I can remember meeting a few friends for a recce of the WWU route back in early January, a 33K out and back starting from Johnnie Fox's and turning before the descent into the Dargle Valley. On the return leg I felt under pressure and was reduced to a walk by the time we reached Prince William's Seat and thought to myself 'Thank God I'm not racing the WWU'. On that day I was running with Johnny Steede, Justin Maxwell, Marty Rea & Aidan Blake.
Back then I was preparing for the Siberian Black Ice Race and the training since last October was all event specific and more hiking than running with the effects being very obvious when running in the hills with an experienced crew. When we finished they mention a similar session again the following month and I thought I'd better be a little bit better prepared by getting back into the hills between now and then.
A week or two after that day out I was over in Norway for some more extreme event specific training and a week of cold weather camping with race specific skills and then the bombshell! The Siberian Black Ice Race was cancelled. I was now left with no race and out of my usual shape but on the plus side I was injury free and stronger even though that also meant heavier.
To get back on track I ran the Donadea 50K (Feb 16th) and suffered but that was the wake up call I needed as I had last year's result to make the comparison. Met the crew again for another recce in early March and although it wasn't as bad as the first outing it was still tough and I thought to myself that this was even more of a reason to run it and that's when I decided to set my sights on running the WWU. From that day I took my training into the hills as often as I could and averaged at least one trail run per week of 10K-20K and included a recce of the return leg.
Race day came around very quickly and I'm feeling less than prepared. Up at 06:15 and had my usual pre race breakfast finished for just after 06:40 and spent the next 30 minutes relaxing and drinking coffee. My race kit was ready from the night before so there was nothing to create an early morning panic and it was a very relaxing start to the day. Arrived at the race start an hour before the start and following a quick registration sat in the car to shelter from the rain. I like to travel light and was half thinking of carrying a pack to store my compulsory kit of a rain jacket, hat & gloves but the warning of snow on high ground meant I could wear the compulsory items and forget about the bag as I didn't expect to need food or fluids for the distance with the cold conditions.
The race started with the first 2Km on road and although I felt comfortable I decided to ease back and slow the pace. Groups were starting to form as we left the road and started on the Trail and I became part of a group of 3 by the time we got into the snow line and reached the top of Prince William Seat at close to 6Km. This ended the first climb and so far so good. I had memories of a short run last weekend over this same section with Dan Doherty and he had reduced me to a walk at this point. From here the route continued downhill for almost another 6Km with some slight undulation and the low point was reached at the Glencree Valley. This was a chance to recover from the first climb and prepare for the next.
Shortly after crossing the Glencree River the route starts to climb and takes the race past an aid station in Crone Wood and then the long drag up past Powerscourt Waterfall begins and then ends with a very steep descent into the Dargle Valley. Dropping into the valley gives very little opportunity for recovery as it's tricky underfoot and there's always tension as you try prevent the falling. This is at roughly 17K and the next 1-2K bring the race uphill again and in the direction of Djouce and some open mountain. Once again we enter the snow line and it's over the ankles and hiding potholes and other hazards.
Wet / cold feet are a small price to pay for sure foot placement and rather than run through the unknown I take the easier route by running uphill through the many streams. It's quite an effort moving in the snow and the slower pace is giving the cold a chance to take hold. The trail levels out as the race follows the Wicklow Way and traverses alongside Djouce and for a while is sheltered but well worn from the continuous use. This usually easier sheltered section turns out to be the worst part of the race as we run through pockets of freezing cold bog water hidden and insulated from freeing over with snow. The only way was to plough through as trying to avoid meant falling and most of the surrounding ground was covered in ice that was hard and sharp enough to cut like briars.
(race photo, owner unknown)
Finishing the traverse at close to 23K we turn sharply left and make our way to the turnaround over what should be an easy section of mostly downhill along a boardwalk of railway sleepers but today the sleepers are iced over and not visible in part making the section quite hazardous. By this time I had lost feeling in my feet but it was no worse than I had experienced before and the rest of my body was feeling ok and it was kind of nice running in these conditions. On a few occasions I ran off the boardwalk being unable to control my direction or pace and after a few falls decided it best to err on the side of caution and slow down.
Coming down off the mountain I was feeling good but was unsure of my timing and just hoped I'd make it the turnaround before the Trail Race started as getting caught behind this race would cost more time. With less than 2K to go I was met by Johnny Steede and as predicted he was leading the race. I continued on and was then met by Paul Tierney and then Justin & Marty. My frozen feet were making the run along the fire road uncomfortable and I was also starting to overheat and although feeling fine I just wasn't enjoying this part of the race.
(approaching the halfway point)With less than 200M to go I could see the Trail Runners lined up and ready to go and then they were off! I felt like a fish going against the flow and had to stop and get out of the way. This was a bit of a downer as I was now at the back of this race and would get caught out on the return. I lost a few minutes at the turn by running further than necessary and then got going as quickly as I could. By the time I reached the boardwalk for the return climb I had caught the tail end of the Trail Race and managed to jump forward a few places but as I got further up the line it became for difficult to move forward as it was a long line and the deep snow made it hard to pass. I tried my best to make up a few spaces before the boardwalk ended and the traverse started but it was more hassle than it was worth. The return traverse was equally difficult and was more messed up due to the extra volume of traffic and once again my feet were frozen.
The traverse ended and the downhill started with more room available for overtaking but it meant taking a few chances and hoping for the best. I enjoyed this stretch and it was great making up a few positions and from here on in the route would be as congested or tight. It wasn't long before I was climbing out of the Dargle Valley again and this was a killer. My progress was very slow but knowing that I've always been reduced to a walk on this climb I didn't mind and that's one of the mental benefits to be had from knowing and checking out the route.
With 34K now complete the descent now started back into the Glencree Valley via Crone Wood and the aid station. For some reason I decided to make an unnecessary stop at the aid station and drank a mouthful of water and ate half a banana.
(Crone Wood on the return)
Climbing out of the Glencree Valley I walked the climb yet again and then got back into my stride before walking the next climb leading upwards from the Knockree Rd. I'd expected to walk this and used the opportunity as recovery. The running started again and followed a short uphill section along a road and that was horrible. It wasn't very steep but I couldn't wait to get off road again and the road just didn't feel right with the day that was in it. Next section brought us into Curtlestown Wood and upwards towards Prince William's Seat and the last major climb. I did my best to stay running and when I felt like walking I just shortened my stride until eventually I had no choice.
The rocky climb to the top helped speed the progress and then I was on my way again. My mental plan now was continuous movement at a steady pace and try to catch anyone that comes into view. Having ran the final section a few times I had an idea of what I could and couldn't do and as we left the trail and the rejoined the road I started to push a little bit harder.
There's one last short but very steep climb before the final stretch to the finish starts and I pushed again as I reached this point and maintained the effort at the top. Crosesed the finish line in 15th place with a time of 5hr28 and feeling less than finished. Ended the day with 2 pints of Guinness in Johnnie Fox's and already looking forward to next year and giving the race a proper go by being better prepared.
Johnny Steede won the race quite comfortably in a time of 4hr14.55 and now I don't feel as about about that first run we did back in January.
My thanks to the IMRA, the race organisers, race marshals and helpers on the day.
Photos by Action Photography.
My Race by Garmin.