RACES: Wicklow Way Relay 2017 - 10 years in the making

It was 2007 when I first heard about the Wicklow Way Relay. My fledgling hill running career had come to a crashing halt at my maiden run - Lugnacoille 2006 - where a sprained ankle meant my first recorded IMRA result was 'DNF'. The buzz of the descent and the friendliness and helpfulness of Mick Kellett and John Shiels, who accompanied me off the mountain, meant I would be back. 2007 had been busy, my ankle had just healed and I had thrown myself at the usual 'beginner's buffet' of Winter League, Spring League, NIMRA races (Donard!), and long hard weekend slogs. The Wicklow Round had not yet been conquered partly because it was in its original - longer - version including the significant detour to Croghanmoira. A crack team consisting among others of then IMRA chairman Tony Kiernan, Gary Moralee and Aisling Coppinger had failed to break the 24-hour barrier in two attempts. What does all this have to do with the Wicklow Way Relay 2017 - a decade later?

It was in June before this Wicklow Round attempt I first heard of the Relay from my now wife Aoife. We weren't going out then and I had not even joined Crusaders (at her recommendation) at this stage. So the relay seemed like a difficult thing to get involved in - I simply did not know enough to figure out how to get on a team. While the 2007 Wicklow Way Relay took place on one of the hottest and sunniest days of the year, myself and my colleague Conor Murray did a 9-hour recce of the section of the Wicklow Round around Lugnacoille.

Richie Healy - the sculptor behind the WWR trophies - was the sort of class hill runner I could call upon for early Crusaders teams - he would run leg 1 as part of my 2009 and 2011 teams

Johnnie's Flying Foxes took victory in 7:22 - 13 minutes ahead of Sli Cualann with Clonliffe Harriers in 3rd after Colm Mullen had given Sli Cualann an early lead on leg 1 before Sean O'Heigeartaigh put five minutes into the otherwise formidable Cormac Conroy who had not long before been a Leinster League winner. Aoife herself would set the fourth fastest time on leg 4 that year and that's also the position her team - the Cruising Cuties - would finish in. For the real nostalgics you will want to know that mountain running legend and former Ben Nevis winner John Brooks won leg 5 in 57:40 while Rathdrum native Mick Byrne won the last 'short' version of leg 7 in 87 minutes. The leg did not include the heartbreaking climb to Crossbridge then but finished mercifully at the bridge. Poor parking meant this would never again be the finish.

Silver medals in 2011 on a team that included Aoife, Richie Healy, Tony Collins, Des Kennedy, Declan Horgan, Ian Conroy and myself. Jason Kehoe (injured) was captain

So 2008 was a new day for the relay with changes to leg 7 and leg 8 and I had gone from mountain running novice to captain of the Crusaders 'B' team (no cap was yet in place). It was an EPIC battle as TWO Rathfarnham team competed with perhaps the strongest Crusaders and Clonliffe teams to ever take the field in the relay. A team featuring Barry Minnock, Eoin Keith and John Brooks could not overcome the might of Clonliffe and a Crusaders outfit stacked with sub-2:30 marathoners was 18 minutes adrift when they collected their bronze medals.

Much further back in the field, my team cruised into 15th place in 9 hours 16 minutes on a day where I learnt much about what it takes to compete in the relay. An unknown runner called Jason Kehoe had finished our leg 1 in an unspectacular 68:50. Four years later he won Carrauntoohil, claimed the Irish Championship and represented his country at Snowdon. I made my debut by running leg 7 in 1:40 chasing down a 2-minute gap on Niall McAlinden and catching him at the ford only to be punished for my overly fast start and losing almost 3 minutes on the final 7 km. Lesson learned. Leg 7 would define my personal relationship to the Relay until 2011. In 2009, I improved to my best time there - 93:18 - and our Crusaders B team finished 13th after suffering a loss of 20 minutes to navigation error on leg 3. This was the first time my team experienced this but it would not be the last.

