Wicklow Round Account

The Wicklow Round is not a one day, 24 hour event. No, for us lesser mortals, the Wicklow Round becomes a life choice, an obsession that can last for months, even years, before you can even dare to take up this epic challenge. I have lived this obsession, quietly, but now, finally, I am free – for I have tried, but yet even in failure, I am now at peace with the hills.

For this reason, it is simply not possible to write a ‘race report’. The Wicklow Round can never be described as a mere ‘race’, where your rivals are time and runners. No, the Round is a personal battle that pits you against yourself and the mountains, for a duel that lasts but a single day. And it can never be a ‘report’, a calculated account of pacing and heart rates, of distance and ascent. All I can tell is a story, a story that starts back some 2 years ago - with a simple email from Joe. And this is how things start – in a simple, uncalculated way. An invitation to recce a route off Scarr, Knocknacloghoge and Luggala. The following Sunday, a run off Tonduff North to Prince Williams’ seat. And on 23rd December 2006, a day long run from Kippure to Drumgoff. I still remember that run so clearly, the eve of Christmas eve, with the ground frozen and the clean crisp air, the hills hovering above the cloud, the freedom of running with only map and compass and a haversack of food, warmth and water. The lack of race numbers, the absence of anxiety attacks over percentages and winning times, the solitude of two, not two hundred.

And though the following year, 2007, I adventure raced, the Wicklow Round still lay silently in wait. At the Worlds in Scotland in May of that year, I cracked from the pressure and pace, and on the 4th day, I retired my team from the race. Deflated, depressed, distraught, I poured out over pages and pages as my ¾ team went back out to do battle. At the end of my tales, I scribbled out new goals... I was to learn to navigate and to do the Wicklow Round. This page I stuck on my bedroom mirror, and though I soon became oblivious to the sight of this paper, those self-made promises were being subtly subconsciously engrained.

Fortune had it that, after my Scottish set-back, Andrew McCarthy was searching for a team-mate for the 10th Rogaine. We paired up and played a blinder. We agreed to do the Mournes as well, and were very happy with our two day mission. But by now it was the end of the season, and thoughts soon turned to 2008. Talk of this and that race revealed that we both had an interest in doing the Round. All of a sudden, it was a done deal, and we agreed to centre our winter training with a view to doing the Round in May of next year.

Training for the Round began in earnest in December 07. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were aerobic runs in and out from work, along the Quays and through the Phoenix Park with back-pack and torch, come rain or shine. Thursdays were 5.45am alarm calls for solo tempo runs on the dark Park pitches, clutching my mobile phone in case of weirdo attacks. Whilst Sundays were reserved for orienteering for navigation skills, most Saturdays were Round recce runs. The route was still uncertain in parts, and so we played out some scenarios to find the shortest path. Three attempts found us a route off Knocknagun to the finish, whilst the jury was still out over Tonduff North to Prince William’s Seat. Our runs became longer whilst the weather became harsher. Sidewise hailstones slammed into us on Scarr. Freezing fog folded over us on Oakwood. Each time, Andrew would be hit by a cold that took two weeks’ toll.

I on the other hand had the respite of warmer weather. Though my work brought me to far-off fields, training had to continue. In January, I would wake at 4.30, running on a treadmill to avoid both the Haitian heat and roadside thuggery. In February, my morning runs were through the Congolese jungle, children jogging alongside me with books and broken flip-flops as they made their quicker-than-usual way to village school. In March, it was through the streets of Vientiane, warmed by the red rising sun, and welcomed by the Buddhist monks as they collected their morning aims. Each time, in every place, I would drag myself out of bed, knowing that for the Round to be a reality, the work still had to be done.

