Saturday, January 21, 2012

Art O'Neill Challenge 2012

The Art O'Neill challenge is a unique event which has grown in stature in the last number of years and this year saw it assemble the most competitive field yet. Because there is 3 events rolled in to 1 (Hike, hybrid and Ultra run), everyone can get involved and experience a truly unique atmosphere. The fact that it starts at 2am makes it different from most other races and means there is one more obstacle to contend with, in being tired right from the start. Maybe I have an advantage in that regard, given that I work nights regularly and am used to feeling zombiefied by tiredness.

I travelled up to Dublin on Friday afternoon with Robbie and Ronan. Unfortunately Rob had been sick in the couple of days previous and made the decision not to run late that evening. A wise choice given how tough this event is even when feeling fully fit. After a short lie down in my cousins house and a bite to eat, we headed over to Jeff's house for the rest of the evening until it was time to head in to Dublin Castle in the city centre. We sorted out our gear and I got Jeff to brew some nice strong coffee before we left.

Arriving at the castle, I immediately noticed lots of familiar faces milling around in the registration room and got chatting to pass the time. Last year's winner Eoin Keith was back to defend his title and I knew he would be eager to hang on to it. But there were a number of other capable athletes also looking to race, amongst them international adventure racers Bruce Duncan and Thure Kjaer. Zoran, Greg Byrne, and Tim Charneki were also going to be in the running for the win. Also present was a veteren of the game, Adrian Tucker who had got me round the course last year when I was clueless as to what lay ahead, having had no chance to recce the route. This year however I had got a couple of recces under my belt and was confident I would be able to find my way as long as conditions and visibility weren't too severe. As luck would have it the moon and stars were shining and it looked like we were going to have no such problems. But I wasn't sure what to expect from my own legs. I was feeling a little tired from the exertions of the Garda Cross Country Championships two days previously. But at least I had gotten some rare speedwork done.

I had no specific plan for the race except to stay with the lead runners, whoever they were going to be, and hopefully push on during the off road sections. As it happened Eoin took off like he was running barefoot on hot coals. F@*k it, stick to the plan! No easing in to this one then. So the first few miles passed pretty quickly until myself and Eoin were able to chat about all things running and anything else we could think of. But eventually the road started upwards and the chat wasn't so plentiful for a while. The view of the city as we made our way to Stone cross was worth the wait and served to take my mind off the effort momentarily. It was around this time the road started to get slippy with ice and every step became more of an effort. I started to move off the road looking for some grip in the grass verge. It remained that way until the brow of the hill down to Kilbride Army Barracks and the first checkpoint. We had been passing walkers and "hybriders" for a while at this stage and while we received great encouragement, at times I felt like we might have pissed one or two of them off, running up behind them and then shouting at the last minute that we were coming through. Anyway everyone obliged and we eventually arrived at the checkpoint and scanned our timing chips. A quick change of footwear for something with a bit more grip and I was gone after Eoin again. The checkpoint was chocabloc with hikers teaming up with their guides for the night. I nearly knocked a few of them down trying to get out of there but eventually managed to negotiate my way back on to the road to begin the "fun" part. I met Eoin at the gates to the barracks while I was still trying to get my water bottle and pack sorted. So for the next 5 minutes or so as I chased Eoin, I also tried to get the bottle in to the pouch on the front of my pack. A little further down the road I gave up and just held it in my hand. It was around this time that I took my one and only fall of the night on the bloody road!! That didn't really auger well for what was to come on the offroad section. I had obviously hit a sloppy patch on the grass row on the middle of the road and just got unlucky. I dusted myself down and did a quick check confirming I was still in one piece and ready for the off again.

We soon came across the gate to the first bit of offroad running through some fields. This was supposed to be marked, as it is private land and it wasnt possible to recce it beforehand. But there was no sign of anything telling us we were on the right track. We did however, find our way to Ballinabrocky bridge, after a few hesitant minutes and started some more uphill effort. This section seemed to go on forever. But there was no let up in the pace. The whole way up towards Ballynultagh Gap, I ran a few strides behind Eoin, wondering when he was going to ease back but it wasn't happening. As we neared the top of the climb, I remarked about how bloody hard the previous 20 minutes of running or so was. Thankfully Eoin agreed. During the post race chat we both agreed if the other wasn't there to see, we probably would have had a sneaky walk break. But as it was, the first bit of hiking came after Black hill on the way up to Billy Byrnes Gap. The ground was heavy, boggy and damp at this stage and my feet were feeling the chill in my porous choice of footwear. Still it was a small price to pay for the fe el of a light fast shoe. And with the ground being so uneven it probably helps to feel every bump, hollow and rock, allowing for better balance.  Over the top of Billy Byrne's Gap and we were able to run but a little more cautiously than we might have liked given the surface. Every so often you would put your foot down only to find a hole to stumble over. I always thank my lucky stars after a run like this that my legs come back in one piece. There is definately a certain amount of luck needed when running in those conditions. We eventually got down to the river and then more or less followed it along towards Ballinagee Forest.

