Photo courtesy of IMRA by Adrian Tucker

Damn That Was Good

Have you had your eye on something in the fridge, maybe a tub of delectable cherry trifle? Has it taunted you? Tempted you? Has it anthropomorphized and started begging you with its sweet sugary lips to devour it completely? Did you hesitate because you thought you might be about to bite off more than you could chew?

Maybe you considered the risks. You didn’t want to take the gamble of having your stomach rebel, which might result in a vomiting episode or a bout of diarrhea. You knew you might plunge into a pool of defeat if your legs gave way with the weight of your swollen trifle-filled intestines. But you also knew that you could damn well handle that trifle.

You remember all the other desserts you gobbled up. You recall how your taste buds felt more alive with every bite you took. You had always persisted until you had them completely devoured. You never uttered a word of regret. You only exhaled at the finish and thought, ‘Damn that was good.’

My cherry trifle was a race. I caught sight of it a couple months back on the Irish Mountain Running Association’s website. Ticknock Tick-Tock was a 75k 12-hour orienteering* endurance event.

Photo courtesy of IMRA by Gill McLoughlin2

Photo courtesy of IMRA by Gill McLoughlin

Ticknock Tick-Tock consisted of 12 loops of approximately 6.5k with 200m of height gain. There were 7 controls that had to be visited at each stage. Loops had to be finished within an hour; the subsequent loop would begin on the next hour. No gps devices, watches or pacers were allowed.

Photo courtesy of IMRA by Adrian Tucker

Runners Colm Phelan, Alicia Christofi-Walshe and Brian Phelan Photo courtesy of IMRA by Adrian Tucker

In the end I finished the event. I felt strong. I didn’t vomit or get diarrhea. I didn’t get lost. I pushed to my limits and I achieved, rather than choked. I took a risk. It was my first orienteering event. I didn’t get a chance to recce** the route. Thank Christ some of the other runners were helpful en route and I managed to stay on track.

I opened wide for a huge bite and it wasn’t more than I could chew. I managed and you can too. I was building up to a 50k race in June. I ended up doing a 75k in May. It was challenging and I wanted to quit at times. I doubted myself. I was wrecked one second and buzzing the next. I persevered and I kept chewing up those miles.

Photo courtesy of IMRA by Gill McLoughlin

Photo courtesy of IMRA by Gill McLoughlin

We can bite off more than we can chew. But we must stay calm so we won’t choke. If we swallow one mile at a time, eventually we’ll have the whole race devoured. Grab that cherry trifle, enter a race that’s tempting you. Finish with a satisfied smile on your red sweaty face. The pain and exhaustion will subside and you’ll be left with a sweet taste in your mouth.

Photo courtesy of IMRA by Adrian Tucker

Photo courtesy of IMRA by Adrian Tucker

*orienteering – a sport that requires navigational skills using a map and compass to navigate, from point to point, while moving at speed.

**recce – slang for reconnaissance, basically checking out a course before you race on it.

Standing in My Dream

I am over 800 metres above my bed. I am mid-way through a 30k run and I am standing beside an ancient Irish cairn with a map and compass in my hand. I’m looking at the Irish sea in the distance and a friend is beside me. My feet are sinking into damp spongy grass. I am standing in my dream.

Siobhan and I recently navigated our way over 30k of the West Wicklow Mountains. The adventure was like none other I’ve ever experienced. It was an open mountain run that included summiting Lugnaquilla Mountain, Leinster’s highest peak. It was a morning I had imagined in my dreams.

The Glen of Imaal from Lugnaquilla

The view from Lugnaquilla Mountain, County Wicklow

My dream didn’t come to fruition because I’m a superhero with amazing physical abilities and unheard of mental resilience. I had three dream makers that unlocked the door to my dream. I reckon they may fit your lock as well, go ahead and give them a try.

