Kilmashougue to Curtlestown, 8.5miles, 1656ft ascent, 1528ft descent
The first leg of an eight leg, all day race is pretty important. It lays down an early marker of a team’s intentions and, while the race can’t be won early in the morning, it can certainly be lost…
With all this in mind, I set my alarm for 5.30am on the morning of the Wicklow Way Relay – a 104km Odyssey beginning at 7am at Kilmashogue in the shadow of the Dublin Mountains and finishing 104km away in Shillelagh, at the very furthest end of the Garden County.
Team Captain, Michael Cunningham (Leg 2) had picked a crack squad for the trip. Besides myself (Leg 1) and himself, Sportsworld were represented by Stephanie Bergin (Leg 3), Neil Purdy (Leg 4), Phil Kilgannon (Leg 5), Liam Lenehan (Leg 6), Karol Cronin (Leg 7) with Naoise Waldron bringing us home on Leg 8.
I like to take my time on the morning of a race so I had decided to give myself plenty of time to wake up, eat and stretch before driving the 20 minutes to the start. You can imagine my horror when I woke up at 6.26am to find that some sort of gremlin had switched off my alarm when it went off as planned at 5.30am! After a frantic breakfast and a lucky run of lights, I made it to the car-park by 6.53am – in plenty of time after all!
I got a quick warm up done and then made my way to the start line. I looked around and saw a lot of lean, hardened hill runners around me. Unusually, for an IMRA race, there wasn’t much joking or self-deprecation going on – I got the feeling that in fact, everyone had their game face on and there would be no prisoners taken crossing Fairy Castle or Prince William’s Seat.
Once the race started, my suspicions proved correct. The route for Leg 1 was about 8.5 miles with 500 metres of elevation gain, approximately split evenly into two hills – steep up, steep down, repeat. The first kilometre eased us in with a moderate ramp but there was little comfort in this as a stiff pace was set from the off. In hindsight, I should have taken this a bit easier and saved myself for the steep hill to come. I felt like I was going backwards all the way to the turn for Fairy Castle at the top of the hill. Strava says otherwise though, as I beat my previous best on that hill by 2 minutes. That’s little comfort when you’re being passed by the likes of Crusaders and Brothers Pearse though!
Once I was at the top of the hill, I was able to engage my secret weapon – running quickly down steep, technical terrain is a very niche skill but it is one which I have more than most and I made some inroads into the time I lost on the way up. I passed 5 runners on the way down and got into a good rhythm for the flat mile in the middle of the two hills.
I managed to dig in for the second hill and got to the top having given up only one place on the way up. At the top, it was now downhill all the way to the finish so it was time to get to work. On the tricky rocky section, I passed the Crusader who had nicked the place off me on the way up and went on to scalp the Brothers Pearse man as well as a couple of others.
Michael was waiting for me at the barrier and, pausing only to give me a bottle of water and a dairy milk, he was away to start his long pull up to the top of Djouce. As a reminder of how things can go wrong in this race, the runner in 4th finished in about 1.02.07 but his second man was late and they lost about 3 or 4 minutes before he arrived.
I finished in 17th of 35 runners in a time of 1.06.44 with the leaders, Trinity Track Racers on 58.32. Initially, I felt disappointed with my placing even if on reflection, I don’t think I had it in me to run faster.
The rest of team ran very strong legs and we began to climb up the rankings as the day wore on. As the results came in, it became more and more likely that we were on for a respectable top 10 finish.
The excitement was great to be a part of and it was nice to be part of a team again, having not done so since hanging up my rugby boots 8 years ago.
Curtlestown to Lough Tay, 9miles, 2135ft ascent, 1377ft descent
Big thanks to Paul Mitchel, Damien Kelly and James Brady for getting me into the WWR in the first place. This was my 4th or 5th relay but first time doing leg 2 so I needed to recce the route. OK I needed to recce the route twice and probably should of recce’d it 3 times as I got lost each time but we wont talk about that. I got to my starting point around 7.30am and the car park was already nearly full with runners. Leg 2 is a tough climb but there are all sorts of surfaces, scenery and challenges so you never have time to think what the hell are you doing on a side of mountain and how far you have to go. There are no water stops, no mile markers, no supporters and a lot of the race your on your own but for some reason you know your in a race and you want to push yourself to go faster.
My leg starts on the road, through a forest by a nice river, up the side of Powerscourt waterfall, down and up a big gourge, across the shoulder of Djouce and then around 2km running on railway sleepers. I was a bit disappointed to have a cold for the race but I still loved it and got to do a new leg.
It was great having a team in WWR again and everyone seemed to enjoy the experience and doing the relay, well that’s what they told me anyway. The plan is to do a couple of Sunday runs on the Wicklow Way over the summer as a Sunday run so make sure to sign up when you see it on the weekly email.Stephanie Bergin
Lough Tay to Oldbridge, 5.2miles, 426ft ascent, 1302ft descent
Leg 3 of the Wicklow Way Relay is from Lough Tay to Oldbridge. It is the shortest leg of the relay with more downhill than uphill. Liam was picking up Michael at the end of his leg and it was great to see a familiar face at the handover point. Michael came through looking none the worse for his jaunt up Djouce and I was off. The terrain on Leg 3 is mixed-trail, sleepers, road and a few fields for good measure! I handed over to Neil who went on to have great run. Thanks to Michael for organising the team and to the rest of the team for such a memorable day in an amazing setting.
