There are varying levels of hardness in the world:
The scale normally goes from a teenage boy’s erection (hardest) to big sums (pretty hard) with a diamond sitting somewhere in between the two. This scale will have to be revised after last Saturday.
About 6 weeks ago I was at a work function and was chatting to Grellan about the Wicklow Way Ultra. He told me that one of the lads from his club, Eagles, had run the race last year and found it to be ‘the hardest thing he had ever done’. I just shrugged and said “it can’t be that bad”.
In the build up tot he race I logged onto the IMRA (Irish Mountain Running Association – the clue is in the name) website. This site lists all the races around the country. After the race name, location, distance and date there is a difficulty rating. It goes from 1 for old ladies with small dogs to 10 for really tough experienced ultra mountain runners (and idiots).
This race was a 10.
Part of my training for this race consisted of running what I thought were ‘hills’ about once a week. I now know that these weren’t hills. They were just small changes in elevation. As I type this I have to laugh at myself. I couldn’t have been less prepared for what was about to hit me. I was the lamb. It was the slaughter.
I’ll try and keep this as short as possible so that I don’t give myself PTSD.
I travelled up the afternoon before and I took detour through the Wicklow Mountains to see what all the fuss was about. The fuss was mainly about the fact that these were mountains and I normally ran hills. These were the opposite of my hills. These were steep and long and high.
Still, I thought, it can’t be that bad.
I had the sister’s house to myself as she was away with her gang which was just as well as after the pot of pasta, the banana milk and the bowl of rice pudding I wasn’t really up for a chat and a glass of wine. I was wrapped up in bed with the alarm set for 06:10 by 22:00.
Like all alarms, because I’d set it, I didn’t need it and I was up at 06:00 and started pottering around the house. I had the usual porridge, vit C drink, espresso, sitting on the bog with twitter routine over and after a shower, preparing the drop bags and packing up I was out the door by 07:30.
I reached the race start around 08:15 (the sister lives on the other side of Dublin) and the car park was already full with a bunch of obsessive/compulsives queuing at a picnic table. I parked up, grabbed the wallet and joined my fellow sufferers to register.
The queue took ages to process as everybody was being entered into the laptop. I watched the 08:30 and 09:00 early starters get going and went back to the car to change and to do what bears do in the woods one more time before we started.
In the queue you had two types of people: seasoned ultra mountain runners and the rest of us (chancers). I was heartened by the fact that most of the people around me seemed to be chancers. The race organisers had stipulated that you had to carry a jacket, gloves and a hat for the race. I had visions of freezing to death or worse, being disqualified, so like an obedient school boy I ran the whole race with a rain coat tied around my waist. This, the arm warmers and sun glasses made me look like I’d become detached from some sort of strange stag party. It was totally unnecessary but I could see where they were coming from. Late March in Ireland doesn’t normally bring 20 degree heat and until I start being a race director I’ll do what I’m told.
We lined up at the start (outside a pub) and had our race briefing. This basically told us not to litter and bring your coat (they’d dropped the hat and gloves requirement) and to stick to the route.
Then without much ado we were off.
The thoroughbreds were off up the road at 5k pace and the rest of us settled into a gentle trot. The first mile or so was on the road and it ticked by in 8:17. A bit fast for an ultra I thought so I made little or no effort to speed up. Little did I realise that that would be my fastest mile of the day!
After the first bit on the road the route turned down an hill to start the trail properly. This involved about 2 or 3 miles of continuous up-hill running. One of the main reasons to move into the marathon and ultra marathon distances is that the you have a chance to become friends with the pain over a prolonged period of time. You can set the terms of your relationship, how much each of you is willing to give and what you expect in return. Think of it as being married but without the ironing (I was going to say without the sex but that might confuse married people).
Not in this race my friends.
The pain was upon us after about a mile and a half and held us for about another 2 miles to the top. It was one of those hill sessions where you wonder would it not be easier to power walk. But this was the start of the race and nobody was going to admit that a walking break after 3 miles was a good idea. So we all continued on the slow run up to the top (Prince William’s Seat) just so we could have the engine all revved up from a cold start.
Once at the top of the climb we had a bit of a plateau and then the decent into Curltestown Woods (these names mean nothing to me but for anybody who knows the area it might mean something).