Find a Tribe

Most of us find satisfaction in a shared experience. Whatever it is that you’re passionate about, there are other people out there who are passionate about it too. Your tribe wants to find you as much as you want to find them. Nowadays social media can make the search easier. I have been introduced to some of my closest trail running buddies via social media. I don’t think we need to be surrounded by people the entire time, but I do think that having a good group of friends, who are on the same track, is invaluable. Our tribe can provide support, encouragement and if we’re lucky, a bit of craic!

Descending Lugnaquilla with Siobhan Hayes

Lugnaquilla Mountain with Siobhan Hayes

Plan

To make something we need a recipe, directions or a plan. A plan is the action it takes to fulfil our dreams. We can devise plans for ourselves, we can hire a coach, we can find them online or in a book. No matter where it’s sourced, a plan is a must. To try to achieve something remarkable without a plan is like trying to make a double-chocolate cake without a recipe. It might turn out good. But why settle for good when it could be melt-in-your-mouth exceptional?

Walk the Walk

When we talk the talk, we must walk the walk. We can stare at our plans. We can talk to our friends about our goals. But the only way we’re going to lock eyes with our dreams is by moving towards them. Even if we’re tired, we still need to go out and do that planned speed session. If our goal is to run up a hill, then we need to run up that hill. If our bodies need rest, then we must rest. Our actions lead us to our achievements.

Running down Lugnaquilla - photo Siobhan Haye

Running towards Slievemaan, County Wicklow, photo by Siobhan Hayes

Our dreams are waiting to be realised. Whether on a summit, at a finish line or at the other end of a swimming pool; they are there anticipating our arrival. These dream makers are the keys that can unlock the doors to our dreams. Grab your set, open the door and stand in your dreams.

With Siobhan on Sugarloaf Donard, photo by Mark Kearns

I Lost My Buzz

I lost my buzz last week. I couldn’t find it in my cup of coffee. It wasn’t at the swimming pool or in the yoga video. A bath didn’t bring it back and neither did a glass wine. It was with my keys and my glove that went missing; I lost it on the mountain and I had to go back there to get it.

Last week was a recovery week for me. I was looking forward to it when I was in the middle of an intense training programme for The Maurice Mullins Ultra. I was committed to the training because I wanted to see what result I could achieve if I trained properly and raced the race. The event went well (my piece about it is on the way) but the recovery was a bitch.

Overlooking The Glen of Imaal, photo by Siobhan Hayes

Overlooking The Glen of Imaal, photo by Siobhan Hayes

Ok, I know I only took off a week. Big deal right? Well, for me it was. The first couple of days were fine. It was a relief to be off my programme but by the weekend I’d had enough. I was turning into a person I didn’t want to be around. I was on edge, cranky, distracted and in a crap mood. My body had trained hard and I needed time to recover physically; my mind needed the chance to be void of its usual stream of thoughts about miles, routes and speeds. But I missed running.

Last week wasn’t my proudest week. I’m not proud of the bad moods I was in or when I lost my temper or when I got overwhelmed. I’m ashamed of those moments. I don’t often share them because it’s scary to admit that things can get out of control. It’s easier to run up a mountain than to admit that I’m not perfect. Everyday life is full of challenges, even when running is a part of it. The challenges seem to be magnified when I don’t run.

With Ray Cummins on Keadeen Mountain, photo by Paul Daly

With Ray Cummins on Keadeen Mountain, photo by Paul Daly

The reason I started this blog was to share, that’s why I’m sharing this experience. I’ve learned a lot from reading blogs and articles. Some of them have touched me on a deep level. Like most of us, there have been times I’ve been lonely in my own little world. Reading about other people’s journeys has helped me to feel connected to the wider world and to feel more confident.

When we were young kids we puffed out our chests and we ran full throttle into the adventures that appealed to us. We sought out activities that made us buzz. We were unashamed and we engaged in what excited us. Our full commitment was given to backyard races and sitting room karate matches. But as we moved into the teenage years and onto adulthood, fulfilling ourselves through action took the backseat.

Henry and his pal Ryan running in the backyard.

Henry and his pal Ryan enjoying a sunny evening.

