ARTICLE: The Wicklow Way Relay

“Now THAT’S more like it,” that was the first sensible thought in my head once my head cleared from the pain killers my body had pumped into my system going up the last sadistic climb of Leg 7 of the Wicklow Way Relay. I had closed my eyes for several hundred metres as my brain just couldn’t face the sight of an ever elusive finish line.

Not many days on the calendar brings more joy, frustration, pleasure and pain than Joe Lalor’s Relay. The countless hours spent organising, the ubiquitous tales of runners injured, lost, not showing up and more (there seemed to be one for every team). We were “reasonably” lucky in the Crusaders B Team having only Lornie going astray on Leg 3, despite having recced it on multiple occasions. This was a great pity for Lornie who was on course for a 38-minute time but had to settle for 65 minutes.

With most teams having at least one mishap, you can thus stay in competition as long as everything else goes more or less optimally but more than one mishap and you’re probably out of contention and one big mishap can knock you out altogether as 2 of the 34 starting teams found to their chagrin during the day.

Leg 1 – The Clever Runner

Keith Daly, renowned for his “easy jogs” during Leinster League races, shattered the course record on leg 1 with a time of 53:48. Even with seasoned runners pointing out that Coillte-led changes to the course has made it about a 1 minute faster than the original route, it was still a very worthy record for this “new version”.

Ryan Montgomery, himself having a good run, was about 2 minute down but did well to beat Kevin English. From our Crusaders perspective Richie Healy did well to hold off former Irish Orienteering and hill running international Aenghus O’Cleirigh and “my” runner, Jason Kehoe, finished a fine 11th and knocked about a minute of his time from last year.

At this stage we still hoped to finish top-10. We knew it would be close with many teams being very evenly matched but next in line was Jeff Healy, third of the Healy brothers, whose progress over the last month matches that seen from his brothers from last season to this.

Leg 2 – The Longest Climb

The next leg from Curtlestown leads you over Knockree through Crone past the Powerscourt Waterfall and up over White Hill before arriving in Lough Tay. This constitutes the toughest climb and second-longest leg of the day. The 759m of climb compare unfavourably even with the hard 556m on Leg 1.

This should add to the respect given to Brian McMahon who set a second record on the day with his 59:26 time and with 3 minutes to the next runner his victory was even more comfortable than Keith Daly’s. Sportsworld’s Paul O’Connell had a marvellous run to beat out notaries such as Peter O’Farrell , Eoin Keith, and Hugh McLindon. Our Crusaders first team had Rob Healy (who was chased down on the last kilometre by Peter) in 8th while brother Jeff was the 9th fastest runner although there was almost 5 minutes between the brother’s time. It may be a while yet before the family rivalry becomes truly three-way but today could have been the sign of things to come.

Thus doing very well, it was time for our two female runners to stabilise the team on the traditional “feminine” legs (3 and 4).

Fastest woman on Leg 2 was Jackie O’Hagan although she took a slight detour down to the Wicklow Way Trail race start and came around the start from the other direction to much jeering!

Leg 3 – Thunderous Downhill

Leg 3 is extraordinary in hill racing terms and I’d give much to attempt to race it sometime. It only features 126m of ascent and a lot of very fast descending. It’s also the shortest leg at just below 8km.

The Jennings Family took full ownership of it with Kian finishing first and he was not a “lone man” this time around as 12 of 34 runners represented the gruffer gender. Behind him was Caitriona Jennings who distanced Wednesday night’s winner, Sonya Fuhrmann, by almost 2 minutes with her time of 30:20. This doesn’t reflect too badly on Sonya though as Caitriona shattered the old women’s record. Three legs and three records, some achievement on a rainy day!

This leg was the course of a “mishap” for our team last year and so it would prove again this time as our luck ran out here. Last year Lornie had injured her ankle during the Leinster League race before the Relay and was replaced Catherine, a gallant hockey player who fought valiantly but did have to suffer through her hill running debut in a time of 65 minutes and third last position.

This year, Lornie, hammering towards a 38 minute time, missed the last right turn down towards the field in 65:19 after a few desperate phone calls and involving myself and Jason beeping the car horn before walking up to find her. 27 minutes thus “lost”, we couldn’t afford any more slip-ups, but luckily, many tough legs yet remained on which to play catch-up and as the day progressed the question moved from “did your runner get lost” to “when did YOUR runner get lost??”.

