The Wicklow Way Race 2019

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Smiling on the Wicklow Way!

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!

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The 3 amigos!

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.

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Cruising into Clonegal with Fabio and Gordon, smiling.

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..

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Finito.

A couple of videos below to give you a little idea of the day!

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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.

Next up?

A lot of people have asked me what comes next after our Irish record. It tends to be a strange time after you complete a goal. Any achievement whether it be 1km or 160km leaves you first of all with a sense of pride, while soon after you realise there is more to come. What can I push myself to do next, how will I test myself or what is my next goal, would be a few questions we might ask ourselves at such a time. As the body recovers I find myself looking at races or events in the season ahead. I have a great base now after the recent events and might as well try and keep this going. In saying that rest and recovery, light training and plenty movement is very important before jumping into anything too quickly.

At the moment I am signed up to the Wicklow Way Race 127km, the SCOTT Snowdonia trail marathon ,Kerry Way Ultra Lite and the Mourne Skyline Marathon. The first in June, second in July, third in September and the fourth in October. If I can get to the start lines in one piece I hope to do myself justice in each event.

The most exciting part of these races will be the fact that I have never taken part in any of them, sure up until last August I had never gone for more than 9 hours at any event and had never completed the marathon distance, or even tried. In saying this to be in a position to have the confidence to take on these events feels great.

The body suffered during the 26 peaks event, I recovered well but I have a touch of achilles pain and I am minding that at the moment. I played football on Tuesday thinking everything was ok. My achilles was actually fine but my hamstrings got the shock of their lives. Only 3-4 weeks without sprinting and my hamstrings had probably shortened with all the distance covered. The result in sprinting short distances was extremely sore hamstrings and this in turn has left me with backpain the last two days. Nothing some foam rolling, dynamic stretching and a bit of yoga tomorrow won’t cure.

My running life took a funny turn today as myself and Shaun were asked to go on national TV, (TV3,Ireland AM),  to speak about our adventures on the 26 peaks. Of course I am scared of TV but I also felt so lucky to be in the position to go on TV and talk about something I enjoy so much. The mountains along with the lakes are my favourite place in the world and to have scaled every high peak in Ireland is a great feeling. I encourage everyone to try some hiking in the mountains this summer, you won’t regret it.

TV appearence

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