I just want to start this post by saying that this 28 kilometer trail race in Bray, Ireland was Dan’s idea. I was content to do an ordinary half marathon in a fun location and check it off the annual bucket list, but apparently that wasn’t enough of a challenge for us in 2019. Well, about two weeks out from completing the race and no longer massaging sore muscles, I can say conclusively that I am very happy we took on the challenge, but we learned some important lessons along the way.
A few months back when our search for a destination race was underway, Dan came across the first annual Wicklow County EcoTrail race. It was one of the only events that was in a new location, easily accessible, and actually fit into our busy fall schedule, so we decided to give it a try. Our four options for distance were 18, 28, 45, and 80 kilometers (around 11, 18, 28, and 50 miles, respectively). We must have been feeling pretty confident at the time because Dan talked me into the 28km course knowing this would be my longest distance yet and we would have an expedited training timeline for a trail run, which is undoubtedly more challenging than your average road race.
Upon our later than expected arrival at the Dublin airport on Friday, we were greeted by a customs/border agent who, when we told her the reason for our visit, clearly thought we were crazy. I was beginning to wonder if she was right during our almost one hour taxi ride in the chilly rain to Bray. Located just south of Dublin, Bray was our home base for the weekend because (A) hotels and Airbnbs are expensive in Dublin and (B) our race would start and end in Bray. We arrived at what we were told was our hotel around 12:30am when our taxi driver dropped us off outside the entrance to a large canopy tent. Within this tent, a massive party was underway. Skeptical at first, we only realized we were at the right place because a large sign out front read Wicklow County EcoTrail Race Headquarters.
We had made a reservation at this hotel because of its proximity to the race start (right out front), but later on when we learned it was the race headquarters, we figured that was an added bonus because race experience told us they would cater to the runners. We were all onboard for a post-race party at our hotel, but did NOT anticipate a pre-race party the night before. Exhausted and looking forward to resting before what was sure to be a tiring race, we were even more alarmed to discover upon getting settled into our room, that we could still just as easily hear the DJ. After cranking up the white noise “fan” app on Dan’s phone, we did eventually fall asleep and woke up in better moods when we saw that there were clear skies over Bray and no rain predicted until much later that day. We had no idea yet just how crucial that would be while quickly descending steep and rocky slopes.
We appreciated the benefit of having access to our warm hotel room until the last 15 minutes before the race, but when we did head to the start line along the beach promenade, our fellow participants had good energy, which was at least partially attributable to the Ireland vs. Japan rugby match that was underway and had drawn a mass of spectators at the outdoor bar of our hotel. We congregated briefly in the starting corral with the other couple hundred runners nervously anticipating the arrival of 11:30am and the start of 28 kilometers.
There are plenty of highs and lows experienced as you cover 28 kilometers, but to summarize, I thought I would share some of the collective lessons learned between Dan and me.
- Especially when it’s a “first annual trail race”, read all of the information made available by the race organizer to make sure you are aware of the terrain types. Had we done that, we would have realized that our road running shoes were probably not the best fit for a course where 75% of the route was NOT on tarred roads, but rather trails. When the FAQ’s specifically state that “regular road running shoes are not suitable”, take it seriously.
- When the instructions explicitly recommend that participants bring their own food, you really should pack your own food. Unless of course you enjoy hitting the wall and experiencing fatigue and cramping in the time between the last aid station and the finish… then by all means ignore this recommendation. We were smart enough to bring food with us to Bray, but not smart enough to carry it with us in our packs on race day – not a good decision.
- Gaining over 3.6k feet in elevation will likely require you to walk, not run, up some steep hills so it’s reasonable to expect that it will take you longer to finish the trail race than it would a road race. Ergo, refer to point #2 above about packing adequate fuel in anticipation of consuming more calories than you think you need.
- Don’t worry about the people passing you in the first part of the race. Run YOUR pace and you will enjoy the opportunity to pass these same people on the back-end. This is especially satisfying as you ascend the very steep Great Sugarloaf Mountain with a smile on your face and two thumbs up.
- If you are done enjoying the race, at least enjoy the views. While we did get sick of seeing and feeling rocks beneath our feet, we did not get over the views along the course, especially when we were at the top of those steep hills. It was a truly unique experience to run on Bray Head with the sea-cliffs jutting out below us.
