The premise seemed interestingly arduous, but infinitely intriguing: fly to Ireland and run rolling trails of the Wicklow Way for three glorious days, finishing each run at a pub with a fresh and frothy pint of Guinness.
OK, twist my arm, I’m in! I don’t have a trace of Irish blood in me, but on my previous trip to the Emerald Isle I became enchanted with a brief visit to the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin. Running several sections of the 127K route that connects the remote village of Clonegal and the suburbs of Dublin was going to be an amazing odyssey.
That’s exactly what my running buddy, Adam Chase, and I embarked upon in late April. We ran about 95K (roughly 59 miles) over three days, and it was everything it was cracked up to be and more. I’ve been fortunate to run on trails all over the world and yet running the Wicklow Way ranks up there with the greatest running adventures I’ve ever tackled.
Upon landing in Dublin on Friday morning, we took a short bus ride to the city center and hopped on an express train that zipped through the southern edges of the city and then along the coast abutting the Irish Sea. Before long we were at the small village of Greystones, where we were met by Fred Verdier of France, a friend I met while running trails in Italy who had gushed about the trails of the Wicklow Way.
After a short drive into the Wicklow hills, it was clear he knew what he was talking about. Like a scene from a postcard, everywhere we looked it was lush and green and full of life. We arrived at Glenmalure Lodge, a classic Irish inn situated in the longest glacial valley in all of Ireland. Inside the pub, we met local trail runners Stephen Brennen and Paul Daly, enjoyed a cup of coffee and a light lunch while looking over maps and discussing the 20K route we’d be running that afternoon. Hearing their enthusiasm for the route was exciting and made me forget that I only slept about an hour on the overseas flight.
After gearing up with hydration packs and wind shells, we were off. The climb out of Glenmalure was a steep forested route that eventually gave way to impressive views of the surrounding mountains and fertile valleys. Paul and Stephen regaled us with stories about local races and the long-ago history of the region. Both were exuberant to tell the story behind an early January 50K trail race that commemorates the infamous escape of three prisoners from Dublin Castle in the winter of 1592.
As legend has it, Art O’Neill, his brother Henry, and Hugh Roe O’Donnell escaped the castle and tried to run and hike to the relative safety of the remote Glenmalure Valley. Although they were the only prisoners to ever successfully escape, Art came up short and died from exposure only a few kilometers from reaching their destination. Nowadays, hearty Irish trail runners reenact that epic tale with the popular Art O’Neill Challenge in various solo and team divisions that begin between midnight and 1 a.m. Judging by the terrain we were running through in the springtime, it seemed like it would be a pretty epic ordeal amid snowy terrain and sub-freezing temperatures.
Because much of the terrain along the Wicklow Way is wet and boggy, long sections of wooden plank trail have been built to preserve the main hiking routes. The large, flat timbers are covered with industrial staples (and, in some places, a sturdy, metal mesh) for optimal traction. It was a bit odd to be running on this unique surface, and it took some getting used to, but we appreciated the secure footing.
Before long, we were atop Wicklow Mountains National Park at one of the higher points of the region, eventually towering over the long and narrow Glendalough Upper Lake that filled in the valley below. After taking in the views and snapping a few pictures, we began descending along the perimeter of the valley, eventually running down to the Glendalough Monastic Site, the well-preserved remains of a medieval village dating back to the sixth century. We were in awe as we toured the grounds, which included a still-intact, 30-meter stone tower, the remains of an ancient church and a cemetery with dozens of tilted and half-fallen headstones preserved in a way that Tim Burton might have orchestrated. The historic site was something to behold, for sure, especially because we arrived there on foot on routes dating back to ancient times.
Spending the afternoon sharing the passion of trail running with new friends was a lot of fun, but finishing it off with a cold pint of Guinness, a traditional meal of Irish stew, boxty (potato pancakes) and cabbage, and a bit of whiskey tasting at Wicklow Heather restaurant was a storybook ending to an amazing first day of this adventure. As Adam and I walked down a country lane on the way back to the Glendalough Hotel after dinner, we marveled over the richness of our first 12 hours in Ireland.
The next morning came early—partly because the raucous wedding party at the hotel carried on until 3 a.m. inside Casey’s Bar & Bistro—but fortunately we were met by the smiling faces and the energetic vibe of more local runners—Mark Kearns, Raymond Cummins, Siobhan Hayes, John Colclough, Mark Keogh and Alicia Christofi-Walshe, along with Fred and Paul—for our 30K journey over two more mountain peaks.
The skies were a bit gloomy and were threatening rain, but our hearty running companions brightened the experience with conversation and laughter as we passed through thick forests to the prestigious uplands of Wicklow County on the way to Roundwood. There is most definitely a universal language of running, and on the Wicklow Way, it comes with a thick Irish brogue and plenty of good-natured ribbing. It might have been chilly, gray and overcast, but for the locals that was typical—and no reason to spoil a good day of trail running.
