Wicklow Way Ultra

Authors

Gareth Little

An overdue race report:

http://summit2summit.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/the-2013-imra-wicklow-way-ultra/

Ken Cowley

(taken from my blog, hence some of the obvious explanatory stuff about IMRA)


What a race!

Baltic conditions – almost a foot of snow, sub-zero freezing fog, persistent rain – if you wanted a final wintry test of mountain-ultra-running in 2012/2013, this was it!

A bit of background – the event is a flagship IMRA (Irish Mountain Running Association) race, with the Wicklow Way Ultra and Wicklow Way Trail races both taking place on the same day. The Trail is a 26km affair from Ballinastoe Woods to Johnny Foxes pub, starting at noon, while the Ultra (the one I was doing) is exactly double that distance, and is an out-and-back route, starting at 9.30 (or 8.30 for the early-start option) at the aforementioned Johnny Foxes.

Since doing the Art O’Neill Ultra in January, I had set the WW Ultra as my next target for this season, hoping to ‘hang on’ to the Art O’Neill mileage in my legs and keep topped up in the intervening two months. Training went ok, until I decided to go for a sea-swim on a wild and snowy day last Monday to ‘shake out’ my legs after my final long training run the previous day, and only went and stupidly gashed the heel of my right foot quite badly on the stone steps getting out. Somewhere in this part of my tale there is a moral about the wisdom of both winter sea-swimming in bad conditions and/or ultra-running, but I’ll choose to ignore that!

Anyway, off we set, about 70 of us, on the early start at 8.30 on a freezing March morning. The first surprise was just how much snow there was on the trail up to Prince William’s Seat (the first peak of the race), not too bad yet, just messy slushy stuff really, but a warning sign that todays race would be very demanding on the legs, as progress was going to be slow and tiring. However, I’ve no-one to blame but myself for this, having done two ‘snow-less’ Art O’Neills I remember ‘moaning’ a few months ago that it would be nice to do an Ultra with snow, anyway, be careful what you wish for..

Down the far side of Prince William’s Seat was slippy but manageable, and on we went, down to Curtlestown, a bit of road, and eventually down the two steep rides to the river. This was the wettest and muddiest bit of the route (no snow at this low part of the course).

So far so good, and some good chat and banter with fellow runners, lots of non-regular IMRA runners who I hadn’t met before, some from Munster, plenty from Northern Ireland and a few from overseas (probably people who specialise in travelling to various ultra marathons/adventure races?). From here, conditions were reasonable as we headed in to the slow haul up the part of the WW from Crone car park that takes in the gorgeous view of the Powerscourt Waterfall, then down to the Dargle river and and on to the Djouce section of the race.

This was where things went a bit downhill (albeit uphill, if you know what I mean!) for most of us. And in the first of many excuses (!) a few reasons why the Ultra was much harder than the Trail that day, (1) we got rain for the first 3 hours, by the time the Trail started there was no more rain, (2) we had worse underfoot conditions, and (3) we had colder weather, and (4) there is more ascent on the outward journey (although I’m open to correction on that one) and (5) it’s twice as bloody long! So, it’s no surprise that 21 of the 130 Ultra starters dropped out at halfway! The snow on parts of Djouce was up to a foot deep, and it was a most inconvenient(!) type of snow – in parts lush and fluffy, in other parts hard and icy (painful when you fell) and in other parts deceptively hiding what seemed like another foot of freezing mud and slush underneath. Hence, many of us spent a lot of time staggering, slipping and sliding, and generally making very un-glamorous, slow and tiring progress around the shoulder of Djouce, and then on to the boardwalk section..

However, I hasten to add, I am NOT complaining! (Well, not much..) It was an amazing experience really, even though very tough at the time. People pay thousands of euros to run marathons at the north pole, yet here we were having our own Arctic Ultra experience, all for the princely sum of 15 euros! And I really enjoyed that outward journey. By the way, I should mention that the race-leaders had to barge a path through all the snow, slush and ice, I don’t know how they did it – they left a nice trail of footprints everywhere for us to follow, and (I’m not joking here) quite a lot of splashes of blood in places!

Anyway, on to the boardwalk. Or, what we could see of it! By now, we were at some of the highest points of the race, and a freezing fog had developed, visibility about 20 metres with everything enveloped in an eerie white-out of misty snow and ice. The snow was up to the level of the boardwalk (which is a foot or so off the typically marshy ground in that area), and it was lethally icy. I’m guessing the temperature was quite a few degrees celsius below freezing (it had been about one or two degrees at sea level earlier that morning). I was fairly well equipped and clothed, yet still suffered from freezing feet hands and head for that period of the course (almost an hour). At one point I helped out one unfortunate chap who couldn’t get a glove on, his hands looking a very unhealthy shade of purple, (we had to yank his hand painfully in to the glove with some force), not to mention his legs which were also bluey-purple (yes, some people were wearing shorts!). I believe this guy was one of the folk who abandoned ship at half-way, and I hope he got his circulation back!

