TRAINING; A Wild Wicklow Adventure

No, today didn't feature one of those cute little bus-trips into the "Wild Wicklow" were you get ferried from local pub to pub while the scenery unfolds outside the bus window. A fact you'll appreciate only if you aren't listening to the incessant joke-cracking of the driver!

There was plenty of food on the table today though (Turlough apparently keeps an emergency stash in his car of soup, fruitcake, tea, chicken, and glucose sweets!), there's one pub at the tail of the story and plenty of adventure in between (there may even have been one or two jokes, but I'm too tired to remember).

Paul Nolan's "Tea-Parties"
There is a new institution of hill-running matters in Wicklow now, known as the "Tea and Biscuit Runs". This could apply to most hill-running events so I owe new readers to tell them that this is a series of weekend training runs arranged by one of Ireland's most noteworthy hill-runners over the last 10 years: Paul Nolan, also of orienteering fame.

In running terminology there is a well-loved term: LSD (sorry, not the drug, the "long slow distance" or "long slow drag" as its known by some speed-lovers! Again not the drug! What's wrong with this running terminology?)

Paul Nolan's runs all feature under a different, lesser known, and less loved, category called "LSR" or "Long, Steep and Rough!" Recently he's added "Wet" to them as well, as part of IMRAs long-term strategy of merging with the growing sport of Bog-Snorkelling to which it is closely related (read about it here!).

That a strange duality of sadism and masochism is inherent in the last generation of hill-runners is all too clear. Design an awful route, make young innocent runners run it, and then run it yourself to boot! That this would be the case again today, I should have known the moment Paul told me how he'd expanded our last run in Tinaheely (already a pretty decent 14.8k run with 591m of ascent, incidentally only 11 races in this year's calendar would be rougher).

"What did you add," I asked, knowing the answer.

"A lot more climb," says Paul, and I pondered whether or not I thought the route needed it.

Paul's definitely got some plans of his own, and his training looks determined, after a few years of injury problems, it will be exciting to see what he has in mind for this season's races and to what effect they will be executed!

Brockagh-Tonelagee and back!
I had a terrible start to the morning, over-sleeping, having not quite shaken off Management Dinner I attended on Wednesday night (I seem positively allergic to alcohol after going "on the Wagon").

So I arrived, well under-prepared instead of my characteristic over-preparedness or "carrying 2 litres of water for a 3k race" as Shane would put it!

I had loosely heard we'd be running the Brockagh route or some variation there-off, so felt safe enough. I knew the route, I had had a decent (and quite enjoyable) race on it last year, and reckoned it nice as a training run. Nice and soft, and a good opportunity to try my new Puma Trailfoxes (another pair!) with the special Hapad insoles I had purchased designed to keep Plantar at bay.

The crowd looked good: Turlough, Dermott and Paul himself, three runners who've done their best to wear out several Ireland-kits through their careers, as well as my stout marathon companion, Mick Hanney, now recovered from his 5xmarathon 2007, and our new guy Jason Reid, Kiwi hill-runner with a special love for anything above 20k in the hills.

Or as he put it when presented with the Snowdon race: "Not sure I'd bother going to Wales for 16k!"

Had I possessed a keener understanding of the make-up of this part of Wicklow, the word "Tonelagee" should have brought concerns to my mind. As it stood I did not realise that Tonelagee is quite a good bit away from the Brockaghs, and made it a very different proposition from the race itself: The Leinster League race here is a 10.5km race with 424m, a round-trip I would do in less than an hour.

I would expect a good 1 hour 20 min of running with any additions, but expectations are a dangerous thing.

So off we went, my only thought about Tonelagee that I still couldn't fathom that people had been allowed to name a hill "Arse to the Wind". I promised myself to look out for the anatomy of the hill, though...

The Curse of Flatness
Going up the forest trail that leads to the foot of the long grassy bit leading to the first of the Brockaghs, most of us agreed that the flat run-in to the finish was an annoyance as it always allowed one or two sprint-cannons to get you at the death!

