Running in the Land of Sheep, Bogs and Pubs

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Black night slowly gave way to purple dawn, as I stood with my feet firmly planted upon the bow of the 600-foot Rickmers Dalian. Looking out over the English Channel, all I could see was a storm-tossed fabric of grey ocean, and France fading in the distance behind me. Ahead lay my long-sought destination: Ireland, the green isle set at the farthest tip of Europe.
Rickey Gates and Scott Jurek, two friends and runners from Colorado, were in Ireland already, having done the normal thing and flown to Dublin in a single day. In an attempt to be environmentally friendly, I had opted to travel across the Atlantic by cargo ship, which took 17 days. Upon arrival in France, I then cycled 200 miles to Cherbourg, where I boarded a ferry bound for Ireland.

Dakota Jones descends through a slate quarry outside of Llanberis,Wales. Photo by Rickey Gates.

Rickey and Scott had driven south to the port town of Rosslare, where they waited for me to arrive. As the coastline loomed larger, I saw warm lights on shore, and imagined that one of them marked their long, anxious vigil, gazing out over the depthless ocean in search of my ferry.

“So you finally decided to get here, huh?” Rickey said, as I walked into the hotel room. He didn’t look up. “You barely made it dude. We were planning to leave at 9 o’clock this morning whether you were here or not.

“Scott! Dakota’s here!”
“Finally!” Scott Jurek sounded from the bathroom. “I’m sick of waiting around!”
“Hey, guys,” I said, sighing. “Good to see you too.”

Jones takes in the beauty of a fresh layer of spring snow in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. Photo by Rickey Gates.

People back home had been surprised when I told them that Scott, Rickey and I were going to Ireland.

“Isn’t Scott Jurek a real runner?” one skeptic had asked. “And doesn’t Rickey just like to party?”
I quickly came up with a scathing response: “We’re all real runners, OK, mom?”

Sure, Scott has had a long and storied career as an ultramarathon runner (he’s won a lot of races, written a book, done presentations about veganism and running), and it turns out that Ireland is exactly the place that mountain runners would want to visit. There are mountains there, and lots of great trails and a strong community of people who use those trails.

However, there are great trails in lots of places, and what matters is how you use your time. Scott—who trains methodically, does yoga, sleeps enough, eats vegan and is generally what you might call a “real athlete”—may have come for the trails and the mountains. But Rickey came for something different.

While Scott was checking out of the hotel that first morning, Rickey leaned over to me and said, “Running is cool, but we’re here for the pubs, Dakota. Don’t let Scott tell you anything different.”

Jurek moves along a ridge in the Comeragh Mountains of southeastern Ireland. Photo by Rickey Gates.

Despite their lifestyle differences, Rickey and Scott are old-time buddies. For several years they have been taking trips to exotic places to explore new trails. Most recently, they took two running trips to the UK in as many years, which culminated in a spur-of-the-moment Bob Graham Round (aka England’s biggest mountain-running challenge) in 2014. Wanting to continue the tradition of running low mountains in terrible conditions, they decided to move an island over and check out Ireland. I lucked into the trip mainly because I already had plans to go to England, and asked Rickey if I could tag along.

Ostensibly, Rickey and Scott had come to run the Wicklow Round, which is a roughly 100-kilometer trail around the Wicklow mountains south of Dublin. But in the three days prior to my arrival, they realized two things. First, this being March, the trails were too wet and boggy to move with anything approaching an efficient speed. Second, this being early in the running season, neither Scott nor Rickey was fit enough to run a fast time around even a dry 100K course, let alone one that involved half swimming in mud.

In a display of visionary resourcefulness, they transformed the purpose of the trip on the fly … and headed to the pubs.

Well, not directly. After meeting in Rosslare, the town on the southeast coast where my boat docked, we all drove to Killarney, on the southwest coast. As the wind picked up and rain started to fall, we headed up a treeless mountain overlooking the town.

“Why are we going for a run now?” Rickey asked Scott, staring out the window as a gust of wind shook the car.
“It’ll make us feel better,” Scott replied. “Plus, this is a running trip, remember?”
Rickey glanced back at me. Then he sighed.
Scott continued, “Look, we have to run sometime. We can go get drunk later, dude.”
“OK,” Rickey conceded. “Let’s go.”