Oldbridge to Glendalough, 6.1miles, 1207ft ascent, 1433ft descent
Over the Christmas/ new year break 2017 Michael organised a group run on a section of the Wicklow way from Oldbridge to Glendalough. On the drive down he filled us in on the Wicklow Way relay that’s held every year and the previous Sportsworld teams that had taken part. Stories continued over the length of the 10k section we were covering and really made it an enjoyable run, add to that easy pace and stopping to take photos it seemed handy! That was until we reached Glendalough and realised we had to go back over the route to the cars!
When the mail came around asking for names to run on the day I was happy to put my name down and happy enough to be given Leg 4. I only made it out for one reccie due to the closeness of the race and other commitments but found the route easy enough to navigate with only one questionable turn. Reviewing some maps after I was happy I wouldn’t get lost.
On the Saturday I drove down to the handover point at Oldbridge but due to not really knowing the start time I arrived way too early and ended up just standing around in the Sun. It was only 9.30am but it was getting hot so decided best to carry a small water bottle with me.
Word from the whatsapp group began to come in that Will had a great run on the first leg and we were roughly 15th, Michael just minutes away from changeover on the second leg with Stephanie ready to start on the third leg. There was great anticipation at the changeover point seeing who was going to arrive around the corner next. The first few runners were in close together and their teams headed out. There was a shout from up the road, ‘RUNNER, SPORTSWORLD’, I stepped out into the road to see Stephanie sprinting into the changeover. Quick hand tap and I sprinted out of the changeover.
Sprinting wasn’t going to work for long as most of the first 4K was uphill so I slowed to an easier manageable pace then took a quick over the shoulder look to see Brothers Pearse runner a few metres behind me. There was a few minutes’ gap between myself and the runner ahead so I knew I wouldn’t be gaining a place but I could not lose a place if possible.
After the first 3k on the road we turned on to some dirt roads and more climbing. Reaching the half way point I knew I had a nice bit of downhill/ flat to pick up pace and try shake off the runner who was still just behind me. At the 7k mark there was a really enjoyable section that takes a winding path through the trees and across a river, this felt really quick and coming into the last bit of climbing I look over the shoulder again and Brothers Pearse was still there. Had to give a good go at the last hill which was killing me but over the top and it was 2000m of downhill. I put the foot down and stopped looking back.
Came out of the forest at the Glendalough hotel and aimed for the car park, approaching the visitor centre I felt someone on my shoulder, Glendalough AC, where did he come from? He started across the bridge towards the handover a few metres ahead of me. Even if it was only a few seconds I had to get in quickly and get Phil moving to hopefully take back the place.
Handover to Phil and he was gone, checked with the marshal and we were marked in 11th.
Great fun and stick my name down for next year!!
Glendalough to Glenmalure, 8.3miles, 1584ft ascent, 1584ft descent
‘You never climb the same mountain twice, not even in memory. Memory rebuilds the mountain, changes the weather, retells the jokes, remakes all the moves.”(Lito Tejada-Flores).
Well, 3 days later I still can’t walk down the stairs properly, but Saturday was worth the battered quads. The Sportsworld team returned to the Wicklow Way Relay after a year’s sabatical. It was great to be back. The bonhomie and craic of this event keeps drawing you back and has increased in popularity year on year. This edition hosted 35 or so motley crews of all ilks, from Olympians to adrenaline junkies, all drawn together in the spirit of adventure.
Chairman of the Boards, Michael assembled a solid band of brothers and sisters, what with all his spare time leading up to the Terenure 5. Will, Neil and Liam were welcome additions and all seemingly alpine afficienados. The dynamic duo, Stephanie and Naoise togged out again after fine efforts for the club in the Terenure 5 last week. After a narrow defeat to Linda Byrne,Naoise was gunning for revenge so the last leg was gonna be spicy. Karol was tasked with setting up the grandstand, while undertaking the arduous task of a half marathon over the hills in the midday sun.
This protagonist returned to the brief of stage 5. This entails ascending and traversing the magnificent Mullacore, before careering down the chicanes and hairpins of the trail down the far side. I knew the route for the most part, but there can always be an ambiguous junction or two. There was a slight hitch also during the week when I learned of a diversion at the 11th hour due to logging on the hillside. As the man says; you never climb the same mountain twice.
And then Saturday was upon us. The first 4 legs all went pretty much to plan with the team seeming to alternate between 11th and 9th places.. Stephanie may or may not have nudged Caitriona Jennings off course on leg 3. If the hill had eyes, then they were looking the other way.An hour or so later Neil powered up the Green Road for the handover. I drove on in tow of a Wicklow athlete along what I suppose you could call the Green Mile. I caught him just before the climb started up the lung – busting ascent alongside the cascading Polanass Waterfall. This is the toughest part of the leg, so just needs a gentle rhythm to haul yourself up while keeping some gas for the steadier climb ahead.
