The Kerry Way UltraNite – Diary of an All-Night Runner

This was the moment I had feared. Just after going over on my left foot, feeling that familiar pain of bruised ligaments on the outer side of my ankle. This surely means the end of the run for me. I had started off strong, confidently passed many runners on the flat and the uphills, but now I am being overtaken on every downhill stretch. I had hurt my ankle months earlier in training and it has become a recurring thorn in my side. The downhill section is the part of the run where you can make up good time by running really fast while using minimal energy, but I was moving so slow now through this section that everyone who I had passed earlier was now just gliding past me. This felt so frustrating. I was handing back all the gains that I had worked so hard for earlier. Yet despite being so careful and almost slowing to a walk, I had hurt my ankle again. It’s around 4:00 AM and I have already been running for six hours through the night. I have already changed the batteries in my head torch twice. It is still another two to three hours before daylight, but I’m injured on the side of a mountain, and everyone is now overtaking me. I step aside to take stock of my situation.

Two weeks earlier, I had checked the Kerry Way Ultra website and found a place on the UltraNite ultramarathon. A race that starts as night falls, at 10:00 pm, and continues through the night.for a time limit cutoff of 25 hours.

The Kerry Way UltraNite is a mountain ultramarathon that is part of the Kerry Way Ultra event. It is a 90 km (55 mile) mountain ultramarathon that includes 2400 metres of climbing that traverses a mountain route comprising paths and tracks, with about a fifth of the running is on road. 

The race starts as night falls, at 10:00 pm, and continues for a time limit cutoff of 25 hours.

The definition of an ultra-marathon is any distance longer than a marathon (42.2 km). However most Ultrarunners consider 50 km to be the minimum distance for an ultramarathon classification, while others consider it to be fifty miles and some consider it to be fifty miles in the mountains. 

This event satisfies even the most selective definition of an ultramarathon. It starts in Waterville, on the Iveragh peninsula in Kerry, at 10:00 PM on a Friday night. The run must be completed within 25 hours by 11:00 pm the following might. The Race Director, Eileen Daly, and her team of volunteers, have been doing an exceptional job of putting this event together over the years. The event has a very professional feel to it. The lead up to the event had a series of video presentations and interviews by the excellent enthusiastic host and runner himself, Sean Clifford. This year, amidst severe COVID-19 restrictions, the race logistics have become much more challenging and complex. A condition of the race going ahead was having minimum contact between race volunteers and participants, which meant minimal support with each participant being encouraged to be as self-supported as possible. I didn’t have a support crew, but instead availed of three of the aid stations to leave drop-bags containing water and food. I have been carrying 2 litres of water and about 1.5 kilogram of food. The absence of a support crew and minimal aid-stations added another element of hardship to the challenge. This didn’t deter me as years of long-distance hiking has conditioned me to being self-sufficient. If that didn’t sound daunting enough, the event starts at the beginning of the night to ensure that the maximum distance is covered during the hours of darkness.

I had made a comeback to running just a year earlier. I have ran in the past, but it was about ten years since I donned a pair of running shoes. I have always been very active in the mountains, be it hiking, camping or rock-climbing. I’m a pretty adventurous soul, having hiked in places many fear to tread. I’ve been bitten by snakes, had gunshots fired over my head and have had my fair share of falls. Still there is an element of endurance that captivates me like nothing else. It’s the mental challenge of pushing against the will to stop, the need to sleep, and the overcoming of pain and suffering. Maybe it’s a type of self-transcendence. Maybe just stubbornness. But there is also the absolute simplicity of running that strongly appeals to me, especially in the great outdoors. And there is something in me that is drawn to endurance. I guess I’m drawn to that stoic concept of seeking out discomfort, embracing it and overcoming it.

Running long distances is an amazing experience, that impacts your mental strength; your physical strength; and your outlook on life. It can become a metaphor for life itself and for an understanding of the nature of suffering, the human condition and the impermanence of things.

I’m so tired now, it’s almost 24 hours since I last slept. A four hour drive on the same day of the race was a bad idea, I should have drove down the night before. My clothes have already gone through several cycles of being soaked with sweat and having dried out. Not fully dry, but that kind of sweaty dry, where the clothes stick to your skin and you can feel the clusters of salt and minerals etching into your body.

