From the outset, this attempt was ill-conceived. If you haven’t already read this post, I encourage you to do so as it will make understanding this one significantly easier.
Long story short, my Wicklow Way unsupported fastest known time attempt ended with a DNF (did not finish).
It began with the decision to begin at night. Initially, I thought this a good idea. Run through the night and finish in the afternoon. However, before even beginning, it became clear to me that this attempt would likely take a full 24 hours to complete.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s how it all went down.
I begin the night on a friend’s living room floor in Dublin with a spread of all my snacks (mostly GUs and CLIF BLOKS) and gear for the attempt. Realizing not everything I have is going to fit into my five-liter running vest, I accept my friend’s gracious offer to let me use his.
Using gear you’ve never used before for an ultramarathon? Not recommended.
While I am at it, I also borrow his water filter, his headlamp (I have one, but the battery wasn’t large enough to last the night), his trekking poles, and his water bottles.
Realizing the attempt is going to take longer than expected, I consider going to sleep and beginning early tomorrow. However, the weather for the next day looks awful and I don’t want to have to endure terrible weather at the end of this attempt. We are going tonight.
When we reach Marlay Park, the northern terminus of the Wicklow Way, the entrance is closed. Not a problem except for the large wall encircling the 86-hectare park. The search for a way in begins.
Driving around the perimeter, we find an open gate at the opposite end. This means an extra 20 minutes of walking to get to the start. A good sign, right?
The First Hours
At the start of the attempt, I am feeling good.
I do my best to stay disciplined with my pace and not allow myself to get too excited or get going too fast. All I need to do is finish.
It’s cold outside which I love – generally, I do much better in the cold versus the heat. However, the cold begins to become a bit more of an issue as I climb into the Wicklow Mountains. Inside my pack are a FarPointe Alpha Cruiser, Arc’teryx Norvan Shell, and Cumulus Vento Pants for warmth/rain protection.
The first bit is within Marlay Park and then I transition to a road where I begin climbing to a trailhead and the asphalt turns to dirt. I pass two groups of people on this dark forest road and am relieved to see that neither group is a band of miscreants out to harm passing FKTers.
I guess they’re just out for a casual nighttime walk in the drizzle?
Before long, I’m alone and climbing into the Wicklow Mountains as Dublin’s lights slowly (very slowly) fade into the distance. Everything is going to plan until my headlamp’s light gives me a quick flash. This is the borrowed headlamp and I can’t be certain, but this behavior typically indicates a dying battery.
Good thing I only have some eight more hours of darkness to endure before sunrise.
I turn off my headlamp and try my luck in the darkness. However, the trail quickly becomes too technical for me to navigate without a light.
I turn on my headlamp and am now blinded by light instead of darkness.
The clouds have settled so low and thick that the light simply reflects back at me like driving in the fog with high beams on. The running is on hold until this cloud lifts and I can see where I’m going. Guess I’m briskly walking now.
Sadly, the cloud doesn’t lift and before long I’m soaked from the mist. I put on all my clothing. Once I start running again, all this is going to have to come off.
When conditions eventually clear, I encounter a new problem. The trail has turned into a series of narrow boardwalks – all of which are incredibly slippery. Back to the brisk walk. I also attempt to brave the darkness and things are going well until I take an unanticipated step down from one boardwalk to another below. The steps are nearly invisible in the dark.
And if you’re thinking, “Just run next to the boardwalks!” So did I. On either side of the boardwalk, it’s basically a bog.
I descend and find myself following a river. I can now run without fear of slipping on the boardwalk and without being blinded by either darkness or brightness, but the ground has turned into a slippery mud festival.
Making it to a bridge over the river, I find a barrier and a sign informing me the bridge (and the trail) is closed. No alternate is proposed. Taking my chances on the damaged bridge, I successfully cross.
Potentially Foreseeable Obstacles
I continue past the broken bridge and further up the trail there’s a sign warning travelers in the other direction – information that would have also been useful to me had I received it in advance.
The next obstacle I encounter is a shooting pain down the left side of my foot. I’ve never had pain here before and the pain appears to be coming in waves. It will strike quickly and I’ll be momentarily incapacitated before slowly limping on my foot until the pain subsides.
After a couple of hours of attempting to ignore this, the waves appear to be getting closer together. Probably not great.
On top of that, my decision to stay up during the day and begin at night appears to be catching up to me as I am overcome with sleepiness. I know if I can make it to sunrise, I will get a second wind (as was my initial plan), but just before sunrise, I find an inviting wooden shelter.
I lay down and take a 20-minute nap inside.
When I wake up, the eastern sky is lit with the first hints of the sun as I continue attempting to maintain a faster-than-walking pace up and down slippery grassy slopes.
The pain in my foot continues to plague me. At least now I’m witnessing a beautiful sunrise in a majestic Irish valley.
But despite the scenery (and my new deer friends), my mental calculation is already telling me that I’m entering bad (or, more accurately, worse) idea territory. I’ve been eating my food more quickly than I imagined and combined with my slower-than-anticipated pace, I’m certain to run out of calories well before reaching my goal.
Continuing into a second night does not sound appealing as I know there’s a storm expected and finishing somewhere I have no place to stay in the middle of the night in the train doesn’t sound ideal. Between this, my diminishing food, the pain in my foot, and my extreme fatigue, I accept that this FKT attempt will end at just that, an attempt.
As I make my way toward the Wicklow Way’s halfway point in Glenmalure, I find another inviting wooden shelter. Since I’ve already accepted that this is not going to end the way I had initially hoped, I decide to take advantage and go for nap round two.
Thirty minutes later and I’m not too much refreshed.
I continue down to town where I consider continuing once more to press on. The fact that this attempt was essentially a spur-of-the-moment decision and this is not something I am heavily invested in convinces me that this is not worth risking injury over. My races in December and April will be upset with me if I don’t participate because of a stupid thing I decided to do in Ireland.
Heading into the Glenmalure Lodge I ring my friend Eoin in Dublin and order a Guinness. Despite the sign outside reading “food served all day” it appears that “all day” begins at 10:30.
It’s true that I could have simply finished in any amount of time and claimed the Fastest Known Time since, technically, there was no standing FKT. However, it didn’t feel too exciting a goal if I was simply limping to the finish.
A couple of hours later Eoin is there to pick me up and drive me back to Dublin for what will hopefully be a restful rest of the day.
I suppose I’ll look for a new unclaimed unsupported FKT to pursue.
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