On Friday night just gone, I ran in what was probably my toughest Irish running event to date – the Ballyhoura Midnight Marathon.
The event was delivered by the MMRA, the Munster branch of the Irish Mountain Running Association. To say it was managed impeccably would be an understatement, but I’ll talk about that later.
There were actually two options runners could choose from when registering for this. There was the Midnight Marathon, which I did, and the Moonlight Challenge. The Midnight Marathon would start at midnight, starting and ending in Kilfinane. The Moonlight Challenge was a half marathon, and this would start at 2:30 in Ballyorgan, and then finish in Kilfinane. This would have runners from both events running the final miles alongside one another. The marathon runners would actually pass through Ballyorgan and could use it as a halfway pit stop location. In total, around 330 people registered for the two events.
Prepping for a night event isn’t easy, and most of my preparation involved lying under a cat on the couch, all the while watching the clock. I hit the road around 9:45, making it to Kilfinane around an hour later. The atmosphere in the school hall there was just electric. I’ve shifted away from longer events over the past year, and so I forgot what their unique atmosphere was like. I’d had an opportunity to meet most of my Munster mountain running pals at a race the previous weekend, and so spent the time before this event with some of my obstacle racing friends who’d made the trip here.
After a short briefing, we all headed outside and waited for our Garda car escort. A Garda car would lead us from outside the school to the trail entry point around half a mile outside the town. Aside from being a necessary safety precaution, this helped everyone to start at a controlled pace.
After a short single path climb, we found ourselves on a wavy fire road section. This allowed everyone plenty of space and firm footing to find their groove. I found myself among the front few runners here, but none of us were really prepared to set the pace. A little further on, we came across some single path climbs and descents. I lost some ground on the climbs, but this made the descents easier, as I could watch the line others were taking. This is probably a good time to remind you that this was after midnight – it was dark, these were grassy and muddy hills and running down these with confidence was not an easy task! Past these descents, there were a few minutes of relatively flat fields and public roads to navigate. This was an opportunity for me to open up a little, but at a race like this, that was never to last.
The Darragh Hills were next, and the honeymoon was over. This section came around the 10K mark, and it was a harrowing ordeal. Without daylight visibility, it was impossible to see how much of these hills were left at any point, but it was safe to assume there were many. I needed to power hike much of this section. There were some little descents here too, but the terrain was iffy, and so it wasn’t easy to get back what I was losing on the climbs. To compound the misery, I had my first proper fall here, after a little ankle roll. Fortunately, I broke my fall with my left hand, but I had to live with a fairly muddy hand for the next three hours! The ankle roll too meant it wasn’t easy to move with any pace on the descents here.
Once those hills were over, we flew down through a soft forest section, before coming to probably the nicest section of the race – a riverside jog on wavy, but confident terrain. I ran this marathon route in reverse during the daylight in 2017, and so knew this section was coming – that may have been the only thing that got me through the Darragh Hills! At the end of this section then, we reached Ballyorgan, and in one of the holiday homes here, there was a halfway sign-in point where we could avail of some snacks and refreshments. I did just that, though probably dawdled here a little too long, and so it took me a half mile or so to get my engine going again.
After this stop, we went through a little forest section, before hitting some country lanes. In the distance, but not too far away, I could see the silhouette of a big mountain – a right big one. Here’s a useful rule of thumb at IMRA events – if you can see a big mountain near the event, they’re probably sending you up it – they wouldn’t waste it. And sure enough, after another mile on a gradual incline, we hit the path towards the summit of Seefin. The next 20 minutes or so were a horrible power hike up, though it did allow for a lovely view of dotted headlamps across the countryside. I’d have loved to have taken a picture of this, but it wouldn’t have come out well in the dark. Getting over the top of Seefin felt like getting home after a long drive – there wouldn’t be another big climb for the rest of the marathon – a relief.