From here, I ran up to and past the Joe Malone memorial (not quite seeing the usual stunning view of Lough Tay due to the freezing fog) and on down the forest/trail to the turnaround at Ballinastoe. Yes! Halfway! Still in one piece! But, struggling..

Time to reassess. My target for the race had initially been to try to break 6 hours, but given the weather forecast,conditions, and my foot injury, I had moved that to 6.5 on the morning. I’m not really too hung up on targets at the best of times, but at halfway point that Saturday, I realised targets were out the window, and simply completing the race would suffice. I had taken just under 3.5 hours to run the 26 km to Ballinastoe, arriving (and doing my about-turn) mere minutes before the Trail field set off, thus experiencing the ignominy of most of the Trail field promptly passing me out by around 12.15pm!!

My big mistake had been pushing it too hard in the first half. Normally I’m quite good at pacing, but today I should have much more dramatically re-set my targets when I saw the extent of the conditions and the weather. As a result, within 45 minutes of the return leg, I hit a Wall and my legs and energy levels remained stubbornly beneath this Wall for the duration!

So I won’t go in to too much detail on the return leg, it’s a bit of a blur of misery to be honest, enlivened only by some gallows-humour banter with fellow runners and lovely conversations with people I’d never met before (eg I remember chatting with people from Wales, Kilkenny, Cork and Belfast!). The route of course was just a straight repeat of the route out, all the same climbs, snow, slips, falls, in reverse this time, and by now not only were my legs, energy and brain all operating disfunctionally, but also I could feel the cut on my heel get sorer and sorer, until I began to worry about over-compensating for it, and picking up some other injury (luckily, 2 days later, I don’t think I’ve done any damage any where else). Anyway, what would an ultra-race be without something to worry about?! I usually run fairly care-free, but the challenge of Ultras can bring out the OCD in the best of us, in that that there’s always just that few extra things to think/worry/stress about – eg the sheer distance, cut-off times, Kit, food/stomach, hydration, etc etc.

But, really the worst bit about the return leg was that so many people passed me out (as my fitness and endurance has improved a bit in recent times, this isn’t the case anymore, I can usually stick to my mid-field position), but at least 20 people passed me in the closing hour or two.

Anyway, not to worry, and given how things had gone, I wasn’t too displeased to stagger across the finish line at 4pm. I had been running (give or take a few enforced walks!) for 7.5 hours, and finished 93rd out of 132 starters, 21 of whom didn’t finish. I got through it, without injury, with a whole bunch of new lessons learned, and all set for my next challenge (watch this space, planning a big-ish one!). And, really – who cares about racetimes – as with any event like this, it’s as much about the joy of just plodding along, self sufficient with food/drink/supplies on my back, for multiple hours around Ireland’s stunning scenery, and the camaraderie and the satisfaction of finishing no matter what the conditions (climatic or corporeal!)

Finally, a huge thank-you to the utterly dedicated team of volunteers, led by Dermot, who put in an extremely long, challenging and chilly day running this event. Not to mention the pre-race work, sorting out all the logistics in advance of the big day. These are the real heroes of this event. As are the supporters who cheered us on on the day – eg personally it was great to see my friends Zoe and Tony at that bridge, it really got me through the closing kilometres – although by the time I got there, they must have wondered where the hell I had got to by that late time (!) ie had I dropped out or got injured, so fair play to them for waiting around. And well done to the winners – I must say both the Ultra (Jonny Steede) and Trail (Ian Conroy) winning times were exceptional on the day that was in it.

Oh, and we got a lovely mug for completing the race!

See you all again on the hills soon..

For more info on the Wicklow Way Ultra and on IMRA (Irish Mountain Running Association) check out www.imra.ie

And here are some of my own websites/blogs;
www.practicepartners.ie
www.notrunningaway.com (my book)
www.kencowley.com
www.heartdiseasemiracle.com
www.irishmortgagedebtforgiveness.blogspot.com
www.samsonsdiner.blogspot.com

copyright Ken Cowley 2013

Johan Dehantschutter

I arrived at Johnny Foxes just before 8am and already a small queue had formed for registration. Not wanting to believe that the weather was going to be bad and always getting so hot barely a few minutes into a run, I was wearing a pair of shorts, an Under Armour thermal top and a flimsy yellow windsheeter which I had spayed with a waterproofing compound a couple of days before. Fortunately, I had also brought my long trekking Berghaus Gore-Tex jacket, meant for after the race. It was drizzling when I arrived and the thermometer indicated a meagre one degree Centigrade. As soon as I got out of the car, a nasty cold gust of wind blew up my top and I thought I might as well wear my big coat for standing in the queue. I looked around me and noticed that no-one else was wearing shorts at that moment. My brain immediately reacted: “Good plan, I hope I have my running tights with me..”. By the time I had queued and been allocated a number my hands were shaking and a decision had been made: “fo-fo-fo-forget about looks, we’re talking about running tights, the long hooded jacket and my warmest hat…”. And, boy, was I right?

