The yellow men of the Wicklow Way

It has been a year of long distance and a good one so far. Because of this I decided to enter my first real ultra marathon. I decided with some encouragement from my training buddie Sinead Keogh and others that it was possible. I was in the best fitness in ages and this was a time to try and gather the points for the Ultra Trail Mount Blanc in 2018. The Wicklow Way race would give me 5 out of a total of 8 points needed to enter the draw.

As always it is very hard to summarise a long race into a few lines but I feel this race is due a good chat and I would love to  hear other racers views on my own account. It is clear that after an event like this everyone has had a different experience.  Finishing this race is one hell of a feat. I had no idea if I was ready for such a distance just yet.

All 54 runners met in the carpark at Marley park for a midnight start on Friday night. The rain was starting and the forecast was horrific. This was going to be a challenge. The race director warned us of extreme conditions forecast for the night in the mountains. With this said I packed an extra layer or two and all my waterproofs. I changed my plan of road runners to my best trail runners at the last minute and boy was I glad of this. We set off at midnight with my pack including all manditory kit, my poles and my head screwed on. We were off!

Unfortunately the conditions meant I couldn’t take photos, therefore words will have to suffice on this occasion. We left Marley Park and began to run up towards the Dublin hills. We would follow the yellow man signs all the way to end of the Wicklow way, 130km’s later.  The first few sections of the run were mostly on road before starting the first of many fireroads. Long gradual climbs up into the hills, over Kilmashogue mountain, where the rain was starting to increase as well as the wind at any opening in the trees. We descended down along nice technical trails onto the road again before passing close to Glencullen and back up into the hills along a fireroad. The wind began to howl and the rain was getting close to monsoon like as we ascended up to a place called Prince Williams Seat. The ascending and descending was easier than alot of hills I would be used to but the conditions were slowing everyone up. People were thrown to the sides of the paths and some sections of boardwalk were slippy with the heavy rain. I managed to get my second jacket on and was pretty cozy. I stayed with Sinead for the first 20km but decided to move on to the first checkpoint as I was worried about the cutoff time. In the end I reached CP1 after about 2 hours and 40 minutes. A quick change and an addition of a layer of waterproof pants and I was away, can of coke in hand and a nice pot of overnights oats devoured.

The big challenge after checkpoint 1 was going to be Djouce mountain. The weather had now turned into a storm, the higher you went the worse it got. I can’t exactly remember much from Djouce as I just put the head down and went for it. Get through this night and you will get through anything is all I could think. I passed heaps of people in this section as my mountain hiking skills from the past event came into play. The hillier the better for me, unfortunately alot of this course was on road and fireroads but this section over Djouce was probably my strongest leg. The rain was so heavy and the wind so strong that you couldn’t see your feet. The only way I can explain the sensation is if you have ever been in a really powerful shower. Complete monsoon like conditions. The paths were now rivers and the mountainside was just flowing. We ran in 6 inches of water for long sections at the top. The nights hard hiking and running did start a flare-up in my knee however. The injury from 2016 was at me again. I have to diagnose this yet but I think it is either my IT band or my glute that is causing pain to travel to the knee and cause inflamation. I made my way to checkpoint 2 with lots of time to spare and decided to sit, eat, fix my feet and decide if my leg was ok to go on. These decisions are really hard when tired but I had managed 51km and I reckoned I would just try to make it to the next checkpoint and reaccess things once more. The IMRA crew had rashers cooking and were delighted to help out with anything we needed. I used a good 10 minutes in transition to get myself going again and fueled up well. The next section would include alot of ascent but the bad night was over. The deer had started to appear from the woods and the birds were singing their heads off. The worst of it was over, or was it!