In adulthood as we search for where we slot into society, it seems arbitrary to put our energy into physical activities. Instead we try to fill that empty space from our childhood, that used to be full of excitement, desire and curiosity. We stuff it with relationships, substances and distractions. This isn’t a solution but a direct route to a miserable situation. It’s a route that I am trying my damnedest to avoid.

There isn’t a person, a food or a drink that can fulfil us. We know what will, we just need to be courageous enough to go and get it. We are better people when we engage in what excites us and when we do what we need to do for ourselves. For me, running is the thing that makes me a better me. It electrifies me. Thank Christ I’m back on the trails this week and I’ve found my buzz again.

Table Mountain, County Wicklow with Siobhan Hayes, photo by Mark Kearns

Be That Relentless Fan

Everyone had given up and nothing much was being said. The shouts had faded into sighs and whispers. One lad grunted, another stomped his boot, and all heads were hanging like thirsty flowers from tender stems. It was as if all the hope that had been there at the start had floated up towards the heavens and onto a different field.

My son Henry’s soccer team was going to lose this match. It was near the end and they were losing by a lot. The opposition continued to score goal after goal. I stood on the side line and my mind raced, my eyes darted around looking at the other spectators. We were all quiet.

Then, as if someone whacked me on the back and my mouth was simultaneously pried open with a pair of invisible hands, I yelped out a cheer. I shouted another and another. Little eyeballs, released from their magnetic connection to the ground, were once again taking in the game. The boys were back in the match. The lads needed their fans to cheer them on and to remind them that it was worthwhile to keep trying.

Henry on the pitch in County Wicklow

 

In the end, they lost the match but they got over it. I didn’t get over it though. I couldn’t stop thinking about how defeated the players looked as the other team scored goal after goal. I couldn’t stop thinking about how wrong that silence felt. I couldn’t stop thinking that it is our job as adults to teach children to persevere through adversity. I couldn’t stop thinking that we need to teach ourselves that too. I couldn’t stop thinking that we need to ditch hopelessness, worry, anxiety, and low expectations and persist until our course of action is complete.

The Irish Mountain Running Association’s Maurice Mullins Ultra, a trail race I’ve been preparing for since January, is next week. It’s the first ultra that I’m going to race. I’m freaking out; I’m excited; I’m heading for the unknown. No one is going to be on the side of the trails cheering me on. It will be quiet except for the cheering I do for myself in my mind. I’m going to be that relentless fan on the side lines that just will not shut up. I’m going to fuel her with Gummy Bears and Snickers and have faith that she keeps cheering until we hit the finish line.

Keadeen Mountain, County Wicklow, photo by Raymond Cummins

Keadeen Mountain, County Wicklow, photo by Raymond Cummins

The boys on that soccer team will eventually learn that we must always be our own loudest and proudest cheerleaders. There is just no way that anyone wants us to succeed more than we want ourselves to succeed. We must persevere and aim to run the legs off that damn adversity.

The person who stands strong until the end, knowing that they aren’t going to win, is the winner. When there are 20 minutes left in a match that we probably won’t win, 20 miles left in a race that we may not place in, 20 seconds left in a job interview that we might not get, 20 days left of medical treatment that might not save our lives, we must continue to cheer ourselves on.

That day on the soccer pitch those little players were learning about perseverance. I’m still learning and we’re all still learning. All the moments that we cheer ourselves on when failure is chasing us down, that we convince  ourselves to have hope, those are the moments when we’re truly living. We must chase after those moments because the alternative is just too damn depressing.

Henry descending Keadeen Mountain, County Wicklow, Ireland

Run to the Moon

I got a message from Mom recently. I hadn’t expected it when I was curled up, cosy and pj-clad in my corner of the couch. The littlest ones were sound asleep and I was just back from putting our eldest son Henry to bed. It was a clear windless night and a bright moon was perched low in the sky.

