul Tierney pushing me hard. So much so that the course record was shattered, and for the first time I finished the race before dawn.
This year Gearoid wasn’t around to organise, so Declan Cunningham took over. He had been involved in the race organisation for a few years, and is a well-known and respected outdoor instructor and guide. An initial 200 places were filled online almost instantly when entries were opened. Unfortunately for Declan the national park in Wicklow for some reason decided that they were going to impose a new cap on numbers of 200 for this years event. A huge number of people were left disappointed by this development. It also meant that I wasn’t entered to defend my title.
Of course, whilst all this had been going on I had been organising my trip to race in Arizona at the Across the Years race. This 72 hour race, finishing on the first of January, would be the longest run I would have ever done. Coming back and trying to race Art O’Neill (which this year was scheduled to take place on the 11th January at 2a.m) within two weeks of that endeavor would seem like a lunatic idea. But then if I only took part in races that seemed like rational and sensible ideas I’d get nothing done! So a few exchanges of emails with Declan before Christmas got me entered into one of the few remaining slots in the race.
Taking part in the race was going to be an interesting task in itself under the circumstances. It was quite possible I’d barely be able to run. Winning it would seem like way too big an “ask”. No matter what shape I would be in, I was bound to be feeling significant fatigue after a 72 hour ultrarun. This was the year for my rivals to catch me.
Across the years went brilliantly well, as you can read in my earlier blog entries. What would be interesting from the point of view of the Art O’Neill would be how I could recover from the effort. The first few days after the race were spent chilling out in Arizona being a tourist. I made it up to the Grand Canyon via the scenic and laid back town of Sedona. I managed to eat healthily and not in too massive quantities as well.
3 days after finishing Across the Years I found myself setting off from the rim of the Grand Canyon to see how far down to the river I could make it in a day and get back up before sunset. To my surprise I was able to trot downhill comfortably and effortlessly, and power my way back uphill to the rim afterwards (having made it most of the way down and back). This made me a lot more confident that at least I would be able to run the Art O’Neill.
I arrived back in Ireland on a Saturday morning and slept pretty much solidly for 24 hours. Art O’Neill was less than a week away. I got up on Sunday morning and decided to have a go at a short (for me) easy training run. The good news was I was able to run, albeit very slowly. But I could still feel that I was hugely fatigued, to the extent that if I stopped running I started feeling a bit faint!
I did two more light days of training on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. This was really just to keep my running “ticking over”. But Wednesdays run went particularly well. Again it wasn’t particularly fast, but now it was more because I was holding back and deliberately taking it easy. Thursday was a “do nothing” taper day.
That had all been an unusual lead up to an ultra race in itself, but I topped it all off with my most unusual day of race lead in yet! One huge advantage of being a multi-day adventure racer, and more recently a multi-day runner, was that I didn’t feel any pressure or need to get any rest or sleep in the hours before the race. I was happy to treat it as an unusually extended normal day.
After my normal day’s work I grabbed an early evening snack and then went along to an orchestral concert in the National Concert Hall… about as big a contrast as was possible with what was to follow! I was speculating to myself that I probably had the most outlandish post-concert agenda of anyone in the audience.
I made my way back home afterwards and started getting my race gear in order. The weather was damp without being rainy. It was relatively warm compared to previous years. I elected to wear a zip-topped Columbia omni-heat base layer that I was testing (very successfully). Given the warmth I just needed a waterproof shell layer over that, so chose my number 1 shell, my super lightweight and breathable Columbia Omni-dry jacket. This also had the advantage of being bright yellow, so would be useful for being seen by cars on the road section of the race.
I wore my standard adventure-race leggings (berghaus powerstretch). I was going to do the whole race without changing shoes or socks, so picked out a heavy-duty pair of bridgdale padded hiking socks, and put my Columbia ravenous trail shoes. These are my “go-to” mixed terrain runners.
