I am sitting here in front of a blank screen. Lost for words (which very rarely happens to me!) Today it is as if I have an ache in my heart, not necessarily because it is all over, more for thinking about what it brings to you beforehand, of course during the race and then especially, all that it means to you after. Solo…slowly sinking in……
Part of me wants to just write FOR GODS SAKE!!!FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS!!! The end.
But then you wouldn’t get to hear about the dark and the deer and the farm gates and fly’s in eyes and stingy bums and near sprint finish so I’ll keep going.
20 years ago my mum gave me a little postcard that read ‘Dare to Dream’ when I got accepted into nursing college. I have kept that card with me always and since my story of the Wicklow Way Solo started May last year with what was a dream became a reality last Saturday evening in Clonegal, Co Carlow.
Last year I was part of a team running the Wicklow Way Relay, I was doing Leg 8, Cookoo lane to Shillelagh. As I waited for my team mate and friend Padraig to come through from leg 7 I watched some of the solo runners go by. As I passed Paul Mcgurrell along the mucky cow path after Cookoo lane, he said ‘well done’, I said ‘well done’ and there and then I decided I am doing that next year. There was something about these runners that just sucked me right in, the inner focus, the suffering, the determination, the distance. God I was hooked!
I whispered to Padraig a couple of days later at training “I really want to do that solo” We had a little chat, Padraig was interested too. “It is I27 km’s in total” I tell him. Padraig asks “how long have you got to do it?” “21 hours” I say. “Not too bad so “says Padraig. We both laughed. And so began the quiet journey of daring to dream and going for the solo.
It wasn’t until after the Vartry 50 mile race in early April that I committed fully physically to the solo, mentally I had been preparing since I saw those runners at Cookoo Lane the previous May. Physically there was work to be done! The week after Vartry I just thought I have zero idea how to train for this race like not an iota, zip,nada.
Hello Don Hannon of Trailheads….HELP ME!! PLEASE?! QUICKLY!
An 8 week program was hatched, it wasn’t too crazy, achievable (mostly) and probably the most adventuress and rewarding training I have ever done. I loved every minute of it even the days when I had been to work, then hastily dropping my girls to their club on a Wednesday, bombing off in my gear up the hills 10 miles of speed training and arriving back to collect them with the reddest sweatiest face not to mention fuzziest hair, they were embarrassed I was collecting them, they told me so. Everytime.
Long runs were up on the course when we could, early starts on Saturday mornings, me and Padraig could be found in Glendalough at 6.45 am with a run out and back to near Ironbridge, the most memorable was the overnight crossing myself and Lillian Deegan did from Marely to Glenmalure. Oh ho ho it was fun! Failing head lights on the side of Djouce (me), trips and falls (me), sickie tummy (Lillian) but we made it to Glenmalure for 7am and were better stronger chicks for the experience. We had breakfast in the Glenmalure Lodge with Don after, we chatted about cut-off times and race plans. I told Don my plan, he just said calmly “not good enough Clare, you won’t make it”. I decided this is serious and this is business. Actually Don I am going to make it!
Race day….. At last. Finally. Thank you.
I worked the morning of the race, I was really busy, which probably worked out better. Home to a bit of ordering children and husband around (surely I’m entitled to on race day?!?). By 6.30pm I waved them off to their Nana’s in Greystones shouting “see you on the other side in Carlow!!” And aimed to be lying on my bed by 7pm. For once in my life I was actually organised for a race and I had drop bags sorted and gear ready. Jacket, hat, gloves, map, compass, whistle, long pants, phone charged and a weeks’ worth of food shopping in my drop bags. I lay on the bed at 7 and listened to a relaxation thing on you tube (they are becoming my pre-race essential). I don’t think I actually slept but I looked at the clock and it was 8.10pm and I felt really relaxed. Up at 8.45 for dinner. Make a few sambos, 3 lots tuna, one with peppers, one peanut butter. Ultra is about looking forward to the little things!
Marley Park, I was not nervous, I just want to get started, part of me was sick of thinking of cut offs and distances and this and that. I was ready just to go.
