What follows is an account of the Wicklow Way Ultra Marathon held last Saturday.
If you were there I’d stop reading now.
If you weren’t there but are big into running and enjoy pain then you missed a great day. If I was to summarise the whole day in a tweet I’d say it was a very challenging course made more difficult by the ground and weather conditions and not a day for PB’s.
If you’re just a normal soul or enjoy reading about someone else’s pain the read on:
To put this whole race into context I was only running it to experiment with some ultra gear I wanted to use in the West Highland Way in June and also because a 32 mile training run on your own is exceptionally boring. I wanted to see if my wife’s gore-tex shell would work as an ultra running layer (and save me having to fork out for another ‘magic’ running jacket) and to see if the Dry-max ultra socks I’d recently purchased were actually any good and weren’t just a bag of magic beans with the word ultra stuck on the label (The sort of thing I’d fall for).
The night before the race I was sitting in my sister’s house bemoaning my vow of sobriety for lent while dunking jaffa cakes in tea when she held up a weather map of Ireland on the iPad. Everywhere was fine except for a big amber exclamation mark over Wicklow. I shrugged the shrug of an idiot. I think I justified my shrug by saying something conspiratorial like: That’s just the media, trying to manipulate us and make us all comply with the median. You’ve got to live life, I said – like there was something else you could do with it.
The next morning found me in the overflow car park at Johnnie Foxe’s pub at about 08:30hrs.
It was cold.
School PE cold. Standing around pretending to be playing a game of football on a Tuesday morning in February in 1985 cold. Your sleeves pulled down around your fingers and no talk about technical base layers or compression socks.
And we hadn’t even changed into our running gear yet.
I was happy to meet Liam Costello as I queued for my race number. He is planning on running the Highland Fling this April so part of today was about me giving him pointers on what to do and how to pace it. Like me last year, the step up to 53 miles was the main challenge in the Fling so I was going to be burning Liam’s ear off for a few miles in the day to come.
Meeting Grellan at the start was another surprise. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about with these Ultra Trail Races so he said he’d try this one out. He made my choice of running shoes (New Balance 1080v2’s) seem inspired by selecting a pair of Asics racing flats to tackle the course.
I was going with what everyone else seemed to be wearing on the day and went for a helly hansen long sleeved top, a Berghaus gore-tex shell, a cheapo hydro pack with about 1.5l of water with 2 Nuun tabs in it, mizuno tights, decathlon shorts and trailmax socks with the NBs on the feet. I had an Aldi running hat and a pair of Aldi cycling gloves to keep my paws warm. I had packed a pair of Aldi ice grips in the hydro pack (they make a cameo appearance further on).
My first mistake (of many) on the day was to drink a 6-cup espresso in the car park. I did give Grellan one cup of it but I soon found out that lots of caffeine turns you into a Tom Cruise character in an action movie – No, not very short, good looking and into space invaders religion but rather super panicky. I was looking for my heart rate strap in the back seat of the car and ended up almost pulling the seats out of the car looking for it only to discover that I was already wearing it.
As we huddled in the lee of Johnnie Foxes pub to be briefed on the conditions (don’t run solo from Crone to Ballinastoe because we don’t want to be bothering the mountain rescue on a busy day like today) I spotted some of the elites of the Irish Ultra scene. There was John O’Regan, Paul Tierney and a few others.
The remarkable thing about the elites in the ultra and trail scene is they look so ordinary – until they start running. A bit like male porn stars. I felt like the guy you see in the porno group scene with the tiny cock. Supremely confident of my ability to perform but in another league when it comes to the look on the actress’s face. Still, to stick with the porno metaphor, I was standing there, cock in hand, ready for my turn and and not at home making love to the laptop. My cup was more than half full.
The clock nudged 09:30 and after some laughter and joking we were off. The elites hared on off up the road and we (Grellan, Liam and myself) settled into a gently pace with conversation flowing easily. Nobody was here for a PB and the conditions didn’t look like it would be possible. The cold wasn’t really the problem but if the race director’s advice was anything to go by then we’d be doing a fair bit of nordic walking as the day went on.
After a few miles we hit the snow, on the climb up to Prince William’s Seat. This climb was a balance between aerobic fitness and traction. The snow wasn’t more that about 100mm deep and didn’t seem to have drifted but the ascent gradient meant that road shoes were struggling with the conditions as they were slipping on the previously trod on snow. Plenty of people had more sense than me and had worked out that walking the snow was the fastest thing to do over the whole day. As I was still in Tom Cruise mode I was lashing into it like an idiot.
