First, a little history:
On the 6th of January, 1592, Art O’Neill, his brother, Henry, and Red Hugh O’Donnell made a break for it!
In doing so they became the only three people in history to successfully escape from Dublin Castle.
Their goal was to reach the stronghold of Fiach McHugh O’Byrne, in Glenmalur, over 55km away. Malnourished and under-equipped, in the dead of winter.
Named for Art, who died in the attempt, the annual Art O’Neill Challenge commemorates this trek. Currently run by, and for the benefit of, the Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team.
I spoke to John Kavanagh, Public Relations Officer for DWMRT about it.
Oakleaf Adventure (OA): How long has the event been running and how long has DWMRT been involved?
DWMRT: The event has been running since 2009. DWMRT have been involved, in some form, since then. At the beginning, the team were on standby in case of incidents, but our involvement has grown over the years and now AON is run entirely by, and for the benefit of, DWMRT.
OA: How many people does the team have on the ground the night of the challenge
DWMRT: DWMRT couldn’t run this event without outside help. On the night we had 84 people involved, made up of current and former team members, family, friends, members of other mountain rescue teams, and other volunteers who came forward to give their time. We have to say a huge thank you to all of those people, who gave their time, and their night’s sleep, to helping us run this event.
OA: How long does it take to put the event together each year? Are you planning the next one as soon as one finishes?
DWMRT: Planning and executing AON is a big undertaking. When you include all of the initial planning, through to the event itself, and the cleanup and debriefing, there’s activity for probably eight or nine months. All of that work is undertaken by volunteers, in addition to their normal mountain rescue duties, not to mention day-jobs and family.
OA: What’s the most logistically difficult element of the event?
DWMRT: There are a few logistical challenges, for example: getting staff and equipment to the four main locations (Dublin Castle, CP1, CP2, and Baravore), setup and cleanup of those locations, and marking and demarking the course. The biggest logistical challenge, or the most important to get right, is probably getting drop bags from the Castle to CP1 and then on to the finish in Baravore.
OA: What do you think keeps bringing people back to the challenge year after year?
DWMRT: For some, it’s the historical background to the event. For most, it’s the fact that AON is a unique event in Ireland, and is one of the toughest events of its kind here. That challenge is very compelling. Trying to improve on last year, tweaking your navigation, getting your transitions in the checkpoints just right, can drive people to enter year after year. Other people seem to love the camaraderie, and the little community that have built up in the Art O’Neill Challenge over the years.
OA: What’s the current course record and who’s it held by?
DWMRT: Eoin Keith currently holds the record. It stands at 5 hours and 25 minutes. The title of fastest female is currently held by Caroline McLoughlin 6 hours and 44 minutes.
OA: Who won this year’s event and what was their time?
DWMRT: Andrew Tuckey won this year’s event, he came home in a time of 5 hours and 45 minutes. The fastest female this year was Karina Jonina with a time of 8 hours and 26 minutes.
OA: What’s your favourite part of the event, either from an organisational point of view or from actually taking part (or both)?
DWMRT: The Art O’Neill Challenge requires a lot of preparation and a lot of work on the night. Our favourite part, as organisers, is seeing the event unfold as we planned it. It’s a great feeling when things that have been planned for months work as intended. Welcoming tired, but happy people into Baravore is also well up there. It’s a great privilege to see anxiety and excitement before the start turn into joy and relief at the finish, knowing that there’s been a fair degree of hardship between the two.
OA: There’s a mandatory kit list, but is there any one piece of equipment that you would see as most essential above all the rest?
DWMRT: Grit. There’s always an excuse to stop, but the Art O’Neill Challenge is, in many ways, a race against yourself. Finishing the Art O’Neill Challenge is a mental challenge as much as a physical one, and everyone will have their own challenges to overcome and low-points to push through.
I also spoke to John Guy, an Art O’Neilll Challenge veteran, and Richie Robinson, who was taking part for the first time, about their experiences.
First up, John.
OA: John, You’ve done the challenge a number of times now, what keeps bringing you back to it?
John Guy (JG): Its great motivation to keep training during the winter months. I’m likely to have set myself a number of challenges throughout the year and completing the AON so early on in the calendar builds the confidence and stamina for the challenges to come.
OA: How did you find it on the night? What changes, if any, have you noticed over the years?