After that the remainder of the mandatory gear had to be packed. It didn’t take long to put it all together. One thing I noticed was that a map of the route wasn’t mandatory. Since I knew the route about as well as possible (As well as being a useful navigator I seem to have extremely good recall for place I’ve been before, along with pretty good map memory), I decided not to bring a map. All the gear was easily packed into my 20 Litre OMM running backpack. That in turn was packed into the bag which I would deposit with the race organisers. I’d get access to this at check point 1 and at the end of the race. A complete change of clothing for after the race, along with some snacks, were also put in this bag.
By now it was midnight, so I made my way back into the city centre to the race start in Dublin Castle. On the way I could see the “walkers” making their way out through the city, having started at midnight (Some of the leading walkers definitely need to consult a dictionary to figure out which event they should be entering!). I had completed most of my registration process at a pre-race talk for runner that I assisted Declan with on the Monday before the race. As a result I was very quickly through the last of the registration process and ready to race, the most important part of wich was to pick up my electronic dibber. Racers would use these to tag in and out of the two control points, and dib in at the finish, allowing the organisation to track racers better.
The atmosphere in the building was great. As well as around 70 runners there were another 30 hybrids (who would run the road section and then join a guided group to walk the off-road mountains). There were quite a number of my friends around, and I spent most of the time leading up to the race start chatting away with them. It was a nice relaxing way to lead up to the race start. An option was given to allow anyone who thought they would be particularly slow to start at 1a.m. About 10 or 20 people took advantage of the opportunity and headed off at that time.
Finally, just before 2a.m. Declan roused us all and we assembled outside in the courtyard. Declan gave a very brief final speech, and then counted us down. At 2a.m. we were off! As usual, I had positioned myself at the front of the group and quickly accelerated off and out the castle gates. The first few minutes of this race are always interesting. I usual start at quite a good speed, so it’s always interesting to see who is going to try to match my pace.
I had no idea who my challengers were likely to be this. A combination of circumstances meant that most of the top runners from the 2012, along with other notable Irish ultra-trail runners, were not at this year’s race. In particular Paul Tierney and Barry Murray had both emigrated a very short time earlier, and Greg Byrne had decided not to enter a long time back. I reckon any of those should have had me for speed this year, given the fatigued state my body was in without much recovery time after “Across the Years”.
After a few minutes it was obvious I wouldn’t be running alone! It sounded like there were 2 or 3 other people running right behind me. I settled in to my steady comfortable fast-ultra pace. It was a little bit risky running that speed (without fatigue it would be no problem), but I was happy enough to stretch the others along and see if they could maintain the pace over time. The long run through Dublin city and out into the suburbs of Tallagh and beyond is as close to flat as makes no difference. So any road runners were likely to fly along here, especially if they had no idea how to pace themselves for the full race.
I kept up myself amused, and ensured maximum efficiency, by running as close to the pure racing line as possible once we were beyond Templeogue bridge. The roads are quieter, and generally have long sightlines around here. It was interesting watching the reactions of the other runners around me as I took these lines. The runner from the bunch who was tracking me most closely had a very fast leg turnover. Either he had a good ultra shuffle, or he was putting in way too much effort!
Beyond Oldbawn there were no more streetlights, so I popped on my small basic headtorch. Normally I’d be able to run these roads without torchlight, but it was a new moon and there was almost no ambient light to work with, even for someone with good night vision. The road also narrowed down considerably, so there wasn’t as much room for fun and games with racing lines any more. There was still a bunch of 4 of us running along.
One of the others was obviously brimming with confidence at this point as he gradually eased away and into a 10 or 20 meter lead. This was the first time that one of the others had tried to do this. I was more than happy to let him away as far as he liked. I was still going as fast as I wanted to go at this stage, and it was still early days, even for the road section. The climbing was going to start within a kilometer or so… that’s would be the first stage of things getting interesting, no doubt.
