May 2022 saw the second edition of the Waterville Trailrunning Festival (WTF), an event that a lot of people had been looking forward to for a couple of years. The longest continuous event of the festival, the 130km race, consists of three loops of 43km. On the Saturday morning 62 runners headed out on their first loop, but only 37 of them managed to finish the full race. What happened over the course of that day and the subsequent night? Let me introduce four runners.
Stephen has been trail running on and off for several years, mostly shorter distances in the Reeks and Killarney National Park. After enjoying the reporting of the Kerry Way Ultra (KWU) in 2020, he signed up for the 190km event in 2021 and finished top 10. Three weeks after the KWU he did the EcoTrail Wicklow 80km race as well.
Eva started trail running in 2020. Before that, she’d done a lot of long distance hiking. Her first event was Seven Sisters Skyline (55km) in 2020, followed by the KWU Nite (90km) a couple of weeks after that. Unfortunately she ended up getting an injury and not finishing the event. After that she took a step back, hired a coach and learned to get ‘ultra running strong’ without overtaxing her body. In 2021 she went on to finish the full KWU and the Ultra X in the Azores.
Michael ran his first ultra in 2020, finishing both the Seven Sisters Skyline and the KWU Lite (58km). After working his way back from injury he ran the full Sheep’s Head Way (95km) earlier in 2022, as well as spending some long days in the Reeks. WTF has been on his calendar ever since he signed up for the 2021 edition.
Having completed a number of marathons, Eddie was keen to test himself over the longer distances. He ran the Donadea 50km in 2019 and after completing the Art O’Neill Challenge in 2020 (60km through wintry Wicklow Mountains), he signed up for the full KWU – ‘the sheer madness just appealed to me’. He had to drop out that year, but came back in 2021 to finish what he’d started.
Getting to the start line of WTF may have been one of the biggest challenges for some. Several runners had to drop out in the weeks leading up to the race, often due to injuries or covid. These four managed to show up, although they did have their own hiccups as well.
Eva: ‘I didn’t decide I was going to do Waterville until four weeks out from the race. I was having a very busy period in work and that was zapping up a lot of my energy, so I didn’t think I would be fit enough in time for the event. But as it turns out I had put in a pretty decent training block from January to April, so I ended up getting quite a good bit of mileage in my legs. I had no expectations – just to finish the race was my goal.’
Michael: ‘Prep up until April had been really good, with some very solid long runs including the Sheep’s Head Way. Getting sick on holidays a few weeks before the race threw a spanner in the works and made getting to the start line an achievement in itself.’
Stephen: ‘I expected it to be hard as I did two recces of the route before the race and found it tough going. In terms of nutrition and so forth I had no real preparation as I don’t know much about this, but I had decent miles in the legs before the race so I thought I would probably get round anyway.’
Eddie: ‘Having received a late entry to WTF in March, my training going into the race was less than ideal. I had been averaging about 70km a week since Christmas but had done very little mountain or trail running. The plan was to use the race as training in preparation for a summer of solid training and racing.’
Loop 1: Too Hard, Wrong Turns
One of the most important rules in ultrarunning is ‘don’t go out too fast’. We all know it’s not a sprint, right?
Stephen: ‘I was nervous at the start and felt as though I went out too hard, but had some good banter with a French runner by the name of Seb for the first loop and a half which helped distract the mind from the many kilometres left to run. I felt as though the loop went fast, but that I spent too long at the aid station between the first and second loop.’
Loop 1: 4h30
Eva: ‘Loop 1 started off quite strong for me, but I was running too fast and my heart rate was up way too high. I was trying to keep up with some friends that I was talking to, and then I started to bonk as we were going up Eagles Hill. I felt like the energy had been zapped out of me. This feeling continued pretty much for the whole loop. I felt nauseous from the heat, I was getting really down and wasn’t having a good time. I didn’t think I was going to be able for this whole race.’
