A tonic for the soul

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Seamus Heaney

There’s something about passing over the bridge at Athlone. You are heading into the west. There’s an almost audible sigh from the weary bones, and the knots in your shoulders give a little. When you spy Dunguaire Castle peeking over the trees, you know you are about to hit Kinvarra and your first glimpse of Galway Bay.

Then you can really begin to relax.

Caher Valley, Clare.
Caher Valley, Clare.

We have old friends in Fanore. Caher Valley, to be exact. Fanore is one, long village on the north-west coast of Clare, and it’s made up of many small communities. The Wikipedia entry is a bit scant; in fact, it really doesn’t do it justice at all. As a tourist trap, it probably suffers a wee bit from the pull of Ballyvaughan to the north, and Lisdoonvarna, Doolin and Lehinch further south. But that just means the rest of us can enjoy the delights of the beach and O’Donoghue’s pub without having to fight for a wave, or elbow room at the bar.

We arrived on Friday lunchtime and wasted little time in hitting the beach. There was too much swell and breaking waves to get a decent swim but it didn’t matter; an hour getting beaten by the Atlantic was just the tonic required.

The next morning came and some of the household were up bright and early. Porridge was made and gobbled. Shorts were found, tops were donned, gels were stuffed into bags… it was time to to head down the valley to register for the half-marathon. Jenny was still dithering about 10k or the half, right up to the time when she had to fill in the form and hand it back. I had already plumped for the half, so given that this was Jenny’s bright idea in the first place, it seemed only fair she would give it a lash too. So we both ticked ‘half’, paid our money and got our numbers and pins. No fancy-pants timing chips. You’re in Fanore now, and don’t you forget it!

Spectacular indeed, though I forgot to check out the views, through the salt in my eyes...
Spectacular indeed, though I forgot to check out the views, through the salt in my eyes…

The last of the protein bar was eaten, and the final sips of the electrolyte drink were taken. The race kicked off at 11am outside O’Donoghue’s Pub and went straight up a mountain. Okay. I appreciate that an actual mountain is usually over 600 metres, and we only climbed about 200, but it was a warm morning, and that first hill went on for ever… okay, perhaps it was about 4 kms until we reached a crossroads, some level ground, and our first water station. Already, several competitors were now walking.

After a few more kilometres, I was joined by a Mayo man and we struck up conversation. Joe was a handy runner, and had a better half-marathon time than me, and a full marathon time of 4 hours and 2 seconds. You don’t have to be a runner to know those 2 seconds really rankle. He is returning to the scene of the crime in Dublin in October to right that wrong and I have no doubt he will do it. He also has tickets to see his beloved Mayo take on Dublin next week in the GAA Senior Football semi-final for the chance to take on Kerry in the final. Most neutrals would really fancy a classic Culchie/Jackeen face-off, but Mayo haven’t held Sam for a long, long time, and when you’ve soldiered with someone for 13.1 miles, you share a fair amount. Mostly sweat, it has to be said, but also a few swigs from the bottle, and old war stories from the trenches. So I wish him and his team the best of luck next week (even if my wife is from Dublin!)

Joe was using this as a training run, as was I, and I suspect had he not joined me, my pace would have flagged. It can be hard keeping it together when you are on your own, and that first hill had absolutely scattered the field. From that crossroads near the start, I don’t think we passed anyone, nor did anyone pass us. Joe’s Garmin was keeping us honest, and he was reading out the mile pace as it beeped. Mind you, the terrain was so bogey, there were only a handful of consecutive miles when we knocked out steady 8.20s. Some nasty hills took us over 10 minutes, and the last downhill stretch gave us back some time with 7 minute miles. But as runners will tell you, going downhill is not much fun either, and puts a whole different strain on your system.

We crossed the line together in 1.54:14. Given the topographic challenge and the warm weather, plus the odd patch of semi-off road experience, I was very happy with that. In fact, my own estimate had been a little more generous, and Saoirse, Dave (Jenny’s other half) and their kids arrived five minutes after I’d finished.