As we started ramping up the road climb up Bohernabreena towards Stone Cross I there were two others out in front, still having a lead of 10 to 20 meters. The early section of the climb as quite a few curves. Again I took the racing line as much as possible. I know the course of this road pretty well from cycling up and down several times every year. The 2 ahead just stuck to the right side of the road. This resulted in my steadily hauling them in. The other runner from the group seemed to fall away at this stage. And then there were 3!
The road levels off somewhat and makes a 90 degree turn to the left. By this stage I had completely hauled in one of the two runners ahead (The fast leg turnover runner). The leader stuck to the right as I followed the racing line around the bend. By time he crossed over to the left side he was behind again. The road then starts ramping up to get steeper again. I maintained a good steady climbing pace. At this point the runner who had been leading briefly started slipping back a bit. The road then straightens out for 200 to 300 meters with a steady climb. He seemed to be slipping back more and more. The light from his headtorch getting more and more faint. And then there were 2!
The road then steepens, and does a right-left “s” bend. I ran the racing line as usual, and was tracked so closely by “fast legs” that we bumped each other on one occasion. I powered up a bit before reaching stone cross, and then eased back a bit as the road flattened after taking the left turn onto the quiet back road towards the firing range in Kilbride. “Fast legs” pretty much matched my pace changes. It looked like he was going to try to track me.
Not long after stone cross we started coming up on the first walkers. They’re always a welcome sight. They usually shout some encouragement when runners pass, and I try my best to give whatever acknowledgment I can, depending on how hard I’m working. Occasionally I need to shout ahead to ask them to leave a space for me to pass. I’ve yet to have a big collision, so everything seems to work well.
The road then starts the last of its long climbs before Kilbride. I eased back a bit and “fast legs” went ahead, but stayed just in front of me. About half way up this climb I decided that it was time for a little fun and games. I had intended to just run my own steady pace for this race, since it would be risky to engage in any racing given my lack of recovery. However I like running on my own without anyone tracking me, especially in such wild and interesting terrain that we get in the mountain sections of the Art O’Neill. So I decided to see if I could shake off my “tail”.
I accelerated up. My own stride changed from the longer loping stride of my ultra-cruise to a faster more bounding attacking hill climbing stride. “Fast Legs” tried to follow. His leg turnover had no increased to an incredible rate, especially considering he was climbing a hill in the first section of a long ultra race. My initial spurt of speed put in a bit of a gap, and I was slowly able to increase that as I powered up the rest of the climb. I kept up the pace all the way through to the apex of the hill, which also marked the Dublin-Wicklow border.
It’s a nice road descent from here down to the army shooting range at Kilbride. Since it was downhill I no longer needed to power my way along, but I kept up a fast speed with big bounding strides. Within a minute or two of starting the descent I started to here the crazy footsteps of “fast legs” coming screaming down the hill at a rate knots. By about two thirds of the way down, as we zig-zagged our way past clusters of walkers, he finally caught me. He then tucked in behind and beside me again. I eased back on the speed again as we reached the bottom of the hill and ran passed the firing range entrance.
Not long after this the road dips, and then begins a long not too steep but steady rise as it heads towards Kippure house. As we passed through the dip and began climbing I accelerated rapidly and attacked the climb again. Again I created an instant gap, and again I could hear the incredibly high leg turnover as “fast legs” tried to keep up. If he was going to track me then I was going to have some fun and not make it easy! In fact this was absolutely the worst way someone should approach running an ultra like this. But at least I knew I could survive it! Again I started pulling steadily away.
I kept up the steady pace up this road. After a few minutes it levels out and then begins a shallow descent. This is where I needed to start paying attention to look for the gate into the shortcut that would bring us over private land to the Sally Gap road and Ballysmuttan bridge over the river Liffey. There were still regular groups of walkers ahead on the road, so finding the entrance was made particularly easy. About 5 or 6 walkers was making their way through the gate as I arrived.
The next kilometer was the first off road section of the race. This section was mainly farm roads (tractor tracks) through fields. Very good running terrain, but a bit slippy as the ground was very wet. I decided that discretion was the better part of valor… I’d run down very carefully with my main priority being not fall, rather than generate maximum speed. Thankfully the route was well marked, and again the walkers on the track made it easy to follow.