Back home, Andrew continued to plot and plan our training. The start of April saw the Leinster Orienteering Champions on Fair Mountain, another Sunday scheduled event. And then a mossy rock and foul freezing weather saw Andrew fall and damage his knee. Though recovery was imminent, it was impossible before the planned May Round. After a few days of thought, Andrew said that I was to go solo. I was devastated. Andrew was always the navigator. I just couldn’t do it alone. I’m a girl... girls don’t do things like that.

But then I remembered all the training, and the 5ams, and it slowly dawned that the Round now possessed me. There was no escape. I had to trust the mountain navigation courses I’d been to, my Sunday orienteering skills, and the hours I’d spent reading maps in the mountains. Journeying to the UK in May, the Great Lakeland 3 day was the ultimate test to see if I could fair it alone. Three days, over 100 miles, 10,000 metres of climb, running solo through the Lake District. Though I both skipped and stumbled through those days, I emerged from the mountains with a new found confidence... and tendonitis of the knee. The rest and recuperation required meant that the planned Round date of 25th May was now impossible. Neither could I try the alternate date of June 9th, as my knee meant that planned recce runs were delayed and splits still needed to be timed. In the end, June 9th was perfect: clear, still and warm. Wicklow was heaven for the day.

Plans to defend the Rogaine title meant that, for the rest of June, the Round still had to wait. A potential date of July 19th was set. I left for Rwanda at the end of the month, with rest being scheduled whilst away. But before I could leave, I saw the weather decline, and rain reverse the gains of June. I became obsessed with the Wicklow weather whilst sitting in Africa, with metcheck and BBC and accuweather and yahoo weather. Each said something different and changed what they said with each log-on. After all this preparation, all this training, all this route finding, all the sacrifices made by friends and family, was the weather to stop me from having my way?

I returned to Dublin on Wednesday 16th July. On arrival, I ran to my weather sites - Sunday would be dry, warm and clear. My prayers had been answered. I would be allowed to at last relish the Round that I have thought, dreamt, discussed, yet never lived. Splits were sent out to my support team, Pete, Andrew and Brendan. Joe and Brian were notified of my intent. Paul Nolan and Niamh, who had shown much support over the months, were also privy to my plan.

The rules of the Round state that, for an attempt to be recognised, it must first be publicised in advance on the forum section of the IMRA website and afterwards by supplying a list of splits (arrival time at each of the nominated peaks). However, my love obsession with the Round meant that it had become a deeply personal and private thing. I wanted the Round to be just me and the mountains, with tarmac being 5 minute moments to re-engage with the world, refuelling before finally re-entering in battle. As a result, “in advance” I took as 12 hours before the start, with no splits or times of when or where I would be. My love had become a jealous and private affair.

Pete picked me up, and we drove to the start of the Round. It was clear night, a full moon shining brighter than the sun. My plan was to start at 2.30 am, to run Kippure at night, down the service road to Sally Gap where dawn would break from 4 am on. My splits suggested that, with such an early morning start, I could be home by 10 pm.  The alternative had been to start around 3pm, and to travel from Drumgoff to Wicklow Gap through the night. However, whilst previously recce-ing the night runs, I re-discovered my utter fear of the dark. Walking along the thickly forested track towards Mullacore, I jumped at rustles and skirting eyes, and I knew I could never walk this alone.

As we sat in the car at the bottom of Kippure, I noticed that the mast was covered in mist. I didn’t mind, as I had all my compass bearings marked on my map and I knew that the forecast was to be good. As the hand stuck 02.30, we hugged good-bye and I set off along the track, happy that I was finally fulfilling eight months of expectation. As soon as I hit the river, the path was lost, and I took up my bearing immediately. The contours were faint, and soon I began to panic as the mast was nowhere in sight. I continued on up but wondered if the bearing would bring me the right peak. Was the Round to defeat me so early on without my putting up a real fight? After 50 minutes of wonder and worry, I heard the buzz of the generators and the outline of the fence. I had reached the top at last. Already behind time, I jogged down the service road, looking forward to seeing Brendan at Sally’s Gap.

