Crawling up Croagh Patrick… and Descending it like Divils

Eoin Syron descending Croagh Patrick. Photo courtesy of John Shiels.
Eoin Syron descending Croagh Patrick. Photo courtesy of John Shiels.

We hauled ourselves up the side of the mountain, following the pilgrims’ route all the way. Before they knew it, we had passed them out. They were praying. We were racing.

It was the annual IMRA mountain race up Croagh Patrick, a place of pilgrimage on Ireland’s west coast where St. Patrick himself fasted and prayed for forty days.

There is only seven kilometres of racing in it, but these kilometres are strung up an enormous 825 metres of climb. Croagh Patrick is your classic mountain race, straight up a rocky, steep trail before reaching a fast running saddle. From there it turns quickly into a near-vertical wall of sheer scree. A narrow gully worn-out by walkers leads you to the top. Coming down, you say your prayers as your heels dig into loose and sliding boulders, letting both gravity and God do their stuff. The average walker takes 3½ hours to go up and down Croagh Patrick. The mountain running record stands at 42 minutes and 43 seconds. 


Moire O'Sullivan running up Croagh Patrick. Photo courtesy of Cian O'Reilly.
Moire O'Sullivan running up Croagh Patrick. Photo courtesy of Cian O'Reilly.

This year, close to 80 of us set off on the race, haring towards the hill along the short tarmac road. A set of steps led us to St. Patrick’s statue where the tarmac soon petered out into rutted muddy gullies, littered with jutting-out rocks.

Everything rested on this race: the Irish Champs, the Connaught Champs, the Queen of the Mountains. Knowing the massive climb that lay ahead, I decided to take it at a steady pace. Within a few minutes, I was already walking, rhythmically, steadily, with long strides and breathing to a set-rhythm. Others were still running upwards, but didn’t seem to be going any faster. Their breathing though was tired and laboured, a bad sign seeing the amount that was still to travel.

After the shoulder, I continued the climb, coming across pilgrims on the way. Some were sitting down on the wayside, too tired to reach the top. One child was crying, scared by the steepness and the sliding scree underfoot. The narrow track allowed a one-person file, making me excuse myself as I asked for right of way. I passed them quickly, hands on my knees as I worked my legs hard to the summit.

Rene had climbed the hill ahead to record the fastest climbers and to bestow points in the King and Queen of the mountains. Having reached the summit, he realised he had forgotten his pen far, far down below. Though a pen lay tantalising close by within the church, he felt too guilty to borrow it for race-purposes. Fortunately, someone reminded him of the Dictaphone on his mobile. As I reached the top, I heard Rene avidly reciting race numbers and times, providing what I thought was ongoing race-commentary to the officials at the finish down below. 

A lap of the church on top and it was back down the route we had come. The gully we had ascended proved too treacherous to go down, the sand like substance slipping dangerously with every step. That left the boulders to the right, rocks delicately balanced on top of one another that suddenly shifted underfoot. You need to take them at speed so as to not fall, jumping off them and using momentum before they slide away from beneath you forever.

Once off this sheer descent I relaxed and threw myself down the rest of the hill, using ‘a controlled fall’ to get me home. Some however failed to control their fall, tripping up on the random rocks strewn across the trail. They eventually drew up at the finish line with bloody knees and sprained ankles, first aiders fortunately at hand to patch up these warriors fresh from their running battle.

By the time I reached the finish, blisters had swollen on the balls of both of my feet from trying to stop myself falling. Toenails were bruised from hitting the front of my shoes on the vertical descent. With a cool river at the bottom to soothe away the pain and a pub at the finish to celebrate my win, it was however a good end to a classic though death-defying run.

Want to read more mountain running tales, including my attempt to run around the Wicklow Mountains in a single day? Check out my book, “Mud, Sweat and Tears”.

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