Maurice Mullins Ultra
First Mountain Marathon
29 September, 2020 - Barry McEvoyIt is one of those days - mist burning blue skies, fresh clear air and the mountains laid out like a canvass ready to be explored. It is a day to be out in nature. I arrive and watch everyone get ready- I take note of the buffs, hats, vests, socks, shorts, runners, the watches, the food, the drinks, the warm ups, the laughs, the chats. I look about, I listen, on the periphery, outside it all but there, taking it in. I like everyone I see, I hope they run well. They’re here on a Saturday morning about to do this and I think that’s something. I begin to get ready and play some music, but I never run with music. I enjoy stillness running. I enjoy the break from ‘other stuff’.
As I get ready I think about the race, I think about the length, 44km, I have only run 24k in training and this is my first mountain marathon race but I don’t feel nervous about it,it will either be okay or I won’t, I think about it more from regret at not preparing better, then I forget it and think about running up and down Mt Brandon twice a few weeks ago. These thoughts counter one another. All this time I’m just pinning my number to my vest, nobody knows I’m thinking at all. I think right up to the start about lots of things.
I do a little warm up, unsure of what I should do or why, but I do 2k and get some movement into the legs after the drive up and I’m glad I do it. My legs feel good, the hip flexor problem I had which has thrown off my training for the past 2 weeks isn’t niggling today. I forgot my soft flasks, left them on the kitchen sink, I stopped and bought a bottle of Lucozade and that will have to do. I put the Lucozade in the vest pocket, its clunky but not the worst, I can make it work.
The race begins, and we break into single file and begin moving upwards, I settle in, catch my breath and begin to relax and find what feels good. Coming around the side of Djouce on the single track is a highlight of the race for me, its beautiful and fast and I feel like I’m gliding, I don’t think now, I am just in a free flowing state, in the moment and I don’t drink any Lucozade, its 12k before I have a sup and this isn’t a good hydration startegy but I forget because its beautiful up here today and I don’t like drinking on a descent.
I move by some of the lads going down the grassy banks of Djouce and I’m rapid here and I don’t wonder ‘are you going to fast here early?’, I just run downhill steady and fast and like flying by the hikers heading up. Soon after this coming down into Crone woods I am running with Shane Kenny and its easier running with someone, we are at the head of the race. At Crone we are greeted by Richard and his crew and they’re all support, but we don’t stop, I say thanks and we keep going.
Somewhere after this probably on a downhill I move into the outright lead and again I’m going quick, it crosses my mind now ‘Why are you in first, what are you at? It’s meant to be harder on the way back’ but I hadn’t been thinking for a long time, I was just running, just going. I reach half way smiling and not fatigued at all in first, second and third aren’t too far behind but I’m well clear of the others at this point. Richard is there again with a crew and somehow that is a boost. He is there at all the checkpoints and have great time for that. I start to move up again while the rest are going down and I try to say hello to as many people as I can and assure them they’re nearly at the turnaround. It’s nice to say hello to people, even in a race.
When the first twinge of cramp comes about 28k it alarms me, my legs have felt great so far, my breathing relaxed and I don’t feel like slowing down but by 30k I’m stopping to stretch. The hamstrings are involuntarily spasming into balls. I instantly realise I won’t be able to continue competing today, but I can still race on. I felt sad for a few moments because I had been feeling so good and kick myself for not holding back a bit maybe, then I just go as best I can.
I shuffle, trying to keep my legs straight, bending my knee is causing the hamstrings to instantly spasm, I have to walk a lot now and am passed for second near the top of the climb on Djouce about 40k into the race and tell myself maybe I can somehow run the downhill, I couldn’t and was left stationary for 2 minutes soon after unable to even take a step, I look behind, another runner, I wave him on, ‘thanks mate just cramps’, the last few k I’m passed again, fifth now but the runner assures me there’s no one behind me, I’m glad but I cant help thinking about missing out on striding down this final section, going full tilt to the finish, I missed it, what are cramps?, why do they happen?, this isn’t normal, thoughts now flood my mind because I’m not really running anymore, just trying to get back to where I started.
The last few downhill k are slower than most of the uphill’s which personally is a shame but I feel I learned a lot and I’m not too downtrodden at the end, I get my handmade cup, I barely talk to anyone, I’m a shell of a man, this was tough on the way back, the inability to move shocked me. I munch on a packet of crisps I brought. What a race!! I know I can run 30k on a bottle of Lucozade over the mountains, I know I can make it 14k with spasming legs, I know I can dig in, I know I don’t want to miss those last downhills again, I know what it’s like to suffer on the mountains.
All these things I now know chomping on my taytos and I smile, somehow on the drive how I begin to know what I need to do next.
