RACES: Aughavannagh - A Day Out

A very small field showed up for the return of the Aughavannagh race to the IMRA calendar after its 6 years absence. I hope it will not take another 6 years until it returns, for this route was one of the most spectacular journeys you can hope to undertake without shelling out thousands of dollars to take on epic adventures such as the Everest Marathon or the mountain races on tropical Borneo.

Normally the route is about 23km of length, but for me, and my partner during most the race, Conor O'Meara, it ended up closer to just below 27km as we took the wrong turn off Lucnaquilla and ended up having to backtrack after "conquering" an off-course mountain: Clohernagh.

We lost 17 minutes on our detour and from then on I knew any hope of a catching those in front was lost. This was disappointing at first, but it allowed me to hold back and take it easy for the rest of the race, which meant I feel pretty good, will need little recovery time, and, most importantly, will be able to set a much better time next time I do this race!

This race is so large that it features "races-in-the-race", so let's take a look at the "etapées":

Unending Forest Tracks - 1km to 5km
The first five kilometres would not be so special, if you didn't know what awaited behind them. I started out at a good, but controlled pace, I knew I had to pace myself, so I made no attempt to answer the challenge of anyone passing me by as I dropped from front to midfield during this long ascent towards Luc herself.
The forest road was beautiful, surrounded by high mountain views, and tricky, as it shifted between sand, rock, and dirt surfaces, and various ups and downs of all ascent and descent grades. Moire passed me by midway through this and as she stopped for water at a stream, I followed right on her trail as we reached the fringe of the woods and the massive bulk of Luc became visible through the trees.

Lady Luc - 5km to 7km
As I emerged from the forest hot on the heels of Moire and with Ercus Stewart and Andrew McCarthy close behind me, all runners I could see had to start alternating between running and power-walking as the our feet searched for the tiny paths that snake their way through heather, bulgy grass and randomly dispersed rocks.

At this stage, ascent is heavy, but not inhuman. This is a brief respite, though, and before we knew it, we were at the foot of the Luc herself, with her infamous South Prison at free display, like a gaping maw prepared to devour anyone who strays too close.

The seventh kilometer is almost impossible to run (it is claimed some do it, I would like to see how it looks, personally, and if it could even be described as running, the ascent is so steep that your Achilles tendon will be pulled apart in most running stances). On this kilometer the altitude rises by an incredible 345m, equivalent to an ascent grade of 34,5%, or almost triple that of the Alpe'd'Huez etapée in the Tour!

As we moved up, I saw Moire just ahead, while Ercus and Andrew where starting to sneak up from behind. There were many route to the top but I decided to stay close to the big rocks, as they offered a nice plain platform to step on, unlike the achilles stretching grassy slope beneath them.

Moving up the huge ascent, a runner finds little comfort in the fact, that having spend huge amounts of energy, and pressed your knees to their limit, even then, with the main tribulations seemingly over, and the summit reached, there is more than 16km still to go (which turned out to be 19 in my case!).

The endless minutes finally passed by and I arrived on the summit, I was relieved to run over and touch the cairn that marks the Summit of Luc. Last time I was here, she snapped my ankle, this time I was determined to get home uninjured...

The Detour - 7km to 10km

I had a perfect bearing written down on my map as I prepared to get off Luc the right way. I had also memorised the view I should see (which was simple, you'll see two mountains, one to your left, one to your right, there'll be a lake between them, keep it to your left). Somehow I managed to be distracted, and ignore all that preparation, throwing away the possibility of a good finish in the race at this early stage.

Why it happened, well, I'll never know, but as I passed by the cairn, Conor O'Meara, IMRA-veteran runner since 2003, with a string of fine results most notably 7th and 9th places in consecutive years on Kippure, and an 8th place on monstrous Camaderry.

Conor had started slightly later, and had only catched up to us know, I was in a rush, however, having lost several positions on Luc, and went for brawn rather than brains, rushing after Conor, and, fatally, onto the path leading to Clohernagh, and 800m mountain (dwarfed only by Lucnaquilla in the vicinity) connected to Lucnaquilla by a perfect grassy ridge.

Me and my newfound partner seemed to develop and understanding almost immediately, that if we were going to finish this race, we'd be doing the majority of the distance together. As we came off the peak of Clohernagh and saw the lake on the right hand side, Conor realised our mistake and skipping back up to the top of Clohernagh and then further back up towards Luc again, we had lost all contact to the main field.

I later cross-checked our detour with my software recordings of the trip: we had lost 3 kilometers and 17 minutes. Even in a race of this length it would be hard to make up, and the energy spent on Clohernagh would have been a good reserve for Fananierin and Croaghanmoira, the great tests still to come. Even worse, though, we lost contact with the best guide of the race in the shape of Joe Lalor.

More pressing matters concerned me too. I had never run further than 22km before in my life (at the Wicklow Way Trail), and now I was facing a total 27km. Could I make it to the finish? I'd lie if I said my head didn't drop just a little at this stage.

