Wicklow Way Race, 2013

The idea of running the length of the Wicklow Way had been an obsession of mine for a long time. I was inspired to get into ultrarunning to a large extent by hearing the stories of adventures that runners like Graham and Jane Porter would regale us all with in the prizegiving pubs after IMRA hill races, including their successful Wicklow Way run. Reading the report of Simon Walter’s record-breaking run of 18:25 run further inspired me, especially as he was amongst the first runners I had regular battles with at the Wednesday evening IMRA summer league hill races.

The Wicklow Way

Finally in September 2008 I launched my own attempt at setting a record for the WW. I had a great day’s running and succeeded in my long-term ambition by setting a new record of 13:46. Given how well I had run, and how much time I had taken off the old record I thought that it would hold for a long time, and I wouldn’t need to run it again to get my record back.

But I was very wrong. On the 15th May 2011 Paul Tierney, an emerging ultra trail runner from Cork, had a go at breaking my record and succeeded in running it in a time of 13:38. It wasn’t a huge margin over my previous time, but it was more than enough. I was delighted that someone else had taken on the challenge of running the route, and his success left me determined to come back and attempt to regain the record.

As a result last year I made another attempt on breaking the new record. Mainly just to see what it was like I made that attempt in the south to north direction. That was the first attempt in that direction that I am aware of. With a very definite target to chase, and having analysed where I could make up time from my first attempt, I managed to regain the record in a time of 13:06. I was (again) very happy with that time. However it had taken a huge effort, and the finishing third of the run had been very tough going indeed. Although it had been a more scenic direction, and psychologically easier to “run for home”, I reckoned it was still harder to run south to north, so I could probably break that time by reverting to north to south should I need to go again.

Whilst I definitely hoped that people would continue to try to break the record, I hoped this new one would hold for a while. Paul Tierney was very quick to rise to the challenge and made an attempt to regain the record back. He opted to try the south to north direction for this attempt. It was quite late in the year (November), and the second half of his attempt didn’t get very good weather. He did complete his run, but missed breaking the record with a time of over 14 hours.

Another Irish international ultra trail runner, and professional sports nutritionist, Barry Murray, also made an attempt to break the record by running from south to north. However Barry’s attempt came to an end when he made a navigational error before reaching the half way point.

Much to my surprise it was suggested during an IMRA committee meeting that we (IMRA) could organise a solo race to run alongside the Wicklow Way relay race that IMRA has organised for over 10 years, and it was agreed that it would be a great idea as long as we could get volunteer to organise and direct the race. It was also agreed that there was no point in using the shortened relay version of route. It would only be worth a solo effort for the full version which all the records had been recorded for. This years race was set to start at 12:00am on Saturday 25th May.

Jeff Fitzsimmons agreed to be the race director, and set about the task with huge enthusiasm. In the weeks leading up to the race itself all aspects of the race were thought through and the organisation was put in place. It was agreed that there needed to be generous cut-offs to give as many people as possible the chance to complete the event. It was agreed that a midnight start would best facilitate this, with 21 hours being allowed to complete the run. Jeff ensured that the necessary permit was obtained to get Marlay Park opened for the run on the race night. There is no way I would miss this race!

I had been hoping that at least one other of Ireland’s ultra trail running internationals would also run in the race, but it looked like it was not to be. John O’Regan had intended to race it, but a scheduling clash ruled him out. Paul Tierney, now living in the Lake District in England, couldn’t fit another trip into his schedule. Barry Murray (now living in Tuscany) was actually going to be home that weekend, and intended to try to break the Wicklow Way record. However he didn’t want to start at midnight, so was going to start his own attempt early on Saturday morning after sunrise. Both Jeff and myself attempted to get him to change his mind and run the race, but alas there was no changing his mind.

My lead-up to the race wasn’t exactly optimal! Racing 234km in the world 24 hour championships two weeks beforehand is about as far from perfect tapering as you’re likely to get. However, my recovery after that went very well indeed. I returned to training after a day or two’s rest, and trained pretty much as normal in the following 2 weeks leading up to the WW race.

Jeff had arranged that drop bags could be left by runners to be picked up at 5 points along the course. Helen Dixon, my girlfriend, agreed to help me by driving out to the southern end of the race and providing some additional support. So Thursday evening before the race was spent buying food and drink for the official aid stations, as well as some additional goodies to put in Helen’s car. I also marked up a map of the southern end of the race with meeting points, and went through the plan with Helen.

Friday was a normal day at work, with the exception of an early morning interview on Radio 1’s “Morning Ireland” sports section, which went very well. It’s always nice to get word out to a wider audience about the events we get up to! I didn’t change anything about my normal working day. In the early evening I gathered my race clothes and equipment together, and also packed up a bag with additional spare race gear and casual clothes for after the race. I managed about 1 hours nap time. At 11pm Helen called over, and she drove me to the race start in Marlay Park.

It was fantastic to be able to drive into the main car park at Marlay at 11:30pm, quite a change from earlier solo attempts which didn’t have the park officially opened! There were quite cars parked, with people milling around. I found Jeff and completed the formalities of signing on for the race. Robbie Williams was also there, and he was going to be the other key volunteer race organiser. Jeff and Robbie would cover the length of the course making sure that everyone was supported and safe.

