Conor's Top Tips for DNFing The Kerry Way Ultra

Posted by Conor O'Neill on Friday, September 9, 2022

DNF?

For non-runners reading this, DNF means Did Not Finish. In my preview post I ended with “Let’s see how I do. Particularly when the rain comes in at night.”

On the plus side, the rain came in during daylight hours. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the start.

Nope, nope, let’s thank some people first.

Thank Yous

  • Elieen - The woman, the legend. Words like “community” and “culture” have become overused and devalued. She gives them meaning again. None of us would have had this experience if it wasn’t for her.

  • All the volunteers - I tip my bucket hat to you all. I hope I can return the favour in the future. Thanks for everything especially the cheers and the smiles.

  • Catherine - I don’t know how my wife put up with all my dithering and my demands. And then we got to Kerry :-) She totally disproves the idea that family as crew is a bad idea.

  • Fiona - Big sis was ready and waiting for me in Glencar with everything I needed including awesome tea and lots of high energy to get me going quickly.

  • Youngfella - I never got his name but he caught up with me after Caherdaniel and lit a fire underneath me by saying we weren’t going to make it. I had gotten lazy and was having a rain pity-party at the time. I started motoring for miles after that. I really hope he made it.

  • Seanie - Not just for all the phenomenal work he does for KWU in general but also for getting me running again when he told me I could make it to the finish in time. Even if he was wrong :-)

  • Eddie Murphy - For cheering up every single person he encountered despite having the chronic shits for most of the race.

  • The informal aid station people before Mastergeehy - What a wonderful surprise. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I left with a skip in my step and a huge grin on my face.

  • Everyone who toed the start line - We were all in this together. Whether you finished or not, your energy helped drive me far beyond anything I have ever done before.

  • NPWS and the landowners - KWU can’t happen without you. You are creating a long-lasting legacy in Ireland.

  • Gav Judge - For mentioning how special running at night can be. A perfectly clear sky over Foilmore made the moon look touchable. And the stars over Caherdaniel were one of the highlights of the race. I also day-hallucinated which was hilarious. That wonderful art installation of carved stone ducks were in fact just random rocks.

  • The three sets of people who were sure I was wrong to follow the Yellow Person signs that they were standing beside ;-)

  • The people of Kerry! - Thanks for hosting us.

What does it look like out there?

To get you in the mood here are some great videos about the Kerry Way Ultra.

First up is Eileen talking about the history of The Kerry Way Ultra:

Next some compilation videos of various parts of the course:

KWU 2022 Part 1:

KWU 2022 Part 2:

KWU 2022 Part 3:

KWU 2022 Part 4:

But why?

I don’t have any deep thoughts here. I’m not running away from anything or running towards anything. I never finished Haruki Murakami. If I’m having a mid-life crisis, it’s a bit late. I just love running (ok ok jogging) and I love the trails.

KWU gave me a chance to spend an enormous amount of time out there with my shallow thoughts, enjoying some of the best views on the planet, and sometimes dealing with a bit of temporary discomfort.

Derrycunnihy

Seeing how far this old bag of bones can go is also intriguing for me.

I’m much more inspired by the John Kelly view of ultrarunning than the hoo-hah king-of-pain nonsense you sometimes see associated with it. All of the ultrarunners and mountain runners I look up to seem like the most humble normal people who just like running far.

What I nailed

  • Nutrition - Coke, Tea, Sandwiches, Koka noodles or potato salad at the stops with Tailwind/Maurten refill each time. Crisps and emergency Hula Hoops. I highly recommend eating a packet of Hula Hoops as you trip along in torrential rain between Glenbeigh and Foilmore. Mood improver x1000. A few Torq/Gu gels during bad times. I was never hungry but I also never over-ate. Everything vegan, of course.

  • Water - I normally chronically underdrink and have had dizzy spells in several races and recces this year. I needed to use a filter bottle in the river before Lough Acoose to top up my hydraflasks and had to pop salt tabs semi-regularly too. It worked!

  • Blisters - The thing I was most worried about after badly shredding my feet in a 100km solo recce in July. I taped up each toe and my forefoot with Leukotape-P and Tincture of Benzoin after treating my soles for a week in Tuf-Foot. Blisters only started appearing in the untaped parts of my feet after Waterville. I taped those areas up in Caherdaniel and the problem was solved. Only a few minor surface blisters were there on the Sunday.

