Sunday, January 9, 2011

Art O Neill Challenge 2011

After the Wiclow adventure race in September 2010 I was sitting in a friends motor home enjoying a coffee (actually, a beer) when a chap popped his head in through the open window and told us about the Art O Neill challenge. A 55k run/walk tracing the route taken by Art O Neill & Red Hugh O Donnell after their escape from Dublin Castle and finishing at Glenmalure in the Wicklow mountains.

My initial reaction was that you would have to be mad to try this but a seed was sown and the more I thought about it the more I fancied a go at it


Option 1: Run the full route. This was my initial first choice, but I realised that I wouldn't get enough training done in time.

Option 2: Hybrid. Run stage 1 to Kippure House (about 25k/16 miles) and then hike the balance.

This option is the one I signed up for. My thought here were, (I'm now laughing to myself about this) even if I haven't done the planned training I could run 16 miles without too much trouble and sure anybody with a reasonable level of fitness can walk 19 miles across the mountains, can't they ?

Option 3: Hike the full route. I had a mild cold for a couple of weeks before the event, nothing too bad, just mildly annoying but the main problem was that when I attempted to run I would take to fits of lung bursting coughing, so because of this and a lack of quality running miles I had mentally decided to cancel but a chat with a friend, Andy, encouraged me to switch from the hybrid and join him and two of his friends on the hike.

Walking into Dublin Castle in the pouring rain had me wondering why I was doing this but once into the registration area the good atmosphere and craic lightened my mood.

I bumped into Andy and he introduced me to his friends, Mark and Brian.

Just before midnight we all gathered outside in the yard, following a poem and safety briefing we set off.

The lads had done some good quality training and had a plan regarding pacing each stage, I was delighted to be invited along with the guys and so I was happy to fit into anything they wanted to do.

I found it interesting to observe the other walkers, their equipment, their style and especially the pace they set for themselves.

We were moving along at a slow steady pace that saw us at the back of the field, stone last. I've done enough distance and endurance events not to be bothered about this and to be honest I could tell from what I'd seen of some of the other participants that we would be seeing them again sooner rather than later.

On a sour note, near Tallaght we had just caught up with and passed a chap when 3 scumbags attacked him. The cowardly bastards ran off as we sprinted back to help him. He withdrew from the event soon after.

Even before the first hill we had closed up behind a long line of participants. Initial enthusiasm wained some people were starting to realise the difficulty of the event. I said to myself "here we go" and so we did, reeling in group after group.

Snow had recently fallen and as we gained height into the mountains the road became slippery and difficult to negotiate, I was delighted that I had selected my trail shoes for this stage, although much heavier than my runners they have better grips and are waterproof.

From Stone Cross to Kippure House was a time for stock taking for me. How are feet, are the legs sore anywhere yet ? etc. etc. I had the odd twinge here and there but nothing detrimental.

It was at 3.20 am that the first of the runners overtook us. I tried to clap and give some words of encouragement to each as they passed, I was amazed that almost all replied with a thanks or a chirpy comment. I had a twinge of regret that I wasn't running too but as it turned out it's just as well that I wasn't.

It was also something of a decision time, although I was delighted to be with the 3 lads I knew that they had put in a lot of hard training miles for this event, I was worried that I may end up delaying them. I had thought to myself that if I made it to Kippure without any major problems I would ask if I could keep tagging along with them, otherwise I would join a guided group. The lads made me feel very welcome.

At Kippure we changed into our mountain hiking gear. I had a slight hotspot in my left foot but decided against putting compeed on as I was changing my socks and boots, a decision I would regret later.

After soup, coffee and some grub, we took about 50 minutes here but it felt like a lot less, we headed out for the mountains proper.

The first target after crossing the foot bridge was to find the summit of Ballynabrocky, easier said than done as it's a long flat ridge rather than a peak and then from there to find a track that would bring us onto a road. We cheated slightly here by using a GPS to confirm that we were very close to the summit and I had a bearing that would take us to the track, the first time in years that I had used a compass, I was chuffed when we quickly hit the track.

We met the road and moved on towards the next main point, the car park below Black Hill, at a guess I would say it was about 5-6k.

I think that it was along this stretch that Andy started to have some knee trouble, something that had happened to him before but he had been able to walk off the soreness.

This was also the first time that I felt the need to put on gloves, although daylight was starting to show the wind was biting cold.

Brian and myself had moved ahead of Andy and Mark and even the 2-3 minute wait at the car park brought home to me how cold it was on the hills. I went to have a drink only to discover that the tube on my backpack was frozen solid.

The track on Black Hill was rocky, with ice and snow making footing treacherous and hail was driving from the right with venom. Brian had pushed ahead, I was next with Andy and Mark behind. I was aware the the lads behind were losing ground but I didn't know about Andy's knee problem at this point.

