DIARY: My North-East Wicklow Tour

Last week started sweet but indeed with on a slightly sour note. One flavour stayed strong throughout the week, however: The savouring of great hill running courses to help me through my first Transition week, where I clocked up 68km before starting my challenge to 74km (40 and counting as we speak) for week 2 of this micro-cycle and then 83km in the peak week before easing off at 55km in anticipation of the Intensity cycles ahead.

I traverse the North-East region of Wicklow around where I live a good deal to get this mileage done and thought I’d share a few spots with you that I am using for training runs already.

Devil’s Glen

I returned again to the Devil’s Glen on last Thursday evening for a session of hill repetitions as varying speeds. This is another of my special strength building sessions, but now with longer intervals to throw in some early anaerobic stimulus so it won’t appear as too much of a shock to my body when I make it the fulcrum of my work in 3 weeks time from now.

Let me say that for all the beautiful spots in Wicklow the Devil’s Glen, just West of Ashford when you come off the N11, stands as a rare gem that is luckily not overrun as some places and affords both beauty and tranquillity, especially on a week day. First brought to my attention by Mick Hanney, the area has turned into one of my regular after-work runs as I can now reach it at about 17:15, driving from work in Sandyford in about 45 minutes. This leaves a bit more than an hour of daylight to train even in the growing shades of dusk always find in a forest such as this.

There are two marked routes here, the Sean Heany Walk which takes you from the main road up towards the carpark at Glanmore Castle before turning steeply back on itself, towards the old Tiglin adventure centre, and then back out to the main road. This loop is about 4km which more than 200m of climbing, a lot of it very steep with frequent ascent grades above 15%, or double the average you’ll find in most Leinster League races.

The Waterfall Walk stands out as the most spectacular of the two walks with its 5km starting at the car park at Glanmore Castle leading you down sharp hair-needle style twists and turns onto good fire-road where you will run next to the river Dargle flowing briskly on your right and with a wonderful tree-filled mountain side covering the immediate horizon beyond the water.

All along both trails are various pieces of modern art made of stone, wood, and other natural materials, none of which take away from the landscape and somehow adding to the special flavour of the place. Further unmarked trails will lead you over to the old Tiglin Adventure Centre and you could easily construct a good 10-12km loop for yourself here with very significant ascent and descent.

The session there was brilliant as well, I found a nice very steep hill and kept racing up it with the repeat getting shorter and faster as I went along. My legs felt strong, particularly the low calf and Achilles which are so crucial for keeping proper forward momentum on steep slopes. The reasonable well-worn trail also allows you to keep focus on proper running form rather than fighting just to stay standing.

Trooperstown Hill

Obviously I complete most of my runners on the slopes of Trooperstown and Clarabeg (as the area around Boots Mountain is generally called), and for anyone who knows the numerous trails up there you can only marvel at the amount of runs you can compose. When you come off Boots Mountain running the Trooperstown race route, you can add a nice 2km loop with very good descent and ascent, by running straight across the old trade route at the foot of Boots. This is where you normally turn back on yourself in “U” towards the top of Trooperstown Hill. The path you take will eventually allow you to join up with the race route again, but in a much longer (and more fun version).

On Friday and Saturday, though, I stayed close to the race route (indeed ON it!) as I was marking and demarking the race after having chosen to forfeit the Winter League this year. I did this with a bleeding heart as Trooperstown Hill holds some of my best experiences and is one of the routes that plays most strongly to my strengths and it doesn’t have any of the cramped bits that mar some other Irish hill races (dare I say Scalp? No wait, I meant hill races not bush-whacks).

I managed to rush back from work on Friday evening and lay out the markers on the open mountain bit of the race and returned home just as darkness fell. In the morning I did a relatively frisky run from my house over Boots and down through the Coillte forest to the race start, laying out the remaining markers and arriving there 25 minutes later.

Once that was done, I allowed the field an 18 minute head start to ensure I didn’t end up picking up markers while breathing down the necks of any runners racing (having done this at Bray I imagine it must be quite stressful for the runners at the back!). This was great fun, and while I could only hear about a good victory for former Leinster League champion Kevin Keane, a runner of true pedigree but cursed by injury, feedback on the route was marvellous (indeed it offers one of the best views of any IMRA route), and my marking apparently had been very good, with just one runner over-shooting the Coillte gate at the end. (one runner cursed the fact he’d yelled this guy back as he went on to overtake him again!).

