REVIEW: Wicklow Way Relay 2017 - Director's Report

There is a challenge to writing a Race Director’s report for the Wicklow Way Relay because how do you distil the essence of an event which features at least 34 different perspectives (one for each team) into one narrative. Certain things also remain the same, take these:

  • ·         Mad scramble to get the final team done and replacement secured pre-race CHECK
  • ·         Teams getting lost – including teams fighting for the podium or the gold CHECK
  • ·         Confusion about what constitutes the Wicklow Way on the day and unsubstantiated reports about runners ‘who probably took a shorter’ route
  • ·         Teams entering at the same time
  • ·         Teams dropping out and folding before race day


I could put those together into a report every year and simply change the names and the year in the title and I would probably have the Race Director’s report sorted for the next decade.

The best place to get a true feel for what happened on the day is to read the individual teams’ own reports. That’s the proper ‘inside view’ – many will even say the ‘true’ Wicklow Way Relay happens ‘in the middle of the pack’.  I will look at the high-level event and look to the future here primarily.

Perspective


Having started my own team captaincy career with Crusaders ‘B’ teams (when those were still allowed) before having the fortune to captain a podium team in 2011, I can certainly vouch for there being ‘more action’ for the teams battling for top-20. The battle for top-3 and top-10 is no less ‘true’ to the event though – rather the Wicklow Way Relay has races within races. The front of the field is a bit like watching Formula 1 racing – do not expect a lot of passing, positions set quickly and change only little. Even so, the 15 years of relay racing has seen many incredible dramas for both podium spots and wins with mere seconds deciding the destination of medals and trophies.

Newcomers and dark horses


In my preview, I pointed out the welcome sight of new clubs and organisations having their debuts. In 2016, West Waterford AC were among the newcomers and they came back for more. A few years prior it was East Cork (whose podium challenge was THRICE derailed by navigational error!). This year Westport AC took the long trip across and Wicklow and Pulse Triathlon club joined forces and formed the Wicklow Pulsers.

Many ‘new’ teams are not new: they have just had a short break or they feature ‘old runners in new constellations’. It’s a charm of the relay that unlike the British Fell Relays any type of club or group – no matter how informal – can band together for the day.

Some teams were essentially informal club’s teams – The Hateful 8 and Agony of Defeet were stacked with Crusaders and Studs, Sweat and Stunners were composed of entirely of Glendalough and Parnell AC runners.

A few teams carry a name, and thus legacy, from year to year without any club affiliation: All the President’s Men (not competing this year) defending the honour of the IMRA president, Mountain Swifts the outfit put together by Vivian O’Gorman and so on. A few top teams have come together to challenge the big clubs such as the ‘Adventure Racers’ who ran a fantastic time of 7:18 in 2013 yet only finished 3rd! It would be up to one of these teams to overthrow the reigning order and the story of TT Racers is part of the story of 2017.

 The King is Dead – long live the King!


Rathfarnham could have considered themselves cursed in 2011. Their runners had dominated the hills since 2007 yet they had failed to clinch a relay title (although they had a hand in the win of Johnnie’s flying foxes in 2007). They had taken Silver 2005, 2008 and 2009. 2010 looked to be their year with the absence of great rivals and two-time winners Clonliffe. Yet a big navigational error turned a 20-minute lead into an 18 minute deficit on leg 5 and Boards AC took home the gold. In 2011, there was no more mercy: Rathfarnham’s teamed romped home in a new record – 14 minutes faster than the previous mark. They won again in 2012 in a time only 6 minutes slower. Raheny Shamrocks had been the team ear-marked to topple the emerging dynasty but a navigational error put paid to their efforts in 2012. In 2013, they got it right and put a temporary pause on Rathfarnham’s dominance. It would not last as Rathfarnham took gold again in 2014 and 2015 making it four titles in five years. In both years the nearest contender was not Clonliffe or Raheny or Crusaders but TT Racers.

 TT stands for ‘Trinity Track’ and represents a group of runners training with Terry McConnon. With Raheny not contesting, they were the team determined to take victory. In 2014, they came so close: 1 minute and 2 seconds was all that was in it and in 2015, Ronan Kearns (this year running for Rathfarnham) was eating chunks out of Rathfarnham’s female runner on the final leg. But it still was not enough as the greens had secured too big a lead at that stage. 2016 would be the year and TT Racers had a comfortable 8 minutes on Rathfarnham as they took their first gold medal. Winning a medal is one thing: defending it another entirely. Only two clubs had ever defended the title: Clonliffe (once) and Rathfarnham (twice). Could TT Racers do it?


