Wicklow Glacier Lakes (solo)
23 May, 2022 - Andrew TeesI’d had my eye on this race for while. The idea of visiting lakes rather than summits seemed novel, as well as making route choice more interesting. I had recce’d the route on a sunny weekend in March, so I knew one way around, but was well aware that it probably wasn’t the best way…
I spent Friday night in the van outside Glenmalure Lodge. The forecast early mist hadn’t materialised, as I woke to blue skies and clear hilltops. I’d been preparing to navigate the course in poor visibility, maps were annotated and dozens of mental notes memorised, all aimed to keep myself right. So, it was almost a slight disappointment that those preparations wouldn’t really be put to the test, but also a relief knowing that the risk of any major navigation errors was now greatly reduced.
Watching the 9.20 group head off from the hotel, it seemed like a tough ask to make up 20 minutes on some of those guys. I knew Billy Reed from the hill running scene in the north, his ultra-running exploits are regularly astounding. Others I knew only by name or reputation. Certainly, most of the field would know the course better than I did.
Setting off from the hotel, I found myself at the front of the 9.40 group, immediately worrying that I was going off too quick and that the distance and sun would take their toll as the day went on. I take a direct line from the road-crossing towards Lough Ouler, crossing the SE spur at the lowest point, swerving slightly left in the dip to avoid losing too much height. I catch the first of the 9.20 starters at the lake. Turning to head up the gully, I could see small figures labouring their way to the top of Tonlagee. Why would you go all the way up there? I thought. Then again, maybe they know something I don’t. I stick to my plan and contour around until I can see the checkpoint, then make a beeline for it. The ground is rough, maybe I should have contoured around to the path… Too late now, keep going. I get through the checkpoint feeling good, I resist the urge to ask how many are in front of me, too early for that craic.
Leg 2 goes mostly to plan. I contour around from the front of the quarry and cross the peat hags to find the small path leading to Lough Firrib. Reaching the water just as a group of 3 or 4 runners are leaving, they all seem to head off from the lake in slightly different directions. I duck left, back into the peat hags, and weave my way through, in the vague direction that the compass tells me. Around the shoulder of Convalla and soon enough I get a glimpse of the next lake, peeking out just below the hovering cloud. After leaving Three Lakes I stay high and left of the stream, dropping gradually down towards the first clump of trees. On the recce, I’d gone to the right of the trees, this time, I decide to stay to the left, to maintain height, which turns out to be a mistake. Suddenly I’m slowed to a walk, hopping over the stumps and half-submerged tree limbs of clear-felled ground. I get down to the stream as quickly as possible, cross at a bend, and soon I’m on the military road. I catch up with another runner, who turns out to be Paul. “There’s 4 or 5 in front” he tells me. “You’ll catch them all, except maybe Billy. He’s got 10 or 12 minutes on you…”. “I’ll give it a go” I say, mumble, or think, I’m not sure which.
Right enough, after CP2 I quickly pass a couple more. As I reach the slopes below Art’s Lough, I see Billy’s black and white East Antrim vest disappear over the top of the climb, 10 minutes is about right I think, wondering how Paul could accurately judge the time gap between us… experience, I suppose. My legs feel heavy as I start the climb, I remind myself to eat, and settle into a steady climb, don’t push, a long way to go yet. At Art’s Lough feel the first twinge of cramp as I cross some soft ground… shit, I look at my watch, 23km, a bit early! I catch up with Liam, he appears to be suffering at least as much as I am, which is reassuring, I keep the steady climb going, up and around the steep re-entrant. As I contour around the ridge of Cloghernagh, into the mist, I get a gentle reminder of how quickly the doubt sets in when the destination is obscured by mist and the ground doesn’t match up to expectation. I seem to have been contouring for ages. I tell myself to trust the bearing. After an eternity… at least 2 or 3 minutes… the slopes below Kelly’s Lough appear out of the mist. The climb to the lake looks much longer than I remember it! I scan the hillside below for Billy, no sign. Maybe his black and white striped vest camouflages him, like a zebra…?
I take a tumble on the descent, my right calf and something in my left hip go into spasm simultaneously. I descend tentatively and wash down a salt tab with a couple of bottles of stream water. Up to the lough and stop for more water on the way down again.
At the zigzags, I head left to the forest, across the steep ground, nursing my legs which are twinging with cramp at any irregular movement. As the river comes into view, I see Billy crossing the bridge far below. “Not catching him” I say out loud to myself.