Loop 1: 5h50
Michael: ‘The first 17km went by really well, I was chatting away and felt good. I noticed my heart rate was high on Eagles but the pace felt comfortable. I didn’t get the energy bounce I expected at the first aid station and started feeling very nauseous on the road section. I lost all energy on the climb up the ridge, vomited for an hour and decided to throw in the towel. However I started to come around by the end of the ridge section and had got my stuff together by the time I got back to the start.’
Loop 1: 6h08
Eddie: ‘I felt pretty relaxed starting the race. Somehow I found myself at the front of the field as we ran out of Waterville on the first loop. After some time chatting to Stephen and Lianne, I eased up a bit as we headed up the first climb, figuring it was going to be a long day and I needed to conserve as much energy as I could. After the turn for Derrynane I did wonder why I couldn’t see a few runners that had been just ahead of me anymore, but when three others followed me I didn’t think too much about it. Luckily we had only gone a few hundred meters when one of the other runners got a call from an attentive dot watcher to tell him we had gone wrong. Leaving the halfway aid station I felt quite good, so I pushed on and tried to pick off a few places. I somehow managed to take another wrong turn at around 30km in, this time adding 2-3km before realising the mistake. Much like in the KWU, the ridge was especially tough as you can see Waterville in the distance, but it still takes such a long time to get down to the road that leads back into the town.’
Loop 1: 5h25
Loop 2: Heat and Eagles
If showing up at the start line of an event like this is an accomplishment in and of itself, imagine getting back to the same start/finish area after running 43km. Do you have what it takes to leave the comfort of the aid station and head back out again…?
Eddie: ‘Arriving back to Waterville I felt more tired than I’d expected and I was slowing down quite a lot. I hadn’t much left but I was keen not to pull out just yet, so I made the decision to start the second loop and just see how far I could go. I met up with another runner, David. Having someone to run with was a good distraction, but the further I went the less energy I had and my quads were beginning to cramp on the downhills. My thinking at this point was that this was only going to be a training race for me and I had another race coming up in two weeks (Wicklow Way Relay), so a slightly earlier finish would mean a quicker recovery. David had said that his wife would be in Caherdaniel and I could get a lift back to Waterville with her. While I felt bad to be dropping out, I knew it was the right decision for me on the day.’
Loop 1: 5h25 | DNF | Total time: 8h05
Eva: ‘When I arrived at the aid station after the first loop I was just trying to get my head together. I really wasn’t feeling good, but I got some gels into me that had caffeine in them. That really perked me up and gave me a new energy. I was actually moving well throughout the second loop. A lot of that was because I now knew where I was going on the course. This helped especially on some of the trickier descents. I felt pretty good coming towards the end of the second loop. I was obviously quite tired after 86km but I was in a positive mindset and I was ready to go for the third one.’
Loop 1: 5h50 | Loop 2: 7h06 | Total time: 12h56
Michael: ‘Initially it had been my plan not to sit down in between loops, but when things were so bad on loop 1 I sat down after every loop and had a can of coke. That seemed to work. When I was starting loop 2 I checked the tracker and saw the leading pack was in Caherdaniel. I moved fairly well and was on my own for pretty much all of this loop. The heat was horrendous for the first half, but luckily I had the pub in Caherdaniel to refill water. I remember the climb up Eagles being particularly long and annoying this time. Things improved for me after the halfway aid station, when the heat dropped, my heart rate returned to normal and I felt I was moving OK. It was starting to get dark by the time I hit Waterville. I had just under ten hours left to do the last loop.’
Loop 1: 6h08 | Loop 2: 7h51 | Total time: 13h59
Stephen: ‘The second loop felt more difficult and the pace up Eagles slowed, I spent much of the loop running alone and found it harder to gauge my pace. I found the lads at the aid station great, the glass of coke really helped. I felt steady going into Waterville and somewhat confident I had enough energy to finish the race, even if I could not hold the pace.’
Loop 1: 4h30 | Loop 2: 5h22 | Total time: 9h52
Loop 3: Foot Issues and The Smiths
When you’ve said A and B, you might as well say C. After finishing the second loop, none of our three remaining runners even thought of dropping out. Negative thoughts seemed to have disappeared and all that was left was some hours in the dark. And Eagles. And that ridge. Again. Oh, did I mention the stiles?
