Art O’Neill Challenge January 2016
So here I find myself, 9hrs 26 mins done of escaping through the city streets and over snow-capped mountains to retrace the steps of the ‘Great Escape’ that 3 prisoners made in 1592 from Dublin Castle to Glenmalure valley…….in my mind I am thinking I am sore , tired and not doing that again….but lets rewind a bit back to where this journey began…sometime approx. a year ago.
Facebook can be a great way to keep contact with old friends, even those who you went to school with. It was just over a year ago when I saw, a now fellow club member, Dean Rudd, post about a Recce of AON during xmas hols in 2014. I of course asked the question on what was AON and following some comments and google searches, Arts plight had my interest. At the time I thought wow, what an event and maybe , just maybe in a few years I could attempt it. You see at the time I was just starting out trying to get back fit and planned on doing the St Patricks KAR.
Fast forward a year, plenty of training sessions and a number of adventure races under my belt, it was time to look at entry to AON. I had felt confident that I could push on from my training and decided to enter the lottery. The Monday after the Sea to Summit race, our facebook forum was alive with people confirming they had received the ‘golden ticket’, well the email notification of acceptance. I was in a carpark in MSD in Clonmel when my phone alerted me to the arrival of an email, which was ‘good’ news, I was in, I smiled and thought about what lay ahead (well what I thought lay ahead) and gulped…… The good news was that there was a good bunch of us in.
Leading up to AON I was extremely nervous about being able to complete, training had got a bit sticky towards the end of the year with a few injury niggles which limited me to only getting a max run of 27km (with pain) leading up to xmas and a long cycle (for me) of 64km , just before the recce. There were plenty of moments of “sure if I forfeit my place the money goes to a good cause”. For the recce I think the unknown, the weather (storm Frank) and the falling trees added to it and helped me get my furthest distance on foot to date of 39.5km clocked. Getting to see the open terrain was good, however with the severe weather I was considering checking into a mental hospital on the way home, for as tough as it was during the day, why would I be interested in wandering up and down mountains in Wicklow in the dark. On the way home seeing fellow recce personnel walking funny at junction 14 led me to believe that I was not in as bad as shape as I felt, if others were sore/stiff , they I am some way feeling ‘normal’ after the run. Little did I know that the recce on 30th December was my last significant training session, as a cold/flu that seemed to embrace most of the country had found its way into my chest and lungs. Was I destined not to do this came into my mind,? My GP assisted me with some antibiotics and a follow up of steroids and maybe , just maybe I would make it to the start at Dublin castle…..
Friday 15th – As with many of my races I had the great idea to work ‘locally’ and set off at the spritely hour of 6.45am to head to Dublin. Bags were packed and for the drive up and most of the day my thoughts were consumed with the adventure that lay ahead. Work over and a stop at Dundrum for some last minute supplies and down the road to Glenmalure. This is where the fun started as I got lost, yes lost, even with my GPS in my car I ended up nowhere. After trying to navigate myself , I turned my back on the cars GPS and went for google, which eventually had me arrive at the Glenmalure Lodge a bit later than I had hoped. I ‘thought’ it will be some fun tonight if I can’t navigate the roads, how will I fare on an open mountain. Carbs loaded and a short drive to the meeting point (at the finish line) I finish sorting my gear, the other GoTri members arrive as well as our mini bus. As I get onto the bus I hope I have not forgotten anything. The bus ride to Dublin was my last hope for sleep , but while my eyes were closed I listened to the banter , which was great, with most getting some fun poked at them and everybody was laughing, I soon realised there was no sleep to be had. The driver drops us at Dublin castle, where its all quiet outside, but once through the door, the reality hits. Registration goes well, bag packed and handed over, nothing to do but wait. I step into the courtyard and take in some of the experience, then its down the road for some grub before the final team meeting where the final instructions/review of the course is given by Paul Tierney. We make our way back to the courtyard as its about 10 minutes to the start. As I walk out the door, it feels like the old days of entering the area on a big match day, nerves, excitement and adrenalin consume me. A couple of quick group photos and the countdown begins and boom..we are on the move.