At the checkpoint, I refill my bottle and head off. He’s 4 or 5 minutes ahead I’m told. At this point my brain doesn’t compute that I’ve gained 5 minutes over the course of leg 3, I don’t entertain the idea of winning, only concerning myself with staying ahead of whoever is chasing me. As I climb the zigzags, I listen closely for the shouts of encouragement which would signal the next runner coming through the carpark below. I alternate between a march and a shuffle up towards Mullacor, the threat of cramp has subsided on these relatively level trails. As I near the right-turn to the steps, suddenly Billy is only 200m ahead of me!! “I’ve got him” I think to myself. The steps are agony, and as I turn left at the top, expecting to see Billy ahead of me, he’s nowhere to be seen. Across the boardwalk and onto the forest roads, no sign, even when I can see a long way ahead, no Billy. Maybe I don’t got him after all. Or maybe he took a different route? On my recce, I’d speculatively followed the tracks of some mammoth forestry vehicle down through the last section of woods, it had been rough going over brush and branches and a fallen tree, finally spitting me out just above the junction of the WW and Spinc trail. I hadn’t planned to use this shortcut in the race, who knows how many more trees might have fallen, or been cut down, since March, and the ground would be treacherous on tired legs. But now, in 2nd place, it seems like I have to give it a go. I tell myself that it’s my only chance. So, at the junction I head off, with some trepidation, into the woods. The fallen tree is there just as I remember it, over the tree, duck down, scurrying under the dense brush of the closely planted trees for 10 or 15m and I’m out onto another next set of tracks. The forest road appears through the trees below, and there’s Billy! I pop out of the woods and onto the road, just 10m in front of him. I feel like saying sorry, but instead I mumble “Good man Billy” or something to that effect, before turning and haring off down towards the lake. A shot of adrenaline gives new life to my previously weary legs. I can do this. The tourists turn and stare as I splash into the water at the Upper Lake and then immediately sprint off again. Billy is 150m behind as I turn for home, it’s enough. I keep it steady to the lower lake, apologise my way through the monastic site, through the arch, and the sight of the finish flags is very welcome indeed!
What a great day out this race is!! The route is fantastic, and the route choice and handicapped starts both add so much more interest! Thanks to all involved in organising, marshalling and supporting on the day!!
17 May, 2022 - Graham K. Bushe2022 would see my fourth go at this great race, having done it in 16, 17 and 18. I was looking forward to this one. A certain fellow runner had raised bit of an idea in 2017 about route choice for leg 1. I had never dared to try it… But you know the way it is, it’s like a bit of an itch…
In the lead up to the big day, a question was raised about the St Kevin’s Way, crossing the road etc. which brought that idea back to me. So, I had a look at the map! A plan was beginning to form… but I was still in two minds as to whether I would actually attempt it.
The big day was getting closer, then RD John posted the starting list! What a talented group of athletes. I suppose what can one expect at an event such as this? But still… “Right then, that settles it. I’m just going to go the ‘Alternative’ route.” No time for a recce, but sure haven’t I run that way before at the Brockagh race? It’ll be grand…
I’d been watching the weather forecasts all week and it looked like it was going to be misty. On a bright morning we all gathered outside the Glendalough hotel to register, meet, greet and catch up with fellow runners (Solo and relay entrants)
The atmosphere was calm and relaxed, and we cheered off some of the earlier starters. Then it was our turn, the 20 minute bonus group. Looking at those around me was pretty much like a standard race start and I felt like I could have done with an extra 20 minutes!
John brought us to the starting area and I quietly waited at the back of the pack. 3, 2, 1, they’re off, and I’m turning and nipping up the Wicklow Way on my own little adventure. I should have done a recce! Ah but sure, it’ll be grand! Won’t it?
Into the woods I go and at once wonder, am I doing the right thing here? Like, nobody else is coming this way… I push on. In one way it’s nice, no pressure to keep with the group, waiting for a move, getting drawn in too early. On the other hand though, thoughts like “I wonder how far along they are now? niggle away at the back of my mind. Being such a nice bright and clear day, I had decided to leave the map nice and safe in the backpack. Up the fire road without any bother, spotting a fox running for cover up ahead.
However, when I left the forest things looked a lot different to my last memory of this place. A lot of trees have been felled and I’m used to being up there wading along a path through the ferns. I pick the high point and start my ascent. It is already very warm, so I take a small drink. I have a 2 drop-bag strategy (CP 2 & 3) About two thirds of the way up I get the map out. All good, though I’m not on any particular track, thankfully the heather is low in most places. I found the path just before the top of Brockagh and was happily on my way. I scanned the countryside ahead but couldn’t see a soul. Then in a crazy rush of madness, I angled a bit to the right in eager anticipation of the first lake. Thankfully, I came to my senses but not before I had lost a little bit of elevation. I contoured back towards the path encountering some deep heather and rocky terrain on the way. I eventually saw my target; the climb just off to the side of Tonelagee. Then I spotted a runner! OK, so all is not lost, maybe it wasn’t such a terrible idea after all. As I approached the drop to Lough Ouler I was sure I spotted the familiar black and white striped top of Billy Reed already back up and heading towards CP1. I ran down touched the water and on turning, noticed at least 2 more ‘runners’ ahead, slowly approaching the top of the steep climb from the lake. Of course, this is always misleading. Being what appears to be almost touching distance translates to a bigger time gap. Especially when they clear the top and dash off down the hill while you’re still only halfway up! Eventually I am on my way around Tonelagee. I can see someone ahead, but lower and to my left and then another up higher to my right and the excitement builds. Rory is the runner on the higher line. He passes me at a gallop on the descent. I pick up a bit of pace but not too much.
