August 8th 1998 and the alarm goes off at 1.30 a.m. After 2 hours fitful sleep I’m not exactly raring to go in my attempt to beat the existing record for the Wicklow Way. A nerve wracking drive through the centre of Dublin (avoiding late night revellers staggering though the streets), round to my friends Aidan and Niamh’s. There, my wife Shelley wishes me luck and supportively heads straight to bed. Then, off to the entrance to Marlay Park, where we meet with the rest of my early morning support team at 3.30 a.m
Mick McMorrow and James Higgins are the main organisers, and they have gone through an immense amount of work relating to the logistics of the record attempt. Part of that was to arrange for the gates of the park to be opened for us. At 3.45 a.m. the gates are still closed and we are already making contingency plans for the start of the run. The gates however are opened and we make our way to the board which marks the official start of the 82 mile long Wicklow Way.
A few quick group photographs and after a rousing countdown, we’re off.
The idea to attempt the record came at the start of that year. Initially, there were three of us planning to attempt the record - Aidan Fitzpatrick, Padraic Hamrock and myself. We were due to run a 20 mile stint to support Graham Porter, Jane Watt and Brian Byrne’s latest attempt to beat the existing record on 18th April 1998. This attempt saw the three reclaim the record at a new time of 19 hours and 54 minutes, beating not only Mick Rice’s old record, but also bettering the 20 hour target they set themselves.
We tentatively set a date for our attempt of July 4th. But a couple of disastrous long training runs made us put the date back to August. The July date was now to be used for a trial 40 mile run from Marlay to Drumgoff.
By this time Padraic, in a rare attack of common sense had withdrawn from the record attempt. On July 4th myself and Aidan attempted the 40 mile first half of the Wicklow Way, with some of our support team out to have a dummy run from a logistical point of view. Aidan picked up an injury which ultimately forced him out, not only of that day’s run, but also the record attempt. It was left to me to have a go at the record myself. It was that time that I realised fully that there is comfort to be drawn from numbers.
The weather on that day in July was cool and a tail wind helped me down to Drumgoff in 7 and three quarter hours. Amazingly I felt really strong at the end, and in hindsight that was definitely the day to have gone for the record.
August 8th however, turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year, and the start of the run in Marlay was extremely humid, even at 4 in the morning. The only part of the Wicklow Way I had not covered in training was the maze of paths through Marlay Park. At 4 a.m. these are not easy to follow, and if it hadn’t been for Brian Byrne leading the way, the record attempt could well have started disastrously. The first hitch occurred at the exit gates from Marlay Park which remained locked as we approached. A human rope ladder helped me over the wall, and we were off. On the first climb up Kilmashogue Lane even though I was dressed only in t-shirt and shorts, I was soon drenched in sweat. This was particularly worrying at such an early stage of the run. As we moved up onto the higher ground below Fairy Castle, the views to our left of Dublin as dawn approached were spectacular. Then a quick descent and a short drink stop with the support team at Borynaralty Bridge. I was feeling extremely sluggish at this point and was losing a huge amount of fluid. We met the support team at Curtlestown Wood and Crone Wood and I was still feeling dreadful. I was trying not to admit this to myself or to my running partners but I was seriously worried about reaching halfway, let alone Clonegal at this point. The long climb from Crone over the shoulder of Djouce seemed to do me good though and by the time we were on the sleepers below Djouce I started to get my running legs. A strong descent to Lough Tay, and to my first scheduled stop.
We had decided to split the attempt into quarters with 15 minute breaks at Lough Tay, Glenmalure Lodge Hotel and Tinahealy. I was feeling really good at Lough Tay and it was difficult to stay the full 15 minutes. The need for a schedule is obvious, but it can become all consuming. If you reach a point only five minutes behind schedule it crazily becomes soul destroying. Correspondingly, if you get there even only a couple of minutes early you feel as though you are flying. Up until Lough Tay I had only been just behind schedule, but aligned with the fact I hadn’t been feeling great it was psychologically getting me down. However, we started making up time on the next leg and we arrived in Laragh ahead of schedule feeling strong.
The section from Laragh to Drumgoff must be the hardest of the whole Wicklow Way. The climb up over Mullacor seems never ending. It was on this climb that I seriously considered abandoning the whole attempt. Huge thanks to Joe Macdonagh and Brian Byrne who accompanied me on this section. I think Joe actually ‘conned’ me up over Mullacor. About a third of the way into the climb, with the mid-day sun beating down and no discernible breeze whatsoever, I was drenched in sweat and struggling badly. I kept saying to Joe that I was struggling and the weather was getting too hot and that I wasn’t going to make it. Joe kept assuring me that it wasn’t hot at all and that it was all in my mind. Amazingly, I believed him and dug in for the rest of the climb. A welcoming breeze was waiting for us at the top of Mullacor and we descended rapidly into the beautiful Glenmalure Valley. We arrived again ahead of schedule in just over 8 hours.
The 15 minute break at Glenmalure Lodge Hotel was fully utilised this time. I knew now that if I could make the next 20 miles to Tinahealy then I would definitely finish. The climb out of Glenmalure is tough, but I knew it was the last really big climb. Once over Slieve Maan I knew the mountains were behind me. It was an almost enjoyable descent down to Ow bridge.