After about 5 minutes or so I popped back out onto the road, a little surprised that “fast legs” hadn’t done come flying up to me. I sped up again on the road, setting a good pace down to Ballysmuttan bridge and up the short sharp zig-zag climb on the other side of the Liffey. An extremely acute turn onto a side road at the top of this climb gave me on opportunity to look down the last section, where I saw “fast legs” climbing like a demon again. Here we go again!
About 5 minutes later “fast legs” had caught up again, and once more settled in to running on my shoulder. With only 5 more minutes or so of road climbing to go before control point 1 I decided to have a bit more fun. I threw in another fast surge, followed by slowing to jogging at walking pace, followed by stopping to let a car past, followed by one final surge. Lunacy! But “fast legs” seemed to be trying to match me the whole way.
Finally after all that I arrived into CP1 and dibbed in. As usual being one of the earliest in meant I had the find my bag in the largest possible bag-pile. (It wasn’t actually a pile.. they were arranged out in rows). Luckily I had used a distinctive bright blue bag this year so I found it within about 30 seconds. Then I simply took out and put on my running bag of mandatory safety gear, and deposited my into the van that would take it to the finish.
I tagged out and started running down the forest fireroad towards black hill. This was the one change in the route from last year. We could skip the road climb to Black hill car park (which had Paul Tierney and myself pushing ourselves to our limits last year) and the Black hill climb and descent, and instead use the forest fireroad to take us right up to the edge of the ridge off Black hill.
Finally running on my own, I set a nice steady pace out along the fireroad. There was no sign of head-torches in front or behind. About 5 minutes later the fireroad start to climb, and I could see the torches of about 4 walkers up ahead. A minute or two into the climb I could see the head torch of a runner flying along the fireroad behind me.
At the end of the fireroad a rough wide earth track continued to climb steadily. This ran out, leaving us with a boggy singletrack path which had been eroded into the soaking boggy ground. Within seconds of running on this first section of true off-road my feet had already been totally immersed in freezing bog-water. Good! My feet couldn’t get any wetter so there was no reason to worry about where I was stepping.
The singletrack led up to a trench like feature that was running perpendicularly to the track, but straight up the hill. I knew from experience of navigating in this area that this would lead pretty much exactly to the saddle between Black Hill and Billy Byrne’s Gap, which was exactly where I wanted to go to. The group ahead had continued straight on ahead rather than following the trench. I turned 90 degrees right and marched up the steep ground parallel to the trench.
At this point “fast legs” was about 50 meters behind. It would be interesting to see what he did next. Of course he followed up my route and ignored the walkers group. At the top of the trench I had to cross a small fence, and then had a small bit of climbing left as the ground levelled out before the saddle itself.
About 20 or 30 meters after crossing the fence I decided to sacrifice speed to see if I could loose my tail, so I switched off my head-torch and would walk onto the saddle using the tiny amount of ambient light, which was just enough to make out the outline of the ridge. After switching out the torch I altered my track a little to take me a little past the saddle, but more directly towards Billy Byrne’s Gap.
I couldn’t see any features of the ground where I was walking on. It’s undulating boggy features and tufty grass meant I was tripping and sliding frequently, but I was motivated enough to get rid of “fast legs” that I was more than happy to put up with this. But he still seemed to be trying to follow me. I could see my shadow as his headtorch shined on me. hmmmmm. It was still impossible to see the ground, but there was just enough visible features to still navigate.
I crossed over the ridgeline and down the very gentle slope on the other side. I was now heading well off my intended route. I was trying to use the ridgeline to hide for a few seconds from my “tail”, but he was making a determined effort to follow me and was too close. So I changed tactics and started walking a wide arc back up the hill. I gradually tightened the arc until I was heading back down hill in pretty much the direction we had come from, and about 180 degrees from where I would go to take the optimal race route.
