From studying to be a missionary priest in the late 80’s, Ray gives us here a truly inspiring journey into trail and ultra running. He has completed most of Ireland’s top ultra races and is planning many further, having recovered from his recent heart surgery.
My wife, Suzanne, compares it with going into a car, discovering a bomb and having it diffused with one second to go.
Tell us how you got into Trail Running?
My journey to becoming a Trail Runner, indeed an Ultra Runner, goes back all the way to my parents in Blackrock, Cork. I remember my Mam and Dad bringing us around “The Ring” which is where Mahon in Cork has now developed. My Mam was a great walker and I loved walking with her. Blackrock is where my love of the trails and the outdoors originates. I was always out messing in the woods, on the strand, down the old railway line in Blackrock. I loved exploring. My parents influence remains strong in me to this day.
The first mountain I ever hiked up was Carrig near Kiltegan, Co.Wicklow. That was as a 17 year old when for 4 years until 1991 I studied to be a missionary priest with the Kiltegan Fathers. Little did I know that some 30 years later I would be living so close to Carrig again.
My first proper taste of the mountains was in the early 90’s when I got involved with a club called “The Cork Backpackers” where I got the opportunity to venture out in the hills one Sunday morning. The first hike I ever did was in The Gap of Dunloe where we had hailstone and so much rain. The conditions were shocking. Of course I wasn’t properly prepared but I loved it. Someone said that day “if you come back after today, you must really like hill walking” and fast forward some 30 years later I am still in the hills. I met some life-long friends during my time there. People like Mark, Martina, James and another great friend of ours such as Jerry we spent many happy hours rambling in the hills.
10 years or more after leaving the Kiltegan Fathers I met my wife Suzanne. In 2005 we moved to the UK. There I put on a lot of weight, going up to 120 kgs. In 2008 Suzanne and I returned to Ireland. We moved initially to Bagenalstown, Co.Carlow. There I got involved with “The Tullow Mountaineering Club” (TMC). I remember hearing Mick Monahan, one of the founding members, saying even then “God help us if he ever loses weight”. That was definitely something that spurred me on.
I was involved in some longer hikes with friends at the weekends but was struggling to keep up with them. They would end up stopping and waiting for me at places along the way. I decided I needed to find some way of getting fitter and faster to keep up with them. I needed to lose some weight. In 2010 we moved to Dunlavin, Co.Wicklow. While still hiking with TMC, I also joined “The Irish Ramblers” there meeting 2 other great mentors Tom Milligan, and Seamus Sullivan. Shortly afterwards I joined “The Lakeshorestriders” in Blessington, Co.Wicklow. I remember the first time I ran a mile with The ‘Striders. I was fit from hiking but after that first mile running I was wrecked and could not run anymore. Starting with “CouchTo5K” I progressed on to a half-marathon plan with two people Laura and Colm. With their support I went on to to finish a half-marathon. From there I have just kept running.
I combined hiking and running for a while. I believe it was in 2016 that while out on a run I met 2 of the lads who have had the biggest influence on me in terms of fitness over the last 4 years, Paul Daly and Mark Keogh. It was purely by chance that I met them. I remember some of my early runs with the 2 lads, which also included people like David Ringrose and Jason Waters. Initially I remember thinking that if I get a couple of years of trail running that I’ll be happy. I decided to hang up my hiking boots. Those lads encouraged me and never made me feel like I was holding them back, which I know I was. They were brilliant. There was never a situation where they’d be complaining I was too slow and overweight.
Since 2016 I have completed numerous trail races, including The Wicklow Way Race, The RAW Ultra 50 Miler, The Waterville Trail Running Festival, The EcoTrail Wicklow, The Maurice Mullins as well as number of trail races in the UK, The Highland Fling (Scotland), The Chester 50 Mile and The Green Man Ultra in the UK, and many more around Ireland.
The journey to being an Ultra Trail Runner had it’s origins I would think in 2015 when with Seamus Sullivan I completed my first 50 Mile event, The JFK 50 Mile Challenge in Sneem, which I loved.
How often do you go trail running? Are you following a specific training plan?
I have varied between running between 4 and 5 days a week. However as most people know if they were to say to me to go out another time I would not hesitate unless I had something pre-arranged. I love being out no matter what the weather or time of day or night. I love the winter runs in the snow.
I follow plans from a book called “Relentless Progress Forward”. I like to follow one of the running plans so I know I am not over or underdoing the mileage. They are a good gauge.
I should be doing more stretching. I am doing more and more of it at home myself. Up until the Covid kicked off I was doing spinning classes once a week.
Where is/are your favourite trail running playground(s)?