With about 10 minutes to go Jeff gave his race briefing, and then all the runners gathered at the board marking the start of the Wicklow Way itself and posed for the startline photos. It was a fantastic clear night with a full moon high in the sky. However that also meant that the temperature was quite cool. I decided that I’d bring a very lightweight Columbia windproof jacket with me and wear it over my Omni-heat base layer during the colder night-time section of the run. I also decided to keep my track suit bottoms on for the start of the race, and would get rid of them at the first opportunity once it was warm enough. We were all wearing headtorches, but given the full moon it was possible we wouldn’t need them.

The entrants for the first Wicklow Way race at the start Board, ready to go!

The entrants for the first Wicklow Way race at the start Board, ready to go!

I said my goodbyes to Helen, and she headed off to get some sleep (hopefully!) before she would head from home to meet me at Glenmalure (roughly the half way point) sometime after 6a.m. Jeff gave us the countdown, and at midnight 9 runners set off into the darkness through the trees in Marlay park at the start of our long journey. I had a little niggle in my right knee which caused a small bit of pain on my first few steps into the run. This was actually useful in controlling my enthusiasm and keeping my early pace controlled and rational.

Robbie Costello joined me and we chatted on our way through the park. He had been lucky enough to succeed in getting a place for one of the ultra-running classics, the Western States 100 miler, and was cleverly using this race as his last big preparation for that. When we got to the southern gate where we exited Marlay park we found the race crew with the park rangers waiting and cheering us through. A quick long around a road and under the motorway bridge brought us to the first climb of the route.

Conversation with Robbie continued through this, and up the initial road stage of the climb to Kilmashogue car park, revealing the first great view out over the twinkling city lights. I kept my effort steady through the variations of the climb’s steepness. Just beyond the car park as we passed through the forest barrier gates on up the fireroads Robbie dropped back from me to run at his own pace. I had a brief period of running on my own before I could hear anticipated familiar footsteps coming up behind me.

I had heard that Ivan Slovak was going to be running the race, and wondered would he try to latch onto me in the same way he had done in the Art O’Neill race earlier in the year. I guessed he would, and sure enough he was now running on my heals. This was a very different event to the Art O’Neill race though. In that race I was happy to sacrifice my own time to play some tactical games. For this race though I had a very definite target of my own… to break my own record and set the bar higher for anyone trying to break it in the future. So I would just ignore Ivan and run my own pace. If he chose to try to latch onto someone attempting a record-breaking pace, then bigger fool him. That would just guarantee that he wouldn’t make it to the finish.

As we ran across the side of Three Rock/Fairy Castle we came across someone walking their dog. I doubt he expected to see a bunch of runners at this hour of the night, and I certainly didn’t expect to meet any causal walkers! We were well away from the city now, under the clear skies with the outlines of the Wicklow mountains clearly visible covering the horizon ahead of us. It would probably have been possible to run without a torch here, but with Ivan on my heals casting shadows with his headtorch I couldn’t turn my own off.

A right turn took us onto the “wocka wockas” connecting Three Rock with Tibradden mountain. It’s a nice technical run with plenty of protruding rocks to trip up the unwary. Even in daytime it takes a lot of concentration to run this section with any speed. I know it very well though as I train on it at least once per week, so I was able to fly along at a good pace. The noise of Ivan’s footsteps started fading away nicely too, and he wasn’t staring at me with his headtorch… seemed like he wasn’t great on technical ground. The ground becomes less technical a few hundred meters on and I could hear Ivan working hard to catch up and latch onto me again.

The off-road trail ends and pops us out onto the Glencullen road. This was a pleasant run at this time of night, nicely free of traffic. This is followed by the turn and dip down to the centre of the valley, followed by a very long fireroad climb to bring us to the Prince Williams Seat / Raven’s Rock area. Again, I took the climb at a good steady speed without pushing too hard. Again, Ivan stuck to me like a leech, with panicky catch up efforts after each gate. I was wondering to myself how long he would manage to keep up before he would either cop on and run at his own pace or else blow a gasket completely. I reckoned he’d be able to keep up until sometime after Glenmalure, but I doubted he’d be able to stick with my planned effort after that. Time would tell.

The very rocky track from Prince William’s Seat down to the fireroads above curtlestown was another technical section that took full concentration to run in the dark. In the usual pattern Ivan rapidly dropped off, but came storming down at speed to latch back onto my heals. The same pattern took us on around past knockree, down the short technical off the knockree fireroad and along the beautiful river-side run through the centre of the Glencree valley. A short climb took us up from the valley and briefly onto the road on the southern side of the valley before turning left at Crone woods car park. There we found Jeff and Robbie waiting at the first official aid station.

There was a 3 hour cut-off for runners to get to this point. In the end everyone comfortably made this. Jeff had placed the contents of my drop bag onto his car’s bonnet. I didn’t really need anything at this point, which is what I had anticipated. I picked up a small (300ml) bottle of blackcurrant cordial drink just to have a small amount of liquids with me, and with that thanked the lads and ran on up through the car park. Ivan spent longer at his drop back, and then ran hard to catch up with me and latch on again.

It was an odd run up through Crone woods. I was very relaxed in my running, taking an occasional swig of the blackcurrant drink. Ivan running so close behind I thought he might trip me at some point, but at no stage did he attempt to set his own pace, no matter how relaxed my pace was. Things continued like that through the long steady climb through Crone woods past powerscourt waterfall below us in the distance.

