Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Wicklow-go-Round

Picture: the lads lined up on the starting line ready to go at 2.34am, blissfully unaware that the first aid kit would be coming out 5 minutes later.

It was a mild morning at half past the second hour, when three enthusiastic and adrenaline-charged runners departed Military Road and took off into the darkness of the Wicklow Mountains. After months of training, amateur weather forecasting, monitoring lunar calendars and transition planning, the day had finally arrived to take on the Wicklow Round.

My accomplices were Paul Mahon, adventure racer/hill runner extraordinaire, who would bring a lot of adventure racing experience, charisma, and the endurance of an energiser battery to the party. Paul Nolan, an accomplished hill runner (with an intimidating track record)/orienteer with a killer descent and a knack for seeing through mist. And Isabelle Lemee, our trusty, dedicated and highly efficient support-team leader. My hope in signing up to the challenge was to enjoy the scenery and the company of the lads, learn as much as I could (particularly in the discipline of navigation), and then finally to tackle the Wicklow Round when the time was right.

The preparation was far from ideal (as is typically the case with these things). After unfavorable weather conditions had initially delayed the attempt, various injuries and ‘non-round’ commitments came into play for all of us in the weeks leading up to that Friday morning. Most notably for me personally was that I had left the top of my knee on the cairn at the summit of Prince William’s Seat (somewhat ironically) the previous week and then succumbed to a nasty infection in the days leading up to the attempt. The weather gods were not sympathetic to my plight, and the impending foreclosure of the high pressure front that we had all been enjoying for in the two weeks leading up to Friday meant that it was time to go regardless. After consulting with my doctor and pharmacist and receiving the expected reaction, I joined the lads in making the final preparations for the attempt.

In a scene reminiscent of a certain biblical episode, the three of us set off along the glowing rocky granite path under a starry sky towards the twinkling lights of the Kippure radio antennae (the first peak on the Wicklow Round). Unfortunately I was so distracted by the pretty lights that I face planted on the rocky path, and in doing so managed to carve up my ‘good knee’ as well as both hands. We cleaned up the damage as best we could and ploughed on, hoping that it would stop bleeding at some point during the day.

In the Mist

Unsurprisingly given the location, we spent the first few hours navigating our way down the North-western flank of the Wicklow range in thick mist. Having reccied the route several times before, I am still yet to see anything of the route between Carrigavore and Table Mountain.

All three of us were crossing our fingers as we climbed through the pine forest towards the Oakwood summit, hoping that the mist would miraculously lift and allow us an un-obscured passage through the potential enigma that is the WR route between Oakwood and Table Mountain (our navigational kryptonite). But Alas, it wasn’t to be so instead we wandered blindly and tentatively across the undulating and completely non-descript landscape to eventually find ourselves heading up-hill, hopefully ascending Table Mountain.

Picture: Paul Mahon and I skipping across stones on the Glenmacness River in the early afternoon

A Ridge With a View

Typically, the mist lifted as soon as we arrived at Table Track, which is relatively easy to stick to and follows a long undulating and broad ridge towards Lugnacoille. The skies would remain a mix of sunny and overcast but good visibility for the remainder of the day.

The spectacular views of the northern precipice of Lug made a nice change from claustrophobic and mood-dampening fog. During the ascent of Wicklow’s highest peak, Mahon couldn’t help but warn the nearby sheep to watch out for the Kiwi whom was passing through the area.

Picture: Spot the three tiny runners in the bottom right corner of the photo, heading up Tonelagee, which looms high above.

The Transitions

Despite the good company that we enjoyed at each transition, our intention was to spend as little amount of time there as possible (preferably less than 3 minutes per transition). Over the course of day we would cross road junctions 8 times, and at each point we replenish our supplies and prepare ourselves for the next leg. The transition was not considered ‘rest-time’, but rather tended to be one of the most intense parts of the round.

The gear requirements for each leg would depend on its length, the weather, and your condition at the time of transition (i.e. if you’re feeling thirsty then take more drink, if cold then take another layer of clothing). All of this needed to be considered and accounted for in advance of the transition so that you would spend the least amount of time at the van as possible.

Picture: Jase and Paul industriously replenish their drink, food, medicine supplies before heading up Scarr.

