With Tom’s initial plans thwarted by Covid a few weeks ago, Tom set off for Ireland not knowing if he would be able to complete the Round.
Read on for Tom’s round up of the It’ll be Grand Round.
It’ll be Grand Round
I came up with this project after being struck down the first half of the year due to sciatica. I am still struggling to run as my right leg isn’t firing properly but I judged this would be mostly hiking and cycling and shouldn’t injure my back/ right leg further. This was all set up for 2 weeks ago.
Then I got a dose of Covid…. which I hadn’t managed to pick up in 2 years of working in a hospital. After moping around a bit, and wondering if this year really wasn’t going to be better than the last 2, I realised that assuming I was well in 10 days I could still fit the run this at the end of our 2 week holiday instead of the start. This was met by Sara with her usual incredible stoicism (‘I guess I am contractually obliged’) and once Covid symptoms had settled we were game on. That left me with a pretty long taper, but that was likely to benefit my crocked old body in some ways.
So we arrived in Ireland on the Wednesday evening and were put up by John & Ivana. John had already done the vast majority of showing me around the Wicklow route and spent some more time that evening going over maps and talking me through the key nav points. We had a fab Thai dinner and I got as good a nights sleep as you ever get before an event. I hadn’t started at 1230 before and was hoping I might sleep till 10. Still 7 was better than the usual 6am at home.
We drove up to the start on military road in plenty of time (unusual for me I know) and I tucked in to a double portion of pasta. At 10 minutes to go I went to turn the tracker on as instructed and I couldn’t find the on button. This led to a minor panic and taking off all the waterproof packaging before rewrapping and waterproofing it again. All smiles on the start line but the slight last minute rush meant that I left the start without any map or compass. On a round where they are the only allowed forms of navigation… I realised my error within 200yds but decided to press on rather than go back. Leg 1 is an easy leg to nav by sight in good visibility and getting to the top of Kipure is no problem. Little did I know that Sara had started to run after me with the map and compass. Good job I didn’t turn round and that I was also fast enough that she didn’t catch me. Well intentioned though she was that would have meant I was assisted on the course and I would have been disqualified in the first 10 minutes….
Once at the top of Kipure I had the choice of the easy to nav long way round on the road or a short cut across difficult terrain (don’t miss the road corner or you are in a world of pain). This was the only section of the route I hadn’t recced… Despite having no map or compass for a bearing I went for the short cut. As I said I cant really run at the mo and the thought of that distance on the road was not in my running vocabulary. Plus I had aces up my sleeve. When I first recced the Wicklow with John his navigation really made me laugh eg ‘turn right after the second patch of reedy grass’. ‘Use the longest cut in the bog to the top’. But that is what navigation on the Wicklow is like and his words are all total genius. So with that in mind I remembered that the night before he had told me to ‘keep between the 2 patches of green’ off Kipure and stay high on that line to the left. Don’t edge right until after crossing 2 stream beds. And that worked perfectly. It also helped that I started at a time of day when there was a fair bit of traffic on the road and no mist so I could judge where the road corner was going to be for most of the descent.
Once at Sally Gap I set off with full kit (including map & compass) and had a lovely, warm, dry scenic run over what is normally a boggy, misty section of the course done at night or early morning. Consequently I had a great time and arrived at the end of the leg around an hour up on the usual schedule times. I continued gaining time all the way round to Drumgoff. I was loving the views and seemed to have no ill effects of covid except a bit of stomach upset although that could also have been the heat. Or perhaps the several kilos of chips I was consuming. I’ve not done a round with so many checkpoints before. Great when you have to be solo and self supported. I have to say the best food in the whole adventure was served at Drumgoff from the Glenmalure lodge. Plus I experienced more amazing Irish hospitality there. The owner came out and gave us all iced water and insect spray. Stopped to chat and say hello and gave some words of encouragement. Great people.
The night section started after Drumgoff and despite being generally a clear night with only occasional mist I found the nav tricky. I had recced this section of the route twice. Once in the day and once at night and was perhaps a bit over confident. When I did the previous night recce I was religiously checking the nav and moving slowly. This time I was trying to move more quickly, making errors and having to adjust. I was putting in a lot more effort and running the risk of missing summits. Fortunately that didn’t happen but my time was no quicker than the recce and was slower in a couple of sections. Lesson learnt – be religious with the nav at night and don’t go faster than the pace required to do this.
I was now back on a just over 23hr schedule and had the descent off Tonduff coming up. This is the one part of the route you must get right. You can end up getting imprisoned by gorse and rocks if you go the wrong way. And there are only 1 or 2 right ways. Again I had recced this twice. Again I was over confident. I went too N/ NW from the top and had to tack east sharply just before I would have hit the world of pain. Fortunately distant vision was good and I was able to correct by my views of the forest below. On my map I had a checkpoint shown at the bottom of Tonduff and there was no Sara. I worried for a few minutes and then thought that John must have been watching the tracker and diverted her up the road to meet me where I would have emerged on my original bearing. I had enough food to finish the route from here and a water filter to pick up water. However I didn’t have a map for the last section. I had recced the last section with Donal with a plan for a very direct line earlier in the year when everything was less overgrown. John had suggested a different route which we had mapped out but I had not recced. Obviously I couldn’t do this without a map so I now had to go by memory on the direct route…
This was the one and only breakdown in communication in what was otherwise a perfect plan. Turned out that there was no planned checkpoint at Tonduff. Sara was meant to be meeting me slightly further on in Cloon wood. But because I took a direct line I didn’t go past that checkpoint either. Anyway the luck of the Irish was with me. There were going to be 2 horrible parts to the ascent. The first part someone had taken a hedge trimmer to the gorse to open up the path. I have no idea who had done this but I am expecting someone is planning a record attempt on the route in the next couple of weeks! On the second part I scratched my bald head a fair bit getting up onto the first part of the stream but after that wading through the bracken wasn’t too much of a problem. The last 2 summits are easy to find and when I got back to the car at the finish I had made up another hour of time. Learning lesson – You lose a lot of time at checkpoints when you don’t need them. I also seem to navigate pretty well when I just follow my nose!
