02 July, 2013Croagh Patrick would be a tough course on a good day. The climb is steep, the terrain is unforgiving, the navigation is tricky and the descent is fast. With low visibility, high winds and driving rain thrown into the equation, it was a daunting prospect indeed on Sunday morning. Not to mention plenty of tired legs and the odd sore head following the Irish Champs race the day before. The sense of nervousness at registration was palpable. One or two secretly hoped for cancellation or curtailment, others said their prayers, Bernard powered up at five-to worried he might miss registration. But shortly after 11, the runners gathered for the start. Unusually, any vying for position was to get to the back of the field rather than the front. Go! The pace was untroubling at the start, but the steps leading on to the mountain forced big strides and much too soon the calves started to whinge and running gave way to fast walking. A quick check of the watch, forgot to start it. Start it now.
Less than a kilometre in, the leaders could be seen well ahead making steady progress up the climb. Ahead of me at that point were Eoin Syron and Diane Wilson. Quickly I was passed by Michael Blighe, Mick Hanney, Brian Wilson, Hazel McLaughlin and several others. I felt like I was going backwards and my calves were hurting. Keep going. Stop moaning. Itâ€™s the same for everyone.
After about 2km, the path winds to the right and the gradient relents temporarily and the ground was less rocky and this allowed me to break into a run again. I got a bit of rhythm going and reclaimed a few places. As the final rocky climb to the summit began I got past Michael and Mick, and eventually halfway up the climb, Cath Devitt. Calves screaming at this point. Ahead there was only mist and rocks. And now the drizzle turned to hard rain driven by a strong north-westerly, straight in your face. Grim stuff. Any strategy I had to not find myself alone coming off the summit had gone out the window. Nearly there. That looks like a hut. It is. Ah, a chapel, a summit. And a marshal. Bad day to be a marshal with all this rain and wind. Fair play though.
The marshal shouted something at me which I could not make out even at the second attempt, so I just took off in the direction he had pointed to. On a normal day on a normal mountain you take off at speed bounding down the ridge and catching your breath at the same time. But the descent was rocky and wet, and the weather awful, so care was required. A fall here would leave a nasty gash. Feet were also taking a pounding on the rocks, slowing me down considerably. There was a faint track along the rocks, but navigation was mostly based on staying on the highest ground and veering very approximately from south of west gradually to more north of west. And on avoiding taking a heavy fall on the rocks. The rain and wind were relentless and visibility was poor. It could have been eleven at night not eleven in the morning.
Gradually the ground began to improve, and I was glad to see the figure of the second marshall emerge from the murk, and again I followed the direction he pointed. There was a path and some zig-zags here that I remember someone had mentioned pre-race, so I raced quickly across. At this point anything that confirms you are not lost yet is about as good as it gets. Keep going. Go west. Stay high. The ground was flattish by now and in fact quite boggy, with plenty of jumps over and down mini peat hags. Fun stuff. At this stage I checked the watch. I was almost 2km from the summit of Croagh Patrick which I had noted was about the distance to the second peak, marked as Ben Goram on the map. However there was no hill. And no peak. And no path. My map was sodden and broke up in my hands. Plastic cover for map next time! No good now.
To my left was a very steep drop which was tempting, but I knew I had to stay high until pretty much the end. So I stopped dead in my tracks and had a look around 360 degrees. Nothing. I carefully unfolded the ball of map, trying to figure out what to do. Losing time. Then I heard a shout and sure enough a gang of about 7 seven runners had emerged from behind and to the right. So I ran over and joined at the head of this group. This was where the short climb began to the second peak. Mick Hanney and Cath Devitt passed me near the summit, but I was happy enough with the downhill to come. From around this point the course was marked and the weather conditions not nearly as bad, which was some relief after the uncertainty between Croagh Patrick and Ben Goram. This was fast ground now but with plenty of boulders and holes required a lot a concentration, I overtook Mick and Cath and followed the markers, veering left and right. I thought I had made good ground now on the group behind.
And then quite suddenly the finish line came into sight. I relaxed a little thinking there was no hope of gaining a place and no risk of losing one. The final descent was very steep with plenty of possibilities for slips and falls. I would not like to have been in a straight race for a finishing position. I even slipped on my backside and over on my wrist. And then I was overtaken. No! Canâ€™t be. Get up and sprint man! And we finished together, Sam and Samuel. Shake hands. Take on some water. What a relief! What a race, an excellent route, made all the more memorable by the dire weather. Iâ€™ll be back, thatâ€™s for sure. A quick check of the watch, forgot to stop it. Stop it now.