May the road rise up to meet you.
According to the race briefing, little could go wrong with navigation,
“Run to the end of the road, turn right, run along this road and turn right. When you get to the end of that road, turn right. Turn right again. Then turn right. Which way do you go?”
“Left!” came the answer from the excited crowd in the race briefing at the Connemara Ultra Marathon.
Based in a remote national park on the west coast of Ireland, the event takes in a 39 mile loop, through the mountains and past the lakes of this beautiful area. Looking at the profile of the course, we were certain that the road would rise up, whether or not it would meet us was a different matter altogether; and, while the nature of the course would guarantee some easy navigation, it would be unable to guarantee that the wind would always be at our backs.
We were asked to stay on the transfer buses while they built the start line, rain lashing against the windows; moments later, the skies were clearing as we were running along an open road towards the mountains.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
the rains fall soft upon your fields
Relaxing into a comfortable pace, I spent the first ten miles running with a changing group of characters - some old hands, some on their first ultra, all happy to chat about what the day might bring - and my two travel companions, Liz and Simon, stretched their legs further along the road ahead.
“Look! There’s blue sky in front of us!” I jubilated to a Belfast man staying in the same B&B as us. “We’re going over there, so we are,” he replied with a chuckle, pointing in the opposite direction towards clouds darker than the tarmac in front of us.
We took a right and headed into the national park with mountains for miles around: the Twelve Bens to the left, the Maumturks to the right, and the road undulating at their feet. I tried my weather forecasting skills once more and confidently told two men from Dublin that the day would remain bright and that the rain had left us alone; moments later, we were slapped around the face by a gust of wind that brought hailstones and a firm message that I was in no position to make these predictions. Runners who’d left supplies in the aid boxes picked up food as we passed the start of the marathon (and later, the half marathon) course, while a silent, bearded man in a marshal bib stopped regularly by the side of the road to hand out bottles from the boot of his car to keep us hydrated.
Buoyed with confidence at the 27 mile mark, realising I was now in “ultra” territory, I felt invincible and contemplated when I thought I would tackle a fifty-miler. A lady drew along side me, wearing unfathomably tiny shorts, and keen to tell me about her sore calves, her sore back, and her blisters, and about how desperate she was for the race to end. “And you?” she enquired. Unsure whether the polite response was one of mutual negativity, I simply offered, “my knickers are chafing a bit.” Solemn silence fell and I looked bashfully at my shoes, wondering if I’d shared too much. She broke the lull as she skipped on, “Well, I'm fine. I don’t wear any anyway.” I vowed to learn from this and offer details of a different sore bit when asked again in future.
Moments later, a head wind and a hill brought me to a near standstill; my hamstrings felt like they were pushing the world backwards under my feet and my hip flexors were having to drag my legs back like heavy sacks to have another go. Maybe the fifty wasn’t such a good idea after all. More messages from those mountains that they got to call the shots, not me. But just as the weariness set in, the sky cleared; the yellow grouse flowers seemed brighter, the sheep seemed happier, and the scenery opened up into the most beautiful yet. These mountains were far kinder than they appeared. So too was the silent, bearded man, who now drove up and down the road alongside us, smiling at us, cracking jokes and offering bottles from the window of his car.
and until we meet again,
may the hills hold you in the palms of their hands.
With less than 10 miles to go, Liz and I regrouped, both having emerged from our own dark places, and we trotted along together sharing hopes, fears, and a packet of ibuprofen. Occasionally, the wind would push so strongly at our backs that it picked us up and forced us to run faster than our aching legs were ready to. We mused over what had been promised at 36 miles - a hill known simply as the “Hell of the West” - and wondered just how bad it could be. A friend who’d run the marathon before had told me it wasn’t so much a big hill as a small mountain; each of the three race distances takes it in so that no-one feels left out and everyone finishes looking mildly stunned by its magnitude. We turned another right and saw a small yet completely exposed mountain pass stretching on for well over a mile in front of us. We marched up, taking the chance to eat the last of our food and trying carefully not to let the howling wind consume our remaining supplies. Some sheep leaning at 45o looked quizzically at us, their fleeces blown sideways into wooly comb-overs; I sensed they had questions for which we simply didn’t have the answers.
Shuffling over the top of the climb, a mile of leg-knotting downhill took us awkwardly yet eagerly to the finish line where we were met by hot soup, chairs, and the congratulations of a dedicated race organiser and his team. Liz and I looked at each other and grinned, stunned that we’d completed nearly 40 miles of brutal yet utterly beautiful running in 7 hours and 20 minutes. Simon finished shortly after with another huge smile. The wind had been at our backs, our fronts, our sides, and had occasionally sent weather straight up to slap us around the face.
Among the first-time Connemara runners like us were a loyal crowd of competitors that return year after year and I considered whether this would be an event I’d run again; while I’m still undecided, what I think keeps people coming back, other than a very well organised event, is the guarantee of a different experience every time, thanks to the unpredictable Irish weather. Would I recommend it? If you want to run a race lined with supporters, swamped in space blankets and goody bags daubed with flashy commercial sponsors then this is unlikely be the race for you; if you want to spend a day humbled by the majesty of Ireland’s scenery and the kindness of strangers, and to run through mountains that hold you in the palm of their hands like the tiny humans we are, then yes, you should definitely do Connemara. May the road rise up to meet you.