Parked at the bottom of Kippure, whilst waiting for the hand to strike 02.30, Pete had grown worried at what he was about to do – leave a girl, in the middle of the mountains, in the dark and cold, alone. Though we had agreed he would travel home to bed (having just arrived in from New York the previous day), he patrolled the place and eventually pulled up at the service entrance. I saw this car pull up where I was to exit. Knowing the weirdos that Wicklow has, I in turn pulled out my emergency GPS tracker, ready to hit the SOS emergency services button. As I passed by, only the familiar registration stopped me from pressing the button. I reassured Pete and went on my way.

As I ran down the military road, turning the corner, I hit a wall of mist. Behind me, Dublin was enjoying a warm and clear sunrise. Straight ahead, the mist was thick and clingy. We had always said, if there is mist, there is no point. But despite these firm assertions, I knew it was now or never. The days were already getting shorter. Next weekend might not be better weather. And more than anything, I wanted the Round to give me my life back. I couldn’t face recce-ing more routes, having to miss out on Saturday nights because of long Sunday training runs, not being able to have weekends away because of possible Round attempts. I wanted this to be over and out.

I was practically at the car before I saw the warm red glow of Brendan’s car lights. He ushered me into the back so I could fill my bag with water and fuel. We looked at each other ... then the mist. “Take it slowly” he said. “Navigate carefully. Don’t get lost. It will burn off. You will make up the time”. Wise words, all at the right time. I jogged along the road at the bottom of Carrigvore to find the start of the path, marked by a rock on the left and a signboard on the right. Neither of these could I find. So I hopped up on to the hill, and set my compass to 225 degrees. My altimeter clicked with the contours, reading 682 metres as the hill levelled off. When I had taken my original splits, it had a clear day, with the line from Carrigvore to Gravale, Duff hill, East Top and Mullaghcleevaun visible all the way. But now, on my day of reckoning, there was nothing but white. For the next 6 hours, I looked at nothing but the needle of my compass and my altimeter readings. I would set a bearing, and hope that at the right height, the ground would rise again. However, one time, it failed to raise. Coming off Mullaghcleevaun, I ran a bearing of 288 degrees until I got the 702 metre contour. Then I switched to a 261 degree bearing to reach the 599 metre contour at the saddle known as Billy Byrne’s Gap. However, soon I reached a height of 590 metres, and the ground seemed to keep going down. I was disorientated in the mist, and couldn’t work out what side of the saddle I was on. I panicked and called Andrew, who was waiting for me near Ballinagee Bridge. “I’ve lost Moanbane”, I said. The connection cut. Putting the map down on the heather, I re-orientated the map northwards. I realised then I had drifted south, so headed north to a height of 600 metres. From there, heading due west meant that Moanbane was finally re-discovered. Reaching Silsean, I was exactly one hour behind already, but genuinely relieved that I knew where I was.

I was also genuinely relieved that I wasn’t dead. Though it had been dry for the week before the attempt, Wicklow is reluctant to give up its wetness. The bogs were still wet and slippy, but nothing out of the ordinary. However, crossing one particular bog, the water had formed a well, and I suddenly was sucked straight into the mud. I had heard tell of such bog holes, but never believed they were real. Now, on the one day when I hoped for sunshine and sweet music, butterflies and peaches and cream, I found the bogs from hell. I managed to swim out of the bog lying horizontally and grabbing hold of blades of grass just ahead. The Mountains were determined to do battle.

The concentration required to navigate through the mist from the start meant that I had not had the time to properly eat. To survive 24 hours of running, I need to eat something and drink ½ litre a water every hour. I was to feel sick and unable to stomach food for the rest of the day.

