PREVIEW: Ireland's toughest road race...

The last few weeks have been all about preparing the second running of the 'Glendalough Lap of the Gap Marathon'. Sprung from a throw-away idea of doing a race up the Military Road towards Glenmacnass during one of my many training runs there, our club Glendalough AC co-opted the popular cycle route 'Lap of the Gap' and turned it into a marathon and half-marathon festival.

When I began running time was not as important as racing others and the physical challenge of each unique event. This was normal - because I started in mountain running and only later moved on to road, track and cross-country. Running can be an unforgiving sport if races can only be enjoyed if every race brings a PB. This is obviously not realistic (and with age, it will stop anyway) so we were looking to create a race that helps break the constant worship of time. They climbed Everest 'because it was there'. They run the 'Pikes Peak Marathon' in Colorado because there is a special honour in winning a race of such daunting characteristics. Matt Carpenter would probably not be known at all if only times run on flat road racing courses counted. But in Colorado he is a legend having won Pike's Peak 10-times and owning nearly every age-group record on the course.

Seek challenge, not PBs here...

The Lap of the Gap Marathon cannot be run in a personal best unless you happen to have run it aeons ago and you are now in supremely different shape - but it may create a reputation because it takes a special kind of lunatic with specialised 'skills on the hills' to prevail as the winner. With over 760 metres of ascent over the course it is second only to the Snowdonia Marathon in Wales (with 830 metres ascent) in terms of pure elevation gain during the route. The high point at Sallygap of 525 metres towers far above the 376 metres in Snowdonia. Local tougher courses are also far below as can be seen below:

We have put in place add-on prizes for King of the Hill and Queen of the Hill - first finisher to reach the high point at about 22.5 km as well as for new course records. It's doubtful that we will see a time like Snowdonia's 2:28 (run in the 1980ies) in the short-term but an elite runner could certainly put Torben Dahl's inaugural 2:57 time into serious trouble.

Electronic timing of the high point just before Sallygap used for King of the Hill

Half-way, but not nearly finished

While the first half of the course features most of the climb, the runner's travails are by no means over then as there are several nasty 'banks' (as the Laragh locals call these road climbs) before you cross the finish line - including the infamous Oldbridge Bank at the 35 km point, a sharp 800 m climb with 83 metres elevation. Running connoisseurs recognise this as the beginning of Leg 4 of the Wicklow Way Relay. to give you an idea of the difference between 'fresh' and 'I've just run 35 km': leg 4 course record holder Kenneth Keller ran the 800 metres in 3:40. It took third-placed Sean Brosnan (who finished in 2:59:20) just over 10 minutes to make the climb. Both the full and half-marathon finish with a special kind of cruelty - the School Lane Climb behind McCoy's shop in Laragh - 300 metres with 26 metres vertical climb.

Lucy D'Arcy of MyRunResults setting up the King of the Hill timing just before Sallygap

The Glen to Glen Half-marathon has proven extremely popular this year and offers a parallel challenge as well as a bonus. The name means GLENdalough to GLENmacnass Half-marathon and it begins further down Glendalough valley than the full marathon. As a unique feature, runners get to run into the valley first, doing a 1 km lap of the Upper Lake Park with full views of the Upper Lake itself and the flanks of Lugduff and Camaderry mountains before they rejoin the marathon course. The zenith of the half-marathon is the long steep climb up towards the top of Glenmacnass Waterfall - the single longest climb on both courses with its 1.7 km length and 64 metre rise. Once done runners have 9 kilometres with significant net downhill. This year's battle should prove particularly interesting with last year's marathon winner Torben Dahl fighting it out with defending champion Amidou Dembele. We are glad to say both represent the yellow and green of Glendalough AC. But they will not have it their own way as we suspect many 'dark horses' with good pedigree in the race. With Torben out of the full marathon and last year's female winner - Lucy O'Malley - also not racing, potential winners include Ray and Anne-Marie Kenny - both of Parnell AC. Whoever wins it - it will be a magnificent achievement.

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Amidou Dembele (222) sets off with the inaugural Glen to Glen field at the Glendalough Upper Lake

So winning this marathon is about something else than running a fast time - it takes a certain type of physical and mental strength to deliver a result on a course with such uphills and downhills. Anyone doing it once, will make it on to the board we will put up in Lynham's of Laragh - anyone doing it more than once may have a chance of becoming a 'mini-Matt Carpenter' style legend down here!

