For a long long time I have been promising myself to try to run the length of Ireland (Mizen Head to Malin Head), and try to set a new record. I’ve always managed to find a reason why I should do it “next year”. Finally the time for procrastinating is over. I’m going to give it a shot this year. Specifically, the plan is to set off from Mizen Head on Saturday 29th April.
History and Inspiration
The current record is held by the marvelous Mimi Anderson, an ultra runner with huge experience and pedigree. Her record of 3 days, 15 hours, 36 minutes was set in 2012. That is superb record and will be a tough target to beat, leaving very little margin for long sleeps or navigation errors. The record for the traverse of Ireland is an unusual one, in that the last 3 holders of the record are all female (They all happen to British as well). I would guess there are very few running world records with such a tremendous record of female dominance.
The current male record is held by my good friend Richard Donovan. He has actually run the route twice, once in each direction. I’ve borrowed his tag for one of his runs, HeadToHead, as the name for my own record attempt. It’s a great name! Under normal circumstances I’d expect Richard to pop up and join me on route at some point. But these days Richard doesn’t bother with the trivialities of running across countries. Instead he will more than likely be setting off to run his third continental traverse, across South America, when I’m setting off in his old footsteps.
There have been a few other attempts on the record that I have followed over the years. Most recently a fellow Corkonian, Alex O’Shea attempted to break the record in 2015, but had to pull out when he started getting some significant injuries. Alex has since set some impressive times in 50km and 100km races, as well as going over 220km in his first 24 hour race.
Two of the people who inspired more than most to get into ultra were Graham and Jane Porter. I spent many hours after IMRA mountain running races being enthralled as they regaled their audience with tales of their ultra running exploits. One of those was running Malin to Mizen. Indeed Jane held the female record for many years. The seeds for this run were planted a long time ago!
How it works
It’s a runner’s choice whether to run from Mizen to Malin or vice versa. The record has been set in both directions over the years, so there is no apparent better choice. There seems to be a slight preference for Malin to Mizen (North to South). Maybe because it is “down” the map! I’ve chosen to run from Mizen to Malin (South to North). There are 2 reasons for this. The first is that the southern end of the route is hillier than the northern end, and my preference would be to hit the hills in a fresher state. The second is that in general the prevailing wind direction in Ireland is from the south west. Relying on predicable weather in Ireland is a fool’s game, but I might as well load the dice as well as I can to assist the attempt.
The route is also completely open choice. A runner is free to take any road, or indeed go off road if desired. The route must be run contiguously with no gaps (although a runner can be transported back to previous point on the route). However the entire line must be run with no gaps. Sleep and food breaks are perfectly fine, but if they are taken off route then the runner must be returned to a point where they stopped (or before). There is no skipping or running equivalent off-line distances allowed.
The time starts from one headland (Mizen in my case) and does not stop until reaching the far end of Ireland at the opposing headland (Malin in my case). Nothing stops the watch… sleeping, eating, nature breaks, navigation errors, hospital visits, whatever…. it’s all on the clock. If any unexpected obstacles are encountered (road works, diversions, floods, earthquakes, whatever) that’s just tough luck. The clock doesn’t stop.
To say the least there is plenty of route choice. In the last few years many online route finding websites have been developed, which makes life a lot easier for the internet generation! The original record setters for Mizen/Malin would have had to work it all out the old fashioned way with maps and whatever local knowledge could be amassed or consulted. Being a competitive navigator I had my own ideas of where the optimal route go, but boy was I wrong. My guesses were more westerly than my final choice.
Google maps won the prize for best route finding. Having examined its first choice it seems almost optimal. There are about 2 kilometers where I might deviate slightly to avoid shorter sidetrack roads and just stay on the more prominent road. It has plotted an interesting route through the hills of west Cork. It is more undulating than routes previous runners have taken (that I can find), but is the shortest by about 5 or 10 kilometers. Given my ability to run hills, that would seem like an excellent trade off.