  • Initial pacing - My plan was to slowly jog the flats and the downs and fast walk the ups. The ballpark target pace was 15-17 minute miles with hopefully some faster ones on the roads and much slower above Foilmore. This worked well to Glenbeigh where I was only a few minutes behind schedule. There were a few reasons for the slow planned pace: 2x bouts of Covid, an ongoing hamstring problem and an inability to string together a proper training plan by stupidly doing Connemarathon, Surf Turf n Tar, Cork City Marathon and Run Killarney Half over the past few months. The hamstring was sore at the start line. By the end, I didn’t even notice it.

  • Tiredness - A weird one to mention but I wasn’t sleepy even once. I normally get up around 4am so the “night” is a bit different for me and not remotely alien. I had been really worried about needing to sleep but when I mentioned it to my wife in Waterville, she asked me if I was sleepy. I wasn’t. So what would be the point of trying to sleep. Sure I was tired but never to the point of needing to stop.

What I screwed up

A few core things were the reason I had to DNF. They were so utterly simple, stupid and easy to avoid. It’s infuriating!

  • Shoe lockdown - My fear of a blister repeat and a feeling that the Speedgoat 5s were a bit stretchy meant that I did a runners knot on them and cinched the laces down very hard to stop slippage. Never do something new in a long race! Even by Glenbeigh I was feeling discomfort in the tendons on the top of my feet going into my shin. Bit by bit it got worse.

  • Walking - After Glenbeigh I got lazy and started walking almost all the time. But quickly. I had various excuses for the next few hours like “wind”, “rain” and “darkness”. This put more pressure on my shins and tendons and by the time I got to Foilmore I needed Voltarol and Ibuprofen. By Waterville they were incredibly sore. And I was now 2 hours behind schedule. By Caherdaniel I was in trouble. By Sneem, both walking and jogging were killing me.

  • Gear Change - The plan for Sneem had always been a complete change of clothes/shoes and a freshen up. But time pressure meant that I just switched out the heavy jacket for something lighter and swapped the SpeedGoat 4 GTX for Salomon Ultra Glides. This was despite my wife saying that rain was due. I left Sneem refreshed but very sore. The rain started. And got heavier and heavier and heavier as I got to the top of the exposed hills before Blackwater Bridge. The lightweight Inov-8 jacket and Salomon shoes were both saturated in minutes.

Between the leg pain and rain, my speed collapsed and my temperature plummeted. I trudged through the forest before Templenoe, knowing I was done. I had lost the ability to visualise myself at the finish line or even visualise myself in Kenmare. At the spur in the track that went up to the hostel on the N70, I called my wife to come get me. She made sure I was sure. I was. We let Eileen know my race was over and back to Killarney we drove.

Should I have DNFed?

I have asked myself this question a thousand times. If I had knuckled down, could I have done it? If I had gotten to Templenoe, changed all my clothes, switched back to a heavy jacket and base layers and taken a bunch of painkillers, might I have recovered my pace sufficiently to get to the end (either in time, or at all)?

I’ll never know. The only things I do know are that the rain got worse and barely let up for hours. And 6 days later my left leg is still in quite a bit of pain. There’s also the small issue of the large red swelling that appeared on my shin and which was diagnosed the following day as cellulitis (bacterial infection of the skin). So I spent the week on antibiotics.

All in all, I think it was the right call for me. (But still…..)

I’m very disappointed I didn’t finish whilst simultaneously being over the moon that I covered 150km on foot with only a sore leg to complain about. I’m also chuffed how the rest of my body is in amazing shape after a few days, at the age of 54.

Ass kickers

I can’t end without mentioning Yvonne Walsh and Eoghan O’Neill. I knew Yvonne was going to podium even if she didn’t. Her down-to-earth approach to everything is an inspiration. And Eoghan, holy shit, we all saw that video last year. Now that’s a comeback!

Yvonne Conor

2023

Hell yes. Training starts as soon as this tendonitis eases off.

Bonus Content - Crew Stop by Crew Stop

Hopefully this is useful for someone thinking of doing KWU. By the time I got to the start line I had reccied the entire course except for 2 miles before Sneem. I had covered many parts multiple times in recent months, including that one solo 100km recce from Killarney to Waterville. So I wasn’t just ready, I knew where all the gotchas were and kept my wits about me not to go off-course. But of course that’s impossible if you live abroad. So here’s just a few short descriptions of how I view the course as a back-of-packer.

