The Wicklow Way Ultra – 22nd March 2014

Start/Finish: Glencullen, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
Route: 51km out & back along the Wicklow Way, taking approx. 7,000 ft of ascent/descent (see course profile below)

The 2013 Wicklow Way Ultra was my first ultra-distance event and I have fond memories of it.  It is organised by IMRA, the Irish Mountain Running Association and is a 51k race over challenging terrain. The entry fee is a bargain at 15Euro, though you also require IMRA membership, but even with that the total cost is a very reasonable 25Euro. I think it fair to say that this is a no-frills event, with a very friendly atmosphere and great volunteers working along the course. It is also fair to say that this is not a route for a PB attempt. The post-race gathering in Johnny Foxes Pub is also something to look forward to, unless you have a long drive home like me!
I was looking forward to see if I had made any progress over the intervening 12 months and some 2,000 miles of training. I had completed the 2013 event in 7hr 37m in atrocious, Arctic-like weather conditions and I had a notion that sub-7hrs might be possible this time. However, with the Highland Fling in mind I also wanted to use this event as part of a long back-to-back weekend, intending to cover another 40-50k on the Sunday. So I was in two minds, whether to push it and try to cut 30-45mins from the 2013 time, or to run it conservatively and keep something in the tank for day 2 of the back-to-back weekend. Ultimately I was probably caught between the two and did a bit of both, a bit of neither.
After the usual pre-race sleepless night I had a 4am breakfast of porridge & coffee. A quick check on the weather forecast for the Wicklow area indicated the possibility of strong winds and a windchill factor of around -7. Thankfully the snow from last year would not be repeated but the prospect of cold and strong winds on the hills was daunting enough. I loaded the car and set off at around 5:30am for the 2.5 hour drive to Wicklow, arriving at Johnny Foxes pub carpark in time to register for the early start option.
A strong cold wind was blowing across the start line as around 20-30 runners lined up for the 8:30am start. The bulk of the 120 or so runners would be starting at 9:30am. We set off at an easy pace along the road for the first couple of miles, chatting and catching up with familiar faces before we dropped down to pick up the start of the Wicklow Way. This first long steady climb quickly stretches out the runners and I was happy at the back, feeling the usual early tightness in my calves and knowing it would pass after 5k or so. I ran with Amy Beggs, a well known stalwart of Irish ultra running, and a few other runners as we chatted all the way to the top of Prince William’s Seat, where I slipped and fell on an icy boulder, but no harm done. We stayed together until the first checkpoint at Crone Car Park at around 13k. I was carrying enough water to get to the halfway turn so I ran through the checkpoint, on past the impressive Powerscourt waterfall and approached the big climb of the day, up onto the shoulder of Djouce mountain. At this point a walker called out to me that I was being closed down and I turned to find the first three men from the 9:30am start bearing down on me. I stood to one-side and applauded as they sped by and watched amazed as they hit the big climb without seeming to change down a gear. Watching those guys gave me a lift and I picked up my pace a little and hit the ridge of Djouce where I really noticed the wind for the first time.
I pushed on, passing a couple of runners and then reached the infamous boards; a long path two railway sleepers wide that runs along the shoulder of the mountain across a boggy area. I looked forward to pushing on down the mountain but almost immediately was blown of my feet, off the boards and headlong onto the ground where I slid to a stop. Lying face down in the ground and checking that everything was still working, I gingerly got up and noticed gashes and bruising to both legs and my right arm. Fortunately my Skins hid the damage and I tried to push on but really struggled to stay on the boards. There were similar stories from many other runners, one requiring stitches (after he had finished) and one withdrawing with what sounded like concussion. I was pleased when I got down off the boards and back into the forest for some shelter. I approached the half-way turn just as the 25k m Trail Race was starting.
A quick turnaround and back onto the steady climb back up Djouce and those treacherous boards and winds. I focussed so much on staying on my feet for the next hour or so that I forgot to eat which I think took its toll a little later. After a relatively speedy descent of Djouce, encouraged by a hail storm, I got back to Crone Car Park which was now the 38k checkpoint, feeling good. Things changed once I started the long climb from the river up to Prince William’s Seat where the lack of food over Djouce started to take its toll. I forced down a roll of shotbloks and dragged myself up to the top of the last climb. I knew it was downhill for the last 6km or so and tried to get things working again, knowing that the bloks would eventually give me a lift. I was passed by a few runners at this stage but eventually got things together for a decent last 4km to the finish and my 2nd hand made Wicklow Way mug.
My time of 7h 26m was only 10 mins faster than in 2013 but I felt strong in the last 5km once I had sorted my nutrition out.  This was not really the size of improvement I was hoping to see, but I recall last year being a mess the following day whereas this year I managed a hilly 20-miles the next day, so there is some improvement in endurance, if not in speed.

Kit:
New Balance Minimus MT1010v2
Injinji Liners under Drymax Trail socks
Skins, Merino base layer, Mizunho top and Mizunho Impermalite jacket
Camelbak Ultravest with 2 700ml Camelbak Jetvalve bottles
Elete
2 Chia Charge Flapjacks
2 x Powerbar Caffeine gels
1 x roll of Cliff Shotbloks
250ml flat coke

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