Breaking out into the open ground just above the Dargle river the trail turns very technical again for the quick descent to the small footbridge over the river. Again I opened a gap on Ivan over this type of terrain. After crossing the river there is a very long climb up the other side of the valley, and then further on up to the flanks of Djouce mountain. I could hear Ivan working hard behind, but he never quite closed the gap on the climb.

On the open mountain track towards Djouce I was running steadily uphill, concentrating on looking at the ground ahead to ensure I was finding a good footing… this section of track had been waterlogged and extremely slipply a month earlier. I heard a loud rumbling sound nearby and looked up to see 2 horses only a few feet away, presumably more startled by my presence than I was by theirs! I realised that this kind of terrain was actually quite technical, which is probably why Ivan wasn’t closing me down. In fact his headtorch was no longer casting shadows around me, which made for a pleasant change.

The run around the side of Djouce and upwards towards the col before White hill was an enjoyable jaunt as per usual. It was still technical ground that required concentration not to trip up. On the turns in the trail I could see that Ivan was still struggling to close the gap. I was still setting a nice steady pace through the climb up to the beginning of the boardwalks over White hill. I checked to my left to see where Ivan was as I made the right-angled turn at the beginning of the boardwalks, and could see his headtorch climbing the trail behind me.

The boardwalk was a nice “express” section after the prior technical climb, so I happily up my speed and ran steadily off towards white hill. It was a beautiful view, high up in the Wicklow mountains under the full moon. The temperatures had been pretty stable all night I had been at a comfortable temperature throughout. Even running at relative speed along the top of the White hill and off the other side onwards towards Balinastoe I still felt extremely comfortable and relaxed. I was now enjoying running out in the mountains in relative solitude.

On reaching the fireroads just before the upper Balinastoe car park (end of leg 2 in the relay race) I looked back to see how close Ivan was. To my surprise he was quite a long way back. It seemed like I had created a gap of a minute or two since reaching the boardwalk. That seemed unusual, given that it was pretty easy non-technical ground. I wondered if Ivan had been so obsessed with following me and catching me that he might have short-cutted the boardwalk corner and as a result missed a section of the boardwalk altogether. What a mistake, if that was the case!

With the size of the gap, and given that I was now heading onto the Sally Gap road for the next descent I realised I could now turn off my headtorch and enjoy running in the moonlight. Halfway down the hill I checked back again, but I still had it all to myself. Back onto fireroads then, and through the forests above Lough tay and Lough Dan. A few hundred meters in I briefly flicked on my headtorch to confirm the presence of a Wicklow Way marker post, as this forest had been felled since I last ran through. As a result of the felling I could now see Ivan’s headtorch descending from the top of the road hill out to my right.

I pushed on, running this forest section like I was on auto-pilot. The sky was starting to turn from black to blue as the first hints of a sunrise started emerging. The landscape of east Wicklow stretched out nicely to the coast on my left. Another short but very technical track through newly felled woods took me down to relatively recently re-routed section of the way, over a few styles and down through some farmer’s fields. In the last of the fields a stampede of hundreds of sheep thundered out of my way before I hit another section of fireroad taking me to the road below. I could see lights ahead looking in my direction. I wondered if it was walkers heading in the opposite direction, but that seemed unlikely.

Reaching the road the explanation for the watching lights was the most obvious one… Jeff and Robbie were parked on the laneway. They had set up an impromptu aid station, as everyone had passed through Crone woods in plenty of time. Again I didn’t really feel I needed anything, but picked up a 500ml bottle of coke, just to have something different to drink. I thought that I might as well be fully hydrated before the heat of the day. The lads checked that all was OK, and with that I thanked them and ran on.

The laneway lead to the road down to oldbridge, which is a nice downhill road run through native woodlands, with lough Dan out to my right. A quick check back up the hill revealed a torch moving slowly across the technical ground high above me in the felled forest. That was presumably Ivan. I doubted that I would see him again at the rate I was now building the gap between us. The coke tasted nice, as it usually does, but I reckoned I’d need to use it sparingly or I could tire of the taste quite easily.

The road climb up from oldbridge always seems just a little too steep, so I tried to be sure to keep the pace relaxed and not over-push it. A little after passing the apex of the hill Jeff drove past on his way to the next official aid station in Glendalough, and checked that all was good. Soon I was back off-road again for the lovely section of the route which leads down to the Laragh-Glenmacnass road. The amount of light in the sky was slowly increasing, and it was now possible to run technical non-forrested ground without using my headtorch. Running through the small forest just before the road crossing a cuckoo was loudly and prominently greeting the morning. A few more cow-bells and this could be Switzerland!

Climbing out from the Glernmacnass road and up onto the ridge on the north side of the Glendalough valley was fantastic. On reaching the top of the climb I could see Glendalough ahead in the pre-dawn light, with the full moon setting behind the hill ahead on the other side of the valley. A stunning view. But as usual, it was just a glance here and there as I ran on and headed for Glendalough village itself. The descent down and through the forest trails above Glendalough went a lot faster than I thought it would. I had estimated before the run (as Jeff had asked for a guess) that it would be about 5a.m. to get to the aid station here. It was about 4:40a.m. Wow… I really was running well. I felt good, but just hoped I hadn’t gone too fast.

