I always wanted to do the Art O Neil challenge and this year I finally got around it. For those who don't know it's a 53 kilometer trail from Dublin Castle through the Dublin Mountains and beyond, finally finishing near Glenmalure, Wicklow.
So who in their right mind would do that? Well Art O Neil did way back in 1593, he was escaping from prison with Red Hugh O'Donnell and Henry O'Neil. Poor old Art though got injured and they carried him most of the way, sadly he perished along the way. It was January after all and they were ill equipped for the mountains.
Modern day and the Art O'Neil challenge relives this famous night in Irish History, in January! Just so that you get the whole authentic experience. It is run by and fund raises for Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team, These are the same people who had to come to my rescue when I broke my leg on the side of a mountain in 2012. Not only was I flat boarded off the mountain but I was completely mortified. So I kind owe them one! They are a fantastic bunch of men and women who are all volunteers.
The week of the event the weather was beyond miserable with heavy wind and rain but someone was looking out for us. The wind subsided, the rain turned to severe frost and the temperatures plummeted giving us beyond perfect conditions for a night hike. Oh yeah! I forgot to mention, the Art O'Neil Challenge starts at midnight so not only are you are hiking in January, it's also in the dark.
This kind of event is clearly not for the faint hearted and it attracts a lot of very seasoned ultra trail runners, who run it in the dark and self navigate too. Now clearly I am not in that category, far from it. I was down the back with the walkers who required a guide to get to over the mountains and to the finish line. There is not a hope that I would have made it Glenmalure on my own without a navigator! I would probably be still out there or worse; have ended up like poor old Art O'Neil.
We departed Dublin Castle bang on Midnight on Friday/ Saturday. Coming out of the Castle you immediately pass Burdock's Chipper where a bunch of revelers were outside wondering why the hell 200 people are wearing high viz vests and head torches in the middle of the city! I loved the buzz and was feeling thrilled, excited, driven and of course super happy to be challenging myself and pushing my boundaries yet again.
The route heads south out through Harold's Cross, Kimmage, picking up the Firhouse Road which then leads on up into the Dublin mountains. Lucky for me, my sister lives just at the end of suburbia so I had a sneaky stop there! A long night ahead I thought it would be nice to have a proper posh loo break and a hot chocolate before hitting the hills. Naturally she was thrilled to get out of bed at 1:40am and put on the kettle for me!! (Thank you Tricia! My mother gave out to me! How is it every time I do an adventure my sisters sleep gets disturbed? Dublin airport at 4am in December...!)
The hills beckoned and so did black ice. I slid a few times going up Balniscorney but thankfully it wasn't wet or windy. There was plenty of chat and craic too. It's not like you don't see anyone on the way and I had convinced a cycle buddy to join me. He was regretting it by now while I was in my element. Sure what else would be I doing only sleeping! I was full of the joys of spring, really felt motivated and happy. The sky was crystal clear, there was a crescent moon and gazillions of stars. It was perfect hiking weather. Sure it was sub zero but it was a dry cold. I was so worried about the damp getting into me but thankfully it was crisp, cold air. Like a ski holiday only better. I was lovely and cozy in my warm gear with a little red nose for good measure.
The first 30km is self guided on roads which is nice but to be honest my feet started to burn. Tarmac gets boring too! Camp one was so welcome. Unlike Art and the lads we had our luggage, tea and a bonfire waiting for us. We changed out of our runners into our hiking boots, fueled up and put on more layers. The staff at the camp were brilliant, I felt so safe, welcomed and accounted for! I was not going missing on this trip. I shoved some salt and vinegar crisps in me, stuffed in a cheese and avocado roll and felt ready to tackle the next 23km.
Joining a my guided, hiking group the real adventure started. Head lamps on we headed off into the wilderness. It was 6am and I was gung ho, there was no stopping me, in fact I was smiling ear to ear since midnight!
I was sure that 53km would take me about 12 hours. When the guide said not a hope I was disappointed to be honest. I soon realized why it would take so long. Thankfully most of the bog was frozen and it wasn't half as mucky as expected. However it was an arduous walk even by my standards. Plenty of ups ad downs, tough terrain, holes to fall into and a bit a scrambling at times. There also was a good few water crossings where I wished my legs were a lot longer. I also had a little back pack with essentials and even though it wasn't heavy it was tiring on my shoulders. Then there was the lack of sleep, cold toilet in the bushes stops and general breaks to give the group a little breather. I haven't hiked in ages either. Years in fact! So when I was asked how much training I had done I was a bit embarrassed! Sure I had done none. Nada. Zilch! In fact I had been lying on a beach in Cuba for most of December. Thankfully fitness is not an issue from all my cycling and all my other crazy adventures in the past have given me plenty of endurance, resilience and gumption to boot. I was feeling grand, excited, fit and alive!
