RECCE: Run the Ridge

‘What better way to spend a day like this.’ Such was the sentiment of Torben Dahl, our Race Director for the inaugural Run the Ridge race, as we slogged up the first of two slow drags on the Wicklow Way section of the semi-looped course. The Sunday sun had abandoned our hills and with it any opportunity to ‘run the ridge’ with dry feet. On a such a day the Derrybawn Ridge, the mountain traverse that has lend its name to the event, offers one of the easiest and fastest open mountain trails in Wicklow. Today would be very different but Torben, Gypsy (my trusty dog) and I could put those thoughts well into the future as we first had 10 km of meandering uphill on first the Glendalough Green Road and then the Wicklow Way to contend with.

The Derrybawn Ridge

We started out at 10:30 am, the weather warm but plenty of easy drizzle in the air, following the official start from the Laragh GAA pitch past the Woollen Mills and then into the first short and steep climb onto trail. The first junction of the course follows shortly after – runners take the higher path up the (in)famous zig-zag trail instead of continuing on the Green Road towards Glendalough. These zig-zags have formed part of many hill running sessions for our local club Glendalough AC and with good reason: the gradients are punishing in places but the trail itself is a joy to run. After about 2 km of mainly uphill running, the trail relents and a short flat section follows to the 2.5 km point. The junction is important to note: on the 8th of October, two courses will be run as part of the ‘Run the Ridge’ event – an 8 km trail event and a 20 km hybrid trail and open mountain run. The latter is the main event that the name refers to as only that event brings runners all the way out onto the Derrybawn Ridge. The shorter route takes a left-turn here with the longer course continuing straight ahead.

Derrybawn mountain itself is part of the greater Mullacor massiff forming a nearly continuous ridge from boggy Corrig close to Lugnacoille all the way to Laragh village. The mountain is lower than most of its Wicklow cousins (495 metres at the highest peak) but made up of seven small ‘heads’. It has featured in a few classical races organised by the Irish Mountain Running Association – such as the original Ballybraid route and the daunting ‘Circuit of Glendalough’ – and also has to be conquered midway through the Wicklow Round Challenge.

Vertical metres for the money

In ‘Run the Ridge’ you approach the mountain from the Western side. As Torben, Gypsy and I pass by the junction, we continue towards the Wicklow Way. This is a flatter section with both ups and downs but not long climbs and also one of the best viewing points of the Upper Lake. Shortly after this we finally intersect the Wicklow Way after about 6 km of running and now continue on it towards Drumgoff and Glenmalure. Come 8th of October you’ll be greeted by Autumn colours throughout this section as most of the first 10 km are on forest trails. Around 8.5 km into the run we leave the Wicklow Way behind us taking a left turn. The trail gets softer and gentler here. Our legs were tired from the weekend’s racing and we were beginning to feel a bit weary of the long climb – thankfully you reach the most interesting part of the course just as you’re likely to experience the same thing. Just before the 10 km mark you break through the forest at a gate and emerge on open mountain. A short steep grassy trail leads you to the far end of the Mullacor ridge. The trail here is easy to follow and wider than you might expect for an open mountain trail. After about another 500m of running you hit a left turn – as you gaze down it you can see the full 3 km of the Derrybawn Ridge where the fun really begins. 

'You're certainly getting good value for money in this race,' Torben nodded with reference to the plentiful climbing and variety of terrain we had encountered before the ridge was even over. I couldn't help think that it would make a perfect final strength builder ahead of Dublin - being 22 days exact ahead of the Dublin Marathon.

With the rain pouring the ridge is slippy and some care must be taken but Derrybawn Ridge remains a friendly ridge without dangerous drops and very extreme terrain. But you will bring shoes with grip if you know what is good for you. After many short ups and downs, we arrived at the summit cairn which tells you that the ridge is about to end. You cross a short muddy section before a careful trot past a steeper rocky section and then take a right-turn at a very visible y-junction. Like the rest of the course this will be clearly marked on the day.

It’s single-file here for a brief spell on a narrow trail of dirt and grass before you emerge back on a rock-strewn trail. The penultimate ascent ‘hides’ on this trail – just as you don’t expect it a short steep climb pops out of nowhere. Then a furiously fast descent to the point where the long course rejoins the short course on the very back-end of what is called ‘Derrybawn Woods’ locally. It is here that a slight cruelty awaits: a final climb of nearly a kilometer but then you are done. All that remains is to descend to the zig-zags and follow the first 2 kilometres back to the GAA pitches. Keep in mind that your work will not be done until you have done an 800m lap of the full GAA pitches and cross the finish line mat. Why are we so cruel? Well partly we want a good show as people enter but we also wanted to create an 8 km and a 20 km route which this final ‘lap of honour’ allows. Just plan this into your race pacing – the going can be tough on the heavy grass on tired legs – ours certainly was. Relief is not far away – water and spread will await you and a nice cool river is less than 200 m walk from the finish line. Going back for lunch at my house we felt nicely 'worked out'. At an easy pace the run took us 2 hours 15 minutes.

We think people will really enjoy this route and hope to see a good inaugural crowd. As a long-time admirer of the fell and mountain running culture of the British Lake District, Glendalough AC and myself are eager to grow the event into a true 'Sports Day' with grass track races and other events. But its been our experience that doing everything at once leads to not doing everything the best possible way. So this year we begin with the long and short course and a junior course (route to be confirmed) and if you enjoy the event as much as we do we'll continue to develop from here and continue our work of developing sports development in the Laragh/Glendalough area.

Authors note: Run the Ridge was conceived to raise funds for Laragh GAA and Glendalough AC. It began with a recce by myself and Niall Corrigan, chairman of Glendalough AC, and further explorations followed by Niall and Barry Murray, the Wicklow and Kerry Way winner and owner of OptimumNutrition4Sport. Niall Corrigan took the early blueprints which were generally 18.5 km in length to arrive at the current version which is definitely superior as it uses the best trails onto the ridge and the least involved descent from it. Many descents from Derrybawn lead to rough terrain and private ground and some extend the route unnecessarily to what we wished to achieve.  A final modification - the 800m lap was added to bring the long course to 20 km and the short to 8 km. The short route was based on my earlier conception - the Derrybawn Woods trail race, run as part of the IMRA Trail League in 2014 - however this route is heavily modified. firstly the starting point is now different (moved from the Green Road on the Glendalough side to the GAA pitches in Laragh) and the route is run counter-clockwise rather than clockwise. The zig-zags remain the biggest challenge of both routes - both coming up and going down - but runners now avoid the rough overgrown terrain and instead stay to better trails. This way we feel the two races offer a nice balance: an approachable and straightforward trail challenge and a long hybrid race which is both a physical challenge and, during the 3.5 km open mountain section, a technical one. This should not leave the illusion that the run the Ridge run is 16.5 km of easy fire-road. Trail surfaces are very varied on the route and meanders constantly - boredom should not be a problem!

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