Jeff and Juju Jay were waiting at the aid station. Thankfully they were there earlier than my estimates. With plenty of light around now I hadn’t used my headtorch in a while, so I dropped it here. I also took off my tracksuit bottoms as it was likely to start warming up soon. I kept my lightweight windproof jacket just to be sure that I would be able to keep my core warm if I misjudged the temperature. I didn’t feel any need for any solid food, so just picked up another 300ml bottle to carry to Glenamlure. I was out running and running again a minute or two later.

I left the aid station feeling very confident. I already had enough time gained over my first WW run that I was on target to break my record, even if I ran the rest of it at the same pace as back then from here. But I was feeling great, probably better than I had at the same point back then. Running the section through Glendalough can be a nightmare on a summer’s day with crowds of people on the trail, but at this hour of the morning I had it all to myself.

The climb up from Glendalough is one of the two big climbs in the middle of the Wicklow Way. This is the make or break section. Both times in the previous runs I found the first climb to be straightforward, but the second one to be a real killer (even though the climbs were reversed as it was opposite directions). The effort of the first seems to be very draining. I had walked up the steep stepped section climbing beside Poulenass waterfall on my first attempt, but this time I felt more than strong enough to run up (but not too hard).

Climbing around the long arcing fireroads that the Wicklow Way follows above the upper lake there seemed to be hundreds of deer nearby. Every few yards another small herd would screech and then hop away up the slopes. My speed still felt nice and comfortable. I had told Helen to meet me at Glenamalure at 6a.m. At my current rate it was possible I might arrive slightly before that. But there was still a long way to go on this climb, so I wouldn’t worry about that until I was well on the way down the other side into the Glenamalure valley.

The next section of the climb up had undergone a lot of recent changes. The Wicklow Way had only been recently restored to its original route here having been diverted for about a year due to forestry felling operations. This original route is probably slightly faster than the more scenic route over the Spink that the diverted route used. This middle section of the climb now had a large area of cleared forest on the left of the fireroad, whereas it had once been a “tunnel” through the thickly planted Sikka Spruce trees. As a result of the clearing the long arc of the climb to the next junction could be seen. The trees had a glowing orange hue, and I could feel the initial heat of the rising sun on the backs of my legs. I turned around to catch a quick glimpse of the sun rising over Wicklow’s foothills behind me.

It was around 5:30 by the time I reached the top of the climb and headed out along the boardwalks crossing over the top of the ridge. Ahead I could now see the Glenamure valley and the last of the big climbs heading up its far side. I had a small amount of traversing along the top of the treeline to complete before beginning the descent though, during which I managed to finally find a boggy section that I had to pull one of my feet out of! The initial decent is a very steep grassy section which I took nice and carefully. A slip here would not be worth a small gain in speed. Once hitting the treeline a very rocky and steep path, again taken carefully, leads down to a fireroad.

From here it’s fireroad all the way to the bottom of the valley. I was still making good time, and able to generate a nice speed heading down the hills. I was still wondering would I actually arrive in the valley too early for the schedule I had given Helen. But the decent (as always) always takes a lot longer than you would think. There is quite a lot of flat traversal above the valley to be covered along with the steady descents. The early morning light with the emerging clear blue skies made every view look great though, so it was still a pleasure running down. After a while I checked my watch to see that it was 5:55. I still had a bit of distance left to go, so at least I wouldn’t miss Helen by arriving too early.

About 5 minutes later the ground steepens again, signalling the beginning of the end of the descent. At 6:04 I could see the barrier marking the end of the forest fireroad which would pop me out onto the “Shay Elliot” road just above Glenmalure crossroads. Helen’s car was parked just beyond the barrier. Everything looked to be running perfectly to schedule now!

Helen had just started reading a magazine to pass the time before I arrived and didn’t expect to see me so soon. I had put a few different types of drinks into Helen’s car to give myself a wide choice. I know from experience that no matter how much you like something you can still get bored with it if it is all you have to drink all day. So I grabbed a quick drink of some fruit juice. I also took the opportunity to get rid of my lightweight wind-proof jacket, as it was now no longer needed. The day was slowly warming up. I was gone again well within a minute, and would hopefully meet Helen again at the next official aid station at Iron Bridge (the end of leg 6 of the relay race).

A minute or two later I was about to head back off the road to head onto the forest fireroads and start the climb out of Glenmalure when I came across Jeff and Robbie again. They had set up another unofficial aid station here. Of course, having just left Helen, I didn’t need anything at all. However Jeff asked did I want any coffee. I reckoned a shot of caffeine wouldn’t be a bad idea so I gratefully accepted. It took less than a minute to pour it out from the flask, add the milk and gulp all down. And then I was off again, starting the last of the big climbs.

As usual, starting out up this climb was harder than the previous big climb out of Glendalough. Although I reckoned it did seem easier than my last Wicklow Way run. Again the emphasis was on keeping things nice and steady at this stage and being careful not to push too hard. The initial climb is quite steep, but after 10 minutes or so a flat section provides some relief. A sharp right turn then leads to a dedicated Wicklow Way track off the fireroads and straight up the hill. This was the second place I encountered a boggy patch on the route.

10 or 15 minutes of climbing up this track eventually popped me out onto a fireroad. Normally the Wicklow Way would take the right turn here and climb up seemingly endless fireroads. However due to forestry operations an official marked diversion to the left took us briefly downhill to the main “Slieve Maan” road up from Glenmalure crossroads. The diversion would keep us on this road as it climbed to the ridge at the top of the valley and a little beyond. The diversion was probably worth a 5 minute time-saving over the normal route. The road climb didn’t seem anywhere near as tedious and endless as the corresponding fireroad climb. Jeff was parked at the top of the climb and took a few photos as I ran up towards him.