Met with Don and fellow Trailheads, there is a quiet buzz in the air, chat of how fantastic the weather is, how we couldn’t be any luckier. I had written out a little breakdown of when I had hoped to get to each checkpoint but I just couldn’t figure out how to break it down even smaller as Don had suggested. He took off with my sheet and came back 3 minutes later with smaller in-between points to get to. Get to Glendalough by 6.30am and you don’t need to worry about the rest of the day. Don just knows his stuff and these little points were my key to getting my pace right and seeing the day through.
Marley Park to Crone Woods. 13.67 miles. 3 hour cut off.
So good to get going, no need for head lamp yet. Warm weather, no gloves or hats, just a jacket and a t-shirt underneath, shorts and compression socks. Perfect. Garmin there for time only, not switched on for pace or miles tonight, I wanted to run relaxed and never think of miles, it is just too far and too long a day. Right get to Glencullen Road for 1.10am. Head lamp on up along towards Three Rock, first of many trips. Rule Number 1 Padraig if you are going to stop and fix your sock tell me!! (I looked back and caught a rock at same time!) Glencullen Road bang on 1.10am, Don there in the minibus with his gorgeous daughter Ellie encouraging us and confirming we are spot on time. Right lets getting eating all this food, bar, gel and water. Next point was Curttlestown Wood, one hour to get there, bang on, Don and Ellie again! Down to the Glencree River and up the track to Crone, pushed it along here to get to Crone in the time that I wanted. Spot on again 2.40am, first official checkpoint and 20 minutes ahead of official cut-off and the tightest cut-off of the night. Shout out my number, grab my drop bag of food (sandwiches, gel, bar, lucozade more water) and get going up through Crone Woods. Oh Hello Don, there you are again!! Amazing! Hitting the little cut-offs along the way just gives you this little confidence that pace is exactly as you want it, I have a pace that I can kinda go forever and I was settling into it nicely.
Crone Woods to Glendalough. 18.02 miles and a 5 hour cut off.
I knew the next few miles are mostly climbing up and I just hiked as fast as I could and eating on the ups. Where are all the deer?? I had seen so many out the night myself and Lillian crossed over but just too much activity on the hills tonight and they had skedaddled off. Up Powerscourt ridge, Padraig points out that you could actually go over the edge, yes I know! Glad of the bright head lamps, eh! Up and down Maulin and the magic of the night becoming so present as we watch this most beautiful stream of head lamps make their way up along the shoulder of Djouce. We start passing out runners on Djouce, I wanted to get to the boardwalk ahead as it is single track and super runnable. Another fall, thud, up as fast a lightening, quick peak at shin, lovely dent in skin no blood Padraig, let’s go but god my shin was sore and my hip that I wacked too.
Shushhhh, there is the first bird chirp of the day, did you hear it? A new day is dawning and it’s quite special to witness the sun rise. Head lamps in the bag, no longer needed. Down towards Roundwood and on to a bit of road, a welcome relief for a while for a bit of a roadrunner like me! Don and Ellie again in the minibus wrapped in fleecy blankets, I really did not know that we would see them all night and all day. Incredible passion and commitment to his runners, I was really impressed.
There is forest and fields and then a bit of road along the way to Glendalough, we just ran and ate, more bars, more gels, more lucozade, more water, back up on to the trails heading for Paddock Hill and eventually the drop down to Glendalough, pretty much bang on 6.30am. Official checkpoint 2, an hour and a half ahead of cut off. Good Morning Don and Ellie! They shout to go check in and come back to minibus, thanks but no thanks, we going to keep moving, grab the drop bags and go. God this is great craic!
Glendalough to Ironbridge 17.31 miles and a 4 hour cut off.
Glendalough in one word? Up.
Up, up, up and more up. 1hr and 20 mins of hiking….up. Eat sandwiches, eat pack of crisps, eat half a bar and drink coke, take a wee. Resolved to going up. And then the decent into the Glenmalure Valley. As much as down is good, this section of down is hard on my feet, the forest road has a tough hard-core and I know I am ready to get out of my trail runners and into my slippers soon (road runners!!).
Drumgoff . The first of only two times I knew exactly where I was in terms of miles, half way, 40 miles done, JUST 40 to go! Blue mini-bus waiting as the trail hits the tarmac road just before the Glenmalure Hotel, Don, Donna, Ellie, and Liam Vines (I think). I feel really excited as I feel totally fine and tell them I just LOVE this! Don puts his two hands on my shoulders and tells me 1st lady is 14 minutes ahead, she was futher but I am closing in and just keep doing what I am doing. I knew I was second lady but I wasn’t going to ask until Ironbridge what the splits were. Part of me is excited but there is still nearly 9 hours of running ahead, that’s all going according to plan.