A Carnival of Cultchies
28 September, 2020 - Brian KitsonWell bejaysus….isn’t there a lot to be said for locking down the aulde Dubs all the same? ‘Tis around this time of year, EVERY YEAR, there’s ne’er a wireless nor a telly nor a t’internet that can be switched on for all the talk of the Dubs and the football. But this year, not only is there no big final they’re also county bound in a level three lockdown. They can’t even leave their county. Did you ever hear the like of it? Every cloud has a silver lining and the absence of 200-odd Dubs meant there was nothing blue but the sky at the 2020 Maurice Mullins Ultra and there I was, Brian Kitson, among the top ten on the home leg coming back over the side of Djouce Mountain. Brian Kitson in the top ten! It was a right trail running cultchie field-day. There were jackeens choking on their coddle at very thought of it.
Nobody was more surprised by this turn of events than I was. My running mojo had vanished somewhere between the “home haircuts” and the second food stockpiling phase of the pandemic and had only finally decided to race on the way home from work the evening before race day. I had laboured my way through a couple of eight-kilometre easy runs earlier in the week and couldn’t face the hardship that would be needed to get through even this shorted version of the event. But I had an entry and felt a no show wouldn’t do at all.
To adequately prepare for the race with so little time remaining would demand night of frenzied research and intel gathering. I got as far as finding out where and when the race was starting and spent the remaining time just trying to ignore thoughts of the hardship to come.
Race day turned out to be an exceptionally beautiful autumnal morning. Perfect running weather. The depleted field had no difficulty social distancing at the enormous pier gates car park. As we listened to Race Director, Richard Nunan’s, amusing race briefing I looked around to see if I could recognise any of the buff covered faces. It was futile. I wouldn’t recognise my own mother in a face mask and I’ve found myself at such gatherings effusively greeting complete strangers while blanking close friends.
My plan for the race itself, in so much as I really didn’t have one, was to “take it easy for the first five or 10km and then kick on a bit”. Following this woefully vague plan, I started the race at what seemed like an at easy enough pace until my heavy breathing suggested it was too quick and I backed off a little. Then I backed off some more, and then some more again until I found myself basically walking as many of the field disappeared off into the distance. The heather that grew around me was gaining altitude more quickly than I was moving up White Hill.
I glanced at my watch when I came around the side of Djouce to see that I’d reached the five-kilometre mark. As I now had the long downhill ahead, I decided I had better do some running and began to gather pace easily enough on the fast, grassy descent. Things were going well as I glided past a few runners as the cold morning warmed in the bright sunshine. I was having an utterly glorious time of it until I passed Paul Mahon. Dumb move. It’s impossible to enjoy a race when he’s lurking behind. Worse still, he was looking fit and lean and despite the pleasantries I could sense a target being etched on my back as I made off ahead. I’m not the best of climbers so surprised myself by holding a decent jog all the way up Prince William’s Seat. My fast descent and respectable climb gave me a sense of security which turned out to be completely unfounded. Footsteps behind led to the inevitable, ‘Oh, hi again, Paul’. We ran together for a while until he thankfully got distracted by some friends out for their Saturday morning run and I tip-toed off ahead.
One of the appeals of an out and back race like this is that you get to meet every other runner at some point. Anthony Whelan was the first of the leaders I recognised coming towards me as I approached the bridge that marked the half-way mark. He makes the art of running up a hill look effortless and was bounding back up Prince William’s Seat with a big smile on his face when we passed each other. Liz Wheeler topped up my water bottle when I got to the bridge and on my way back up the hill, I exchanged quick “hellos” with a very strong and happy looking Clare Keeley and then Miriam Mahon and Dee Bohan who also seemed full of beans. The comedian, Joan Rivers might have had someone like me in mind when she said that the first time she sees a jogger smiling she’d consider taking it up. My default running demeanour is of someone trying to solve a Rubik’s cube while giving birth to a bowling ball so it was good to see so many people visibly enjoying themselves.
My high spirits began to flag by the time I got to Crone Woods. I welcomed the swig of Coke and the words of encouragement I got from my helpers Anthony Cahill and Chris Dunne when I met them at the bustling car park. They told me that I was in 9th place, scarcely believable as I didn’t even make the top 50 last time I did this race. It just goes to show what hard work and about 200 no-shows can do for a man’s performance. I was determined to hold onto the top ten finish but my legs were on the verge of cramping on the climb up Djouce. To try to avoid a full-scale spasm I had to develop a kind of tin man running style that basically involved not bending my knees. It was like running with chopsticks for legs. Hikers pointed and must have wondered was I running up a mountain in this condition for a bet. But at least I was making progress and the cramping eased by the boardwalk.
It’s the purity of miles like the last few of this race that remind me why I love to run in the mountains. The pain had eased and my legs felt strong and powered me quickly along the undulating boardwalk. My surroundings narrowed into vivid focus; my mind now completely clear. My breathing was steady and controlled in the cool fresh air, its sound providing a potent bass line that set the pace. This beat of my breathing was only interrupted by the glancing snippets from the conversations of walkers as I danced and weaved around them.