Leg 4 – The Beautiful Leg

Myself and many around me agree that no leg offers better views and an overall more aesthetic experience than Leg 4 leading into Glendalough. The only downside of this leg is the obligatory pushing aside of Spanish and American tourists (in fact, there’s no such discrimination on nationality, these were merely the visitors of the day! Some, like Dessie Shorten, politely muttered “excuse me” repeatedly as they snuck through the crowds).

And the records would just not stop coming, Donna Mahon, fast establishing herself as a major force in Irish hill running, broke Beth McCluskey’s women’s record on the course with a smashing time of 42:27 and only Dessie Shorten held her off. Our Motley Cru in the Crusaders first team had Jimmy Synnot close behind in third while Sportsworld continued to look strong. Their runner was 4th, as they had been 3rd and 9th on leg 2 and 1 respectively and only a few sub-top 10 finishes after this leg took the air out of their challenge as they duelled on the outskirts of the top-3.

Our runner, Dee Ni Chearbhaill, took a good bit of her pre-race expectation finishing 14th. About a minute slower, Setanta runner Colleen Robinson suffered the misfortune of arriving before their team’s next runner leaving the orienteers with a lot of chasing to do once he turned up!

Leg 5 – The Long Slog

Heading up from Glendalough along the slopes of Derrybawn before dipping into the rougher and less famous vale of Glenmalure is leg 5, one of my personal favourites.

I’ve recced this lot, and myself and Shane, who had the 2nd best time of the day with 58:23 (2 minutes off his 2008 form), ran a good bit of it only Thursday evening. What makes this leg insidious is the consistent, if reasonably inclined, ascent that drags on for 7 kilometres before allowing you a long fast ride to the Glenmalure Lodge and the change-over point.

Martin McDonald was the winner while our man Gavan Doherty took a solid 7th place a mere 7 seconds after Dermot Murphy who got some revenge to losing out to Gavan on the descent of Wednesday’s race. Mick Hanney, from the Boards AC team proudly displaying their new blue-white singlets, impressed just a week after his latest marathon PB in Edinburgh with a time just a minute beyond the hour.

Our Gavan may have been the most relaxed starter of the day as he took off map in hand. He had not had time to recce it due to last minute changes in our team, but he is an old-hand at orienteering, and indeed of Wicklow, and had no problem figuring out the course as he coasted to the 7th best time on the leg on the day.

Leg 6 - Hardiness and Technique

Leg 6 features one of the hardest beginnings and most enjoyable wrap-ups of the day. Almost as much climb as on leg 1 has to be covered over fewer kilometres and the first 2.5km are all climb before a brief 500m respite downhill is followed by yet another 2.5km of climbing.

At this stage you’re led out of Drumgoff forest onto the old Military Road where eager helpers where this time hiding in cars rather than basking in sunshine before a final 1km descent from kilometre 8.5 to 9.5.

Glory follows as a normal fire trail descent turns into a much steeper rock-strewn one where. Myself and Brendan were like gleeful kids rushing after Jimmy last weekend and the former Leinster League winner played an integral part today pacing my team’s Justin Rea throughout his leg despite having earlier raced leg 4.

This precaution had been necessary as Brendan Craig had to pull out injured on Friday morning with a bad back (there was not a more gutted man in Ireland). The team was buoyed by Justin’s late stand-in as we knew the Kiwi was a fine descender. Last year Seamus Murphy had lost a good 10 minute going astray on this leg, so with Jimmy out there we felt confident we would not see two repeat mishaps in one year.

Nevertheless we lost a bit of time here with Justin arriving in 21st about 4 minutes down on our estimations. Worse had happened to our first team, though, when Alan O’Keefe had not managed to get back from Tinehely (where he had dropped of his bike) in time for the start of the leg, prompting Niamh to start running for Crusaders. Luckily, Alan eventually arrived, with only a bit more than 5 minutes lost and ran a firm 89:57, 4th best time on leg 7.

This meant Paul Joyce from Boards AC clawed back 13 minutes on us with his good run in 10th on the leg and left me to hold off 1:18 half-marathoner and sub-3 hour marathoner David Walsh-Kemmis on the “Longest Leg”.

Leg 7 – From the Iron to the Cross

Once a delightful finish greeted the runners of the Relay’s longest leg as you could sweep down from the slopes of Coolafunshoge to the Derry River and then leave your hardships behind. Not so anymore as your journey now goes from Ironbridge, South of Aughavannagh, to a mile further up the road close to Cross Bridge.