Henry and I had been snuggled up and chatting  in his bed when I caught a glimpse of the moon through an opening in the curtain. “Hey do you think you could run to the moon Henry?” I whisper. “Ya Mom, if I had a helmet and there was gravity.” He didn’t give a resounding no. I smile at him in the dark and return to my blanket on the couch.

I feel calm and content. We’re on the right track with these kiddos. My husband and I are chilling out and catching up after a long day. RTÉ News is on the TV in the background and Brian Dobson is reading off the day’s happenings. My phone beeps. The sound cuts through our conversation. A picture appears. It’s her writing. I imagine a pen in her hand, I can see her fingers gripping it. I can smell her clean smell; a mixture of Blistex lip balm and Jergens lotion. I can hear her breathing and that barely audible little click that comes from the back of her throat when she’s resting. The outside of her hand is pressed gently against the paper. It’s all of her but it’s not her. A borage of images emerge from her penmanship. Mom’s anniversary was last month.

My old high school friend Jaclyn had sent me the image of Mom’s message. She had found it in a scrapbook from 1996. I would have received the same book when I graduated, but funny enough, I don’t remember ever reading this note before. It is a note full of encouragement. She signed it from herself and all the family.

message-from-mom

Mom was a hard-working, tenacious, and remarkably positive person.  As you can see from her message she tried to instil these traits in me. Mom had so many hopes for myself and my three sisters. She wanted us to believe in ourselves because she believed in us. She dreamed big dreams for us. We worked hard work to achieve our dreams and she supported us as we tried.

Over twenty years after Mom wrote the note, I hear her message. It’s a message of hope. A mother’s hope that her child will persevere, strive for, and achieve all that she is worthy of.

moms-lap

Have I become the person she hoped I’d become? I strive to keep a calm mind and to consistently work towards my goals. I try. That’s the best I can do. Most importantly, I strive to instil in my children a sense of self-confidence. Like Mom, I make every effort to give them the encouragement they need to accomplish their dreams, no matter how big or how small. If Henry isn’t ruling out running to the moon, then yes, I think I’m on the right track.

I’m not saying stick me up on a podium and give me the best parent on the planet award. I’m far from perfect. I lose my patience, I get frustrated.  I’m human. I beat myself up. I cut myself breaks. I’m trying to do my best. We all are.

We all encourage our kids. We want them to feel, in every cell in their little bodies, that they can achieve their dreams. This is what Mom wanted for me 20 years ago and this is what I want for my kids today.

You want to score a goal, Henry?  Keep trying.  You want to climb up the hill at the back of the house, Sadie? Come on march those strong legs, let’s go. Tony, you want to jump in the pool? Arms out and 1, 2, 3, go!

Mom is gone but she continues to encourage me. I’m still here, we’re still here. We have a chance today, tomorrow, and the next day to give our kids the encouragement they need to achieve their dreams. They run circles around us some days…but if they want to try to run to the moon then for goodness sake let’s go ahead and run with them.

Glenmalure, photo Ray Cummins

In Love and Running

This piece was first published as a feature in Ultrarunning Magazine, https://www.ultrarunning.com/featured/in-love-and-running/.

We’ve all been heartbroken in love and on the trails. In order to protect ourselves from more heartbreak, we play it safe. We don’t sit extra close; we don’t push extra hard. We don’t go in for the kiss; we don’t go for the tough race. We don’t embrace the sweet complexity of the other person; we don’t dance down the technical trails.

But what if we did? What if we went for it? It could be a disaster, right? Or it could be a sweet success.

In early December I ran my first 50 mile race, Raw Ultra’s Wicklow Way 50 mile. My goal for this event was to get over the finish line in 15h 59m 59s. The cutoff was 16 hours.

I ran the 50 miles in 12h 02m 32s, finishing 39th out of 79 runners.

My race day accomplishments made me re-evaluate my perceived capabilities.

I accomplished what I set out to do that day; I worked hard but I played it too safe.

