Wicklow Way Relay Report by Kenneth O'Hara.
After nearly two months of trash talk and banter the day finally arrived last Saturday for the biggest throw down event of the year as members went head to head in two teams as part of the Wicklow Way Relay. A 104km trail race with 3500ft of climbing across the Wicklow Mountains, it is the highlight of many runners year and this time it took on some extra significance with two teams entered for some additional friendly competition.
With the number of team entries limited to 35 only one official team is allowed per club. So on the day we had Athenry AC, comprising all club members, taking on the Lactic Lunatics which hosted one non-club member.
Brendan Galvin (Leg1), Colin Duane (Leg2), Frances Leahy (Leg3), Maeve Noone (Leg4), Aidan Madden (Leg5), Mark Mitchell (Leg6), Lyall Guiney (Leg7), Niall Lyons (Leg8).
Frank Burke (Leg1), Kieran Walsh (Leg2), Stephen Troake (Leg3), Deirdre Brophy (Leg4), Kenneth O'Hara (Leg5), Aoife Callan (Leg6), Jim Leahy (Leg7), Fergal Walsh (Leg8).
With peoples fitness levels & confidence fluctuating on a surprising level in the run up to race day we were finding it hard to agree on who would win with people on both teams admitting to pre-race nerves for the first time in a while – there’s something about running in a team which gives the race a whole different feel to normal road racing.
If ever there were two trash talkers in the club it’s Brendan Galvin & Frank Burke so we had no choice to put them head to head. And after Frank’s amazing ability to get lost (which he proved to us so well during our recent training run in Wicklow) it was decided to put him in Leg 1 where he would have runners around him before the field spread out across the day. After what looked a very leisurely start by both men we wondered we’re they going to saunter around together and leave the racing to the later runners. But sure enough as the race progressed battle commenced.
Brendan made the first move & pulled away on the first climb circling around Kilmashogue Mountain. Never too far out of sight, Frank kept in touch and as they crested the second mountain by Prince Williams Seat he pulled level with Brendan, offering some ‘words of encouragement’ (for want of a better description) to Brendan. Brendan, sensing the effort put in by Frank to draw level, did indeed take encouragement from those words and took off again on the downhill and as they crisscrossed the switchbacks said he heard in the distance many more ‘words of encouragement’ from Frank behind him, spurring him on to finish in 1:12:12 with Frank a further 40 seconds behind.
With such a small amount of time between the teams Kieran Walsh had a target in his sights setting off on Leg 2 and wasted no time settling into his stride. A tough and long leg with more climbing than any other, Kieran used it to his benefit as he passed Colin Duane early on and continued this trend, passing a further seven more teams as he powered to a 1:20:36 finish. On any other year Colin’s 1:26:29 would have ranked up there with one of our best runs on this leg but Kieran blitzed the course to break our record for that leg by four minutes & handing the lead to Lactic Lunatics.
Our single guest member, Stephen, took over from Kieran and with similar race times to Frances we expected a tight leg here but with a net downhill elevation on this route Stephen proved the more nimble descender and opened up big gap by the end. Even though Frances had a great run, improving four minutes on last year with a 47.38, Stephen ran a 40:36 to increase the Lunatics lead to around 12 minutes.
Leg four saw another debutant in the race as Deirdre Brophy took over from Stephen. Whilst on paper this leg was a mismatch with Deidre going up against Maeve, terrain & local knowledge can count for a lot. By her own admission, Deirdre will run uphill all day long but she’s not as comfortable on downhill & technical ground. She was also unable to get up to recce the route prior to race day so her first viewing of the course was during the race. Maeve on the other hand had ran this route on numerous occasions in race & training conditions.
Armed with some handwritten directional notes tied to her bag to guide her through the course Deirdre powered up
the tough hilly two mile start and never looked back as she hit the rough stuff. Finishing in 54:00 and knocking another 10 minutes out of the Athenry AC team as Maeve came home in 64:37.
Next up was myself and Aidan. We left the leg 4 transition early to get to our starting area as we had a tough 4 mile climb to contend with and a good warm up was essential. Disaster struck though as two miles into our journey we met a double cattle trailer coming against the flow of traffic on the narrow country road. With nowhere to go it took nearly fifteen minutes to get by and in mild panic stations, as Aidan heads off on a warm up, I rush to get changed & ready to run. I arrive to the start line and manage less than 1km of a warm up when Deirdre arrives much earlier than expected. It’s great that we’re so far ahead but I know I’m going to suffer now once I hit the hills.
After the first flat mile we turn left to climb alongside the Poulanass Waterfall. It’s a steep climb with sections touching 30% gradients and I decide to power walk most of it to try and save my lungs. It’s tough going though & adrenaline alone tries to push me on faster. I get to the top of the first tough section and it flattens out a touch so that it’s more runnable but it’s still averaging 8 – 10% gradient with dirty little kickers up to 15%. The lack of a warm up is coming back to haunt me & my lungs are screaming. I’m reduced to a run / walk strategy very early on & dark thoughts start to creep in. At this stage I had nearly a further 3 miles of constant climbing before I crested Mullacor & could start the fast descent to Drumgoff. I guessed I had at least a 15min head start on Aidan but not knowing how Maeve was doing I didn’t know the full amount. I also knew that Aidan should gain at least five minutes on me even if I was at my best here. With the fact that I was struggling so early how much would he now pull back?
