Irish Mountain
Running Association

Ballyhoura Winter Moonlight Challenge


John ODonnellBarry McEvoy

IMRA first timer report.

Getting off the roads for a while onto an easier surface. That was the idea. Give the legs a bit of a break from the tarmac. I had been inspired by a stream of you tube videos, trail runners in Colarado, fell runners in the Lake District, mountain runners at the UTMB. This would suit me now, I was done with the 16 week build up for road marathons, this would work better at this stage of my life.

The Christmas presents have been flowing in, various sized Wiggle boxes arriving over the holidays. Raincoat, head torch, base layer, trail shoes, and I’ll probably need a backpack. New brands I’ve never heard of Salomon, Montane, Buff, Petzl. Like a sweet shop for the first timer.

Eager to try out the gear, I have been out with my head torch doing laps of the local GAA pitches for the last few weeks. All working fine on the pristine fields in Ahamilla. Then onto the real trial, a lap of the Castlefreke woods in the dark. Passed the test. Signed up for Ballyhoura.

The first conundrum was what to wear. I had all the gear, but no idea. I decided better safe than sorry and togged out with winter leggings, hat, and raincoat from the start. I didn’t feel I was ready for the backpack yet, so I carried my water bottle and a couple of energy gels.

I was pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of the check in, and a little starstruck but the gathering crowds of experienced runners. At least there were plenty of people dressed like me, first test passed, I wasn’t out of place at the start line.

As we left Scoil Pol it was a relief to be out there, no more to think about only keep it steady, it’s a long road ahead. When we turned right onto the first track and I could see the head lights up the hill ahead of me, well that was a bit of a shock. It was a long way up. Everyone was hiking so I didn’t break ranks. That would be a good plan for the night ahead, follow the lead, walk when everyone else is walking. We got to the trail ahead surprisingly quickly and I trundled on up to the forest.
They had said there would be a mucky patch at 4k. I was expecting a few puddles in the trail. As I leapt very slowly from ridge to ridge, I was caught in a train, I had to keep up with the person in front or I would have slowed the train behind. Pressure was building, just don’t fall into a track mark or you’ll have to climb out. I fell into a track mark. The ridge ahead seems to collapse as I crawled out of it. Just about holding onto my bottle. Bodies rolled past in the half light. I got back to my feet and moving again. Then a great surprise, someone alongside me called out, ‘ John, is that you’. Immediately a relief, someone to guide me out of this, a companion for the next few hours, just what I needed. ‘Yes , its me’, straining to get my headtorch on my new pal and recall where we knew each other from. ‘Sorry ‘he said ‘ I thought you were a different John’, ‘but how are you going anyway’.

When we got back onto the trail it didn’t seem to matter if it was up hill or downhill, it was solid underfoot. I rolled on down the road for a few Ks finding my rhythm, but very cautious still to make sure there were always a few lights out in front of me.

Back into a forest trail, but this time a good surface, heading uphill at slow but steady pace. I started to forget the race ahead and got lost in thoughts, following a beam of light on the path in front of my feet. I was startled when the two runners ahead asked me if I wanted to pass. Was I breaking some etiquette following too closely behind? Sorry, I apologised, I was in my own world. ‘No, problem, trek on behind us if you want’.

Before long we were jogging/hiking up to the check point at 13K. Refilled the water bottle and set off without any appreciation of what was ahead. The fog was coming in heavy and after a few hundred meters I resigned to power hike, visibility was low and I had no idea how far was left to go. By now I had the hi viz unstrapped, the jacket wide open and my hat in my pocket. There was no one ahead and no sound behind. Occasionally a red blinking light would appear somewhere up the hill and spur me on to a faster paced walk. It was glorious. But then the top came, and the physical relief from climbing was short lived as the terror of the decent became real. Slow and steady seemed like a logical plan, until the real runners started to flow past me. Did he really say two miles of this? At some point I let go and hopped my way along the grassy edge, slipping and sliding, but thankfully never falling.

Back on the road I was in my natural element again. I threw back an energy gel and settled in for a couple of easy road Ks. Now I could let go, my fear of being lost on the mountain long forgotten. Into the forest again with 8K remaining, but this time with a bit of wind in my sails, and caffeine in the system. I was reminded of the Blair witch project as I dodged fallen trees and roots listening to the crunching leaves underfoot. Then all of a sudden I wasn’t alone, there were a gang ahead at a stile, ‘you’re flying’ they said as they stood aside and let me through. What impact a little encouragement can have. I rolled on down the road thinking it was done.

