IN WHICH WE FINALLY GET OFF THE FLAT TRAILS OF COUNTY KILDARE AND INTO THE MOUNTAINS IN PREPARATION FOR THE CONNEMARA 100
I’m about 6 miles out of Laragh on the road heading for Sally Gap, and the weather forecast is letting me down. It is certainly a different world up here, in the Wicklow Mountains. You are only an ass’s roar from the capital city of Dublin, but you may as well be on Mars; there is not a car in sight, nor a tree, for that matter, or indeed any sign of civilisation at all, bar this one lunatic, plodding along in the rain. My confidence that the heavy, sheeting drizzle that’s sweeping over the landscape will clear is draining away at roughly the same rate that my fancy-pants rain jacket is giving up the ghost…
It had been an early start. Up around 5.30am, and sneaking around the house trying not to wake anyone, and primarily attempting (and failing) to rouse the greyhounds, which decided, after a while, that they too needed some breakfast.
Then off out into the grey and wet weather, heading south-east into the Wicklow Mountains. The plan was to park up in Laragh, a tourist-trap near Glendalough. As I neared the village, I came around a bend, and there was a large deer on the road. We exchanged pleasantries and went about our business. I found a spot in a hotel car park, and was able to use the loo before heading off on foot towards Glenmacnass.
The road is a popular one at the height of summer, and is thronged with cyclists of the lycra-clad variety, particularly at weekends. Indeed, I cycled this route back in 2016 in preparation for Hardman, and did a few variations on a theme around the large man-made Blessington Lake. This morning, at this hour, and in this weather, I had it to myself.
The road out of Laragh towards Sally Gap requires you to climb up towards Glenmacnass Waterfall. This stream starts its journey from Mullaghcleevaun, Wicklow Mountains’ second-highest peak, after Lugnaquilla. The road I was on follows its route for some miles. But as you can see from the photo above, there is a decent leg-stretcher of a climb to get you out of the valley and into the uplands proper.
There is a second climb once you have reached the head of Glenmacnass Waterfall which really puts manners on you, in case you had notions that your hard work was done for the day. Along this stretch, the weather gave with one hand and snatched it away with the other.
A rainbow appeared and vanished in the blink of an eye. I found a large moth on the side of the road, and we seemed to have a lot in common. It was bedraggled, soaked through, and looked a little the worse for wear.
I hooshed it back into the verge, after taking a couple of pics. I think it’s an Oak Eggar Moth, but all the images online for comparison are clearly from the Oak Eggar Supermodel Catalogue, and have been airbrushed, buffed and polished. This one was missing some of its wing, and most of the spots you can see here are actually rain drops, and not markings.
I pressed on, and bar the odd camper van, I had the hills to myself. As the miles ticked away and I approached Sally Gap, I started to meet the odd cyclist, and the weather improved. The sun broke through on occasion, and my mood improved too.
After a few false dawns, Sally Gap came into view. As a stopping point, it has little to recommend it, though the history of this area is fascinating. I was on what is known as the Great Military Road. It was built between 1800-1809 by the British Army to give them north-south access to the mountains where insurgents were hiding out after the failed 1798 Rebellion. Five barracks were built along the road, one of which was at Laragh (since demolished). At Sally Gap, two roads intersect at a rather bleak and windswept location. The Irish name, apparently, has some link to willow trees (from saileach), though no trees can found here today.
After a quick pitstop to refuel, I turned back for Laragh. As you can see from the elevation map, the man benefit of this choice of route was that the return leg would be easier. All told there was over 500 metres of climbing to be done on the way out.
The weather had by this stage caught up with the met.ie forecast. This was welcome indeed, though I kept the waterproof jacket on over the two running tops, as it was still fresh enough.
The area around here may give the impression that it’s all fairly bleak, but in reality, it’s rich with wildlife. Apart from my close encounter with the deer, and my moth rescue, I was surrounded by a smorgasboard of botanical delights. Down in the valley, meadows were rich with orchids, and up in the open gorse, there were flowers aplenty, from the pendulous Foxgloves to the sulphur-yellow Bog Asphodel.
Birds too accompanied my journey. Well, in truth, they were no more interested in my presence than the sheep, but they kept me guessing as I toddled along. I really needed a birder with me. I saw Siskins, and perhaps a Yellowhammer. I heard a Raven, though he kept out of sight.
Familiar landmarks from the outward journey came and went, and to my surprise, even my moth friend had crawled back onto the road. I suspect he was trying to dry out on the warming tarmac, but the risk of a German camper van tyre putting an end to his day was too great, so I deposited him back into the greenery again. He is probably still cursing me…
Back down the valley and cyclists were swarming in groups as only Dublin cyclists can. (What is the collective term for a group of cyclists?) It’s great to see them, and no doubt it’s been a boon for the local cafés and bars. I reached the car, but still had a mile or so to make up the 26.2. The way I look at it, if I’ve done over 25 miles in one sitting (yeah, you know what I mean), then you may as well do the extra bit and get another marathon under your belt.
I had earned a hot chocolate and scone before I headed back home, and once home, a hot bath. Mind you, that had to wait, as we were called out with the brigade as I was waiting for the water to heat up.
The doggos got their walk later that evening, and we had another few wildlife encounters; firstly, a family of Sparrowhawks were mewing at each other from a nearby wood – something that the hounds were more than curious about. And as we left the dog park, we came face to face with a badger. Fortunately for all concerned, we managed to hang on to the dogs, otherwise we could have had a pitched battle in the hedgerow. And my money would have been on the badger.
So, today is Sunday, and it’s piddling out. I am still waiting to get in a sneaky run to see how the legs are faring. I can feel some mild stinginess in the hamstrings, so the smart money is to rest up for the evening. The doggos have not had a walk, and that is not a good thing in a small house.
During the week, as part of the preparation for the big race, I went out after 9 o’clock and ran over 11 miles in the dusk and the dark. Quite a section of Connemara, assuming we get that far, will have to be run through the night. So it’s good to get a session or two in with the head-torch and other lights. Though I kept to the towpaths and quieter routes, one small stretch takes you out onto a busy enough road. As I ran down, keen to get off it, a car pulled over and offered me a lift; I think he was quite surprised to find that out I was out there voluntarily…
And so we are inching ever closer to the big day. I am starting that mild OCD/hoarding habit common to many endurance folk. My work desk is getting clogged with a variety of torches, gels and reflective arm bands. And that’s just one small part of it. It’s the biggest challenge I have ever taken on, and I have no idea if I can pull it off. All I can do is keep training, keep fit, and plan as much as possible to make the day itself as manageable as I can. I can do no more.
Some days, when I think about it, it seems downright impossible. Days when you come in from a long run and realise you will have to do that again, and again. And again. Back to back. Most days, I am not specifically thinking about the day itself but rather about the training, what needs to be done this week, and how best to manage getting there, and other logistical ‘stuff’. And then, just occasionally, like the sun breaking through over Sally Gap, the whole crazy adventure seems to make sense, and seems to be, well… possible.