The 50km Trailtrekker – A Brilliant Day of Walking!

With the 2012 Trailtrekker event coming up, Michael Kinahan takes a look back at his experience of the challenge and offers some words of advice to those taking part in this year’s event. Michael has gone from being a participant in 2010 and 2011 to being a volunteer for this years event.

With just under two months now until this year’s Trailtrekker event, I wanted to share my experiences of last years 50km trek, particularly with those considering taking on the challenge in 2012. This is a wonderful hike that takes participants along sections of the Mourne Way before they are boated across to Louth where they follow a stretch of the Tain Way into medieval Carlingford. A top class event.

My own introduction to hill and trail walking came in 2010 when my brother Sean signed me up as a reluctant participant in the 100km Oxfam Ireland Trailtrekker. Being something of a couch potatoe at the time I was less than keen to take part, but was soon hooked on the sport, to a point where rarely a weekend goes by now without a good walk being part of it! As it turned out I was not mentally or physically prepared for the conditions that we faced that year and the effect that the non-stop rain (something like what we are experiencing at the moment) would have on my feet. After 63k, at 1.30am, I bailed out at the Mullaghbawn checkpoint and cheered the remainder of the team on as they crossed the line later that afternoon.

Clan Kinahan & Support Crew at the finish in 2010

At the time I was so proud of the lads for making it over the line, but when the dust settled it left me with a feeling that I still had unfinished business out there on the hills. So at dawn on a Saturday in November, my Dad kindly dropped the aforementioned brother Sean, myself and a few mates on Slieve Gullion, 42km from Carlingford. Over the course of the day we covered the final stages of the Trailtrekker that I hadn’t back in September! The reason we didn’t start in Mullaghbawn was to see what the exit from Gullion forest was like when in the light when you were alive and alert! (Thankfully, this exit has been modified and is no longer part of the route; the Oxfam crowd are very good at listening to participant feedback I must admit). This great marathon walk eased the demons in my head, but when Oxfam introduced a 50km option last year I knew that I wanted to take on the challenge of getting a full team across the line in a decent time. The 100km walk is a fantastic endurance walk, but I was more than happy with the idea of taking on the Trailtrekker as more manageable one day walk.

Preparing for the 2011 Trailtrekker

The team in training in the Cooley Mountains

The family team that I was a part of in 2010 were fantastic and a great experience for us all, but for 2011 I wanted to cast the net out and introduce a few new souls to the event. Late winter and early spring means that some Sunday afternoons are spent on the cold grassy hills of the Gaelic grounds in Drogheda cheering on the Louth football team. Being a Louth fan is rarely easy, but to watch some of the division three NFL matches in bitter weather takes proper dedication, a hard edge and maybe even a bit of madness. These are just the kind of traits that you want to have in a team for a challenge walk. So on these hills I recruited some good mates and fellow Louth fans, hence came the team name “An Lu Abu”.

We did a few early walks, in the Mournes and along the Ring of Gullion, but it was from the 10th of July that our group training really started. This meant a team walk every weekend with us doing our own individual shorter hill walks during the week. We are four lads in our mid thirties in reasonable shape so the 50km was always going to be doable for us, but the more training you do the better shape you are going to be in and the more you will enjoy the day itself! Plus the training itself was immensely enjoyable. A lot of the advice that Oxfam provide on their website in terms recommendations for training is spot on, and you can check this section out on the link below:
http://netdub.oxfamireland.org/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=566

But the most important points that I would make are as follows:
1: Train and Walk as a team: We were lucky last year in that we had a great team dynamic, but even at that there were issues that were better off being resolved in training rather than on the day! We got all of these dealt with during training, so as on the day itself everyone knew what to expect from each other.
2: The weakest sets the pace: This is rarely going to be the same person, as different people will tend to flag at different stages, but believe me this works (and I was a sceptic in 2010, thinking that we should push the pace to keep the weaker driven on, it doesn’t work). By letting the weakest set the pace you will stay together and morale will be far better. At times I was the weakest link both years!
3: If at all possible train on the route: This is of huge benefit. As most will know, what a route looks like on a map rarely corresponds with how you experience it! For example, the final section into Carlingford is a wonderful walk on its own on a Sunny afternoon, it’s altogether different when it’s coming at the end of a marathon trek, and it’s not as level as you might think. So by walking it in training you will be far better prepared for it on the day.
4: Gear: Each to their own, personally I find the walking poles and hydration back pack immensely useful on such a walk. Walking boots, or trail shoes, you decide, but they are the one thing I will spend the money on and go to a good outdoor store for, no new shoes on the big day! Gaiters would not be an essential on my list for this walk, but some of the most experienced Trailtrekkers will recommend them. New socks and a few pairs of them, definitely! Be prepared for all weather, we started last year in full rain gear and later in the afternoon it was shorts and sun screen.
5: Try and get training done in all conditions: You don’t know what weather you will have on the day and if you haven’t experienced a prolonged walk in the wet or under a baking sun how do you know what way your body or mind will react?
6: Peak & Taper: We built our team walks up to a point where we did two 28km walks with 21kms either side of them. With only a light 10km walk in the week before the event.