The tightening of the arc meant “fast legs” closed me down rapidly, but made it very obvious that he wasn’t navigating, just following me. I made one last final turn and walked straight at him and stopped. An interesting situation! So I told him that he wasn’t going to follow me and to do his own navigation. There was a brief exchange, but I made it clear that there was no way he was going to get around the course by following me. He took off his backpack and started to get out his mandatory navigation tool, and with that I walked, but not quite in the optimal direction, just in case!
After a minute or two, and one or two zig-zags, it looked like there was no torch following me. Even better, a very heavy mist rolled in, cutting visibility right down to 10 meters or less. So I turned my own headtorch on, and got my compass out of my backpack. The visibility was so poor that I reckoned it would require compass work to safely find my way towards Ballinagee bridge and check point 2. It was great to finally be alone out in the wilderness!
I also decided to alter my route. I had intended to try to contour around the left (east) side of the valley and hit the very obvious high fireroad entrance on the edge of the forest that blocks the way from the valley to the Wicklow Gap road. The fireroads are the express routes through! Instead I’d revert to the route I used last year, as it is the easiest to navigate. I just had to hit the rive in the middle of the valley. That’s easy!
So I set the compass to a dead south bearing (Which would do me for the whole race!), and headed over Billy Byrne’s gap. In the mist it was impossible to tell where I was hitting the gap. I didn’t have too many bog-holes to cross on the way up, so I was probably taking a good line to the east side. As the mist thinned out a bit I could occasionally see the torches from the walking group high to my left. They seemed to be looking back at me too, judging from the beam directions.
It didn’t take as long as I expected for the ground to flatten out and then start descending. I started a good downhill running pace again, but at the same not too fast… I really didn’t want to go crashing to the ground out here. After five or ten minutes of very technical descending I dropped below the cloud line and out of the mist. I still couldn’t see too much due to the lack of ambient light, but there were enough lights from houses in the distance to confirm that I was roughly on course.
More descending took me down to the river which runs down the center of the valley (of course). I knew from running in the area before that it would be faster to cross over and try to take a straight line down the valley rather than follow the twists and turns of the river. Even with no visibility of the ground ahead this worked well, and again it took me less time than I expected before I crossed one more tributary and was hitting the low points in the valley.
I looked back up the hill to see a lone headtorch which seemed to be following my line down the valley and going at a rate of knots… here we go again!
The river winds it way towards the corner of the forest on the east side of the valley. There are no fireroad entrances here… it would take 5 minutes of climbing up a small stream along the edge of the forest to get to the entrance I had originally intended to find. But I had an alternative route which was a lot less obvious.
The ground towards the forest corner was horrific this year. Normally it is very boggy, but as the ground was wetter this year it was practically like running through a shallow lake. My feet were spending so long immersed in the cold water that they went numb for a while. There were enough bumps and tufts around that I tripped several times running this section. I ploughed on to the forest corner as fast as I could.
I had another look back at the corner. I could see the walking group higher up the valley. The solo headtorch had disappeared .. he was probably being obscured by the bump I had just descended and was in the flatter ground approaching the forest corner. The forest and the undulating ground meant that I would disappear out of sight of my “tails” for a while occasionally, which enabled me to get onto my preferred route without being seen 🙂 This got me back onto nice runnable terrain after a few minutes. “Fast legs” would hopefully have to work out his own navigation at this point.
Another 5 minutes or so of running took me down the valley and I popped out onto the Wicklow Gap road near Balinagee bridge. That went pretty well, considering the navigational difficulties on the night, as well as the tactical messing about! Another fireroad about 50 metres along the road then led down to checkpoint 2 on the King’s river after a nice 2 minute easy descent.
It was good to see the familiar faces of Adrian and John (photographer to the hillrunning stars!) here. But I wasn’t going to be hanging around… I tagged in and tagged out rapidly, and headed off on my preferred route out, climbing up the fireroad.