What happened next may have simply been luck on Eoin's part or else the most tactically astute bowel movement I have ever witnessed! Well I didn't actually witness it thankfully. I'm sure he wont mind me including this in the report, given it changed the complexion of the rest of the race  but Eoin decided he needed to do his thing and said he would have to stop about half a mile from the forest. I stopped initially, to take care of some business myself and then slowly got moving again. I had recced the route with Adrian Tucker and the lads at the end of November and that day we had made our way along by the river and at the corner of the forest, went left and climbed up along the perimeter to a gated entrance. So I decided to do the same this time. As I climbed I noticed Eoin's headtorch was moving again and he was almost at the corner himself. Then suddenly he was gone out of sight and a conversation I had with Adrian had suddenly came back and hit me. He had mentioned a lower entrance in to the forest which might be more direct and save some vital minutes. "You f*%king idiot" was all I kept telling myself. "You've gone and fallen for that one". But it was too late to turn back and at any rate I wasn't sure where the entrance was so I kept moving. By the time I reached the checkpoint at Ballinagee Bridge I was 4 minutes down on Eoin. I filled a bottle and got going again.

As I reached the forest ride up to the fireroad, my own bowels started to give out and I had to take a quick pitstop myself. Presumably my body thought this was any normal day and was just doing what it always does at that time of day (Apologies, this is a warts and all report). I got moving again and quickly made my way to the gate leading out to the river, which would eventually wind its way to the base of Art's Cross. I was certainly feeling the effort now and my legs were heavy but I knew the hard part should be done by the time I got up the ridge to the cross. It was a real hands and legs effort to get there and my legs were telling me to take it easy on them. My mood had changed now and I was pretty sure I'd need a lot of luck to catch Eoin and there was no sign of any headtorch ahead of me. The route to 3 lakes was shrouded in mist and made the going slow. If anything it got worse as I got closer to Table track and I started to panic a little when I could't find it. There was zero visibility now and I was just watching my feet hoping they were going to hit the defined track I was looking for. Finally after unwittingly crossing over it, I doubled back and located the path. A huge wave of relief hit me and I started the long descent down the valley to Barravore. This stretch is pretty unforgiving on the feet with large rocks strewn unevenly everywhere. But at least this year they were free of ice. As I neared the youth hostel I noticed a headtorch a few minutes behind me and got a bit of a jolt. For a split second I wondered if it might be Eoin behind me. I quickly came to my senses and realised that was hardly likely. So I quickened the pace towards the shining lights of the finish line in Barravore Carpark, crossing the line in 5hrs 36minutes, just over 9 minutes down on Eoin who along with Gearóid, was there to welcome me in. Eoin had run a great race leading from the front throughout, and in poker parlance "went all in" so he fully deserved the win.  2 minutes later the owner of the headtorch behind me revealed himself as Greg Byrne who had put in the fastest split for that section of the race. A great run by him. Bruce and Thure, running together, passed Zoran agonisingly close to the line and Tim Charneki was next in. My "guide" from last year, Adrian was next and still looking fresh. We all chatted for a while and sampled the hot chocolate and coffee being generously provided beside the finishing chute. Eventually it became a little uncomfortably cold and we got the bus back to the Glenmalure Lodge and put on some dry gear and got some decent food in to us. Some of the lads were lucky enough to be able to refuel with a few pints but we had to hit the road back to Cork.

Finally just to say a quick thank you to the organisers, particularly Gearóid Towey. They had a mammoth operation to pull off but they did it brilliantly.

Eoin - Next year we will have to synchronise our bowels :-)

Bruce, me, Zoran, Eoin, Thur and Greg in front enjoying the banter at the finish


  1. Nice report Paul! Well done and keep on pushing in your racing. It's exciting to see a great bunch of Ultra runners beginning to emerge in Ireland.


  2. The Art O'Neill challenge is a unique event which has grown in stature in the last ...