I had planned to group with Dean Rudd and Jim Connolly for the event. I was conscious about being the slowest runner but I hoped I would not put them out too much anyway. The run out of the city is uneventful with even a few jokes thrown in, “Why the feck did I park my car so far away”. It is a very gradual uphill run most of the way and we pass over the M50 and around the back of Tallaght. A few more competitors are running at the same pace as us but there is no chat at this stage. Then slowly we leave the city lights and onto the dark roads. There are a couple of decent hills on this section and we do a quick hike, while keeping pace with others who are running. Shortly afterwards we take a left turn and start to see some snow, frost and ice on the first major uphill section. We move between a couple of different paths and settle on the snow sections on the side as its seems to give the best traction and we don’t need our ice grips. This climb goes on for a bit and as soon as we get anything close to levelling out we pick up the pace again. The next section is a bit undulating and we pass a few people. A gap of about 20m open between myself and the two boys, with me slightly behind them. Then we meet up with Loren and Brendan and make a group of 5, where we stick together as we go on an ‘alternate route’, which has our feet cold and wet, river crossings, sounded great in the race brief. At this stage there is another bit of hiking in the group and my hands start to get a bit chilly, but that’s ok I have heavier gloves at CP1 which is coming shortly.
The lights of CP1 are seen and we make our way to the Dib point and get our bags. The cold is all around us now and while the original plan of ‘SMT’ through Mr Tierneys eyes, for me this now translates to ‘Several Minute Transitions’. I move towards the fire as I have to add a layer under my jacket and while I don’t want to get the full rewards of the fire , I don’t want the full exposure to the night cold. I change my runners which were now frozen solid (think the river crossing helped here) and socks for my trail stuff and with race vest on , zip lock bag of food ready I go to change gloves for my new top of the range Seal Skinz (which at this stage in my mind going to be little my hot water bottle), but there is a problem. I can’t get them on my hands, oh shit, I am not sure if it’s the cold or did I really buy them that bit too snug, but a couple of minutes ‘playing’ with them and horror hits me, I have to go back and get my old gloves which were damp and cold. These gloves now need to do me going open mountain side where it will be colder, I am not impressed to say the least. I get these out of my packed bag while swearing to myself. My mood continues to get worse as I try to ‘dry/warm’ the gloves off the fire. I see the lads grouping and decide its time to move on, I give my bag to the marshall and join the lads. We are one short so I jump over and grab a cup of soup, but with the cold fully inside me (well that’s how it felt), my hand shakes about 3 inches from side to side as I shiver. I bin the soup (after spraying a few people because of the shake) after a sip and we are ready to go. Well ready to go is just a phrase because I was far from ready. The fire road has lots of ice and we move along this while trying to consume some of our food. For me my brioche is not going down well, sure why would it, its after 4am and normally if I am eating at this time, it’s a bag of chips after a night out. I can feel CP1 calling me to return, in my head I hear go back , there’s no point, its great to have come this far……..but I keep putting one foot in front of the other. Decision time comes and I decide to keep going and try reach the sanctuary of CP2 where I hope I can retire.
We hike up the mountain and the snow is 1 to 2 ft deep. My mood is no better as I say to Loren “ my f**king race report is as follows , Art ONeill I hate you, I will not be back”, but the reality was I kept moving forward. After going slightly offline we re-route across the mountain with Brendan and Jim using the GPS to navigate. We reach the top of the mountain where it levels out and the scene around us is quite cool. Loads of lights from head torches which reflect off the snow with some people following out path also. I try to walk in the footprints of others to make it easier but it is still tough. What I did not realise at the time, was that my mind set was slowly changing, my hands were warm and I was no longer longing to take a ride at CP2. I was struggling to eat but forced a banana and some jellies down, and kept my hydration going, this helped again. As a group we arrive at the fire road and we regroup and make out way down. I am feeling quite good at this stage and suspect its something to do with the light (well light shade of black) at the top of the trees to my left. We arrive at CP2 and there is another fire there but I head for the tent as I am now longing for the ‘best porridge’ I have ever eaten. I grab a coffee and start tucking in, oh my god I have never tasted anything like this. I am feeling great at this stage and this ‘rush’ is short lived as one of the group pops in to say that two of them are pulling out. This was a bit of a kick in the teeth and one of them was key in getting me to where I was (not just on the night but in the hours and weeks leading up to it), while I wanted to give the pep talk to try persuade a change of mind, I knew it was not the thing to do. I think this was my second emotional low and took me a few mins to recover being honest. I don’t like to go on and leave others behind, as most of the time its others who wait for me.