Corrigasleggaun and Carrawaystick - 11km to 15km

Now back on course, Conor and I started a long trek over the tops of Corrigasleggaun (794m) and its extension Carrawaystick Mountain. Early on Corrigasleggaun we got some contact as we managed to pass by Barry Tennyson and then later Grainne Connor. The ground was very tricky here, if you go at full speed, you'd better be fresh as your ankles will have to be at their strongest not to twist over.

Jumping off a small drop, I spotted a perfectly looking green spot, but as I landed, I was immersed knee-deep in bog! My momentum carried me straight out, thankfully with both (now very wet!) shoes still on!

As we hit the ridge of the forest, we got lost, and the road we had spotted earlier was nowhere in sight. We searched desperately as we waded around in tall wet grass, until we spotted Barry and Grainne about to hack their way through the pines.

Having no other options left, and knowing Barry was the best navigator we had, we followed and after fighting our way through a few metres of trees, we strode carefully next to a small foreststream until Grainne spotted the road through the trees and we all emerged, once again, back on course, but much delayed.

More Forest Trails - 16km-17km

The next few kilometres were some of the most relaxed of the race, we galloped over firm sandy firetrails, both me and Conor taking stops to get stone out of our shoes. Grainne turned our duo into a trio for a short spell, until Conor and I broke off again, and were greeted by Diarmuid O Colmain, veteran runner, and helper at this race, with a car hood full of water that we poured down our throats with delight.

Diarmuid asked: "You could stop you know?"

My weary brain picked up on what seemed to be a serious suggestions, and just auto-replied with no hesitation: "Why?" The complete non-comprehension in my voice caught me completely by surprise! No, quitting at this stage was not an option. Quitting is never an option. As Richard Askwith put it: "If you're saying no now, you're saying no always." The guy who stops during a training run because "its not his day", or stays at home because there is a "slight pain", won't fulfil any serious running ambitions. Saying "yes" to pain, is a habit acquired, like Guiness and Malt Whiskey, but it is not easy.

On the Fananierin Ridge - 17km to

As we took a sharp "V" turn up the old military road, build by the British to aid their fight against the Irish rebels, we could see the next destination of our journey rise up like a mighty wave to our right: Fananierin ridge, three kilometers long and connecting Fananierin Mountain to Croaghanmoira.

Running up the hill at this stage was tough, but not devastating, the green grassy slopes of the ridge rises slowly from around 250m to 450m of height, and from then on you follow a long trail of ups and downs until a severe climb takes you over the to unnamed hill that would serve as the gatekeeper to today's last obstacle big obstacle, Croaghanmoira Mountain itself.

Conor and myself took turns to lead, and for long Conor looked stronger, then, arriving at the foot of the hill, having gulped down another dried pineapple, I found good pace going up and was surprised to suddenly be alone. Relishing the chance of a strong finish, I rushed down only to be instantly demoralised as the huge bulk of Croaghanmoira loomed ominously to my left, while, on the right, I could catch a glimpse of the finish back down the military road.

The Last Climb - A Sadist's Work

Running over Carrawaystick, I was chatting with Conor, and I asked him who designed the route, especially the idea of throwing a 664m in at the very end, with the finish in sight.

He pretty much mirrored my thoughts when he replied: "A Sadist!"

At first I ascended an unnamed hill at the end of the Fananierin Ridge, dreamingly thinking it could be Croaghanmoira itself. To my surprise, Conor, had run out of fuel at this stage, and as I looked back he was falling about 100m behind. I decided to go for it, our journey together had been good, but one of us had to finish before the other, so I made a run for it, in good faith, but only for a few brief minutes, then, crossing over the rounded summit, Croaghanmoira rose menacingly to my left. An IMRA helper pointed me to the mountain, and I decided that I could not give up this close to the target, and on my way up I met Gordon, having started out about an hour earlier than the rest of us, yelling "Oh the Denmark man". How I envied his descent!

Towards the Finish

Somehow, like magic, my trudge to the top flew past, and before I knew it, I was touching the cairn on the top, and turned back, having to keep the brakes on during the hard rocky descent, as my cramping legs would no longer support full throttle.

Meeting Conor going up, I was surprised that Barry and Grainne didn't follow, but later learned that they had decided that "enough was enough", and had stricken Croaghanmoira of their personal route for the day. Grainne will be well forgiven as her ankle swelled to the size of a tennisball the day after. During the Three Rock race she let slip that she might quite mountain running for road running! God forbid and keep her from injury!

Running, gleefully (or relatively gleefully for a tortured man), down towards the finish area, I had barely digested the Toblerone pieces I got off the IMRA helper, before my left leg (which had deserted my on Donard earlier) broke into a violent cramp. I stopped for a moment, stretched, and hoped it would not allow Conor to race past me this close to the end.

In the end, I had enough, and got over the line after more than 3 and half hours of trials and tribulations in some of the most beautiful scenery you'll find in Wicklow. It was all worth it, and under the circumstances 16th out of 24 was not so bad at all.

While I was no where near setting any kind of personal high standard today, I could take some consolation in the fact that I broke two PR: longest distance (about 27km), and longest run (3:35). Let's hope the race returns next year, I'd like to try and go all out on the "normal" route, and see how well I'd do!