Luck of the Irish - Page 2
Graham Porter nears the finish line with the Sugarloaf in the background. Photo by John Sheils.
The IMRA organizes nearly 50 races a year throughout the Republic of Ireland, with a majority taking place in the hills just south of the Dublin city center or a bit further south in County Wicklow. The races range from five or six well-marked kilometers on very runable wide paths to more than 20 kilometers on trackless expanses of open mountain, where navigation skills are critical.
With Ireland’s northern latitude providing summer daylight until nearly 11 p.m, the popular Leinster League races, on Wednesday evenings from April through August, routinely attract up to 200 runners. Post-race, the crowd packs into a local pub for the always-amusing prize-giving ceremony. This is where you feel community. This is what the Irish call the Craic. Indefinable on our side of the Atlantic, it is enough to know that Craic encompasses all manners of festive fun—from music to lively conversation. And with the same runners vying and socializing weekly, rivalries develop in every category. As Jane Porter, former IMRA president and frequent victor in the Women’s 50 category said, “There would be the big race in the top of the field, but we all have our own little races further down the field.”
The mid-summer series classic is the race up and down Brockagh near the 12th-century monastery in Glendalough. Some early tracks lead to a steep worn-in path through a lush sheep pasture and then out onto the rocky east shoulder of Brockagh followed by a narrow, boggy path westward into the sunset (for some reason it is always sunny on that evening) to Brockagh’s summit.
Craic is not limited to the pub. One year the course markers had inadvertently lengthened the course, and in the blinding sunshine no one could be sure where we were heading. “We are never coming back,” muttered one wag. “They are sending us off a cliff into oblivion.” After the race, local resident and former Irish international mountain runner Roisin McDonnell often leads a select few runners into a secret pool in the river behind Lynams Pub in Laragh to wash off the mud and sooth the invariable midge (a tiny, swarming bug that loves the Irish forests on summer nights) bites.
Wednesday evenings are brim-full of excitement, but it is the longer, unmarked weekend races that provide the distinctive pleasure of Irish hill running. Fields are smaller (usually less than 50 runners), the locations are wilder and the challenges more extreme. Says former Irish international mountain runner and national coach Paul Nolan, “I’d rather be one of 20 racing over the mountain tops, than one of 200 churning up a forest track.”
Prominent among these secluded weekend routes is the Ballybraid run, which encompasses an out-and-back on the beautifully exposed Derrybawn Ridge, providing a constant view to the surrounding bare mountaintops as well as Glendalough—or “Glen of the Lakes.” Looking into the flat, green valley between two beautiful lakes surrounded by steep mountain walls, you can understand how the area got its name.
After the race, runners uphold the tradition of proudly staring back up at the just-conquered mountain from the Glenmalure Lodge. Graham Porter, who with his wife, Jane, oversaw the rapid growth in Irish mountain running in the past few years and is a well-known connoisseur of stout, has said there is not a better place to enjoy a pint of Guinness.
The WILD WEST
The Irish Championship series takes runners over the most interesting mountains in Ireland. Carrauntoohill, in County Kerry and not far from the tourist center of Killarney, is the country’s highest point, and involves an eight-mile roundtrip run with over 3300 feet of climbing. After crossing a large, rising bog, a steep, 1200-foot ascent leads to the summit of Caher, from which a jagged ridge leads to Carrantoohill.
On a misty day reversing the route can be difficult, and at times runners end up on the wrong side of the ridge. If this happens, Mick Kellett, a founder of Irish Mountain Rescue and a frequent winner in the men’s age 60 group, offers the following advice: “You might as well use your snot rag to make a hang glider—it’s the only way down.”
Despite the wide variation in terrain and difficulty, the common feature of every run or race is the lively scene at the finish, usually near a pub. Banter most often involves discussion of a personal battle with one’s chief racing rival or, more likely, a colorful excuse for failure.
“I’m in bits,” “I burst it and got nowhere” or “Too easy, ’twas a road runner’s course” mixes in with plans for upcoming runs or the normal Irish pastime of solving the world’s problems or at least those of a favorite sports team.
There are many who say the best part about Irish mountain running is the camaraderie, and there is no better way to make friends than conversation over a post-run, restorative pint of Guinness.
A software developer living in Canaan, New York, Bruce Shenker ticked over 140 mountain races during his tenure in Ireland, where he was a member of the IMRA executive committee and the Men’s 50 Leinster League Champion in 2004 and 2005.