We encountered more wooden-plank trails, but we also found lots of boggy terrain too. Learning how to run through the soft, saturated and very muddy turf came quickly following our friends, but one poorly placed footstep for any of us meant sinking over the ankle into shoe-stealing slop. We survived mostly unscathed, although at one point Paul sunk up to his right knee and had to be helped out of the soggy abyss.
VIDEO: Running Ireland’s Wicklow Way
We never did get rained on, although the cold, damp wind atop the 2,100-foot summit of Scarr Mountain was bone-chilling, which limited our time to take in the views. But soon we were back down in lush, green valleys where it was warmer and less breezy. At one point we came across a deep but slow-moving river that looked impossible to cross without stripping off our clothes and wading across—and believe me, we considered that option. While that might have been fun had it been 30 degrees warmer, it never came to that as we found a shallow section upstream. Still, that didn’t stop John from going full monty and diving in anyway, if just for a laugh.
Midway through our run, we came across a granite memorial for J.B. Malone, considered the forefather of the Wicklow Way. Malone was an Irish journalist who encouraged his countrymen to get out and walk on the trails way back in the mid-1960s. With Malone’s inspiration and his work on the trail organizing committee, the Wicklow Way became the first of numerous National Waymarked Trails opened in Ireland. Construction on the first section began in 1980 and was completed two years later, with subsequent sections completed through the mid-1990s. The trail’s most popular sections closest to Dublin are used by about 24,000 walkers and runners per year, which is still a relatively low number considering what an amazing resource the trail system is.
After passing Malone’s rock on our way up another mountain, Paul explained that we were running high above a large estate known as Luggala, the ancestral family home of the Guinness family that had recently been put up for sale with a $30 million price tag. The massive, seven-bedroom lodge was built in 1787—about a year before the U.S. Constitution was ratified—and was most recently the home of Garech Brown, the 78-year-old founder of Claddagh Records, who also happens to be the great-great-great-grandson of brewery founder Arthur Guinness and the primary heir to the family fortune.
The estate sits on a 5,000-acre property alongside Lough Tay, which is commonly known as Guinness Lake. The wide, dark body of water actually resembles a freshly poured pint of Ireland’s most famous beer, mostly because a sandy beach was created at one end specifically to develop that imaginary view from high above—including the spot where we had paused before making our final ascent up Djouce Mountain. Seeing that vision (and having run out of water an hour earlier) certainly made my mouth water for a fresh pint, but we still had about 8K of running before I could quench that thirst.
After we reached the top of 2,379-foot summit—the highest point of our three-day trip—we descended the treeless highlands into rolling hills, crossed a hiking bridge over the Dargle River and passed through the deep forest of Crone Woods. When we arrived at the end of the trail, we were tired but exhilarated from the day’s shared journey. Most of our friends went their separate ways, but a few of us headed to a local pub to catch some rugby and Gaelic football matches on TV while enjoying fish and chips—and yes, finally, a cold pint of Guinness!
For the final day of our three-day Irish trail running odyssey, Adam and I would be running the final 39K of the trail alone. It was a Sunday and the other local runners had places to be, namely church and family events. That afforded us a chance to sleep in a bit longer at the posh Powerscourt Hotel, a 200-room country resort with Palladian-style architecture, an exquisite spa, two golf courses and massive botanical gardens. But it also meant we’d have to navigate our own way back to the Wicklow trail system after passing through a couple of small villages.
Once on our way (with help from a nice gentleman who pointed us in the right direction, which was decidedly not the direction we were originally headed), we found the final section of the Wicklow Way to be among the best yet. We ran on idyllic rolling terrain, alongside sheep ranches and up and over one prominent feature—a peak called Fairy Castle—before heading into the outskirts of Dublin. According to local lore, fairies live and flutter around the pile of old stones that cover an ancient megalithic tomb on top of the 1,759-foot peak. We didn’t see any fairies, but our tired legs certainly left us fluttering a bit as we ran up and down the steep trail at the very top.
The Wicklow Way trail system officially starts and ends at Marlay Park, a 300-acre green space about 8K from Dublin’s city center, and getting off the trail and into the busy suburbs was admittedly a bit of a culture shock. Not only did we arrive in the park just as some kind of trendy inflatable-costume 5K run was ending, but we also saw more vehicles in the first few minutes back in civilization than we had the previous two days. Dublin is a smallish city as far as international capitals go, and the surrounding areas are rife with tree-lined streets and parks. But you still have to pay attention to traffic, given that traffic is on the opposite side of the road.
Amid the urban congestion, we ran about 6K more to our hotel in the city. Just as with completing a big race, finishing a multi-day tour on remote trails can bring a bit of mixed emotions. Once back in the hustle and bustle of the city, you find yourself a bit lost and without purpose—or at least not in the same tranquil state of mind as you are out on the trails. As we sat down for dinner that night, it was hard to believe we’d been in Ireland less than 60 hours and had covered so much ground on wondrous singletrack trails.
As we started to relish in the memories, we naturally had one more pint of Guinness to rehydrate and celebrate three days of running on the Wicklow Way. Sláinte!
For more information about the Wicklow Way, check out trailrunningireland.com/run-wicklow-way.