The idea of attempting the Wicklow Round came over me like a mild infection, a sort of a close contact, that had gone too far into my mind before I realised the consequences. I had read ‘Feet in the Clouds’ by Richard Askwith a couple of times, a book that sells hill running so well that if it doesn’t inspire you to run up a hill you should get yourself examined. This opened my mind to the ‘Round’ concept. A full day on the hoof, where you can combine your steely determination, athleticism and love for the mountains to attempt to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Following this, the nail in the coffin was delivered by Moire O’Sullivan’s ‘Mud, Sweat and Tears’ which described her completion of the first Wicklow Round. Once I knew of the existence, on my doorstep, of a challenge that required you to choose all of you own poison, with little to no reward save for the appreciation of a tight knit group of similarly minded masochists I absolutely had to give it a go.
Map in hand and with a vague knowledge of the Wicklow Mountains I began plotting what I saw as the most suitable route to take. Most of the limited knowledge available to me indicated that the round would be in the 100km and 6,500mtr ballpark. However, I just couldn’t see how the summits could be linked in a way that would keep the distance that ‘low’. There is nothing to replicate a boots on the ground ‘recce’ so in 2019 I began taking trips to Wicklow to verify my route choices. It became obvious to me very quickly that this would be tougher and longer than I imagined. I picked off a few short sections, no problem. The problems began when I started trying to go long. Each time I took a trip the distance was about 10% further than I expected and the weather was atrocious. Recce 1 was an absolute washout which came to a stop at a ‘stream’ that had turned into a torrent. Recce 2 was an attempt at 50km which ended with me thumbing back to my car after wading through snow for 5 hours. Recce 3 was another wet and windy one, but at least I finished what I had started. 6 months into panning and it was looking like a decisive victory for the mountains!
Beaten By The Elements
My luck briefly changed around the beginning of March (Yes 2020, the COVID month). After making the trek for another recce I finally hit the hills on a beautiful clear day. Using only map and compass I managed to hit all of my targets over 40km of the course. I was almost giddy with excitement on the M7 heading home. I couldn’t wait to get back! My excitement was dampened by the time I got to Limerick by all the talk of coronavirus and lockdowns in other countries. This couldn’t affect me? Surely? Two weeks later, schools closed and an imminent full lockdown coming over the horizon, I blazed the now familiar trail back up the M7 and through the Curragh for an emergency recce. On another glorious day I managed to get through 11 mountains and almost 50km in relative ease. It seemed as though the momentum of this battle was slowly shifting. I was 7 weeks out from my planned attempt and feeling great!
Just as it did for everyone else, my plan went out the window. With travel and movement restrictions imposed the notion of the round attempt seemed to be melting away as fast as my determination did on those rain sodden recces! Luckily, I had access to some riverbank trail between my house and work, as well as a job that was deemed essential. Trying to keep in decent shape I began commute running morning and evening. Fast forward a couple of months and I haven’t as much as seen a hill, but I have managed to maintain a decent base. With the resumption of hill running, and IMRA indicating that Round attempts would be allowed later in the summer, plans shifted to the start of August. It was difficult watching the original date in May come and go in glorious sunshine, knowing that the ground was dry and growth was low.
It has been wisely said for generations that one should ‘focus on what you can control and accept what you cannot’. I’m acutely aware of the pointlessness of trying to control the Irish weather, yet on the week of my attempt I couldn’t help myself from expending most of my mental energy on the hourly meteorological updates. I’ve been bitten more than once by the Wicklow Mountains and I could feel the negativity and anxiety building up from a couple of days out. I spent much of July 30th looking towards the heavens and I was being tormented by intermittent clear skies and heavy showers. I had managed to squeeze in a couple of long runs and recce’s in late June and early July so I was confident in my fitness and routes. I had spoken to the ever-helpful Brian Kitson about his round attempts and he had mentioned a couple of times about the difference good weather would make. It was just nibbling away at my confidence. In terms of the controllables, I had managed to get an excellent crew together of people who understand what this type of challenge was all about. Veterans of the Kerry Way Ultra, The Race, Transvulcania, The Beast etc. made up the crew so I knew I would be in good hands. Sometimes you need to be looked after, sometimes you need a kick up the backside and this gang knew what way to go.
My brother Paul Kiely got the ‘honour’ of doing the nightshift, so he collected me at home and after a final kit check we headed East for Wicklow. As had been the case all week, the weather was all over the place with showers and clear skies only minutes apart. I resigned myself to the ground being wet, but I still held out hope for a rainless few hours during the night.Parked at Feathertrack with Paul, there was a couple of stars visible as we waited for 1am to arrive. Things looked promising as we got out for a photo, but the sharp breeze quickly reminded me where I was. I decided at the last minute to supplement my 2 layers with a Gore-Tex windstopper. I had the full set of wet gear in the bag also – just in case. With no sense of occasion greater that a shake of the hand I headed for Kippure, summit number 1 of 26. An easy start with a well-defined route to the top, Kippure passed off without incident. However, heading back down the access road the rain started, lightly at first but quickly gaining strength. One thing I had learned during recce’s and Art O’Neill challenges is that when rain hits West Wicklow, it sticks.