Start to Lord Brandon’s Cottage

The first section is a doddle (or to use formal language, a piece of piss). From the racecourse on footpaths to the touristy bit of the National Park and up to Torc is easy. There’s a a bunch of steep steps at Torc and then you are on to the Old Kenmare Road which varies from gritted path to some lumpy bits. After a few miles you reach a T-Junction. Do not go to Kenmare. Make sure you know the names of the main towns/stops. I met one guy who was standing there, not knowing which way to go. Turn right and you’ll soon cross the N71 and then have more of the same easy terrain all the way to Lord Brandon’s Cottage. The only things you need to worry about are hydration if it’s hot, and mozzies.

Lord Brandon’s Cottage to Glencar

This section messes up a lot of people. And if you only recce the initial parts you’ll get the wrong idea. Start with mostly uphill roads for a few miles. Then easy off-road. Some light scrambling and steep up/down on rocky terrain before you reach the road again. You think it’s going to be road from then on. Oh no no no. After a mile or so, vertical up the side of a mountain to the highest part of the course, followed by steep rough slippy down. I’ve run out of water twice here. Then a fairly easy but long off-road single-track before you hit the road to Glencar. Any time there are similar signs pointing in two directions, you always want the simpler “Kerry Way” direction. So not the “Walking Route” or “XYZ Loop”.

Glencar to Glenbeigh

This is one of the easiest sections. A mix of very easy forest paths and roads ending in a very steep slightly lumpy up and down through the Windy Gap.

Glenbeigh to Foilmore/Rossmore

A very short steep trek through the forest followed by several miles of boring hilly roads. Then my favourite bit of the course. A long fairly steep trek up above the Ring of Kerry. The views on a good day back to Rossbeigh Beach and Inch are some of the best in the world. Unfortunately this was when I hit torrential rain and brick-wall wind. Once you get to the top, it’s an easy undulating downhill on old track to the road. A few miles on road followed by a short trip past a bull(!) in a field and you get to Foilmore Community Centre.

Foilmore/Rossmore to Waterville

The bit I’d dreaded for months. The bit I lost sleep over. The bit I’d effectively done 4 times but was still terrified of.

A gentle start leads to one of the big splits in the route. You do not go to Cahirsiveen in the KWU. That’s a spur. You go hard left off-road and up a very steep uphill. Then it’s viciously steep up and down on some very nasty terrain for what feels like days. If the weather is bad, this may break you.

Be incredibly careful with navigation. In my big recce I got turned around in the dark and ended up re-tracing most of my steps back to Foilmore. It nearly broke me. I was so tired, I even convinced myself that I hadn’t gone wrong and the Russians had hacked all the GPS satellites.

This time I had a compass/thumbpass and made sure I was always travelling between South and South East. Finally there’s a very steep rocky track down into a farm and on to the road for a few miles to Mastergeehy.

But it’s not over.

Make sure you don’t miss the turn here as you’re about to deal with more awfulness. A very steep track up to Termon’s ridge. There’s a laughable “4km” sign there which some evil person has installed. I think it’s more like 14km. This is followed by a few miles of rough ankle-breaking terrain and knife-edge rocks. Then a never-ending but not very rough undulating route all the way to the road into Waterville. it’s more mentally hard than physically, particularly if it’s heading towards 2am like it was for me.

Waterville to Caherdaniel

First few miles out of Waterville are on road. Then a nice easy single track which crosses back over the road twice. Stunning views during the day. This is a very mixed route with a very steep up and then undulating downs. Mix of grass, rocks, roads, forest and trails. Tiring but not particularly hard.

Caherdaniel to Sneem

The first mile out of Caherdaniel is very steep and rocky. Then it spends a few miles on rough but ok terrain. There are a few road sections which your ankles will appreciate. Then a couple of very very steep ups which take it out of you. The downhills are fairly runnable. Eventually you’ll come to the main road. Do not go out on it. It’s very easy to miss the signs pointing down to a track which runs parallel to the road. This is a very easy section. Gentle up and down. Track, road and forest road. Finally a couple of road miles into Sneem.

Sneem to Templenoe

This is the start of the Lite course. First few miles are a very easy mix of paths, roads and trails. Nothing too steep. Then there’s an exposed hill section which is fine in good weather (not so much in bad) followed by a short road section and then down into gorgeous woods at Blackwater Bridge. The views out to the water here on a good day are incredible. This leads to big forest roads almost all the way to Templenoe, with a few hundred metres on the main road.

Templenoe to Kenmare

This was the hardest section for me in the Lite last year. It’s several miles of constantly uphill road. If it’s hot, be careful with hydration. Eventually you get to the top and can run hard downhill on the road for quite a while. The off-road sections are relatively easy, if mucky, with one semi-rough rocky patch before Kenmare. Then the road into and through Kenmare.