I lined up for the early start alongside 60-70 others and noticed a few brave souls still wearing shorts. Fair play I thought, they’re the minority but maybe they’re right after all; compression tights reduce impact on the downhill but they do make you work harder on the uphill. Barely a few kilometres into the run, as we were heading towards Prince William’s Seat, we first hit snow. There wasn’t much of it, maybe a few inches, but it was thawing, slushy and slippery. I hadn’t been running at a fast pace up to there but were now barely jogging, hopping from spot to spot trying not to get my feet wet at such an early stage of the game. Heading down from Raven’s Rock the granite slabs were very slippery and I slowed down to a walk for the next few hundred meters, playing it safe. After that it was plain sailing up to the last downhill section of Knockree towards the Glencree River. There was no snow there of course but this section was the muckiest and most slippery one of the whole course. I landed ungracefully on my a*se but no harm done, except to my pride.

From Crone’s car park I decided to take it easy and alternated jogging with fast walking. The Powerscourt Waterfall looked amazing and as big as I have ever seen it. I was overtaken by two guys at that point and decided to stay within 50-100m of them not straining myself too much, saving my energy. I braced myself for the long climb up Djouce Mountain and barely a kilometre after crossing the river Dargle we started hitting very large accumulations of snow. The wind had picked up massively with the altitude and a dense freezing fog had descended upon us. Not only was the snow thick (a foot or more in many places) but it was very slippery as under the snow ran myriads of little streams and there were thick puddles of heavy muck. The hood of my jacket was up and I had tightened the velcros around my wrists to prevent wind going up my sleeves but even in that nice Gore-Tex cocoon I felt the cold. My hands were suffering most. At this point, I had caught up with the 2 lads who passed me earlier and I exchanged a bit of banter with one of them. The other lad, wearing shorts, looked like he was in serious pain and I asked him if he was OK but I don’t even think he heard me or maybe he was just too cold to engage in conversation. I kept walking and soon there was barely a single trail of footsteps. Visibility was barely 20m at this point and I looked back but the other 2 guys had vanished out of sight. I stopped for a moment and thought that at least 20 or 30 people must have passed there before me and yet there so few footsteps. I’m quite familiar with this section of the Wicklow Way and it “felt” right so I gathered that most people would have chosen to step in already established foot prints and I plodded along. Very soon I recognised some definite features in the landscape and knew it was right. A few minutes later, the outline of the boardwalk appeared out of the eerie mist. The boardwalk was completely covered in ice and so slippery that I considered running alongside it but as I jumped off it, I landed in a bog up to the middle of my thighs (and I’m 6’4’’) so an immediate reassessment of this approach was necessary and I was back on the board walk using baby steps. I might as well have been walking! The boardwalk sometimes vanished under inches of snow for tens to hundreds of meters at a time allowing a better grip. Suddenly two guys appeared out of nowhere and overtook me, pelting fearlessly down the boardwalk. All I can say is that either they were wearing crampons or else they were just totally insane and lucky at the same time. They had disappeared out of sight within seconds without taking a fall.

Having exited the boardwalk onto more slop I picked up some speed and were frantically waving my arms in a windmill fashion in order to re-establish the flow of blood in my frozen fingers. Another runner overtook me and I hit him square across the chest (sorry, whoever you were). At the half way mark in Ballinastoe, my fingers were still weak with the cold and fortunately my friend Ben from work was at hand and he kindly refilled my Camelbak for me. I shoved in a banana, exchanged a few words with some of the guys and started walking up the hill, Black Forest Ham sandwich in hand. Although the bread was quite soft it took me ages to eat the thing and the birds got the crust. It was a few minutes after noon and about 150 trail runners then passed me out as I was edging towards the boardwalk. The return journey on the boardwalk was not so bad. The temperature had increased a fair bit, the freezing fog had massively cleared and after having been trampled upon by over 300 runners, the boardwalk was actually pretty runnable. Once you left the boardwalk it was a different story altogether. The path (if one can really call it that) on the side of Djouce was now really just a long rocky, spongy puddle of boggy muck. I ended up attempting the splits twice when my right foot hit the side of the path and slid down the slope.

What can I say about the rest of the return journey, except that my arch-nemesis, the cramps, returned with a vengeance and I found myself stranded countless times trying to ease the pain as other runners glided past; a really painful sight. I was ever so glad to reach the finish line and receive the most beautiful mug which I have been using non-stop since Saturday.

I can’t thank enough Dermot and his team of volunteers for running this event in such difficult conditions. And fair play to whoever broke the initial path in the snow on Djouce thereby setting everybody else in the right direction – respect!

Fifteen quid for a great day out, a smashing mug and 1 UTMB qualifying point – you can’t beat that!
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