DIARY: Lap of the Gap Race Director's report 2018

‘You’ve got a long day ahead.’ So were the words of a bystander at the start line of today’s third annual ‘Glendalough Lap of the Gap’ marathon series. Fitting words for the competitors but in this case aimed at me: the Race Director. It was still true: our small regiment of volunteers had arisen around 5:45 and work was well underway at Race HQ by the time the clock struck 6:30.

The first hours of any big event are the most frantic: runner need to be registered and freighted to the start lines in a very short space of time. Our event has some unique constraints: getting full size buses back and forth between Laragh and Glendalough as many times as possible in a 70 minute window.
An early start went off before 8 am and the first 17 runners were on the course. The last runner would not be off it until 14:38 – almost 8 hours later. Runners had come from all around Ireland and as far away as Calgary and Houston to test themselves against the mighty climb to Sallygap (and back). We had Polish, French, Phillippine, Spanish, and German runners alongside English and Irish and others unidentified.

Anthony Breen leaves behind Lough Tay (photo: Colm Kenna)

The pre-race favourite was Kevin English of Tallaght AC who would not disappoint. Kilcoole’s Brian Gurrin took out the early lead but later frankly stated ‘I think he was toying with me, it’s not easy to win against such competition’. I had strongly suspected Kevin’s entry would mean the inevitable demise of Torben Dahl’s inaugural course record of 2:57 flat (no pun intended).

 One open question hung over the course record debate: this year’s course had a downhill finish rather than uphill – making it slightly faster – perhaps in the region of 60-90 seconds for a top runner. We had decided before the race to award a Course Record no matter what the improvement but to only consider it the ‘true’ course record if the improvement was ‘substantial’. As it would prove not ONE but TWO runners would improve the record ‘substantially’ and in doing so bring the tally of men who have broken the 3 hour barrier on the course to 6. No female runner has yet managed the feat  but this did not mean we got no notable performances in the ladies category – here to we were in for a treat. 

Bringing the summer

The week’s health and safety discussions had featured the word ‘heat stroke’ on more than one occasion but the Irish weather gods settled on a compromise for our 2018 edition. We had begun in 2016 with scorching hot conditions – great for scenery, worse for times. Our 2017 edition was rained away much to the dismay of runners and marshals ‘standing in the rain’. This year, early overcast conditions and cool winds meant most marathon runners reached the half-marathon course in very pleasant conditions and were only baked by the sun in the later stages. The plentiful water left over, as we accounted for stock, at the end of the day, was the proof that dehydration had been limited. Our Red Cross Ambulance crew were kept mercifully idle and only one injury reported (two if we count a brave half-marathon runner who decided to pull out on the way to the start line!). 

Back to the races: as the half-marathon and 3 mile races prepared to kick off at 9 am, the marathon runners have not yet reached the longest climb of the day up besides Glenmacnass Waterfall. We had a record field in the half-marathon this year although I will let you in on a detail we’ve learnt these last three years and confirmed from other race organisers we know: about 10% of people entering a race don’t show up on race day. Despite a big entry, 35 half-marathoners never even made the start line. If injury was the cause – we hope you’re back soon!

As in previous years the Glen to Glen Half-marathon was contested by three runners: Marc Geraghty eventually won out in 1:22:53 – the fourth fastest time run on the course in it’s three year running time. Eoin McManus 1:21:59 record survived and so did Hannah Carroll’s superb 1:29:25 ladies record. But records are not everything: first and foremost you must beat whoever runs against you on the day. Today, this meant Aoife O’Brien taking the longest straw against Beth Stephens and Yvette Leahy in 1:35:25 – with just over 2.5 minutes separating the three podium finishers. For both Beth and Yvette this was not only a one place improvement but big personal bests – both runners knocking around 7 minutes off their 2017 times.

This as not the only outstanding improvements of the day: back in the full marathon Aisling O’Connor not only finished 4th OVERALL but she lowered her own previous best time by 16 minutes (!) and slashing 2 minutes 15 seconds off Lucy O’Malley’s ladies record. Last year she had come from behind for a tight 47 second victory over Ann-Marie Kenny – this year she had over 27 minutes to Eilis Connery in second whose 3:38 has been good enough for a podium in the women’s category every year. The new mark to beat for the women’s race is 3:20:58. In breaking the record Aisling climbed conservatively – arriving a full 78 seconds slower at Sallygap than record-holder Lucy O’Malley (and Ann-Marie Kenny) had done in 2016 meaning she ran the fastest return split yet set – 1:30:48 for the final 20 km.