Team Pic at the Start after Breakfast in Donard Park

The Big Day!
After registering in Newcastle on Friday evening we retired to our accommodation for the night, wondering if we would be able to sleep with the anticipation of the upcoming day’s activities. It was an early start with us all assembling at Donard Park for 7.20 to take in the complimentary breakfast (The porridge wasn’t half bad, particularly with some cinnamon sauce). Loaded up on Carbs, juice and a drop of caffeine we were ready to take on the day.

Stage 1 – Donard Park to Meelmore Lodge
So at 8am, along with all the other 50km teams and the elite of 100km teams we set off, marvelling at some of the 100km guys as they ran off into the distance! The weather was wet and gloomy to start off with but nothing too severe. The first few kms are on tarred surface, before you hit the forest tracks of Tollymore forest. The crowd is well packed for the first 10km and only really starts to string out after this. We kept a good steady 4/5 kmph pace during this stretch, as there are no major ascents and no worries with terrain. However, as we neared the Trassey track the weather started to significantly deteriorate, so by the time we reached the first checkpoint at Meelmore Lodge the rain was heavy and the wind was rising. With less than 10km done we topped on water, checked in and were out of this checkpoint within five minutes.

Heading out on to the slopes of Meelmore

Stage 2 – Meelmore Lodge to Leitrim Lodge
The stretch from Meelmore Lodge to the OTT car park is a popular stretch of the Mourne Way and one that we were all familiar with. But we had nearly always walked it in good conditions. As we crossed the stile and headed out onto the lower slopes of Meelmore, it was clear that it would be a completely different prospect today. The wind was coming from our left, directly down the slopes of this bulky mountain, the grassy and muddy track made for tricky going. Personally, I loved this part of the walk, enjoying the challenge of the weather and the terrain! The fact that my walking poles had saved me from a few falls and that we were still fresh contributed significantly to this no doubt! (Note: Two of us walked with poles and never fell at any stage; the other two lads weren’t as lucky). As we entered the forest after the fofanny dam we expected conditions to be super saturated under foot as this patch is normally wet in the best of weather. It was wet, but surprisingly no worse than normal and we were well mentally prepared for this first short stretch of continuous ascent up to the top of the road past the OTT car park.

Heading off towards the Hen

As we dropped down the road to the Spelga dam the mist (heavy at times) that had been with us for the past two hours disappeared within the space of minutes. The rain had stopped, the wind calmed and we could see blue skies in front of us. As it would turn out, we would have fine weather for the rest of the day. This is the luck of the draw and you have to mentally prepare and kit prepare yourself for the conditions. As it turned out, getting the bad weather out of the way early was a god send. From the spelga dam there is a short stretch on the road before joining the Mourne Way, as it snakes around the lower slopes of Slievenamiskan and Hen Mountain. The terrain here can be rough and mucky, but we were all still feeling great and spirits were high. On reaching the Rocky River Bridge there is an easy couple of kilometres on the road into Leitrim Lodge, which we reached before 2pm. So, six hours gone and just under half way there, we were on target to get this walk done in less than 13 hours, well within our target time.

Stage 3 – Leitrim Lodge to Kilbroney Park
On events such as these, your overall time is hugely affected by the time spent at stops and checkpoint. Next time I take on the Trailtrekker (taking a year of in 2012 to volunteer), if the team want to aim for a certain time we will be well clued up to the fact that it is long stops rather than average walking speed that seems to affect the overall time more (for us mere mortals who walk it anyway). The reason that I say this is that Leitrim Lodge was the first checkpoint where we probably spent a wee bit more time at it than we needed to. There were restrictions on meeting your support crew at this checkpoint, so we arranged to meet them a few kilometres up the road. From Leitrim Lodge you are back on mountain track, the first few km out of the checkpoint are class on a dry day and treacherous in the wet, it was somewhere in between for us on this day (good pic of the lads negotiating it attached). Once we had this initial stretch out of the way we met up with the “An Lu Abu Support Crew” and took what would be by far and away our longest break of the day, essentially our lunch stop. We were just past half way and it was now just after 2.30. Another great wee part of this challenge is that when you clock in at each checkpoint it is updated on the Oxfam website, so we had friends and family sending us texts to let us know what position we were in. We were well up with the pace coming into Leitrim Lodge, but our lengthy stops would see us well off the pace leaving Kilbroney. None of this really matters as we were going at the pace that suited us, but it was a bit of craic getting the updates.

