Head to Head
A trip from the Teddy Bear's Hip to his Big Toe
By Jane Watt
Did you ever go to Kerry on your holidays? Yes. But did you run all the way over the mountains to get there? This is what three mountain runners -Graham Porter, Brian Byrne and myself did for nine days in June.
Why did we do it? Having run the Wicklow Way twice in record time, we were looking for a new and more arduous challenge. One day Graham was browsing in the Great Outdoors when his eye lit upon Paddy Dillon's "Coast to Coast" book which describes a 21 day, 370 mile walk on waymarked trails across Ireland from O'Connell Bridge, Dublin to Bray Head in Valentia, Co. Kerry. Brian and I were easily persuaded, but our friends in Crusaders Athletic Club and in the Irish Mountain Running Association thought it was just idle pub talk. True, our previous exploits had been successful, but this one was not just one, but many steps too far.
A long winter's training ensued - interval work at Merrion Cricket Club grounds during the week with long runs in the mountains at the weekends following the demanding training schedules of coach, Lindie Naughton. My old orienteering ability such as it was came into play when planning the long trail routes around Wicklow linking various orienteering areas with the help of Pat Healy's Mountain Marathon map. The favourite route became known as the Annamoe Trail - from the bridge at Annamoe through Trooperstown, Ballard then via Laragh to the wooded lower slopes of Derrybawn and down to Glendalough. From there we continued around the base of Camaderry across Glendassan to Brockagh, next following the Wicklow Way up Paddock Hill then back via a laneway to Annamoe - a run of about three and a half hours.
This run was extended to take in Cronybyrne and even Mullacor when longer runs were required. During this time the start of the proposed run was modified. We now planned to start at Bray Head, Co. Wicklow (13 miles from Dublin) and join the Wicklow Way on the side of Djouce Mountain. The route would then follow the six waymarked trails to Cahersiveen in the kingdom of Kerry and then continue through the county to the tower on Bray Head, Valentia where Guiliermo Marconi sent his first historic signal over the Atlantic Ocean to America. Weekends were also spent away reconnoitring the various routes, some of which are waymarked better than others.
There were some interruptions to training. Brian suffered from a prolonged chest infection over the winter. Redevelopment plans forced Graham to move flat, while my spring was dominated by house buying and selling culminating with the actual move at the end of May. Indeed, I wonder how I ever made it to the start at all, having had virtually no time for training in the last two months. However, the day finally arrived and we assembled on the promenade in Bray, Co. Wicklow. A bottle of seawater and three pebbles were collected from the beach. A small crowd of supporters from the IMRA and Crusaders were there to wish us well. At 9.12 am on the 19th of June we set off into the great unknown - never before had we attempted to run 40 -50 miles per day for nine consecutive days. The furthest any of us had run was at a 24-hour race on a flat track in London in 1998 when I managed to cover 108 miles in the time and get a new Irish record.
Day 1: A pleasant June day with a southwest wind in our faces, Marian joins us as we head uphill from the promenade to the Cross. We continue along the top, skirting around the cairn and drop down to the Greystones road. A series of minor roads brings us across the north end of the Glen of the Downs and up past Sugarloaf to Calary station. Having grabbed a banana, we turn left and then quickly right along a track that brings us to Djouce woods. Here we meet Beth McCluskey and Jimmy Synnott on mountain bikes. Beth cycles with us for the next hour which brings us to the shoulder of Djouce where we join the Wicklow Way. Paul and Kevin appear over the horizon having run from Lough Tay to meet us. They intend accompanying us back to Lough Tay but end up running all the way to Glendalough! At Lough Tay we are met by our support cars, Lindie and Julie Hilliard, and have a short food stop. The form is good as we set off again. Graham tells everyone we meet that we are running to Kerry, but nobody believes him! Damian Cashin runs with us from Brockagh to Drumgoff to record the event on video. In Glendalough, we divert to the café in the upper lake carpark where we rest and eat copiously. We head up Mullacor with rain threatening and descend into Glenmalure reaching the pub in Drumgoff as the rain started in earnest. Ciaran has now taken over from Lindie as support and his car is well laden with Graham and Jane's gear. After a quick pint of water (a change from our usual potion) we are away again in the driving wind and rain making our way up Slieve Maan. We are met at the next road crossing and treated to hot tea and cake. Thus fortified, we head up Carrickshane and speed past Ow Bridge to Shielstown Hill. All of a sudden, we feel very tired and cold, so, when we hit the road again at nearly 8.30 pm, we decide to call it a day with 48 miles covered.
