Written by David Caulfield
No matter how you slice it, 127 kilometres/ 80 miles is a long way to travel in 21 hours. Mentioning that distance to anyone outside of the ultra running world will get expressions of disbelief and looks suggesting you ought to be committed for your obvious madness.
The challenge is both physical and mental and so it helps to break the distance down into smaller targets. Thus think only to the next CP and what time you need to arrive there, then to the next and so on. These smaller achievements add together quickly getting you beyond the half way point, to the three quarters way point and eventually…..to the finish.
I started 2017 injured and so was unable to run until mid March. I was recovered enough to do the Maurice Mullins half and from there I eased myself back in.
A significant birthday in 2018 raised the idea of an entry to the UTMB to “celebrate” my encroaching decrepitude. The requirement to have 15 points over a maximum of 3 races (just to enter the lottery) started the grey matter turning. I had 4 from last year’s Transvulcania so to get to 15 I would need to do two 6 point races or one 5 point and one 6 point. I settled on the Wicklow Way Race and if that went well then the Kerry Way Ultra. I was in no way sure that my recovery would continue in the face of ramped up mileage but I was about to find out.
Training over the next twelve weeks included recce’s of the course sometimes with friends but mostly on my own. Solo recce’s invariably mean an out and back thus can end up being very long sessions. Over this time I logged many long runs the longest ranging from 26 to 30 miles; recovery from these was monitored carefully and happily all went well (I swear by chocolate mile and recovery tights). I had enough time that I was able to include a few back to back long runs and was very happy to see that my injury was now almost gone.
I ran the Clare Burren Marathon at a very easy pace two weeks before. By this time I had reccied all but the last 16 miles of the WW so on the Sunday before, I ran/ walked the first 7 miles from Crossbridge towards Clonegal and back. Probably not the smartest thing to do so close to race day but it helped ease the “I might get lost anxiety”. There would only be 7 or so miles on race day that I had not covered previously.
Race Day Plan
Given my lack of running and the overall length of the race I set about dissecting its various stages and cut off times to see what flex there was in the paces I could run to allow me finish comfortably within the cut offs. Using Excel I calculated several scenarios and settled on the following (I still work in miles).
• CP1 Crone 13.75m (22km), cutoff 3am: 12 minute mile pace to arrive at 02:37.
• CP2 Glendalough 17.5m (28km), cutoff 8am: 12.5 minute mile pace to arrive at 06:31 (take 15 min rest).
• CP3 Ironbridge 15.63m (25km), cutoff 12pm: 14.5 minute mile pace to arrive at 10:42 (take 15 min rest).
• CP4 The Dying Cow 16.25m (26km), cutoff 4pm: 14.5 minute mile pace to arrive at 15:01 (15 min rest).
• CP5 Raheenakit 6.25m, (10km) cutoff 6:30pm: 16 minute mile pace to arrive at 16:51 (20 min rest).
• Finish at Clonegal 10m, (16km) cutoff 9pm: 16 minute mile pace to arrive at 19:46
The above plan put emphasis on the first two CPs, which were the tightest to make with time pressure reducing significantly by CP3. These paces were pedestrian but given the significant distances covered and my under trained state I felt they were realistic. The rest stops I included also looked very generous but when stops to change batteries, take out a jacket, take a whizz etc, are included they were again probably realistic.
Race Day Prep
I took the Friday off to try to get a few hours sleep during the day and to prepare my drop bags.
No two people will pack the same food; I included lots of drinks I like drinking since I find it hard to stomach eating during races. Small cartons of orange juice proved to be very palatable and a good energy provider. Also successful were small easy peel oranges, two per drop bag. Other food included chocolate (snickers which I didn’t anticipate I would bother eating but did), crisps, cheese nachos and small tuna & sweet corn sandwiches (one per drop bag, I ate the first sandwich and couldn’t stomach the rest), plain water in my hydration vest and gels. I also had a triple shot of coffee to be consumed shortly before the race (to give me a boot up the arse).