We re-grouped at the bottom of the forest descent and headed on for the section by the Dargle. A section we assured Grellan was easy, flat and runnable.
Just before the drop down to the river we stopped to water the ditch. I got a brief glimpse into the world of paedophilia as with numb hands and a tiny cock it felt like a 10-year old Richard was being interfered with by a stranger.
At least there was no snow on this section of the course. But the mud, mother of God, the mud. The lack of trail shoes was really showing at this stage. It was really a day for trail shoes and I wasn’t wearing any. First Grellan did some comedy ass-plants and then I did some face plants. Liam, in his trail shoes stayed upright all day.
After the race, as I was doing an inventory on my DOMS I was trying to figure out why my shoulders, triceps and hips were sore to touch when I realised that they were bruised from all the falling about and not from over-use.
I picked up a gel at the stop at Crone Wood and realised that I hadn’t been keeping to my eating-a-small-bit-every-half-an-hour strategy that had served me well in every other ultra to-date. Of course, at the time I hadn’t a clue as to why this would be but, after a few days, I realised that it was because of the cold. Everything was because of the cold. If none of this report makes sense to you then all you need to take away from it is that it was because of the the cold.
As we made our way up the hill towards the view of Powerscourt waterfall I was showing Grellan how power walking the steep ascents was as fast as jogging and gave your running muscles some welcome relief.
I was surprised to see the waterfall with all the fog down over the hills but it was a beautiful sight. So beautiful I insisted on photographing it with Grellan and Liam.
I know what you’re thinking when you look at the photograph: I bet the guy on the right has gay knees the way Richard has gay wrists. I think Grellan’s knees look gay as well but they’ve been cropped.
Up to this point – about mile 10 or 11 there was nothing to indicate what was in front of us.
That’s a bit of a lie really. As the course had to climb up to 630m and the snow line was somewhat lower than that, and from the part of the mountain that was not shrouded in fog you could see plenty of snow it was pretty obvious conditions were about to get worse. But like troops marching to certain death we happily marched on, oblivious to our fate.
As we started the ascent of Djouce mountain the real challenges of the next 5 miles began to make themselves felt. We were having the smiles wiped off our faces by the conditions in front of us. The normally easy grassy and heather strewn slope that is the ascent to the shoulder of Djouce was now shin high snow covered bog. The cheery banter faded away as everyone became strung out and struggled with the task to hand. The fact that your feet had become numb and you knew that conditions were only getting worse made the whole thing very counter intuitive. The numb feet were, depending on your disposition, a mild inconvenience or a life threatening disability. This depended on the number of HTFU pills you’d had with your porridge that morning.
I was in the mild inconvenience camp until we got to the shoulder of Djouce and the wide path narrowed down to a single track path on the steep edge of the mountain. This path had captured the melt water and with such a narrow route there was no longer an option of picking a clean route. My switching of allegiances to the Help Mummy, I’m scared camp came about when the lack of feeling below the knee meant that I couldn’t place my feet safely on the narrow path and I had a few minutes of being unable to run coherently. Visualise a drunk new born giraffe and you’re close to the picture. Despite falling over several times I just couldn’t muster the motor skills to run due to the freezing wet conditions. This didn’t look like it was going to end and the idea of my wife giving out to me for being so stupid (which would have been true) annoyed me enough to keep pushing on until it started to turn from wet boggy snow to just freezing fog, ice and snow.
As I reached the board-walk (2 railway sleepers covered in U-nails). I finally had the sense to stop and take stock of the situation. I was on my own by now and I knew that slipping on the boardwalk would hurt – it was covered in ice with nails protruding – and to fall off it was a bit of a lucky dip as there was 2 or 3 feet of snow and bog on either side of it.
As I stood in this half-world with 10m visibility and whiteness everywhere the blood began to flow to my brain again and I remembered the ice-grips in my backpack. Ultra trail running is the closest you’ll come to experiencing double digit IQ.
I sat down in snow and wasted/invested 5 minutes in pulling on the ice grips. These meant that I could at least run with confidence on the boardwalk and even managed to pass a pair of runners sticking together for safety. Running alone in the white out meant that the normal sensory cues used to build the world around us were missing. All I had was the crunch of the spikes on the ice and a howling gale turning the left side of my face numb. Still, my feet were warming up now (as my fingers went numb in the wet gloves).
After a few miles of this I met the leaders on the return leg. The grim looks on their faces and the blood trickling down their knees and shin told the story that despite having bigger cocks they were finding this a tough day as well.