I know this leg better than any, having now raced it twice and recced it three times. I was reasonably optimistic having had a good recce, a decent race, and a good Friday’s rest (although somewhat sleepless!) before. My legs were still a bit stiff but every hour helped and while warming up was difficult in the lashing rain, the late start did me favours.

Given that I have greater recollection of leg 7 than any others, I’ll write a separate race report on that, while just leaving a few notes here. Runners of leg 7, past and present, may find the detail fascinating to reminisce about whilst others could find it a bit dour!

Let it be said ahead of time that the end result was as surprising as it was encouraging: I knocked almost 7 minutes off last year’s time and beat some very notable runners on the way all the whilst clawing back 4 places for the team despite starting (I think) more than 4.5 minutes after the last runner to set off.

My time was surprisingly only the 7th best of the day, but it showed the class of running out there on this route: Cormac Conroy delivered another master class on this distance with 84:28, and was followed by the redoubtable Eugene Coppinger, then Clonliffe’s Brian O’Sullivan. Fourth best time was set by Alan O'Keeffe in 93:10 but as he started late he crossed the line in 99:38 and 12th (meanin we all got a spot for "free").

Beyond this top-4, no one else broke the 90-minute barrier, but next was first Turlough, then Board’s David Walsh-Kemmis (who runs rarely in IMRA regime but was 6th at Annacurra ), and then myself before a slight gap on seasoned cross-country man Alan Lawlor and Ed McEntee, another 1:18 half-marathoner and one of the consistent performers for Sportsworld in the x-country and on the roads. It was suggested he may have taken a detour as well, so his time may very well not be reflective of his ability on the day. Hugh Kinsella, who’s run 82 minutes at Snowdon was next and a good host of well-known IMRA runners followed the 100-minute mark: Kevin O’Riordan, and Conor O'Meara, my partner in crime at Aughavannagh 2007 Detour Version, were among them.

Turlough likewise reckoned he had lost about 3 minutes getting slightly lost, the only thing I lost was my temper as I fumbled to open several gates on the way down which led to me cursing angrily as the Donore runner I had passed out earlier kept catching up with me (for which I duly apologised at the finish!). He must have been distressed himself as he finished in 2hrs5mins and must have taken a bad detour to arrive in such time.

Off then I send Diarmud, our last ace in the hole and our last veteran runner too. He had a narrow gap over Setanta’s “SET-Up” and Donore’s “Dashers” while the “Bulleting” Boards from the new digital running club and a group the “Wicklow Pain Train” were also close around still.

Leg 8 – The Road to Shillelagh

As the Relay draws to a close so we also say farewell to the Wicklow Way on the final parts of leg 8 when runners instead head for Shillelagh were the final supporters await to cheer on the teams as they finish. (the Wicklow Way terminates in Clonegal in Co. Carlow).

I had managed to regain 4 places and give Diarmud somewhat of a lead to protect against Setanta and Donore who were chasing, and this year’s King of the M60 category battled resolutely to hold off Sean Hasset and Cliodhna Carty until the very last bit were a sprint finish unfortunately left our team short-handed. But on-route Diarmud and the others had taken out another runner and with it another place in the rankings and kept Boards AC at bay as well. In the end they paid the price for a runner getting lost on leg 1, but we could also look back at Lornie’s mishap with some regret as the extra 27 minutes would have given us a very handy top-10 finish.

Yet, “my” team improved from 15th to 13th and together we knocked 11 minutes off last year’s time. Tressan McCambridge, running for our Motley 1st Team, held Sportsworld at bay for despite Paul Duffy being 2nd on the last leg but couldn’t touch the Clonliffe teams gathered by Gerry and Rathfarnham’s men in green. This was also the only leg on which our Crusaders “B” team would beat the “A Team” although by just 13 seconds!

On Leg 8 Rathfarnham won to almost give them the win and third was everyone’s favourite Mike Long running for an alliance between the UCD Orienteers and Ajax.

Price ceremony went underway in good time with people huddling close to the pub door to avoid the rain and the Clonliffe A-listers beat Rathfarnham in once another close fight (1 and a half minutes!) with the second Clonliffe Team (which’s featured guests from North Laois and Tallaght) in third before our Crusaders first team and Sportsworld followed.

Ajax-UCDO were 10th, rival orienteers Setanta 11th, Donore 12th, then us, debutantes Boards were 14th and other clubs were further down such as the orienteers from CNOC (16th) and Lindie Naughton’s 3ROC(ers) (25th). More than 5 hours separated first and last team, and a few of the teams would probably just about not have been able to beat Eoin Keith had he gone at it alone!