DIARY: Wicklow Round Recce 1

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day, perfect for hanging out in front of a café with an ice tea or a pint (however which way you are inclined). For me the day turned out be just scorching, for instead of indulging in some Rest and Relaxation, me and Conor (Murray) headed down to Wicklow to recce perhaps the hardest section of the Wicklow Round around Lucnaquillia, highest mountain of Wicklow.

See all the pictures here.

39km, 1600m of ascent, more than 9 hours, and several sunburns later, this is our story...

The Wicklow Round
The Wicklow Round is the greatest challenge in Irish Mountain Running, and the brainchild of Joe Lalor and Brian Bell. The only challenge that compares to it in any way on the island, is the Mourne Seven Sevens, but even that is dwarfed by the scale of this run.

The run covers 24 peaks and, it is believed, around 118 km. All of this must be completed within 24 hours.

As most readers of the site will remember, mountain runners have a term called a "recce run", which is basically a reconnaissance run or reconnoitre.

To do the Wicklow Round, you need many skills and attributes, but one of them is definitely knowledge of the land. Not all of us are like Joss Naylor, and will spend all day roaming the same hills that we run in to herd our sheep, and the Round is too long to commit to memory. The Round should therefore not be attempted until every section has been carefully researched (several times if possible), preferably in all sorts of weather and also in the night time (for the sections you plan to do during that time).

Aspiring "Wicklow Rounders"
The first team attempted (and failed) to complete the Wicklow Round less than three weeks ago. A brave attempt by ultra-runners Aisling Coppinger, Tony Kiernan and others, faltered after 18.5 hours of straight running in harsh weather conditions.

This attempt seems to have triggered a buzz around IMRA, and several people are now attempting to recce the route or just check it out as part of a relay. The mystery of the challenge draws us in like moth to the flame...
Yesterday, Conor and I joined that list of "aspiring Wicklow Rounders", and what a learning experience it proved to be!

Phase 1: Glendalough to Camaderry
We parked in Glendalough, and at 8:35 made our way towards Camaderry. We didn't take the route sketched out by most of the maps, as Conor identified the steepness to be too hard. When you arrive at this section, you'll be halfway through and you don't need a killer ascent grade to deal with, going around will most likely be quicker.

Instead we took a slightly longer route following a snake-like path up through the forest and, after a lengthy traverse, arrived at Camaderry herself (spotting a lovely albino deer running with a small herd on the way).
From here, there was a panoramic view of all the next targets: Turlough Hill, Table Mountain, and Luc's North Prison in the far far distance, and even back towards another feature of the total round: Tonelagee.

I've been toying with the thought of including Conavalla on the route as a jump-point to Table Mountain, but today we decided to take the direct route over the flatter terrain to the Reservoir at Turlough Hill, then Loch Firrip and Three Lakes, which at first glance seems the better option.

Continuing to Turlough Hill, we saw a flock of mountain goats, left over by the miners who used to work in this area. Later between the reservoir and Lough Firrip we discovered a pyramid, perhaps natural, perhaps megalithic in nature. We took these as good omens and pressed on.

Phase 2: Endless Hummock to the Table
The next long stretch was the most demoralising part of the trip, but our spirits were still high, so despite being trapped, seemingly forever, wading through grassy hummock, bogland, heather, holes, and muddy flats, we took it on the chin, and did running whenever the terrain allowed it (which was not often!).

The terrain seems to repeat itself endlessly and you can't help but feel like Sisophys dragging the boulder up his mountain in Hades, only to see it reappear at the bottom the next morning. This was his punishment for arrogance towards the gods, was this ours for the same against the mountains?

The heat was picking up towards the 25 degrees at this stage, as well, and we knew we were in for a roasting day. This part of the route confirmed my belief that taking on the ascent to Conavalla may still be quicker than traversing this boggy desert, and we'll take that ot the test next time out. In winter it would look like the Russian tundra, and unless frozen stiff, it would be an almost insurmountable barrier to progress, not to mention speedy progress.

"Let's not be bogged down by this", I said in my non-native English, only to realise by Conor's reaction that I had just made a terrible pun!

After around 13km of total travel we arrived at the elongated flat top of Table Mountain, at 701m, and from here we could enjoy the view to the next top Camenabologue, and further away today's highlight: Lucnaquillia herself.

Phase 3: Luc - The Queen of Wicklow
The next part of the journey was much more enjoyable, while the short descent and then ascent to Camenabologue (at 758m) was a bit more of the same annoying terrain, the top was in good condition, and we immediately found a good path down towards our target, the shoulder of Luc.