Notable kit included
• Black diamond z trail poles
• A small waterproof stuff sack (keeps items kept inside completely dry, weighs ounces)
• Light long sleeve running top; it was to be cold over Djouce (Richard N you were right)
• East West Map guide to the Wicklow Way
• A small power pack to charge my Garmin and phone (my watch can be charged whilst recording a session)
• Salt tablets, pain killers and deflatine
• 50 euro note (in case I needed to make quick exit)
• A couple of gels (with others dispersed over my drop bags)
• All of the above were in addition to the mandatory kit
Kit that might be worth including (much of which can be left in a drop bag)
• Change of top/ bottom
• Change of socks
• Road runners
• Motilium or crystallized ginger
I got a lift to Marlay Park with friend Liam Costello and was quickly through registration, kit check and tracker collection (race organization fantastic, thanks Jeff, Robbie, Richard, Tricia et al). My head torch is a Petzl Nao+ and it was my first time using it so I made sure to practice the settings to ensure I got the maximum time from the battery in the hope that I wouldn’t have to stop to put in the spare.
Marlay Park to Crone 21km (Climb 684m)
After a short race briefing we were off! It was good to get out of the park and up towards Kilmashogue carpark and Fairy Castle. I have run this part of the Wicklow Way many times so there was no chance of me taking a wrong turn. However the fear of my missing the first cut off ensured I kept up the pace. The weather was already proving to be wild but since much of this part of the way is sheltered it wasn’t too bad. Through the gloom sheep’s eyes reflected green, the field quickly spread out and already if felt like I was on my own in the mist, rain and blackness. I was soon over Prince William’s seat and to the nice descent that provided recovery before putting the boot down again. I made Crone at 2:32, 5 minutes ahead of schedule. It was lashing rain; thanks to the volunteers that had to stand in it. I stopped for less than a minute to grab the contents of my first drop bag and then was off again towards Djouce. Judging by the wind and heavy rain this part of the course was going to be interesting!
Crone to Glendalough 29km (Climb 868m)
I have been over Djouce on many occasions in all sorts of weather. I was there on the day of the Maurice Mullins Trail and Ultra in 2013 with the crazy weather that happened on that day. The weather tonight however trumped all that. As I passed the point that looks across to Powerscourt waterfall the wind through the trees was alarming; was I going to be flattened by a falling tree? On I went to the left turn that started the descent down to the footbridge over the Dargle. Up the other side and onto Djouce where as anticipated it was WILD. The trail was an ankle deep running river, my head torch lit just a 2 metre bubble of light beyond which there was thick mist, pitch black, torrential rain and gale force winds. I’d last been here in February so the undergrowth of green that had grown since made the trail hard to pick out.
As I ploughed on through the maelstrom I was getting a bit freaked out. I pressed on with the mantra, “it will be light soon, the rain is going to stop and the sun is going to come out again”. Then the battery went on my torch. Damn! No choice but to stop, dig my spare battery out of my pack and whilst doing that put on my waterproof legs, neck gaiter and gloves. I was cold now and needed to get moving again. Once on the boardwalk progress was a little easier and soon I was out of the worst of it and running past the Pier gates. The rest of this section was unremarkable; I arrived in Glendalough at 6:45, 15 minutes behind schedule; a lot of time had been lost on the side of Djouce.
Glendalough to Ironbridge 25km (Climb 882m)
The CP at Glendalough was like an oasis, bacon sandwiches and coffee!!! The restorative power of coffee cannot be underestimated. Thanks once again to the organisers, fantastic job.
I stayed a bit longer than I’d intended but felt very much restored. Once at the upper lake I began the long climb out of Glendalough. On reaching the top the wind was blowing strong on the board walk and it was still cold. I moved on quickly down the other side to Glenmalure and to the last significant climb of the day. The Wicklow Way from Glenmalure is quite twisty for the first couple of miles followed by a significant section on the road. I met up with a couple of fellow runners, Andreas and Paul and stayed with them for the next 20 miles or so. Thanks for the company guys. I was beginning to feel tired around this time so stopped for a couple of minutes and ate two oranges before setting off again. A check on my pace and time to the next cut off had me speed up again and soon I was on the downhill towards Ironbridge arriving at 11:12 a half hour behind schedule but still well within the cut off.
Ironbridge to The Dying Cow 25km (Climb 525m)
Another great set up; more coffee (from a coffee plunger!!), home baking and a deck chair to sit down! Luxury. Thanks guys, ye are legends. As myself, Andreas and Paul were leaving Ironbridge (50km to go) Andreas decided he would change into his road runners. I went on ahead knowing they would catch me. I made a quick phone call to my wife to let her know all was well and by the time I’d finished Andreas and Paul had caught up. This section seemed to take forever when I reccied it in April and it seemed to take forever again today. By now the rain had gone and the sun was out; the Djouce experience seemed a very long time ago now. I shed any unnecessary clothing, put on suntan lotion and connected the charger to my watch. I recorded a couple of very slow miles at this time and in hindsight I was clearly very tired. I made sure not to repeat the wrong turn I’d taken back in April in a forest section early in this part of the course. I had reccied it again in May and found the marker I’d missed behind a gorse bush (which I pruned).
