There I am smiling away on the Wicklow Way, as I did for large portions of this epic race in the Wicklow hills. I will phrase that slightly differently, to say that this is a race, however for all but a few it is more of a challenge to reach the line. Starting in Marley Park and finishing about 127km south of the Wicklow hills in Clonegal Co. Carlow this is no run for the faint hearted. Some of you may remember my horrible race report from 2017, when I finished but in some discomfort. I had mostly hated the yellow men markers and had really not remembered anything positive from my experience. With this in mind I decided to give Wicklow a second chance and boy did it pay off.
The race started at 12am with approximately 90 runners lining up, about 30 of whom wouldn’t see the finish line for different reasons but all were in high spirits and ready for the night ahead.
My coach and good buddy Sinead would be my crew for the day at aid stations in Glendalough at 50k, Ironbridge at 80k and The Dying Cow at 101km. Knowing Sinead was there with her experience was key to my confidence in a good run.
Taking a few crazy months of work, lack of training properly and a few too many late nights the weekend before, my preparation wasn’t great, but I had slept well all week and felt ready for the challenge ahead. There was zero pressure on and my plan along with Sinead’s advice was to go steady and in comfort zone all day and if feeling poorly at any time I could pull out. Now you know me and the words pull out, DNF, and the fact that they don’t exist in my vocabulary, but I had decided that in this race I would drop if I was too sore. This is all training for the TDS.
I will keep this post as short as possible and really narrow it down to my thoughts on the day. I could go into fine detail but I feel you will enjoy a brief synopsis more. The gun went thanks to a countdown from Eoin Keith, one of the top endurance runners in Ireland. Robbie Britton and Gavin Byrne were due a showdown for the day. Robbie, basically being pro and Gavin, having come on leaps and bounds in the last 2 years was flying and in super form, expecting to both push the course record close. I, however, was not in the same league, nor was I planning to race anyone around me. I would run by feel and see where this led me. If in a position to nick into top 10 in the latter stages all good and well but this was a training race, full stop.
The night was nice to start but as we made our way into the hills the mist came down and following a brief stop at checkpoint 1 in Crone the weather closed in for an hour or two on the next few climbs. The early section has plenty climbing but some lovely technical stuff and downhills too which were fun in the dark.
A very quick transition in Crone and off up to climb Djouce mountain in the mist and rain and howling gales. You couldn’t see your hand, let alone the person on front of you. I spent some of the climb with eventual ladies winner, Aoife Mundow, who came to Dorset with us last year and she is becoming a top ultrarunner. Her partner Pol O Murchu was out on the course all night and day and his support was super. I was only minutes ahead of Aoife for the day so it helped me as much as her. The section from Crone to Glendalough is around 28km and feels long as the body tires between 3 and 6 in the morning. Long sections of slippy boardwalk didn’t help matters but did focus the mind. I was going steady and had planned a 5.45am arrival in Glendalough. I think I arrived at 5.40am so all good at this point. I changed my top and runners and had a quick bite to eat and glass of flat coke from Sinead. I had no niggles and was feeling tired but not sore so onwards and upwards was the call.
The views in Glendalough just as morning was coming alive were top notch. The lake, waterfall and the hills opening up down the valley. I was smiling as I left the checkpoint and enjoying myself. I really wondered how this was to be honest, over an ultramarathon in the bag already. Just 2 marathons to go now!
I stopped for a toilet break a few minutes out from Glendalough and to my surprise this didn’t knock me back as I began to catch an Italian guy, now known to me as Fabio, soon after my stop. He had been literally metres ahead of me now for hours and I was sort of pacing off him. I caught up with him and we chatted all the way to Ironbridge, the day warming up alot at this point and the sun beaming down. There were lots of long slow climbs on fire-roads with some steep sections off road mixed in, but to be honest I was just enjoying the chat and the realization that in a race like this you might be tired and hurting but everyone is in the same boat.
We reached Ironbridge at 79km in about 9 hours and I was feeling ridiculously good considering. I launched into some water melon, loads of flat coke and replaced my tailwind with water in one bottle and coke in the other. The Tailwind had been super for 9 hours, but I just needed a change for a while. Aoife cruised into transition just before we left and came out pretty much just as we left too! Delighted to see her going so well. I waited an extra minute or two for Fabio in transition knowing that a minute or two was no real issue to me at this point. Having a running buddy for the next 50km would mean a lot. We soon picked off two runners and then met another one in Gordon. Gordon would stick with us, so now we had three amigos! Anyone we would meet from now on could register for our gang we decided, as long as they were sound!
We would chat and moan as we transitioned from uphill to downhill to flat roads. The worst thing after 80km is the transitioning of the muscles. You feel grand as you go up but a pain runs through the legs as you change muscles to hit the downhills. I actually felt incredibly good and now that I had completed my real goal of 80km I could try enjoy the rest. I was taking it all in, making friends with the yellow men along the way. I said sorry to them for the way I had spoken badly of the Wicklow Way for 2 years. The views as we climbed up along farmland, wound our way down country roads, through farm gates, under falling trees, over fallen trees and along river banks were just amazing. It may not be the Alps but it has its own sort of beauty.
The 100km mark was huge for the lads as it was the longest either of them had ever ran. I felt privileged to be with them for this moment. I knew when they hit this that they would make the finish as well. Fabio went through a big low in this section but we helped each other through any low moments and for a few lads that met only hours before we became friends. This is ultarunning.
Sinead was at the Dying Cow and said we were making lots of time and moving better than they expected. I could see we were on for a good finishing time and had agreed with the lads not to sit down and that this transition was a refill/top change and nothing more. If you sit at this point it will slow you dramatically. I also had a small pain starting on the inside of my left leg but it wouldn’t stop me as long as I kept moving.
After the Dying Cow pub checkpoint it is basically mind games on fire-roads and digging deep for a few hours. There were a few heavy showers at this point and we all threw our jackets on for a while. Dragging each other up relentless long hills and trying to let the legs go on the downhills. We were actually flying on the downhill sections and I don’t think any of us could’ve moved as fast on our own over this last 26km. The final checkpoint was at Raheenakit, just after the steep climb up Coronary Hill. I was still loving the hills with the flats being my enemy. The final 15km flew by, in comparison to it feeling like days in 2017. It just goes to show how with miles and experience in the legs, 2 years can mean a lot.
We finally left the last of the fireroad sections and met Pol on the road, for the 30th time! He said there was 5km to the finish and it was mostly downhill. Off we went. I think we did the last 5km in about 21 minutes. Not bad after 122km. It was mostly a gradual downhill with a few uphills, which we ran as well. Cruising into Clonegal and touching the sign at the finish all in unison in 15 hours and 44 minutes in joint 8th position. We had made a decision to do this at least 30km before the finish. Job really well done. I had taken 3 hours and 5 minutes off my time from 2 years ago by racing smart and using my head, as well as listening carefully to the legend that is Sinead Keogh. Thank you once again. Also a special thanks to my cousin Geoffrey and his fiancee Cara who surprised me by showing up at the finish line! Was great to see them there.
I have to finish with a mention of Gavin Byrne and the fact that he gave it his all finishing in just over 13 hours. Staggering time. Robbie managed to smash Eoin Keith’s record, finishing in 12 hours and 11 minutes. Mind boggling stuff. Aoife Mundow managed to beat the women’s record and finish in just over 16 hours. Incredible Aoife, only running her first ultra in December of last year and having never ran 127 km in her life. It just goes to show what can be achieved with good training, focused mindset and a wee bit of talent thrown in the mix..
A couple of videos below to give you a little idea of the day!