The decent, in hindsight, was an indication of why this race was so hard. The concentration required to pick your way across the granite slabs and boulders would be called upon again at the steps at the Knockree wood staircase, the descent and ascent at the Dargle and generally everything to do with the Djouce mountain (pronounced jewce) mountain and board-walk. You never have a chance to zone out on this race. No chance of drifting off – it was like having to listen to your wife give out to you all day. You couldn’t complain – you’d volunteered to go shopping for shoes with her!
We’re running over the mountain in the background. And the next one. Twice.
Still, once we got past the rocks the descent allowed me to open up and run for a bit. I was enjoying it now that the climb was over and after getting directions at the checkpoint in the car park I kept going on towards the next section. That was the first 5 miles finished.
I kept going and had one of my few moments of peace and calm between here and Crone Woods (the next checkpoint and about 9 miles in). The sun was out, the air was crisp and cool, I hadn’t overdosed on simple sugars yet and the world was good. The up-hills seemed easy and the down hills were no problem.
There is a beautiful section of the run here beside the stream on nice flat grass before you climb a fire road out of the valley. I got chatting to a few other runners here and I fell in with them. They were all on the same ‘let’s try it out’ mission I was on. One of them, Liam Costello, was running it in preparation for the Connemara Ultra in 8 days time. I fell in with him and we ran the rest of the race more or less together. In fact, there was a band of us – about 6 or 7 – who were no more that a few hundred meters from each other throughout the whole race. This did stretch a bit at the end as varying levels of exhaustion kicked in.
At Crone Woods we had our first pit-stop. I downed a banana milk and took a rice crispie bar and headed on up the next climb.
On this climb a bunch of scouts asked me what the prize was for coming first. I told them it was the same as the prize for coming last – a coffee cup. They gave me the puzzled look that shows a breakdown in logic and I just told them that when you get older you do stupid things. The energy levels were still high but the gradients were so steep at some points it would have been easier to walk. Somewhere around the Powerscourt Waterfall lookout – about mile 11 I think – I started power walking as the two in front of me were still running and walking meant I was losing no ground to them. I soon convinced them that running was only elevating their heart rates and not making them go any faster.
We crossed around the back of the waterfall and had our first look at the Djouce. It seemed OK, but like Fr. Dougal, there’s a difference between small and far away. It only looked OK because it was far away.
After crossing the bridge in this photograph and doing another bit of power walking we were onto the Djouce.
And another bit of power walking. The knowledge that all of this had to be repeated on the way home was kind of knocking my buzz a bit. Kind of like – if it doesn’t hurt this time, just wait for the way home!
Still, as myself and Liam kept pointing out to each other – nobody was catching or passing us so everyone was adopting the same power walking approach.
Once we crested the first part of the Djouce I realised that my lack of knowledge of the route was going to be a problem. In my head I thought we’d be straight onto the board walk and then down to the turn around point – no joy. There was another few kilometres of running around the contour of the mountain. It turned out to be the nicest running of the day – nice single track that was predictable and just rolled with the landscape.
There was a bit of a rocky scramble and then we were up onto the board walk. The board walk is basically a double railway sleeper track sitting on the raised bog. It should make for easy running except the thousands of U-nails or fence staples that give you traction and can catch you out as well. This just meant that it was eyes-down for most of the run.
Most people on the board walk were very accommodating and encouraging – especially the young scouts out for the day. But there was always one crank who has anger management issues. I only realised this when he pushed me off the board walk. It didn’t bother me too much as I think I said I’d C U Next Tuesday to him. This was about mile 13 and some of the faster ultra lads and the fast trail lads were meeting me at this stage. I tried to warn some of them about Mr. Helpful up ahead.
At the end of the board walk you get to see why people like the Wicklow mountains so much with the beautiful view over Lough Tay.
After the board walk you begin the long descent to the carpark in Ballinastoe – the halfway point. I was descending slowly as my stomach had been bothering me since the boardwalk. It was a combination of a stomach cramp and the pain of the water bottle strap (and rain coat) cutting into my guts (I was going to say ripped six-pack but this isn’t a complete work of fiction).
This descent is disconserting as you get to meet all the very fast ultra runners on the way up the hill and, worse still, all the trail runners sprinting up what you know will be a power walk for you!
Still, I reached the halfway point with a smile on my face in about 2:49 and then proceeded to have a picnic. Liam had gone ahead of me on the descent and as I tucked into my flat coke and kinder chocolate bar he was enjoying a chicken wrap. All very civilised.