We pushed on eventually reaching Cuckoo Lane and shortly after, Crossbridge. Andreas and Paul went on ahead at this point; I was slowing but didn’t feel like taking any more gels (which was probably a mistake). At about a mile and a half from the Dying Cow I came around a corner to see in the distance my brother and two nephews! My niece and sister in law were there too. What a great surprise! Hugs all round and a quick photo and then a quick dash to the Dying Cow to make the 4:00 cut off. I got there at 3:36, phew!
The Dying Cow to Raheenakit 11km (Climb 267m)
My arrival time to the Dying Cow would prove to be the nearest I came to not making a cut off. Beyond this however lay just 16 miles to the finish and 5 hours in which to do it. Surely nothing could stop me from finishing now. First I had to make the Raheenakit CP 6 miles away by 6:30. Thanks to the guys at the Dying Cow, great encouragement as I left. A last goodbye to my brother and I was off up the steep road towards Raheenakit. This section of the Way is fairly non descript and almost entirely on road (so a change to road runners is an option here). Just before the last CP came the much-vaunted Coronary Hill (a long uphill boreen with grass in the middle); I put the head down and power walked up (my poles aiding my progress). I made the last CP at 5:10; I just had to stay upright and keep putting one foot in front of the other and I’d finish.
Raheenakit to Clonegal 16km (Climb 222m)
Heeding the warning that many have taken a wrong turn in Raheenakit forest I made sure to be extra alert for the WW markers. At this point I was doing virtually no running but instead power walking. With the exception of one marker I almost missed which takes you left down a narrow grassy track, I didn’t go wrong. Shortly after I entered the last forested section which as mentioned by others is paved with very pointy rocks that are agony on tired feet. A short way in I met fellow runner Martin; I’d last seen him near Lough Dan many hours earlier. He was running on empty, the offer of a couple of oranges seemed to help and he was soon back on his feet to keep me company. A wrong turn by me cost us 10 minutes; I am very grateful to Martin for having the GPX file on his watch thus noticing my mistake; I would have walked much further in the wrong direction otherwise.
The highly anticipated Clonegal 5km road sign was at last reached. Some of the race volunteers appeared here to offer us chips! Thanks Lillian and the second person who’s name I don’t know.
Many have said it before and I will confirm it again here. This is the longest 5km I have ever run/walked/ shuffled; it seemed to go on forever. Over the majority of the race I had stayed true to my plan of power walking the uphills and running the flats and downhills. But now sadly I could only manage to run for a few metres before stuttering back to a walk. I was passed by a couple of other runners in the last kilometer but I couldn’t give a damn. I had set out with the sole purpose of finishing within the cut offs, a good time had never been a possibility so my finish place was of little consequence to me.
I could see the town in the distance! As I rounded the final bend I found myself muttering repeatedly “thank god, thank god, thank god”. Clonegal at last and the Wicklow Way sign. YES! I DID IT!!!!!
I finished in 20 hours and ten minutes, 24 minutes behind schedule. I’d been up and awake for 34 hours.
I was greeted by my wife and son, (emotional, sniff, sniff). Then Jeff appeared, congratulated me on finishing and presented me with my granite finisher’s plaque with the little yellow man. Chuffed to bits!
I am constantly surprised at what the human body is capable of. I managed to come back from injury, squash my training into a period of less than three months and finish well within the cut off. Thanks legs, heart and lungs, I’ll go easy on you for the next couple of weeks, I promise!
A huge shout out to all involved in organizing this fantastic event. An amazing job! We are very lucky to have a race of this calibre on our doorstep.
• Recce the course for peace of mind on the day (the only wrong turn I took was on the 7 mile stretch I hadn’t run before).
• Get to bed early on the nights of the week coming up to the event.
• Include variety in your drinks and food; this will improve the likelihood you will keep fueling (unless of course you are fat adapted and don’t need to eat).
• Trail poles used properly can be of great benefit in prolonging endurance.
• As with any long distance event, expect to experience “bad patches” and know that they almost always pass.