Alison Underwood improved from 8th place in 2017 to 3rd place this year and knocked 18 minutes off her time to finish in 4:08.

First through the fog at Sallygap, however, was Kevin English – by now clear in the men’s race. He crossed Sallygap in 1:31:18 followed by Brian Gurrin in 1:33:08 and last year’s runner-up Ray Kenny in 1:38:22. Anthony Breen maintained local pride for Glendalough AC sitting in fourth at this stage. Kevin’s time was the fastest ascent yet – 1 minute 42 seconds faster Rory Campbell’s current best climb from our maiden marathon. The record attempt was on and the race still alive – Brian Gurrin arrived at Sallygap in 1:33:06 – the second fastest time ever. Ray Kenny did his best to cement his podium position when he arrived in third place – almost three minutes faster than 2017. Despite some head-wind the pleasantly cool temperatures were proving ideal for racing.

One runner had arrived between Kevin and Brian – Rock Pender – first of seventeen early starters. The early start was a new experiment for us this year – well-known in mountain running but less used in road races. The deal was simple: you could join an early start to finish earlier when there is more ‘craic’ at the finish line but you would forfeit your chance of winning a prize (as you are essentially an ‘invisible competitor’ to later starters). Feedback seems to be good and we expect to repeat this in 2019.

Midway through the leaders return journey, the sun began to finally crack the cloud cover and we were beginning to feel the heat at our ‘new’ finish line at the Laragh GAA pitches by the time word came that the record was going to fall and Kevin English had entered Laragh. Hammering home over the final 150 metres of grass, Kevin set the new mark of 2:50:56 and seemed to suggest he would half fancy a go at the 2:50 barrier next year. Both male and female winner had completed a clean sweep: overall victory, King/Queen of the Mountain and course record and could walk (or run?) home with €300. Brian Gurrin’s efforts should be applauded though – he was unlucky to finish second in 2:53:45 – a time that would have won the race in both 2016 and 2017 and the second-best time ever run.
We should also not forget our 3 mile race winners: while this new fledgling event started small it should not take away from Mateusz Janiszewksi’s victory in 18:43. Mateusz had finished 6th in the half-marathon the previous year. First female across the line was Bea Royuela in 28:45.

Away from records and top performances, the general participants showed the usual good humour and indomitable spirit faced with the near-endless climbs. The ‘Glen to Glen Half-marathon’ on the other hand attracted both tales of ‘dead legs on the flat bits on the return’ and more surprising comments such as ‘not as hilly as expected – which was good!’ Many had come back for the 2nd or 3rd time for our race series, something we must consider a special award for in itself! It’s one thing doing the race when you don’t know what’s coming and another to do it when you do!
Likewise, to the crew of over 35 volunteers who worked hard from dawn to dusk and some who had taken days off work to finish preparing the course in the previous days: your efforts are invaluable. At the same time, I think I speak on behalf of Glendalough AC when I say: while we are small club putting on two races for the running community every year seems only fair when we can travel the width of the world to enjoy races put on by other clubs and other associations. We could have picked a less ambitious undertaking but every year we learn something new – so while we thank everyone for the positive feedback also rest assured, we noticed any kinks that did occur and there were many sideline discussion even during the race of creative solutions to iron those out in future year’s editions.

I feel I am leaving out important stories – such as how both ourselves and local Gardai learnt in the eleventh hour that The Rás would bisect the last 1 km of our route and how we dealt with that after the initial heart attack. But it’s late so perhaps best save for another day – for now another successful edition of Glendalough Lap of the Gap delivered. Thanks participants for making it special and volunteers for making it work. See you in 2019.

PS. A special thanks to Ray and Ann-Marie Kenny who have not only supported this event 'on the pitch' since its inception but have brough us this wonderful cake every year 

PPS. Thanks to our sponsors - Lynhams of Laragh for the sweeper shuttle, McCoy's Shop for our supply line, Avon Motors for the lead car, Wicklow Tourism for helping us prepare take the event to 'international' markets in 2019 and Paul Mahon and Outfront for loan of equipment as well as our partners and facilitators MyRunResults, Laragh GAA club, Helen Ward, Rocwell, Athletics Ireland, and Wicklow Athletics County Board. If I've forgotten anyone I apologise - it's late!