Day 2: We leave from where we stopped last night - the weather is good, sunny but not too warm. Simon Walters and Nigel Creighton join us and, with Marian and Julie, take turns running with us. The bodies have recovered remarkably well and we make good progress. Simon is sent ahead to bash down the nettles on a very overgrown section of track beyond Tinahely. Despite his best efforts macho-man Brian, who insists on wearing shorts, gets stung. Ciaran is still with us in support as far as Clonegal, which we reach by mid afternoon. After a good feed of soup and rice, we run the 4K of road that links the Wicklow Way to the start of the South Leinster Way at Kildavin. We climb up the shoulder of Mount Leinster to the Nine Stones. After more refreshment, it is down the road to Borris in the evening sun. 45 miles covered and it is 8pm, so we finish here.
Day 3: Richard arrives early to join us and with Julie provides us with all our requirements - coffee, tea, soup, rice, peaches, cake, biscuits etc. The initial part of the run is along the Barrow towpath - lovely for the first couple of miles, but it soon becomes monotonous. Rounding each bend, we expect to see the bridge at Graiguenamanagh, but it is a long time before it appears. After a welcome cup of coffee, we head up from the town and run along forest tracks by Brandon Hill, descending to Inistioge on the Nore for lunch. Marion leaves to return to Dublin at this point, having run the equivalent of about three marathons in the last three days! After a good lunch, Brian heads off first with Graham and myself - I managed forty winks lying on the grass - playing catch-up. Through forests, country laneways, and minor roads, we proceed via Glenpipe to Lukeswell. From here the rest of the South Leinster Way is totally on road. We run through Mullinavat and climb up steeply to the hills above. A lazy day, we stop at 7.30pm! 41 miles covered.
Day 4: Eileen, Rowena and husband Damian join Julie in support today. Eileen, herself a world champion marathon canoeist, is very attentive to our dietary requirements. Coffee this morning is in Pilltown. Passing motorists are puzzled to see Graham and myself in striped towelling dressing gowns sitting outside a pub at 10.30am! A minor road brings us to Carrick on Suir. We are ahead of schedule and some of the support team is off sightseeing! Thanks Damian for being there! The East Munster Way starts off along the Suir towpath, less closed in and claustrophobic than the Barrow towpath, but very overgrown with shoulder high nettles in one section (Brian wore his leggings this time!) At last we reach Kilsheelin and have lunch while Damian does a spot of fishing. We depart at about 1pm and follow a long meandering route up through Kilsheelan woods. We drop down eventually to the river again and run a couple of miles of good towpath into Clonmel. A special dietary treat today - Rowena adds fresh strawberries to our peaches and creamed rice! Then it is off up to the Cross on the dreaded steep Roaring Spring Road - we had been talking about this for months but in the end it didn't seem so bad. We are pleasantly surprised to find the terrain beyond much drier and more runnable than it was during training on January 1st. The last five miles of the day were on minor roads to Newcastle. It rained heavily on this section so we were glad to finish at 8pm with 39 miles covered.
Day 5: Lindie rejoined us last night. The first section is uphill on road, then cross-country mainly on forest trail to The V where Pat joins Lindie and Julie in support. After coffee we have a nice mountain section across the Knockmealdowns at the start of the Avondhu Way. Country lanes, fields and forest tracks brought us to Mountain Barrack where we were photographed and interviewed by the Cork Echo. On to Kilworth where we are treated to light refreshments by the Fuschia Hostel and photographed again for the Avondhu newspaper - a busy media day! Finally we make it to Fermoy and struggle the final 2K to our planned finishing point for the day. 39 miles again. Donal Burke and son Darren join us during our evening meal to check on our progress to date.