I had hidden my road runners, fresh top, wipes, deodorant and sun cap in a plastic bag in the woods overnight oh and more food. This half way point signified a new day, to me nearly a new race and I freshen up fast and off we went up the hill…eating again! I don’t know much of this section really and I don’t remember much of it either. I phoned my husband and girls when we eventually got reception just to check in with them and phoned Amy who was to meet me at Dying Cow just to say we were on track time wise. All I remember was it was starting to get warm and I said to Padraig, oh no it looks like the sun is going to come out! Please not the sun!
Down the scrubby track into Ironbridge arriving like a grand-prix car into the pit stop, quick, shout number, grab drop bag, take two neurofen, Liam Vines opens my sandwiches for me. Well done on your recent Round Liam! Assistant race director Robbie is here cooking sausages like how cool is that?! Sure I’ll take one of them too. Dump empty bottles and gel wrappers, crisps packets, bar wrappers, I swear, I must be the only person who can manage to put on weight while running an ultra! In the blink of an eye Padraig has managed to change his runners and t-shirt. Don says work harder Clare. I tell him no not until the Dying Cow.
Ironbridge to Dying Cow. 13.1 miles. 4 hour cut off.
This section is notoriously long and we decide to stick on the music for a while so we both plug in the earphones and run alongside. I barley spoke to Padraig for the next 3 hours! It was along this section that the reality of the day started to dawn on me and this huge feeling of pride for seeing a dream through. I say to Padraig, last year we spoke of this, here we are doing it, like right now over half way through it, feeling great, I was munching on a packet of Tayto and drinking coke and it was like being out on a night out! At one point the sun was shining, music in the ears, pace great and I just thought BEST DAY OF MY LIFE.
Along this section we encountered I don’t know how many farm gates and styles to climb and jump over and then eventually the drop down to cross the Derry River and over the road to Cookoo Lane. Hi there Don, Donna and Ellie! Don says you got to get working Clare and I tell him I will soon. I know we are now only 3 miles or so from the 100k point and I am looking forward to seeing Amy my friend who will run with me to the finish. I am still moving at my go forever pace and feel fine, I can feel a little ache in my left hip (a niggle that stopped me running at Christmas time, nothing crazy just muscles too tight) and I know once I push it may get worse, I am cautious, maybe too much, but this distance is new to me and I don’t really know what this body of mine can really do. Don trusted it, I didn’t. I’ll learn to trust it more.
I have always said, this has to be enjoyable, I put so much effort to get out training, up at 6am, making school lunches, running miles then in the door, get girls ready for school and then into work myself. Up at 5.30 am on Saturday mornings to go run 30 miles and days off work to run 40 miles that it has to be enjoyable, hard work yes but not killer, shit stuff (like a fast 10k ha ha!).
Dying Cow to Raheenakit 6.9 miles and 2.30 hours cut off.
In and out of Dying Cow check point, no stopping at all only to grab my drop bag of more food, all I wanted was fruit. Myself and Padraig part at this point. Jean has arrived to join him to the finish. Amy is ready, full of beans and rearing to get my ass to Carlow. I have never had a pacer before and I didn’t think I would need or want one but I see now how it can work so well. Amy was a fresh face (Sorry Padraig!) and we run a lot together so she knows me. We hike up the hill out of the Dying Cow and I am gushing about what a fantastic day and night we have had and chomping on the fruit, the next down-hill is business. Amy says a prayer out loud before we really get going. Linda 1st lady is 26 mins ahead and the plan is to close the gap. I put on my ear phones and off we go.
The next 30 kms are full of emotions, hysteria, pain, laughter, relief and frustration, running and racing. We hike the up hills and run as fast as I can after 100k on the flats and downs.
We laugh as I pour water down my shorts at the back, my bum is starting to get stingy, ahh the relief! There is a certain amount of maintenance involved with Vaseline which I had failed to do for ages and weeing in the woods for now near on 15 hours has its draw backs!