We all perceive ourselves in certain ways and stick ourselves into boxes. We think we can do certain things, but not other things. Our perceived capabilities are the fog hovering over the mountain, while our potential is the rushing river we hear in the distance waiting to be discovered. It’s time for us to find that river and jump in.

running-stranahely

The Glen of Imaal, photo credit Ray Cummins

I’ve run lots of races, from 5k to ultramarathon to everything in between, but I’ve never raced one. In March I’ll run my next ultra, Irish Mountain Running Association’s Maurice Mullins 51k. I’ve decided to go all in and race this race.

Like a lot of us, I’ve underestimated myself for too long. It’s time to feel my heart thumping out of my chest because I’m pushing myself beyond my perceived capabilities. Imagine that flutter you feel when love walks past and multiply that by 1,000. It’s time to feel that on race day.

Irish ultra runner, Clare Murphy-Keeley, https://runningbeyondthefence.wordpress.com/, recently shared a quote on social media from Barkley Marathon legend Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell, “If you’re going to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.”

Clare’s share hit the nail on the head (my head actually).

It planted a seed of question in my mind. What if I aimed for something that I considered far beyond what I thought I was capable of? With failure nipping at my heels could I run towards the possible?

If my main opponent is my self-doubt, what would it take to push past this opponent?

I could trust in my training and my capabilities. I could embrace the difficult moments of the race and the inevitable discomfort that will arise as a result of pushing beyond my limits. I could aim to win. I could try to make the top ten or to beat my main opponent, me. The one who didn’t think she was good enough to finish a race let alone race one. I could race her all the way to the golden gates of the finish line.

Let’s make this relationship we have with running ultras work for us by racing our own race. Along with those trash bags we wear before races, let’s throw away our preconceptions of our capabilities and pin our bloody potential to the front of our t-shirts. When we cross the finish whether we’re looking at the clock, looking up to heaven, or looking into the dirt, we need to celebrate the fact that we ran the race to our fullest capability. The possibility of experiencing that moment is worth the risk of failing.

In love we face the same challenge of being controlled by our preconceptions. We think we’re too tired to snuggle up for a few kisses so we stick our face into our phone instead or we wrap ourselves up tighter in our blankets. We can rejig our reality if we push aside our tiredness, we put down our phones, and emerge from the duvet. We might just find ourselves in a beautiful moment if we lean in and go for that kiss.

It’s time to change our default perception setting from inability to ability. It’s time to believe we can race the race.

We love running because it reminds us of how strong we are and that we can achieve pretty great things when we work hard for them. Let’s embrace our capabilities as we head for the next race.

Our potential is there, like a set of puckered lips waiting to be kissed. Waiting to find that lovin’ feeling. Will we find it? Or will we lose our love for running?

This is the risk we take, in love and running. We won’t know, unless we pucker up and go for it.

Raw Ultra's Wicklow Way 50 Mile, photo Paul Daly

Eat, Drink & Be Merry

Coming into December most people are gearing up for the holiday season. They’re decorating the tree, putting up blinking lights on the outside of their houses, standing in long lines at Smyth’s Toy Store, and sticking the turkey into the deep freeze .

In years past I was one of these people.

But not this year.

This year, for the first days of December, the only trees I came close to were the ones I was jogging past in the forestry on my taper runs, the only blinking lights near our house were the four flashing headlamps being tested (rather obsessively) in the dark utility room, the only line I stood in was in SuperValu with my arms aching because they were weighed down with Red Bull, Coke, Lucozade, water, bags of nuts, Snickers and jellies. This December the deep freeze was a bit empty, but there was a pile of perfectly cling-film-wrapped peanut butter sandwiches on the kitchen counter.

I was gearing up to run my first ever 50 mile race.

On December 3rd, I did.

I ran from Sheilstown Forest near Tinahely County Wicklow, following the Wicklow Way, to St. Columba’s College in Dublin. The race was Raw Ultra’s Wicklow Way 50 mile(http://www.rawultra.com/).

Throughout my 12 hours on the course, I learned innumerable lessons.

I’m only going to share three of these lessons with you. Mostly because I tend to ramble on and the kids need to be woken up for breakfast and the school run.