By the level of salt on my face I knew that I’d either fallen asleep into my chips or the weather was having a good go at us as well. My sunburnt shoulders told the story the next day.
We cracked off with the clock showing about 2:55. When I say cracked off I mean ‘started power walking’. We knew now that based on our outward performance we’d be doing well to make it back in 6:20 or 6:30 (allowing for a bit of a fade).
Liam delivered a bit of a kick in the spuds as we headed back out of the turnaround checkpoint. He said that out of about 78 starters we were no. 57 and 58 at the halfway point. We both considered ourselves to be top 25% runners (not top 24%) so we reckoned that the pointy end of the running community did these ultras or we were particularly rubbish at them (based on our performance we were inclined to believe the latter).
Of course it hadn’t crossed our little brains that the 08:30 and 09:00 guys were in front of us as well and there would need to be some adjustment to the clock for these lads.
The trip back went better than I thought it would have. There were a couple of 14 – 18 minute miles due to the crippling ascents (The Dargle Valley, the Kilcree steps and Curtlestown Wood spring to mind). The up-side of these is you get to discuss the problems of the world with whoever you’re running with. Liam and myself had most of the world’s problems solved and had covered topics ranging from what kind of bike you’d buy on the cycle-to-work scheme, how long our commutes to work were, how our loving wives supported our running by ignoring it, the recession and anything to do with running food and outdoor toileting.
We passed the full marathon mark in about 5 hours and celebrated by having a piss.
This was just before Curltlestown Wood – the last checkpoint on the way home and about 27 miles into the race. The community involved in the mountain running scene was really brought home to me at the Curtlestown Wood checkpoint at this point. As I was pouring water over my head I had one volunteer re-pinning my number to my chest while a 3 or 4 year old was standing on a tree stump giving me the thumbs up and telling me ‘well done’. Everybody else was telling us that we were doing a great job.
No entry fee can pay for that.
Between the full marathon mark and the finish I think we passed about 7 runners and were passed once ourselves. By that stage the finishing position doesn’t really count and if you see someone in worse/better shape than yourself you generally tend to offer help (the fella at the top by Prince William’s seat tripping out due to lack of electrolytes) or encouragement (the lad who passed us in the last half mile).
We crested the top of the last hill and agreed that we’d better do a bit of running so we set off at what seemed like breakneck speed but turned out to be 8:30min miles on the descent to the farmyard by the main road.
After a little bit of a walk we ran the last mile to the finish. We had a debate about this walk. Liam wanted to run the hill but I suggested that unless he had a 6 minute mile in him we weren’t going to break 6 hours. So we agreed to walk.
The finish was a little surreal. Firstly, the race liar was missing. I had been scanning the previous mile for someone telling me that it just 200m to the finish and that we were in great shape.
We were running on the right hand side of the road when we spotted a van parked on the left hand side. Someone motioned us over to the van and as we arrive at the van they told us we could stop.
We were finished. 6hrs and 4 min. Not bad – a 9 minute positive split – I’ve done worse in manys and marathon
We gave our names, collected our mugs and that was it.
I think we came 37th and 38th out of 76.
9 of the 76 scored a DNF (the smart ones)
I came 10th in the M40 category so it must be a sign of progress – I think.
The hardest race I ever ran.
Why was it so hard?
It wasn’t the distance. I felt fine afterwards and even managed a 170 mile drive home and an Indian meal and a few pints afterwards.
It wasn’t the running. My legs have some DOMS but nothing you wouldn’t get from a hard 10 miler.
I think it’s the hardest race I ever ran because of the combination of the concentration required to manage the terrain and the assault on you carido vascular system that the ascents present you with. They are unforgiving.
Or, as the lad with 9 toenails from Newry City Runners said in the car park: “I’ve run 100k races and the Mourne Mountain double marathon and they are nothing compared to that!”
Or as someone on twitter said: “A challenging but rewarding course”.
A big thanks to the IMRA for their organisation and ability to deliver a day out for the price of a few pints. Many races could learn a thing or two from them. A big thanks to the long suffering family as well. My wife told me I was giggling in my sleep on Saturday night which must be a sign that I enjoyed the race.
And thanks to you for reading this until the end. The lights are on now and you can go home, they’re sweeping up the popcorn.
The ‘how we made it’ with the graphs and sore toes and numbers will be released with the DVD-box set later in the week.