Art O’Neill was an Irish bandit who was arrested and held at Dublin castle, later escaping at midnight one cold January night back in 1592, his Ultra race follows the 35 mile escape route that he used , it runs through Dublin , up and over Blackhill mountain before ascending Arts Cross , the name they gave the mountain where Art and Red McHugh made their final stand against the soldiers chasing them, unfortunately also where he met his end …. One of my favourite Ultra races and a real adventure , with a starting time of 2am , a super fast and very steep road section through the country lanes heading up to the Wicklow mountains , then after checkpoint 1 it is off-road mountain running with navigation in the dark, this year the Sun rose as I was climbing Arts Cross … it was so awe inspiring that I said screw the race and spent 10 minutes just taking it all in …….
The Art O’Neil Ultra race……….
I had hoped to spend Friday at my desk with my feet up in the air but unfortunately the University had other ideas and gave me a Japanese student to look after instead, so my whole day was spent demonstrating and talking on my feet, eventually though my working day was over and I headed to the Marriot Hotel near Edinburgh Airport where I was meeting Lee , a kayaker from Ayr to hand over the last of my kayaking equipment … My retiral from kayaking was to be finalised only a few hours before my first ultra of 2012, a sweet and sour 24 hours it was to be .Deal done I headed to the airport and went through customs before jumping on Ryanair flight RY322 to Dublin, finally a little time off my feet …Waiting on the other side was my old friend Adrian Shanahan and his lovely girlfriend Carla, they were my hosts for the weekend and they were that and much, much more ….. The word awesome is used far too easily these days but definitely not this time, they were “AWESOME” hosts!!!
As we approached Dublin castle I could hear the music thumping hard and soon I saw the crowd of runners and walkers raring to go…. Over 400 entrants in 3 different categories, walkers, hybrids and Ultra runners…. Walkers are self explanatory, hybrids run the first 15 miles to checkpoint 1. before joining a walking group where they are guided over the next 20 miles of mountain terrain, and then the Ultra runners who run all the way and navigate across the mountain by themselves. I had to register before 12am so quickly changed in to my running gear , loaded my pack with all the necessary equipment that is required by the rules and headed into register my appearance , I was quickly asked to check my equipment and then sign the disclaimer before I received my number, I met Gearoid the main man , a fine fellow and ex Olympian rower, we hugged and he looked happy to see me back for another year.
I looked around the hall for my friends Aiden Blake and Mark King who were also in the race, I found them quickly and it was great to see them, Aiden I had run with last year and after a year of hard ultra he was looking super fit , Mark I met in the Himalaya with his friend Stevie , I loved those guys up there , they were warm and funny and really made my Himalayan100 race perfect , unfortunately Stevie hadn’t been able to make it as he had a bad groin strain … Another brilliant find was Paul Kelders, a fella I met on twitter, an MDS 2013 competitor and in the flesh a friendly and witty Irishman of the best kind, it wasn’t long before we were all swapping tales, joking and having a laugh passing the time before the start.
Pretty soon it was midnight and the music was turned down for Gearoid to tell the tale of Art O’Neill and Red McHugh’s daring escape before meeting their end on Arts Cross Mountain … he wished everyone well and the horn went up for the walkers to begin their challenge , a roar went up ad 300+ left Dublin castle courtyard with a 35 mile trek ahead of them , it was to be a tough night ….. Next up were the hybrid runners at 1:30am before we, the Ultra Runners were cheered off at 2am.. I waved good-bye to Adrian and set out on my first section from Dublin to Kilbride high up in the Wicklow countryside… this was a tough run following the city streets up and out of Dublin then at mile 7 a hill that climbs over 1700 feet and just keeps on going up and up !!! I started to meet the walkers at about 8-9 miles in and it was great to hear them encourage us onward and upwards….. Still I was very glad to get to the top and see checkpoint 1…
Here we were allowed a “drop bag” full of equipment and quickly I looked for my bag… disaster!! it wasn’t where it was supposed to be, I looked everywhere but no…. I grabbed a steward and we both searched , eventually finding it in totally the wrong pile but hey these things happen , maybe someone thought it was theirs and dumped it back in the wrong place , anyway I quickly loaded up my rucksack with mountain supplies including my GPS and mountain gear …