FKT Issues and Controversies
An endevour like this is classiffied as a Fastest Known Time, rather than a race. Over the years there have been many prominent issues with people claiming Fastest Known Times (FKTs), particularly where prominent records are involved. Ultra running FKT records have historically required a great degree of trust and honour. FKTs are not races. They don’t have referees, or other competitors keeping an eye on things.
Recently there have been very prominent claims for FKTs that have been discovered to have been cheating. These have included claims for running the length of Britain (Land’s End to John O’ Groats – LEJOG), running across America, and running the Appalachian trail. These have generated a huge amount of controversy and rancour (The cheaters rarely admit to their crimes, and often have a lot of unquestioning supporters)
Quite a lot of the cheating is often justified by pointing out that the endeavour is being used to raise money for charity, as if this somehow justifies the cheating behaviors (Both by the runners themselves and by their supporters). It’s the classic “Lance Armstrong” charity defense (Never mind the cheating… look at the money for raised for charity). Quite often some of the monies raised for these FKTs has gone to fund the athlete’s expenses in undertaking the attempt, rather than going directly to the charity.
My motivation for running this FKT attempt is purely as an athletic endeavour. To be frank, it’s all about achieving my own ambitions. I will not be raising any money for any charity. I will not be using the crutch of fundraising to justify any unethical behaviour. I won’t be soliciting any donations. I will fund the expenses for the attempt out of my own pocket (With help from my long-time loyal sponsors, including Columbia and the Great Outdoors, providing me with some very useful clothing and equipment). It’s all about the record! If I fail, then so be it. No big deal. It’s not life and death.
Tracking and Verification
Given the amount of controversies around some FKT attempts it is important to have high standards of verification around the attempt. The obvious startpoint is this announcement of my attempt in advance, along with my start time and intended route. Anyone and everyone is more than welcome to come out and watch, or join me for a while. Of course support and encouragement will also be most welcome.
I hope to use two electronic means of verification. I will be carrying a live tracker provided by Primal tracking. This compact GPS tracking device uses mobile phone networks to relay position information from the tracker to Primal Tracking’s Website, giving a near real-time update of my position over the course of the event (Allowing for mobile network coverage). This should make it easy to find me and verify the attempt in real time. It will also generate an electronic trace of the tracker’s journey. The live tracking will be available at live.primaltracking.com/headtohead.
I will also be wearing a Suunto Ambit 3 Peak GPS tracking watch, provided by the Great Outdoors. I worked with John Guy in the shop to work out which watch would offer the best combination of features for such a huge undertaking. We both came to the same conclusion that the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak’s massive battery life compared to all other tracking watches made it the obvious choice (With a one minute GPS tracking interval it has a potential 200 hours of battery life). My intention will be to publish the available tracking data (All data, including cadence) recorded from this device for the entire event, as quickly as possible. I’ve never worn a GPS tracking watch to this point, so I am currently wearing it in training for familiarisation.
Support Crew and Help
The single most important requirement to make this attempt is to have a good support crew. I’m very lucky that my good friend and Adventure Racing team-mate Richard Nunan volunteered his help early and enthusiastically. Richard has a strong background in elite level sports in both a competitive and administrative capacity. Being an adventure racer and a multi-day ultra runner himself, he knows what is involved in and undertaking like this. Being my team-mate, he is also familiar with my own foibles and behaviors which manifest themselves during exhausted sleep deprived racing conditions. Richard is in charge of all support and logistics.
Richard is going to be joined by another of my Adventure Racing Team-mates, Taryn McCoy. Taryn brings a similar level of experience to the support crew. It’s also a big advantage that Taryn and Richard are well used to working together. It’s as important that the support crew will be able to look after and take care of themselves, as well as occasionally throwing food and drinks in my direction. Hopefully Richard will also get the chance to post updates to my facebook page during the attempt.
If anyone would like to get in contact with Richard and myself about helping out with the attempt, or any other queries, we can be emailed at email@example.com. In the meantime, prepartaions continue!
(I know I have yet to finish my Spine race report…it’s in progress…nearly there. But I’ve been a little distracted!).