The Glacial Lakes Race – Three steps forward, two short steps back

I’ve always wanted to run the Glacial Lakes race since its inception in 2012. This year, I was finally in the right place at the right time, and was able to put in an entry.

Leaving Glendalough at 9am for the start of the 43km Glacial Lakes Race. Photo courtesy of Juju Jay.
Leaving Glendalough at 9am for the start of the 43km Glacial Lakes Race. Photo courtesy of Juju Jay.

IMRA’s Glacial Lake event is a 43km race with 1,783 metres of ups and downs. It is primarily designed for relay teams of four people, racing between lakes in four stages within the Wicklow Mountains. To add a bit more spice, individuals are given time bonuses if they are female or old. Elderly females are therefore graciously given the biggest and best bonuses.

There are a few mad people who decide to run the whole course. Last Saturday, I was one of them. Being a young-ish female, I qualified for a 40 minute head start. Only one other team got more time than myself, Ruth Lynam’s team of 3 women and 1 man who received an additional 10 minutes.

Ruth Lynam navigating with ease Lough Firrib and Three Lakes on Leg 2. Photo courtesy of Gerry Brady.
Ruth Lynam navigating with ease Lough Firrib and Three Lakes on Leg 2. Photo courtesy of Gerry Brady.

The weather looked fine down at the start in Glendalough, albeit a little breezy. So it was with expectations of a fast and fine run that I set off at 9am on Saturday morning. I took off at a brisk pace, racing to catch Ruth’s first leg runner, Maeve O’Grady, whilst knowing that a bunch of men were to set off after me 40 minutes later.

The first stop was Lough Ougler, at the foot of Tonlagee Mountain. I could see from St. Kevin’s way the col that I needed to cross to descend into this lake. The summit of Tonlagee was hidden behind a cloud of mist. I wasn’t worried. I knew where I was going. I had my compass bearings already calculated, and I had recced the route 18 months before.

Maeve O'Grady completing Leg 1 of Glacial Lakes Race. Photo courtesy of Juju Jay.
Maeve O’Grady completing Leg 1 of Glacial Lakes Race. Photo courtesy of Juju Jay.

Dropping into Lough Ougler, I saw Maeve climbing out from the waters. By now, wind was blowing strongly across the lake, whipping up some waves. And the rain threatened us with some cold drizzle as an ominous prelude. I pulled myself up the steep slopes and contoured around Tonelagee to the south, keeping a close eye on my altimeter. Down below, I could see a host of cars parked at Wicklow Gap, where relay handovers were waiting.

I checked in with the Leg 1 marshal as I heard Gerry Brady announcing, “Ruth is just two minutes ahead of you”. I could see her disappearing up the side of the Turlough Hill, the start of Leg 2. I set off after her, finally catching her near the top at the reservoir on the tarmac road. The mist was thick, but I wasn’t worried. “I have my compass bearings already calculated”, I thought”. “And I recced the route 18 months before”. I planned to scoot south of the quarry and to take a straight bearing to Lough Firrib. This is what I thought everyone would do. Only to see Ruth, the master orienteer, dive to the right and head down towards the quarry. “Don’t get lost”, were her final parting words to me.

Running off Tonlagee - was a bit windy, wet, misty and miserable up there. Photo courtesy of Juju Jay.
Running off Tonlagee – was a bit windy, wet, misty and miserable up there. Photo courtesy of Juju Jay.

The temptation to follow her was immense. But then again, I thought, I know how to navigate. I have my bearings. I’ll be fine.

It has been four years since I’ve really used a map and compass. I did the Wicklow Round back in 2009, a feat that requires navigation. Since then, I’ve lived in South East Asia and had a baby, neither of which permitted me to do much mountain running. Over those four years, I also forgot what a navigational nightmare Lough Firrib and Three Lakes are in the thick mist. I had forgotten about the peat hags and zero visibility. My amnesia and four year hiatus meant that I soon lost my nerve and abandoned my compass bearing.

I was lost. And worse, I was all alone. I thought of Ruth ahead of me. I thought of the men 40 minutes behind. I dropped down out of the clouds to relocate, but with little success. And then, after half an hour of wandering around, figuring out what to do, I saw a band of merry men rushing across the bog. I ran after them to find Alan Ayling and Gareth Little in their midst. And unashamedly I shouted, “I’m following you”, and did so until we reached the fire road leading to Glenmalure.

From Ruth's team - Kevin handing over to Mags at the end of Leg 3. They went on to take 2nd place in  5hrs 48 mins. Photo courtesy of Gerry Brady.
From Ruth’s team – Kevin handing over to Mags at the end of Leg 3. They went on to take 2nd place in 5hrs 48 mins. Photo courtesy of Gerry Brady.

But I was ashamed. Terribly so. People think I can navigate. I’ve even written a book all about how I learned from scratch. I now felt like I had returned at square one, having taken two large navigational steps backwards.

Arriving into the end of Leg 2, I knew I had screwed my race royally up. But I still wanted to finish. I had waited two years to take part. And I was kind of looking forward to Leg 3 and a bit more mountain running. So I soldiered on, catching up with Gareth Little at the base of Art’s Lough as he exclaimed, “This is a b@st*rd of a climb”.

Adrian Hennessy was by now charging ahead of us, having also had a minor navigational mishap near Three Lakes. I watched him disappear up and over the ramp, and followed him around Cloghernagh until the mist finally whisked him away again. I was left alone with the sheep on a steep misty grassy hillside. Soon though Kelly’s Lough appeared out of nowhere, with not even the craggy wall behind it visible to warn me of its eminent arrival.

By the time my foot hit Kelly’s waters I knew that the worst was over in terms of navigation. All I had to do was follow the river down to the zig zags, and I’d be back on tracks and trails.

The winning team in 4 hrs 35 mins - Greg, Finbarr, Adrian and Richard. Photo courtesy of Gerry Brady.
The winning team in 4 hrs 35 mins – Greg, Finbarr, Adrian and Richard. Photo courtesy of Gerry Brady.

There was a crowd of cars at the start of Leg 4 in Ballinafunshoge car park. I grabbed a bottle of water, checked my map, wished the remaining runners luck, and headed up the steep climb to join the Wicklow Way. My feet were a little worse for wear, small stones having worked their way into my shoes on the previous mountain sections. The fireroad descent off Mullacor gave them a chance to work up some nice friction burns on both my big toes. Only the enticing waters of Glendalough could provide some soothing comfort.

I lost a place, then gained a place as I ran on down the hill. I then accidently took out a tourist or two on the trail linking the lakes. Did they not know I had a race to run, as they casually strolled along without a care on this fine Saturday afternoon?

Aran waiting for me at the finish line. Photo courtesy of Paul Daly.
Aran waiting for me at the finish line. Photo courtesy of Paul Daly.

Crossing the line in 6 hours 11 minutes, I was happy to be home. Sure, I had regressed when it comes to navigation. But I progressed in other ways. Since having my baby nine months ago, I’ve worked hard to get back into shape. Getting around the Glacial Lakes course showed me that my training is definitely working. And, as any new mother would say, my priorities have slightly shifted. At the finish line were my husband and son. And I was so glad to see them there. Who cares if you lose a few minutes finding a lake when you have such a family waiting for you at the finish?

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