DIARY: Trail Running holidays (for Danes)

These last four days have seen me busy guiding a group of Danish trail runners around the Wicklow hills as part of our first trip in collaboration with the Danish company Løberejser.dk (owned by Jørn Andersen). The trip is a so-called 'Explorer' trip and the basic idea is to run from point to point - ideally mainly on trails and preferably straight of the plane if possible! A mixture of cultural enlightenment and physical challenge is called for as the runners test themselves against the routes, absorb the novel scenery and listen to the anecdotes about local history, folklore and Irish mountain running sporting tales.

Torben captures a nice shot of Lough Dan during Day 3 of the trip

The story behind

Torben Dahl and I formed 'Trailløbsferie.dk' last in 2016 (literally the name means 'Trail Running Holidays') after a brainstorm across a cup of coffee. Both of us have chosen Ireland as our adopted country, heavily influenced by a common love for the Irish hills. We reasoned that if two Danes could enjoy the Wicklow hills, perhaps more could. The conversation had started from a castaway observation on Torben's part that 'trail running is becoming very popular in Denmark'. From there we realised we had similar ideas and with my local knowledge as a resident of the Garden County coupled with Torben's extensive experience with adventure tourism, the venture was sprung.

Coming off Djouce

A few months after this conversation Jørn Andersen contacted us - he had been doing trail running holidays all over Europe for Danish trail runners for a while but was looking for local contacts in Ireland. We bounced a few ideas back and forth and the first tour 'In the footsteps of the vikings' was finalised. Six months later, this Thursday, eleven Danish runners and Jørn stepped off the plane in Dublin Airport ready to devour the menu we had put together for them.

Jørn Andersen of Løberejser.dk 

Torben and I were waiting to serve as guides. Torben was particularly well warmed up for the event having done the Glen to Glen Half-marathon Saturday and Trooperstown Hill the day before!

Route choice

There are many options for a trip southbound from Dublin - the obvious being the Wicklow Way. But that option was clearly not the most interesting as many of the adjacent trails offer better views and more tempting underfoot conditions. Route testing continued until quite late - with Torben and I going over different options as late as Tuesday this week before settling on the final routes that would take us between the designated stay over points at Knockree, Lus Mor and Glendalough International Hostel.

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A good place to start a journey - Marlay Park

Day 1 - Marlay to Knockree (21 km, 800m climb)

We set out from the official starting point of the Wicklow Way adjacent Marlay House and used the flatness of the park as a warm-up before the punishing gradients of Kilmashogue Lane took over. This was a tough cookie to devour straight off the plane but the group eventually settled in nicely for the climb to Fairy Castle. The Wicklow Way was our companion for the most part here before we diverted briefly (to the summit) onto the Dublin Mountain Way and then finally onto a small technical descent directly southbound. This lead us onto the trail near the golf course in Glencullen and to the road immediately north of Johnnie Foxes. Here we could put our feet up briefly for a late lunch before the trip continued directly south to the entrance of Annacrivey Woods.

Darker colours and darker weather on Day 1 in the Dublin Mountains

For those 'in the know' this option allows you to spend much less time on the road than you would when following the Wicklow Way and wanting to stop-in at Johnnie Foxes. It also avoids a very long and rather dull climb on fire-road. Instead, we had an interesting trek through the semi-maze that is Annacrivey until the Raven's Rock. Here we rejoined the Wicklow Way allowing it to lead us to rest and respite at Knockree. We Danes are not exactly used to long climbs, so this was a challenging afternoon day but there was more to come. Like any good story, the tension ramps up towards the middle.

Day 2 - Knockree to Ballinafunshoge (29.8 km, 1100m ascent)

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The 'friendly valley' below Knockree

In delightful sunny weather we descended onto the green parts of the Wicklow Way between the Knockree Hostel and Crone Wood - another nice section to get blood flowing into sleep-ridden legs. From Crone there is always climb and we opted for the steeper and smaller paths between the trees eventually diverting from the Wicklow Way to visit Powerscourt Waterfall where we took a break for coffee and icecream in the sun!
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Djouce summit

From here we crossed the river to enter Djouce Woods and join the popular 'zig-zag' climb which showcases some of the best forest trails of the area. We stumbled over a little cave where fresh water dripped from the ceiling and stopped to help ourselves to a drink. Eventually, we exited the forest at the lake and began the long climb to first the Wicklow Way and then Djouce itself which was summited after a lunch break beneath its shadow. There was time for some descending talk and a 'test run' off the back of Djouce and then we were on the boardwalks which you can only love and hate at the same time. Our next short step was obvious: a look at a Lough Tay from above before following the Wicklow Way down to the Pier Gates.

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It's not a trip without a river crossing

We had been on our feet for a while now so the descending into Luggala Valley was welcome and with the beating sun the river was gleefully used to refill empty water bottles. The grassy track to Lough Dan from here is one of the finest stretches of trail anywhere in Wicklow and like many days we were greeted by huge flocks of red deers galloping over the fields next to the trail. At the lough itself, we had planned in a long break and most of us took the opportunity to change into bathing attire and swim in the lough. With over 25 km on the clock, we still werent' done - once you cross the Luggala river, you have a very interesting but also taxing ascent to the old ruins called the 'Scots village' on the slopes of Ballinafunshoge. Then it is back on broad fire-road and the Wicklow Way for the descent through the fields onto the roads outside Roundwood. James Pearce - owner of Lus Mor B&B, awaited us with his shuttle and cold drinks stored for the runners (more cold drinks of a more alcoholic variety were already cooling in his fridge!).