Rathfarnham and Barry Minnock (pictured) - two dominant forces of the Wicklow Way Relay

I sat out 2010 and in 2011 had assembled a Crusaders A team. While I ran a bit below ability myself (95 minute leg 7), my team had a spectacular race finishing 2nd in 7:36 a mere 9 seconds ahead of Boards AC - then a very active outfit in the hills. It was not enough to take the final step to the podium as Rathfarnham decided to break the record that year with 7:03. In 2012, the race conflicted with my Copenhagen Marathon goal, so I decided to purely captain and put together another strong team. We had 1 and 15 minute gaps down to 3rd and 4th place when Liam Morris went walk-about on leg 5 - eventually returning 40 minutes later than predicted. Raheny, one of the teams who took advantage, got lost themselves and ended up off the podium in 4th while we recovered to 6th. I did not know it at the time but this would be my last Crusaders team. The club continued while I 'sat out' finishing 13th and 14th in 2013 and 2014. When I returned in 2015, I had taken over from Stuart Scott as Race Director. Stuart himself had taken on the much more daunting task of carrying on Joe Lalor's legacy. I recruited Jason as 'Vice Director' which eventually lead to the current model of having one Race Director focused on 'pre and post race' work and one on 'on the day' organisation. My team was now Glendalough AC - a small club with not yet 20 adult members - and my pretensions were no longer medals but just top-10. We achieved this finishing 7th in 2015 and 8th in 2016 both times having terrific battles with our friends in Tinahely Tri whom we beat by only 16 seconds and 1 minute 57. My old club Crusaders were resurgent and only missed out on a silver medal last year by 23 seconds.

Crone Wood 2008 - chasing 'unknown' Jason Kehoe

With all this history, I looked to the 2017 event and for most of 2016 I had made up my mind to hand over the reins to someone else. This was until I got an email from Laura Flynn to discuss potential dates. The date in recent years - around 20th of May - was not available due to an important race at Donard in Norther Ireland where European and World Trials would be held. My 'new project' - the Lap of the Gap Marathon would take place on the 27th of May leaving me unavailable and also crossing over many of the choke points of the relay (notably Oldbridge). Eventually we settled on the 13th of May under the understanding that I would take on the mantle of Race Director once more.

A new era - running leg 6 for Glendalough AC. We did not even have our own singlets yet!

I had managed to outsource team captaincy of our Glendalough team to Flora McKnight as this is a big job and not easy to combine with race directorship. Like most teams, we suffered some last minute surprises when two of our best runners: Torben Dahl and Barry Murray had to drop out of contention for the team. Our strong female runner Claire O'Callaghan also had to send her respects as communion duties got in the way. Suddenly we were three down. Our back-up runners had already committed themselves to other teams so we did what all clever teams do: we went poaching and in our own back yard. Tom Moore and Ray Kenny from Parnell AC were signed up on loan contracts (it would prove a shrewd set of acquisitions) and we then had the added fortune of Rachel Wisdom - out for 6 months with a knee injury - declaring herself fit for racing duty. Despite her long lay-off she would run only just a minute slower than the previous year proving that you don't have to lose lots of fitness if you otherwise look after yourself while you cannot run.

This should have seen us in the clear. At this stage two of the 36 teams that had signed off had collapsed and changes were flying in left right and centre. Barry Minnock got injured at Scalp only three days before depriving the race of his quality and forcing the pre-race favourites into a large reshuffle (which would prove costly). Runners were also touting their skillset on the IMRA forum - Peter O'Farrell got the gig vacated by Barry Minnock and Paul Mahon - remarkably - managed to get himself signed up for not one but TWO teams. It is a good thing irregular betting patterns are not an issue in mountain running!

Jason had the volunteers under control and despite a mixed weather forecast, we looked good to go both as an event and as a team. Things would still turn chaotic...

In part 2: Glendalough AC and personal report