A call of nature allowed the lads to catch up and move ahead of me, I knew that it wasn't a great sign when I caught up with them quickly and with ease.

I fell in behind Andy and noticed he was struggling slightly. Soon after the 3 of us stopped for a chat to discuss our best options. Andy really wanted to push on and felt that his knee would ease out soon, he's a tough fecker.

A little later two stumbles in quick succession both twisting his bad knee forced another chat but this time serious decisions had to be made.

Visibility was poor, hail was battering us driven like needles into our faces by the howling winds. We were really lucky that we could get Brian on the phone to tell him we were delayed.

This was a difficult time for all concerned, it was emphasised that safety had to be the first concern, there would be other walks and other mountains.

I knew that Andy was in turmoil about what to do, he knew that if he abandoned now he would be taking either Mark or me out with him. We had both offered and we tried to reassure Andy that it was not a problem for either of us to accompany him back to the car park.

After more checking of the map and working out where the next possible exit would be Andy decided the sensible thing to do was head back to the car park, a brave and, I believe, correct decision.

Mark insisted that he would accompany Andy, I'm very thankful that he did this, although I would have gladly done it, I'm not sure if I would have turned around at the car park and attempted to finish or called it a day there.

A phone call to the wonderful rescue people involved with the race to confirm a pick up at the car park, I replaced my glove on a now completely numb hand and I said goodbye to the lads.
They told me later that it took an hour and 20 minutes to cover the mile to the bottom.

I went on and in short time met up with Brian who had waited at the summit.

A poster on had kindly posted information about the route including OS grid references for most key points. I had printed this out and packed it with my maps. While sitting in my parents house a few hours before the start of the Art O Neill I thought I would spread out the map and take some bearings for the key points, not that I was going to need them but I reckoned it would help me remember the route better. Am I glad that I did this ? Oh YEAH !!

Standing on the summit of Black Hill with no visibility, the navigator gone and miles left to go, I had a moment of excitement, Jesus, this is where the fun starts. I checked the compass, visualised the saddle we were making for, reminded myself that my previous bearings had been correct and Brian and myself walked off into the fog.
We were joined by a guided group travelling alongside us, thank goodness, at least we're going the correct direction. Their guide was using a GPS, I enquired if he was making for the saddle, he said that he was. On the saddle he veered off to the right, my first real nav decision in years, cut across what, on the map, looked like wet ground with several streams or push beyond the saddle and contour around to Billy Byrnes Gap, as recommended on the boards post. A quick chat with Brian, we decided to stay to the higher ground.
As we neared the next mark a wonderful thing happened, the fog cleared and the sun came out, we could now clearly see the route ahead and a few other groups at various points in the mountains. The guided group were cutting across the lower ground but were behind us now, I guess the frozen conditions must have allowed them reasonably firm footing.

Through Billy Byrnes Gap we had a couple of choices, head for the higher ground and contour around the hill, we chose to head down towards the river, we crossed a feeder river to the Ballinagee, headed up the hill and after some wandering around eventually found the farm track, onto the road, passed a big barking dog and on to a farm gate. We met a couple here who had hopped the gate and were going to cut through the fields, we had a chat with them and joined the for the next while. I glad we met them there because I think would have missed the gate as the correct route, for some reason, I was expecting the entrance to be further along the road.

My legs were drained, I thought the track would never end. I was thinking that if I felt this tired now then the last stage was going to be murder. I didn't know then how right I was.. Eventually we hit the main road and walked the few hundred yards to checkpoint 2, Ballinagee bridge.
Before we left the checkpoint I told Brian that I was totally wasted and would only be able to tip along at whatever pace the legs would allow. I told him I would have no problem if he wanted to push ahead. He was ok that we should stay together.

About now I was regretting my lack of walk specific training. My running miles had been drastically reduced, mainly due to the weather and a cold but in fairness I'm sure that I could have squeezed in a few more than the 10-12 miles walking I'd done in the previous weeks. I had also been eating and drinking dirty pints with a vengeance since well before Christmas, through Christmas and into the new year and even the night before the event we had friends to our house for a meal and serious damage was done to several bottles of wine, hitting the bed after 2.00 was the icing on the cake. Hmmm ! cake. The result of my well planned "training programme" was several new chins and all my trousers shrinking !!

Along the forest track, climbing through the felled woodland to avoid zig-zagging on the track, out to the Glenreemore river, as I plodded along by the river Brian pointed out Art's Cross in the distance. I must admit, it looked a long way off but I was telling myself that this was going to be the last of the days climbing, it would be all downhill after the Cross. We crossed the river and made for the higher ground..... I think this is where it all started to go to shit !!!!