I take more neurofen as the hip is starting to be more a pain in the ass than the pain in the ass and off we go again. How the hell did I forget about that steep hill up to Raheenakit, how?? I am out of breath walking up the hill and it’s just so warm, I think I am starting to get tired and I throw an entire bottle of water on my head.
My good friend from work Oonagh is at Raheenakit and we hug, I tell her I am mankey and smelly, a quick introduction to Amy, I say sorry that we can’t chat but we have to keep moving, check in with Michael Myer who tells us Linda is 5 mins ahead.
Raheenakit to Clonegal. 10 miles. 2 hrs 30 mins cut off.
I am beyond looking at my little check point chart at this stage, I know I am moving faster than I ever thought I would. We follow the detour in Raheenakit and then back on to the original Wicklow way trail, I welcome the ups so that we can hike and I get a rest! Still eating, more bars and gels, I can’t face my peanut butter sandwiches at this stage and I was looking forward to them all day!
I get a fly in my eye and we stop and Amy nearly takes my eye out getting it out! Off we go again! Then I get another fly in the other eye and it did one of those wee things where it stings the shit out of your eye and I am shouting “ahhhhh my eye, my eye” and we are hopping around the woods, I grab my bottle of water, hold open my eyelid and just squirt as much water at force at my eye, blinded and soaked, off we go again.
And then we see Linda. Oh my god Amy I can’t do this, I can’t race this for 10 more miles. We shoot past and run as fast as I can. Down the hill we went afraid to look over my shoulder, for a minute or two no sign but then Linda appears and I say well done Linda as she shoots past us. I tell Amy I have to calm it down and that I am not running my race, I feel a little panicky and not in control of anything, my breathing, my pace, my head. Amy is great and calms me down and says right let’s bring this back to you and off we go again.
I take a gel and lucozade for some sugar to get this race done and we enter the last forest section. I am now trying to rub Tiger Balm on the side of my bum as the pain is terrible from the hip and is pinching everytime I bang my foot to the ground. Amy is offering to rub out my bum but even in all the despair I decline! Don is now ringing Amy asking where am I and that I need to be ready for a sprint finish. Fuck!!
Out of the woods and Don is there telling me to go for it, the road is my strength, how much do you want this Clare?? I don’t know actually!
I run and run, there are only 3 miles left to Clonegal and then I stop, hands on knees and I tell Amy I can’t, I can’t do this. I can’t believe this day has come to this, racing to the finish. We go again and then there is the sign Clonegal 3k. I can see Linda ahead and I know that I will not catch her. I tell Amy that Linda is amazing, what a runner and I am so happy to come in 2nd to her, at this point I just want to run to get a smashing time myself. My Plan A best time possible was 18 hours and I was well ahead of that. Brian and the girls appear in the car, windows down shouting out, they turn and come by again, Brian who never gets animated about anything running is shouting out the window “I can’t believe you are doing this!!!” and off they speed. God he needs to get his exhaust fixed I say to Amy!
“Welcome to Clonegal”, the infamous green sign, I can see the shop that is across the road from the finish and I run as fast as I can, its like total tunnel vision, I can’t see anyone’s faces, focus and exhaustion all rolled into one. Around the corner and hit the board.
17 hours and 31 minutes and what turned out to be 11th runner overall, blown away by the achievement. I congratulate Linda on what was a smashing race, hey we showed the lads how it can be done! Donna Mc Loughlin tells me this is a two time race, you have to do it again with what you learnt today, even at that point I decided I would be back next year if I can.
And so the next day life goes on, Brian leaves for work at 7am and it is me and the girls, I had promised them Mc Donalds breakfast so I beg for a coffee to be brought to me in bed and I take two neurofen and take the plunge to get out of bed. I can walk…yeahhh! I didn’t lose any toenails…yeahhhh! I have a lovely bloody gash and bruises on my hip and shin from the fall on Djouce…yeah!! I am alive!
I work on the fringes of these wonderful mountains, hills, forest trails and tracks, when I am up in Conary (Avoca) on a clear day I can see all of the mountains and the hills I travelled, the ones I made mine. On Monday and Thursdays I call to clients near Glenmalure, this Thursday I sat in my car in the sun and just gazed at Drumgoff, belief, dis-belief and a longing to go back, that ache in my heart that says follow your dream and your passions.
I made it.