Saturday, 30 March 2013

Two Birds, One Stone... and a priceless Mug

My sister rang me last Monday week to ask would Ani and Saran come up for a week over the Easter holidays to stay with their Cousin Robert, who had been down with us for a week during mid-term. I jumped at the offer and said I'd be up that Friday night. "Great" she said, "Orla (my other sister) will be up with Adrian" (her husband) and my nephew Shane and his partner and niece Aoife and her partner. So there was a right party going on by the time I arrived at 8:30 with the wine and beer flowing till about 1:30 the following morning. I was up again at about 7:30 for a quick cup of coffee with Rob, my brother-in-law, before heading back to Cork. But I had a little detour to take first!

15 minutes after leaving at 8:10 I was in Glencullen in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, standing in the overflow car park of Johnnie Foxes signing up in the frigid morning air for membership of IMRA (€10) and their flagship race of the year "The Wiclow Way Ultra"(€15). For another €5 I could have got a bus to the turnaround at Ballinastoe for the 16 mile Wicklow Way Trail Race, but no half measures for me today.

I met up with Richard, my cousin Liam and Clubmates Paul and Killian. While the temperature was a bearable 1C the wind chill brought it well below freezing, which was enough to keep me waiting in the car until as close as possible to the start time. My gear consisted of compression tights over compression shorts and socks – more for the cold than anything else. I wore a long sleeve compression top underneath a long sleeve cycling top making use of the back pockets for storage. I wore a lightweight cycling rain jacket on top. I also carried a small backpack with a (proper regulation) rainjacket and a bottle of water. My nutrition consisted of 3 gels, a granola bar and a bag of raisins and almonds. I also had a bottle of coke, which I place in Paul’s drop bag at the halfway mark. My footwear was probably the most unsuited to off road running – a lightweight pair of Asics Gel Hyperspeeds, this would be their 8th marathon. My only other shoes were my new Gel Tarthers – lighter again. I had an old pair of off road shoes that I once wore back in 2010 on a trail run but they caused some calf issues when running on paved roads so were unreliable. I would have to risk slip sliding all over the place on the smooth soles of the Asics.

About 50 had opted for the early 8:30 start with about another 80 starting at 9:30, sheltering in the lea of Johnnie Foxes during the race briefing…….”don’t run alone from Crone Wood or you may get lost”….suited me fine as I didn’t even know where Crone Wood was. My plan was to run in a group to the turnaround to familiarise myself with the course and see how I felt then. I had a half notion of getting under six hours, based on Liam and Richard’s 6:04 result last year.
  When the start was signalled a minute or two after 9:30 I was delighted to get going as I was shivering waiting around. The first mile or so was along the main road west out of Glencullen before a left turn and the drop down to the bridge crossing the Glencullen River, with Richard, Liam and I running relaxed near the back of the pack. The next 2 miles consist of a climb up onto the flank of Prince William’s Seat with the fire road gradually giving way to a single file track through the snow where the pace slows as my concentration becomes more focused on where my next step is going to be, hopping over water channels and trying to avoid the soft snow at the side of the track - except when passing out slower runners, which required significantly more energy, trudging uphill through snow not knowing how deep it was and what surface lay underneath.

Eventually the path levelled out and began to drop until it ended in a steep descent through a boulder field, which proved to be my achilles heel as my feet began to slip out from under me on the slippery boulders forcing me to slow down as those behind me, including Liam and Richard, moved ahead with relative ease. The field ended in a steep fire road descent over the next half mile to the car park at Curtlestown, over which I managed to reel in Liam and Richard.