I try to push through, running as many of the gentler sections as possible but having to walk the steeper hills. After about three miles we hit a long open section between Derrybawn & Mullacor Mountains. I know it’s a fairly constant gradient here & I try to run it all but the pace is low & I get passed by three other teams in quick succession along this drag. It’s the only section of the course where you can see ahead for any long distance & I know if Aidan hits the start of that drag before I finish it that I’m giving him a big target to chase. I redline myself to the top to screen myself in the forest again & luckily I see no sign of him. The damage is done though & I’m goosed. I eventually get to the top of Mullacor & the timber boardwalks over the bog. These are easy underfoot & I like running them. I take a minute to recover & intend to blast the second half of the course which is all downhill. Unfortunately the recovery doesn’t come though. As hard as I’m pushing I can’t get air into my lungs and manage a fastest mile downhill of 7.20, over a full minute per mile off what I should be doing on the downhill sections. I arrive into Glenmalure Lodge disappointed but with no sign of Aidan behind me yet. I say to Frank that I reckon he’s put 8 or 9 minutes into me & sure enough, running a stormer, Aidan comes in soon enough after burying himself into the downhills, collapsing to the ground from his effort & indeed taking back 8 minutes for Athenry with a 1:04:20 ahead of my 1:12:20.
Next up was Aoife & Mark. With this leg reverting back to its original course for the first time in many years there was additional climbing compared to previous editions of the race. Both runners had recce’d it together in recent weeks though & knew what to expect. Another tough course with a lot of constant & steep climbs plus some very technical downhills, we knew Aoife would go well, being one of our strongest climbers in the club. Mark was an unknown though, at his peak he should put in a strong run but as he is only recently back from injury it was all to play for. On the day though Aoife prevailed running a 1.13.57, taking back 7 minutes for the Lunatics with Mark running a 1.21.05.
Sensing defeat creeping upon his team, Brendan started reverting to dirty tricks & it soon became apparent that Aoife had been reported for running an incorrect route & was given a 10 minute penalty. After some discussions with the marshal’s though we could prove via Aoife’s recorded distance on her watch that she had indeed ran the full route and we thankfully got the penalty removed. (Some people will try anything to win!)
So with two legs remaining the Lunatics held roughly a 20 minute lead. Insurmountable? Definitely not, as next up was Lyall Guiney for Athenry. Whilst Jim is no slouch, this is why the Lunatics were trying to bank as much time as possible early in the day. We reckoned there was going to be a minimum 10 minute swing here and with rumours circling that the Lunatics had received a 10 minute or maybe even 20 minute penalty for a parking violation the race was blown wide open.
At this stage it was midday on an absolutely scorcher of a day as they head out on the longest route of the race. At just over half marathon distance the course also held 610m of climbing. No easy job, never mind knowing that Lyall Guiney is hunting you down from behind! Nearly two hours later we wait in anticipation on the Wicklow / Carlow border to see who will appear from the wilderness first. With nearly 1.55 on the clock a weary looking Jim appears &
tackles the last climb to finish his leg (never mind the distance he’d already run, the finish line is on top of a steep 200m climb). He hands over to Fergal Walsh & the countback begins.
Less than 5 minutes later and looking way too fresh for what he’d just put himself through Lyall arrives in after an amazing 1:36:45, clawing back 19 minutes for Athenry. Game on!
The last leg again on paper looked a mismatch with Fergal going up against Niall but with Fergal out injured for the previous month & Niall showing fast improving times over the 5k series we knew that the overall result could still be in the balance, especially if the rumoured time penalties came into play.
Both runners took off at a fast pace as we all jumped in our cars to head to the finish line. We knew Fergal should finish first but what would the advantage be. Would we clear the 10 minute barrier to allow for a time penalty? He duly appeared with a fast downhill sprint finish, gaining another overall position for the team as he rounded another runner in the last 20m to finish for a 41:55 & a total time for the Lunatics of 9 hours, 10 minutes & 25 seconds and 18th position. He also finished as 6th runner home on the day for that leg with notable runners ahead of him such as Olympian Linda Byrne.
We watch the clock as we wait for Niall, it creeps past the 10 minute barrier and the Lunatics begin to breathe a sigh of relief. Have they done enough? Niall powers through soon after for a 48:50 and a total time of 9 hours 22 minutes even and 20th position. The Lunatics take it by 12 minutes! Woo hoo.
The official results arrived & despite the many rumours circulating, no penalty materialised for the Lunatics (More of the dirty tricks campaign by Mr Chairman?) so the 12 minute win was confirmed. A great performance by both teams with some seriously impressive times across the day.
It really was a great day out & everybody who takes part in this event raves about it. The weather payed ball too this year which always adds to the event but even without it, the terrain, the location, the team aspect, the camaraderie and banter between teams all throughout the day make this event something special.
The added bonus of a second team of members this year also seems to have added a bit of extra impetus to proceedings as club records were broken on 7 of the 8 legs this year (It’ll be a while before Darragh McShane’s 55min record is broken on Leg 6).
I’ll leave the closing word to our Chairman who ended his speech in the pub afterwards with ‘Even though my team lost, I still feel victorious after beating Frank Burke……’