Running is a great way to warm-up and stay warm. You can generate all the heat that you need, but when you stop you get cold very quickly and risk hypothermia. I have the mandatory kit which includes a rain jacket and foil blanket. The rain jacket also acts as a windbreaker giving a degree of protection against losing heat through convection or wind chill. My mandatory kit also includes a first-aid kit; water and phone. I also have trekking poles which will allow me to limp to the next aid-station if I have hurted my ankle badly.

I’m now standing on the side of a mountain in the middle of the night having hurt my ankle while running an ultra-marathon.

I put some weight on my left ankle which actually feels okay now with only a small amount of discomfort. I try to walk on it slowly and transition into a gentle jog. The pain disappears, but my ankle feels very unsteady. This has happened to me before. In a hiking challenge the previous year, I went over on my ankle, continued on, but then went over on it a second time, causing me to have to retire from the race early. But that was in the daytime, not in the middle of the night.

I’m back running now, facing a long downward section on rough ground where I slow down to a crawl. I know if I go over on my ankle a second time, I’m out of the race entirely. As it is, I’ll be able to get to the next aid-station. I may even be able to complete it within the 25 hour cutoff. But the prospect of hobbling along through another three hours of darkness followed by another full day depletes my resolve. I’m not enjoying this and just want it to be over, to be home. I’m questioning why I ever decided to do this. I just want it to be over. I don’t even care now whether I finish it or not. I want to be home in bed, just home on familiar territory and in comfort.

I continue on as the only alternative is to sit on the side of a Mountain and wait for sunrise.

I can’t remember how long I’ve been running. At full intensity my headtorch lasts about two hours, I have already put in two new sets of batteries, so that’s about… my thinking has slowed down now… where was I? How long have I been running, I look at my watch and it says 4:25 AM. Having  started the previous day at 10:00 PM makes that about six hours. Six hours from twenty-five hours, that gives me a lot of time for the cut-off. Too much time to just quit. I really want to just abandon it now. It’s unimportant. The important things are very simple things, the important thing is just to be home now. I continue downhill. I don’t care about times now. I don’t care about finishing. But I will try to finish it all the same.

I try to stop thinking of the finish and how far I have come. I let go of everything and just think about the next step. I think of the phrase “this too shall pass”. It occurs to me that this is a form of meditation, staying in the moment, no past, no future, just one foot in front of the other. This works for a while but thoughts of the remaining challenge keep flooding back into mind. I bring my mind back to my next step. This is exactly like meditation. Meditators call it monkey-mind, the tendency of the mind to jump from idea to idea, like a monkey jumping from branch to branch.

There is also the mindfulness metaphor of the lion mind, which goes something like this: “Imagine what would happen if you held up a bone in front of a dog. Where would its eyes focus? What would it do if you threw the bone? The dog would likely be completely focused on the bone and chase after it. On the other hand, what would happen if you held up the same bone in front of a lion? The lion would sit upright as the bone is waved, eyes looking beyond the bone and directly at you. The lion understands the bone is just a small piece of a larger reality, and therefore is not distracted by it”. My ankle, the distance remaining, the tiredness, are like the distraction of the bone, where the larger reality is overcoming the mind wanting to give up. I find this image helps in cultivating a mind of equanimity, a mind acceptance, which helps me at this moment to put one step in front of the other.

It’s nighttime and the only view ahead of me is the four metres illuminated by my head torch.

But when I look up I see a full moon with some clouds passing by. The sky is clearly visible. The clouds floating in front of the full moon reminds me of an old hammer house horror movie. This is one of the darkest parts of the world. It is only one of four areas in the world to receive the Dark Skies Gold Tier Reserve designation by the international Dark Sky Association.

A designation awarded to places on earth with the least light pollution and a draw for astronomers and skywatchers from the world over. Who said that mountain runners don’t appreciate the Mountains like hikers do. This is a comment that I’ve heard many times. I’m a hiker and a runner myself and I can tell you that all outdoor activities complement each other. In fact running can heighten one’s awareness of one’s surroundings. While running you are forced to be completely present of what’s happening around you and where your foot will fall next. It’s not possible to space out or daydream on a run like it is while hiking. Tonight, as a runner, I am acutely aware of the earth beneath me while appreciating the detail in a clear night sky above me. I have never quite experienced the night sky like tonight.

I remember a quote from a Navajo runner in the film “3100: Run and Become” – a film about the world’s longest race, a 3,100-mile race around a New York city block.