Running up Slieve Maan road in the morning sun

Running up Slieve Maan road in the morning sun

This is a deceptive “leg” of the run, since it feels like you have finished climbing at this point. However a quick run down the road is followed by a turn to the left and another fireroad climb. This climb has a real kick too, as it gets steeper as it reached the apex of the climb. At the top the view of south Wicklow and beyond stretching out to the horizon really makes this feel like a significant point of the run. This was the end of the big climbs. There was still a long way to go, but its more undulating hills from now on.

The initial descent is correspondingly steep, and its hard to get a good rhythm together using legs that have been running for over 7 hours by now. Adter a few minutes this track drops out onto a nice gentle downhill fireroad, so I was able to make good speed from there. The last section of track before Ironbridge had one last surprise hazard. It appeared trees had been chopped back, but the brashings had been left on the trail. Full concentration was required to make sure not to trip or twist an ankle heading down these at speed.

Finally I could see the Iron Bridge itself ahead, with 2 cars in the nearby carpark. Jeff was there again, with my drop-bag supplies out on the car bonnet. I reckoned at this stage he was making sure that I would be supported to the finish, and Robbie would keep the aid stations open until all the runners had passed through. This is a tough event to manage! I would guess the field was getting pretty spread out by now. Unfortunately there was no sign of Helen. I grabbed a quick drink and headed out. On the way out I shouted back to Jeff, asking if he could give Helen a ring to let her know I had been through here, and ask her to try to get to the next meeting point.

The road out heads in the “wrong” direction for a hundred meters or so before it intersects the main road down the valley, where the Wicklow way makes an acute left turn. Shortly after this turn Helen drove by, and pulled up a little down the road. I stopped to grab a drink of something different (more fruit smoothie), and confirm that the next meeting point was at the “Ford” in the middle of leg 7 of the relay, and with that we both set off again. A short while further down the road the Wicklow Way takes a forest track off the road, so that was the last I saw of Helen at that point.

Iron Bridge had marked the end of leg 6 of the Relay race. Mentally I was dividing up the Wicklow Way into 9 legs, so I was now roughly 2/3rds of the way through. However as much as I liked the idea of that I also knew that these last 3 legs were longer on average than the previous 2 sets of 3. Still, the time was great. It was about 7:45, so even with a bit of time slippage it looked like I could possibly be heading for a time that would be closer to 12 hours than 13 hours. But this is dangerous thinking with a long way to go yet!

A little climb out takes me back on to a short road section before climbing over a forest barrier to began a long steady grinding climb up through the next forest. Taken as a run on its own this would be an easy fast climb, but after crossing half of Wicklow (I had now run off the end of O.S. map 56 onto O.S. map 62) it was a lot harder. This was the point at which I had planned to start pushing my effort on, as opposed to controlling my speed and holding back my effort to ensure I didn’t go too fast too soon. Indeed this is where I had thought to myself earlier in the race that an injection of pace here would burn Ivan off if he was still sticking to me.

This now felt as if I’d crossed over the imaginary line into the world of ultrarunning. I was now having to work hard, both physically and mentally, to keep up my desired pace. This was a similar pace to the one I would have set earlier by holding myself back. I had a huge amount of confidence in my ability to really push from here, given how well I had managed to set a fast pace for the last 5 hours at the world 24 hour running championships just 2 weeks earlier. But boy was this hard work. The sun was finally starting to heat the day up, and I could feel that heat too. Unusually for me I ran in the shaded side of the fireroad to avoid the direct heat of the sun where possible.

Having run the full Wicklow Way in both directions before was a definite advantage as the long grind up didn’t seem quite as infinite as it had done previously. I kept the push up the whole way, with a mental image of dropping Ivan away behind me to ensure I didn’t slacken off towards the top of the climb. The forest at the top of the climb has been felled relatively recently which allowed me some time to look ahead at the rolling hills of south Wicklow ahead, and pick out the ones in the distance that I would be visiting. I noted how far away they all seemed with the intention of using the subsequent closer views of them to spur myself on.

Climb turned to descent and I continued to push myself so as to keep up a good speed and not take the easy option of drifting down in a nice relaxed style. I realised I was still mentally quite relaxed when I had gone through one or two zig-zag junctions without double checking the marker posts. But my familiarity with the route was confirmed a minute later when I ran past another marker post indicating the last fireroad junction in the forest. A few minutes of descending later I crossed the forest barrier and arrived onto another road section.

This road section is very long indeed, and gives leg 7 of the relay it’s characteristic of being very long but relatively straightforward to run. I continued my drive to really push on and set an aggressive pace along the road. This was a big increase in mental effort, but I was determined to maintain a good pace in this section. It’s quite easy to let the mind wander whilst running along the roads with a resulting drifting away of speed.

The road start with a long gradual descent. I probably wouldn’t really notice the descent, but having last run this section in the opposite direction the memory of the reverse climb is very much to the fore in my mind. Inevitably this eventually turns into a climb again, and I have to redouble my effort and concentration to keep the pace going strongly. The heat from the sun is growing ever stronger, so this is now feeling like quite an effort.