To be honest I just love being out there in the forests or the hills. The Glen of Imaal is my favourite playground. I can often be found running around “Stranahely Woods” early on a Sunday morning. From “Fenton’s Pub” in The Glen of Imaal I can do any distance I want. The only limit is having enough food and water. 😊 I am often planning how much further I can run. It’s often a source of amusement with the lads as to where we will run and how I keep adding bits to our run.
The Glen of Imaal has so many different hills including the highest point in Leinster of course, Luqnaquilla. I love following tracks to see where they end up. I am like a child exploring and seeing where they bring me.
I love running around Glendalough. Glendalough is a good meeting point for the lads I run with. When working in Dublin I enjoy going around Ticknock and Prince Williams Seat.
I have fond memories of The Galtees, The Knockmealdowns, The Comeraghs, The Paps and of course The Reeks. I love The Galtees and look forward to going back there any time I can, even to hike with friends or on my own. When I am out there and especially on a fine day it is bliss. I have great memories of hiking in The Blackstairs. I try to go back every year again to take part in “The Blackstairs Challenge” every May which has been organised for over 50 years by The Wayfarers Club.
What is/are your favourite trail running race(s) in Ireland and/or abroad. Any trail running achievement you’re particularly proud of?
“The Wicklow Way Race” is a very special race. The director currently Lillian Deegan and her team do so much for the runners. The “EcoTrail Wicklow” last year was a great event to be part of. It was so well organised and there was a fantastic buzz around it. I really enjoy “The Ballyhoura Midnight Run” in early January. Robbie and the gang do a great job organising a number of events. IMRA are such a good organisation that we are fortunate to have to facilitate us to have these great experiences.
Of course now we have “The Kerry Way Ultra” series of races. Great challenges and so well organised. The organiser Eileen Daly is an amazing woman.
Last year I took part in “The Waterville Trail Running Festival” which was the first edition and is organised by Simon Kelly. I am sure this will become a much larger event in the coming years. Overseas I loved “The Highland Fling”, and “The Green Man Ultra” in the UK. There is an amazing group of volunteers cheering everyone equally in. Without the volunteers we would not be able to take part in such events. I think of someone like Ciara Murphy who I keep bumping into in various events is brilliant.
There are a few things I am very proud of. One is getting to the just over the half-way point of The Kerry Way Ultra (110KM of 200KM) just over 2 months after having heart surgery. Then finishing The EcoTrail Wicklow 3 weeks later. I had to push myself to finish it due to the time allowed and I did it comfortably in the end. Going back to finish The Wicklow Way in 2018 after finishing just 30 minutes outside the official finishing time 12 months prior to that was a big achievement. As someone said most people would have given up but I didn’t. I went back again and felt much stronger in 2018. I take inspiration from the likes of Tina Reed and Adolfo Garcia. Both Tina and Adolfo initially did not finish The Kerry Way Ultra for the first few attempts. Then last year they smashed it. Incredible!!!
I am also very proud of being the first male over 40 in The Irish Ultra Running Championships for IMRA in 2018. Now I know quite a few more lads did not complete enough of races but I earned it and am very proud of it.
For a long time I had heard stories about races in Chamonix, The UTMB, The TDC, The CCC etc. Paul, Mark and David were going on about them for years. Initially I was not that bothered to be honest. Then 3 years ago Mark was involved in The CCC and I was following him online. I was hooked. Ever since then I have been fascinated by the races and this year through the lottery got into The CCC which will now take place next year.
We were due to go to Slovenia this year but that was postponed. I look forward to going back there and next year of course finishing The CCC.
Can you share any trail running personal advice/tips/story?
I had heart surgery 12 months ago but have not let that stop me. I was training for The Wicklow Way Race last year. Last April due to a history of heart disease in our family and for no other reason than being 50 this year ( I was 50 in May) I decided to get my heart checked out. I was put in touch with Dr Burke at The Beacon Hospital, Dublin. Initially his questioning was to do with how I entertained myself while running for 12 to 15 hours or more, as he would use music for a short run. I was fit, not hugely overweight, cholesterol, blood pressure and resting heart rate were all within very acceptable to excellent levels. I went in for an MRI scan in May and there was a shadow on my heart that he wanted to investigate further. He did not seem too concerned. I kept training totally oblivious to anything being wrong. I went for an angiogram in May, just a few weeks before The Wicklow Way Race. I had been expecting to get the all clear and compete in the race. After I came out of theatre after having the angiogram I was informed that he had put in 4 stents. The so-called L.A.D or “The Widow Maker” was 80% blocked. I was a massive heart attack waiting to happen. It could have happened anywhere at any time. A month later I was back in for 3 more stents.