Some fog had drifted in now, and I was on flat ground again, so I decided it was time to open up. Two steps into this plan and I put my foot in a hole and rolled the ankle again. D’oh! Sure, it was flat in terms of elevation gain, but it was far from flat in terms of the absence of rocks, holes, and blackened pools of bog water – oh no – it had enough of these for everyone. I was nearly 18 miles in now, and I had my first flutter with real doubt. I had rolled the same ankle again, and just where I had a chance to start moving again after reaching the peak. This made me a little scared to move at any sort of pace now, and I felt like I had enough of it all. A lovely downhill single track was just on the horizon, but I had no confidence to zip down it. It was time for an energy gel and a little cry inside.
The Final Stretch
The next few miles were gentle fire roads — wavy, but with a downward trend. Fortunately for me, this was the right environment for me to get my ankle back into action. I had ups and downs here, but with the final 10K started, I could smell the breakfast at Kilfinane. I was a little broken, but I knew I would make it now. Going through a small forest section then, my obstacle racing pal Paul Molloy pounced from behind, and he was just delighted to find someone he knew. We jogged together for a few minutes, and it was nice to have someone to chat away with for a bit. We swapped a few war stories from our previous three hours — we’d been through a lot in our few hours apart! I checked my watch and realised there were only four and a half miles left now, so I dropped another gel, and told Paul I was going to push on just to get it over with.
Not even five minutes later, I felt a mighty gust of wind in my sail. Even though we were onto some fire road inclines, I had found a boost, possibly due to the gels. I decided that since there were only 35 minutes or so to go, I’d sink the last gel, and really crack on. This confidence lasted about ten more minutes before my legs felt a little sag. We had two miles or so left, and I accidentally followed a runner down a wrong path. We went around a quarter of a mile downhill the wrong way, before having to come all the way back up. D’oh again! I’m not sure what it is about me and wrong turns – I don’t take them often, but when I do, I can put out serious work rate to remedy things and I was just done with it now! So, I put the boot down, got back on track, and just decided I was going to brute my way to the finish.
I knew the final mile or so would be a gradual descent into the village, and so could bank on using that to aid me. Blasting through the final two miles in under 15:30, I passed a handful of half marathon runners along the way. I was like a man possessed after taking that wrong turn. It was nice that the final two or three miles of the route were on fairly firm fire roads and public roads, so everybody had a nice finish. Back in the door of the school in Kilfinane, and I stopped my watch. My hamstrings were cramping so badly that I was barely able to walk straight. I really didn’t care all that much though – it was over.
Post Event Breakfast
The chats with folks after an event like this are fantastic. When you go through something like that, you’re a little looser with how you speak. It’s like how you’d be after a few pints. It was a campfire atmosphere. I loved listening to what went through people’s minds during different sections of the event. It was awesome too when after chatting with someone for a few minutes, you realised you were alongside them during one part of their story. As much as I’ve moved away from longer events like this, there’s nothing quite like the chats after them.
The breakfast then was worthy of a midnight marathon – an all you can eat buffet of eggs, rashers, sausages, hash browns, mushrooms (yuck – not for me!), and beans. I had a feed and a half here, so I did. Again, the chats with people at the breakfast were fantastic. I’d have loved to be living only minutes away, as I could have talked there all day. I have the height of respect for anyone who finished either the full or half here, as with the limited visibility on terrain like that, it wasn’t easy at all.
All in all, this was a fabulous event.
It was not fun at every moment, and I couldn’t put myself through something like this very often, but the delivery of this event was just exceptional. I expected this though, as this was right in the MMRA heartland. Every event I’ve been to that was run by these folks have been the best-run events I’ve ever been at, and I’d recommend any race director who’s looking to try running a big race to attend one of the MMRA’s bigger races, just to see how an event looks when all the little details are handled correctly. There were marshals everywhere they were needed, and the route marking was second to none. They made it look easy, though I imagine it was not easy to run a 26-mile mountain race on a January night.
Cracking job guys!