Paul, reliable as ever, was waiting for me at Sally Gap in case anything was required before the first major foray into the mountains. By this time I was already in full wet gear so I just picked up a refill of Tailwind and started uphill. The thing is, once you head out onto this section you’re pretty committed. There are 7 summits and around 20km to cover before you hit civilisation again. With a hint of a spring still in my step I headed confidently along the walker’s track that I had become familiar with. Carrigvore, Gravale, Duff Hill and East Top would ordinarily be a lovely start to a long hill run with relatively easy navigation and runnable terrain. However, with the abundant ground water and very poor visibility (even for night time) I was finding it difficult to stay on the faint walker’s tracks. The deteriorating weather situation that had earlier been nibbling at my confidence was now full blown coastal erosion.
By my 4th summit I had made the decision that this attempt was a waste of everyone’s time. It was not enjoyable and my progress was so slow that I was already in danger of not completing it in under 24 hours. I was starting to get really cold even though I was wearing 4 top layers including a Windstopper and Shakedry, and a complete baselayer and waterproof layer over my legs. The moisture had gotten through and the wind was really starting to bite. I tried to remind myself that it was August and it couldn’t be as bad as I was imagining. A couple of falls due to lack of any grip left both me and my morale on the ground. I stared blankly at my map for an ‘out’ but there just was none. I was going to have to trudge all the way to Oakwood just to get a lift home. By 3:30 am I was soaked through and only running every now and again in an attempt to lift my body temperature. The only saving grace was that on the few times I lost my bearing I got back on track pretty quickly. I’d like to think that it was good navigation but I think I was just moving too slowly to go too far wrong! After descending from Mullaghcleevaun into Billy Byrne’s Gap (the most hateful stretch of ground in Ireland) I was heading towards Moanbane and something caught the corner of my eye. Just a faint shadow…. I turned off my headlamp and waited for my eyes to adjust…. To my utter delight I could make out the contours of the hills.
It’s amazing the impact of daybreak can have on a tormented soul! I didn’t harbour a thought of continuing past Oakwood but I realised that my journey there would be a little bit easier. I could aim for things in the distance, rather than the 80 or so meters that my light had been affording me. Up and over Moanbane, curving around for the short down-and-up to Silsean my legs began to work again and I realised that the rain had become a mist. Using the fence line to guide me all the way off Silsean my line was dead straight and I was warming up again on the runnable descent. My recce’s were paying off now with no need to look at my map. Cross the road, cross the farm and follow the twin ESB line down towards the warmth and safety of my lift home. Crossing the bridge over Kings River I looked down at the torrent and knew I was making the right decision.
Body Language – Sally Gap V’s Oakwood
Then something strange happened. I met Paul and torpedoed him with all my nonsensical gibberish about having enough and not wanting the crew to drive across the country for nothing. But instead of finishing by saying that I want to go home, I got all indecisive. Paul stood there with a sympathetic look on his face, yet not offering an out! I just couldn’t admit that it was over so I finally talked myself into doing the next section before I dropped out. Sure, it’s only 13 miles or something – I’ve 20 done already. ‘Only a half marathon’ agreed Paul – ‘a little training run for you’. Thankfully I had done my maths wrong as it turned out to be considerably longer. Off again I trotted on my not-so-merry way up Oakwood and across to Three Lakes and on to Table Mountain. I had recced this area the week before so it seemed familiar and easy. Even when I hit the deck, pretty hard this time, I just got on with it. ‘Glad that didn’t happen before Oakwood or I’d be well on my way home!’. By now the clouds were lifting a little and I could clearly see the route to Camenabologue and on to Lugnaquilla, the highest mountain in Leinster. Nearing the top of Lug, I finally began to really enjoy myself as the ground flattens out enough to be runnable well before the cairn and the momentum can be carried all the down across Corrigasleggaun, Carrawaystick into Drumgoff and on to Glenmalure. By now the sun was shining and as I got close to the Glenmalure lodge car park I could see the crew – Paul, Philip Purcell, Lorraine Horan and Sean Carey – tucking into a breakfast at the half way point. Things were looking up.