The An Lu Abu Support Crew

More about the “An Lu Abu Support Crew” or the WAGs as they didn’t like me calling them! For the 50km walk there is no need to have a four person support crew, but all our better halves wanted to be a part of the day, so a big thank must go to Kathleen Kinahan, Deborah Woods, Edele Woods & Emer Mc Guigan for helping us as they did. The car even sported the team colours along with some non native Louth women! The long stop we took on this stage was very enjoyable; the good ladies had seats, food, hot drinks and changes of clothes ready for us. Some of us changed all but our underwear at this stage and you do feel like a new person when you can discard the wet clothes and get a fresh shirt and shorts on you. The weather was glorious and warm here in the valley, so we relaxed for a good half an hour, enjoying our laid on lunch and thankfully needed to get the sun cream out.

The stretch from here into Kilbroney always feels longer than it is, because you always think you are nearly there! To hark back to the training tips, this is another stretch where the benefit of having done it in training stands to you mentally. It is easy going, we had nice weather. I even decided to run a small downhill stretch towards the end and the most eventful part of this stretch was when Maurice and I got to make the acquaintance of a very friendly PSNI officer on a bicycle. We knew that we were off the pace and no teams close behind and we hadn’t yet started to pick off the teams who had passed us at our lunchtime stop. So we were surprised when a brief personal stop was interrupted by the screeching brakes of this bike. All was good and he wished us good luck.

Stage 4 – Kilbroney Park to Dolmen Centre
By the time we reached Kilbroney most of the lads had walked farther than they had ever walked before, there were a few minor complaints, but by in large the spirits were very good and we had planned to only do a very short stop at Kilbroney. However, we can partly blame O’Brien’s sandwich bar for this being a longer than anticipated stop, as one of the sponsors to the event they had very kindly laid on all sorts of sandwiches and goodies for the participants and we readily enjoyed them (some of us more than others). I just got stuck into some of the sugary treats and as I wolfed down a few glucose tablets on the way out the road I suddenly hit an almighty sugar high that really had been bursting with energy! I also had another thing burst on me, a blister. It is only about 4km on flat footpath from Kilbroney to the boat stop in Warrenpoint and an ideal time to change footwear to a normal pair of runners if you want to give your feet the feel of something different. I was in an old pair of battered trail shoes when the blister burst. It was one that I had carried into the event on a toe that always blisters on me during long walks, no matter what the footwear. There were two choices at this stage, stop sit down and tend to it losing time and our position. Given that I would be invariably slow and careful at doing this I decided for the latter strategy which was to pull the walking poles off my back and power through the initial pain, putting a bit more weight on the other foot until the short stretch to boat ride knowing that the pain would ease and I could tend to it later. Being on a sugar high helped with this strategy and Jim and myself for once broke the golden rule of staying together as a team as we powered on for about 2km to the boat, where the lads joined us for the trip across Carlingford Lough.

Boat coming from Warrenpoint over to Omeath

This is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the walk and once you are seated comfortably a very enjoyable trip across. As we pulled up at Omeath the girls from another team started shouting at the driver of the boat, “Again, Again”. To be honest we wouldn’t have minded going over and back again ourselves. From the pier to the Dolmen centre is another easy 1km walk and on this short stretch we again agreed to be as quick as possible through this checkpoint. Because we had paced ourselves early we were finishing strong and as we picked off a few teams we wanted to keep our charge up the places going.

Stage 5 – Omeath to Carlingford
We still managed to spend the guts of 15 minutes at this stop and watched a couple of teams leave the checkpoint before us. To be fair we had nearly covered a marathon distance at this stage and it wouldn’t be long before the effects of this did start to show on the team. We took to road out of Omeath; it is only a few km out of here that the 50km and 100km participants go their separate ways. We happily told the steward at the junction in the road, that we would be taking the route to the left. We watched a 100km team head right towards, Killeen, Slieve Gullion and a night and day of further walking.