Relief eventually comes in the form of a short sharp off-road fire-road style trail descent. This then pops out onto more road. Almost immediately the Wicklow Way takes an acute right hand junction which leads down to the river at the bottom of the small valley. After the another sharp junction, this time back left onto a parallel road on the west side of the valley. This is a classic Irish country road with plenty of sections of grass growing in the middle! I was still working very hard to maintain a big effort and keep going as fast as possible. It just didn’t feel very fast. Indeed looking at my watch I see that quite an amount of time has already elapsed since I started this “stage”.

I knew that the next designated point for Helen to meet me was at the marked river ford not more than a few km away. I was starting to look forward to getting to a fresh supply of drinks more and more as the day heated up. This point is one of the trickier ones to find though, so I had my fingers crossed. Again the road seemed to be taking an age to run. I was looking out to my right enjoying the river valley view as the sun rose further. I knew that I had a road “hump” to traverse before the ford, but I had underestimated its length in my mind, so I was longer than I expected reaching the descent down towards the ford.

As I rounded the corner just before reaching the river crossing I was relieved to see the sight of Helen’s car, along with all my liquid refreshments laid out on the bonnet. Wooohooo! I took a minute or two to consume plenty! The restarts are getting harder now! It would be nice to just sit down with the drinks and enjoy them in the warm sunshine.

It’s a nice off-road climb from the ford. I had remembered as being a steady runnable climb. It went exactly according to that memory for the first few minutes, as I ran up what seems like a bit of a trench like feature, as there were high hedges on both sides. A gate crossing then leads onto a track on the bottom edge of large area of open ground. From memory, I knew this would continue to climb at a steep but runnable angle. What my memory had decided to discard was exactly how long this climb goes on for!

Boy, did this climb go on and on. Time seemed to be slipping by without any sign of making progress to the top of the hill. This required more focus to keep the pace nice and steady, and not to slacken off with the effort. Eventually, after one or two more fence crossings the path flattened and started to traverse around the hill. The view opened up before me and I could see a nice deciduous woodland ahead that I knew I would be running through soon enough.

A short descent was a welcome relief, and allowed me to stretch the legs and get up a bit of speed again. The back of “leg 7” was broken now. The run to the end of this leg was a nice enjoyable running trail, so I settled back to enjoy the experience. The only drawback with this section of the run is that there are quite a few gates to be crossed. I opened and closed as many as possible, rather than climbing the gates, as I didn’t want to risk provoking any cramping from swinging my legs over the gates.

The trail eventually end at the top of an access road. A run down this for a minute or two leads to a bridge and the end of “leg 7”. Jeff was waiting here. Helen and himself must have been coordinating who would meet me at which location at this point. I suppose at this point I was probably well ahead of the other racers, which probably meant that Jeff was taking care of the front of the field (me!) and the other helpers would support the rest of the field. That seemed sensible to me.

As was now standard, there was a range of goodies laid out on Jeff’s car bonnet. I had intended trying to see if I could run the entire race without taking any solid food whatsoever, but the site of an open packet of jaffa cakes was too much temptation! I asked if I could have one, which I could of course, and enjoyed the lovely orangy chocolate taste. I grabbed another drink of coke too, before quickly running off again.

After crossing the bridge there is a few hundred meters of running on a relatively busy road without a trace of any footpaths. This is probably the worst section of the Wicklow Way. Luckily it didn’t take too long before reaching the extremely acute right turn off this road onto climbing cul-de-sac road. It was nicer to be climbing than to be dealing with fast traffic on a narrow road. The main off-road section of “leg 8” is accessed through a gate at the end of this road.

This section can be very slow when the ground is wet and muddy, but thankfully this was far from the case. The ground was nicely dry and hard, and as a result was relatively quick to run over. There was plenty of undulation and gates to deal with, which again took concentration to maintain a steady pace. after what seemed like about 15 minutes I crossed the gate at the end of this section and was back on quite access roads again. I passed a dog-walker here, the first sign of life beyond the race in quite a long while!

It’s mainly road from here to the finish, with just a few forest section to break it up. Indeed it would be all road from here to the finish for the abridged route that the relay race follows. The next aid point I had asked Helen to meet me at was the “Dying Cow” pub. This is the point at which the relay route splits from the full route. In my head I knew it was a nice gradual run downhill, a few turns through a small village, and then a relatively straight road out from there to the Dying Cow. I had to be careful to remember that the road section were probably a bit longer than my memory of them.

By the time I reached the Dying Cow, where Helen and Jeff were both parked and waiting, I knew that the heat of the day was now strong enough that a change of top would make sense. I had an omni-freeze zero cooling t-shirt that I had been waiting for an opportunity to use. It’s rarely warm enough in Ireland, but at this stage things were hotting up enough for it to be really useful. The technology of the top creates a cooling effect on the skin when you sweat into it. Helen helped me make a quick swap, and then I was off again.

The relay gang get to continue running straight along the road. Us Wicklow Way purists have to make a right turn and head very steeply uphill though. The climb isn’t a hugely long one, but at this stage of the race, and in the morning heat, it was still a big effort. I focused on staying running the whole way to keep my momentum and rhythm going. Helen drove past on her way to the next scheduled aid point and we exchanged waves.

