RACES: New Trail Race Route

Today I went out to measure a prospective race route for the Trail League. The trail I have my eyes on runs through the Devil's Glen area, also known as Glanmore or "The Big Valley". Let me start with a disclaimer that Mick Hanney was the man who first made me aware of this gem of a route. Some say the Clara Vale offers prettier trails, but I respectfully disagree.

(For lovers of folk-lore, the "Devil's Glen" takes its name for the mighty roar that used to emanate from its Waterfall before the Vartry Reservoir was built. Back then the Vartry River flowed stronger. The roar is now gone, but the name remains).

This area features a large number of trails, including two marked routes called the "Seamus Heany Walk" and the "Waterfall Walk". They form an 8-shaped figure with the Devil's Glen main carpark as their fulcrum and while there are other trails in the area, I've reached the opinion that the official walks are the most interesting ones for a race as well.

Logistics and Transport
The first thing to look at when determining a routes suitability for a race should be land access, location, and parking availability.

The Devil's Glen has quite a few advantages here:

  • It's located less than 10 minutes from Ashford and the N11 making it easy to access from Dublin and South Wicklow (if you are close to the N11 in particular of course)
  • It's less than 20 minutes from Roundwood making it reasonable enough to access from mid-Wicklow
Moreover, the area has both an outer car park (taking only 4-5 cars with an additional overflow provided by the nearby trail) and an inner car park (looking like it could take anything from 30-40 cars). Parts of the trail leading into the heart of the valley are likewise wide enough to park a few cars by the side. Very few seem to know about the area as well, despite the impeccable upkeep of it and the many sculptures erected along both official walks, meaning minimal intrusion and competition for spaces.

Better even, there's ample parking in Ashford these days making carpooling easy and you have the Ashford House as a very friendly and sizeable pub for the post-race ceremony.

The only remaining caveat to figure out for me is who owns the access (it seems to be Coillte which would make matters easy) as permission will have to be obtained for usage of the area for racing. (red: The car park proved to be Coillte owned and permission was duly granted).

The Route - Overview
The proposed "Devil's Glen" trail race has a length of 8.65km and a climb of 344m with 344m of descent and average grades of a surprisingly high 9.7%. It's all run in beautiful quiet and serene surroundings and on good runnable, but not dull, trails. 43% will be ascent, 41% descent and only 16% can be considered flat (the latter a mere 1.4km).

The route will be very easy to mark due to the use of the official (sign-posted) walks that take up 99% of the route (only the cross-over at the car park doesn't form part of these routes).

With the length, climb and terrain, the route is a perfect fit for the Trail League. In terms of views and surroundings it is not dissimilar to the Wicklow Way along the Powerscourt Ridge and the forestry trails of the Glen of the Downs race.

In my humble opinion the route is prettier than most other current trail races and offers a more interesting challenge than some of the Crone Wood routes (such as Ballyross, but the route is not comparable with the Winter League routes there which are much tougher races).

Below follows some details on the route for those who'd like to go out and convince themselves. I plan to do a clockwise run of the route just to establish if my original convictions are right.

Part 1: Seamus Heany Walk
I envision the race starting in the central carpark. This has the drawback of runners needing to run across it to connect the two loops into one route, but I believe the benefits outweigh this minor slur on the routes otherwise interesting character. This part of the route will take you around the small hill Ballymaghroe (254m) to the forested top to which no trail leads.

First the carpark allows you to amass a large number of runners together and give them a brief flat broad trail to run onto the first climb of the route as you leave the main trail and turn right at the sign saying "Seamus Heany Walk". Yellow arrows tell you where to go throughout.

I've preferred the counter-clockwise version of the Walk to provide the route with a short steep climb to begin on (I use this climb regularly for hill reps as the gradient goes as high as 24.6% in places). The Seamus Heany walk consists of rocky trails, several viewpoints and plentiful vegetation for anyone with time to enjoy taking in the surroundings here.

This challenging ascent takes you from 123 metres to 230m within 800 metres before a slight levelling up and a bit of undulation until a further slight climb to the summit of the race route at 237m. Altogether the first 2.3km are all predominantly uphill making for a good classical race start which should "take out a few teeth" as we say in Denmark. A few mistakes are possible, just as the climb ends, ignore a broad fire trail on the right. A bit further down, make sure you catch the left arrow onto a grassier path or you'll end up back on the main Ashford road.

Now follows a short flat section before launching into the steepest descent of the day with descent grades as high as 39.5% but eminently runnable and a place where runners may well set a mile record for themselves. We jogged this mile in 7:14 which tells its own story!

You now emerge on the main fire trail which leads you back to the car park and you will have completed the Sean Heany Walk (I measured it at 3.5km). Running across the car park should provide a good show for spectators as you will enter the Waterfall Walk in an anti-clockwise direction just as you did the Seamus Heany Walk.

Part 2 - The Waterfall Walk
After the brief flat of the car park, you continue downwards towards the routes lowest point at 78m. You're running West at this stage and following the red arrows marking this walk. Watch out for a very sharp right turn down an artifical staircase and then the most interesting descent of the day.

Conditions grow notably softer and vegetation more lush and arboreal here but the main treat comes in the form of several very sharp zig-zags that provide variation and some technical challenge for the connoisseur descender.

After having dropped from 123m at the car park to 78m at the bottom of the glen, there's a long strength-sapping section where you will be running along the riverside. This section feels like its a constant slight incline that you must run fast but which takes strength out. In reality there are several distinct ups and downs.

The trail continues West until you are around 6.5km into the race. You turn sharp left here as continuing straight will lead you to a dead end at the Waterfall. This is a nice detour but wouldn't add anything except confusion to the race.

After 7km only minor climbs remain and the best views of the day can be seen as you have the rocky faces of the Northern parts of the Glen on your left as you run back East and you can see the river and the trees below you that you ran among only a bit earlier. The height is now 170m which before you prepare to drop back to the car park will be the highest point of this loop. For sightseers you are looking at Birchwood and behind it four small hills: Tomcoyle Upper (205m), Carrowbawn (272m), Tomcoyle Lower (297m) and Ballycurry (301m).

There's a twist in the tale here as you turn sharp right and then left up a very short but steep climb. This may just about be enough to cause someone to falter or allow someone a late attack in the race.

From the top of this small climb you can cruise the last few hundred metres down dusty firetrail to the car park where the area next to a barrier would provide the perfect place for a finishing chute. (red: Due to the speed runner will come down here, the finish will back out on the flat of the car park).

Now, all that is needed to get this route on the calendar is for me to talk to the Committee and to Douglas, to obtain permission from Coillte, and for anyone else who thinks this sounds great, to give their stamp of approval!

Apart from running the route anti-clockwise, I'm considering taking the straight route just after the main climb of the Seamus Heany walk instead of following the official walk to the left. This gives a much longer loop. The trail you follow is less interesting than the one proposed above but it does allow you to go a bit further South to some interesting trails close to the outer car park and provides a bit more ascent and descent (as well as an overall longer race). (red: I did test this but decided the race had the correct length and the wider loop was less interesting to run).

I'll run this as soon as I get the chance to check how it compares. (red: Another variation would have been the counter-clockwise run which I am yet to try but that steals the best ascent and descent of the day although the initial ascent would also make a nice descent).


John L said…
Having just run the race, I have to agree that it makes an excellent race route that is both steep and fast and definitely deserves a spot on the calendar next year. Well done!
Renny said…
Thanks John, glad you liked it!