  1. Never, EVER say never

My friend Ray (who I ran the race with) picked me up on the morning of at 4:30. A year previously, on St. Stephen’s Day, Ray picked me up for our first race together.

My youngest child was 2 months old then and Ray had invited me to run in the East of Ireland’s Howth Half Marathon (http://eastofirelandmarathons.com/).

We ran well, circling Howth twice. It was the longest distance I had run in well over six years.

If Ray had said to me on the morning of the half marathon that he would be collecting me a year from then, to run a 50 mile race across the Wicklow Mountains, I would have said, ‘No way Ray! Never!’  I won’t say never again.

  1. Eat, drink, and be merry

At Christmas time we’re always encouraged to eat, drink and be merry. We go for Christmas drinks, we go to Christmas parties, we go to visit Santa. Trays, overflowing with rich festive food, take over the country’s kitchens, along with tubs of Cadbury Roses and sauce pans of mulled-wine simmering on the cookers.

At this event, eating, drinking and being merry got me to the finish line. From breakfast time to the last kilometer of the race, I ate every hour (at least). I sipped on an array of beverages throughout the day. My Salomon vest (http://www.salomon.com/) was swollen with food and bloated flasks. At each rest stop I was sure to refill with food and drink.

It was crucial to stay fed and watered and equally imperative to stay positive. Often we loose positivity, and even hope, when we’re hungry. This could lead to hanger and believe me, no one wants to see me hangry.

It’s important we surround ourselves with people who help us stay merry. Especially while undertaking a strenuous task on a dull December day. Ray certainly helped to keep me positive.  Our usual banter and chit chat passed the hours. Our friend Lar joined us for a few hours (Lar’s brother Stephen and their friend Kieran ran with us for a bit too). The slagging and banter filled the trails, we were merrier than the big lad in the red suit himself!

It’s no fun being merry alone though, right? Ray and I ran the entire distance together and his companionship was a huge part of my success on the day. Lar was the light heartedness and craic we needed. Who hangs out by the side of a mountain with mince pies and a tub of Cadbury Roses? Lar does.

Lucky for me guardian angels do exist on the Wicklow Way.  Lycra clad lads, Ray and Lar, with head torch halos leading us through the dark.

Angels are around us in everyday life. When we’re kind to each other, we feel less lonely, we feel more connected, and we feel stronger to defeat challenges.

running-with-ray-ww50

Raw Ultra’s Wicklow Way 50 mile with Ray, photo Paul Daly

  1. When you fall (which you probably will) get your butt up and keep going

One of the most spectacular and technical parts of Raw Ultra’s Wicklow Way 50 mile (www.rawultra.com) is the circling of Djouce Mountain. The views are beyond amazing. On one side is the foreboding Djouce Mountain and on the other side is a view of the fields of East Wicklow, the Irish Sea, and Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Lar had joined us during this section and we were an hour ahead of where we had expected to be.  A joke was made, I was laughing too hard (as we do in ultra running) and I took a spill on rocky terrain.

I didn’t get one scrape. I don’t know if it was my dance training or Mom’s constant instruction to never put my hand down if I were to fall (she was a gymnastics judge) that saved me.  If she were there, she would have given me a 10. Hey, I’m pretty sure I even pointed my toes in my runners.

The momentum of that fall propelled me forward.  Just as falling is an expected part of trail running, falling is an expected part of life. We need to roll with the punches with as much grace as we can, we need to get up, and we need to keep moving forward.

We sign up for these endurance events. We pay for them. We aren’t forced into them.

Why do we do it?

When we achieve something when the possibility of failure is greater than the possibility of success, it makes the success so much sweeter.

Like the holiday season, ultras have their ups and down; both leaving us with good memories (plus a bit of a hangover).

My first 50 miles is done. As we all do when we achieve something we never achieved before, I’ve learned new things about myself.  Most importantly, is that I have the focused determination and stamina it takes to be an ultra runner.

Would I do it again? Yes, tomorrow.

But today, I’m going to relish the memories of my first 50.