Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Art O Neill Challenge 2012

I was sitting on the bus to Dublin on Friday afternoon, less than 12 hours before the start of the Art O Neill Challenge, when it finally dawned on me what I was letting myself in for.
I'd recced some of the course, I'd run some miles on the roads but tonight I was going to put it all together and cover around 34 miles from Dublin Castle to Glenmalure in the Wicklow Mountains.
The butterflies turned into a herd of stampeding buffaloes, doubts assailed me, I started to consider the less than perfect training, the poor nutrition and late nights. I tried to dispel these negative thoughts and succeeded for the most part but every now and then I'd get the buffaloes back.

On arrival to Dublin I caught a bus to my parents house. I had plenty of time for food and a chat. I was able to get changed and get my gear sorted before I set off for Dublin Castle.
I arrived before 11.00 pm to allow me time to soak up the atmosphere and catch up with some friends. I bumped into Gearoid, who was looking remarkably calm for a guy organising such a major event.

Check in was extremely smooth, number and timing chip collected, without hassle. I found Andy, Mark and Brian, my hiking companions from last years event, with their new additions, Dave and Nicola. Time passed swiftly, midnight arrived, I went outside to the courtyard, amid loud cheers the guys set off with the hiking group.

Back inside I chatted with a few people, it helped keep me calm. At 1.15 am the hybrids set off, these were running to check point 1 at Kilbride, then hiking to the finish.

The large rooms in the Castle were now looking decidedly sparse. There were only the runners left.
I looked around at this lycra clad bunch of nutters, not for the first time, I wondered how I ended up in the land of the skinny people.

My gear for section 1 Dublin Castle to Kilbride army camp (about 12.5 miles) consisted of:
Asics DS racers - Nike socks - Asics tights - Underarmour underwear - technical Tshirt - Dare 2 b mid weight top - hat, Tikka 2 xp head torch. Plus OMM 15l backpack (I didn't have a smaller bag) containing 1/2 ltr XYMS drink - Mars bar - light weight Karrimor rain jacket - light woolen gloves - GPS - camera

2.00 am: After a slight delay to locate a missing runner, a hooter sounds and we're off. I'm delighted, no more nervous tension, it's now make or break.
The group quickly spreads out, with the quicker runners shooting off into the city's lamp lit semi darkness. I plodded on with no idea of my pace but feeling comfortable, at mile 2 I heard my watch beep and I was shocked to find that I was running over a minute a mile faster than I expected. I told myself to slow down, too fast, too soon would cause trouble later. Naturally I totally ignored my sensible inner voice and maintained the pace for another few miles.
Somewhere around Tallaght I found myself in a group of about 10 runners, the pace was fine, I was still feeling ok.

Through Firhouse was the first time I noticed the moon and bright stars showing in clear patches of sky. It was going to be a beautiful night in the mountains, not that I was likely to care later.
I had checked behind on occasions, I started to worry when I couldn't see many runners behind me. I really didn't want to be last.
Head torches were switched on after the last of the street lights at Firhouse. I was tucked behind the front runners so didn't need my lamp yet.
I'm well used to running in the dark and will leave off my head light as much as possible on training runs but what I'm not used to is running in a group. I found myself on edge for a time because my view of the road ahead was blocked by the guy in front but I relaxed eventually, I think that I may have actually started to enjoy myself a little.

Our group was down to 4-5, I discovered the others were running as a group when one called a pee stop and they all stopped. I found myself heading into the foothills on my lonesome.
I knew the the hill were always going to be a problem for me, I'm way too heavy to run hills easily so it was with trepidation that I hit the first proper uphill section.
I could see that I was loosing ground to a runner ahead of me but it wasn't too much and I wasn't huffing and puffing too much. At some point a lad passed me, we exchanged a few words and he said "great view" or words to that effect. I only realised what he was talking about when I looked behind and saw all the lights of Dublin - at that moment I couldn't have cared less about the

I switched on my headlamp for the first time at Stone Cross. The road was getting icy and I found my road runners battling to find purchase. The going was tough with the extra effort to remain upright, I hated the backwards slip on every step.
A few lads came motoring past me on one of the hills, I remember thinking that they were moving at a right pace, however, as we crested the hill I fell in with them and had I no problem matching them on the flat.

We were directed into Kilbride Army Camp for checkpoint 1, the start of the real adventure.

Check point 1 was brilliant, a hive of activity, people everywhere getting changed, fed, sorted into groups, floodlights blazing, noise, hustle and bustle. I loved it.
As I grabbed my bag I got a shout from Andy and the lads, I had a chat with them while I swallowed down .75 ltr of XYMS drink and changed my shoes, tops and backpack, I was glad to hear they were all going well. I dropped my bag back and set off for the toughest part of the course.