The trail race (16 miles) met me at the stairs off the boardwalk looking over Lough Tay. As this is single track I had a fair bit of jumping on and jumping off the path. At least I was meeting other souls and the half-world on top of the mountain was now a memory.
At the turn around Grellan and Liam were eating grapes and worrying about the return route. The people with triple digit IQs had decided to pull out at this stage but not us. We, with our goldfish memories, were ready to do it again.
The time to the turn around was about 15 mins slower than last year which was amazing given the conditions this year (I thought).
As we walked/jogged back up out of Ballinastoe Wood Grellan’s superior fitness triumphed over his running sandals (the racing flats had now split open) and he disappeared up in front of us – not to be seen again until the finish.
I decided to stop for a piss and noticed that the snow was turning a very dark shade of yellow – a sure sign of dehydration. This was the beginning of the return leg and the start of the story of the trip home. The lack of nutrition in the first 16 miles was now about to sit on my shoulders and wouldn’t let go until 2 miles from the finish.
I had Liam for company on the run home and as the conditions were no longer a surprise to us they held less fear than the trip out. I had a similar new born giraffe experience on the way way back around the shoulder but the descent of Djouce was much easier. As we were now falling out of the fog and you weren’t bent double trying to hike so you could actually run. If you stayed out of the muddy slush and stuck to the virgin snow you could actually have a bit of fun and do some proper leaping about.
Soon we were back in the carpark at Crone Wood and with a bit of food on board it was onwards to home. We stopped for a celebration piss at the full marathon distance and stopped for a chat at the water station at Curtlestown Wood. They had a 4-year old helper blowing the whistle to encourage us on our way which trivial as it sound now was a great boost at the time.
The climb back up to Prince William’s seat proved to be the slowest mile of the day but we used the time to good effect by chatting about the Highland Fling and how to pace it, what to eat and what to expect as the day unfolded.
As we started our final few miles down to Glencullen I was unable to keep pace with Liam. This was more than just grip and shoes. I was barely able to keep going downhill. Not eating for most of the previous 30 miles was to blame and it wasn’t until I had the sense to stop and scoff down a bag of jellies that it became obvious. It was a Popeye moment and within a minute or two of taking on the fuel I was back in control and running well. I walked the climb back up by the farm and then ran flat out to the GAA pitch, picking off two or three runners who’d been inadvertently teasing me with my sugar low paralysis.
My trusty Garmin had died at around 28 miles so I hadn’t a clue as to my time. The finishing results had me in a shade over 6:35hrs and in 63rd place out of 130 starters.
Liam and Grellan were waiting at the end and confirmed that they’d made it back to the finish is 6:13 and 6:31. We wandered the half mile or so back to our cars and after a brisk rub-down with a towel we were off to the pub for a bit of food.
In terms of a day out testing gear the day was a success. The dry-max socks were excellent and it’s the first race over the normal marathon that I didn’t get a blister or hot spot on. the gore-tex jacket was also a success as it kept the wind out when the conditions got tough and I never once had that sweaty pervert covered in cling-film feeling you get from standard running jackets.
The on-going failure to focus on nutrition is now getting out of hand and will have to form part of my training in a big way. It certainly lost me a bit of time in this race but was not disastrous. In anything longer than this and I’d be a DNF. Ironically this failure to focus on nutrition is because I can now go fairly long with out any energy drinks or gels. A 20 mile run is now achievable with a bottle of water. But, I realise, that’s beside the point. If I’m finishing 20 milers on empty then that’s not training for an ultra.
My hip stood up to the test and the usual mix of will power and natural endorphins meant that it didn’t inhibit my modest performance. In the days following the race my joints as opposed to my muscles have been the main culprits for pain and soreness. I suspect that this is down to the falls and tumbles and the lateral sliding of the legs stretching areas normally not used and to the over extension of the feet and ankles when there was little or no blood flow to them and they were numb with the cold. Nothing that a few days of taking it easy won’t fix.
Apart from that the brackish water stains on my feet just won’t come off despite daily showers.
I don’t know what else there is to say about the conditions except that I’ve been having PTSD nightmares for the past 3 nights about it. I know I normally joke in this blog but I think that was the first time (on the outward leg) that I was truly scared in a race (and that includes being put on a drip at the end of the Rotterdam Marathon). Of course now, after a few days, I’d do it all over again which proves my wife’s maxim of there’s no learning going one here is there? to be completely true.
Sorry for the lack of photographs but it was no place to be dicking about with a camera phone.
If you’ve never done one of these ultras then the prize for finishing (see below) will seem pointless but it you have you’ll marvel at it for hours!
Thanks for reading.