Leg 1
Pre-race favourites Rathfarnham were one of the teams having seen a late reshuffle after Barry Minnock’s injury at Scalp on Wednesday and Brian Furey being unavailable. This lead Peter O’Farrell back into the team and he arrived in 3rd place with defending champions TT Racers led home by Donore Harrier’s Niall Lynch 57:49. Michael Kiely of Crusaders made it clear that the white and reds from Irishtown were in for a serious challenge finishing 2nd in 59:25. This left TT Racers 1:36 clear of the nearest team and let me ruin the fun and say: they would never relinquish this position again in the race.

I took some friendly banter for not calling out Gareth Little’s ‘Lucky 8’ as potential contenders (a simple oversight) but early 6th place secured by Mikey Fry set them on their way well.  Newcomers SIGue SIGue roared out of the blocks also finishing 5th through Eoin Condron’s strong run.  Greg Byrne would position UCD in 4th – close to their podium finish in 2016 – but with a different line-up this year, the university outfit had slipped out of the top-10 by leg 3 and would go on to finish 13th.

The Wicklow Waysters brought in the rear but they would not stay there….



Leg 2

Des Kennedy increased TT Racers lead to over 7 minutes on leg 2 finishing in 68:53. Brian McMahon’s course record of under 60 minutes still confounds as Des was 8 minutes outside it and yet almost 3 minutes ahead of 2nd fastest runner on leg 2 – the Hurt Squad’s Sean Fox. Rathfarnham’s late reshuffle proved costly when Paul Fleming missed a turn-out towards Djouce and lost about 25 minutes. When he arrived at 9:27 am, Rathfarnham were down to 10th. Crusaders Warren Swords ran the 6th fastest time on leg 2 and lost ground on the Hurt Squad who moved into the podium and within 24 seconds of 2nd

Glendalough/Parnell Fusion moved up from 10th to 5th through a strong run by Ray Kenny from Parnell AC but Brian Caulfield did enough to ensure 4th place was some way off in the distance for the locals. A close rivalry was forming already here between Caoimhin MacMaolain’s Ticknock Trailers and Vivian O’Gorman’s Mountain Swifts. SIGue ran out of steam somewhat here dropping from 5th place to 20th. The Wicklow Waysters climbed off the bottom spot and left it to new team ‘All my friends are actually deer’.

Leg 3

‘Girl Power’ generally takes over on leg 3 where only 5 of the 34 runners competing were men. Niamh Devlin continued to build TT Racers lead – now over 10 minutes while Sonya McConnon had a superb run to not only knock Crusaders back to 3rd place but also created almost 3 minutes of additional cushion for the Hurt Squad – impressive on the shortest course of the route. Her time of 34:40 was the second fastest on the leg, on the day, only 1 second behind Niamh Devlin! What a race it would have been if they had started together.

On the edge of the top-10, Rathfarnham began their slow climb back up with Vanessa Sallier taking them up into 9th at the expense of UCD. Former Rathfarnham runner Catherine Devitt – now back running for her local team Glendalough, ate up time on Lucy O’Malley to put Glendalough/Parnell within 33 seconds of the Hurt Squad in 4th.

Tinahely Tri Club were on a remarkable journey at this stage which would continue to the end: now up from 17th to 14th they would continue to hold position or improve for the rest of the race. But would it be enough to emulate the two 9th place finishes they secured in their maiden years competing in the event? Brothers Pearse AC ran into trouble here – dropping 5 spots to 17th. They would go on to finish 16th.

Leg 4

Rory O’Connor of TT Racers took even more time on the most scenic route of the relay leaving Hurt Squad 15 minutes behind and lowering the record on the current version of the course to 40:04 – taking 1 minute 1 second off Eoin McLoughlin’s mark. Ratfarnham's Ronan Kearns came very close as well with 41:05 - now the third fastest time run on the zig-zag descent version of the course. The old record of on the slightly longer route (100 m) of 37:42 set by Kenneth Kelleher will still be a time runners will look to beat, however, to finally settle who is ‘King of Leg 4’.

Crusaders meanwhile lost further ground on 2nd place and, adding insult to injury, could see The Lucky 8’s Gareth Little encroach on their podium spot to within 55 seconds. This run also put some space between Lucky 8 in 4th and Glendalough (who remained 5th). Ticknock Trailers – another dark horse team – gained 20 seconds back and looked set for a top-6 push at this stage. Behind them Rathfarnham moved up to 7th pushing Mountain Swifts into 8th. The Hateful 8 stayed 9th and UCD 10th. Catherine Thornton was the fastest lady on the day with 47:51.