The race was considered part of the collective “Eco” series, because coordinators and participants partake in the extra effort to minimize environmental impact. This meant that runners carried their own refillable water containers throughout the race so that there were no used cups thrown awry along the route, and we were encouraged to be mindful of any trash we accumulated. Considering we packed too light in the first place, we wouldn’t have minded a granola bar in our packs if the trade-off was carrying the wrapper the rest of the way.
While certainly a trash-free race, we did have to side-step quite a bit of “organic” waste while crossing fenced in fields with livestock. We encountered herds of cattle spectators along the course, but thankfully they seemed to be more accommodating of sharing their pasture than those we encountered in Norway earlier this summer. No fence jumping was necessary this time!
Always nice to have fans cheer us on along the route
Crossing the finish line right around 4 hours was a very satisfying feeling. Even better were the snacks and drinks waiting for us just a few steps away. We took our time recovering and refueling while watching some of the top women finishers of the 45km race cross the finish line in impressive time (the 45km and 80km started before us… we aren’t that slow). Having collected our thoughts and warmed up back at the hotel a few feet away, we agreed that it was a well-organized event with enthusiastic volunteers, great treats at the aid station and finish, nice spectators, and spectacular views. Despite a couple of atrocious uphill ascents and precarious rocky chutes down the other side, it truly was a beautiful course that offered a unique perspective of the always pleasing Irish coast.
Following our early dinner and “recovery gin” drinks at the hotel restaurant, our post-race reward was gelato at a small shop just up the street. Even the cold rain couldn’t deter our celebratory dessert. Our post-post-race reward was beers at Harbour Bar in Bray, a local institution much beloved the locals and visitors alike (including James Joyce, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, and Bono) since 1872. Formerly a terrace of four fisherman homes that were combined into one bar by “knocking down walls”, each section offers a different ambiance. Already filling up when we walked in around 8pm, we were very lucky to arrive at the same time a small group was vacating two comfy chairs. After finding common ground in all of us having crossed the finish line of the race, they assured us that we were getting the best seats in the house, which they would know because they were locals. Seemed only fitting for Dan to order a Guinness and Kaitlan to try another local Wicklow brew and toast to our good fortune.
No surprise here but it wasn’t a late night for us, which worked out well considering we wanted to take advantage of our half-day in Dublin before our flight home on Sunday evening. After a very satisfying breakfast at the hotel, a six euro bus ride took us into Dublin city center where we dropped our bags off before heading to the Guinness Storehouse. Operated as a self-guided visit followed by a roof-top tasting, Dan said that he especially appreciated that we could take as much or little time as we wanted on the tour before we made our way up to the top floor. I appreciated that the exhibits were interactive, and while it did stretch out over multiple floors, being able to spend your time in the areas you were most interested in seems like a good approach for a place that attracts over 1.7 million tourists each year.
We weren’t the only ones eager for an 11am Guinness so we had to maneuver strategically to snag a spot at the windows in order to appreciate the great 360-degree view overlooking the city and the Wicklow Mountains we had conquered the day before. Not usually one to prefer Guinness before noon, I have to say that was a delicious pint and I only required a little help from Dan when we realized we had to leave immediately in order to make our lunch reservation on the other side of the city.
Dan identified a great spot for lunch near the oldest street in Dublin which is close to present day Christchurch and Temple Bar. Darkey Kelly’s is the Irish pub named for an infamous woman of 18th century Dublin society who was ultimately executed on charges of witchcraft and later murder. There’s more to that story if you care to find out, but today the restaurant broadly boasts of traditional Irish food and music.
A quick pass through the grounds of Trinity College and we were on our way to the airport for our flight back to Brussels. A successful race and quick turn in Dublin made for a satisfying weekend in Ireland. For those interested in more relaxing ways to explore the coast, I can assure you that Ireland will more than welcome you (and the border agent won’t look at you like you’re crazy when you tell her what you willingly signed up for). Nonetheless, I’d be up for another race across Ireland, so if anyone knows of a good one, preferably with Guinness at the finish, let me know!