After what seems like a lot more, but is probably only about 5 minutes of climbing the road flattens out considerably. The Omni-Freeze Zero top seems to be working well, as I’m now noticeably cooler and feeling considerably more comfortable. Keeping my running at a good steady pace remains hard work. Time is now feeling like it is dragging a lot more as I run past the relatively new windmills that have appeared on the side of the hill I’m traversing. This is a very long section of road, with a lot more remaining before the next off-road section.

The descent off the hill is a welcome relief, and I just allow my legs to drift me down the hill at a nice natural speed. After a few more turns and small undulations in the road I unexpectedly come across Helen at a minor cross-roads. She checks if I need anything, but I’m still good to go on this section, and the next aid stations is scheduled for a few kilometers further along the road. Some yappy dogs in a nearby house make the conversations a bit more difficult!

I run past Helen and take the left turn at the crossroads, still on relatively flat country roads. After a few minutes of random thoughts running through my head I begin to realise that Helen had probably thought that she was at our arranged aid point at the last junction. More than likely this would mean she wouldn’t be at the actual point I was running towards. That in itself is not a problem… I can deal with missing an aid point without too much bother. I’m used to going 5 hours or more in training without any supplies. My worry now is that she can re-locate herself on the unfamiliar country roads of south Wicklow and find her way back on track.

My internal thoughts are interrupted by the sight of a man walking down the road towards me with an unusual looking rope in his hands. As I get with conversational distance he asks if I’ve seen a pony wandering around. Unfortunately I haven’t!

Not long afterwards I reach the sort-of-crossroads that marks the end of “leg 8” of the Wicklow Way in my mind. I shimmy across the busy Shilelagh road and head slightly uphill on the quieter back road. The top of this little hill is where I had arranged for Helen to meet, but as I had anticipated she wasn’t there. While it would have been nice to grab a quick drink I had known not to count on it, so I just ran on.

There is a notorious hill on this leg of the run which Jane and Graham Porter, two previous record holders on the Wicklow Way, had nicknamed coronary hill. When your approaching from a distance you don’t need to ask which one it is! I could see it looming in the distance, and I knew that I was now on the approach to it. The road gently descends for a few minutes, and then turns right to a much sharper drop to a river crossing. Whilst this makes for nice running I know that in reality these descents are just going to add more height to the monster in the distance!

Crossing the river marks the start of the climb. It’s a steady enough road climb for now. It’s an effort, but its not torture, yet! Shortly after beginning the ascent I can hear a car on the road behind me. The road is narrow with high hedges on both sides, so it is being suitably cautious about getting by. After a minute or two it passes with a wave… it’s Jeff heading for the next official aid point, which is due at the crest of Coronary hill.

A few more minutes of gentle climbing later and the road swings around to bring me to the base of the meat of the climb… the now very obvious indeed Coronary hill. Jeff is parked at the bottom of the steep ramp getting supplies ready for me. I shout ahead to him to head to the top. The aid station was marked on the race notes as being at the forest entrance at the top of the hill, and that’s where I was mentally preparing for! Also, it would be more useful for me to grab a drink after the impending effort. So he packed away in a flash and drove up the hill.

The last time I ran this hill was on my original Wicklow Way record attempt. In reality I didn’t run it at all… I marched it. This time I was determined to run the entire hill, no matter what the actual speed. I simply concentrated on keeping one foot moving in front of the other without looking too much at the hill itself. This was still very hard work but the hill seemed to take a lot less time to climb than expected.

As I crested over the top Jeff was waiting with his car as expected. It had been quite  a while since I had last picked up some liquids, so I was very glad to grab some here. Leaving Jeff I almost made my first navigation mistake of the day by trying to take the minor forest entrance on the crest of the hill. Jeff quickly called out to correct me, and I headed down to the correct entrance only 20 or 30 meters further down the road.

I was now finally off road again for the second last time. Finish line fever was starting to develop. I could see the last forested hill I would have to climb not too far away, and from there it was a straightforward road run to the finish at Clonegal. However, this particular forested hill I was on had to be completed first! I could remember from my first Wicklow Way run that it seemed as if it spiraled its way up the hill in an overly lengthy manner that seemed to go on for ever. However, from my last record attempt in the opposite direction I had a much clearer picture of the path the track followed and exactly how long it was.

I was definitely moving faster now than I had been on the previous run in this direction. At this stage I knew that my chances of setting a new record were very high as long as I could keep running, and that the main question was by how much. I started using the thought of Dan Doherty, my Irish team mate and 100km speedster, chasing me down this road trying to break my record (He has said he would like to run the Wicklow Way some day soon). This motivated me to keep pushing on rather than relaxing to an easy comfortable pace.

A large portion of the lower forest has  been felled in the last few years which makes it much easier to see the track ahead. This also helped with making this particular slow climb seem less endless. As a result the whole thing seemed to pass in about half the time it did on the previous occasion. The Wicklow Way takes a lovely narrow off-road track down from the apex of the climb where it branches off the fire roads. I enjoyed the last true off road descent of the day.

The final hilly forest of the day can be see very close by from this descent. However I knew it wasn’t a straight run over to it. The trail breaks onto farm tracks, and then country roads. The Wicklow Way follows these roads around, but being undulating south Wicklow, they take quite a meandering track around.