Even if the mountains in Ireland are never high (the tallest point on the island is 3,400 feet), they have enough wind and weather to render them significant. Whereas the lowlands of Ireland are largely treeless by dint of dedicated logging for hundreds of years, the mountains are treeless because they get simply hammered by nasty weather.

There is so much rainfall that the water table is basically at the surface, so nearly every flat spot is a bog. Most hillsides are soaking wet from countless springs. These are tough conditions to be a tree, but fun for running.

The mountain was steep and the trail technical, but after weeks of sedentary travelling, my legs exulted in the hard work. Ahead of me, Rickey darted nimbly between rocks and puddles, always landing on the firmest part of the trail. Scott, too, stepped with practiced precision. My feet, on the other hand, were soaked within minutes. I seemed to have forgotten how to run up a mountain. The rich black peat soil made for a thick type of mud—deep and cold and vaguely sulfurous.

A luxuriant liveliness pervaded every inch of our view that wasn’t sky or water: the grass lush and bright, the trees thickly leafed, the bushes positively springing forward with enthusiasm. Thousands of little white dots signified the country’s most prominent animal—sheep—grazing in pastures.

Largely quiet in the press of effort, we climbed steadily to an unnamed, snow-covered summit. On the way down we got competitive. Rickey and I left the trail entirely and ran over open ground, jumping between patches of grass and over streams. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him 50 feet to my left, concentrating hard on each footstep. Suddenly, he disappeared from my view entirely. Worried he might have been hurt, I slowed, and turned around. Then, I started laughing.

He had fallen into the peat completely up to his waist and was now stuck, unable to move. “Hey, Rickey,” I called up to him. “I win.”

Rickey couldn’t say much because he was also laughing hard, but he did manage to squeak out something about the mud being really cold. I suddenly understood how some human and animal bodies have been preserved in peat bogs for millennia with hardly a physical mark. Rickey would still be there if Scott hadn’t calmly walked over and pulled him out of the mud with a loud shloooop!

When we returned to the car after three hours, I was soaked, muddy, tired and just as exhilarated as if I had been out all day in my home mountains. It was hard to remember that only that morning I had been on a boat on the English Channel.

While Rickey tried to clean off the mud caking his legs, Scott handed me a Clif Bar and said, “It’s really good to have you here Dakota. I’m glad you could come.”

We retired back to the hostel for warm showers and hot food.

So many signs, but which way to the bar? Photo by Rickey Gates.

Ireland is known for many things, but its pub culture tops the list. Irish people and alcohol have been stereotyped to a hackneyed and often derogatory degree. In truth, I expected to find that Guinness was more of a thing outside of Ireland than inside, and that Irish people probably went to the bars no more than anyone else. What I found, however, in my brief stay in the country, was that Guinness is basically the only beer the Irish like and that they do in fact spend a ton of time in the pubs. But not how you would expect.

The pubs are like hubs in the center of each community’s wheel. People hang out in them much the way Americans hang out in coffee shops, or French people in, like, cheese shops or something (I don’t know any French people). In a landscape characterized by rain and mud, where many people spend their working hours outdoors, the pubs are a place to be warm and dry and, best of all, to see friends.

Jurek cruises through the forests of Wicklow, south of Dublin. Photo by Rickey Gates.

A small bit of research informed us that one of Ireland’s most successful mountain runners, John Lenihan, lives near Killarney. Lenihan still holds the speed record for Ireland’s highest peak, Mt. Carrauntoohil. His crowning achievement was a victory at the mountain-running world championships in 1991— a feat that still gets him free drinks 25 years later.

We reached out to him, and he agreed to meet us at a pub near our hostel, to share a beer and some stories.

The pub looked a lot like any other bar, but with a couple of differences: there was no music playing, and there were some children with their parents. The liveliest bunch was several old men playing cards at a table. They offered us to take from a tray of soggy-looking sandwiches as we walked in. Between the warm light and the comfortable-looking seats, I was struck by a sense of intimacy, as if this was a refuge amidst a storm.

“That’s the stuff!” Pints of Smithwick’s in a bar that is also a cobbler’s shop. Photo by Rickey Gates.

