The Middle of Nowhere


In every superhero partnership, one is the sidekick, said my sidekick. Or something like that. I can’t quite remember how it goes, but it’s a funny one. And it became something of a running gag yesterday when Gary and I went for a long run along the canal. And you can have the secondary pun for free!

During the week, runs were a bit sparse. 13k with Mark on Wednesday and a bit of a pacier run on Friday, with 11k and a small detour to have a dip in the lake. That was it. But then I knew Gary had a decent run planned for Bank Holiday Monday and so I was preserving the legs.

Gary writes as Royal Canal Runner here, and I may be stealing a little of his thunder by writing up this report, but in fairness, I know his post will be replete with much historical information and also serve as a handy guide for anyone interested in taking on this particular stretch of the canal, whereas mine will be rambling and peppered with poor gags and occasional references to botany and other tangents. But hey! On with the show…

The canal we were tackling yesterday was the last leg of the Grand Canal. As we have touched on before on this blog, there are two major canals in Ireland, and both were built to carry goods and passengers from Dublin to and from the midlands by joining up with the Shannon. It’s easy to forget how immense this river is, when you don’t see it every day. Its catchment is huge (go on, Google it.) Its birthplace is Northern Ireland, though ‘officially’ it’s the Shannon Pot in Co. Cavan. But the water that feeds this pot comes from aquifers under the Cuilcagh Mountains which are just across the border. But no doubt you can get into a fistfight with geologists and limnologists in a pub some night if the subject comes up. I refer you to this short piece and we can leave the matter rest for now.

For me, when I am journeying west, I can feel the ever-present hunch in my shoulders relax ever so slightly when I cross the Shannon, usually at Athlone. Often, we are heading for Clare, and my body has further stages of relaxation; the first of which is Kinvarra and the first glimpse of the sea, then Bell Harbour, then Black Head, and finally Fanore. I’m sure many folk have their own travel ritualistic staging posts. Each marker strips away some of the troubles of the working world, and the final cleansing takes place in the Atlantic itself. But we have, as we often do, digressed. So let us return to a rather more sedate stretch of water. And let us bring Gary back into the story.

Gary has the FKT (Fastest Known Time) for running the full length of the Royal Canal in one sitting. About 145km in all. Unlike your old friend, unironedman, who chose to do this journey by wetsuit and bike as well as a little jogging, Gary ran the whole damn thing. Well, now he plans to take on the Grand, the original canal from the capital to the midlands. As it had the choice of route, it is naturally a little shorter at about 131k. However, when you are running that kind of distance, the difference may be rather moot.

In order to have an FKT recognised, you must submit the route to the authorising body with quite strict criteria. GPS data is a must. So our run yesterday was both a nice day out in the sunshine, and also the final piece in the puzzle for Gary, as this was the last stretch of the Grand that he had yet to map. Armed now with all the information, he should be able to have the route recognised on the official website. Then all he has to to is run it. If you are the first to complete a recognised route, it stands to reason you will own the FKT until someone comes and takes it way from you. But there is a certain pleasure in knowing you established the route first, and were the first to complete it.

Anyway, that’s the sort of shit we get up to for kicks around here!

Gary and his wife Niamh kindly picked me up from my house in the morning and we drove out to Tullamore. The weather was going to be kind; plenty of sun and a nice breeze to keep us cool, and no rain. A quick splash of sun lotion and we were off. As this was Gary’s rodeo, we knew we would be stopping at every lock and bridge for a few photos for his own blog. In truth, it didn’t slow us down much.

Despite the fine weather, we had the route to ourselves for most of the day. Greenway development here has focused on the Tullamore section of the canal towpath, to accommodate the urban population of this busy midlands town. As we headed west, the quality of the towpath finish varied, and in some cases, literally petered out. This was fine by me, as I quite like running on cut grass, but I know when the council get around to finishing the Greenway, the whole length will be finished as per the Royal Canal; hard packed foundation with shale and topped off with finely packed grit. And in many places along the Grand, one side often becomes a road, so the surface is not the issue; rather you have to keep an eye out for traffic.

There are many wonderful mysteries to be solved as you journey along this route. 16th century tower houses, old farm buildings and ruined great houses are scattered amongst the surrounding scenery. There is no time to explore further – not today – but I am sure many of these treasures can be unlocked with a little bit of online scavenging. And if I know Gary, he will have cracked a few of them already.