Like most people I have never walked from Dublin to Wicklow through the night over bogs! By the time I got to the first camp to change my shoes and meet my guide the fastest man and woman were both long since finished. Probably home and tucked up in bed and all! However for the likes of me that were on the scenic, tourist route I am sure we had a very different experience to the runners. We got to see the beauty of the route in the daylight. My groups guides were lovely, they were so encouraging and helpful. Chatty and very funny too. The group was bonding well and dawn was on the horizon. You can't imagine how glorious it was, to be out in the middle of nowhere, with stars, crisp cold air and way off in the east there was a little line of orange starting to appear.
There really is nowhere nicer in the world than Ireland on a good day. I should know I have seen enough of it. Trust me, Ireland really is stunning. We have it all. Rolling hills, forests, streams and lakes. There is diversity of terrain, color and landscapes that would take your breath away. Even looking back in the dark over the twinkling lights of the city was a sight to behold. Trekking all night with the moon and stars was spectacular, but when then the sun came up, it took my breath away. Daylight revealed a layer of thick, heavy frost over the countryside, icicles were hanging off the bog and small lakes were frozen. There was a lovely crunch under our feet as we trucked on. Fresh crispness to a brand new day.
Blue skies, frozen bog and a photo at the cross to commemorate Art O Neil I was full of beans still and was feeling great. I had a very special guest with me, my travel buddy, Snoopy! He has been all over the world with me and is always in my pocket when I do my adventures. He is my little mascot. I don't honestly know how I never got tired on the trek. I was on fire for the night/day. I guess it's because I love being outdoors, challenging myself and doing new things. I never was one for conforming or routine so I guess this event really appealed to my nature.
Towards the end with just 4 kilometers to go we had to get down on our hands and knees and crawl across a bridge made of logs. It was frozen and icy so best just to slide across it on your tummy or bum! Then it was down the valley that was treacherous with thick black ice. It was worse than a skating rink. While my energy was still high I was a bit done to be honest. It was now over 15 hours of being upright. There was a camp two along the way where we had more tea and porridge but that was hours ago! I had plenty of food in my bag but was sick of it. I wanted to take off my boots and have someone rub my feet. Though I do doubt they would want to go anywhere near them!!! We were being careful on the black ice path, that's when we spotted them. A family out for a walk with the dog! We knew they couldn't have come too far with small kids, we must be near the end. We warned them about the ice and carried on. Cars! We could see them in the field parked up and glistening in the sunshine! Hallelujah. My energy soared with jump leads that must have extend to the vehicles!
Re grouping we had some lovely words from our fantastic guides. We stuck our feet into the river that was over flowing on the bridge we needed to cross. What a great way to finish. I splashed and sploshed in the water, over joyed and delighted. Waved for the camera and crossed the finish line in 15 hours and 30 minutes. Our group had been so much fun, full of chat, photos and hugs finished off the adventure.
Our luggage was waiting for us at the finish line, how amazing was it to take off my boots? It was like taking concrete blocks off and having angels throw cotton wool at me! Even though I had changed my socks three times over the course, used talc and Vaseline I had little blisters, bruised toe nails and chipped my Shellac Nail varnish! Oh well, a good excuse to book in for a pedicure soon.
I felt so happy to be finished. I had always said I would do the Art O Neil challenge and I have. It was so lovely to do something supportive for the gang that rescued me. The trek was awesome but not just because of the route. We had a lovely group to chat with, laugh with, share the adventure with and all arrived together. I loved every minute of the event, ok I may have temporarily ran out of steam in the last 5 kilometers but that is because our guides kept telling us it was just five more kilometers. He must have said that for the last 20 kilometers!!! However, it is an event that I will remember for a very long time. It was something completely different to what I normally do. Not only was it challenging but I had great fun and met lots of new, like minded people.
I was knackered the next day! Tuesday I had to have a nap in the afternoon, Wednesday I was exhausted and Thursday I started to feel human again. So "normal" in fact that I booked another event.. "Walk the Line" anyone???????
About the Author:
Sinéad Kennedy is an author, Personal Development Coach and relationship Coach. She is also a Physical Therapist, Yoga Siromani and Pilates Instructor. Based in both Rathfarnham and Dundrum, South County Dublin. She works with people from all walks of life, helping them to have the courage and correct tools to make changes in their life.
She also works with many athletes, especially cyclists, runners and golfers. Recently featured on the Elaine Show as well as the Irish Independent, FIT Magazine and Breaking News.ie you can follow her success on her YouTube Channel.
A keen cyclist and proud member of Orwell Wheeler's she has completed numerous cycling events including Tour delle Dolomiti, Alto de Letras, Les Cinglés du Mont Ventoux & La Marmotte Sportive. She is an accomplished audax-er having done numerous 200km and 300km routes. Sinéad has also completed three Dublin City Marathons, numerous Adventure Races, Half Marathons and the Art O'Neil Challege.
Keen to spread the word on all things related to Wellness, Fitness, Coaching and Travel.