After leaving checkpoint two near Laragh we ran along a river before heading up a trail into the forest and back onto a fireroad to ascend up into the hills once more. This ascent went on and on and seemed like forever. The majority of the race between checkpoint two and three was along fireroads meandering the hills and leading all the way to Iron Bridge at checkpoint 3. I did go slightly off trail for a few minutes as I took the old Wicklow Way trail. The yellow man was a bit faded! Either that or I was tiring and things were blurred every now and then. I got back on track quickly once I noticed the track I was on had no footprints. I was back on the road and soon back on another fireroad up into the forest which would take us all the way to Ironbridge, including one or two steep inclines on smaller trails and a fast descent down to Ironbridge. I decided to sit, change shoes and socks, eat a sandwich and a tub of triffle at Ironbridge. I had lots of fruit laid out by the organisers and a bit of banter with the race director about my new shiny shoes I had just put on. I had orange shoes and a bright red top. I remarked that there would be no problem finding me in a ditch after this . I was about to step into the unknown of 80 plus kilometres of racing. I had almost two marathons under me in about ten and a half hours at this stage. Apart from my knee I actually felt really good. The food really picked up my spirits and in the next hour I would gain a few more places. They say this is where the race begins, for me it was an unknown and I just wanted the finish line to be my motivator. The final marathon would turn out to be the longest of my life.

As I ran up the next fireroad I felt good but was soon passed by a little guy who was just cruising and looked as happy as could be. He stopped off for a sausage sandwich soon after this, I passed him and a few hours later he passed me again. It would turn out to be Graham Bushe who was doing the course out and back, a total of 260km. Incredible fitness. I soon caught up with a guy that would end up being my saviour on the day. Liam Costello was his name, only running marathons as few years but he had 100 mile races under his belt and was taking part in this race for the 4th time. Liam only started running when he was 35 and has some amazing results including a 5th place in the Wicklow Way under him. This just shows that even when a bit older you can start running and accomplish some great things. My right knee and pretty much my whole right leg was now hurting and as we pushed towards the 100km mark I had to stop once or twice to try and ease the pain. I stuck my leg in a cattle feeding trough as well as using my buff and water to try cool off the knee. The pain wouldn’t ease until Liam produced some nurofen and within 30 minutes the pain was alot better and I managed to push on once more. The section between checkpoint 3 and 4, at the Dying Cow Pub, was by far the longest in the race. It really felt alot more than 22km and I think it took us well over 3 hours. This would of been a really tough stage mentally were it not for the help of Liam.

The Dying Cow was a great opportunity to eat and Lillian, one of the event organisers and an ultra runner herself, iced my leg and rubbed some heat into it. Pshychologically this helped alot. I ate as much as I could here and we hit off to take on the three hills, including a hill named by the race as coronory hill. This next stage was only 11km. I was fine on the uphills all day, the downhills were my main issue with the knee. The final hill on this stage at coronory hill was steep but once again not a major problem. I knew at this stage that I had a great chance of making the finish. In the end what was 16 more kilometres after 111km of racing!

The final stage felt like an age, fireroad after fireroad with steep descents and grassy trails. We made our way to the main road where we had a 5km road run/shuffle/walk to the finish. Every time the road flattened out we would jesture to one another that it was time to shuffle again. Every time a slight incline came in the road we would hike once more. And so it went on for 5km, the longest 5km of my life so far. We finally saw the sign for Clonegal and the finish line was around the corner. We gave one last push to run to the line and what a feeling. I was now an ultra runner!!

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Liam Costello just before the finish line

If I were to sum up this race I would say it was pretty epic (weather wise), not the most amazing course I have seen but definately an unbelievable race. I met accomplished ultra runners and felt like a complete novice most of the day. I probably learnt more about running and about myself than ever before and would go back to try and push up the field some time again. I finished in a time of 18 hours and 53 minutes in 18th place. Not bad for my first day over 70km. The finish line is what is important in ultra running and the placing meant very little to most. Sinead finished not long after me, an incredible accomplishment for her and once again it shows what the right training and the right mindset can achieve.

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Ultra runner!!

Next up is the Snowdonia marathon in July. Rest, rest and more rest is needed now. Am I hooked on ultra running? Probably almost hooked but for now the marathon is a long enough distance for me and hopefully the multisport races will return to the schedule soon enough.

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