Learning the ‘trick’ to the 6 Hour Rogaine

Ireland’s Annual Rogaine is one of this country’s best kept secrets. Every year, Setanta Orienteers hosts this race deep in the Wicklow Mountains on the weekend closest to the summer solstice. I’ve entered this race twice before, in 2007 and 2008. On my last outing, my partner Andrew and I were subjected to the worst weather ever, namely the Gales of Naruporn. Both Andrew and I subsequently left Ireland the year later (partly due to the weather but also due to the recession), Andrew bound for Australia and me for Vietnam.

A control hidden in the Wicklow Mountains’ heather. Courtesy of TriHarderAR.

With my return to Ireland in 2012, I’ve been too busy adventure racing and having children to delve back into Wicklow. Chance would have it, however, that I had to be in Dublin for business the same weekend as the Rogaine was happening: nothing beats multi-tasking by fitting in a mountain race when you’re meant to be doing other more important things.

As way of background, a Rogaine is a ‘Rugged Outdoor Group Activity Involving Navigation And Endurance’. It involves teams of two or more plotting a series of coordinates on a map, with each control having a designated amount of points. Then it is up to the team to collect as many points as possible within a twenty-four hour period. For those less inclined to spend a whole night out on the hills, there is also a six-hour option. This can be run as an individual or as part of a group.

My initial plan was go for a six-hour leisurely wander in the hills. But when I heard that Paul Mahon, my Mourne Mountain Marathon team-mate, had failed to find a partner for the twenty-four hour race (which Paul himself has won umpteen times), I suggested that we head out together on to the shorter course. Instantly were gone my hopes for a sedate pace. When Paul lines up at a start, it’s always eyeballs out.

At the stroke of 8 am on Sunday morning, the control cards were handed out. We plotted the eighteen sets of coordinates on our maps, the controls having point values of 100, 150 or 200. With the start/finish located just south of Laragh, the controls were strewn in all directions, as far north as Scarr Mountain, south of Mullacor, over in the east on Trooperstown Hill and as far west as Camaderry.

There is always a ‘trick’ to every race. For the twenty-four hour Rogaine, the ‘trick’ is getting in the big climbs near the beginning before the legs tire. You also need to work out quite quickly where you want to be when night falls, so that you spend the five hours of darkness on easily navigable paths. I soon realised that I didn’t know the ‘trick’ to the six-hour race. I scanned the points, trying to work out what was the best route. My brain was soon fuddled, wondering if we should just aim for the 200 pointers and work a route out from there. I looked to see if there were any outliers, points too far away to aim for, but then realised that half the points looked too far away.

Fortunately Paul intervened and was able to trace out some potential routes. His hand soon fell on the set of five controls east of Laragh that totalled six hundred points. ‘We wouldn’t want to miss these out,’ he said. With those words, we headed east, whilst most of the other competitors noticeably went west, towards Derrybawn. Secretly though I was glad we weren’t following them. The mist had just descended on the mountains, and heading to higher ground to me seemed slightly risky this early in the morning.

Thanks to Paul’s knowledge of the area, he was quick off the mark and bagged the first two controls. Then we began the climb up Trooperstown Hill, where the mist soon surrounded us despite its lower altitude. The control looked easy to get on paper, a stream out of a marsh two hundred metres north off a path. But in the clag, the undulating terrain hid the swamp, and soon we realised we had gone too far. Doubling back, we climbed higher so we could see the peak. Spreading out, we soon enough found the bog, and the control was well concealed at its mouth. It was a quick lesson on how tricky the navigation can be on Rogaines, with controls not visible until up close. With experienced orienteers planning the event, they weren’t going to give points away that easily.

Heading away from Trooperstown, it wasn’t long before I encountered Wicklow’s true terrain. I had forgotten how much the foliage grows in the summer months, soon finding myself in a forest of head-high ferns. These ferns in turn concealed gorse bushes bursting with razer-sharp thorns. Despite the warm weather, I was glad I had donned full-length tights to give some sort of shielding from their spikes.

Entering Laragh, given the time that had elapsed, Paul and I soon realised that the control on Scarr was a stretch too far. So we headed instead towards Paddock Hill to take the control at the forest break before heading up on to Brockagh Mountain. Starting our climb, we came across another six-hour racer coming down the hill. ‘Don’t go up that way,’ he told us, indicating the direction he had just come. ‘It’s totally overgrown.’ The alternate route traversed yet another thick fern forest, but apparently it was preferable to the terrain he had just attempted to cross. We journeyed together, crossing a couple of barbed-wire fences to get back on to a forest road.

Just as we found the corner where the forest break was marked, Paul and I found another team of distraught rogainers, Hilary and Eilish. ‘The control is meant to be in here,’ they said, pointing to a gap in the trees. ‘But we can’t find it.’ Paul quickly hurdled the stonewall that separated us from the forest. I clambered over, in hot pursuit, only for us to see that Hilary and Eilish were right… no control at the break. It took another closer look at the map to realise there was another forest break a hundred metres to our right. Back out of the impenetrable woods, the four of us stumbled over more gorse, booby-trapped fences, and hidden rocks before we found the control gleefully hiding behind the tree line. Hilary and Eilish were so relieved after spending so much time looking for the flag that they delved back down to Glendalough to indulge in a celebratory ice-cream.

My map also looked a bit worse for wear afterwards, after all that Wicklow Mountain Moisture!

Paul, however, had other plans. He sprinted off in the direction of the gully on Brockagh’s slopes. I was starting to feel a little worse for wear, participating in this race that I had hoped would be a gentle jog. However, I was admittedly enjoying watching Paul navigate the course. They say that practice makes perfect, and I had hoped to get some navigation practice in that day. However, the speed we were going at meant I had to funnel all my energy into running, not map reading. It was amazing to see how Paul, however, tackling the terrain. In particular, it was quite remarkable how, if a control was a little hard to find, how he would hunt the flag down without showing any mercy, relocating at speed.

From Brockagh, with just over three hours gone, we started to plan our return towards the finish. We dived through yet another mess of rocks and ferns down towards Glendasan River before hauling ourselves up Camaderry’s slopes. With two controls on this mountain, it was another long descent into Glendalough to pick up a two-hundred point control on the upper lake’s banks. Three controls on Derrybawn then lay between us and the finish.

There was over an hour to go and I was truly pooped. With one hundred points deducted for every minute you’re late, I was worried that my legs and lungs wouldn’t carry me home in time. I asked Paul to drop one of the intended controls so we could get home quicker. Unsurprisingly, Paul had an alternate plan. So I packed my map away and clung on to his bag as he drug me up Derrybawn. The brief respite was enough to help me recover sufficiently to complete our three-control plan.

Paul Mahon and I collecting our prize at 6 hour Rogaine. Courtesy of Hilary Jenkinson.

We sprinted into the finish, with just over ten minutes to spare. Much to my surprise, we had done remarkably well. We had amassed two thousand points, just fifty points behind the fresh-faced orienteer Colm Hill. That score gave us third place overall, and first mixed team.

Looking at the route the top two competitors took, it was all contour – contour – contour. On paper, it looked much longer and less perfectly circular, but ultimately it was faster. It seems like that’s the ‘trick’ to the six-hour rogaine: climb and descend as little as possible, even if it looks like the long way around.

The route we took can be viewed on Strava here.

Results can be found here.

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