ROUTES: Mullaghcleevaun and Tonelagee

I'm putting final pencil-strokes on my 'The Relay' report today. The delay in finishing it caused by the topic of this post. My plan called for 2-3 days recovery after the race as that suits my current bio-rhythms and allows me to 'pay Aoife back some time' when I leave her with the three kids for an extended period as I did to enable me to enjoy both Saturday's race and the afters.

Two days turned to three when the 90-minute window I had for training was eaten up by the Denmark-France game, so by Wednesday I felt I needed something long. Mullaghcleevaun had been playing on my mind for a long while. I'm not the greatest fan of the 'mid-West Wicklow hills' - an extended range beginning in the north with Carrigvoher continuing via Gravale, Duffy Hill and Stony Top (Mullaghcleevaun East) to the main peak of Mullaghcleevaun itself. Beyond two large drops are Moanbane and Ochill (Silsean) and Black Hill to the west and Stony Top and Tonelagee to the South.

Two that matter

Only Tonelagee and Mullaghcleevaun are true independent peaks classified as 'Marylins' - a peak with a prominence of 150 metres or more. Mountains without this criteria are generally deemed subsidiary peaks. This strict classification means we need to look at mighty summits like Clohernagh as a mere 'bump' on the shoulder of one of Lugnacoille's many spurs. And so it is with most of the mountains that can take a mountain runner from Sallygap cross-roads to Ballinagee Bridge. Other classification systems such as the Hewitts (Hills of England, Wales, Ireland over Two Thousand feet) with requires hills to be over 609.6 metres with a relative prominence of 30 metres also cast aside all other peaks in the Mullaghcleevaun range except Tonelagee.

Looking back at Mullaghcleevaun through peat hags

Eventually, I settled on wanting to run the 'two peaks that mattered' then - the Crown Prince and Queen of Wicklow. Tonelagee and Mullaghcleevaun are the third and second-highest summits of our county. Both are feared for their navigational hazards for sloppy underfoot conditions on most approaches. With soaring conditions and long dry spells, I figured I would not get a much better window to connect the two peaks.

My only previous experience on Mullaghcleevaun had been a hike with Glenwalk back in 2004 or 2005 taking in Black Hill, Mullaghcleevaun and Moanbane. It was a winter's day and apart from the stark frost on the enormous summit plateau, the mountain struck me as mostly forgettable leaving me in no hurry to return. I wanted to revisit it and picked an old walking route I found online to reduce my driving time. The route starts at the so-called 'Oasis' - a speck of forest in the ocean of heather between Glenmacnass Waterfall and Sallygap cross-roads. Having marked 'Lap of the Gap' I had looked at he potential approaches via Carrigshouk and apart from being closer to home for me it added the advantage of being the shortest approach to Mullaghcleevaun 'as the crow flies'. The walk was expected to take 6 hours and I reckoned I could run it at gentle pace in about 2 hours 40 minutes which proved eerily accurate.

Tonelagee from the summit cairn of Barnacullian

Where to start the route

I parked at Glenmacnass Waterfall to ensure I would not have to finish on the road with tired legs an to have access to a cold river dip. I expected soaring hot temperatures and foresaw the need for a quick 'cooldown'. Memories of severe heat stroke suffered during another long hill run with Aoife and Sean Harte a number of year's ago are still fresh.

Running up the Military Road for about 2 km, you need to keep an eye on the point where you find forest on both sides of the road. Just before you are about to enter this 'Oasis', a small nearly indiscernible track cuts through the bogland. You are shooting for another patch of forest a few hundred metres up the hill side which terminates in a fence under the aggressive slopes of Carrigshouk. Once you step into the bogland the path very quickly becomes obvious and once you hit the forest line following it is a proverbial piece of cake. You need to have patience and continue to follow the fence and the forest line until it turns sharp right. While some of the path is solid, several sections are compacted dirth which is likely nearly impassable in wet conditions. On this day: it was a breeze. Eventually, you hit a fence. To get to Mullaghcleevaun the direct route you have to abandon the wide path and follow the fence up a few hundred metres. Keep going until you see a defined path through the thick grass. While the path 'comes and goes' constantly on this final approach to Stony Top (790m), you can't lose it as long as you continuously look around. Like many Irish mountains, the surface continues to get better the further up you get and eventually you're running on hard packed earth and good grass.Stony Top itself is adorned with a nice cairn and provides a dramatic view of Mullaghcleevaun  which looks like a testing challenge. I had been running about an hour and just over 6 km at this stage.

Stony Top does not qualify as a separate peak because the gap between it and Mullaghcleevaun is less than 30 metres. The descent off is extremely pleasurable - very similar to Camaderry - but the ascent of Mullaghcleevaun takes longer than expected due to the width of the summit. A trig point just down from the highest point tells you, you have arrived. From here I had to decide whether to turn back the same way ('Plan B') or continue to Tonelagee ('Plan A'). With 8.5 km and 75 minutes on the clock, I though I'd easily get back in 2 hours and 30 minutes, so ploughed on. I underestimated the 6 km traverse ahead.

In a haze at the Mullaghcleevaun trig point

A rare connection

On a clear day such as this all I needed do was run in the direction of Tonelagee summit. There's no defined path as such to follow. The Glenmacnass River, however, has its origin on this summit plateau and can serve as a nice guide to run besides for much of your crossing. The central spur is an enormous field of compacted dirt valleys crested by Peat Hags which constantly rob you of your visual guides. Even in the baking dryness, much of this dirt gave way to my step and would be risky to attempt to cross in any wet conditions. Avoiding it woudl require veering far out on the flanks of the spur. The first part to the next subsidiary summit (Barnacullian) went by quickly and the combination of baby river, peat hags, grass and dirt was quite spectacular. Coming towards Stony Top (the other one) I was beginning to feel a bit cooked and missed the best line for Tonelagee. This meant hard work up and down through one tiny peat hag valley after the other. Frustrating in the extreme especially when Tonelagee summit seemed constantly distant.