The medal shows Clare man John Philip Holland, the inventor of the submarine. Bet you didn't know that!
The medal shows Clare man John Philip Holland, the inventor of the submarine. Bet you didn’t know that!

Still, we had Jenny to cheer on. And her run/walk strategy got her and her friend over in 2.59. Medals were handed out and sandwiches and tea were scoffed. Not to mention the odd pint of Guinness (to replace all that iron. Cough).

I didn’t bring my phone, so have no way of tracking the route. The one given on the website beforehand was last year’s and this one was, apparently, a little easier.

The legs were stiffening up that evening, and the planned sea soak did not materialise as the weather had closed in. We did, though, find an absolute gem of a walk the next day, on our way home, after a brief detour to Lehinch, and the Celtic T Shirt Shop. They are still in business, making some of the best Ts you can find, and as I was wearing one of their classic designs when we went in, Saoirse received a 10% discount on her purchase. Now that’s service!

It’s always a bit of a tug leaving Clare, but at least we discovered the Avalla Farm Trail up near Mullaghmore.

Just one of the well-managed stiles on the Avalla Farm Loop.
Just one of the well-managed stiles on the Avalla Farm Loop.

It’s a looped trail in an area already famous as the epicentre of the Burren. It’s about 6.5kms long, and takes you up a Green Road and into hazel scrub, and then out onto classic limestone pavement, climbing all the time as you loop around along the base of a high ridge. Then you plunge back down into the most magical hazel woodland again. Every turn brings another delightful cameo that is straight from the sketch pads of Alan Lee, one of illustrators who, along with John Howe, brought The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings alive for so many readers worldwide.

There is a very real likelihood that Tolkien used the Burren landscape to inspire his work. Indeed, not far from where we were staying is a well-known cave called Pól na Gollum. Its original Irish name was probably Pól na gColm, and probably was either Colm’s Cave, or Cave of the (Rock) Doves. But avid fans will recognise the name straight away. Oh yes, they will, my precious!

Straight out of Tolkien. Or the other way 'round, perhaps...
Straight out of Tolkien. Or the other way ’round, perhaps…

As an aside, as we were tramping around the Burren above ground on the last day of our holiday, a father and son were stuck down that very same cave. They spent about 28 hours underground before they were safely rescued by the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation. That’s one trip they won’t forget.

I’d rather have done the marathon in full, twice, than put myself through that.

If you do that looped trail, make sure to call into Avalla Farm itself, where a warm welcome awaits. And if that all sounds like a cut and paste from an old Irish Tourist Board pamphlet, I apologise, but that’s just the way it is. The farm is run by a Dutch family and their honour system of leaving walking sticks at the trailhead extends to the café, where you don’t pay but make a donation. Nothing like a strenuous walk to give you an appetite, but I reckon they were the best scones I’ve ever had. The scone itself was tasty. Topped with oodles of jam and a dollop of cream roughly the size of Mullaghmore, it was hard to know how to tackle one, but tackle them we did.

Wind-tossed Harebells along the loop.
Wind-tossed Harebells along the loop.

The walk was just the thing the legs needed after the run. Monday came, and the planned long cycle didn’t materialise, so I opted for a quick 11 kms on the hybrid bike up in the park (it’s a Trek MTB bought on the bike-to-work scheme). Today is Tuesday, and I can postpone the bike no more. The sweat and glory of Fanore has long since worn off. Wetsuits have been sprayed down, dried, and put away. Clothes have been washed, dried and folded. Rain gear stashed. Memories of the trip are now largely digital.

It’s time to get back to work, and back on track with the programme.

Some excellent graffiti on a wall in Lehinch, though of course, it is a surfer dude town, so it's to be expected.
Some excellent graffiti on a wall in Lehinch, though of course, it is a surfer dude town, so it’s to be expected.

My own postscript: Seamus Heaney’s original draft of this poem has a different last line, which I prefer. It goes:
And find the heart unlatched and blow it open. I love it so much I carved it into the mantelpiece at home. The accepted version is the one at the top. Both work, and the man is a legend.

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