I was hoping that my hard-earned knowledge of the route would work to my advantage and give me a good lead to this point. I couldn’t see anyone behind now, but I had no idea how close “fast legs” was at this stage. (It turned out that I had created a 30 minute gap to checkpoint 2… he must have paid a big price for not being prepared to do his own navigation).
My speed had now dropped back to a comfortable trot. It was just a matter of working along the route and staying in front. I had no intention of using any more energy than I needed to! Crossing the river on the open ground heading towards Art’s Cross I took the opportunity to half fill my water bottle, and have a quick drink of water. That was the first (and last!) time I ate or drank during the race.
As I headed up the ridge towards Art’s Cross my speed was reduced to a fast march. I still wasn’t pushing too hard. I kept looking back down the valley to see if I could work out how big a lead I had, but I couldn’t see any headtorches in the valley behind me. Things were looking reasonably comfortable now from a race winning point of view, as long as I didn’t make any silly mistakes.
About halfway up the hill I passed through the cloud base again, so visibilty was hugely reduced as a result of the thick mist. It was even worse than conditions had been in the vicinity of Billy Byrne’s Gap. It rapidly reached the point where I could only see a meter or two effectively. Using my more powerful headtorch, which I had been keeping in reserve until I was clear of chasing runners, would only have made things worse, as the mist was reflecting back the light.
Even holding a straight line up the centre of the ridge, normally a pretty easy thing to do, was proving to be difficult. I realised I’d probably wandered off course a bit and needed to correct. But it was really tricky to figure out where the centre of the ridge was, and how far up I had climbed. I hadn’t re-calibrated my altimeter, so although it was giving me back good high altitude figures they couldn’t be trusted much. So based on experience (or more accurately, instinct, guess work, and risk calculations) I decided to turn left and head on a dead south bearing. The advantage of this was I would definitely hit the Glenmalure valley, and I would be guaranteed to be crossing a path/track in the valley at some point. If I had got it wrong though it could end up doing considerably more climbing and descending over worse terrain than I should.
The ground between the Art’s Cross area and the Glenmalure valley is about as difficult to navigate as anywhere I have come accross in the world. There are lots of subtle undulations that usually fall between contour lines on maps. There are lots of peat hags about too, which also tend to push you left and right randomly, making it easy to drift off course. They also change over time as well from weathering and erosion. Now I was trying to cross 2 or 3 kilometers through this territory with practically no visibility.
One last complication to add to my task was that I had managed to get bubbles in my compass. This had probably happened in the trips and falls I had taken approaching the forest corner before Balinagee bridge. That meant that my compass was not settling and setting on its bearing very well. It seemed to oscillate about quite a bit, depending on where the bubbles settled, which in turn depended on how level I could hold the compass crossing this nasty terrain! But I knew that broadly south would do! I would eventually hit the valley.
After a while the ground seemed to start flattening out again, but it was hard to tell. All the small undulations were making it quite hard to discern an overall pattern. I was definitely getting higher now though, as I could feel an icy wind biting into me. The hills had provided more shelter on the climb. Conditions were a little too tricky to restart running though. It was far more preferable to keep going in roughly the right direction than to be a little faster but further off course. However this meant that I wasn’t generating enough heat to effectively counter the cold wind, so I was starting to get pretty uncomfortable.
I plodded on for what seemed like an absolute age. I didn’t recognise anything about the terrain I was walking across, but with so little visibility I would have to be very precise to find something that I would recognise. The main recognisable feature is a large lake (one of two, named Three Lakes!), well about 150 meters long and 50 meters wide, that I would normally find crossing this area. However even this would be easily be missed in such extreme conditions.
As much as I love the Art O’Neill for it’s gnarliness, I was starting to get to the point where I’d prefer that things were a little less gnarly! It seemed that I was walking for an age with absolutely no sign of any change to my surroundings. I wanted to start descending at some point soon, or at least walk up to the Three Lakes. My hands were freezing by now, but I decided to just keep going rather than go to the fuss of stopping and changing to my warmer gloves in my back-pack. I even pondered to possibility of getting out my phone (mandatory emergency gear for the race), turning it on and using its GPS capabilities to give me a rough idea of my location to confirm that I was close enough to where I assumed I was.