In the film, the Navajo runner says: “Running is a prayer. We use our feet to pray to mother earth. We breathe in father sky …”

I pick my steps carefully on this rough downhill section. My head torch flashes twice, which is an indication that I have about half an hour of battery life. I don’t want to stop yet but know that I need to soon. My head torch beam continues to become dimmer which isn’t good for seeing the rough terrain. I stop and change the batteries which flood the ground with a high intensity light that makes picking my steps a bit easier. I should have changed my batteries earlier.

Eventually, after what seems like an eternity, the rough downhill section finally comes to an end and the trail flattens. I start picking up my pace now. I catch another runner. I forget about the suffering and just go with it. I start noticing that I’m passing more runners and beginning to feel strong.

I can’t pinpoint the point where I went from despondent to elated, but it must have been somewhere along the dark banks of the Kenmare river. I catch up with another group of runners who must have been twenty minutes ahead of me when I hurt my ankle. They are stopped at a point where the path divides debating which way to turn. I see the Waymarked sign and advise them the correct direction. I know that sometimes a certainty can easily be replaced with a doubt if it’s discussed for too long, especially when tired, so I don’t engage in the discussion, but continue onward leaving them the option to follow me on not. This is a good strategy because it keeps me in the flow.

The way is very well marked with the familiar yellow man – a waymarking sign that is used on all of Ireland’s main long-distance hiking routes. At night, the luminous yellow man can be seen hundreds of metres away by the reflection in the beam of the head torch. This is one advantage of running at night. At the start of the race, a GPS tracking device was taped to each participant’s running vest, which allows the Race Director to follow every participant in real time. If they go off-course, a call from the RD will set them straight. The online tracker also ensures that participants don’t take shortcuts, such as on the busy road into Kenmare, in which case a time penalty or disqualification would follow.

As I continue, I’m beginning to feel re-energized. I am now picking up my pace and enjoying it.

As I arrive at the Templenoe aid-station, I immediately spot my drop bag. I mix concoction of a Tailwind energy powder with a litre of water and refill my water bottles and then pack food for the next section. The food consists of raisins and gels. While repacking my supplies, I drink another litre of water. I’m out of the aid-station in about minutes. I wasted too much time at the first aid-station, but now I’m becoming more efficient at these pit stops.

As I leave Templenoe, I pick up my pace and follow the Kerry Way back roads that avoids the more direct busy road into Kenmare. The undulating road gradually climbs. The quick turnaround at the last aid station and my strong pace bolsters my spirit. The road continues to climb for about three or four kilometres. I get into a routine of a gentle trot, slowing to a walk on the climbs and into a run on the descents. I hear the footsteps of three runners behind me and expect them to overtake me at any moment as they sound like they have a solid pace themselves, but they don’t. They seem to be pacing off me, speeding up when I speed up and slowing when I slow down. This boosts my confidence some more as I think that maybe I do have a good running strategy afterall. Eventually the half hour of climbing gives way to about three kilometres of downhill. During the downhill section, the last hour of twilight gives way to sunrise and with no further need for a head torch. Daylight brings a new sense of confidence that I can finish this race provided I don’t do anything stupid, like hurt my ankle again. I ease off on my pace slightly. The three runners catch me, chat and overtake. We play a game of leapfrog for the new few kilometres. Eventually we all arrive at a sharp left turn that gets us off the road onto a trail that quickly turns into a kind of bog. I slow down as I know how easy it would be for me to go over on my ankle again. Eventually, I see Kenmare, the last aid-station.

I arrived in Kenmare at 8:18 AM, Seven and a Half hours ahead of this station’s cutoff time. Now, barring an unfortunate injury, I will finish this ultra.

I have been carrying 2 litres of water and 1.5 Kilograms of food, but have only been drinking one litre of water and eating about half a kilogram of food, between aid stations, so I decided to reduce my weight by jettisoning about 1.5 kg of water and food weight. I have been needlessly carrying this excess weight for the last 60 kilometres, which with some mental math, I reckon added an extra eleven minutes to my time so far.

I’m out of the Kenmare aid-station in less than three minutes and feel strong mentally and physically. 

There is a very long unrelenting climb on the road out of Kenmare. The section from Kenmare to Killarney is harder than I had expected, but it’s a beautiful day and I’m so happy that I’m here doing this. Eventually the route goes off-road across beautiful landscapes.

