Irish Mountain
Running Association

Ballyhoura Midnight Marathon


Mick HanneyRobert Carney

Ballyhoura Moonlight Marathon

There is nothing like the prospect of doing a marathon in the middle of January to give one the incentive to do some training. So it was that when Robbie posted on the IMRA forum about the Ballyhoura marathon that it struck a cord and a less than 3 month build up began. I’ve done lots of marathons before, but all on the road and in daytime. So an off-road mountain marathon with head torch was to be a new challenge entirely. Lots of training runs, long and short, many in the dark with torches getting the body acclimatised. Headed down to Ballyhoura with training partner and ultra running pal Clare Keeley. Arrived at registration in good time and joined the crowd outside the church as the clock approached midnight. We were blessed with good weather on the night. Very mild with little cloud which gave us the benefit of moonlight on some of the course. So mild in fact that some wore t-shirts. We also had good visibility which was a bonus. Much of the race itself was a blur of high vis vests and torchlight. Hard to recognise those around you. It was a bit of a blur of tracks and trails and ups and downs – and I won’t pretend to remember all the details and I don’t know the names of the hills except for Seefin. A concern beforehand had been going astray on the course. No such fears given the super job done with the route marking and marshalling. The reflective white boards with red arrows showed up very well in the torchlight. At midnight we were unleashed up the street of Kilfinnane and out towards the first trail climb. Torben went by early on and I noticed Paul Tierney and Sarah just ahead. I would run in close proximity for much of the race. From the first fire road on it was at times slippery and the decision to wear trail shoes was well warranted. Saw Paul slip ahead of me at one point which showed that even with the best trail shoes the going underfoot was tricky. After an initial climb we had a lovely downhill drop through the trees and over a bridge. The second climb was more severe and I was reduced to a walking pace in sections but still made reasonable progress. I think it was here that the downhill was particularly dicey. My trail shoes having little grip on the muddy gradient so tried to keep footing by finding the grassy bits, not easy with the camber in the torchlight. No slips but not fast! A mix of fields and stiles followed, before the run into the mid-way point. Ordinarily this would probably be a lovely run but for me it became a bit of a trudge of run and jump over many many stiles. The sound of the rushing water was nice but it also sounded very near so any slip could have met a deep water hazard. This section I recall a line of fellow runners, before and behind. Alan Ayling caught up with me and we approached the half way point roughly at the same time. There was a good group of runners availing of the halfway treats in Ballyorgan. It was as if we had all landed together. Saw Fabio, Paul, Sarah, Torben, Gordon, Alan and others? My strategy was to take as little time as possible. Top up the water, take a drink, some jaffa cakes and jellies and keep going. Others seemed to be taking the time to take the soup and extra breathing space.

Off again, with Alan, following Paul, Sarah and Fabio. I knew Seefin was coming next and that it was a long steep up and down hill. On the road towards Seefin I pulled away from Alan and I could see Fabio ahead before we turned onto the track on Seefin proper. Doing more walking than running I gained on Fabio. I think I passed Paul Minogue around here too? As we went higher it was being mistier but visibility was still reasonable. Ahead of Fabio I could see the pair of lights of Paul and Sarah. The ground conditions were tricky with furrows, rocky bits and water running. On the descent from Seefin I was glad I had brought a second torch, a hand torch to give me extra light. It certainly helped to pick a path down and give more perspective on the rocks and other hurdles in the way. Soon off Seefin I passed Adrian Hennessy marshalling and giving runners encouragement. At this stage we were roughly 10 to 12k from home. Passed Sarah and Paul who had stopped for a moment. More tracks and trails followed but the worst of the hills behind us. I was saving energy now by walking hills and running elsewhere. On a couple of occasions I was overtaken by fast moving runners. Reckoned they were half marathoners, but who knows? At one vantage point I was able to turn off the torch and the moonlight lit the way and the vista across the countryside was special. Also, to turn around and see the torchlights of following runners in the near distance was lovely. In the last 10k there were a no. of smaller hills but nothing too bad. The distance to home getting less and less and the body was feeling not too bad. Fire-road down to the tarmac road and the same road section we had ran out earlier from the start. No one around me so was happy to jog the rest of the way home, happy to be finishing under the 4h30 mark. Before the race we had scoped out where Scoil Pol was so running through Kilfinnane I was happy I knew the way to the finish, although it wasn’t necessarily clear where the finish line was. – registration desk? Stopped watch at 4:25. Very happy with the time. Some bits felt really slow but looking back at it I had paced it pretty well, particularly given the lack of familiarity of the course and the zero sleep beforehand. Loved it and really appreciated the efforts of the organisers and the many helpers who put on a fine event. A fine spread of breakfast afterwards and post-race chats with Alan & co. A first class event and highly recommended. 2 small suggestions (not criticism). Distance wise it felt short – I’m not sure if anyone registered over the 42k distance, but easier said that done on such a mixed terrain. And if finish line times had been recorded so that some sort of results could be pieced together, challenge event or no. Thanks to Robbie, MMRA and IMRA. Well done to all those who competed in a difficult event. Now, I must get back to Ballyhoura in daylight some time to see what it actually looks like!