About halfway through our journey, with Ferbane to the north and Lough Boora, and further beyond, Slieve Bloom mountains to the south, we came to a disused railway crossing. According to Gary, this was probably still in use up to quite recently. The rail line would have carried turf to a local power station. Last year saw the closure of the last peat-burning station in the country, but you have to appreciate this is bogland country, and the vast swathes of bog have been supporting families around here for generations. This is all due to change, of course, and this has meant a lot of traditional peat harvesting jobs have been lost. It’s a bittersweet moment. For people like me, who appreciate the natural beauty of bog and peatland, and also understand a little of the importance of it ecologically and as a carbon sink, I welcome this change in direction. But for those who’ve spent their lifetimes out on the bog, it must be a hard station. And of course, hand-cutting of turf continues and this too may one day go the same way. Which will be another fight for another day, and a prospect I am sure no Irish politician would relish.

Ever one for recycling, I am going to rehash my favourite Rich Hall gag here, with an Irish twist. (‘Montana is so goddam flat that on a clear day you can see the back of your own fucking head! In fact, if the weather’s really good you can watch your dog run away for three days!’). The Irish twist is that midlands Ireland is not much different to Montana, I suspect, in terms of flatness. Though in our case, I suspect your dog would vanish into a boghole after 20 minutes, so there the similarity ends…

There are some lovely botanical moments along the towpath. I wasn’t particularly looking out for anything, but these caught my eye: Maidenhair Spleenwort on the walls of an aqueduct, and in the grassy margins near the canal edge, Bugle, Flag Iris and many orchids. I am not confident on orchids unless it’s something obvious like a Bee Orchid. In this case, I would suggest Common or Heath Spotted-Orchid. And I am happy to be corrected.

At one point, not long after we left the deserted railway swing bridge behind, the most enormous Buzzard appeared from the other side of the canal and flew overhead. They seem to lumber along at these low altitudes; their design is better suited to riding the thermals way up in the air so high you can barely see them. A little further on, we both heard the distinctive call of a Cuckoo. Often heard; rarely seen!

The locks and bridges were ticked off, and the rising numbers let us know we were nearing our destination of Shannon Harbour. Here, without too much fanfare, the last of the locks – number 36 – takes you from the canal to the river just above where the Brosna joins the Shannon; the water turning from relatively clear to a turbulent murky brown. Niamh was waiting for us, and had kept a table outside the pub in the village which was open for the first time since Christmas.

I would rarely drink a Guinness at this early hour of the day, but this was something of a celebration. We had covered 36.5k in total, in under four hours, and we were both certainly in need of rehydration. Is Guinness the ideal drink for this? Probably not. But it went down so well, I had another one while we tucked into chicken and chips.

Then it was time for home, and a much needed wash. But before I cleaned up, I dozed on the deck out by the pond, listening to young chaffinches splashing about in the shallow margins. And one more drink to help wash away the last of the fine towpath dust…

And so the groundwork has been laid out for Gary to make his FKT attempt on the Grand from Dublin all the way out to the Shannon. I will happily crew for this adventure, though there is no date set for this sojourn. For me, I reckon I will have enough on my plate training for GaelForce West and my marathon plan for the end of October. A non-stop 130k odd run may not be what the body or legs need this year. Going by previous ultra events, it’s safe to assume that at some point in these extravaganzas, the knees will give trouble. The kind of trouble that actually makes you stop running altogether. It’s happened in marathons in the past, it happened on day one of the Barrow Run, at Hardman triathlon, and most recently, after about 65 miles into the Connemara100. So it may just be a sign that I need to reconsider my career as an ultra-distance runner (such as it was).

To stave off these issues for as long as possible, I am in the gym several times a week doing a variety of exercises, and every session starts with some resistance bands and a number of leg raises and clamshells designed to shore up the legs, hips and glutes and hopefully keep the IT band/knee complaint at arm’s length for as long as possible. (You’re knee is already at arm’s length. Ed.)

That way, even if I cannot undertake The Grand Canal FKT, I can still get out for days like yesterday, where you get to explore glorious parts of this country when the weather is fine, the wildlife is putting on a show, and there is a cold pint of Guinness waiting for you at the end of the line.

Thanks to Gary and Niamh for inviting me on this adventure.

Odi was delighted with my exploits, as you can see. Here he is doing his best Jaws impression.

We’re going to need a bigger couch!

17 thoughts on “The Middle of Nowhere

  1. Great post, though the eye-candy Guinness was a bit cruel to those of us unable to score a true pint o’ the plain.
    Also, what’s Rich on about? Yes, I chuckled — but Montana? Kansas is almost entirely flat. Nebraska is oppressively, unrelievedly, unbelievably flat. Montana, as it’s name implies, boasts whole heaping bunches of gorgeous mountains.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well maybe he’s playing a cruel joke on us all, though I suspect he just happened to grow up in the flattest part of the state.

      As for the Guinness, well, you know where to find us 😉


      1. My phone is haunted. It’s convinced most words I try to type were supposed to be something else and helpfully changes them all. I feel your pain.


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