I am thinking of the feeling of eventually crossing the finish line but also enjoying the fact that I’m still running. 

I think of the iconic cliche credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson “Life is a journey, not a destination”. It’s such an overused cliche these days that it’s wisdom is easily missed. It’s the moment, the present that we live in. The destination can often be a comedown. But one of the real benefits of running an ultra, is that the journey is so long and it gives you time to enjoy the journey and spend more time in the moment.

It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.

Ernest Hemingway

The Ernest Hemingway quote about the journey might be also be paraphrased to training. It’s good to have a race, but it’s the months spent training that matter in the end.

The route into Killarney is particularly beautiful. Eventually, I reached Torc waterfall. Every hiker that I passed wishes me luck. I tried to respond with friendly banter but I’m only capable of monosyllabic replies at this stage, which have to be paced with each outbreath.

Torc Waterfall, Killarney National Park.Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan

By the time that I reach Torc Waterfall, I’m feeling elated. Going through Muckross House is a bit confusing, but eventually I’m back on the road again running to the finish line. People are cheering me on and cars are beeping their horns. At first I’m perplexed and think they have mistook me for some serious athlete or ultra-runner, but then I think “hey, today,  that’s me”.

Four hours after leaving Kenmare, I reached the finish. It is 12:22 PM. My official time is 14:30:29. A race Marshall uses a sharp knife to remove the GPS tracker from my running vest.

Eileen Daly, the Race Director, presents me with a wooden medal and I have a quick chat with the legendary ultra-runner, Eoin Keith.

I walk back to my hotel. At the check-in, the receptionist is chatting away to a customer. She throws a glance in my direction and says to the customer “There’s another one of them”. She beckons me forward and says “it’s not a hotel you should be checking into…”. We all have a good laugh. The other customer seems to be entrawled with the fact that someone might run 90 kilometres through the night and keeps me in a conversation about it. I am tired but still excited to be discussing it with someone who is genuinely interested.

As I talk, I think of one of those endurance heros that I’ve read about in books like “Born to Run” manifesting off the page into a real person and that person becoming me. I have become my own hero. As we talk, he tells me he is not into running, but into cycling, endurance cycling. He tells me he cycled 48-hours non-stop from Mallon head to Hook head. I enjoyed the conversation and the bonding comradery amongst people who do exceptional things.

The long distance run through the night was not about medals or even time but about challenging myself both mentally and physically. In the week leading up to the event, I was secretly wishing that it would be cancelled. After doing it, I can honestly say that it was the most rewarding event that I have done in years. 

Epilogue

I was on a complete high, feeling invincible, for five days after the run. It wasn’t until Friday when the runner’s high began to fade and then suddenly I was hit by extreme fatigue. The next few months will be spent in recovery with very easy running. I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to participate in this event and eagerly await my next endurance event, but after a good period of recovery.

Credit has to be given to all the volunteers that make events like this possible.

My statistics and results for the event were:

  • Weight: 76.9 kg (Both morning weight and my 5-day median weight)
  • Waist Circumference: 88.2 cm (5-day median)
  • Body Fat Percentage: 12% (Calculated using a Body Fat Calipers, which is within an athletic Body Fat range)
  • Official Distance and Ascent: 88.9 km/2340 m
  • Official Time: 14 hours 30 minutes 29 seconds
  • iTRA Points awarded: 3

In closing, I would like to mention the UTMB.

The UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) is a single-stage mountain ultramarathon that is considered to be the holy grail among ultra runners. It has flashed onto my radar from time to time, but I still haven’t decided whether I would want to do it, as I prefer the smaller, more local races. But I would like to be at a level of fitness that I could enter if I choose to do so. The International Trail Running Association (iTRA) grades the difficulty of races and these gradings can then be used for entry into the UTMB races. I would like to know that I was at the fitness standard for participation in the UTMB. As it happens, if I were to complete another similar race, then that would qualify me for entry to the UTMB CCC – an alpine race deep into the wilderness of the Grande Randonnée du Tour du Mont-Blanc (GR TMB). 

Having said that, for me, it’s not about medals or competing against objective measurements but a more subjective competition with myself.

The joy of finishing the Kerry Way ultramarathon wasn’t receiving the wooden medal at the finish line but proving to myself that I could overcome the pain and suffering to complete such an event.