Race registration is one of the most nerve-wrecking moments of running in mountain races. Who is going to turn up to the race? Who will I be battling it out with on the hills?
Few girls ever turn up to run the Wicklow Way Ultra: there’s rarely more than three ladies who want to run the 44.4km race over 1.780 metres of climb. Yesterday was no different. For a while yesterday morning, it looked like I might be the only starter.
Those girls who actually do decide to run the Ultra are normally the fittest and fastest that the running scene has to offer. And again, yesterday was no different. Before I knew it, Mary Jennings, the actual course record holder for the Ultra turned up. She ran the race in 4 hours 3 minutes around nine years ago, a phenomenal 40 minutes below my own PB. I knew that she was also in great form having come second in the Connemarathon only 3 weeks ago, in an amazing time of 3 hours 23 minutes.
I knew it was going to be an interesting race.
Mary and I set off together and ran the whole 1.5km road section shoulder to shoulder. I had never raced against Mary, so I wasn’t too sure where her strengths lay. Was she good on the flat or the hills or the descents? How would she pace the race? Would she be able to navigate the whole route?
I soon enough found out that she was savage on the ascents. As soon as we hit the forest trail and the first zig-zagged climb to the top of Prince William’s Seat, she opened up a considerable gap. I however decided to play it safe.
The golden rule for the Ultra is to jog it out and to race it back. So many times you see runners flying out to the half-way point at Lough Tay and then miserably crawling their way back home. It was important that I didn’t try to keep up with Mary at this point as it meant me running far too fast at the start. So I let her go. Before I knew it, she was out of sight.
At the top of Prince William’s Seat, the first major descent is through big boulders. And much to my surprise I caught up and passed Mary. So that was it: she was better at going up, I was faster going down. This was definitely going to be an interesting race!
I legged it down the forest trail and ran on up to Knockree. I was really keen to keep well hydrated and fed, so stocked up on a gel and some water on the mini-road ascent. I was carrying a small bum-bag with 1 litre of water and 4 gels – one for each hour of the run. In addition, I had placed 500ml water bottles at Crone and Curtlestown for the run back. That gave me a huge 2 litres of water that, after much trial and error, I now know I need for such a race.
On through Crone and up towards Djouce, there was still no sign of Mary. I figured she would soon be on my shoulder as the route was now to ascend for at least an hour.
As I hit the boardwalks, Eoin Keith had already reached the half way mark and sprinted past me in the opposite direction on his umpteenth win of the Ultra race. Then soon enough, the Wicklow Trail runners started streaming their way past too. It was a great social occasion as I ran towards them as we shouted our hellos and mutual encouragement as our paths crossed. It was my first IMRA race this year so I had not seen many of them for a while.
I got to the turn at around 2 hours 15 minutes, so realised that a sub 4 hour 30 minute run could be on the cards. As I started my run back towards the start/finish, I anxiously waited to see Mary. How far behind was she? After around 7 minutes, we met on the boardwalks. “I got lost”, she called as she sprinted towards Lough Tay.
It’s a common enough occurrence getting lost on the Wicklow Way Ultra. The route ventures off the Wicklow Way in two places. It was around one of those shortcuts, at the Youth Hostel, where she had been unsure of where to go. Instead, she decided to wait for a fellow runner to catch up to be sure she was running in the right direction. Unfortunately, with very few people actually running the Ultra, the runners get quickly strung out, so Mary had to wait quite a while. In the meantime, I had gained precious minutes.
I continued my descent off Djouce, picking up the pace on the way home. Hill walkers stopped to give way and to occasionally cheer me on. On the way out to Lough Tay, many of the walkers had shouted “Well done, first lady”. Now on my way back, and with all the girls in the Trail race ahead of me, they all shouted, “You’re doing well, keep it going”, thinking that I was instead one of the last runners coming through. It was tempting to stop and explain that the Ultra and Trail were in fact different races, but thought it best not to bother them with such details.
I was excited to hit Crone car park knowing that a bottle of water was lying in wait for me there. Rounding the corner, I saw Conor O’Meara at the feed-station leisurely taking in food and drink. I’d been chasing him all the way down the hill and had finally caught up with him. Before starting the race, I’d spoken to Conor about wanting to beat the time of 4.30. Looking at my watch, and with 3 hours 10 on the clock, I realised we could just still make it. “Come on Conor, 4 hours 30 is still on. Let’s go”. Conor however was starting to look a little beat. “I’m now hoping to just finish the race”, he called. We stayed together until Knockree.
Through Curtlestown I grabbed another bottle and dug in for the last major climb, more zig zags on a seemingly never-ending fireroad. That once that was over, it was a punishing descent down forest trail back to the tarmac, hopes being continuously raised and dashed turn after turn as I thought I had reached the end. Finally the last two gates appeared and it was the last tarmac hill before the home straight.
My main worry on the way back was that I’d pace the race wrong and that Mary would catch me if I ran out of steam. Looking at the time, I realised the pace had been just right. Eventually I crossed the line in 4 hours 32 minutes, just outside my own little goal but still ultimately the winner of the race.
As Mary crossed the line, I ran over her to congratulate her on a great run, to commiserate her on losing her way, and to find out how she managed to run the whole thing in 4 hours 3 minutes back in the day. She was even amazed herself how she managed to take that record nearly a decade ago. It was great to run against such an amazing athlete and to be able to share stories with her after the race. And it was fun too to relax at Johnny Foxes Pub located at the finish, to finally take in some of the wonderful sunshine and to hear the accounts of many other such battles that happened out on the hills yesterday.