Organising events - under the hood

When our club took on the race one of the first things that hits you with surprise is the costs involved in organising a major road race. This is not a negative indictment of any of our partners who deliver timing, water, food, venue, parking, lead cars, shuttle buses or other essential services - we have met nothing but fair pricing. But before you even put the show on the road, you can expect to have over €6000 in expenses (more during the first year when you invest in the AAI measurement of the course). This number grows as numbers participating grow - but not at the same rate thankfully. Some costs you would never have thought of such as hosting and website domain or the cost of trademarking logos and brands (which also led to a funny letter from the chainstore GAP who wanted to ensure we didn't encroach on their trademark!). Expenses for our event could easily be higher if not for the goodwill of several local sponsors such as Lynhams of Laragh - who lend us the sweeper shuttle and Avon Motors who lend us the lead cars.

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The 1.7 km climb to Glenmacnass Waterfall - while the longest, it's gradient of 4% is 'manageable'

You can offer lower entry prices by cutting out certain services such as t-shirts and medals whereas other things such as accurate measurement, water and official timing systems are nearly essential these days. We also wanted to offer generous prize money as the competitive aspect of our sport is near and dear to us - participation and personal challenge should be celebrated but not at the expense of recognising excellence. The potential prize fund available to runners is up to €1670 which includes top-3 prizes for men and women, category winners (O40, O50 etc.) for each gender and add-on prizes for King and Queen of the Hill and Course Records. An event like ours needs 183 entrants to break even. Last year we had 166 participants (but no tshirts which kept costs a bit lower) whereas this year we are looking to hit around 230 by race day.

Visions and perspectives

The dream is to eventually match Snowdonia's entry of around 2000 although this may remain a vision as Ireland is a much smaller country and we would have to rely to a large extent on international visitors attracted by the exceptionally challenging course. Since we are running through the national park and on roads heavily frequented by cyclists, tour buses and other road users, full closure of the roads may never be possible (although temporary closure of sections may be). For this reason, we'll grow the event organically - bit by bit, see what is possible and what new challenges arise as the event grows. As an amateur organisation a point will also arise where we need professional support to run the event to avoid the event consuming too much personal time from our volunteers. Glendalough AC is first and foremost tasked with promoting the sport of athletics in Laragh and Glendalough - not organising events. But Lap of the Gap and our other event, Run the Ridge, creates a healthy financial situation for the club allowing us to subsidise membership fees, pay for facility rental and put money aside to invest in facilities and items which will support athletics.

Ideally, I would like to see the event become loved and appreciated in the local community for bringing even more attention to a valley that already has the benefit of being very well-known. There are traffic issues around Laragh and Glendalough - as is well-known. So we have many things to consider as we plan the next steps.

Why is it not a charity event?

Running events commonly collect for charity. We have chosen to collect the money for the sport itself. Since our inceptoin in 2014, we have had over 40 juniors as over 20 senior runners join our ranks. There is no doubt that running has the potential to increase health - quite often by forming a keystone habit around which other healthy habits (such consuming less alcohol or eating better food) forms. My strong personal belief is that we should not forget to get money into running - which is a poor sport compared to soccer, GAA and rugby (among others) - because by improving our sport, we improve the quality of the lives of those who join the sport. Who knows how many illnesses and earlydeaths are prevented by the sport of running and how much it saves our state every year?

Last words

I am looking forward immensely to tomorrow - we were overwhelmed by the redoubtable spirit and positive attitude of last year's entrants and look forward to seeing more of the same tomorrow. We'll do our best to give everyone a safe and enjoyable event and welcome you warmly back into the village of Laragh when finished. On a personal note, I did not really expect to see this crazy idea become reality and could not have been prouder when it did nor could I have been happier with the reception - so a big thank you to the many volunteers in our organisation who believed in the project and without whose help and expertise it would be impossible to do. Outside the club: a special thanks to Paul Mahon's Outfront (for loan of equipment and advice), McCoy's (for general support and water sponsorship last year), to Lynhams of Laragh for lending us their shuttle and Avon Motors for providing lead cars and to Ronan and Lucy at MyRunResults who have really gone the extra yards for us over the last few months.