About half way along these roads Helen drives by. Fantastic! she didn’t get too lost at her last aid station. From here she would definitely be at the finish, which was great. She checked whether and where where I wanted to pick up some last refreshments before the push to the finish, so I directed her on to the forest entrance up ahead. 10 or 15 minutes later when I finally made it there I was glad to take some final mouthfuls of fizzy drinks and one last bottle of juice. I make sure Helen knows how to get to the finish Clonegal, and tell I’ll see her there soon!

On through the forest entrance for the last climb of the day. Finish line fever was now adding the the virtual Dan Doherty chase as motivation. I was running pretty strongly up hill, but knew that even though the hill was reasonably shallow I still needed to pace myself as it went on for quite a while. It would be very easy to overcook this climb this far into the run, and in the heat of the mid-day sun.

The descent back down the hill is still on a nice wide forest fireroad, and I’ve paced myself well to this point, so I can allow myself to run down the hill at a good speed, especially since it is the last descent of the day. Jeff is waiting at the barrier marking the exit from the forest and checks to see if I want to pick up or drop anything. I’m happy enough to just keep the drinks bottle I have in my hand. A very rough track of a road leads to a proper tarmac road and a junction.

At this junction I see the sign I’ve been anticipating since the end of the forest, showing Clonegal being 5km away. It’s now a little past midday. It looks like I’ll be able to not only break the 13 hour mark for the Wicklow Way, but should also be able to dip under 12:30 if I run this last road section hard enough. I’m going to treat it like a 5km time trial, with a bonus virtual Dan Doherty chasing me!

5km seems both short and long at the same time. The road is either slightly downhill or flat, with no traffic and lots of trees lining it keeping the direct sunlight away. I run as fast as I dare go, hoping to run each individual kilometer remaining under 5 minutes if I can. The next major junction has a signpost indicating 3km to Clonegal. A quick check on my watch indicates that my pace is well on target. Jeff was also waiting here. I decide that the bottle I’m carry isn’t any use to me at this stage so throw it over to him so I can run the last 3km “clean”.

The scenery in the summer sun is looking fabulous here, even though I’m now in rolling countryside rather than hills and mountains. The road is more open now, with no trees to block the sun. In the distance I can see the some of the houses, along with the church spires which indicate that I’m closing in on Clonegal. I keep the pace up to gradually pull them nearer and nearer.

More dense housing along the sides of the road indicates that I’m nearly there. The signpost indicating the start of Clonegal can be seen ahead. After reaching it I can see the final junction ahead. There are lots of people out on the street. I know that they’re not there for our little race, so I assume that there must be some event happening in Clonegal (as it turns out, they were having a tidy towns clean up day).

Helen and Jeff are at the junction cheering me on, as I run around the corner with a huge smile on my face. I sprint down the last few yards, into the small park area and slam myself into the Board marking the end of the Wicklow Way and the race. A quick check on my watch, and with Jeff, and I’ve run it in just over 12:25. Waaaahhooooooo!

A happy camper with Helen at the finish Board

A happy camper with Helen at the finish Board

I’m in a lot better shape at the end of this Wicklow Way run than I was in my previous 2 efforts. It’s noticeable that I’m neither that hungry nor thirsty, so I must have handled my nutrition pretty well. But it’s a hot day, and I feel like something cool. Ice cream would satisfy that craving nicely, so we all head over to the local shop to grab one each. Rarely does ice-cream taste so good as after running for 130km in the middle of a beautifully warm Irish summer day!

After we’ve eaten our fill of ice-creams we get into the cars and drive around to the Dying Cow pub, where Jeff makes the presentation of the fantastic winner’s trophy for the race. It’s probably the best trophy I’ve ever won, a solid block of granite engraved with the Wicklow Way waymarker symbol.

Holding the Trophy Aloft

Holding the Trophy Aloft

It was great to have a race along the Wicklow way. Jeff did a fantastic job getting it all organised, and had a great bunch of volunteers helping him. A huge thanks to all of them.

Even more fantastic was the fact that most of the participants made it to the end within the cut-off time allowed. John Cronin came over from Galway to have a great run and finish in 16:01 (which would have beaten Simon Walter’s old record). I was delighted to see Pol O Murchu finish comfortably ahead of the cut-off in 19:19. He seemed to have a very steady race and paced himself to perfection. Donna McLoughlin was accompanied by Don Hannon and finished to win the prize for female winner. Two runners pulled out at around half way, Robbie Costello and Ivan Slovak. Robbie had gone off course and run an extra 13km loop which added a bit too much to the already long day!

Finally, and most especially, a huge thanks to Helen for supporting over the course of the event. There is no-one I’d rather see more than her at the finish line to embrace and share the excitement and joy of a successful race with.

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5 Responses to Wicklow Way Race, 2013

  1. jay says:

    great report eoin .well worth the wait

  2. Pól Ó Murchú says:

    Wow what a report Eoin. I’m tired just reading it…haha. Cheers for the mention too. Great race hope it’ll be back next year.

  3. Jim Fitzharris says:

    Eoin, Your report made fascinating reading, especially as I have just finished a charity walk of the WW with a group of colleagues from the office. Don’t worry: we did not break any records! We did it over 4 days (although actually less than 72 hours from start to finish). Total walking time was just under 31 hours and we were all wrecked at the end! Cheers, Jim.

  4. Alexian says:

    Inspiring read, Eoin. I’ve walked the entire route in 25hrs 59mins (and in less on another occasion) non-stop, so was able to re-live the occasion when reading your account. Time to try it again. 😉

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