The moon rising as we head out of Slieve Foye Forest Park

We had a couple of niggly stops here, one of the lads needed to carry out some running repairs which I will not elaborate on, but when we were walking we were going a good pace. When we came off the road and hit the final 6km of track it was just after 7:30 and there was a lovely red glow coming from the sun that was just starting to set in the direction of Clermont Cairn. Things were still going good and since leaving Omeath we had gotten ourselves back up to 10th place in the order. From Slieve Foye forest car park we were joined by my brother Sean, my father and my son Cormac, kindly dropped off by my mother and youngest son Aodhan. They would accompany us to the finish and bolster the spirits, particularly for myself. With about 4km left and our entire final ascent finished for the day, we hit a problem. Brendan picked up an injury, which required us to stop for a while and treat it. It was nothing serious but it was at this stage that we were reminded that our number one goal was to cross the line as a team and that finishing position and finishing time were peripheral. We had at this stage had the ninth place team in our sights and it might have been a sprint finish only for the injury. It just goes to show you, I have done many high hills with Brendan, like Donard and Mweelrea and he is like an old mountain goat on them, strong and quick. But we can all get injured and thankfully his was not serious enough to stop him from getting to the finish. The man who was sometimes the weakest link in training our walks, but was undoubtedly the strongest finisher by the end was Jim, (If I attempt the 100km again I know he will be the first man to call).

Anyway, we took a short break to tend to the injury and rest before continuing on at a sensible pace. We were still together and as the dark started to settle in on this September evening we could still make the finish before 9pm and we did. Before starting out we had set a target time of between 13 and 15 hours to complete the walk. We came in under the 13 hours and when the journey time for the boat ride was taken off we had an official finishing time of 12:45, finishing in 11th place. Most importantly we crossed the line together, finishing ahead of the target time was a nice bonus. For those who are a lot more serious than us, this walk can be done in a much quicker time, but that was not what we were about.

The whole crew at the finish (we were too tired to notice the flag was upside down)

The Après Match
We were welcomed and cheered on to the end by members of family and our wonderful support crew; we had also been joined along the walk by another friend Shane (our fifth beatle). There is a great set up at the finish, I had first aid double check a few blisters which were all fine and the four of us happily lay down for the laid on massage, from Athletes Angels. This is an absolute must for anyone taking on the challenge, avail of it, there are no prizes for not. I spoke to one lad the next day that didn’t get the massage and sorely regretted it. We didn’t bother with the showers though, we were in a rush to the bar, and having downed a tasty bottle of Cava at the finish we wanted to get a few well deserved pints of Guinness in at the sailing club bar before they finished up. They were both deserved and enjoyed and Kathleen and myself were still in that same bar a couple of hours later when the first 100km team “the Dromintee 4” finished, they had done 100km in just a few hours more than it had taken us to do 50. These men are machines though and set a record time for that challenge, one that even their close competition, the “Oxfam Strollers” couldn’t cope with. Well done to them all. As for the An Lu Bu bodies, they all recovered quickly enough and it was a day that we can look back on with pride and fond memories.

Trailtrekker Completed

Just because we didn’t finish high enough up the positions for any of the walking awards didn’t mean that we were out of the reckoning for one of the post event awards! We had well surpassed our basic target of €2,000 in fundraising before the event took place, but there was still an opportunity to fundraise further for a short time afterwards. We continued to do so with gusto, leaving no stone unturned. We were delighted when our efforts meant that we were the top Non Corporate Fundraising team and were honoured to receive the Annick Van de Venster Perpetual trophy as an acknowledgment of this. Most importantly, every cent that we had raised went to a very worthwhile and well run charity, as the cost of participation in the event is borne by the participants themselves, a very important factor in our belief in the cause.

We are taking a year off walking in the event for 2012, although some of us will be involved as volunteers to help out instead. But I think it is an event that some or all of us will be back for again in the future.

I might not look it, but believe me I’m happy

Recommended Reading & Viewing!!
For another perspective on the Trailtrekker event I would highly recommend reading Stephen Wilson’s account of his training and taking part in the 100km event in 2010.
http://www.walkingandhikingireland.com/?s=stephen+wilson&x=0&y=0

If you would like to check out a short photo slideshow of the An Lu Abu experience just click on the youtube link below

I am not, nor never have been an employee of Oxfam, but I would highly recommend the Trailtrekker event and would be only to happy to answer any questions that anyone might have on the event, particularly in relation to fundraising and how to achieve your goal. Feel free to email me on
mlkinahan@eircom.net.

Finally, I hope you found this to be an interesting piece and if it did manage to inspire you take part in this year’s event, there is still time, but not much! You can start by clicking on the link below:
http://www.oxfamireland.org/trek/

Best of Luck to all those taking part in the 2012 TT!

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