For anyone interested, I'll post my gear and kit list at the end of this post.

Setting off along the road to the checkpoint exit I was delighted to see some runners making their way in. At least there were still some behind me.
I began to overtake large numbers of hikers. If they were blocking the way I would call "on your left/right". Every time, without fail, the would quickly clear a path, many called words of encouragement, the "well dones" and "keep going" were a welcome boost.
Initially I was a little chilly and the drink I had gulped was sloshing around but that soon passed and I felt I was moving well.

I swung into the first off road section, running across a grassy field I met a muddy downhill and promptly lost my footing and slid several feet on my arse.
My headlamp was struggling with the featureless grass. I had added a Led Lenser P7 torch to my waiststrap as an extra, just in case. Switching on this tidy piece of kit gave me a lovely wide patch of daylight in front of me. I had one dodgy moment along here when I went to hurdle over a wooden fence and stalled momentarily at the top, for a heart stopping moment I thought I was going to faceplant. Luckily I managed to land safely and quickly found the road to Ballysmuttan Bridge.

Ballysmuttan Bridge to Ballynultagh (Black Hill car park) was a section that I was dreading. I had recced it once and knew it was nearly 4 miles, predominately uphill, with some nasty steep sections and a poor surface. I was running alongside another chap, we had a chat heading towards the bridge. The first steep section starts just after the bridge, as we hit it I wished him luck and told him I could only travel slowly uphill. He headed off but reduced to a walk 20 metres later. We exchanged words as I passed, he told me that a friend of his placed near the top of the Art O Neill last year walked all the uphills. I said, fair play, but I was going to try maintain my shuffle.
I caught up to a large hiking group, one of their guides was trailing the group, as I drew level with him he called to the group to make way. I swear they must have practiced this move, they shifted to the right with military precision to leave me a clear path, I thanked them as I shuffled on.
This was a lonely stretch of road, I only met a few hikers and a mountain rescue vehicle passed, otherwise it was dark and quiet. The part near the crest felt really steep, I was struggling to keep my shuffle going, I did walk twice, I counted 20 steps and started shuffling again. If truth be told, I was probably travelling just as fast when I walked. I was pleased to reach the car park at the base of Black Hill.

Time to take some solid food. My nutrition strategy was haphazard to say the least. I rarely take drinks with me on runs of less than 15 miles so I had to remind myself to keep drinking on the road section from Dublin (.5 ltr XYMS), more drink at CP1, now, after around 19 miles, I was taking my first solid food. Was it some high energy bar or special endurance food? No, plodding along the base of Black Hill I was chewing on a piece of baguette with ham and cheese filling...
At this stage running up Black Hill would have killed me, my plan was to walk as briskly as possible and use this part for recovery. I recently acquired a small gps, the Garmin etrax, I took it out while walking along and attempted to start one of the pre-programmed routes I had put on it. Unfortunately, I was passed the starting point for the route and the bloody machine kept trying to send me back the way I had come. I was amazed to discover that I had covered a large chunk of the rough track without once looking at the ground while playing with the gps, when I packed it away I began tip-toeing around the rocks again.

The wind became very strong before the summit. I thought it prudent to take the time to put on a jacket. Once I hit the summit I was delighted to have the jacket, the wind was howling into my face, I would have become dangerously cold without the extra protection.
The ground from Black Hill across the coll towards Billy Byrne's Gap is one of the few off road surfaces that I can run on without too much trouble. I was disappointed to find that through the combination of tired legs and a strong head wind I ended up covering the ground with a mix of running and walking. As planned, I hit the east side of the gap, I intended to keep along the side of Mullaghcleevaun and head almost directly to the forestry track. The ground here is a right mix of grass clumps, rocks, bog, heather, all with assorted hidden foot trapping holes. I had a few slips, trips and falls, no big deal, you just go with the flow but one caught me by surprise, a sudden, sharp twisting of my right ankle, I thought I was a goner but luckily I was able to keep going without any trouble (this ankle was very sore for 2-3 days afterwards, I must have been close to disaster).

I was close to the forestry track when I started to feel hungry, I knew there was food available at CP2, so decided to push on. The thought occurred to me that I may get what cyclists refer to as the bonk or knock but risked moving on. After the crap terrain from Billy Byrne's Gap the forestry track was a thing of beauty.