Despite the extra first aid work required on Friday, the transitions went like clock-work. This was thanks to the help of a number of friends of the team whom helped out. Thanks to Izzy (our support team leader) and also Brendan Doherty, John Shiels, and Alan Ayling for your invaluable support. And particularly, thanks to the team for driving around Wicklow in search of steri-strips and bravely applying first aid at the back of the van as I hurriedly re-stocked my backpack.

The Business End

Having reached the most southern point of the round at Carrawaystick, and started on our return leg back to Kippure, team spirits were high and we all took comfort in knowing that we were closer to the finish than we were to the start (although the start was so long ago that I could barely remember it). This comforting thought was countered by the knowlege that the biggest and toughest climbs all lay ahead, at a time when the going gets tough.

Nevertheless the banter continued as we pushed on at a constant and even pace. Meanwhile I was enjoying being educated by the lads with tales of mountain running legends of past and present.

By the time we began our descent from the cliffs above Lough Tay (15 hours into the Round) with a foreboding view of Djouce across the valley, my attention was turning from the general enjoyment of being up in the mountains with friends, almost entirely to the challenge of covering the terrain that lay ahead. At this point, the typically pleasant and distracting niceties such as the beauty of the landscape begin to seem trivial and largely unhelpful in the context of the formidable task at hand (i.e. climbing the next peak).

Picture: Paul Nolan making use of clearing in the scrub as he paces it towards the cold pizza that awaits him!

Paul Mahon apparently does not share this experience with me. At this point in the Round, Mahon seemed to draw on a source of energy specifically dedicated to cheerful banter and group encouragement, which is obviously a valuable trait in a Wicklow Round companion. While Nolan and I skipped quietly yet confidently around the cliff-top track, Mr Mahon was as chirpy and chatty as ever, and didn’t seem particularly phased by the 5000m + of vertical climb we had put behind so far that day.

As we descended into the valley and began our short climb through thick scrub up to the road, it dawned on me that we were getting close now. I took comfort in the fact that Djouce was the only tough climb between us and the finish line.

The summit of Djouce signaled that we were on the home straight. From there we had a clear run across to Tonduff via War hill, and then a smooth descent down to military road for the road section to Glencree. To complicate matters though, at this point Nolan had been showing admirable resolve in battling pain in his knee, and Mahon and I had niggles of our own. It occurred to us at one point that between the three of us we had one good knee remaining out of six. Nevertheless there was only one thing to do in the face of such obstacles, keep going.

Once again we were in the shadow of Kippure, from where we had set off into the night 17 hours earlier. As we jogged down the road towards Glencree, we were joined by some enthusiastic friends whom had turned up in perfect time to spur us on as we passed the Glencree Hostel before heading up towards Prince William’s Seat. Thanks to Ciaran Aylward, Dave O’Connell, Dermot Nolan, and Kieran Coleman for the encouragement, which was just what we needed at the time.

Pictured: This man has been running for 13 hours - can you believe it!?

The Finish line

After a brief but seemingly epic excursion up to the Prince William’s Seat and Knocknagun summits, we rejoined Military Road for the final mile-long climb to the finish point. Happily and relieved, we finished the Wicklow Round in a time of 19 hours and 39 minutes. So it's onto the next challenge then!

Picture: Crossing the line just after 10pm on Friday night

The Aftermath

In my experience it’s quite normal to totally crash out after putting your body through the grinder like that. While the other lads chatted away with the surviving crew members, I had some time out in the back of the van to rest the legs and contemplated the day that had been. It's strange how the body starts to shut down as soon as it knows that you've finished, the cold bites, the eyelids get heavy, the cuts start to hurt all of a sudden.

After thankfully finding a lift home with Alan (to whom i must owe several pints), I left Paul Mahon to join some IMRA friends for pints at the local (no doubt the lads were preparing for the WW Relay the next morning) and instead went home to clean the wounds and prepare to face the 12 hours of uncomfortably and exhausted tossing and turning that inevitably follows a ridiculous undertaking like this.

By 9am I decided that lying down was just too painful (every movement hurts) so i stepped out into the heavy rain, grinning with satisfaction about the good timing of our attempt and the success of our mission. And walked down to the pub, via the friendly and bewildered pharmacist, to check out some Southern Hemisphere Rugby.