I wasn’t. The trouble with the hills out here was that I had no concept of how far they would go on. I slowed to a jog, then a walk. But there was soon a light ahead, someone I could catch up to. The mind was reactivated, and the legs followed. Up the hill and over it, past the supporters with their bonfire, the run in to town was a pleasure.

Up the steps and into the hall, name and number, can of orange, couldn’t face the chicken roll, but happy to be sitting. Done my first trail race.

In hindsight I’m wondering have I set the bar too high, this event was extraordinary, the route was expertly marked, marshals everywhere, easy to get in and out, a lovely atmosphere from start to finish. I’ll be back for sure. Thanks to everyone involved.

The Big Sad Moon

Different type of report this time:

Thanks Paul for a warm welcome and a Super race, and all the guys out there giving up their time to show us the way – It is very much appreciated. Special mention for Shep the dog a skilled master thief of chocolate digestives. Shep for Crofts 2022!
Also, wouldn’t recommend the Sense ride 4’s for a race like this, very sore feet after the half marathon distance and poor on the road sections, worked great down in Bweeng though.

Check your head torch in the bathroom mirror, bang of brightness dazzling flash, fuzzy eyes and blinded, shake your head and refocus, let your eyes adjust, blurry vision clears. Treasure the head torch when you hear strange rustles in the bushes. Swing your legs and pretend you know what you’re at as the Kilfinane faithful filter into mass.

A minute’s silence for a brutal thing, sometimes it’s a god-awful world, the sort of thing that shakes a country stiff with shock and sadness. Heavy hearts and we silently vow to do more, be better. We race off into the night - a stream of bobbing headtorches slowly drifting up the mountain like two hundred burning candles lighting the way to heaven – all of us running with Aisling.

Howl at the moon like a wild ol wolf, lonely ol wolf with only the moon to talk to - let your lungs go limp in the forests round Ballyhoura, feel the burning black tar of those smoking days rattle your chest, become the wolf and hunt along the single track, seek it out and master it. Roam free in the fresh, sharp air of spooky Seefin, then plunge over the top into the unknown - thick veil of fog, trust your feet will find a foothold, have some faith you non-believer, surrender to the night time hush and let go to a natural rhythm that will carry you down with ballerina dancing steps.

Wipe your brow, wet from Seefin climbing sweat, lick salty lips, sticky roasting cold weather, mountain lake calmness tonight – up here, hidden from clocks and jobs, stay up there while your there, let it filter in and soak your saturated soul. Too much nowadays, so little up here. You might get lost and find your way down a different track, undiscovered and thick with ancient Irish moss, soft as angels wings and dripping in salvation. Turn off your torch for a minute and listen to that deafening noise of nothing but silence, immersed in darkness and space all around – beautiful.

A bushy tailed fox - true joy and love, deathly still and watching, staring into your human heart like a ragged cowboy in wild west Ireland, share a moment together before he darts through a gap in a bush and slinks off low to observe the flashing aliens invading his nonchalant evening jaunt. You and a fox and haunting silhouettes forging memories underneath the twinkle expanse of sky and the stars peak through passing clouds in pristine black smoothness, blinking mystery, shining far away hope that puts you right back in your place. The big ol sad moon watches it all without a word just hanging there like a wonderful fishing float in the black sea sky - that moon just listening to the howls of the world.

Tears in your eyes out there from the hardship, venture to the edge of the world where it’s not flat and sail right off. Stripped to your bare bones and cramping muscles - a raw thing now, vulnerable and begging for help with wild hollow eyes. Run till you cry in the dark and find some courage. Look at your skinny legs carrying you up, down and around, tick tick tock, fragile little legs, exhale then shout and forget about all of that. Run like a zombie craving brains, run like the blue flashing lights are chasing you, run like you did on the green kicking ball as a kid, run away from your problems before you face them if you must – just get back JoJo, get back to where you once belonged.

Dripping candle moonlight, lapping gently on your skin, like a summer’s day tide, no need to wonder what the bright good glow is driving home to Cashel and Mitchelstown and Cork City boy. Go home and sleep soundly or trash your legs and go to the toilet 20 times and curse your broken body while planning how your going to break it up all over again, stand at your bedroom window and thank that big ol moon and beyond and being.