After Ballinagee Bridge, and after being informed by Andrew that he was going home to eat sausages for breakfast as he drove away at high speed, I set off for Oakwood. It was enveloped in mist, making the trudge through the heather and holes even less bearable. By now, I had transferred to Pat Healy’s map with clear contour lines. The line I was to take was from the 619 metre spot height (Oakwood summit), contouring at around 600 metres to Arts Cross and then a 222 degrees bearing to Three Lakes. The terrain was rough and ready. I knew that there was a walker’s path tantalisingly close that leads from Lough Firrib to Arts Cross, but in the mist, this was futile to find. Any reccees I had done up Oakwood had always been in the clear light of day, with Arts Cross visible from miles around. The cross was now cloaked in mist. Pat’s map suggests that the cross is at a 590 metre height. I kept to around 600 metres. The ground started to veer north west, but there was no sign of a cross. I panicked and started to pray. At that moment, I happened to glance upwards, and the cross was directly above me, at around a 620 metre height. If I had lost that cross, I would have seriously been in hell. Now heading towards Three Lakes, at exactly 09.52 am, the cloud seemed to just simply lift and disappear. I looked up and there is was... blue sky. I literally cried out for joy. I could see Table Mountain. It was just there!

Putting my compass away for the first time, having been at the round already for 7 and ½ hours, I was now able to get back to my original split times. I headed up Camenabologue in good time, and was relaxed enough to press the ‘check-in / OK’ button on my GPS Tracker. This would send an email and text to Pete and Andrew with my coordinates and a pre-recorded message. As I left Camenabologue, after about 10 minutes, I noticed a helicopter circle and eventually hover over the exact place I had pressed my button. Had I accidentally pressed the emergency SOS rescue button which is directly to 112 services? Would I have to pay the helicopter call out fee? Yet more additional stress that I didn’t need.

The journey to Lug, Corrigasleggan and Carrawaystick was uneventful in comparison to my morning of mist. I managed to find all the walker’s tracks along these peaks and came off nicely at the fire break beside the road. Paul Nolan had given me an excellent route from there to Drumgoff, taking part of the Wicklow Way and through some newly felled forest straight on to the military road. I reached Drumgoff 1 hour 17 mins behind time. However, given that my original splits were for 20hrs 15mins, I still had 3 and ¾ hours to play with in order to still arrive under the stated 24.

At Drumgoff, I was given explicit instructions to eat well and refuel on the way to Mullacor. I stuffed in the weirdest concoction of milk, crisps, a gel and banana, being physically unable for the egg sandwiches. I enjoyed the run off Derrybawn, much to Andrew’s later annoyance as I had caught up my splits by 7 minutes which meant that I had probably pushed too hard during the section.

Glendalough was a circus with Sunday day trippers. I got out of there quickly and headed straight up Camaderry. Gavan was out for a hill run, and joined me for a while. He remarked how crazy I was doing the Round, whilst I just thought he was crazy being out in shorts and T-Shirt in such weather! Again, I caught up on splits, and at the top of Camaderry I was only 63 minutes behind.

After Wicklow Gap, things began to slowly unravel. The crucial part now was getting off Tonduff North before dark. There are two ways off the hill. My way of choice is via Crone, taking a path that is to the left of a gully that runs from the 600 metre contour down to the shoulder. When the path peters out, you head towards Maulin, and another path appears going left, just north of Raven’s Glen. Miss this, and you are in for a kamikaze descent through killer crags, deadly ferns, and heather filled holes. Never to be attempted at night! If not, it’s a trek back to the Kippure service entrance for a 6km tarmac job towards Glencree.

I had to really push so that I could get off Tonduff North before dark. By the time I got to Glenmacnass, I was 1hr15 down, with a calculation that I could be 2 hours late and still make it. At this point, it is seriously tempting to skip Scarr given that it is an out and back route. However, given that the Round is based on honour, I could obviously hardly do such a thing. Anyhow, I really like the run off Scarr, so didn’t want to miss that. Heading down via the Oak Copse, crossing the river was fine, unlike 4 weeks previously when many rogaine competitors couldn’t ford the swollen stream. When I had done the original split for Knocknacloghoge, the terrain had been fine. Arriving 6 weeks later, ferns had quickly sprung up, and my feet were slowed by their growth. In doing so, I lost another 15 minutes. I pushed and pushed up Lugalla, by now at my mental and physical limits. My legs were in agony, and I wanted to cry. All I could think about was getting a hug from Pete at Sheepshank Bridge.