Dr Burke could not understand how I was running up and down mountains with an 80% blockage in my heart. I had not been feeling any different. I was not feeling tired or in any discomfort at all. I know from talking to another specialist that because of my level of fitness I would never have shown up on anyone’s radar as being a risk despite my genes. I would have been considered as having less than a 1% chance of having a heart attack.
My wife, Suzanne, compares it with going into a car, discovering a bomb and having it diffused with one second to go.
I would advise anyone to get themselves checked out if they have a history of heart disease in their families.
Now I take 2 blood thinning drugs and a statin to help control my cholesterol. I need to be careful. If I cut myself then I will bleed quite a bit. I don’t let this stop me. While I do suffer from anxiety I still get out there and plough on.
Now the running joke with the lads is when we meet someone new “How long will it be before he mentions that he had stents put in?”
My weight is definitely my biggest weakness. I just don’t have the discipline to get my weight down to about 80kgs or thereabouts which would make a huge difference in the hills as we all know. As Mark has often said “Life is for living”.
One day I ran 100KM around the village of Dunlavin which took 17 and a half hours, just to see what 100KM was like. I saw people going to work, coming back from work, going to the pub and coming back from the pub………and I was still going. A few people asked me later what I was doing.
I am extremely determined and very competitive. Never mistake the smile for someone who is hungry underneath to do as well as I can. However I also enjoy nothing more than a stroll in the hills. I love bringing people to places in the hills that I have found or have been shown to me in the hills or the woods in the local area.
I don’t see that what I do is training. It’s a hobby which I live for. The day it becomes a chore is the day I will stop and going back hiking. It has to be said I do make a conscious effort to work on my fitness. While I am relaxed about it I push myself to improve.
I think the one thing that has stood to me over the years is a line I have heard in particular from Mark and Paul and that it is all about “the journey”. “The journey” should not mask the fact how determined and competitive I am. It means that I want to enjoy the experience as long as I am physically able.
I suffer from anxiety and I know that being out there, talking, and laughing is a huge help in managing it. I find it great being out in the hills away from distractions to be able to talk to other people.
I’d say it is never too late to start trail running. I only got into this by sheer fluke in my late 40’s.
Planning is so important. I have noticed over the years that I am working on the finer details now. If I am starting a race early in the morning I will ensure that I get up to get my body used to running early. If there is a lot of running I will practise more running. I will carry extra weight in my backpack if I am preparing for a longer race. There are so many details in preparing for a long race. Attitude though is the most important and I think that is something that comes from within, being grateful for being fit and healthy. We are all just a step, or a trip away from a fall.
You can always do more but sometimes you need to know when to quit. I have retired on a couple of occasions knowing I had enough. I learned from those experiences and have gone back stronger.
I take inspiration from people like Mark Keogh and Stephen Brennan who are still running and still trying to improve in their 60’s, so I have plenty of time to get better yet.
I will normally be one of the last ones to finish a race. I am fortunate enough to be able to run with lads who finish on both ends of the spectrum. Being out on the hills is what is important to me, feeling fit, and healthy. That sense of carrying your own body weight up and down hills. To me when I go into the hills it is about the beauty around me. It is about spending quality time with people.
I use hiking poles or “cheat sticks” as some call them. I have used them for as long as I can remember. Most times I hike up hills and jog them the other side. Speed is not one of my assets and neither am I the quickest over technical ground.
While I love being out there with others but also love the solitude. For Ultras I think you need to be able to do both. I am quite happy to go out and spent 10 to 15 hours walking / running on my own. However you can’t beat the camaraderie of trail runners in my opinion.
For longer races if you are partnering up with someone make sure you know them, especially when someone gets tired or sick.
I love exploring. I love following paths and forest trails to see where they go. Having done my Mountaineering Skills 1 and 2 I am able to use a map and compass and therefore am quite comfortable being out in different type of weather.
More About Ray:
I was born and reared in Blackrock, Cork, 50 years, ago last May. Between 1987 and 1991 I studied to be a missionary priest with The Kiltegan Fathers, Kiltegan, Co.Wicklow. In 1991 I left the Kiltegan Fathers and headed off to Germany. Over the next 12 years or so I divided my time between working in Ireland and Germany. I am a fluent German speaker. In the early 2000’s I took part in a pilgrimage in Scotland along The West Highland Way where I met my wife Suzanne, and we married in 2006.
We have been living in Dunlavin for the past 10 years. Suzanne is without a doubt my biggest fan. She is always supportive of what I do and is the first one to ask me if she can crew for me on a longer race. She understands what is needed. I love seeing Suzanne along the route. It inspires me to keep going. Anyone that lives with a trail runner has to be sympathised with, because certainly in my case that is what I live for. I love being out there. I am constantly talking about running and the hills. I am reading books and watching videos about trail running.