Checkpoint 2 was a godsend. I checked in, grabbed a bowl of porridge, topped up my drink bladder and swallowed down a gel. While eating I had a chat with a couple of runners and one of the photographers. All in all a relaxing few minutes. I checked out and took off along another forestry track, I was pleased to find my little legs were still working reasonably well. Another bonus was it was now bright enough to run without a torch, full daylight a few minutes later.
There were 2 runners just ahead of me when I hit the NPWS marker at the Glenreemore Brook. I wondered if I would have the energy to over take them,I reckoned I hadn't, I had resigned myself to loosing two places. To be honest I was delighted when they took a different route.
I continued along the river, there were 2 guys behind me, that encouraged me to keep going. I cut across at Art's plaque, up the hill and crossed the river. I was now on the steep section to Art's Cross.

I hate this climb, it's steep, soft, wet, with large steps that just don't suit my little legs. I struggled here. It was stop, start all the way up. I used my hands to help but, at one point buried my left arm nearly to the elbow. I had close to 30 miles done and I was feeling every one of them on every step to the cross. At last I reached the cross, I was soon joined by two others. We took the time to take a photo for each other.
I bid my companions farewell at set off at a trot to find the three lakes. A mist had covered the mountain, visibility was poor, despite the conditions I was feeling fine.
I noticed a hiker standing in the mist reading a map, I call to him asking if he was ok. He had missed the lakes and was backtracking to find his bearings. I told him to follow me and when we hit the lakes I asked if he knew his way from there. He did, grand, that's me off the hook.

A group of four runners appeared near the lakes, they ended up just ahead of me, we were all following the same bearing. I pushed along to keep up with them. As we neared a river they moved towards Conavalla while I headed into the river valley. Maybe I could get ahead of them here. I was climbing high above the river on the south side, I could see the lads on the other hill. Again I was having some difficulty on the steeper parts, luckily they were only short sections. As we neared the track it looked like we were going to hit it at about the same time. I was thinking that if they got to the road before me I would just sit in behind them and enjoy the last couple of miles to the finish.

They hit the road about 10 metres ahead of me but as they ran on they missed the turn for Table track, they stalled to check. As I closed in I pointed out the track and slipped onto it just ahead of them. That's it, time to get moving, I hopped down the track and didn't look back until just before the dodgy wooden bridge. I was really happy to see I had a good gap on the lads.
Two runners popped out from track just ahead of me. I was feeling remarkably good, I actually felt that I was running faster that I had any right to expect at this stage but I had no inclination to attempt to close the gap, I probably couldn't have anyway. I resigned myself to loosing another two places. I had no idea what position I was in but I knew that I would achieve one of my targets by not finishing last.

The red military sign , around the bend, past the hostel, I was now in the last few hundred metres, the surface was brutal, I didn't care I was almost at the finish. I rounded the last bend and ran across the river to cross the finish line in 8 hours 11 minutes. Happy days !

I was delighted when I got a shout from my mate Sean who had travelled from Dublin to be at the finish for my arrival.
Handshakes and congratulations with the other finishers, tired smiling faces all around. Finishers enjoying well earned beverages, hot chocolate, coffee and teas.

I threw on some extra clothes, put newspapers on Sean's car seat (I was filthy and soaking wet)and got a lift to the Glenmalure Inn.
After changing I had the full Irish, I don't think a breakfast tasted so gorgeous.
I waited for Andy and the guys to arrive, they all finish in good form. Several pints were dispatched and the analysis was as enjoyable as the event itself.

The Art O Neill Challenge is a fantastic event. There is something for everyone in it. I'm already looking forward to next year.
As I mentioned earlier, I had two goals for the day 1) to finish and 2) not to finish last. I was totally amazed and somewhat over the moon to discover I had finished in 26th position. Miles
behind the top guys but so much better than I had expected.

Gear and kit from CP1 Kilbride to finish

Asics trail shoes, light hiking socks, Asics running tights, technical Tshirt, Crane long sleeved fleece, Tikka 2 XP head torch.
18ltr Camelpak backpack containing: .5ltr xyms drink, 2 gels, 1 mars bar, 2 pieces baguette.
Map, spare batteries, Sealskinz hat and socks, fleece, windproof gloves, light weight Karrimor jacket, Packlite w/proof trousers, Rab insulator jacket, Rab emergency bivi, emergency foil bag, first aid kit, whistle.
Waist strap carried: Silva 4 compass, etrax gps, w/proof camera, Led Lenser torch
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Thomas said...

Great report. I was thinking about doing it myself, but the navigational aspects put me off - I can't do recces from Kerry.

Chris Cassidy said...

Thanks Thomas.
It's a fantastic event and you're mad enough to really enjoy it :-)
It can be done without recces so long as you know how to navigate.