So as we prepare to leave CP2 a quick shake of hands and the 3 of us head onwards (like a scene out of the fellowship of the ring), we do a short jog to the ‘shortcut’, over the waste trees and up to the fire road, here we tip along at a nice pace and briefly discuss the next route. It’s a change from the Recce but as its meant to be the fastest way, I am happy with that. As we get back onto soft ground, I have a picture in my mind of what we are doing but as we move on and on I have to check with Dean, who knows this route and he explains the exact way it is. The terrain is soft but pretty flat to be honest so we make some good time here. Then as we enter a valley , due to the 3 sides rising up around us I now realise we are taking in a bit of mountain climbing. My mind is back in the ‘this is crazy’ as we reach Art’s plaque and my eyes scale what my body will attempt shortly. As Jim goes for a selfie with the plaque another competitor discusses with Dean and I on the best route up, left or right. Dean advises that we have been told the right side and that is what we will do. The other guy is following a friend who goes up the left side. We take off up the right side which is covered in snow and its just seems to be a big step after big step, the calves and thighs begin to hurt. We take a brief stop to change batteries on the gps, which is welcomed and what seems like an eternity we reach the section where it is levelling out. We trace some footprints on our route trying to use a little energy as possible but even this is tough. Our progress is slow and another person passes by us, hmm not good. We look to our right , towards the stream that runs down into the valley and there is a guy making great progress down there. We have a quick huddle and decide to make our way over to that side of the stream , like we did on the recce and find a worn path in the snow and start moving quite quickly. We catch and pass the last guy who passed us and also go past the guy who helped us to decide this route. I see the small forest ahead where I know the road meets and the energy is returning to my body or maybe I am solar powered as the sun it well up now. We get onto the road and take a quick left, down the slippery path and we start running, as I am trying to remember Pauls words of wisdom, right hand side for the first section, left hand side for the Devils driveway…or was it the opposite, all the ground looks poor to me. At this stage we are bounding down the path , I am at lead and shouting warning for ice and slippery patches. This continues with the 3 of us arriving at the lower, flatter road section , much faster than I did during the recce and we keep motoring. Dean and Jim spot a couple of competitors ahead and decide to give chase , I pick up the pace a little , but they pull ahead. They catch the first guy and I am closing on him. Its funny, 9 hours plus into the race and there are 5 of us (us 3 and the other 2 lads) busting a gut down the home stretch, now I am pretty sure the podium places have well been decided (and probably at home asleep in bed) and there are us mad lunatics trying to gain a positon of two. As I am closing on the person I get a bit nervous as I think I can hear other footsteps behind me and think “aw no I am going to be passed”, but look around and its just me chasing the guy in front like a lion honing in on its prey. Then all of a sudden I see the wooden bridge and know the turn left is coming and the finish line. There is a small group waiting at the last bend and I recognise the go tri buff and the words of encouragement (but don’t look to see who it is) and across the road bridge and dib in. I am finished. Derek is the first to come over, as he had been the one at the bend, handshakes are given (once I can get my hands off my knees), more of the Go Tri Family arrive over and stories of the finishing paces of Paul and Derek are quickly relayed as well as congratulations to and from all. I am delighted for both of them, but I move to the side and get my hot chocolate before any more talk. There was a magical thing about finishing, within seconds my muscles are beginning to seize whereas 1 minute before I was chasing another athlete down without any pain or tiredness. The mind can play funny tricks with the body.
I get my bag and take an eternity to get changed, grab some quick photos of the finish line as souvenirs as I say to myself “this is the last time I see this place”, and head to the lodge for some regrouping and refreshments. The long car journey of 5.5km seems to have taken a toll on the body as when I get out of the car it feel like rigor mortis is setting in. I go inside but unlike the other club members I can’t face a full Irish so have a drink, share some stories and discussions about the conditions and decide its best to move on and eat a bit further down the road.
The rest of the day is time for catching up on sleep and relaying the stories of the night to friend and family. It started with a lot of questioning of why one would do this (me leading the questions) to slowly mellowing out to what a great experience it was, how challenging it was, to finally having a lot of pride for what I had just done. I did post on Facebook about not liking Art O’Neill, which my Dad tells me I had it all wrong, I should have posted about the respect I have for the man who did the route, without hi tech gadgets, race vest, top of the range gear or support from the DWMRT, a man that was pushed to his limits which eventually took his life, trust me after what I went through I definitely have respect for the 3 escapees.
I can say I have taken a lot from this event and learned a lot about myself, the first thing being when asked would I ever do it again , ‘never say never’……………….