The next km is along a surfaced road after which we turn left along a fire road on the lower slopes of Knockree before descending along a slippery mud path which has me on the flat of my back a couple of times, my backback taking the brunt of my fall – back to gingerly making my way down the path as I get overtaken by those with a bit more downhill running skill and better footwear. We eventually make our way to the bottom of the descent and are running along the banks of the Glencree River which would ordinarily make for easy running along its grassy banks, but is just a mud path that forces me to run on higher ground through rough grass and ferns, that at least provides some traction for my shoes. We cross the river on a footbridge and make our way uphill to the road leading to the Crone Wood Car Park and the ¼ point aid station, where I take a few jelly babies and water, emptying most of the contents of my water bottle onto the ground as there’s no point in carrying too much fluids. All three of us make our way up the fire road through Crone Wood, running at an easy pace and walking the steeper sections, even stopping at Powerscourt Waterfall to take a few photographs. This is a relatively easy section as the footing is good and there’s no sign of snow.

Powerscourt Waterfall - Look at Me

That’s all about to change though as we reach the top of the climb and scramble down a rocky slippery descent with the snowy slopes of Djouce facing us across the Dargle river. The initial climb up Djouce is a walk up rocky steps where the route is well defined. However this gives way to a snowy wasteland where the only route I know is to follow those in front of me as I splay my feet sideways to avoid slipping down the slope (a bit like cross-county skiing, without the skis). Where I can I run along the rocky bed of small streams of meltwater sacrificing cold wet feet for good traction. As we make our way around the flank of Djouce the path is single file along the contour where I continuously lose my footing as the undulating surface which is hidden beneath the snow and I am either plunging through knee deep pools of freezing meltwater or slipping down the slope to the left and then overcompensating by leaning into the slope and having to steady myself with my right hand –which explains the muscle soreness afterwards in my right fingers and arm. My feet have gone completely numb and may not thaw until the race is over. Progress is slow but relentless as I concentrate on the feet of the runner in front of me.

The videos below are  borrowed from Brian Ankers, taken on the slopes of Djouce and along the boardwalk.

Eventually we make our way onto the boardwalk, an 18” wide raised timber walkway above the surrounding boggy landscape – except this time the snow is level with the walkway and in some places covering it so it is difficult to follow a route and keep my feet on that 18” wide corridor. I just follow the feet of the girl in front of me – one impatient runner jumps onto the snow and trudges his way past. With visibility reduced to 20m in places I’m content to ride the train of single file runners. The boardwalk get slippery as we begin to descend along a series of steps and I have to slow down. By now the front runners are coming back against us as are the leaders of the trail race, and the path gets increasingly congested with runners coming against us. Eventually we are descending the fire road to the turnaround at Ballinastoe Car Park, the snow gradually disappearing the more we descend.

We reach the turnaround a few seconds past the 3-hour mark, a little disappointing but not bad considering the conditions. I retrieve my bottle of coke, have a few raisins and almonds and chat with Liam for a few minutes. A few of the 8:30 starters are waiting for a lift back to Johnnie Foxes, including Eamon, one of my fellow pacers from Tralee the week before - not willing to face the challenge of Djouce for a second time – who could blame them – this is not your typical ultra and these 100 marathon guys, probably had another marathon to run in the morning.

As we are about to head back up the hill Richard comes in, so we wait for him to get fuelled up before heading off. I notice that the upper mesh of my left shoe has come away from the sole between my big toe and arch and hope that the shoe stays intact for the return leg. Thankfully my feet have thawed out and feel ok. The Garmin shows 3:10 as we head off, still reasonably confident that a sub-6 is possible if I keep the head down but not too concerned if I didn’t – after all this is not an A race – not even a race really – more of a pilgrimage – Irelands version of the Camino, only more Spartan.

As we walk up the road I break into a trot so as to keep my arms swinging which increases the blood flow to my freezing fingers, encased in saturated gloves. I assume Liam and Richard will catch up, but do not see them until the finish. The return leg not as difficult as I know what’s in front of me. Trotting along the boardwalk I pass one or two runners but a guy in an orange jacket keeps on my tail which keeps me on my toes around the flank of Djouce, smiling to myself as I slip and slide all over the place through pools of meltwater on my knees and arse, greeting Dave Bradys of Raheny Shamrocks on his 273rd marathon (I think that’s what he said) still with Mr Orange on my tail. He eventually passes me out as the descent to the Dargle River gets more technical but I catch up on the short climb up to head of the trail down through Crone Wood and pass him and a few more out as I open up my stride on the more familiar footing of the gravel road descent to the ¾ aid station at the Crone Wood car Park, stopping for a slice of mars bar and a gel that another runner had left on the table, too lazy to retrieve a gel from my back pack – I only took it because it was offered – my energy level were quite good.

