The Art O’Neill Challenge was always one of those races other people did, one that I enjoyed listening to their stories but definitely not one for me ….. or so I thought!
This iconic race run by Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue involves 30km of road running leaving Dublin Castle by night and then crossing open mountains, all self-navigated & this year finishing at the Glenmalure Lodge approx. 60km later. So, it’s definitely a challenge!
I’m not really sure why I signed up, I think I was feeling brave and I wanted to do something new, something where I would learn new skills. I had done a fantastic Mountain Skills course last November (with Fia Mountaineering) and navigation, even though I was a novice, didn’t scare me as much anymore. Plus I didn’t think I would get in!!! So, when the email came to say I got in, I texted a few people to ask if they thought I could do it and every reply was Yes. I thought if they think I can do it, I surely can.
And then I sort of freaked out!! That was until I found out Clare was accepted too and this turned out to be my saving grace! We teamed up and did many a late night or early morning recce, two middle aged mothers out having the time of our lives in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere – we were both at the same stage with navigation so it worked really well. We learned so much on those recces and had so much fun doing them.
The week leading up to the race I started to get very nervous, thinking of all the things that could go wrong, of all the things I might do wrong, that everyone was so much more capable than me, am I silly to think I can take this on, how running through Dublin on a Friday night was not a great idea, of how long that 30km of road was going to feel, worrying about the weather, what was I going to wear, how my knee was suddenly sore and the list goes on & on…. Fast forward to Friday, drop bag packed, clothes laid out and ready to roll.
I met up with a few guys at Glenmalure Lodge at 8.15pm to get a mini bus to Dublin Castle. Some great chats on the bus were a welcome distraction. We got to the Castle about 9.15 and checked in, got our gear checked, wrist bands on, trackers taped on, the drop bags tagged and ready to meet us at CP1. CP1 seemed so far away at this point!! I met Clare and Liam before I headed off (Clare was due to leave 30mins after me) and then with no fanfare or count down or anything really I said, I think I’ll go and headed out the front gate where they scan your wristband and off you go. A bit of a dull start to a not so dull race!! Down by Burdocks and off up Clambrassil Street, like a true country bumkin, trying to cross the roads, dodging the cars & buses and saying hi to everyone around!! There were lots of well-wishers on route out of the city which was cool.
I had one other runner in sight which was nice but felt a bit odd that very few were around. Saying that, I think this worked well for me as I was running my own pace. If we had headed off in a crowd I would probably have gone off too fast!!
I knew where I was going at least, glad in my head that I had driven the Dublin part of the route the day before. I headed out towards the KCR, my old stomping ground and my friend Emer and her son were out to cheer me on. I was moving great and happy with my running, moving on up towards Firhouse, I met more walkers and Hybrids – once we were up past Bohernabreena leaving the city lights behind, I really started to relax, onto stone cross & it felt more comfortable, back roads, very few cars and I felt myself smile & sigh a little sigh of relief. I was really enjoying this now. Seemed like lots more runners around too. I got chatting to Fergal for a while and lost him just before reaching CP1.
In my head, reaching CP1 was huge. To me that was the tough bit over and I was really looking forward to the mountain section. I had done my homework and now it was time to put it into play. The fire road out of CP1 was a slog and up onto Billy Byrne’s Gap was more difficult under foot than I had thought it would be. But, this is where it all got so interesting. There were quite a few head torches around and they were all going different directions. I was happy with where I was going, so I just stuck to my plan. It was foggy and drizzly and I went on my arse so many times. It’s hard following a bearing and minding your footing in the fog! But they were soft landings and I was giggling to myself for the most part. Then a bird flew up out of nowhere, made a lot of noise & gave me the fright of my life – I was singing “Like a Bat out of Hell” then for the rest of Billy Byrne’s section! RiP Meatloaf who had died that day.
I met the river where I should and followed on, kept high, watched all the head torches going toward the gap in the trees to the gate. Some head torches were way higher and some lots lower but I was just delighted my hard work was paying off and I was where I should be. Onto the fire road and on the way to CP2.
CP2 was like a restaurant, so much food and drink but all I wanted was some coke (I know!) and there wasn’t any! So, I filled up with water and off I went. I met Ciaran on the way out of the check point, he was going strong despite a sore back. We chatted for a little while and off he went (he finished 5th overall! Some running!). I headed to the river crossing where we had recced and there was a guy behind me crossing at the same point. We crossed together – it looked like we had the same line – we were heading up between the two rivers and then heading up to the cross keeping the boulders to the left. He was flying up the hill, I was careful not to just follow him. Sure you don’t know who knows the way! I caught up with him before the river, I think having him there made me go faster – in my head I was thinking I can catch him! Art’s Cross is not far from the river, about 350m & for the race you don’t have to touch the cross but only need to go within 300m of it. As it turned out, the guy was Jordan who I was on the same WhatsApp AON group chat with, but this was my first time meeting him….small world! He decided he wasn’t going to the cross and we said our farewells. I headed up to the cross as it is kinda what the race is about especially for the first time doing it (not sure I would go to the cross if I was doing it again though). The cross was all lit up and it was great to get to it. Another milestone and from here it was all downhill (kind of).
I literally bumped into Jordan again as I descended down from the cross – not sure what that says about where he was going or where I was going but it was nice to have company down to the river. We fell a million times between us & had some great chats. Across the multitude of peat hags, I stuck with my navigation and we got down to the river, all be it a bit sooner than I wanted. That meant more crossings than the one if I had met the river further up. The river bank is sideways running on sloppy ground and on a normal day would be great fun but it was a bit frustrating and I was really looking forward to some solid ground. I knew it wasn’t far away. And this to me felt like I was nearly home even though I knew there was still 10km to go! And a VERY long 10km at that.
Heading down table track I was going great, happy out that most of the run was done. I was singing away in my head and then ouch, I had gone over on my ankle and it hurt!! I cursed myself and was thinking typical, I get this far and now I’ll have to hobble the last 10km home. I didn’t stop for long and walked it out and had a good chat with myself & started running again. It was ok or at least I could run, so I just tried to ignore it and move on. On the way down the fire road, I heard some fast steps behind me and it was Dan from IMTR. It was great to meet him and have a quick chat he motored on & his light faded away into the distance. And then, there was Barravore up ahead – how lovely it would have been to finish here, just perfect! But alas, no, this was the part we all dreaded I think, the last 5.5km road section from Barravore to The Glenmalure Lodge.
Thoughts of The Walk of Shame come to mind, half walking, half running, a little bit of out of it, runners trying to keep their shit together and get back to the Lodge before falling apart. I will never look at that road in the same light again. I think I will remember every up and down but when the lights of the Lodge came into sight, all was forgotten and the end was nigh. A lovely welcome home & a great feed on offer. Because we all started at different times, there were loads of runners finishing up in the next few hours and lovely to hang around to welcome them home. The breakfast in the Lodge and the chats after were a perfect end to this epic adventure.
I am proud to say I got home in 7hrs39mins, ran solo and did my own navigation the whole way.
Things I can take away from this race; trust yourself and your hard work, be thankful for the amazing people out there who are willing to help you, never under estimate your capabilities & I just love this sport and everything these challenges throw at you!
Best bits of kit on the night: My Columbia Mesh Jacket – I changed into this for the open mountain section. It just kept me at a perfect temperature the whole way and my waterproof socks, again just for the mountain section. Cosy toes!!
More info on the Art O’Neill: https://www.artoneill.ie/