Finally I started to descend. This would seem to indicate that I wasn’t walking up Conavala peak, which was a possibility (and would have been a big and time costly diversion). The terrain wasn’t as bad as I expected. In last year’s race the start of the descent from the Three Lakes was on appalling ground. But I could move reasonably well here, especially with the descent to speed me along, and unlike last year I didn’t feel like I could sink into the ground with one wrong step.
The other possibility was that I was on the other side of the Three Lakes, and would give myself a silly undulating route before I hit the upper end of the Glenmalure value. However, the ground kept descending as I followed my southern bearing on the compass, which was good!
I was hoping to hit a stream heading from the vicinity of the Three Lakes that heads south for a while before being captured by the Glenmalure valley. It felt like the ground was slightly sloping to my right (west) as I descended south. This meant I was probably on the east side of the stream. I knew from experience that there was a huge area of felled forest to the east of the stream that I would inevitably walk on to if I was correct in my assumptions.
About 5 minutes of relatively (compared to the previous terrain) fast descending I did indeed reach an area of felled trees. These would be very tough going to get through. Even though the shortest line to forest roads in the Glenmalure valley would be to continue south through this area, I knew it would be far easier going to head west and intersect the stream at the edge of the felled trees.
It was still tough going heading west, and I needed to pay close attention to compass, as I was getting pushed way off course by the slope and terrain within seconds of looking away from it. Another few minutes of battling the extremely tricky ground conditions, including a huge amount of potentially ankle-snapping felled branches, eventually and finally brought me to the stream. It was a huge relief to have made to a point where I was now much more sure of my location, and that I had made relatively good progress to this point. Under the conditions, I was very happy to have navigated successfully to this point. I crossed to the right bank, which I knew from the past was the easier side to run down.
Now all I had to do was follow the stream down to the forest roads (it crossed under a small bridge). From the Three Lakes this would take quite a while, but the strength of the stream and the height of the banks made me think I was actually quite close to reaching the forest road. I was now able to move a lot faster, since I no longer needed to reference the compass, apart from the occasional check that the river was heading in the general direction I expected it to.
I jogged along the river bank, gaining height above the stream as required by the terrain so as to run on flatter ground. I started to slip as I climbed one section of the steep bank. The ground was slippier than I thought, and as a result I din’t stop the slip fast enough. As a result I accelerated down the bank, banging my left shin off a protruding rock on the way down, until I landed on my feet back down in the river.
I scrambled back up onto the river bank, letting out a volley of expletives as I went. The bang on my leg had been one of those “hurts like hell” whacks onto a bone. Even though it hurt quite a bit, it didn’t feel broken, thankfully. That would have been disastrous from a racing point of view, and the start of a major personal safety problem, given how cold it was and how reliant I was on working hard to keep me warm. So I got going again immediately, and increased my speed back up to a jog as the pain subsided somewhat.
It didn’t take long at all before I stumbled onto the forest road. This was an even bigger relief. It’s relatively straightforward almost entirely flat and downhill running all the way to the finish line from here. I had to rouse myself a bit to get my speed up, as I was still a little cold, and my leg was still feeling a bit battered! Visibility was still non-existent, although it was now possible to discern a small amount of light in the sky as the dawn approached. Typical… just as I get to the “no more nav” required section.
The jog down was relatively slow, but still effective. After 5 minutes or so I dropped below the cloud base, and was finally out of the mist. I could see the lights in the Glenmalure valley ahead, which buoyed me up a bit. There are a few points where it’s possible to take the wrong track at road junctions on the descent, but I had my simple “stick next to the river” formula to take me down safely, practically on auto-pilot.