Beginning the second half of the round, I was well aware that much of the heavy-duty climbing was yet to come. Getting food in was becoming a bit of a concern as the tried and tested items just weren’t working. I had managed a sausage and rasher sandwich at Glenmalure, but other than that it was just a few small bites of energy bars. On the week before the attempt I had made a late decision to order a box of Clif Bloks as they are very easy to get down on the run. This was proving to be an inspired choice (albeit late and almost accidental) as they were my main go-to in the later stages. From Glenmalure it’s maybe 3 kilometres of a jog/hike up Mullacor to a little shed and a trail that leads back onto the open mountain. After a quick hike to the summit, there is a beautiful runnable section which undulates all the way to the top of Derrybawn Ridge and descends into Glendalough. I was really enjoying the moment, ridge running on a glorious day. So much so that I even stopped for a chat with a fellow trail runner who was training for the 7 Sisters race. When asked what I was training for I replied that I was in the 11th hour of a 24 hour challenge. In true trail running fashion, my new buddy reminded me sharply ‘you’d better get going then’. Probably good advice, in fairness.
Relaxing at Glenmalure and Glendalough!
Glendalough was manic, as can be expected in August. Tourists sprawled across paths trying to get the perfect ‘selfie’. Smelly trail runner trying not to get in the way, yet refusing to give up ANY unnecessary momentum. A moments worry about whether the crew had managed to get into the packed car park was replaced by the glorious sight of an expanded crew that was now bolstered by Paul Tierney, Loren Harnett and Alan Webb – all experienced campaigners. I was quickly watered, salted, fed, sprayed and sent on my way. No sympathy on display for the 70-odd km in the bank. Tough crowd. Out of Glendalough there is a very steep, fern covered hill which I had been trying to ignore. It’s some of the hardest earned ground of the round. Poles out, head down, one step at a time. Just breathe, walk and don’t lose the path. Before I had time to really start ranting in my head I emerged on the ascent to Camaderry to be greeted by a mountain biker plunging down from the top. Fair play to him, that’s some hard earned joy. Near the top, a couple ask me to look out for a phone that they have dropped. I nod and smile, knowing that there is absolutely no way I’m going to come back down this trail if I find it. Swing around there folks and embrace the self-reliance!. Over the top of Camaderry and on the way to the reservoir access road I can see the crew down in the valley. Even though I feel like I’m moving Ok it takes me a long time to get down there. The muscles are tightening up as I use the short cuts and boardwalk.
Still Going Well
Before starting the hike to Tonelagee the crew give me the now familiar once over. Apparently, I’m looking good and moving well, which is nice to hear two thirds of the way around. I pass a few casual walkers on the way up, slipping around in Nike Air runners which have been asked to grip a surface other than tarmac for the first time in their existence. At the top there is a noticeable crowd which I quickly learn is coming from the other side. I begin descending, carefully at first over the steep rocky bits, then with more of the carefree abandon of a bona fide hill runner. I realise all of these people have crossed one of the streams that I was worried about all those hours earlier at Kings River. Across the stream with a skip and a jump, I catch the crew a little unprepared as I have completed the section 20 minutes or so faster than anticipated. Spirits were high in transition, and basking in the feel-good factor I probably spent 15 minutes too long there. All notions of a speedy round had evaporated so long ago that it didn’t seem to matter.
The section that covers Scarr, Knocknacloghoge and Lugalla was next up and it was very clear to me that this would be a real battle. I was feeling great starting out towards Scarr with a spring in my step. It seemed to come and go easily and I was happy to stick to the longer but more familiar line West of Kanturk, along the forest ride, Logan’s Way and on to Knocknacloghoge. Ahead of schedule, I crossed the river where I had expected to see a few friendly faces who were trail running in the area. I found out later that they had completely miscalculated the amount of growth and were making slow progress. They weren’t the only ones. For the next 2 hours I battled through disappearing trails, heather, furze and ferns that were taller than me. The navigation was simple but the route which had been chosen in Spring was a disaster in late Summer. The hardest parts to swallow were the descents from Knock and Lugalla that had previously been so enjoyable and were now almost impassable. This was torture, with every step being hard earned. Lowering morale quickly gave way to despair as I came down the cliff path towards my waiting crew. Eventually, in a sheer act of desperation I bee-lined towards them rather than take what was once a walker’s path. At the river crossing I took a real gamble. Faced with a bad crossing point, I couldn’t convince myself to go back or around. So, with a small toe hold and a crack in a large rock to aim for I jumped across a plunge pool and grabbed on like a gecko. Looking back, it was really dodgy – especially with around 90km or so in the legs! With a certain sense of relief, I trudged my way to the crew point at the foot of Djouce.