About 8 miles to go with 4:40 on the clock – should still be on for a sub-6 hour finish. My other marker was that I had about an hour to run after passing the marathon mark – based on Liams run last year. Progress was slow along the bank of the Glencree River and up through the muddy path towards Knockree, which I walked. I was lucky to come across one or two other runners at critical junctions as I could have strayed off course. Passing 26.22 miles with 5:13 on the Garmin I knew that the sub-6 was gone. Running around the side of Knockree I stop and walk with Frank McDermot for a few minutes before setting off again heading for the Curtlestown Car Park and the last climb of the day back up toward Prince William Seat. I walk most of the hill stopping twice to take a few photos and eat my granola bar and swig back the last bit of coke. 
Looking Back

Flank of Prince Williams Seat

When I resume running I pass a few of the trail runners on the descent and as the trail descends towards the Glenmullen River with about 2 miles to go I notice, when passing through a kissing gate, that a guy I had passed at Curtlestown is chasing me down and I revert to racing mode, but only slightly increasing the pace to see if the challenge is real or accidental. At the next kissing gate he is only 10 yards behind, so I open up the pace a little more and at the back of my mind am confident that if I continue to run the uphill section after crossing the Glenmullen River, I will keep him behind me as he was walking an uphill when I had originally passed him. I don’t look back (sign of weakness) as I plough on up the hill passing 3 or 4 walkers resisting the urge to stop and walk – can’t let up now until the finish line – this is the most stressful part of the whole run, but the asics come into the own and don’t let me down. The road levels out and I pass two guys from Newry during the last half mile and I eventually see the top of the goal posts at Glenmullen GAA Club – where the race finishes - one last push – around the corner and the finish line is in front of me and I can stop – 6:12:18 on the Garmin. Delighted to have finished my first off-road ultra on a tough day.

Liam came in about 6:30 with Richard a few minutes later. By the time they crossed the line I was shivering and we still had a half mile walk back to the car park at Johnnie Foxes, where we changed and refuelled in the pub which was packed with Paddy’s Weekend revellers bussed up for the Guinness and Traditional Irish Music, an “authentic” taste of Ireland - the Guinness was very tempting but unfortunately I had a 2 ½ hour drive back to Cork in front of me.

My shoes just about made it back in one piece - I just might squeeze another marathon out of them.

The results have me finishing in 49th Place out of 112 finishers with 21 DNF. My time of 6:13:40 was based on time elapsed since 9:30, eventhough we did not start until 9:31+, which explains the slight discrepancy with the Garmin. Perhaps if I hadn’d stopped for the photo shoots and at the half way mark (10 minutes) I could have scraped under the 6 hour mark – but it wasn’t a day for a was all about the Mug.


  1. what an epic adventure that was, grellan. really well done for even attempting that one in the asics. imagine what might have happened if you had proper shoes?? the mug is a collector's item. great report as usual

  2. That's a nice mug! Good day out - Richard looks a tad overdressed. I like the padded backpack trick for falling down episodes. You'll have to take on Australia's version of the Camino trail one day - Six Foot Track!

  3. I think I'll need therapy for this for a long while after this race. Great report and thanks for the company on the day.

  4. It's all about the mug, alright.
    And to think that some people are calling ME bonkers ;-)

  5. As well as being a "good" runner you have some memory Grellan , great mug for sure and well deserved for a great effort, dump the shoes please.

    Best wishes Keith.

  6. Great report Grellan this offroad thing could become more of a fixture I take it.. looks a bit cold for my liking.. well done

  7. What are the plans for the summer? More focus on speed?

    1. I've started a 10 week training programme for a Marathon in June, which involves more focussed speedwork - but on the endurance end of the spectrum (e.g. mile and 2 mile repeats at 10k pace or slower)