Clara Vale

Last Sunday I was very much looking for a “flattish” run as the incessant hills over the week was getting to my tendons and muscles and was not the best preparation for a Tuesday fast track session.

So myself and Aoife set off early in the morning to drive a few kilometres down the road to the much heralded “Clara Vale”. Cormac had told me great things about the “Stump in the Castle” (which I did not manage to find today) and Diarmuid said this had been a favourite picnic spot for many families in days of yore.

Gerry Brady told me the place was more beautiful than the Devil’s Glen, but for what I saw today, the former still edges it. Perhaps I need to dig deeper into the vale.

All things said, however, this is another gorgeous spot for running with three way-marked trails (red, green, and red) on forest trails with the Avonmore flowing at your side for great spells. The ups and downs are less severe than in the Devil’s Glen but still plentiful so as flat runs go, this is not it! The Blue Walk is a 5.5km walk while the Green Loop is 9km. We did not manage to find details on the Red route, but I suspect this may be further South around Rathdrum from where this area can also be accessed (we accessed from Clara Vale itself close to the old Church where you will find a car park sign-posted “Clara Vale Nature Reserve”).

Aoife said it was perfect terrain for a rookie mountain biker as she saved her injured foot riding around as I plodded around the green valley: Certainly another place for your route planning scrap-book.

The Quest for Flat Runs

As my quest for flat runs in Wicklow continues (an odd quest for a presumed hill runner, I know!), I turned to Brendan Lawlor, the former IMRA president and Wicklow Mountain Rescue man. Living locally, Brendan seemed the right man to ask for such a route.

And he didn’t disappoint: In good detail he described several long loops that can be taken around the Vartry Reservoir outside Roundwood. I plan on driving down on both Monday and Wednesday eve after work to inspect the route and see how suitable it is.

Truth be told, as much as I love the hills, doing as many runs on them as I did last week serves no purpose training-wise. Too many uphills dilute the quality of the strength training you gain from such workout and leave you more tired for the fast workouts. Likewise the constant downhills are not only a bit too much for my recent injuries, but they reduce muscle power for up to 10 days after, again hurting the quality of the speed sessions I do and the slower runs in general.

The reason for this is that downhill running tricks the body into recruiting less muscle fibres to generate forward momentum. These reduced fibres then have to deal with the significant eccentric contractions that happen when running downhill, leaving these fibres tired and damaged.

Vartry Reservoir

So following Brendan’s advice I went to Vartry Reservoir twice this week. I parked in Roundwood on the R755 close to the Couch House Inn, and run down on my left to the green gates that mark the entrance to the trails circumventing the smaller and larger “lakes” of the Vartry Reservoir.

On the first evening, I was doing my rest day run, so chose the smaller lake, which gave me a 4.5km run from the car (the loop itself will be slightly smaller). On Thursday evening, I ran around both lakes which totals around 12km (again I had a few detours and ran from Roundwood, so I estimate the two lakes together probably form a loop of approximately 10km).

There is a lot of really good trail and very nice views as you run next to the reservoir, the highlight is when you reach the top of the dam at the end of the smaller reservoir and can look over the entire tree-filled vista with black water resting peacefully in your eye’s view.

On the downside you have to cross a few tarmac bits and some of the trails were extremely muddy and broken bushes and trees had partly blocked a few locations. A few piles of garbage here and there also somewhat ruined the mood, but all in all, a very worthwhile run which any Wicklow runner looking for a flat run could take good advantage of.

The Sour Note??

So what was bad about last week since I mentioned a sour endnote between all of these lovely hills and trails? Well, I started to get a stronger tingle from my Plantar again and was afraid the regular hills had irritated it to the point of recurrence. Indeed, they may have, but I have been more religious in using my orthotic again and restarted strong icing, and now the foot seems perfectly normal once again.

There were some serious fears in my mind, it’s no understatement to say, but everything looks under control again, and I’ll be looking forward to getting through the cold that is currently plaguing me and readying myself for the really hard training that will start in 2.5 weeks. And why not be optimistic, yesterday was my 60th day in a row running J