This path almost pulled is in the wrong direction, though, and could have led us astray to Benleagh, giving us a much more difficult ascent to Luc. Conor spotted the correct path to our side just in the nick of time, and we could enjoy a good mountain running descent from there.

The rest of the long ascent to Luc was all joy, the terrain was fascinating, good ground, huge boulders, and the grassy slopes of Luc finally greeting us as we touched the Cairn at 925m. The day was picking up!

Phase 4: The Curse of Carrawaystick
Remembering my mistake at Aughavannagh, we had little trouble getting onto Corrigasleggaun right this time round, taken it shortly after (at 796m). We made a short stop here on the top take in some food and inspect our feed. I had several small bloody cracks on the skin, which (mysteriously) vanished later (can you heal during a run???), and decided to change socks, as the heat and my warm Salomon's meant my feet had swollen to a level where the shoes seemed a size to small. Note to self: Find more comfy shoes for ultra-long runs...

Until this point, we had been working as a perfectly oiled machine, Conor picking good reference points on the map and inch-precise bearings, me counting time and kilometres travelled from point to point. There had been no errors, because we had left little room for it.

Impatience had crept into me on Corrigasleggaun, and tiredness into Conor, so neither of us made a bearing towards Carrawaystick, instead rushing onto what seemed like the correct spur. Unfortunately, there is a spur next to Carra that looks exactly like it and from there we saw the forest path we expected to see, and quickly made way for it.

This seemingly innocuous mistake cost us the completion of the day's targets, and would have cost us any real attempt of the Round as well!

Phase 4: Lost in the Woods
It took us a while wandering the woods before we realised, from looking at the mountains facing us, that we had not come through the forest right. I was clueless at this stage, but luckily Conor could use his navigation experience to slowly deduct himself to where we were.

We were traversing the top of Slieve Maan in the Southern part of the forest, which aroused my suspicious at first, as I knew we should be much lower at this stage, while Slieve Maan lies at 550m!

From that information, Conor constructed a way out, the bad news being: It was a huge detour and we would emerge on the Military Road well South of Croaghanmoira!

Out of the woods? We wished...

Phase 5: Endless Tarmac to Glenmalure
One should have thought all would be well once we emerged on the main road, but this part was pure torture. Neither Conor nor I are experienced on these very long distances, yet, and running up a boring monotonous road after about 30km was a real killer for mind and feet.

When we reached the finish of the Aughavannagh race, Conor offered to wait for me at the bottom, if I wanted to take in Croaghanmoira, but after having lost any chance of completing the section, I just wanted to get home over the remaining mountains and decided to save it for next time, when we do it right!

From then on the Devil (and the thought of cold water at Glenmalure Lodge) took me, and I ran ahead, stopping only to look at the real emergence point from the forest and to take a few pictures of the Fananierin Ridge (one of my favourite features), running and running, until I arrived at the lodge. Once there I took full advantages of their running water, and was chatted up by a local man, who had seen our fellow runners doing the Wicklow Way Relay earlier.

15 or so minutes later, Conor arrived, and made it quite clear that Mullacor and Derrybawn were out of the question. I hate unfinished work, but it was the best decision to stop at this time. To gain something physically you cannot destroy yourself, we'll save that for the day, and we had learned what we could from the good and bad things of the past 9 hours.

We had a nice chat with the locals at the lodge, and while waiting for the taxi to take us to Glendalough we had a glorious meal of roasted steaks, potatoes, broccolis, cabbage, and carrots, all the body needs after a trip like this.

I had burned 2472kcal during the day, carrying 5.7kilos of water and equipment over 7 mountains (Camaderry, Table Mountain, Camenabologue, Lucnaquillia, Corrigasleggaun, Carrawaystick Mt., Slieve Maan) and two unnamed hills (681m at the reservoir and the 713m outlayer of Luc), travelling 38.75km in the process.

During the day my sustenance was one sports drink, three PowerBar gel packs, half a litre of home made smoothie (half water, half goats milk, lime juice, two bananas, glucose, honey, and apple cider vinegar), one N'ked choco bar, two litres of water, and uncountable dried fruits (cantaloupe, pineapple, apricots, goji berries and raisins). I attribute the fact that I'm feeling pretty fresh today to a good intake of mineral and vitamin rich foods such as these, combined with the specialised sports gels that weigh little but contribute so much.

The weather was good from a navigational point of view, but terrible for performance. You get roasted (and sunburned!) and require a lot more water than normal. A clear frozen winter's day would be optimal, but such a day may be hard to find (I'll keep such a day in mind, however!).

As first attempts goes this was definitely good fun, and we learned a lot. Next we'll try to tackle one of the other parts, before returning to finish this...