Off Lugalla, the heather had grown high, and it stripped the skin from my legs. I had already been running for 18 hours, and fatigue was affecting my balance as I stuttered and stammered over grassy mounds and bulging bog. I pressed on at the bridge, grabbing water and food, too hurried to get my hug. Up Djouce, I could see the sun setting on me and my Round. I hit War Hill at 22.11 with Tonduff North beginning to become just a silhouette. Again, the split between the two hills had been done 6 weeks prior. The heather was higher than ever, and I struggled to emerge from its grasp. My energy was getting lower and lower, and I could hear my fear of the dark coming to haunt. Tonduff North was hit at 11pm, 2 and ½ hours being schedule but still within reach of 24 hours. Now, I had to get off the hill in the dark. I rang Andrew who was waiting at Crone. They agreed to drive around to Kippure service entrance and I would make my way there. Heading straight for the flashing mast, I repeatedly tripped and fell into bogs and streams. At one stage I just wanting to take out my survival bag and curl up in what seemed like a warm heather hole. I was losing it, but just had enough consciousness to at least still know I was losing it. After what seemed like eternity, I saw the lights of the cars. Pete, Andrew and Joe were there. I sat down on the ground and started to shake and stammer. I had been so scared, being out on the mountain in the dark on my own. I had started to hallucinate, believing that the deers were hyenas and elephants, like the ones that used to come into our backyard in Kenya. I just couldn’t go on.

At this stage, I could have theoretically pressed on and maybe got under 24 hours. My splits said that it would take 1 hour to get to Prince William’s Seat, 15 mins to Knocknagun and 30 mins to the finish, a total of 1hr45. I arrived at the service entrance at 12.15, giving me 2hr15 to complete. However, those splits were done in daylight when I was fresh and starting a run. After already run for 21hrs 30mins, I had by the end absolutely nothing left in me.

I’m sure it’s hard to explain and for people to understand why I didn’t press on. The irony is, for all the doggedness that I have, I lack that competitive edge. I lack that drive that makes me want to be first or to be the best. I wanted to do battle with the Round, with the mountains and myself, and in the end, I got what I wanted - my war of a single day. And anyhow, if I had pressed on, I would have ended up hating the Round, hating the Hills and hating running. Life is too short for so much hate.

Personally, I now know that I could do the Round under 24 hours. If the mist had not been there, I would have been at Tonduff North at 10pm at the latest, and would have been off by dark. Then it would have been the Wicklow Way practically all the way home. At this moment in time, this knowledge is enough for me. The Round will always be there, but it’s not to be for me this year. I am instead looking forward to weekends away and sleep-ins in bed. I’m happy to be getting my life back after giving it partially away for all these months.

However, what I do think I’ve achieved after all this is to reignite the interest in the Round. There is a place for people who want to roam free in the mountains and to pit themselves against themselves – the Round is for such souls. In doing so, I would like to profoundly thank Joe Lalor and Brian Bell who originally conceived this baby. Huge thanks also to everyone who suggested routes and gave advice, especially Paul Nolan, Simon Fairmaner and Brian Bell. Thanks to the support team on the day, Andrew, Pete and Brendan. Thanks also to those who made the effort to turn up and support.

But particular thanks needs to go to Pete and Cian for all your incredible patience when you heard that yet another Sunday was going to spent somewhere deep in the dark Wicklow Mountains. And how can I begin to thank Andrew, for all the support, encouragement, teaching, banana bread, and friendship. Sod the solo attempt – next time it’ll be a team effort!

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