I had exhausted my supply of water (a 250 ml bottle) and the 'bonus energy' I had packed (a micro-pack of raisins) and my tongue felt like sandpaper at this stage. But Stony Top proved the a reprieve - from here on the climb is stark to Tonelagee summit but the underfoot largely good. Once at the final summit, two friendly hikers offered me a slurp of water which I gratefully accepted.

Lough Ouler (left), sandy plateau (right) with the unnamed 668m peak behind it

I know Tonelagee summit like the back of my hand which is a mountain runner's way of saying 'I'll get lost next time I come off it when it matters'.   The descent of Tonelagee in the eastward direction is very simple once you have done it once or twice: two small stone cairns mark out the direction and once you follow these the path you must descend is very clear. When not misty you can shoot for a broad plateau of sandy rocks and you have the fantastic view of Lough Ouler as company on your left (but when descending at any kind of speed you don't really have time to look at it!). Descent gradients reach nearly 40% on this section so you have to watch it. Ascending the unnamed 'bump' that breaks up the descent, it's easy to be pulled right as there are two paths here. But the right fork leads nowhere. In my 'cooked brain' state I made this mistake and had to cut across the heather to return to the ideal line. Once you gain this, you're in for the best treat of the route: a grassy descent all the way down to the Glenmacnass River which requires no navigation skills whatsoever as long as you have two pairs of eyes.

Coming down here in winter, it's very soppy underfoot and a slide is a constant risk. Not so yesterday! All in all, it took only 21 minutes to descend including detour, taking it handy and avoiding any risks. At full tilt an experienced mountan runner could likely make the descent in less than 15 minutes. This is the great benefit of mountain running versus hiking - not only can a route be covered in less than 50% of the time, you can also get off your final climb very quickly at a stage where you generally 'want to go home'. My thoughts circled mainly around the promise of a dip in the Glenmacnass River. As I finally threw off my shoes and dove in, I was momentarily disappointed by just how warm the water was - a far cry from the chill I had experienced there in winter. Yet, after a few minutes, I could feel the body gratefully pouring its heat into the stream. Unfortunately, after returning home my mind felt so cooked I couldn't get any quality work done - and thus the 'The Relay' report was also delayed.

Post-script: The shortcut to speed?

These long runs on the hills suit me in a few ways at the moment: first of all they are a necessary part of the fitness required for my guided trips for Danish trail runners. Secondly, it's easier to keep the pace low on the hills and thus the heart rate, gaining that type of fundamental endurance that I am currently lacking. In most events, you can run 4-5 times the duration of the event easy. For events such as the marathon this seems impossible (or unwise) but in reality it has mainly to do with the pace we choose to adopt. We often forget that running fitness used to be build on a foundation of copious walking. When you take it easy over mountainous terrain, you can easily build up very long days - even 5-6 hours on the hills - without any major detriment to your body and without being wiped out for days, in the way you might be if you decided to go for a 2 hour 40 minute road run with at least some eye on the pace. That said, on a day like today, I ensure I get a bit of work in on the climbs - even when forced to a walk, I make sure it's a fast and determined walk. If I had time for a 5-6 hour 'expedition', I would just back off further.

Scottish hill running legend Colin Donnelly used to say that you either need hills or your need speed. He was referring to his own training regime of trying to run 300m elevation on average every day. He realised that some top runners such as John Wild and Kenny Stuart did not use this approach - training mainly on the road, yet ruling the roost in the hills. He put this down to their natural speed. Hills have always been seen as a shortcut to the type of strength and power that is the foundation for improving speed in running and he may be right. Certainly, my own strides finally came back down towards the type of paces, they used to be at after a period of very long hills runs. I would fit Colin's category of the 'not-fast-runner' with a personal best of 14.8 seconds over 100m - meaning I could barely break 400m even if I could maintain that for 4 times the distance. While speed can be improved through power-focused training, the gains to be made are marginal. Most of your speed is a gift you're born in. So for us with low speed, hills may a way to at least maximise the strength we need to express the speed we were given, whereas a 'true speedster' may need much less. As always, the training answers must be individual and not generalised.

It's worthwhile at least thinking about these connections (correlation is not causation) because they seem maddeningly counter-intuitive. We can be pretty certain no track coach would ever think of prescribing long slow hills to improve sprint speed in sessions, yet that's not to say it does not work a charm for many runners. Certainly these types of runs are not specific to most types of running and simply doing them in isolation will not yield good races. They have to be looked at as 'pre-training to pre-training' - the type of stuff we do to build the most rudimentary building blocks we need for faster running later. The exception: if your main thing is long mountain races in the weekends or personal challenges such as the Bob Graham Round - intensity wise such a run would be 'Related' training for a standard weekend race or specific to the long distance challenges. The average pace for a Wicklow Round or a Paddy Buckley 24 hour run would be about 14:24 min/km whereas even a slow outing like this is done at 8:52 min/km pace). A sub-24 hour Bob Graham would require about 13:24 min/km pace whereas a Ramsay would require about 15:30 min/km.  In that way, a run such as this is nearly 'speedwork' in relation to the demands of 'rounding' (factoring in running breaks, the true average pace of each 24-hour attempt is obviously a bit faster).