Lights shone through the darkness, exposing the path straight ahead. 2.20 am. I sat in the car, silent and scared. This was it lads. This is what I’d be thinking, dreaming, eating, sleeping and training for, for the last 12 months. The Wicklow Round lay right on down that track. All I had to do was get out of the car, put one foot in front of the other, and just keep on doing it for the rest of the day.
The only slight problem was exactly what ahead of me: 27 mountains, 100 kilometres of distance, and 6,000 metres of climb to be precise. To be honest, all that would have been grand… except, there was another problem. Between those mountains, there weren’t that many tracks or trails. In fact, most of the mountains were bridged by the best of Irish bog: black, glutinous mush, which sucked shoes and socks from unsuspecting souls like myself.
But just when I’d come to accept the terrible terrain, yet another wee problem pried its way in. Yes, I was going to climb to the tops of all of Wicklow’s major Mountains. But there was a catch – I had only a day to do it. 24 hours to reach 27 heights… with a bit of bog-battling in between.
Today, I was having a go at the ‘Wicklow Round’. Sitting in the pitch-dark at the bottom of the first epic mountain, I made my final preparations. Map, compass, altimeter, check. Running tights, thermal top, rain-proof jacket, check. Rucksack, survival bag, mobile phone, check. I rummaged through my water and food rations and made sure they were sufficient for the journey’s first stage. I shoved on my fell-running shoes and duck-taped the knots – no time to be re-tying loose laces on this kind of trip. Finally, I waited.
As my eyes delved further into the darkness outside, Pete sat quietly beside me in the driver’s seat. Though he had just landed off the plane from New York on Friday, and had spent Saturday supporting his local hurling team, here he was in the wee hours of Sunday morn, helping me to live my own little dream. We had been together now no more than eight months. And though my year’s long quest had been honing myself towards this epic attempt, Pete’s own year’s challenge had been simply dealing with me. It seemed like every weekend had me out running this hill or that, getting used to being on my feet or just trying to find my route. And whilst all I could think about was Wicklow and its wilds, all Pete wanted was a weekend away, every once in a while. I had tried to explain why Wicklow, why the training and the round. It’s only now that I see I was trying to explain something that even I didn’t fully understand. But like every worthwhile fella, he stood by his woman, backing her and her crazy plans. Now tonight, finally, he was to let this girl out on the loose, letting her find out for herself whether this dream could become at all reality.
To some, the Wicklow Round is a warped reality at that. A challenge conceived in 2006, it threw down the gauntlet to runners far and wide to cover Dublin’s nearby mountain range within 24 hours. The Wicklow Round itself is modelled on the UK’s own Bob Graham Round. In 1932, Bob Graham himself stepped out his front door and ran 42 of the Lake District peaks. In the end, he covered over 100 kilometres, went up over 9,000 metres, in less than 24 hours. By 2007, 1,380 mountain runners had followed in his steps and scaled these same distances and heights.
Not to be outdone by these extraordinary British efforts, the Irish have finally made up their own mountain challenge. However, wanting as ever to get one-up on their island neighbours, the Irish have raised the stakes in this mountainous merry-go-round. In the Bob Graham, supporters and navigators are allowed: you can have someone run alongside carrying your bag, food and supplies. At the same time, you can have someone navigate the hills, whilst you silently plod along behind. According to the English, the sheer distance to be covered and the staggering heights to be climbed are sufficient tests of a mountain runner’s ability and zeal. On the other side of the water, the Wicklow Round has indeed tried to mimic the length and the climb. However, our rules go on to state that “competitors may run solo or in groups, on the strict understanding that all members carry their own gear and that the navigation must be done by a member doing the attempt in total… It is against the spirit of the event to have a pacing runner or navigational support”.
So, that’s how I managed to find myself, alone, in the middle of the mountains, in the middle of the night, with no one to carry my goods, and no fellow travellers to show me the way. Plans to attempt with others had fallen by the wayside. And that coupled with my obsessive-ness, doggedness and pig-headedness, meant that I was simply going solo. So, as the clock struck half past two in the morning, I hugged Pete good-bye and slowly strutted into the dark, ready and willing to do battle with those beckoning but bleedin’ hills.
A full account of what exactly happened in those next 24 hours can be read here.