Ballyhoura by headlamp.

So, threw the stuff in the car – sleeping bag, runners, food and water, and high-tailed it down to Kilfinane. Left early to avoid the traffic on the M7 and arrived with plenty of time. Had a nice bit of shuteye in the back of the car and woke up before registration, phew.
Post announcement in the hall we all march up the street to the church. A sea of red lights, white lights and hi-vis vests make their departure up the slight hill out of this otherwise quiet village. Nice cool evening all the same, and there seems to be something almost relaxing and hypnotic about moving along with the crowd of like minded folk. Hit the first hill and try to memorise the route, having ran it in the opposite direction at a previous sunlit event.
This run all jumbles into a series of forest, fire road, single track, mud, mist and wet. The minute I think I know what’s coming next, the trails prove me wrong. Conversely, when I feel any confusion as to my exact whereabouts, I see a sign that lets me know I’ve been here before. This repeats throughout the evening’s excursion.
We all push on up and people are having the “take it easy” conversations and I think to meself, sure if I wanted to take it easy, I’d be under the duvet.
After a few miles the ascending eventually peters out, I am awaiting the long downhill to Glenroe and have it in my head that it will be one of the highlights. Soon it is upon us. It does not dissapoint and the fast downhill is initiated with a fire break style single track. The steep angle induces one to let go or be cautious, not much room for the middle ground. I find myself running with the full knowledge that it is a keep going, can’t stop even if I wanted to style. The combination of slippy muck, odd rocks, torchlight and other runners heightens the senses and forces one to maintain focus. Following on from this is a skip over a fence and a lovely downhill through a green field that would be less consequential should one take the tumble.
Roads lead on through to the hills south of Glenroe and a nice climb up to a nice little summit. Down and through a few fields, lose a shoe in the slop and find it again. Climb up and over the next hill along the county border and all the way down to the river Keale.
Heading into the river section and I’m saying ah this is a lovely bit. Well it starts lovely and after a while I hit the muck and feel like Danny Devito in Home Alone trying to walk on ice: arse, legs, arms, knees and all bodily parts are all over the place and moving at high speed. Me like a breakdancer going nowhere. Manage to not fall into the river and decide I’m gonna start a petition to make a law against that many stiles. Ah that river section is lovely . . . . . .
The Kilflynn church looked great under the lights and as we are coming up through Ballyorgan I hear the cheer for the half marathon starting. Check In done and I head on through the forests and meet the back of the half. Never got any water at the halfway point and as I jog uphill I am already ascending towards Seefin. I keep thinking the water at the side of the track will become drinkable. After a good climb up, a good Samaritan gives me the few gulps from his platyplus and over the top we go. Thank you.
A Lovely run down a single track with a nice flow of water and rock in it . . don’t cream yourself . . and I start daydreaming (or should I say nightdreaming or nightime daydreaming?? whatever) about the consequence of falling and lying face down in it, cold, wet and sore. Nothing like a realistic threat to focus the mind. Off down the other side and fireroad followed by a lovely forest section with the sound of running water. Its not long till we are looking at the last hills we are to climb in the distance. Roads lead us on and eventually we are shrouded by trees as we make our way up over the last climb. Beautiful runnable single track traversing and eventually we are on the way down for the last time. The flat fireroad goes on a bit and we descend the tunnel which we had climbed earlier. Nice to be able to open the legs on the road and run all the way into the town.
Hello again Kilfinane, wheres me breakfast?

Just a word here to say that the trails of ballyhoura and how they are linked up on this route is class.

Exceptionally good event.
It’s all been said already, but organisation, the placement of volunteers, signage and attention to detail was above and beyond what would be the norm at a daytime event. To pull it off in the middle of the night shows the quality of the MMRA races and the difference that selfless volunteers make.
Breakfast and cups of tea was a welcome bonus that filled the gap in the belly.
Thanks to Robbie Williams and all the volunteers who made this happen.