The trail proper then emerged and I looked at the fork, where up one path led for the diversionary path and the other to obscurity. Still a bit lightheaded from my excursions, from I thought I heard a menacing voice from a place beyond the pines whisper:
Pleased to meet you Hope you guess my name
Ithis was followed by a haunting crow – like sound; Coo Coo, Coo Coo
The voice returned…:
But what’s puzzling you Is the nature of my game
A bit disorientated by this sensory aberration, I shook my head and set to task as we disappeared into the dense forest on our scale to the summit. Like its name sake the Connaught legend John ‘Mull’doon,
Mullacore presents a formidable obstacle to any opponent. Flanked on either side by Derrybawn and Cullentragh, Mull keeps a watchful I over the idyllic valleys of Glendalough and Glenmalure on either side. Be that as it may, like a quixotic scrum half with notions I made my charge.
Hill running demands an extra degree of race craft as the peaks and undulations require a relentless effort and focus. I tried to carve seconds out of the ether, treading the threshold of my aerobic capacity. Fatigue started to set in about half way up. The mind wandered again a little as again I heard a familiar voice, that was less than encouraging:
I’ve been around for a long, long year Stole many a man’s soul to waste
(Coo Coo, Coo Coo)
I tried to block this out, saying feck it, I’m too close now. The junctions became more familiar as I passed them one by one until eventually the peak emerged . I’d have stopped to kiss the ground, but had to make haste. With the hard work done at least with diminished energy reserves I had gravity on my side from this point. A short skip across the boards and turf on top was followed by a prolonged rattle down the decent with just a slight mishap slipping on the slate steps with a bit of a bump. That was Mull’s last trick and after pounding down, left and right for what seemed like an age I eventually arrived into the welcoming arms of Glenmalure valley, a sight for sore eyes indeed.
I handed over to the Bear in the Bandana, Liam to keep fighting the good fight. This he did and Karol and Naoise also took care of business after that. I believe that we finished 8th, a solid result. There wasn’t the anticipated drama at the end of the anchor leg, though apparently there was some talk of Mean Girls type intimidation at the start. Naoise denied any involvement. The group later regathered to toast the days endeavors and exchange battle tales. Stephanie headed into the Ed Sheeran gig. I don’t know any any of his lyrics to quote, but I’ll ask Will Greensmyth for one before going to press.
After my leg I’d an hour to wait for my lift back to the car. I hobbled towards the Glenmalure Inn, refuge for hungry hikers and runners alike. I passed a familiar face, who asked “Back for more next year Phil?”. I replied “Mate, wild horses couldn’t drag me away”.
Glenmalure to Iron Bridge, 7.9miles, 1748ft ascent, 1627ft descent
Iron Bridge to Crossbridge, 13.1miles, 1899ft ascent, 1945ft descent
Crossbridge to Shilelagh, 6.3miles, 561ft ascent, 856ft descent
As its towards the end of the Wicklow Way, it is the part of the route that is mainly on quiet country roads. As this is the last leg of the relay, I had a bit of a lie in on Saturday before picking Karol up and heading to the handover point for leg 7 to drop him off. We thought we had given ourselves plenty of time to get there, but didn’t realise there was a cycle race in Wicklow on Saturday too…we arrived at Iron Bridge to a very anxious Michael Cunningham, wondering if Karol was going to make the handover in time! I waited there until Liam arrived in and handed over to Karol and then headed a few miles down the road to Crossbridge.
Nerves started to kick in when I was standing there waiting on Karol to arrive. I was in good company for leg 8 with familiar faces from some of the Dublin club. Sinead Tighe from Bros Pearse talked me through the route again, as I was starting to fear whether I had actually followed it correctly when I had done my recce. When we could spot Karol in the distance I did the briefest of warm ups and stood at the handover point waiting for the off. Karol powered up the hill to me. Where he got the energy from having ran a half marathon over the mountains in 84 minutes , I will never know!
Then I was off! My leg began with a climb up a grassy track, and continued over grassy trail to a working farm with a few gates to hop over, then out to a forest road before reaching the main road. Its a strange experience running a race when there are no other competitors around you. The team ahead had a few minutes head start on me and their runner was out of sight for the entire race. At one point I came across Vanessa from Overboards, and thought I had made up a place when I passed her, but when I got to the finish line and she was already there I discovered that she had run an earlier leg and was just out for a recovery jog! None the less, the thoughts of her passing me out kept me motivated, even if the heat did get the better of me on the hills. Just after the 5k mark I passed a pub called the ‘dying cow’ which pretty much summed up how I was feeling!
After that I had my last major climb before I headed for Shillelagh. I had a steep descent before the final turn on to the main road and dash to the finish line. Karol, my husband Lorcan and cousin Cian were there to cheer me on at the end, where we confirmed our 8th place finish. There was great atmosphere in Shillelagh, where many of the teams had gathered to celebrate their successes. We regrouped in Dublin to recount tales from the day, everyone’s experience being different from the next. The overall feeling being that it was a very enjoyable day. I would highly recommend being involved in the relay. Its a very different racing experience, over a stunning course.