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Scotch village at Ballinafunshoge

Energy levels had begun to sag a bit towards the end but the spirit of the group was undaunted and would remain that way to the end. But the biggest 'stage' was over and done with.

Day 3 - 'Lough Dan to Glendalough' (20.5 km, 650 m climb)

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Looking ahead...
More sunshine, more running. James dropped our group off at the small car park before the road to Lough Dan's Western shores and it was safe to say they'd recommend Lus Mor to anyone. We began leisurely up the steep road section before entering the proper trail above Lough Dan. The plan was to summit Scarr via Kanturk - an enjoyable climb with plenty of variety but not one you'd want to do in seriously wet weather. Even with the generally dry spell of late there was a need to circumnavigate several major bassins of bogland. But the rewards are huge as you get a great climb of Scarr. Scarr itself opens up the views of central Wicklow like few others hills in the area and allowed us to point back at the trip completed so far and to what lay ahead. But the real reason to summit Scarr is to fly down the long descent- one of the best slopes around. We continued on the far side of Paddock Hill to join the Wicklow Way as late as possible. Anyone who knows Paddock knows there's even more great descending here on the grassy slope before the new zig-zags through the woods. We crossed the river into Laragh Woods and used the minor paths to take us down behind McCoy's shop. A quick-tour of Laragh followed before we all settled in for lunch and coffee in front of the Glendalough Green. Day 3 features the 'farewell event', so once we got moving again, I was sure to point out our restaurant of choice: the 'Wicklow Heather'. Just about the safest bet for a good experience you get anywhere in Wicklow.

the entrance to Kanturk and the backdoor to Scarr

We re-entered the Wicklow Way at the Brockagh cross-roads and followed it to the popular viewing point above Glendalough before descending to the Glendalough Hotel and taking a cultural stop at the Round Tower. Then it was time to move on to the hostel which was terminal station for much of the group. We also said our goodbyes to Torben here who had to move on before his departure back to Denmark on Monday.

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A cultural moment in the Monastic Village

Once check-in was complete the 'hard core' of the group opted for the afternoon extension and joined me for a short run to the Upper Lake and back. Most of the group ran about 17 km with those opting for 'all options' getting a third day over the 20 km mark. This day no one joined me for the dip in the pool on Kevin's Way, so I tested the waters for the final day...

Leaving Scarr behind...

Day 4 - 'Glendalough sightseeing' (10 km, 210 m climb)

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The Heather - cosy lights make for hard photography!

The Wicklow Heather had not disappointed serving up a fabulous three course meal. I had arrived at 7:25 thinking I'd be 5 minutes ahead of everyone else only to discover the group had been drinking beers in the sun outside the restaurant since 6:30! Duly behind I settled down at the table as the last man. The early meant an early enough finish - tired bodies and minds wandered home to the hostel before the hour had even struck 11. Perhaps there was an eye on the final day of running?

With the bus arriving at 12 Noon, and plenty of kilometres in the legs, we had three options on the final day: 3 km, 8 km or 10 km. We once again followed the Green Road to the Upper Lake and had a stop at Reefert Church before continuing to the Miner's Village in Glenealo. We returned towards Glendalough using the lower lakeshore trail which is very technical but more fun than the 'safer' path above. The group split in two here with some going straight back on the flat trails while six of us continued over the shoulder of Camaderry onto Kevin's Way. Now we finally got our stop at the pool there where the legs could be soaked in cold water before the flight home. I felt it was a suitable finish - a microcosm of everything we had seen over the course of the first 3 days but short enough that recovery and return to normality could begin.

Putting it altogether

All in all - about 10 hours of running on the hills, 80 km and 2760 metres of climbing, so when we advertised that you would get vertical metres into the legs were weren't exaggerating at least. Before that sounds like all work there was plenty of stops, plenty of sightseeing and (allegedly) plenty of fun to be had at the various accommodation points each evening.

Designing the trip was essentially easy because I simply pick the routes I would enjoy. This generally means three things to me: 1) a certain logic - not unnecessarily mazy and complicated, 2) enjoyable first and foremost as a run and not a scramble or bush-hacking experience and 3) showcasing the best of the scenery while avoiding roads when possible and using them when beneficial. We had an option for a Day 5 which would have taken us into Southern Wicklow but four days was just about right - certainly at this volume of daily running. While it's impossible to hit every trail I like in the county during one cohesive trip - this get's pretty close. An advantage of travelling North to South is that you begin in slightly starker and grimmer mountains - beautiful but more barren - and then slowly proceed to friendlier trail and greener vistas.

With different fitness levels and the unavoidable fact that as a running tourist you are 'entering the unknown', it was delightful to see the attitude of the group. As guides, we had a lot of fun and it feels wrong to call these last 4 days 'work' - we had great company and with an 'office' like the below who would ever complain?

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