David Butler punched ‘above weight’ for his team Wicklow Pulsers who remained in 18th but would set them up for later gains. For the teams between 15 and 30th place it was musical chairs at this stage. One example: West Waterford AC – looking to better last year’s 22nd place where continuously being pushed to the edge of the top-20 at this stage. But they had a few cards up their sleeves yet…


Leg 5

The long climb out of Glendalough brought another spot for Rathfarnham who climbed to 6th courtesy of Jason Reid setting the 2nd fastest time of the day. But TT Racers now had a massive 21 minutes lead over Hurt Squad who were in trouble now. Crusaders closed to within 12 seconds of them. In the battle for 4th to 6th, Glendalough took back about 25 seconds courtesy of Angus Tyner who also created a cushion of 3 minutes down to the Ticknock Trailers. UCD still held a 5-minute lead over the Hateful 8 for 9th and 10th with the nearest contender being Cork Orienteers – a minute further back.

Grassroots Fitness had a bad spell here dropping from 25th to 28th and they would briefly go on to occupy 34th and last spot before wresting themselves free late on and finish 28th.

Three men dipped under the 1-hour – the blue-ribbon performance on leg 5 – Tom Lupton, Jason Reid and John Mulvihill. Parnell’s Aisling Kirwan – running for the Studs, Sweat and Stunners – was fastest female runner in 71:46.


Leg 6  
Now things were really moving fast: Rathfarnham’s Louis McCarthy had a storming run of 49 minutes flat returning his club to the podium. John McAuley of Crusaders also ran well moving them into 2nd place and Ben Mooney advanced the Lucky 8 from 5th to 4th. Before the storm was over Hurt Squad had been reduced from 2nd place to 5th! Glendalough/Parnell’s Tom Moore had a cracking run – the 2nd fastest on the leg – not enough to stop his team dropping to 6th but creating a substantial cushion of over 11 minutes to the next team – the Ticknock Trailers.

Tinahely’s Stephen Perry also had a great run pushing his team into the top-10 for the first time on the day at the expense of the Hateful-8 who dropped to 12th. Out and Abouts Kevin O’Riordan got lost and his team dropped from 25th to 33rd while Grassroots Fitness 34th. ‘All my friends’ found themselves happily in 28th and Rush Running advanced 7 spots to 24th with Andreas Kusch doing his first of a ‘double-shift’ (he’d also do leg 8 for his team).

With three legs to go a glimmer of excitement for the win appeared: TT Racers lead had been cut to 15 minutes.

Leg 7

The long leg 7 can put paid to leads even in the double-digits. Paul Mahon laced up his boots for the 2nd time here – having done leg 1 earlier for Studs, Sweats and Stunners (finishing 12th) he was ready for another 21.1 km finishing 13th overall in a respectable 1:40:44.

Brendan Murphy killed off any remaining doubt of as to where victory would go setting a day best time of 83:35. Crusaders’ Ciaran Diviney ran 87:39 to recreate the gap between them and old rivals Rathfarnham. David Power’s 90:33 was the third best time of the day but halted what had looked like an inevitable charge for 2nd. Anyone who knows the history of the Dublin clubs, know neither the Cru nor Rathfarnham would want to concede an inch against each other now.

Former Irish international Gerard Heery showed that class is permanent setting the fourth best time and moving Mullaghmeen Warriors into 11th place. Hurt Squad’s Brian O’Murchu ran 94:17 but with 6 minutes to the podium now, their focus shifted to The Lucky 8 only 32 seconds behind them ahead of the final 10 km. Glendalough/Parnell were in trouble and lost any remaining chance of advancing to 5th. Vivian O’Gorman’s Mountain Swifts looked to have left it too late though – despite a good run by John Bell they would go into leg 8 with 6 minutes to make up.

Tinahely and Cork Orienteers advanced into 9th and 10th and pushed UCD into 13th place. West Waterford meanwhile set the 10th best time here to move up to 18th. The leg was expensive for ‘All my running friends’ who dropped 6th places to 34th.


Leg 8

The final leg turned into a bit of a quiet affair with – 8 teams lost spaces but none of the top-14 changed places. But there were notable highlights:

Laura O’Shaughnessy won leg 8 OUTRIGHT and broke the existing ladies record with a time of 36:57. This is a rare event: Leg 3 sees it happen more than anything - Fiona Reid won that outright in 2010, Eilis Connery did it on the same leg in 2011, then Niamh Devlin in 2014 and 2017. But leg 3 has very few male runners in compared to leg 4 and leg 8. Kate Cronin won leg 4 in 2014 in the 14th fastest time ever run on the leg. Laura’s time to compare is the 7th fastest ever run and the closest another woman has gotten to this time is Donna Mahon – with 39:28 in 2011 (where she finished 4th on the leg) almost 3 minutes 37 seconds slower.