Lenihan was immediately recognizable. Even in his 50s, he looked fit enough to run faster than I, with long brown hair and an easy smile. He was accompanied by three friends, but he also seemed to know everyone in the bar. Within a few minutes we were all sitting in a big circle of about 10 people. It occurred to me that while the best athletes probably wouldn’t spend their evenings in a bar, the happiest athletes make time for their friends, old and new, wherever they are.

Lenihan held the floor and told stories about his racing years, particularly about his friendly rivalries with some of the great UK fell runners like Joss Naylor and Kenny Stuart. He was humble to a fault.

“You lads ran the Bob Graham?” he asked, for some reason looking directly at me. I shook my head and pointed to Rickey and Scott, but he continued. “That’s a hell of an accomplishment. Never coulda done that meself.”

He continued on, explaining that after he stopped competing, in his late 30s, he could hardly bear to take part in the
running community.

“It hurt me too bad not to be able to run as fast anymore,” he said, smiling sadly.

Later that night, referencing this last point, Scott said, “I feel like my most competitive days are now behind me too, but I love being part of the running community.”

Hanging out with John galvanized us to go big the next day. So at the crack of … 11 a.m., we drove to the trailhead for Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest peak. Guarded on the east and north by steep cliffs, Carrauntoohil is more rugged than its mere 3,400-foot elevation might suggest.

Jurek pauses to scope the route for the Wicklow Round. What the map doesn’t show are the extensive bogs. Photo by Rickey Gates.

Despite the lack of trees, route finding was surprisingly difficult. After a few false starts, we spotted a direct route to the summit, skirting the base of the cliffs. Coming around to the west, we ascended a steep snow gully on the northwest side of the peak, above a narrow cirque with a dark, glassy lake. Scott led the way up the snow. As we climbed higher, I felt increasingly as if a slip might send me straight into the lake without ever touching the ground.

Attempting to be helpful, I yelled up to Scott: “You’re doing great, man. Don’t blow it here, OK?”
“Yeah, this is pretty intense!” he called back.

Shortly thereafter, pausing for breath, we were passed by a nine-year-old girl, climbing the same route with her dad. She wasn’t even wearing gloves. We stared at them as they disappeared into the low clouds.

“Guys, I think we need to get in shape,” Rickey said quietly.

Carrauntoohil is part of a range of peaks with the terrific name of MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, which extend roughly northeast to southwest along the spine of one of Ireland’s many peninsulas. Traversing the “Reeks” is one of the country’s great mountain-running objectives. However, since that requires shuttling cars, we decided to do a loop that encompassed about three quarters of the traverse. From the summit of Carrauntoohil, we traversed northeast along the ridge.

Jones picks his way along a ridge, traversing the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks in southwestern Ireland. Photo by Rickey Gates.

Popping briefly out of the clouds, we were treated to an expansive view of the central plain to the north, checkerboarded with farms and pastureland. In all other directions, mountains rolled into the ocean, twisting and turning in tortuous geologic spasms. Thrashed as they are by the weather, the mountains looked as if they’d only just emerged from the ice that once shuddered over the whole island, though in reality the kilometers-thick ice cap that shaped this land retreated over 12,000 years ago.

Harsh environments like this are clarion calls to adventure seekers, and Rickey, Scott and I pounded our way up and down these mountains for hours. We marched uphill over tufts of grass, leaping over bogs and sidling cautiously along narrow rock ridges at each summit. We thundered down the open grassy descents, hooting and hollering with the fervor of life in strong muscles and open eyes. Along the way we took photos and videos and told stories, laughing away the cold in our wet feet and the growing fatigue in our legs.

The quaint town of Dingle on the Dingle Peninsula in southwestern Ireland. Photo by Rickey Gates.

Three days later we were in a town called Dingle, drinking beers in a hardware store and talking about a girl we knew we’d never see again. I never fully understood if the hardware store part was real or just a sort of reference to what the building used to be for, but we encountered this sort of thing several times. There was a cobbler’s shop that doubled as a bar, too.

Regardless, the beer was cold, and we still felt the electric energy of the music we had just witnessed live at another bar. And the dancing, too.

It had been a simple duo. One guy played the guitar, the other a type of accordion Rickey referred to as a “squeezebox.” Sitting on a raised platform, with gentle smiles on their faces, these two cut loose a bright barrage of Celtic melodies that held Scott, Rickey and me rapt for over two hours.