Stephen: ‘I decided to throw on the headphones for this loop as I thought the music soundtrack of 80s pop would help massively. The first song that came on the Spotify playlist was The Smiths so it’s debatable if it actually helped the mood. I felt climbing over the stiles with speed and cockiness earlier had come back to haunt me, as I felt a pain when climbing every stile for this third loop. I got a boost as the brother was supporting me along the loop and Kevin and the lads at the aid station were great again. It did feel harder attempting to run up Eagles and even the descent after felt longer, as the darkness came and I saw the headtorches of Lianne and Trevor close in. I was damn happy to finally hit the descent into Waterville, and picked up the pace on the flat towards the finish line.’
Loop 1: 4h30 | Loop 2: 5h22 | Loop 3: 6h10 | Total time: 16h02 (1st place)
Eva: ‘The third loop started off strong. I was moving well, though my legs were starting to give up. I had two hours of daylight left so I got through about a third of the course in that time. It was dark as I was coming halfway through the loop and into the checkpoint. After that I started getting so exhausted that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I was on my own and I was kind of hallucinating, seeing things that weren’t there. For example when I was climbing up the ridge, I saw these two black puddles which I thought were two black labradors. I kept getting lost as well because it was so dark and I couldn’t find the signs. That slowed me down a bit, having to backtrack my steps. The third loop was slower but I knew that if I started it I was going to finish it, no matter how exhausted I was.’
Loop 1: 5h50 | Loop 2: 7h06 | Loop 3: 9h20 | Total time: 22h16
Michael: ‘I felt really good for the first section of the last loop, I seemed to be moving well in comparison to some other times and passed out a few people in the first 14km. The ground got wet then for the ascent up Eagles, which was again another slog. The descent was very slow. I took off my shoes and socks a few times to remove debris, but my feet were cut up at this stage. At the bottom of Eagles I met (read: “rescued”) John Boyle and I ran with him to the aid station. The next few hours were definitely a struggle, mainly down to my feet. My pace dropped considerably and it became quite painful to run. There were points where I was doing about 4km an hour and I was genuinely worried I’d miss the overall cut-off for the event. Mentally I just wanted it over and done with at this stage. The last three hours were shocking slow. I can’t even describe how I felt getting back into Waterville.’
Loop 1: 6h08 | Loop 2: 7h51 | Loop 3: 8h50 | Total time: 22h49
Finish Line Thoughts
These four runners ran four very different races. Their conclusions afterwards are surprisingly similar, though. Remember these names, you will most definitely see more of them in future races.
Michael: ‘I’m delighted I did it, it’s a very gruelling event and it probably took a bit more mental fortitude than I knew I had. The feeling of hitting that finish line on Sunday morning is one I can’t put into words. Having friendly faces there really made it one of the best ever. Fair play to Simon and the team for organising a brilliant event, it really was a memorable weekend.’
Eva: ‘I absolutely loved the event, although at the time I wouldn’t say so. At the time there were parts where I was very low, felt like vomiting, felt like crying, felt like giving up… And then there were parts that were going really well and I was really proud of myself for persevering and being resilient. It’s an absolutely amazing course and all the people around it made this race so special. They’re so supportive, so welcoming and that’s what I love about Waterville and about ultrarunning in Ireland. It really makes for just a fantastic experience.’
Stephen: ‘I enjoyed it as it is a challenging course and the fact that you’re running loops is tough on the head. I enjoyed the low-key nature of the event. Compliments to Simon on the race organisation, and to Kev and the other lad at the aid station. They were great. I think Simon inviting people into the holiday homes later to have a cup of tea and just to rest for a while or shower is great. Completing the course helps the mind and body for the KWU in a few months.’
Eddie: ‘I really enjoyed the WTF experience, meeting such a great bunch of ultrarunners and getting to see the lovely scenery around that part of Kerry. The race was really well organised by Simon and his team. I look forward to coming back next year with the right training done and finish it.’