By Mark Kearns
My calves are cramping terribly. As a result I fall on some flat, slippery rock. With no harm done, I get up and carry on. Again pain darts through my legs and I miss my footing and fall over. It’s ok though – mucky hands and legs but no blood. I take a drink and carry on.
A text comes through from a friend, “You still on that midlife crisis?” Was he right? Maybe. I’m a 47-year-old married father of two. I’m here in the beautiful Wicklow Mountains running my first ultra, the 51k Maurice Mullins Ultra. How did I end up here, middle-aged and in the middle of the mountains? I was inspired after watching my brother run marathons and attending numerous finish lines cheering on my runner wife. I thought, now why can’t I do that? I was a cyclist. I completed a multitude of sportives and charity rides. I tried running but my calves exploded with pain and swelling so I stopped. I got orthotics and started foam rolling and stretching. In 2016 I finished the Dublin City Marathon in 4:07. I cramped all the way to the finish but was delighted with myself.
How did I end up in a mountain race and not your average road or track ultra? Well, some of my pals are trail runners and are always inviting me to run the trails with them. We trained in a lot of miserable weather so when race morning arrives and it’s the best day of the year so far, I’m worried. I knew I would be a sweaty mess. My pals and I all agree to run our own races. Off we go at 8:30 a.m. from the start point near Johnnie Fox’s Pub in Glencullen. It’s an out and back course and I guesstimate that a good time to turnaround would be three hours fifteen minutes.
I end up running a good part of the race with my pal, Siobhan. I’m quicker on the descents and she’s better at ascending. We leapfrog each other, chat and admire the views. Along with Siobhan, I met a lot of new people throughout the day. These encounters are some of the nicer aspects of long-distance events. Those 10 or 20 minutes getting to know the other people involved in the race are nice moments for me. People are interesting and there is no better place to affirm that than in an ultra race.
Did I get to halfway on schedule? Yes, right on schedule. I do a quick turnaround, greet some familiar faces and set off on my return leg. Then I get a twinge of cramp. Please go away! I realise this is where my race begins.
Since it’s such a beautiful day, elite athletes, mere mortals like myself, hikers, mountain bikers and casual walkers are all on the trails and it gets busy. Every person I encounter is courteous and patient. In order to overtake a runner ahead on the wooden raised sleepers you have to decide if it’s worth the effort sloshing through the puddles from last week’s rain and jumping back up as you pass. I decide it’s not worth it because I hear about another friend who’s taken a tumble on the sleepers. Bummer, I hope it’s not too serious.
It’s really warm now for March and I’m sweating and cramping. Try as I might, all I can manage is a hobble/walk and I still have 15k to go. Super. Eventually, I start descending and can run again.
Shortly before the last aid station Siobhan catches up with and passes me. After a quick water break she’s gone. I watch her run away. I stand there trying to eat something, but it’s not going down easy. I fill my water bottles, grab half a banana and head for home – 12k to go but with some difficult climbing ahead. Progress is slow. I run through a field beside an inviting river, immerse my hot feet in the cool water and then start the climbing, about 400 metres over a few kilometres. This nearly finishes me off. Limping around hairpin bends and scrambling up rocks is torture. But as I look around catching my breath I see that most everyone else is in the same state as me. I know there is a long descent ahead followed by a short climb to the finish, so I keep going!
My mind is racing. Are my running pals enjoying the finish line refreshments and swapping stories? Hang on, I won’t be long! My descent is stop-start. I try to speak to a woman as I pass, but only get a grunt in return. Someone is in worse shape than me!
As I meet the road after the last section of trail I make a decision: I’m not going to walk. I’m going to run the last climb and on to the finish. And that’s what I did. With the hill over, as I’m looking for the turn into the finish, a lycra-clad angel walking toward me says, “250 metres and you’re there!” I could’ve hugged her.
Seven hours and seven minutes later, I stop. My legs are jelly but I’m happy. I’m handed a finisher’s mug, get hugs, food and water. The buzz at the finish line is really great. It was a fantastic experience as well as being bloody hard. Maybe the next one won’t be.
Mark Kearns lives in County Wicklow, Ireland. He has worked at Dublin’s Donnybrook Fire Station for the Dublin Fire Brigade for 22 years. He also cycles a lot and completed the 2016 Dublin City Marathon. Maurice Mullins was his first ultra.