"Nothing better than a good early hill to mess up the road runners," Turlough would later say, but some of us would dream of sweet flats later...

I was feeling fine at this stage, having gotten up in the last minute, I had no breakfast to run on, and hoped my reserves from yesterday's food would hold.

Jason trudged away at the back for the first hour or so, trying to work out the 8 pints of Guiness he had had the eve before.

"Don't you know we have a no alcohol policy at Crusaders," I said.

"Apparently you still have a bullshit policy," said Paul.

The Good Spell
For the first hour or so, things were brilliant, I was keeping up well, the terrain was varied and fast under-foot, great enjoyment was had from trying to evade muddy spots one moment, then trying to find pools of water to jump into the next to wash off the shoes!

Going out, there was only one fall, as Jason stumbled into some heather. Brockaghs is a forgiving terrain, if you mind yourself and don't aim for the big rocks...

Then, as we arrived at the top of the second peak of the Brockaghs, the full scope of today's race was revealed.

"When will we be at Tonelagee," someone asked.

"In about 40 minutes time, maybe 35," Paul said.

He must have said 14 minutes, I though, checking my watch. The ForeRunner Brigade had increased it's numbers, with Turlough, and myself carrying the 305 while Dermott packed the more masculine coloured blue/black 205.

The watch will return to our story, for now we can't linger. "More pain," said Paul and off we went, now organised into two groups, Paul-Turlough-Dermott leading the line with myself, Mick, and Jason behind.

The Dissolving Trail
Paul had encouraged me to mark a few locations into my ForeRunner if we got separated, from the Brockaghs onward, the mist sank heavy on us, giving us the nice "eerie" feeling, as Jason would later say.

To make matters worse, the trail off, "had dissolved", according to Paul. And I wondered why Ireland seemed to be the only country where geographical features erode over months instead of millennia.

Midway, the trail got worse and worse, and suddenly stopped leaving us to fight through quite difficult terrain that brought back memories of me and Conor's crossing of the "Deadmarshes" between Turlough Hill and Table Mountain. Suddenly here, my sugar-levels just absolutely tanked, my heart rate started the familiar "give-me-food or I'll stop" rhythm, and I fell behind.

Joining up with the rest at our next "meeting point", I was tempted to stop, but got gracious amounts of sugar, raisins and water from the rest, and decided to follow them up the very steep incline to Tonelagee itself (the average ascent grade on the day was an acceptable 9.4%, but here ascent grades would reach as high as 38.5%, or almost as bad as scaling the South Prison of Lug in the Aughavannagh race).

Turning Point
My foot hadn't given me too much trouble until this stage, but today I learned that another thing it doesn't like are extreme ascent and descent grades, since these force the foot muscle into an uncomfortable stretch.

Plantar is caused by a tear in the fascia, this connective tissue running from the front of the foot to the heel, is made of the protein collagen, which is too rigid for the purpose it was designed for (an evolutionary cock-up in other words!). The calves and achilleus can take some of the pressure of the foot, but not if they are overloaded...

The injury is therefore likely to occur together with Achilleus tendonitis and tears in the calf muscle. Luckily, I've been spared that fate. One of the insidious qualities about the injuries is that the main healing process occurs overnight while the fascii is contracted, in the morning the fascii will extract again and tear open most of the evening's repairs. Whic is why my Plantar Night-Splint can't arrive soon enough!

So coming down, I was feeling the foot and not being a specialist on the rough descents, the going was now hard at the 9k turning point. A few kilometres later, I stopped to tie my shoe, then got up to see Mick about 25m in front of me. I followed his characteristic orange jersey easily enough, until he suddenly dived beneath a hill.

Misty Mayhem
I expected to see him from the top a bit later, but as I passed over the crest, I saw no one.

This is where the experience from running alone over exposed terrain during the Navigation Challenges really show their worth. In the old days, before I took up hill-running, quite a bit of panic would probably have been my reaction, instead (perhaps because of tiredness), I decided to approach the situation with calmly.

I now had energy enough to easily make the trip back, as long as I kept an even pace. I had more than enough clothes, in fact, at this stage I was getting quite warm, and would rid myself of jacket and long sleeves a bit later, to cool myself down.