We could see people in the distance slowly making their way up the steep ground to Art's Cross. Then I made a ridiculous decision to cut up along the hill to my right and persuaded Brian that I had seen people take this route. It was steep, icy and difficult to negotiate, it eventually dawned on me that we would have to drop down to the river level to cross thus losing most of the hard earned height. Over 12 hours of hiking was taking it toll, although I didn't feel mentally tired, the brain obviously wasn't working at full efficiency. A quick look at the map or more simply, a look at the lay of the land would have told me that there was an easier way to get to the river. We had to climb along by the river to find a crossing point, if not for the ice covering most of the rocks in the river this would have been a relatively simple task.
The climb to Arts Cross was murder for tired legs, it was managed a few steps at a time. At points it was easier to put the hand on the icy ground to aid the legs. It was freezing cold, once again my drink was frozen, I was feeling a little sorry for myself but again told myself this was the last of the climbing. As we neared the summit a raven glided past the cross, I couldn't help thinking what a hardy bird. Photos were taken and we tramped off towards the Three Lakes. We were covering some rough ground, it was sapping whatever strength was left in my legs, sliding on my ares into gully's, climbing out the other side all made for hard earned yards. I noticed a group that left the cross after us taking a sweeping arc to our right. I don't know if there was a track there or just a easier route but I would have paid for a little local knowledge as they made it to the Lakes before us.

We had mingled with what was left of the guided group and as there was only the short hop to the Glenmalure valley we tagged on to the back of the group. After a while this started to cause me some stress as it seemed to me that we were heading too far south but I was just too far gone to bother checking the map, I reckoned we would have to hit the track eventually, even it we were taking a longer route. Sure enough we made the track and the guide told his group there was only 4km to the finish.
My numb brain started trying to do the maths. 4k, ok, 4k is how many miles ? 1600m is a mile plus the 400m that's a quarter mile, blah, blah, blah 2 and a half miles that's it, woohoo, 2 and a half miles to go, I can do that ! The track was covered with snow and slippery but it was downhill with a tail wind. My legs were so tired that the brakes were not working well. I softened my knees and went with the flow, I had something of a new lease of life. Doing the maths again, worse case scenario would be 20 minute miles, 2.5 miles meant unless something mad happened we should be across the line in less than 50 minutes. A look at the watch showed 3.10, great home by 4.00, not bad with all the previous delays.

Following the track past working forestry machines and a skyline, we were making good time, some people ahead of us passed a junction but were making their way back to it, we followed and continued down the valley. After a while we arrived at another junction. This is where I made the most ridiculous, stupid, lazy, unforgivable mistake. We were on a rough forest track that came close to a lovely flat smooth road, two women from the guided group came by just as we reached the junction and I just fell in with them. I should have checked the map, I knew the OS map showed only one track along the valley but I had previously seen several tracks on the East West map. I don't know why I didn't check but I'm still kicking myself about it. The road rose along the side of the valley, after a good while I realised we were not on the correct road but what the hell it was still going in the right direction and surly it would sweep down to the left and onto the finish, wouldn't it. Even at this point I didn't take out the map.
We reached a bend and from there I could see the way the road we were on went. I nearly cried it zig zagged away from the finish, I could see the finish but the road was bringing us away from it. Now to add insult to injury the surface was like glass, slipping and sliding along, only able to take careful baby steps, I thought how ironic would it be to walk from Dublin Castle only to fall a break a bone in the last mile on the wrong road. We had been walking for over 16 hours and to have to concentrate so hard on my footing at this stage felt so horrible, why couldn't I just be allowed to stagger unimpeded to the finishing line, bloody ice..

At last on the lower road we were met by Gearoid Towey, the organiser of the Art O Neill challenge and the guy who had poked his head into the motorhome a few months ago and started me on this mad adventure. A pleasant chat with Gearoid passed the last bit of road and as we reached the finish line we were noisily greeted by Andy, Mark and their crew. It was fantastic to see the guys, they had been waiting there in the cold for hours, fair play.
Arrr, I reckoned that my last mistake cost at least 40 minutes, I'm so gutted about this. I think Brian and myself crossed the line having taken about 16 hours 40 minutes to complete this epic event. We went to the Glenmalure Lodge for a well earned pint or two and some good craic

I'm delighted to have done this event with Andy, Brian and Mark. I'm extremely grateful for their friendly acceptance of my sudden entry into their hiking group. My biggest regret is that Andy and Mark didn't make the final section. I know they will be back again next year, as will I.

Bookmark and Share

1 comment:

Brian said...

Great write up Chris, great detail, almost makes me feel like I’m back at Art's cross :)