I drove up from Cork the night before and stayed with my cousin so I would have a shortened spin to the start line at Johnny Foxes pub in Glencullen. The weather had been relatively warm and sunny for this time of year and more of the same was promised for Saturday, if a little cooler. I was up at about 6.30 in an attempt to cook some porridge and brew some strong coffee, sumatran i believe. I barely finished the porridge,then filled a few 500ml bottles for the race, one of which i would start the race with and the others hopefully being deposited for me by the organisers at the halfway point in Ballinastoe and the 40k mark in Crone wood. I taped a couple of GU gels to the halfway bottle and carried 4 with me, just in case.
I arrived at the pub's car park to be greeted by Martin Francis directing cars to various spots. I would end up running alongside Martin for a good chunk of the first half of the race and his positivity was very welcome during that time. I met John and Paul in the queue for registration, both of whom are racing again at the Connemara Ultra in 2 weeks. They both looked eager and up for a scenic run in the hills and having not done the course before, I assured them they were in for a treat. I spoke with last years winner, Eoin Keith who was helping with registration. He was unable to race after breaking his leg at the Annagh Hill race earlier in the year and was disappointed not to be towing the line to defend his title. But the cast was due to come off in the following couple of days and he was hoping to be back racing in the coming months. He has a date with Mont Blanc and its surrounding peaks to look forward to in August.
The time passed quickly after this and following some more chatting, I went to the car to get togged off. Dermot called everyone together for the briefing outside the pub and we were ready for the off. I took my place beside Martin and Adrian Tucker (who I ran the Art O'Neill challenge with in January) at the front of a hardy bunch of 60 runners
The first mile of the race is along the road to a sharp left turn which brought us to the point where we meet the official Wicklow Way so it was relatively flat and we settled in to a nice pace, with myself, Martin and Dale leading out the bunch. At the turn we had a quick downhill, over a bridge to the start of the trailhead where we had to negotiate a gate. Safely through here it was time for the first climb of the day all the way to the top of Prince Williams seat. About half way up the climb, Tony Keely came up on my shoulder and then edged past me and took up the lead. He had certainly injected an extra little bit of pace and the bunch was really starting to string out along the climb. As we reached the top of Prince William's seat, Tony pulled away and while i thought about following him, I reminded myself that it was a long race and he may not be feeling so sprightly later on. Im not the best decender and I think he would have pulled away anyway as we hit the long downhill to Curtlestown wood. The granite stones made it feel like a game of hop scotch and this slowed my progress a little. But its these little variations that make it such a brilliant place to run and why I will always pick an off road race over a road one. As I neared the bottom of the downhill. I could hear footsteps behind me and then the friendly voice of Martin Francis. He reckoned we were going along at a nice pace and would do well to maintain it. We speculated as to whether Tony had gone out too fast and wondered when we would see him again. We kept a nice brisk pace up along the road section as far as the entrance to the next trail section, where we were met by the shell of a burnt out car. Martin joked that they had burnt out his spin back to the finish. This is a really nice section of the course and there is some nice single track downhill to enjoy on the way to the bank of the Dargle river. We arrived in to Crone around the hour mark with a few bodies close behind. There was no hanging around here as we were only 11km in to the race and about to start a steady climb out of the woods to Djouce. It was on this climb that I started to pull away a little from Martin and also where I spotted Tony walking up one of the bigger climbs. I reckoned he looked tired and felt I could make time on him here. And so it prooved. It was a pity to be running hard and not enjoy the view of Powerscourt off to the left of the trail, but I reasoned that there would be more relaxed runs up arond these parts later in the year where I could do that. AsI reached the felled wood section and tip toed round all the old roots, I was now 20 or 30 metres behind Tony heading down the slope to start the long climb up Djouce. It was at the bottom as we negotiated the style that Tony informed me he may have gone too hard and was suffering a little. I decided a mix of running and fast walking would be best here and thats what I did. Over the next style and the gradient eased a little giving me a chance to breath a little easier. I jumped the third style and felt that the worst was over and it wasnt too far to the turn around. In reality there was still some way to go but the rest of the climb was a little softer underfoot and all runnable. The higher I went, the mistyer (if thats even a word) it got and it became quite cool as well. I was thankful for throwing on a base layer under my singlet. As I hit the boardwalk I was reliably informed by 2 kids - out with their mum for a hike - that if I stopped running I would get cold. I thanked him for his incredible observation and told him I had no intention of stopping. I chopped and changed between running on the Boardwalk and the softer track beside it when it wasn't too boggy. I was met along this section by one or 2 early starters in the trail race and exchanged pleasantries. I love meeting people during these races and exchanging encouragement as it acts as a little lift at low times. Disappointingly the view of Lough Tay was obscured by the fog and I thought back to a run I did up here with Jeff Fitz ( currently sunning himself in Spain and racking up mileage for his West Highland Way race in June) and Robbie Williams (who had a flying run in the trail race).That day the pace was leisurely and we were able to soak up the views. Today however, it was probably a blessing in disguise as there was nothing to distract my attention from the ground underfoot which demanded my full concentration. As I turned in to Ballinastoe Woods I was met by a steward who pointed me left. I thought to myself "how I could have done with you last year", when I went right instead and added a considerable amount of time to my run. This long decent down the fireroad is a tough one on the feet and legs and seems to go on forever, probably because you know that at the end, you have to turn around and come back up again. As I reached the end I could hear breathing behind me and turned to find Martin again hot on my heels. He was running a good race and I thought to myself, I hope he is tiring because I cant go much quicker. At the turnaround I grabbed my bottle and gels from the pile of goodies on the ground and quickly set off back up the hill. I took a gel here and put another in the pouch on my bottle holder. I couldn't get the empty gel packet into the pouch so as I passed a mountain biker, I asked him would he mind taking it as I didn't want to be littering. He looked a little bemused but agreed and I thanked my fellow green friend and kept moving. It was slow progress up this climb but I kept up a steady trot. There was now a stream of Ultra runners coming against me and more opportunities to shout encouragement. Adrian, Paul, a fellow Eagle clubmate, and John all passed looking very fresh and I could see they were enjoying themselves. I hit the boardwalk and began the long, windswept run back to Djouce.
