Ultra Trail Running: The First Attempt

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July 20, 2014 by John Buckley

Just keep running...

Just keep running…photo credit JuJu Jay (Mud, Sweat and Runners)

I didn’t really plan it, which probably breaks ultra trail running rule 101, but running 50km + is something that has been on the brain for the last 6 months or so. After a few tough weeks of work, I had a week all to myself, it started with a stag on the Friday and I then crawled back home on Sunday evening with my tail between my legs. Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t sit still, so when Monday morning turned around I hopped out for a quick half marathon (followed by “Dirty Dancing”). The brain juices started ticking over as I had been watching a lot of Killian Jornet clips over the last few weeks (ultra trail running superstar) and part of me said DO IT!

What to bring?

What to bring?

So I got to plotting. I’ve run and hiked along the Wicklow Mountains all my life and decided the route was going to be Marlay Park to Glendalough. Nothing too taxing for the first one and I made sure it was familiar territory. I know most of the turns and trails inside out. I went through the week thinking away, doing some light training cycles and jogs, and excitement began to turn to dread by the Friday evening. I’d done my prep though, I thought, been training hard, hydrating and eating well, was in good mental shape, but when I laid out my gear on Friday evening (superstition, have to do if before every big run) I began to panic. “50km is a lot of kilometers John”.

The main part that was eating away at me was “what the hell am I going to do for 6 hours in my brain, by myself?” That was the worry, was my brain up for the haul, for the pain, for the dehydration. I was being an awful Negative Nelly. But luckily I recruited a few heads to keep me on the straight and narrow. So up I get on Saturday morning and Mama Buckley is there, with all the positivity, a quick hug at Marlay Park and I’m off, running with the gent that is Neil Brazil for the first few kilometers. Was great having Neil there, he’s a funny fecker and we just had the bants for the first while. Leaving Marlay is mostly on the road, with the remnants of the first night of Longitude and the big stage for company.

So we marched on, keeping the pace in check (was warned not to go too hard starting out), then out of nowhere on the way up Kilmashogue WE SAW A PANTHER. I had no dehydration excuses at this stage, but I’m pretty sure it was a big panther shaped beast. Anyway the laugh stood us in good stead, as that hill is tough! Shortly we were on trail and Neil was saying farewell as I headed off down onto the Ballybrack Road. I did my good Samaritan deed, (which I’m pretty sure helped me finish the run) I had found a set of car keys and got them back to the owner, who offered me a bottle of water as reward, I wanted cash but what can you do? RESULT!

Some of the fun hills

Some of the fun hills

I was then down towards Prince William’s Seat (yes it’s the real name of a mountain) and towards Knockree, I was making good time and was 15 minutes up on arrival at Crone Wood, where I was met by the mother. “Eat the crisps John!!!” she exclaimed. I had asked her not to let me go without at least having a few, so I scoffed some, in fear of the sun stealing all my salt. A quick hug and then up towards Djouce, the longest climb of the day, about 7km worth of uphill. I had the walking poles out, but ditched them after a minute, too distracting, so just pushed on. It was about 23 degrees and 93% humidity most of the day, but on the toughest climb of course the sun decided it wanted to come out from behind the clouds and beat down on me for a bit, cheers.

As I came around the shoulder of Djouce I started to get excited, 30km done, toughest climb done and you’re feeling ok John! The next 10km or so is a fairly boring trek in managed forest, I was really running low on water at this stage, and was relying on a tap just up from Old Bridge near Lough Dan. Luckily I bumped into a couple of American women who obliged after I asked “Can I have a lend of some of your water?” Firstly, “a lend?” It’s such an Irish thing to say, I was obviously never going to pay them back. Secondly I don’t think it came out like that, more like “canivealeeeendof*gasps*someofurwatterrrrpleeeaase?” And finally I looked a bit mad! But thank you American women!!!