The Irish language (Gaelic) is alive and strong in County Kerry. Photo by Rickey Gates.

At the end of one of the songs, a pretty girl in her early 20s approached the musicians and discussed something with them. As she talked, I saw them begin to smile and soon they were nodding eagerly. She smiled back and then returned to her table, where she yanked a friend up and pulled her into the middle of the room. The room went quiet. All eyes turned to the girls. They blushed and looked down at their feet.

We looked at their feet, too, and soon couldn’t look at much else. As the music started, they began to dance—barefoot, but with wonderful skill and grace. They hopped on their toes and pounded their heels, throwing one leg in time with the music and wrapping it around the other only to reverse the move with breathtaking dexterity. They grabbed each other’s hands, dancing in nearly perfect unison for an eternity that must have really been only a few minutes. We three American runners sat at our table with our jaws on the floor.

When the music ended, so did the spell. They burst into giggles and retreated to their table. Within minutes, either because they were fired up from the dance or embarrassed by the attention, they stood up and rushed from the bar without a backward glance. We watched them go, heartbroken.

There is a saying in Dingle: “Where is Dick Macks? Across from the Church. Where’s the Church? Opposite Dick Macks.” Photo by Rickey Gates.

A short time later, the band finished its set and left the bar too, leaving us in a somber mood. Refusing to call it quits, we sallied forth in search of more music and–if fate were to smile upon us–more dancing girls. Having heard of a bar called “Foxy John’s,” we marched inside with high hopes, and instead found ourselves in the aforementioned hardware store with three other people and no music.

“Last call lads,” said the tired-looking guy tending a bar opposite the carpentry equipment. He pointed to the clock, which read 1:30 in the morning. We looked at each other, sighed and ordered a round.

We sat down, elbows on the table. “I can’t believe they’re gone,” I said sadly, looking into my beer.

“They’re not gone,” Rickey said resolutely. “They’ll turn up again.”
“What are you talking about?” Scott asked. “Those girls? Who cares?”

“Who cares?” I said indignantly. “Didn’t you see them dancing?”
“Yes,” he responded, as if that didn’t matter. “And?”
“Well … it was cool!” I stammered. “And … and they were pretty!”
“Trust me,” he said in a fatherly tone. “You’ll see more pretty girls in your life.”

“Oh, we’ll find them,” said Rickey quietly. “We’ll find them.”

Being responsible athletes, we knew that the only way to counteract the deleterious health effects of lots of beer was to soak it all up with a late-night “fish ‘n chips.” So we headed back out into the cool, quiet streets, our steps echoing off the winding stone walls.

Around the corner, yellow light spilled out of an open window onto the dark streets and a racket of noise emanated from within. We walked closer and soon found ourselves in a scene that could have been taken from an American fraternity basement.

At least 40 people were crammed into a restaurant designed to seat maybe half that many, but hardly anybody was seated at all. Food scraps littered the floor and chairs were on their sides in haphazard jumbles. People ran about the place in drunken stupors, yelling or mumbling unintelligibly. A single employee behind the counter ran back and forth, frantically trying to keep pace with his orders, and another in the kitchen sprinted maniacally between stoves assembling the food.

“Oh, my god,” Scott said. He and I came to a stop as we stared in horror. Rickey, unfazed, charged into the fray. Bracing ourselves, we followed him inside.

“I’ll cut ya, bitch!” screamed a voice. I looked to my right as one girl lunged at another girl and pulled her hair, still screaming. They were pulled apart by other friends, all of whom seemed barely able to stand.
In the center of the room two guys had their arms around each other’s shoulders.

“I love you, man!”
“No, I love you,” they said with slurred voices, swaying like a tree in a high wind.

As food flew through the air and furniture shattered and broke in all directions, we made our orders. First Scott stepped up. “Please! Spicy chips!” he yelled over the tumult. Then it was my turn. Picturing a steaming plate of cheesy French fries, I shouted, “Cheesy chips, please!”

“What?” yelled back the cashier.
“Cheesy chips!” I shouted again.
“We don’t have chili!”
“No, cheesy chips!”
“Please, what?”

As I began trying to point out my order on the menu 20 feet away, Rickey calmly stepped up and, without even raising his voice, said, “He wants cheesy chips, and I’ll have the fish and chips.” The cashier nodded approvingly and wrote out the order.