Finishing The Section That Nearly Beat Me
Having been on a high at the previous transition, this contrast here was stark. I had that zombie feeling that you need to have experienced to understand. My wife Sorcha and her sister Leonie had arrived and they tried to cheer me on. My mother had travelled with them and I could see she was relieved but shocked to see me. Ross Redmond and Mike Jones, 2 fellow adventurers, had come along but I could scarcely acknowledge them. I was teetering on the edge. I was handed some hot tea and cold cola in an attempt to perk me up. Staring vacantly at my maps and notes, I tried to work out the length of the next section but the brainpower just wasn’t there. I was really struggling. Someone asked me if there is anything I need and I could feel the emotions welling up as I said, ‘I really need company’. The crew could see that I was very negative so they began encouraging me to get moving again. They were right, it was the only answer. Djouce is the final big obstacle on the round and I knew if I could get it over and done with I would be on the home stretch. For the first time, I decided to take an unknown route, following a forest ride and trail in an attempt to gain easier ground. This turned out to be a good decision, and a combination of this and the caffeine got me progressing again. Touching the top of Djouce, I knew I had it in the bag. My energy levels and morale picked up as I finally got a sniff of the finish line. I was onto a nice runnable descent towards War hill and at times you could almost describe what I was doing as running! Over War hill and on to Tonduff, keeping left to find the best ground – this was getting easy again. The ‘real’ top of Tunduff could easily catch you unaware, due to a false top just before it. Thankfully Brian Kitson’s shared experience once again helped me on my way here. At the top I swung West, hitting towards Kippure and the safety of a road. No cross-country heroics for me with fading light. The last time I tried it, the descent from Tonduff was difficult on fresh legs but for some reason this time it was fine. I must have accidentally hit a good line to the road?? As I approached the road I realised it turned out to be the wrong line but in the right direction! Feeling great I turned right for Glencree and Oldboley’s, jogging along easily while waiting for my crew to realise I missed the transition at Kippure access road.
The Home Stretch
The carnival that my crew had become caught up with me on the road, and I was happy to see Brian showed up as I felt he was part of the journey. Momentum was with me now and I didn’t want or need anything. Concerned about morale, Sorcha ran along for a few minutes to check in, but by now I was a man on a mission. Part of my strategy was to start at 1am so that I wouldn’t need to navigate in the dark on the second night. I was cutting it fine now so I picked up a bottle and kept moving through what should have been my final transition at Oldboley’s. Brian and his dog tagged along for a couple of km’s, carefully observing the rules of the round by staying behind. We chatted for a few minutes and I went on my way, over the top of Knocknagun and on to Prince Williams Seat. At this stage only the very last few lumens of light were available and my eyes played two distinct tricks on me, seeing a dog where there was long grass and a man where there was rocks. I guess being awake for 40 hours and running for 21 of them was starting to take its toll on my mind. Optical illusions aside, the ground was coming to me easily as I headed back to Knock, officially my last peak.
The light was almost gone but I could make out the large rocks near the top of Knocknagun. After tagging the top, I hit back down the familiar trail towards the final road section home. It was properly dark now and even though I had been up this very path a half hour earlier my mind started to get doubtful. I was really glad I was on the home stretch as I don’t know how I would have navigated any tricky sections. Back on the forest road, I confidently pushed on for Oldboleys where the crew were waiting. As I came out onto the road Paul Tierney, competitive as ever, said I needed to cover 2km in 15 minutes in order to break 22 hours. My condition earlier would certainly have led him to think that this was a big ask but now I was flying it and feeling great. Going up the final 2km all I was short was the Olympic flame! My mind was still telling my body to be careful but I could have sprinted. Near the finish Sorcha and Paul T were running along, there were cars behind and up ahead – it was a celebration. Approaching the spot where I had started out, I was so delighted to have so many people around me who were part of my trail running journey. My Wife and Mother who have supported me so much. Leonie, who I did Dublin marathon with. All the adventuring and trail running crew who I have had countless adventures with, from sun drenched islands to knee deep snow. This was special, and when the end came, it almost came too soon.
Home and Hosed
21 hours 53 minutes after starting out, I was back. My brother Paul was somehow still there smiling after crewing from start to finish. I was surrounded by an unbelievable bunch of people in the dark, in a remote part of Wicklow. I attempted to thank them, but what I said will never cover it. I had fulfilled a long-standing ambition and these were the people who made it possible. I’ll be forever grateful. We all hung around for a while enjoying the moment. Alan, having brought his campervan along, sat me down and produced a cold bottle of beer. Leonie, never to be outdone produced hot Guinness beef stew from a flask. This was heaven. Soon enough it was time to go, a long road home after all. Sorcha and my Mother eased me into a sleeping bag and onto a blow up mattress for the spin home. In a half sleep, half-awake state I could hear them chatting away on the way down home. My body and mind were so relaxed. No cramping, no stress, no obsessing about navigation or the weather. And then a thought appeared and disappeared again like a wisp of steam – what will I do next?