ARTICLE: Trail Running Holidays - in Wicklow (why not!)

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Photo: By Mathias Bruun

I've just returned from another trail running holiday here in Wiclow. In 2016, Torben Dahl and I got talking about how we (as Danes) enjoy Wicklow so much there should be no reason other Danes might not do the same. In this post I want to provide some insights into what goes into trail running tourism and perhaps further the understanding of what type of service it is and who it appeals to.

Fast-forward to 2018 and we have run a number of trips together with our partner - Lø ("Running Trip Denmark') run by former middle-distance runner Jørn Andersen who has his finger in many running pies back in our home country.

From Kerry to Wicklow

I had a fair bit of experience organising trips from doing most of the Kerry weekends that have taken place with IMRA and Torben brought his substantial experience doing adventure and running tourism in all corners of the globe from arctic to tropic.

What it involves is fairly simple: it's about providing a seamless experience using the type of local knowledge and contacts that you cannot expect to match when you are visiting an area only once or twice. For many experienced runners (myself included) half the fun of a running trip is planning the routes and controlling your own pace. Certainly this was the template for Aoife and my own running holidays to the Lake District, Gran Canaria and even our honeymoon in British Columbia. But it takes work and effort and lacks the social element you can get on a group holiday.

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Officially, our company is called (Trail Running Holidays Denmark) and so far we have only focused on Danish trail runners as this is where we feel we can provide the best experience - we want people to get both local knowledge and their native language in one package. Should we ever do trips to other countries it would be in partnership with a local guide with the same level of 'on the ground' knowledge that we have here in county Wicklow. Having Jørn Andersen onboard is invaluable for us as it provides us a link in the local market that you cannot match from afar - before our guests arrive they have often met Jørn in person both through his trail running groups north of Copenhagen and at the briefing evenings he conducts before the trips. Jørn often travels with us but this time had other commitments - namely leading another of his trip on a 5.5 day run of the UTMB route in France.

The job

My job in all of this is to secure the bookings for accommodation, breakfast, packed lunches, lunch and restaurant bookings, baggage transfer, and buses to and from the airport and, occassionally, between and to take care of the budget. Torben stays with the groups in the evenings to ensure they are never 'left entirely alone' and supports me on all the activities mentioned previously and we both take onboard group and organiser feedback to implement improvements on future trips with Jørn. I also liaise with Wicklow Tourism and all the local partners that help make it possible such as the bed and breakfasts, bus operators, Wicklow Way Baggage and restaurants. Essentially, our job is to take care of everything except booking plane tickets.

Once these logistical and admin tasks are done the 'fun part' begins: namely route planning.

When we started our concept was based around one settled base. The reasoning is that most accommodation providers in Wicklow are nearly always full and prefer group bookings to be for multiple days. One-day bookings are challenging especially in the busy season where most running trips take place (April to September). Our winter period is pretty mcuh an off+season where we focus on other work. The one-base concept changed when we began collaborating with Jørn at Løberejser because he utilises a 'point to point' concept where you are on a continuous journey. We took up the challenge and so far have been lucky to be able to always secure the necessary accommodation.

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Photo: Mathias Bruun

The best part...

The most creative part of this job is to figure out the best routes between the Bed and Breakfasts we can secure for the group size and the split of genders and couples versus singles. As this is always different, we never know ahead of time exactly what we'll get and this means the four initial routes we began with have ballooned to twelve regular routes that we all feel provide an equally good experience. We try to keep a basic dynamic where each day's trip from day 1 to 3 is more impressive than the last one with day 4 being a shorter recovery type stint. We usually peak in terms of length and challenge on day 2 so that you are already 'easing off' a bit on day 3. This said we have a concept for an 'extreme trip' that is sitting on the shelf until a group strong enough to take it on knocks on our door. Our route choices are currently being bolstered by the connection being finished between Bray and the Wicklow Way which brings the whole coastal Wicklow into play for trips such as these. Routes are picked based on scenery, difficulty of terrain and considering that most people joining the trip have never seen this type of trail and have no access to sustained climbs in their daily lives.

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Photo: Mathias Bruun

Ideally, we'd 'run straight off the plane' but due to the location of Dublin Airport, we always start with a shorter bus journey and usually begin running straight South. The day of the plane journey is never the longest run as we have less time available and legs and minds tire quicker after the transit. This run always includes a stop for lunch somewhere nice that gives a feel for the local area - in the past we've employed the Powerscourt Gardens, Lynhams Pub and Hotel, the Upper Lake Park and the Glendalough Green. The subsequent days start relatively early (9 to 9:30 am) and plenty of time is allowed for stops, pictures, 'lunch on the mountain', and giving insights into local culture - both the running culture and the broader history of Wicklow. As Jørn put it when he first explained his concept: 'there has to be something both for the body and the mind'.

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Talking about one of my heroes - Michael Dwyer - known from the song 'Three Flowers' (Photo: Torben Dahl)

We help organise the dinners (most groups dine together) often with the main 'party evening' being in the Wicklow Heather on Friday or Saturdays. All of this is a general template which we adjust on the fly based on the groups requirements and needs.

Injury and other considerations

Safety on the mountain is another priority and we manage this by having two guides - one behind and one in front of the group. Occassionally when we have groups with a very large differential in ability, we will split them into two groups or we build in extensions for the stronger runners. As an example, we finished our day 2 on our last trip with 20 km before Torben took about six runners out for a further 9 km on the mountains. We consider ourselves 'booked for the day' on these trips and that leaves us the flexibility to provide these 'add-ons' where needed and wanted. Injuries also crop up the odd time - mainly the shape of sprains or old niggles - and there's always a solution for these ranging from slowing down the speed of the group to suggesting alternative walking routes for the injured runners so they still get to enjoy the scenery. We have more flexible partners available in the local area - such as Glendalough Cabs that our guests can then use to get from point to point if they cannot walk the full distance. On our last trip we had a recurrence of an old injury in one attendee on the middle of the Derrybawn Ridge with about 9 km to go. In this case, Torben simply walked the runner down to Shay Elliott to meet the taxi ferrying another runner from the trip (who had gotten injured in the run-up to the trip) to Glenmalure. Both went on to enjoy several great days of hiking on the hills and we managed to ensure they met up with the main running group at key spots on the day's route.

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Photo: Thomas Laursen

The group trips described here have been our priority for a little while but we are essentially always open for ad-hoc bookings even if they involve one day trips. We are also happy to help people who do not want us to do everything for them - such as the scenario where you want to book your own accommodation. So these are a few insights into trail running tourism in Wicklow - at least as it pertains to Torben and my little 'Danish operation'.