Another advantege: The ForeRunner to the rescue. Without map and compass, the mist could not be navigated. The terrain was as uniform as anything you'll see in any film version of "Hound of Baskerville". If I could reach Brockagh, I would be fine, the trail from there would lead me out of the mist and back to the start.

While I haven't used the ForeRunner for navigation before, it includes an electronic compass as well as a "map" (in reality, it just shows you a blank screen, with an arrow, "you", and flags in relative positions showing every kilometre you've run and every location you have marked).

I clicked "find nearest", and I saw that the second location I had marked, a big characteristic rock chosen by Paul, was only 410m away, but that I was running away from it. Just then the mist broke below me and I saw a hill-side that I knew we had not passed. Double-backing was logical.

Friends in Need!
Now, it's always been a personal hope of mine that no one would ever put themselves at risk to try and help me out. This hope was especially strong in my now, as I knew I would be ok, but the rest of the group had no way of knowing this.

While I stayed focused on the task ahead, getting home, I should, of course have realised that hill-runners are not much for leaving people behind, and have tried harder to communicate with the group.

Yelling was not an option, a human voice doesn't travel very far, especially not in undulating terrain where it's broad frequency band is easily scattered and distorted in different directions. Which is why I always carry a whistle, as this little tool will reach six times farther (indeed, my initiation present for Sharlene when she did her first hill run last year, was a purple mountain whistle). But alas, this was no normal day.

Deciding not to waste any energy, I made my way to the rock, and somehow managed to miss the lads, who had by now double-backed in a broad string of 5 in the hope of snaring me up in a human net. Reaching the rock, and seeing no one, I thought to myself "they're really making good speed," and I followed with as steady a pace I could muster, having only one mishap as I descended Brockaghs and slid on my arse in the mud!

Home Beckons
I was well tired by the time I finally emerged back on the forest road, but not too tired to be surprised at seeing an empty car park waiting for me. I strung my one shirt over the hood of Turlough's car, and wandered a kilometre back up to look out for the rest.

As I saw nothing, I though there was no point in standing around, and I would certainly only have added to the confusion if I had attempted to run back up, so I turned back, and waited...

A good 35 minutes later, the five runners, who had gotten a longer, and much more "exciting run" than they bargained for emerged, and relief that mountain rescue could stay indoors for this time, was palpable on their faces.

"We saw you lying in some ditch somewhere," said Jason!

The followed much rejoicing at Turlough's endless food stores, followed up by a twist on the Tea Club Rules: Tea and Spaghetti Bolognaise at Lynhams of Laragh.

Death and Running
So things turned out well, while one of the most fascinating things about hill running is that it does not come with any guarantees, not even the guarantee of making it back, and while this would definitely be some way to go, it's my hope that I will wait till I'm running a race as a venerable M80.

This is not an attempt to make comedy at those who have lost their lives on the hills, but the very harsh truth, that I think is more accepted among the people of the fells, than the people they leave behind in the cities, is that we know the risk. We accept the risk, and maybe, in the eyes of the general population, we embrace it to an unacceptable degree.

Today wasn't a close call by any means, but a good reminder of caution, nevertheless, because it could have been. Only a few more things had needed to go wrong. Had I not brought a jacket and a hat, then what? (while I was never cold up there during the 2 and half hours, a longer stay would have brought this factor into effect). had the others not brought food I could take midway, or had I not had the clarity of mind to use my ForeRunner. Then there's injury. A broken foot, a badly twisted ankle, and a harmless, if stressful (for my fellow runners) situation can turn quite sour.

For now, though, no more talk of doom and gloom, let's look 60 years ahead: Having lost my glasses, I will most likely stumble out over the South Prison of Lug. As they come to look for me (if!), one will certainly say "ah, always crackin' descender, he was, wasn't he?"

"But not much for route choice," another will say, and they'll let it rest with those words, and so will eye...

The Run Statistics
Running Time: 02:19:54
Ascent/Descent: 822/-822