Kenmare to Finish

The hill out of Kenmare is a heartbreaker. It’s long and steep but at least it’s on-road. You get a brief respite and then you are on to the Old Kenmare Road trail and it gets even steeper. You now have a lovely bunch of miles on a great trail. It’s wide, often lumpy, not remotely dangerous or particularly exposed and ever changing. And eventually you’ll come back to the T-Junction you were on many hours previously. You turn right and head back down into Killarney via Torc and the Park.

Bonus Content- DNFer Gear

I completely overpacked extra clothes and shoes and food but I’m glad I did. It meant I never worried about not having exactly what I wanted at any crew stop. Here’s some of the more important elements along with some of the backup/unused things in the boxes.

  • Hoka Speedgoat 5 - Initial tests were disappointing as I slid around inside them. Bulkier socks, foot taping and lace lockdown meant they were fantastic from Killarney to Foilmore. Never slipped once.

  • Hoka Speedgoat 4 GTX - Much heavier than non-GTX but absolutely perfect from Folimore to Sneem. Feet 100% dry the entire way and all of the taping stayed stuck. Never slipped once. Sore on the back of my heel going uphill tho, due to much bulkier heel counter.

  • Salomon Ultraglide - Oh dear. They were supposed to be the comfy option for me to cruise from Sneem to Killarney. Instead they were used for wading through impromptu streams. No real opinion on them yet.

  • The North Face Futurelight jacket - I got this for half-price luckily. Fine for light rain and wind. Utterly useless after maybe 30 minutes of medium heavy rain. Don’t believe any review that doesn’t include bad weather testing. Avoid.

  • Columbia Outdry Extreme jacket - Borrowed. Fantastic in heavy rain. Bin bag when not raining. Buying one soon for the bad stuff in 2023.

  • Inov-8 Ultrashell jacket - Basically a windcheater that can handle drizzle. Might meet minimum standards for races but is really only a backup on short good-weather runs.

  • Petzl Swift RL headlamp - Incredible beam even on the middle setting. Made the section above Foilmore much much easier. But disappointed with the battery life and it can’t take AAAs as a backup. So either pay €50 for a second battery or bring two torches if you are slow like me. It’s also disappointingly micro-USB. So I often just bring one USB-C cable with a Garmin adapter and micro-USB adapter with me.

  • Nitecore UT27 headlamp - This has a rechargeable LiPo battery and can also take AAAs. Two beams (narrow and wide). Great torch but half the lumens of the Petzl so I used it at the start line and towards dawn.

  • Multiple Decathlon baselayers - All good, particularly the skiing and merino ones.

  • Feetures socks - Along with Balega, still my favourite socks.

  • Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ poles - One of my all-time best purchases. Light as a feather.

  • Salomon Adv Skin 12 pack - There’s a reason this is the pack most people were wearing. Nothing comes close.

  • Salomon soft flasks long neck - I’ve had these for a few years. Make sure to get the hard-bottomed ones to make it easier to get them in and out.

  • Salomon 1.5L Bladder - Fiddly to refill when you’re tired but worked perfectly.

  • Ron Hill Hydraflasks long neck - Went blue in the face trying to get the liquid into my mouth. Terrible. Avoid.

  • Katadyn BeFree Filter 1L - Has saved my ass multiple times on the trails when I ran out of water. Always bring it with me now. Any stream anywhere and you can safely drink.

  • Patagonia Endless Run Shorts - I was gutted to discover that my fave Salomon trail shorts are no longer made so I tried the well-reviewed Patagonias recently. Love these. Particularly the big stretchy pockets everywhere for gels etc. Zero chafing after 80km.

  • Odlo Ceramiwarm long tights - Used these from Foilmore onwards. Warm, tight and comfy. Did the job well.

  • OMM Kamleika waterproof pants - Nice and stretchy. Easyish to get on but not after 24hrs on the course.

  • Arm Sleeves - Any brand. Highly recommend these for the start instead of wearing a bunch of warm stuff that you have to stop and remove after a few miles. Also work well as sweat bands on your wrists once you warm up.

  • Garmin Forerunner 955 watch - Still angry at this. Bought recently to replace 5yr old 935 whose battery had become very poor. It ended the run in Waterville when we plugged the charger in! I switched to basic Trail-run mode and it started announcing every mile at full volume on my phone! So I shut it off. Again don’t use anything new unless you’ve tested it a lot beforehand.

  • Jungle Formula insect repellent - I got swarmed by thousands of mozzies at Lord Brandon’s Cottage. It was freaky. My entire lower legs covered. I still have all the bites. Once I covered myself in Jungle Formula, it didn’t happen again.


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