Some of the track in the lower half of the descent towards the finish is very tricky to run on, as it is a very broken rocky path. But at the speed I was running it wasn’t hard to pick my way over it without too much risk. And after my earlier crash I was feeling more risk averse than usual. I checked behind me on occasion, just in case anyone had caught up with me in the mist, but there was no trace of anyone at any point.
I stayed jogging all the way down to the valley floor, and jogged along the last few hundred meters towards the ford where the finish line is positioned. Given how wet the conditions were I reckoned the river would be high enough to make the ford a bit of a wade. I turned the last corner to get to the edge of the ford, and saw the finish barrier, with Declan and one or two others on the other side. I hesitated briefly, before jogging into the river and splashing my way across to dib in at the Finish line. Finally!
Declan confirmed I was first in, in a time of just over 6 hours, about half an hour slower than my record time from the previous year. We all stood around chatting for a few minutes, and I related how tricky conditions were on the last leg of the course. Declan offered me the use of his car to change into my post race clothes, and went off to see could he get me a hot chocolate from the mobile cafe which was setting up nearby for the finishers. I quickly found my bag which had been transported from CP1, and got into the passenger seat in Declan’s car.
Diarmuid O’Colmain, an old friend from IMRA arrived, and of course that stared yet another chat. Declan arrived with the hot chocolate and I took some time to get in a snack along with having a nice warm drink. It was nearly half an hour after arriving and I still had only managed to change into my normal clothes for my upper body, when the 2nd place finisher arrived in. I went over to congratulate him, and was delighted to see that it was Derek Evans, who is part of my adventure racing kayak training crew, and was doing his first ultra!
Back to the car for the trickier task of changing shoes, socks and leggings. When I took off my right sock I discovered that my big-toenail had deteriorated again (after being in poor condition after the Across the Years race). I had spent so much time in wet conditions though that it was very soft. So soft that I was able to pull it right off by hand! It sounds awful, but it was painless and I was very happy to do it! Big-toenail problem solved 🙂
Next I took off my legging, being careful of where I had banged my left shin. What I saw next caught me by surprise. I expected there might be a small cut, but what I saw was a hole in my leg!!! I had managed to open a very deep gash in my skin. It looked like it was probably bone deep. Not good! There was surprisingly little bleeding, and little or no pain. But I knew the big danger here was infection, and I needed to get this seen to by an expert. It’s for situations like this that races have first aiders!
I put on my casual trousers and shoes. Luckily they were convertible trousers, so I was able to zip off the left leg, and have half shorts! I called Declan over, and he got out his first aid kit so I could begin cleaning the cut as best I could. From there I was escalated through the race’s medical system. Diarmuid drove me back out to CP2, where one of the ambulances was positioned. The staff there cleaned out the wound more thoroughly and put a more secure bandage on my leg, and advised me that I really need to get to an A&E department for proper hospital treatment. Diarmuid drove me to St. Vincent’s hospital straight away. I couldn’t have got any better care from all the mountain rescue crew and first aiders, so a huge thanks go out to all of them!
Kelly, The Doctor who took care of me at St. Vincent’s turned out to be a friend of my old adventure racing teammate, Vanessa Lawrenson, and had even seen the old video of the Art O Neill race. I wasn’t expecting that! We ended up having a good wide ranging chat about all sorts of outdoor sports (Much better than reaction I’ve got from some other Doctors along the lines of “aren’t you a bit old for that sort of thing”). Seven stitches later I was released into the world with a warning not to do any heavy exercise for at least ten days. I could probably do with a rest anyway 🙂
Results and splits from the race are available here. Looking back there are a few interesting details. The best of those is Derek Evans’ superb pacing. Despite being a novice he paced his race like an expert to come through from a steady first leg to get all the way to second place. We can also see that Ivan Slovak (“fast legs”) must have lost around half an hour of time towards the end of leg 2, which is an enormous amount. That’s the danger with following someone who doesn’t want to be followed! My split for the 3rd leg was quite a way off the relative standard I had set for the previous 2 legs. That’s probably a result of meeting the worst of the conditions and not feeling under too much pressure to race hard.