Behind Laura, Linda Byrne ran the 3rd fastest time by a woman ever in the relay in 39:45. Le Cheile's Mark Augustin was first man in 3rd position and 40:16. West Waterford AC had their best run on the day when Ray Hahesy - an M50 - finished 6th. 

Overall


Back in 2017, her victory confirmed TT Racers but also showed how agonisingly close they came to an interesting record: they won 7 out of 8 legs and only Louis McCarthy’s stormer on leg 6 stopped a clean sweep. Even Rathfarnham’s record breakers in 2011 did not have a clean sweep: they were beaten on leg 2 by Ian Conroy (running for Motley Cru), on leg 5 by Colm Hill of the Bulletin Boards, on leg 6 by Des Kennedy (also Motley Cru) and on leg 8 by Ian McGrath (Boards), Tom O’Connor (Nifty Fifties) and Declan Horgan (Cru). In other words even during the record time Rathfarnham had only 4 stage victories, 3 x 2nd place finishes and 1 x 4th place finish, so winning even 7 out of 8 is not an easy thing to do.

The winning time of 7:17:32 was the sixth fastest time ever although we must account for the route being about 2 km shorter in recent years. More pertinent for TT Racers they improved their last time on the ‘shorter’ course 7:20:02 and gotten 4 medals from 6 appearances moving up to 2nd in the medal table for official club teams:



Most improved teams from 2016 were Le Cheile who moved up 11 spots to 14th followed by Brothers Pearse who improved 5 spots to 16th. Out and about Fast Fingers and West Waterford both gained 4 spots. In the top-10 the main improvers were Crusaders (4th to 2nd) and Glendalough (2 spots to 6th) with UCD on the opposite end dropping 10 spots from 3rd to 13th. Jeff Swords team dropped 15 spots from 18th to 33rd but five of the spots were courtesy of their team not being competitive on the day (not having the right constituent team members).

Generation Strava


Today, we can view most of the action as it happened on Strava: the eight legs have their own segments for people to scrutinise and analyse. Let us use the example of Kenneth Kelleher’s record on leg 4 from 2014 as an example. That year Coillte had changed the final parts of the Paddock Hill descent to a longer and possibly slower (albeit less technical) descent through the woods to the Military road. Kenneth ran a fine time of

With questions, every year about whether ‘some runners took went on the road early in leg 6’ and similar, we must evolve the relay in future years. The simple solution is to invest in one GPS tracker per team that is carried and to develop a permanent webpage for the relay with up-to-date GPS instructions. We will still need to sort out how to validate the tracking information in time for the prize-giving in Shillelagh and how to deal with the regular re-routes of the last 3 years, but here are two solutions that would offer some benefit for the long-term.

‘Generation Strava’ has its benefits: transparency is always good and for the individual runner it allows you to analyse in more detail than ever how you ran the race. The Wicklow Way legs are full of traps set for the unsuspecting and the over-eager: leg 7’s early hill plus fast descent snares you in to eventual destruction by the ford or the final road. Leg 4’s ‘sprint for the onlookers’ up the sadistic OldBridge Bank* or the long road home to Shillelagh once you leave the trail for the last time. A look back at your records may give away whether you made such a mistake and allow you to avoid it. Looking at leg 6 this year, Louis McCarthy’s brilliant time obviously made a few think ‘did he go on the road early’ – and in this case a quick look at his Strava file showed he had taken the full course.

* spare a thought for the marathoners in my other project – Lap of the gap – who will encounter this climb after having already run 35 km

 The future


I urge people interested in the event to read the three reports from the record-breaking year (2011) on the IMRA webpage. When I re-read it, I could not believe I had missed Gerry Brady (then IMRA High Performance Officer’s) sage advice on how to improve the event and allow less more teams in:

“If the sell-out level of demand continues then a split start could be considered with teams expecting overall times slower than ten hours starting at 7 am and faster times getting a lie-in for an extra 90 minutes. that would lighten the car park congestion, bring the teams from the two starts together in the middle of the race and alleviate the need to use mass starts for later legs to keep the field compressed. A coloured bib attached to the racing singlet could be used to distinguish the teams by start time at a glance.”


If I keep the baton of race directorship for next year I may advocate for this change. I am a firm believer that sometimes it is better to simply try something and then discard it if it doesn’t work rather than debating whether something will work or not work for years. Implementing something provides clear answer and negative changes can always be undone. Like all solutions is has certain potential drawbacks: teams from far away may overestimate their finishing time to get the later start or we may simply shift the burden to later car parks. It has also been mooted to implement the timing chip used in the Wicklow Way Race and have each team carry theirs as the ‘baton’. This may also have several advantages.

With those thoughts, I close the book on 2017’s Wicklow Way Relay – see you next year. My own thoughts now move onto The Relay on 10th of June (yes, I have a thing for relays)…



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