A motorcycle rider behind us in line grunted his approval. “Good choice,” he said. “I’m going to get that, too.”

We waited for our food with our backs against the wall, watching the scene deteriorate even further. The guy behind the counter was clearly having the worst night of his life. Despite his fervent protests, people had now gotten into the habit of coming behind the counter to help him.

After what felt like an eternity of dreaming about my luscious cheesy fries, Scott’s fries arrived, beautifully seasoned and full of flavor. Then came Rickey’s fish and chips—a proud array of fried fish laid over French fries. Knowing I must be next, I watched the cook scoop normal fries, put them in a to-go bag and then sprinkle them with a handful of cold shredded cheese. She didn’t make eye contact as she handed them to me. She knew what she had done.

Rickey looked over and started laughing, “Boy, that looks awful! Ha ha!”
“That’s why I’m vegan, man!” said Scott, laughing so hard he could hardly eat his own food. When I looked at his spicy fries, he quickly pulled them away.
“Stay back!” he warned.

We ate quickly. At that late hour, we had had enough. Scott finished his food and literally ran out the door. I threw out our trash and followed Rickey across the room. I was looking down, preoccupied with cleaning the salt and sauce off my fingers when I ran right into Rickey, who had stopped dead in his tracks.

“Dude,” he said, as I slowly looked up. “There she is.”

Three feet away was the girl we had seen dancing earlier, sitting quietly with a friend at the only table left standing. She looked up curiously at Rickey’s finger, pointing one foot from her face, and then at us, huddled together and staring at her in shock. Her big, gorgeous, green eyes quickly turned suspicious, then mistrustful, then angry.

I hit the panic button.
“Let’s go, man!” I shouted. “Run!”
We sprinted out into the street and scooped up Scott, then ran all the way back to the hostel, laughing and weaving and talking in our best Irish accents.

Jurek out for an evening run on the Dingle Peninsula, where the Atlantic meets land for the first time since Newfoundland. Photo by Rickey Gates.

The next morning we toured the Dingle Peninsula. In between teenaged jokes about the word “Dingle,” we found that it was a place of extraordinary natural beauty. The mountains rose right out of the ocean with appalling steepness. The day was sunny, but the kind of sunny where you can tell it has just rained a lot: wispy clouds slowly dissipating in the cool wet air, sunshine reflecting off the rolling ocean so brightly that it was hard to look at. We parked on the north side of the peninsula and began running up Mount Brandon.

Jurek runs down the last of the day’s light on his way around Dingle Bay. Photo by Rickey Gates.

Mount Brandon is the westernmost summit in a long dragonsback ridge that forms the spine of the peninsula. The peaks are tall and rounded, the valleys U-shaped and barren. Apparently, in about 500 A.D., Saint Brandon climbed this peak in order to see America, before sailing there.

We ran and hiked our way up the treeless mountain, following ancient sheep paths that weaved through patches of talus. The slope was not particularly steep, but none of us had much energy. We were glad that the sheep had grazed the grass to about the length of a putting green. Passing a flock being herded by a man in a dark wool jacket, I stopped to rest. He smiled at me, his mouth full of yellowing teeth.

Toward the top, the mountain grew cone-shaped, and we followed the trail that contoured around it like a topographical line. Along the summit ridge, as nearly everywhere else we had been in Ireland, stone walls chest high to a tall man crisscrossed the landscape from horizon to horizon, testifying to the steady determination of generations.

On the summit itself there was a tall cross, perhaps intended to help Mr. Brandon steer home after his American vacation. We looked as hard as we could, but none of us could see America. Nevertheless, home was on our minds as we took in the views from our last summit of the trip. Tomorrow we would part ways in Dublin and head off on the next adventure. For Rickey and me, that meant continuing on to England. For Scott, it meant returning home to the biggest adventure of all: his wife was pregnant, and he was going home to be a dad.

As we looked out over the ocean surrounding us on three sides, and the mountains rising up behind us, we felt the fatigue in our legs from a week of mountain running. But none of us said anything. We just stood in the sun and took in the views before the clouds wrapped us up again and the rain began to fall.

Dakota has been really improving lately at making bread, and he runs occasionally.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of DIRT.

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