The climb out of that valley is deceptively tough, but it was a question of just digging in now and keeping going. A longish section on the road and we met up with my support team again at Sandyford Bridge. The 10 kilometre run from there to Tinahealy is one of my favourite sections, and although tired the gently rolling scenery which is such a vast contrast to the mountains of North Wicklow, was definitely a lift. There seemed to be more and more people meeting me at each designated control point now, and I was amazed to see the crowd waiting to greet me at Tinahealy. It provided a massive boost. After a 15 minute break I was on the road again. Although I had reached Tinahealy on schedule, the pace had dropped off drastically now and it seemed that we now set off at a snail’s pace. However, the plan had been to get down to Drumgoff as fast as possible, aim for Tinahealy in a certain time which would give me enough of a time buffer to complete the last 20 miles inside the old record time. Thanks to Paul Cullen for attempting to lift the pace on that next stage....everybody was being really nice to me at that point, but from my experience from doing mountain marathons with Paul, if you’re struggling, expect no sympathy!! But as usual he pulled me along, which is what I needed so as ever he is forgiven!
I knew well the last 20 miles from Tinahealy to Clonegal as I had covered them on numerous occasions in training, but in spite of the fact I knew exactly where the cruelly named Coronary Hill was, I think the only words I uttered on the entire last 20 mile stretch was ‘is this Coronary Hill?’. This seemed to be the source of great amusement to Brian Byrne who gleefully informed me each time that it wasn’t. He assured me that I would know when I came to Coronary Hill. I did.
I had been hoping to break the 18 hour mark, but it was becoming obvious that this mark was now beyond my reach. At Raheenakit I now had to really dig in. Breaking from a walk into a run was starting to require a huge mental effort. But I needed to lift the pace for the run into Clonegal in order to get under the 18 and a half hour mark. After what seemed like an eternity I was on the home straight on the road into Clonegal. The village lights were in sight and I now thought I only had about 400 metres to go. Until Padraic decided to try and lift me by saying..’not far now....just imagine it’s just like 4 laps of Trinity track’. In one sentence 400 metres had become a mile.
The convoy of cars, crowd of support runners and well wishers from Clonegal, made the last ‘mile’ almost bearable and it was with the hugest relief imaginable that I crashed exhausted into the Wicklow Way sign in Clonegal. I had completed the run in 18 hours, 24 minutes and 54 seconds.
That day will always stand out in my memory, not so much for the fact that I broke the record, but for two more important reasons. Through the generosity of friends I managed to raise about 3500 pounds for my wife Shelley’s cousin Kim, who had been diagnosed with cancer. She is still fighting her illness bravely.
Also, it will always stand out for me on a personal level, as I really cannot believe the amount of support I received that day from both non-running friends and all from the hill running community. When Douglas asked me to write an account of my record attempt, I was pleased because it gave me an opportunity to thank all who had helped me that day. I should have thanked everybody when I received my memento of the day at IMRA’s annual dinner, but was literally ‘gob-smacked’ by the presentation and missed my opportunity.
Thanks to all my friends who came out that day.
Thankyou to all support runners: Nigel Creighton, Joe Henry, Aidan Fitzpatrick, Padraic Hamrock, Kieran Crowley, Brian Byrne, Joe MacDonagh, Graham Porter, Tom Furness, Jane Watt, Pat Fitzpatrick, Liam Walsh, Brendan Doherty, Julie Hilliard, Justin Keatinge, Paul Cullen, Brendan O’Brien, Susan Brady.
And to the guy from Dublin parks who opened the Marlay Park gates at that ungodly hour.
Particular thanks to Peadar Dempsey, who massaged my legs at each stop and Aidan who had the unenviable task of applying vaseline to my feet at each scheduled stop. Amazingly, I didn’t have a twinge of cramp or one blister in 82 miles.
To my friend Tom who travelled over by ferry and bicycle from Wales and who ran and cycled the second half of the Wicklow Way. It was Tom who stopped for 2 pints in the Dying Cow en route. On finishing his second pint he got on his bike and attempted to set off up that brute of a hill by the pub. He and his bike ended up in the ditch.
To Aidan, for running in front of me on the bramble strewn trail along Urelands, so that his legs would be cut by the brambles, not mine. It was a shame we could not have attempted the record together.
To Aidan, Paul, Padraic and Nigel for all the enjoyable , long training runs, including the never to be forgotten run up Djouce in knee deep snow. The training runs were the most enjoyable part of the record attempt.
To Mick and James for all their work, support and organisation.
To Shelley, for putting up with obsessiveness.
And finally, to Graham, Jane and Brian, who, in spite of the fact that it was their record I was attempting to break, supported me from the 4 a.m. start to the 10.30 p.m. finish in Clonegal. Jane still holds the women’s record.
I hope I am as magnaminous in my support for whoever attempts the record next..
Good Luck to anybody who wishes to break the record. You’ll be sure of a grand welcome in Donne’s pub in Clonegal.
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