When Valerie Glavin tells you that you’re wanted on a club team, you’d need to be either brave or foolhardy to decline. And so it came to pass that I found my way to the starting line of the second leg of this year’s ‘Wicklow Way Relay’ with Valerie’s advice to, “Get out there and run like a bitch!” ringing in my ears. Of course, I’m not a mountain runner and probably never will be a real mountain runner, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t run in the mountains does it? I arrived both nervously and a little early at the start of my section of the trail. I was more than a little unsure of what to expect as the lily-livered tarmac monkey that I most assuredly am. There was only one other runner there when I arrived – one of the Rathfarnham team – and he really looked to be up for the gig. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite so ready to run in all my life and so I left him to complete his preparations in peace. Our first runner – Mr Johnny O’Connor Esq – was scheduled to complete his portion of the route in about 70 minutes. It was whispered amongst the assembled throng that Rathfarnham were targeting the sectional record of 53 minutes. It was perhaps at that point that I realised that this might be a long day on the trail. I did my best to calm down and to that end I retired deep into the woods, twice, to do what I’m told bears do best in such surroundings. Thankfully, that seemed to help.
Valerie wasn’t actually running herself but that didn’t mean that she had it easy. She seemed to be everywhere. Over the course of the day she would pop up at the start of each leg and then again along a portion of the route with her camera. She was a veritable whirlwind of positivity and encouragement. Secretly, and behind her back of course, the rest of us engaged in some generalised speculation about how one might actually run like a bitch. We never did quite work that one out but enjoyed considering the various possibilities. Perhaps Johnny’s imitation of how drunken Graham Norton might run away from a house-fire holding a baby came closest. Johnny had earlier in the day been charged with getting the assembled ‘Athenry Assassins’ from the starting line in Kilmashogue Lane to where I now patiently awaited his arrival at the start of stage two – to take over the metaphorical baton. I stood shivering and in blissful innocence at some leafy car park deep in the wild, woolly, Wicklow countryside with a decidedly empty colon and not a clue as to what was in store.
The bold Johnny arrived precisely on queue and yet strangely only slightly ruffled for his experience. A rumour immediately swirled around the Athenry camp that he had closely followed one of the more fetching female competitors all the way from the starting line for fear of getting lost along the way. Imagine that! Imagine being so nervous about losing your way that you might resort to tagging along with another runner! Johnny, we were shocked! Anyway, when my turn came I ran fearlessly into the deepening gloom of the forest. As you might have guessed at this point, I was myself desperately hoping that I wouldn’t get lost along and was searching for some friendly runner to follow in order that I might avoid such a fate. Luckily, I immediately fell into company with one or two kind, and apparently spatially aware souls, who assured me in confident tones that I really couldn’t get lost. All I needed to do was to pay close attention to the trail markings, watch my footing carefully and then run like a bitch. It seemed that Valerie had talked with everyone beforehand and had given them the same advice? I was a mite confused, but ran on getting further away from safety, sanity and civilisation with each and every step.
We twisted around rock, ditches and stiles and both up and down steep and rocky trails. As you might guess, my poor city-bred quads didn’t stand much of a chance. Before long I was indeed running like Graham Norton fleeing from the aforementioned house-fire. It was all starting to make a very weird but painful sort of sense. I remember years ago that James Lundon used to add an extra bit of mileage onto any of his training routes that contained more than a couple of small hills. He said he did this to “…take account of the extra distance”. If you know James then this statement probably makes perfect sense to you. If you don’t know James Lundon you should really pop him an email – you’re in for a treat. Using the “Lundon Hill-Distance Formula”, which is similar to cricket’s Duckworth Lewis Method but with a dash of added lunacy, the first three miles of my relay leg were 74 miles long. I ran a little within myself, reasoning that to go completely flat-out would be to risk even greater time loss as I’d be sure to lose the trail. My sole priority at this point was not to go off the route. At all costs, no matter what happened, no matter what it took, I told myself that I wasn’t going to get lost. Can you tell what happened yet?
I first realised that I was lost when I passed a nicely relaxed hiker at the bottom of a steep decline and asked him just two questions. I enquired whether he had seen any other runners on the trail and additionally, if I was still on the Wicklow Way. One reply in the negative would at this juncture have been disappointing. I can confirm that to be responded to with a double negative was bordering on the depressing. I turned on decidedly dejected heels and trudged back up the hill. Kate Bush had it all wrong. Nobody sings songs in a high-pitched voice when they’re “Running up That Hill”. I know I certainly didn’t. It’s a completely irrelevant detail I suppose, but in retrospect I should probably have turned right at the foot of Djouce Mountain rather than plunging confidently ahead on the basis of no more than a hunch combined with ignorance and a short attention span. How was I to know where to go? If this had been a 10k road race there would have been a bored teenager at that junction, who would have ignored me as I ran past. I realise that this wouldn’t have helped me stay on course, but at least I’d have had someone to both blame and sneer at afterwards.
Some innocent abroad had informed me earlier in the day that, “Once you get past Djouce the work is all done. You can coast home from there”. I had imagined careening blissfully, with long effortless and elegant strides down the ‘boardwalk’ to stage end. Had I not mentioned the boardwalk? We’ll come to that in a minute. This was of course a disturbingly cruel, and perhaps deliberately mischievous, reading of the situation. In reality, there were approximately ‘shitloads’ of hills still to be tackled after Djouce, and yes that is the correct mountain-running technical term. I pressed on wearily, and it has to be said slightly resentfully, all the time considering in detail exactly which of the many painful ways I could imagine that I would afterwards use to kill Valerie. Of course it makes no difference now but the ‘boardwalk’ is unlike any other I’ve seen before. It doesn’t have thousands of shops selling tulip bulbs like the one I saw in Amsterdam or even the little groups of tourist-intimidating junkies that we have in Dublin. The Wicklow Way boardwalk is just a line of railway sleepers that provide some blessedly firm footing through the boggiest parts of the bog. In retrospect it’s my favourite of the three.
Sixteen weeks, four hours and sixteen minutes after setting off from the start of the stage, I spied Valerie in the distance. Of course she was shouting encouragement, jumping up and down and cursing like a sailor. That’s our Val, a class act! Deirdre and Martina then guided me over the remaining yards and back to the safety of the stage-end like accompanying female fighter-jets guarding a crippled aircraft on its weary journey back to base. I thought that I was giving them some news when I gasped that I’d gotten lost, but of course they knew the whole sorry story already. There are apparently no secrets on the trail and news of my involuntary detour had already reached Athenry mission control. This is to say of course that Valerie already knew about it.
At this point my work was done and so I could resume my preferred and habitual pose as an aging, balding, wannabe hippie road-runner.
Of course, I’ll be back next year.