PREVIEW: Wicklow Way Relay 2017

Trophy by artist Richie Healy - what you'll be fighting for
The relay is almost upon us and final teams will be locked down at 5 pm this evening. Runners: bring your smiley faces as Runner's World will be covering the event. A pity the weather could not have stayed at its very best for 48 hour more - but at least we will not have any incidents of heatstroke this time around!

34 teams tow the line this year - 5 up on 2016. Defending champions TT Racers (Trinity Track) are back to defend their title and as a new feature each team that ran in 2016 carries the finishing number of their final placement. This means TT Racers can enjoy running with 'Numero Uno' - something traditionally done by the Race Director's team or the IMRA President's team*.

* The sitting IMRA president has no team this year as it had to be withdrawn due to injuries and other commitments putting a temporary end to the fine results set by 'All the President's Men' in the latest years with the highlight their Bronze medals in 2012.

This year's line-up

A few of the big teams that have defined the relay are notable by their absence: Setanta (Gold 2003, Silver  2002 and 2004, Bronze 2005), Raheny Shamrocks (gold medallists 2013), Clonliffe Harriers (Gold in 2008 and 2009, Bronze 2007 and 2009, with a b-team!), Sli Cualann (Bronze 2014 and Silver 2007), Sportsworld (Bronze 2015) and East Cork AC who despite successive leg 7 records from Tim O'Donoghue where undone by runner getting lost.  Local team Sli Cualann are not entirely absent, however, as two of its constituent clubs (Parnell and Glendalough AC) are competing in the event and many other Wicklow club runners are to be found among other teams. Kilcoole AC are also entered for the first time.

Many of the historical top teams will be competing including the most dominant team in the history of the relay and the record holders from Rathfarnham WSAF (9 medals, 4 gold and 5 silver). Rathfarnham have only once finished off the podium - in 2008 when their B-team finished fourth and their a-team 2nd! Other 'classical teams' include Crusaders (Silver 2011 and Bronze 2008) and defending champions TT Racers who also took silver in 2014 and 2015 and have been on the podium every year they have competed.

Welcome newcomers are Westport AC, Kilcoole AC and also good to see newly regular and regular clubs such as Mullaghmeen, Gap Trail Runners, Dunshaughlin, West Waterford, Brothers Pearce and Liffey Valley trails Runners and Le Cheile back for more.

20 teams out of the 34 contesting our 2017 event are back to defend last year's position or improve upon it.

Last year's and this year's battles

Rathfarnham look like early favourites to reclaim their title from TT Racers but expect a close race between those two teams. UCD and Crusaders look set to have another close battle for 3rd and 4th or take advantage of a slip-up from the top-2 with Hurt Squad (last year's 5th place) expected to be in the mix as well. 

Mountain Swifts, Glendalough and Tinahely will be part of the top-10 contenders again but should face stark challenges from new teams Cork Orienteers and the Hateful 8 with several teams being unknown quantities such as the Western Warriors of Westport AC and Kilcoole AC's debutante team. Mullaghmeen Warriors are good enough to also knock down the top-10 door - so lots to play for. 

The Wicklow Way Relay is in a good way with the average time having come down in the later years:

Podium times on the other hand have slowed down a bit - having peaked in 2013 when the average time of a podium team was 7 hours 12 minutes. Only in three years was the average podium time over 8 hours (2002, 2003 and 2010) and speaking of that...


Blue ribbon performances

A blue ribbon performance for a Wicklow Way Relay team can be considered finishing under 8 hours something 46 teams have accomplished (out of 451 total attempts). Only 10 teams have finished below 8 hours without also finishing on the podium and only one team has ever won the relay with a team slower than 8 hours. In fact, only nine of the 46 medals awarded have been to teams slower than 8 hours.

Due to the reroute of leg 6, the relay is about 4-8 minutes faster than normal so times in 2016 and 2017 must be seen in that light - to run a 'true' sub-8 hour performance a team should run at least 7 hours 55 minutes this year. Conditions, of course, also play a part. Had the weather stayed as dry as it would have been 48 hours ago, we would be looking at very fast times especially on leg 1, 2, 4 and 5 where there is a big advantage to dry terrain in parts.

The course record for the so-called 'new course' is 7:03:13. An older record of 7:17:21 is still recognised for the Blister Bunch in 2004 before widescale reconstruction of the Wicklow Way began. Such a distinction is no longer helpful as the Wicklow Way is being continuously updated. What everyone wants to see is clear to my mind: a sub-7 hour time. This is possible: if you combine the male records on leg 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7 with the female records on leg 3 and 8 you get a time of 6 hours 36 minutes. Combining all male times (not a competitive team, of course) yields a time of 6 hours 28 minutes 52 seconds.

Gold medal times peaked in the period around the record - 2011 to 2013 were the current zenith of the competitive level of the Wicklow Way Relay with winning times of 7:03 (the record), 7:09 and 7:04. Much of this was triggered by a fierce rivalry between the Dublin clubs in those years. Of the top-10 fastest times ever set 4 were set by Rathfarnham WSAF, 2 by Clonliffe Harriers, 1 by Raheny and the remaining three by non-club teams.

Gold medal times by year

Some statistics

Most prolific Wicklow Way Relay runners: John McEnri (21 legs run), Des Noonan (15 legs) and Eoin Keith and Brendan Lawlor (14 legs) . Emma Sokell has run the most female legs (13)

Most prolific runners by leg: Leg 1 (Derek Charles - 8 times), Leg 2 (Thomas Galvin - 12 times), Leg 3 (Seamus Kilcullen, RIP - 10 times), Leg 4 (Ger Power and Ken Devlin - 7 times), Leg 5 (Brian Phelon - 11 times), Leg 6 (James Cottle, Rosemary Monahan and Ben Mooney - 5 times), Leg 7 (Declan Swords, Martin Francis and Brian Furey - 6 times), Leg 8 (Maureen Lowther - 6 times)

Fastest winning time: 7 hours 3 minutes 13 seconds (Rathfarnham WSAF 2011)

Fastest Bronze medal (last on the podium): 7 hours 18 minutes 4 seconds (The Adventure Racers 2013)

Slowest winning time: 8 hours 45 minutes 52 seconds (Free Cobh 2002)

Slowest podium finish: 9 hours 2 minutes 19 seconds (The Duathletes 2002)

Females competing in the Relay: 1056

Males competing in the relay: 2561

A good overview of the fastest, slowest and average times for each leg can be seen below:

Finally, let's finish by looking at the 'health' of the relay. With 34 teams competing this year we are breaking a negative trend - from 2008 to 2013, 30 to 37 teams competed every year. This year 36 teams entered and 34 made the start line. An official 'cap' of 30 teams has been part of this development. This year more teams than the cap were allowed in due to them all arriving together.