Racing after Art O’Neill

I’ve never felt so guilty about having a race entry.

Back in October, the Art O’Neill Challenge started to sell race places. The Challenge itself consists of 55km of terrain, 25km on road and 30km deep within the Wicklow Mountains. What makes it all the more difficult is that it starts in the middle of the night, in the depths of Irish winter.

The line of Art O’Neill participants in 2011.

Despite it sounding a total torture fest, people rave about the Art O’Neill. So much so that last time over five hundred people entered the challenge. The vast majority hiked the route, taking between 12 and 17 hours to complete it. A few brave souls ran it, with the record now standing at 6 hours 45 minutes.

With last year’s popularity, I thought there must be something to it. So, when the Art O’Neill opened for business, I logged on and registered. It was quick and simple. And I thought nothing much more of it. All I needed to do now was a bit of training and a few recces.

The Art O’Neill starts in the middle of the night (12pm for walkers, 2pm for runners). Dawn isn’t until 8am.

Within 24 hours, there was uproar on the forums. Apparently I had grabbed one of only two hundred places up for sale. Entries had sold out within a day. However the race organisers tried to calm the impending storm. They were in negotiations, they said, with National Parks and Wildlife Service. Apparently the authorities were concerned about the impact the Challenge would have on the route’s 30km of mountain terrain. Apparently five hundred people trampling over the bog didn’t do it much good last year.

Happy Art O’Neill finishers back in 2011.

What makes it worse is that the organisers’ hands are tied when it comes to the race routing. The whole point is that it follows the same way that Art & Henry O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell took in 1592 when escaping from the English and their dungeon-ridden Dublin Castle. Art O’Neill died on route, a few kilometres short from the eventual safety of Glenmalure Valley. The Art O’Neill Challenge has to follow where he went for it to make sense.

Despite their negotiations, it seems now that the organisers cannot convince National Parks and Wildlife Service to budge on the allowed numbers. So it will be a mere two hundred people trampling the roads and mountains south of Dublin on 12th January next year.

The days of race number 355 are over.

My guilt comes from the fact that, though it would be nice to do, it’s not the be all and end all. I get to run through the night all the time whenever I enter adventure races. I can take a map and run the mountain section anytime. There’s part of me thinking there’s a hill walker out there who can’t read a map and desperately needs this race entry.

Some however won’t let the lack of a race number hamper their plans to run. A few surreptitious plans have surfaced online for lads to turn up for the event. They will then do a training run on their own, following the Art O’Neill route, starting at approximately the same starting time.

Ultra runners leaving Dublin Castle at 2am to run the 55km to Glenmalure Valley.

Whatever happens, the Art O’Neill challenge will never be the same. Its popularity is what is killing the current format. There are rumours that next time it will be only for ultra runners, denying the hundreds of hill walkers who have made this event what it is. Who would have thought an Irish man’s attempt to escape the English over 500 years ago would have caused such consternation?

One thought on “Racing after Art O’Neill

  1. Don’t worry about the hillwalkers, thanks to a few dedicated members of the Ramblers & Wayfarers (not myself I must stress) the AO’N has been run for decades, and the big organised charity event is only a recent thing. There’s nothing stopping smaller groups doing the event themselves, and in many ways it’s a more enjoyable event that way.

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