The Bike Ride
I had a little gap before the cycle. I felt OK to go a bit sooner but I wanted to see Bill Halliden before setting off. Partly because he is a great guy and partly because the legend was driving up to see me just to bring me a burger and chips. With that inside I set off for the bike ride to Donard car Park, underneath the Mournes 97 miles away.
I don’t in all honesty have much to say about the bike. It wasn’t the most scenic route. I don’t normally cycle through a city centre. Given I had just done a round it was really pretty easy. The stop start of all the lights meant I never got too out of breath and the landscape was a lot flatter than at home. The one point of note was that Rowan McMahon came out to see me on the last part of the route. Not only was this a nice bit of company it started to cane it down with rain 15 miles out from Newcastle. Like a muppet I had thought it was going to stay fine until the finish and wasn’t carrying a coat. This left me with 2 choices – to put my foot down to keep warm and arrive tired or to keep going steady arrive cold and then potentially not sleep till I warmed up. Except I had a third option – Rowan gave me his coat and put his foot down to get back home. He told me later that he still arrived pretty cold despite this and I was really grateful. What a legend.
Getting warm and dry. A couple of hours sleep. And then kit back on. Minor panic when my watch wouldn’t upload the gpx file and thinking I was going to have to do this round on a map and compass as well (more on this later). But a good start up Slieve Donard. And then the weather really hit. V strong winds with continuous rain for about 4hrs. I had planned for this but was wearing everything in my rucksack and at the pace required not to also make nav errors in the dark I was still getting cold. I made it to the start of leg 2 an hour down in a real contrast of weather and fortune to my Wicklow start. I was also anxious because the road to the checkpoint at silent valley isn’t open at night and Niall Gibney had said he would run in for me to there with some food and water but we hadn’t planned anything else. I needn’t have worried. Although Sara was meant to be getting some rest she had instead heard the rain in the van and driven round to give Niall a full kit change for me. He in turn had spotted the weather and already bought a towel and a stove to heat up his and my favourite checkpoint snack – is an ultra possible without a pot noodle??? Between them they had saved the day. I spent half an hour doing a full kit change putting me further behind time but it was worth it.
In some ways the cool weather was a bonus at this point. I didn’t feel too tired as I would have in the sun but it also wasn’t so cold that I felt cold. Just nice. I made steady progress in the daylight but found it hard to make up time. This was for 2 reasons – 1) although the Rankin in less effected by vegetation than the Wicklow it still was very overgrown in places. I was really wading in a couple of spots 2) I realised I wasn’t using my gpx file…
I am anal about recces. And I am anal about the gopx files I create from my recces. I had based my original recces on a gpx file kindly supplied by Ross Jenkin the previous October and modified it to my liking following recces with Stephen Bickerstaff and Niall. And then prior to this event I made a total novice mistake…. I failed to upload my new file to garmin and I downloaded Ross original back to my watch. So Ross file is great but it was designed to be a back up on a supported round not the main source of navigation on a solo round. All the little tweaks I had made were missing. And it was a while since my recces so they were hard to remember. Plus the landscape had changed from October to summer so all the little trods were not easy to see….
Slowly I clawed back time. But I was not looking at the views and enjoying the beautiful Mournes nearly as much as the Wicklow. And I was also having to run when the ground was visible and runnable. I thought my right leg might give up the ghost but eventually it did the opposite and decided to start firing. Lesson – a good ultra cures all ills it was clear I wasn’t going to smash this. In fact it was going to the wire. I had planned to finish in daylight and now I was going to enter darkness again having started at midnight. The rain hadn’t restarted but the wind had. It was now hard to stand up on the tops. I also was getting tired and didn’t have a gpx file I trusted as much as my own. Once again I was rescued by Irish generosity…
Niall had wanted to run with me on the last leg but Sara didn’t have time to pick him up and get to the checkpoint at Spelga dam to meet me. So what did he do? Already having met me at 6am he now left his car at the last leg finish and cycled to the start dropping his bike with Sara. My word. I felt so much safer having someone with me. And his support was perfect. He knew I wanted to run the adventure solo and so hung back enough that he wasn’t showing me the lines. But he was also right on my shoulder offering something much more important than nav, food and drink. A safety net. Company. A good craic.
We sailed over the climbs but the last decent I was starting to struggle. Niall kept spurring me on with good effect. We got close to the car park with 10 minutes to spare and knowing Sara would want me to put on a sprint finish I stopped for a wee in order that I had my breath back and wasn’t impeded by a full bladder. Sure enough I emerged chariots of fire style to the Donard Car Park arch with shouts of ‘sprint finish’. My leg was firing OK. I was flying. It was beautiful. However you will have to imagine it as Sara was just as tired as me and when she pressed record on the video it failed to start.
A hug with Niall and a kiss from Sara (I think it was that way round – I was very sleep deprived). And then I hit the sack. I now have the swollen feet of an elderly man with heart failure but otherwise I feel great. I have been faster in events but as a triumph against adversity this ranks right up there. More importantly in terms of acts of human kindness this was second to none. Thank you so much to everyone who gave me those things big and little that got me to the finish line. It was an amazing adventure and you were the best part of it.
Sara – you aren’t obliged but you are amazing x
Well done Tom, congratulations on completing the It’ll be Grand Round. What an amazing achievement and evidence of the community and camaraderie amongst mountain runners!