JG: I really enjoyed it this year. The previous night was really clear and moon lit and I was hoping for the same for the event but it was a good deal cloudier. It didn’t rain though and it was very cold which are ideal conditions really.
The body felt good throughout the race, I paced myself well and managed to run many of the sections that I would have walked in previous years.
The increase in popularity of the event is one of the changes I notice year on year. It has become the must do event for people.
One other change is in the organisation of the event. Dublin/Wicklow mountain rescue team really do an amazing job year on year. The event runs flawlessly.
OA: What do you find to be the worst or hardest part of the challenge each year?
JG: I always find the section between CP1 and CP2 hard. The route brings you up over Billy Byrnes Gap. It’s not particularly steep or anything but the terrain is difficult to move quickly on so the stage seems to last forever. It’s also quite a lonely section for self guided participants like I was. The crowd is well dispersed at this point in the event so the stage and have quite a desolate feel to it.
OA: And the best?
JG: Funny, probably the same section for that desolate feeling.
OA: What one piece of equipment do you feel is particularly important, above all others? Has your “most important piece of kit” changed from the first time you took part?
JG: Although I’ve never had to use it yet, knowing I have the SOL Bivi in my bag does is comforting in the fact that if I had to stop at any point due to injury or some other mishap that Bivi would make the delay a bit more ‘comfortable ‘.
OA: How has your training changed, and what do you find yourself doing differently on the night compared to previous years?
JG: Learning to pace myself and working on my heart rate while training and during the event itself has helped a lot.
One change on the night this year was getting through registration early then heading home for a feed and coming back to the start just before 1am. I always found the hanging around difficult and I preferred what I did this year.
OA: I think it’s fair to assume you’ll take on the Art O’Neill Challenge again?
JG: If I’m lucky enough to get a place then oh yeah!
And finally, Richie.
OA: This is your first time taking part in the challenge. What made you want to get involved?
Richie Robinson (RR): I was originally looking to do the ‘Run the Line’ Challenge for DWMRT in November 2016, but because I was late getting onto registration for it I had to put it on the backburner and wait until another challenge came up.
I’d done a fair few cross-country races since school, challenges like ‘Run-a-Muck’ and two half-marathons through college so this year I just felt like it was time to push it up to the next level.
OA: How did you find it on the night?
RR: On the night of the Art, it was quite cold and windy outside. Perfect conditions to test the body.
I chose to sign up for the Hybrid challenge which meant that I’d have to run 30km out of the city before hitting the first checkpoint at Ballynultagh woods in Wicklow. From there, I changed into hiking gear to walk the last 23km to Glenmalure via a guided group of hikers. Despite having a 2:1 degree in Geography I bailed on the idea of self-navigation through the hills.
OA: What was the worst or hardest part of the challenge?
RR: The worst and hardest part of the challenge… It had to be the walk up to and past Art’s Cross. The climb up to the cross was very difficult. I felt that if I hadn’t been pulling at the roots of the heather growing off the face of the steep hillside I’d have gone tumbling back down to the bottom.
OA: And the best?
RR: The jogging out of the city was the most fun part of the Art. I had made a friend along the way (Alex) who, luckily for me, also didn’t mind having a partner to help keep pace and was cool enough to stay with me until the end. Once myself and Alex made it past Bohernabreena and kept gaining altitude in the foothills we finally saw Dublin shining amber low in the background, slowly fading with distance. It was an incredibly uplifting feeling seeing that.
OA: What one piece of equipment do you feel is particularly important, above all others?
RR: The Gore-Tex jacket (a Mountain Equipment Rupal). I used it throughout the entire challenge and it did an outstanding job keeping me dry and cool on the inside while keeping the wind and rain at bay.
OA: What would you differently either from a training point of view, or on the night itself, on future challenges?
RR: On future challenges I’d likely do some actual hill-running training. For the Art this year all I did was some extended jogging on relatively flat land with some simulated hill training on a treadmill in the gym with a weighted rucksack. Still didn’t prep me for the uphill climbs!
I’d also take up some training in orienteering so I could navigate myself with friends next time round.
OA: Will you take on the Art O’Neill Challenge again?
RR: Absolutely, I’d love to go next year with friends who’ve trained up alone and together for it. Having a group on the run for a long time helps keep up morale and gives that energy that pushes you forward.
Thanks to Richie Robinson, John Guy, and John Kavanagh for their time and their words. The next fundraising event for Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team is Walk the Line, coming up in March. You can find more info at walktheline.ie.