I wasn’t long sobering up from my reverie when I missed a left turn about a mile from the finish. I realised that I was running towards the wrong car park and by time I made it back up to the junction two runners were quickly approaching. The first passed ahead of me. I quickly followed him a little ahead of Patricia McLoughlin who was hot on his tail. I put the foot down and managed to pass the guy and was just able to hold off Patricia who was the first woman home.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Maurice Mullins. I’ve read the stories and watched the wonderful film about his running life called ‘Going the Distance’ that his daughter, Deirdre, made shortly before he died. He seemed to be a true ultra-runner and mountain pioneer, one who gave back more to our community than he took out. Maurice was a great organiser of events and it takes an innate sense of generosity to organise things for the benefit of others. The same generosity that compels us doing our best to help each out in these weird times we find ourselves living through. I’m sure he’d have appreciated the grit and determination it took the committee and Richard and his team to ensure his eponymous race went ahead this year.
Maurice once said, ‘the beautiful thing about it is that you’re not conscious all the time’. Every runner knows the weightless feeling of release and carefree abandon that can be found in running long distances in the mountains. We need all we can get of that these days. I reckon that Maurice would have revelled in running those last few beautiful miles of his race with me this year. It’s why we run and what brings us together
We will share many miles like these together again soon, friends.
27 September, 2020 - Pól Ó MurchúEverything personally and generally conspired against this race taking place.
Covid derailed the original scheduled date in March. The hopeful next few alternative race dates all got nobbled by the ongoing unwelcome gift that is Covid 19.
Finally, a September date was fixed upon. Even then the level 3 restrictions excluded a significant cohort of those entered from Dublin.
For Dee and me, our original and thorough training in the first few months of this year was all in vain initially. We kept ticking over with the miles in the oh-so flatlands of Co. Kildare during the lockdown months. Once we were able to get back on the hills, we clocked up what hill miles we could. In the end we only managed one long run on the route about 2 weeks ago when the date look set to hold for the race itself.
This ultra, Dee's first and my 14th (!) was an event that we really wanted to complete, we'd been unable to participant in a few of the earlier IMRA rare race events when Co. Kildare was in its lonely long lockdown awhile back!
A head cold earlier in the week, lead to a referral for a Covid test as a precaution because I have asthma. Nail biting couple of days, test on Wed, text sent on Friday morning giving me the all clear.
Added to all of that, there was the pesky knee war wound. After an initial flaying coming off Fairycastle a few weeks ago, compounded by a re-opening on a sleeper coming from Djouce last weekend and then - ridiculously - 20 mins before the start yesterday, I tripped (again) in the car park and re-gouged out my knee. Cursing viciously, I hastily cleaned it out, wrapped a dressing on it, then with Chris Dunne's builders duct tape wrapped around that for good measure - headed off on the early start with Dee
Quote of the day goes to Dee when I nearly stumbled again early on. ‘It’s like the stations of the cross with you...Jesus fell 3 times...you’ve had your quota...stay upright’.
Our game plan was to get out, get back and have a fantastic time and claim our mugs. And we did all of that. Up for whatever the weather and the route gave us, the Wicklow Way wound its way through the aptly named 'Garden of Ireland'. The weather was absolutely perfect.
So grateful for being there, Laura's words about enjoying it for those that could not were well said, and we kept that sense of appreciation all day.
Dee has always been well able for an ultra, but that is easy for me and everyone to think, she needed to see that happen for herself. The ups and downs literally of a mountain ultra-race must experienced directly. We stayed largely together throughout with some natural ebbs and flows of paces at different times. Time was not a focus. Completion, with all the stresses and strains that this year has thrown at us, was the absolute aim.
My concern on the way out was the state of my knee wound but the bandage held up and I was happy that I would finish the race without it becoming an issue.
Grace, the essential third of our hill running trio, was there at the turn point to give us a shout out and sneak us some food and water...don’t judge us...we weren’t racing
I loved the return leg – knowing every footfall brought us closer to the end. Used to going the opposite way in past years, knowing that the finish was soon after the slog up Djouce was mentally really good. I’d be a big fan of this new route and direction...just sayin’
We urged each other on, kept each other going and soon the last stretch – those wonderful and often dodgy sleepers – was there. The fresh mountain air surrounding us while utter focus was given to traversing the sleepers safely on more tired legs was fabulous.
The finish through the forest is a delight, we ended up coming in together. An unknowing observer might have thought we’d fancied ourselves the winners such was our delight.
Clutching our mugs, being able to give each other a hug – we’re in each other’s bubble – we train and carpool together – we’ve covered – ended a fantastic long-awaited day out.
I appreciate so much the work and effort that went into delivering on this event, many many thanks to Richard and all the volunteers for making it happen. We all know our race events do not happen without a lot of background work, but the amount of planning and replanning that had to go into making these events happen this year has been above and beyond.
For a few lovely hours, Covid did not matter, the hills embraced us, and the joy was absolute.