Eagle clubmate paul Daly on his way up From the turnaround at Ballinastoe. This shot gives an idea of the slog ahead.
I actually became a little chilly here as the wind whipped up and it probably helped to keep me running to try and warm up. At this stage I couldn't see any of the other ultra runners behind me and as I hit the downhill after the boardwalk I was starting to feel a little confident. This new found confidence was short lived however,when, as I hopped the first gate I took a quick look back while eating another gel, to see Dale hot on my heels, and I realised the race was still very much on. I picked up the pace to the valley floor where I asked a kind hiker if he would mind hanging on to my empty gel packet. He duly obliged and wished me luck. I hit the climb back up to Powerscourt with Dale about 50 metres back. I power walked hard up the slope, putting a little more breathing space between the two of us. On then down the long downhill section to the Crone woods entrance. It was on this descent that I decided to shed a layer. In true Cork fashion I must have looked like a right "Langer" as I struggled to get my singlet back over my head, after removing my base layer, all the while trying to keep the pace up and not fall over. I eventually managed the task and settled in to my stride again for the rest of the run in to the checkpoint in Crone, all the while trying to lose Dale. I had drained my bottle at this stage, so I quickly grabbed my last one at the checkpoint. I was so intent on getting out of there that I didnt even respond to race organiser Dermot Murphy's offer of a few jelly babies. I must have seemed pretty ignorant but I did apologise afterwards at the finish line. It was as I hit the banks of the Dargle that I started to feel the strain and I had to start the talking to myself to keep pushing hard. I was now a couple of hundred metres in front of Dale and felt I would have to hammer the remaining climbs to put enough space between us before the last long descent near the finish. He seemed to be a little quicker than me going downhill so I put myself under pressure to keep pressing hard as I hit the long climb up from the river. The road section back to Curtlestown was uneventful and I didn't see any sign of Dale behind me. As I got to the forest entrance I met Mary O'Colmain who had volunteered to set up another water station which I had not expected to need but my third bottle was not cooperating and most of the water had spilled out through a leaky cap.
The turn in to Curtlestown with 8k to go with said water bottle cap in hand ready for refill
I quickly refilled the bottle and this time partook in some jellies. I didn't hang about here and I started the last long slog up through Curtlestown. My plan was that if Dale came in to view I would be sure to push harder in the faint hope that he would think I was feeling good and that he might throw in the towel. It sounded good in my own head and at least kept me thinking positive. I would ease off then as I rounded the next corner and was out of view.
Dale on the climb through Curtlestown wood
As I reached the top of the climb and tip toed back around the granite slabs I knew that the worst was now over and all I had to do was push hard the couple of miles back to the finish
Granite slabs at the top of Prince William's seat. All downhillish from here!
This proved easier said than done of course and every downhill step was now hurting my feet (probably something to do with the racing flats I was wearing). I passed another few hikers who must have been thinking to themselves whats this guys hurry, slow down and enjoy the scenery? As I neared the end of the trail there was still no sign of Dale and I was starting to think that maybe I had built up a sufficient lead. I slipped through the gate and back on to the road and over the bridge, where I began the steep pull back to the main road. I kept looking back up the trail, which I now had a good view of and still could see no one. This made me wonder was there someone going to pop around the corner at full tilt so I wasn't able to relax. I reached the main road and tried to pick up the pace a little again. The finish was just outside the GAA club which was about 500 metres short of last year's finish line and as I rounded a slight bend in the road, I could see the table set up at the finish and Dermot and Eoin standing there waiting to record finishing times. I crossed the line in 4hrs 11minutes and 26 seconds and immediately sat down on the road. Eoin advised me that I might be better off sitting elsewhere as my current level of agility might not have allowed me to get out of the way of passing traffic. I took his advice and got back up again. After a short chat about the race Dale came along to grab second place. I was starting to stiffen up and get cold by now so I said my goodbyes and headed back to the car park to get in to some warmer gear. I was starting to think of how nice a pint of guinness and bowl of chowder would be in Johnny Foxes,when Robbie suggested it, but knew I wouldn't get the chance to sample these because of a need to be back in Cork early. Chicken cuppa soup was all I could manage from a petrol station.
This is one of the best races in the country and to think that entry was only €15, it goes to show what can be achieved on a tight budget and calls in to question some of the ridiculous entry fees charged by other event organisers. Here here for IMRA! A big thanks to Dermot, Eoin, Richard, Mick Hanney and all those who helped to put on a cracking race.