Straight through CP1 with a wave and “Thank you” to everyone there before starting the next climb. By the top, Rory has just passed Brian and opened a bit of a gap on me. All three of us take different paths and come out almost together about half way to Lough Firrib. I also caught up with Maike. The search for the three lakes. Brian went further over to the right, while Rory and I kept a bit left. Andrew passed me here, and there was no notion of keeping pace with him. I got to a bit of a ridge and saw the lakes ahead. As we trundled along chatting, Rory nudged ahead. Suddenly he was pitching forward, then in a folding sort of motion he disappeared headfirst into the ground. For a split second, all I could see was a pair of shins sticking up, then they too were gone!
Thankfully, he had managed to roll himself into a ball and landed in a nice soft bit. I extended my hand to pull him out and in the sudden transfer of weight, nearly fell on top of the poor chap. We chatted some more, touched the water and headed towards the valley. I could see Brian ahead higher up to the left. I aimed for the lower ground to follow the stream. Rory was just ahead again and we were still chatting and in the blink of an eye he sank almost to his waist in a bog. (I really wasn’t bringing him much luck, was I?) I carried out a quick calculation and took a step forward and also sunk, and my legs are much shorter! But I had only committed one leg, so I decided to become like a “pond-skater” and cross the peat on all fours distributing the weight as evenly and quickly as I could while leaving poor Rory to his own devices. We both emerged the other side, albeit a bit muddier.
Into CP2, collect the drop bag super quick thanks to the crew there. On the fire road I caught up with Colm. We crossed the river together and Rory already seemed to be halfway up. And here again, in that magical spot, just stepping off the last stone, my hamstrings start to cramp. Colm very kindly offered me a gel, but I have electrolytes in my drink from the drop bag and push on. I get into a bit of a rhythm on the climb and touch Art’s Lough. More climbing! By this stage I have decided that I’m not going to go all the way up and over, so, at my spot, I keep left and contour around, heading for the gully. Now this climb is much steeper, but shorter. As I clamber up on hands and knees once again, I spot someone passing by at the bottom, but they’re going further around. Soon enough I get to the top. As I come around the ridge I am keenly looking for Kelly’s Lake. There’s a bit of mist around but nothing to hide a lake. Then I realize (again) that I am looking too low! It is always that little bit further away than I expect. Touching the water, I’m looking forward to the next stretch, (well apart from the boulders) Leaving the lake I spot Fabio on his way up and the pressure is on! I like this run down to the top of the zig-zags. No sign of Fabio as I drop, but I’m sure he’s close. Into CP3 another drop bag. This time I just eat the sachet of dioralyte. It doesn’t taste great, but I wash it down with some flat coke! Brian is just behind me now, then Fabio. Push, push. All going well. Getting to the Devil’s steps, I’d seen Rory ahead and timed it at around 3 minutes. But Fabio is closing in.
As I take the first step onto those dreaded stones I am hit with more Cramps, hamstrings and calves! Oh no, not now! I start tacking sideways up the steps, trying to get the odd stretch here and there. Thankfully by about halfway up they have eased and I get into a bit of a rhythm again. Onto the Boardwalk, yes! Almost there… I got moving well again on the descent and was happy to be in front of Fabio still….
But then the inevitable happened. He caught and passed me just before the Wicklow Way veers right. I was wondering if he would follow the Waymarked trail, but he had his map in hand. Within minutes he was well ahead. I touched the upper lake, then went a bit wide around and back onto the trail to the Lower Lake. I spotted a backpack bobbing and weaving through the walkers and gave chase. Touched the lower lake and turned for the finish. I saw the backpack again going in through the old monastic site, but it turned left. I kept right, ran up some steps. Just before the arch I saw it was Daniella and we reached the corner together. Daniella was politely taking the circuitous route around the tourists. Two people moved and I saw a gap through the middle! Thank you very much and without further delay made a dash for it coming out the other side just ahead. There was no gentlemanly conduct in sight as I dashed for the finish.
What an epic race this is.
A huge thanks to John, Lillian and all the other volunteers who gave up their time allowing us to enjoy the wonderful Wicklow countryside. Well done to all the runners and their support crews.
This is certainly an event worth having a look at. And if you don’t fancy taking on the whole thing in one go, the relay is a really good option to get a taster, but be warned, once you’ve tried it…