To my shame I had never been in Waterville until early 2022 when my Kerry Way Ultra recces began. Despite its remoteness, its position on the Ring of Kerry means it’s always busy and buzzing. And as an absolute bonus, all the tourist traffic means that vegans are very well catered for everywhere in the town!
Last year I also learned about the Waterville Trail Running Festival from Yvonne Walsh and vowed to give it a go this year. The setup for the festival long weekend is fantastic. The core of it is a loop on the extended Kerry Way that’s approx 44km long over hills, roads, lanes, beaches and trails. They offer a ~Half Marathon, one loop Marathon, 3 Loop Ultra and 3 Marathon loops over 3 days. So something for most runners.
(Thanks to Seanie and the photographer from Eat Sleep Trail Run for the pic above)
Despite a distinct lack of training and lingering leg problems, I went into the 3 Loop Ultra with high hopes. I had done two solo single loop recces over the Spring and found them very hard but doable. But that was with abominable ground conditions and rain. So I figured a dry April should be a lot easier.
One of the reasons WTF is so cool is that you are up into the trails within a few minutes of the start line. And boy do you get dropped in the deep end. There are really only two difficult off-road bits and the 3 miles up Termon’s Ridge is one of them. It’s uphill all the way over a mix of fields, bog, rocks and “trail”. But if you watch your feet, you should be fine.
Oh WTF, not now
That’s followed by some easy downhill which of course I face-planted on, twisted my ankle and pulled a bunch of things in my right leg. Thanks to Steve for giving me a hand up. Morto and scarleh I was. The course then alternates between gentle off-road and country roads/lanes.
Did I mention the epic views? They’re epic!
Halfway Paul and Kevin
At the halfway point on the loop, “Halfway Paul” takes care of you brilliantly and sends you on your way with a new bounce in your step. On the second loop Paul and Kevin took care of me. I moaned to both of them about the next section and how hard it is. Afterwards I learned that Paul is Paul O’Callaghan who has run across Ireland and has done the Double Wicklow Round! And of course Kevin was Kevin Leahy who has done the 500km Yukon Arctic Race followed a month later by the 500km Lapland Arctic Ultra! And here’s Conor whining about a teeny weeny hill that’s a bit mucky.
The Eagle has face-planted
That teeny weeny hill is Eagle’s Hill. It’s the worst part of the course. For me it has always been either fog-bound or raining. But in other years I was told it has been stiflingly hot. It’s steep, mucky and slippy. But luckily it’s not long. The “mountain pass” after it is a huge relief and you trot along a lumpy trail for several miles before finally re-joining the main Kerry Way and tripping down into Caherdaniel. And that’s all the hard bits done.
Next you jog down the road to Derrynane House, amble along the beach dunes and go on some rocky trail bits on the water’s edge. Then it’s a couple of miles uphill on a proper road with switchbacks. The views there across the bay have to be some of the best on the planet.
A few small patches of off-road finally get you across The Ring of Kerry and then drop you down near the big carpark at Coomakista. Two easy trail miles that run parallel to the main road bring you to the last section which is another two-ish miles on back lanes and finally you’re back in Waterville.
The Speed Project
The runners and their crews were the only people awake at the start line at 7am. By the time I got back at 2pm, Waterville was mobbed. The loops each have an 8 hour cut-off which is relatively tight for a slowcoach like me. I did the first loop in 7hrs 10mins but had to bust a gut to do that. With the pain from the pulled leg and struggling with the hot day, I suspected I wouldn’t make the second cut-off. But my wife sorted me out with food and drinks, restocked my pack and off I headed.
The second loop was much slower but much more enjoyable as a result. And the reduction in heat as the day progressed was a big help. After rolling my ankle 6 times on the first loop, I finally started paying proper attention and didn’t do it once on the second loop.
Eagle’s Hill was a mare as the fog had descended. I’m very glad I knew the route and had no issues. The markers were very hard to see and the night hadn’t kicked in for the temporary lights on the markers to illuminate.
DFL beats DNF, and DNF beats DNS
The welcoming committee in Caherdaniel was an unexpected surprise. As I approached they shouted my name and offered me drinks and snacks. What a wonderful feeling to be given the same reception in last place as the front-runners.
Oh did I forget to mention that? Yeah, DFL (Dead Fucking Last). Some others had DNFed (Did Not Finish) earlier but I was by far the back-marker of people remaining on the course.
Dusk was falling when I got to Derrynane Beach and it was even more beautiful than usual.
It was a genuine pleasure to be lapped by the first and second place runners after Derryname. Both guys had a chat despite being under pressure. Watching them bound along on loop 3 as I staggered along on loop 2 was another highlight of the day.
Then for the scariest bit of the day. Peasoup fog on the trail above Coomakista with serious drops on one side. My headtorch was useless as the fog bounced the light straight back at me. I tip-toed along slowly trying to follow footprints in the mud and was deeply relieved to see the stile at the top of the slope appear out of the gloom. I knew it was downhill on a track after that.
But it’s worth highlighting that off-road always brings the potential for danger and you really do need to keep your wits about you. Two weeks ago I finally did the Coumshingaun Loop in foggy but not peasoup conditions. The whole way around I could only think of poor Gillian Ryan who died running there in 2021. There’s one spot in particular where a bad slip could be fatal. I met several 20-somethings coming down the loop in street clothes/shoes and wanted to scream at them. I guess you think you’re immortal at that age.
DFL becomes DNF
I finally made it back to Waterville after 16 hours and 44 minutes. So 44 minutes over the cut-off for loop 2. After a lovely chat with the Race Director Simon, I headed to the resident’s bar of the hotel for some much needed pints.
On the finish line I swore to my wife that I was not doing The Beara Way Ultra in three weeks time. Stay tuned for my blogpost on DNFing the Beara Way Ultra 😀
I also swore to her that I was never coming back to try and get a third loop in time. So when do entries open for 2024? 😀
Thanks and Watermelon
A huge thanks to the organisers and all the locals and local businesses who support WTF. And a special thank you to the little girl and her grandad who put out water, sweets and fruit for the runners as we approached the end of each loop. It was appreciated on the first loop. It was a life-saver on the second. And watermelon, the absolute legends put out watermelon. Not only is it an amazing thirst quencher, it’s now proven to reduce muscle pain after exercise!
The main lesson for me from WTF (and from Beara) was the old line that there is no substitute for miles on feet. I simply haven’t been putting the training miles or speed work in day-to-day in 2023. I’ve been doing big long slow ambles at the weekends but I’ve gotten out of the habit of the daily grind. Most weeks are barely 20 miles of running. So that all changes now. I’m not repeating my DNF at Kerry Way Ultra, so it’s back to basics for the next three months!
The number of entrants across all the races in WTF is pretty modest and I really think a ton more people would enter if they realised how doable it is. Particularly the Half and Single Loop Full. You don’t have to be some sort of mountain running goat to do WTF - any Half-Marathon road runner would be fine with a basic pair of trail shoes. So if you haven’t considered it before, sign up for 2024. It’s an amazing part of the country, the organisers are fantastic, there’s plenty of accommodation options to suit all budgets and the entry fee is minuscule compared to so many other sports/races. Finally, you’ll feel an enormous sense of achievement, no matter what distance you do.
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