Getting through the kms

Getting through the kms

With about 14km left I pushed on, the hill from Lough Dan to the back of Laragh is a pain in every leg muscle imaginable, but I got a nice rhythm going. With about 8km to go I met the legend that is Ju Ju Jay of Mud, Sweat and Runners. We raised brotherly arms from a distance and of course Jay had to take a snap of me looking far from my best. Was great to meet him there as I was struggling for motivation at that point. I had been singing Frère Jacques in my head for ages, along with getting my first Coca Cola craving of the day, followed by a questioning of what the hell am I doing with my life! We chatted all things running for the last few miles and we kept the pace ticking over. I even managed to run most of the remaining hills. Really great to be out in the beauty that is the Wicklow Mountains with someone who really shares the joy that they offer. As I think I mentioned to JuJu, it’s mad how us Irish head abroad to be awe struck by scenery, when you’ve got right in front of your face here, to rival any scenic beauty the world has to offer.

John and JuJu - photo credit JuJu Jay (Mud, Sweat and Runners)

John and JuJu – photo credit JuJu Jay (Mud, Sweat and Runners)

To be sure of making the distance (as my watch had died) we ran from the hotel in Glendalough to the upper lake, the legs were burning and all I wanted was a can of coke!!!!!! But finishing was incredible, a feeling of accomplishment like no other, I did get a bit emotional (as I always do, damn running far makes me cry!). I knew the bug had bitten me before I had started, but I now only want to run further and further. The 3-year plan includes running the full Wicklow Way, an attempt at the Wicklow Round, Transvulcania in the Canaries and maybe, one day, a stab at Ultra Trail Mont Blanc…who knows. I sure as hell didn’t think I’d ever run an ultra trail that’s for sure.

Top tips (learned by making mistakes)
  • There are only a few really right and wrong things to do. Music, food types, warm ups etc. are personal and should be specific to you, so people who tell you otherwise are spouting bull.
  • Hydration – whatever way you look at it, this is the key. The days before are as important, get lots of electrolyte rich and clear water into you. You’re going to sweat and dehydrate very quickly. About 30 mins in, start sipping. Not gulping, as you’ll probably bloat up and vom. It’s going to be tempting to chug back the water, but try and stay consistent with hydration. Also don’t forget the salt! You’re losing loads of it, so maybe a bag of crisps or something along those lines.
  • The Noggin – your brain is going to go to some interesting places, this is a definite. So coming up with things like mantras or positive statements can really help. Try to focus on where you are on the route, not the hill that’s coming or the distance left. When you find yourself doing this, look around you, say out loud what you see or how you’re feeling, it brings you into the now (if not looks a bit crazy!). Focus on the positives and say them out loud too. And tell yourself that you trust yourself and the work you’ve put in to get to where you are.
  • Feeding time – this isn’t easy to get right; you’ve got to get the calories in. Eat what you usually eat, don’t change on the day or else it’s going to come out one way or another. For me I try and stay away from the gels and that, they can be super harsh on your stomach. If you’re a sugar fiend, just go with your usual. But complex carbs, fats and some protein is important on the way round too. Slow down when taking in food and wash down with water, your stomach needs water to digest.
  • Hills – either going up or down hills during an ultra is going to put pressure on different parts of your body. Your joints are going to hurt. When going up the tough inclines, short strides are key, conserve your energy, listen to your body, take time to walk too if you need to. Coming down, don’t let your concentration go, most falls happen on the way down. Focus on where your feet are going, relax your upper body, run like a kid, go all floppy, helps to save energy
  • Gear – You’ll want to bring loads, get the basics in your bag – water, food, extra clothing layer (wind breaker), emergency blanket and phone. If you’re in a race you’ll have a bag drop to pick up at half way or other points, if you’re alone, drop a bag yourself in advance or organise a mate (favour to be repaid) to meet you, to give the pep talk and the extra supplies
  • Company – everyone has their own way of running, but I found it incredibly useful to have a couple of people pace me out. The company really helps and if they’re good mates and you tell them the pace, they’ll reel you in or push you on.

Some top tips here from ultra runner Killian Jornet

Across the world and in Ireland the amount of races each year is really staggering. They’re popping up all the time and seem to be quite pricey. I think that one thing we forget is that running is FREE and natural. Ireland has a beautiful backdrop to frame our runs, from 5km to ultra. You don’t need to pay someone money to go on a run. You don’t need to enter a race to achieve something. Running at its core is not about winning and losing. It’s about movement, freedom and expression. It’s about wellbeing. So next time you feel you have to pay to run, think again, and get out and push yourself within the natural beauty that is around us.


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