I headed out into the dark , pretty much I was on my own now as the walkers were few and far between … it was a very cold clear night , the sky was alit with stars and it was a half-moon so visibility was good , I switched my head torch off for a bit to save my eyes as it was now 4 am and they were starting to tell me they were tired , I ran along a rough track for a mile or two before spying head torches below me , I thought I better get busy and check my position , I pulled out my GPS and switched it on … shit !! it appeared to be in some strange language , bugger , I couldn’t figure it out at all , the symbols just weren’t intuitive enough and I couldn’t change the language back, I must have spent the best part of 20 minutes trying before giving up , the only solution was getting my map out and going old skool, it wasn’t hard getting a fix on my position, just as well as I didn’t recognise where I was because the route was different this year from last … I ascertained that I had missed a cut off and should have been down in the valley , I ran back to see a couple of fellow runners heading down a field which brought me out on a country lane that I recognised as the start of a monster climb up to the cut off onto the rock path for Blackhill …
I ground my way up the hill in 200 metre bursts as it was way too steep and long for me to run especially after now nearly 18 miles of steeps , I remembered it from the year before so had a plan …. By the time I hit Blackhill I was shattered, the lack of sleep was definitely taking its toll and I looked in the sky, the moon was still high, shit!! I desperately wanted the sunrise to lift my body’s natural energy and shake me out of my zombie state, although I must say there are some striking similarities to running with sleep deprivation and smoking a pot filled bong….allegedly 😉
I was trying to see the outline of Blackhill in the distance , I knew where I wanted to be and headed into the heather and grass tuft strewn hillside , if I fell over once I fell over a hundred times , was it the night , the lack of visibility or was it just because I was tired I don’t know but it was doing my nut in and at one stage when I fell , I put both my hands out to stop myself and my gloves went into a puddle of freezing cold water , my gloves started to freeze with the wind chill and I started cursing just being there !! Then I realised I started to think I was way to low as I was close to the river… I again tried to get the GPs to show me where I was but I kept getting stuck on the menus, then all of a sudden!! BINGO!! The map initialized and finally I I could see where I was , it was still in Polish but I didnt give a shit !! just so long as I could see the map and my position I was happy , unlucky for me I was to low and I quickly headed north to a break in the upcoming forest at a firebreak… I ran through and down a forestry track for a while and eventually I arrived at checkpoint 2 where I met Adrian and Paul Kelders who both looked to be having fun.
I quickly grabbed a cup of tea and headed out of the checkpoint and ran quickly along the trail to climb through a steep wood before hitting the fells of Arts Cross , there appeared to be 2 options for the ascent , a long shallow climb up the shoulder or a fast run into the valley and up the steepest part … I opted for the long shallow climb, hoping that after 30 miles of steep running it would leave my legs fresher for the run down the back side and to the finish … I was right and I topped out reasonably fresh and with one of the most amazing sunrises I have ever seen, so amazing that I had to stop for a while and take in the ambience, 30 miles travelled and less than 5 miles left … I wanted to finish yet I still wanted to be out here in the hills.
From the summit it was navigating peat hags and deep bogs that looked like they might swallow you whole if you were to fall in , the year before this had been a frozen wasteland but this year it was wet and dangerous looking , I took a bearing and went for it … I had met up with Dominic on the run up to the summit and we formed a loose partnership over and across the bogs , he was a great guy and we ran the last 3 miles over the hill paths down the back of Arts Cross to the finish at Barravore below … as we approached the finish line it was nice to know my legs were still running easy and there was more to give if I needed it , I had been nervous as the Art had approached, the weather had been stormy and wet for so long and I had gotten so lazy this winter that my training had suffered badly, however I paced it out easy and a finish was never in question but all the same , hard training for 2012 starts now , nothing better than a hard race to get your motivation back …….
I’d like to say just how friendly the whole event is , the Irish runners are gentlemen of the finest degree and I was made to feel very welcome at every stage …. and you have to respect their abilities , they will not be beaten !!! Waiting in the hall before the starting gun there were whispers of certain English and Danish supermen amongst us over to take the crown from Eoin Keith , holder of the record and title, but in the end Eoins battle was not with them but with his own fellow Irish men in the shape of Paul Tierny and Greg Byrne …. power to those boys , they are outdoor athletes of the highest order.
Thanks to all at the Art O’Neil, Volunteers, organisers, competitors and spectators and most of all Gearoid!! That guy knows how to throw an Ultra race!!!!