Day 6: A hot sunny morning. The first section is a mixture of forest and road to Ballyhooly. Brian is having bad problems with blistered feet. I start well but develop problems in my right leg forcing me to walk large sections of the day. Today we all very much go at our own pace, but we come together at the breaks. Slight panic as Brian misses a marker and gets lost, but we get him sorted out with the help of Julie and the mobile phones. On the way to Bweeng, Graham's left leg gives up giving me - the power walker - a chance to catch up! Brian forges ahead as Brendan and Noreen Doherty join the support party. We walk with our injuries the remaining few miles beyond Bweeng with Graham seriously considering pulling out. 40 miles covered. Donal is back for the finish and has organised accommodation for us in Mallow.
Day 7: The hottest day. Julie, Brendan and Noreen deliver us safely to our starting point. Up over Mossy Bed and across Nad Bog we go - dreary places in bad weather I imagine but glorious on this sunny summer's morning. The sore legs are working better today but Brian's feet are worsening. We run down off Seefin where Brendan, Noreen and Julie have lunch ready. Lindie has returned so the Dohertys depart for orienteering. Another section across mountains and then a welcome long, gradual downhill section on quiet roads brings us to Millstreet where an even more welcome Magnum ice cream is consumed! We then tackle the one section that none of us has been on before. Some route finding problems are encountered, but are eventually sorted out - marking on the Duhallow Way is totally inadequate in parts. A lot of the terrain is rough and heathery which slows us down, but we eventually make Shrone to be greeted by Beth who now takes over from Lindie and has again brought her mountain bike.
Day 8: The forecast is bad. The first part of the route is across a valley and then back to the same side again (a bit pointless!). We run down to Clonkeen for coffee as the rain starts a series of roads link the end of the Duhallow Way via Glenflesk to the Kerry Way at Mucross. We get to Torc wet, cold and miserable. The pedestrian tunnel under the road provides welcome shelter to change and have hot soup and warm rolls. John Lenihan with John and Breda join us, as we go along the track known as the Old Kenmare Road to Galway's Bridge, then along the lakes to the Black Valley. At last the weather begins to clear. After more food, the three of us, now tiring, make our way up to the top of the valley, across the col and down into the isolated Bridia Valley. It is now 8pm with only 35 miles covered and we are five miles short of our target in Glencar. We are glad to be met by Beth and Julie and are whisked off to our B&B for the night.
Day 9: 45 miles to go. We must finish in nine days. Poor Brian's feet are in bits. Graham and I contain the aches in our legs. We climb up over the Lack Road and down into Glencar. Changes in route since we did our reece give rise to some problems, so we lose some time. The next section to Glenbeigh via Windy Gap goes well and spirits rise. A good lunch break and off we go at our individual paces. Brian first, then myself, with Graham, as usual, last to leave after the break. We cross a gap in the mountains and there in the distance are hills that look like Valencia - The Promised Land is in sight. Eyes water with emotion. We take another short break. Gavan Doherty has arrived and Donal and Darren are back for the grand finale. Graham and I have an adrenaline rush and set off at speed (or so we perceive it!) but Brian's feet won't let him run. It is a long round about route into Cahersiveen and not well marked. Brian gets lost and shocked by an electric fence, but still he battles on. Graham and I manage a meal in Cahersiveen and even a small quantity of alcoholic beverage (indeed Graham would have liked more but wasn't let). Then the three of us make our way to Reenard Point for the ferry. We get to Valencia at 9:30pm and fill a second bottle with seawater. Unfortunately Bray Head is on the other side of the island, so another 7 miles are ahead of us which we all walk together. Eventually as it grows dark we make our way up the final track to the Marconi Tower arriving at 11:08 pm tired, sore but happy.