Gruelling Challenge for Charity
The Art O’Neill Challenge 2011.
It all started with a text message, just a little text message, sent around late September. The message was from an old friend of mine from Primary and High School, his idea was for a mini reunion over in Dublin, where he now resides. Three or four of us would come over from England and stay at his house for a long weekend. All sounding sane and civilised so far, the craziness came in the shape of a 35mile walk from Dublin to the Glenmalure Valley, starting at midnight. Something about it appealed to the crazy side of me, I signed up virtually straight away, along with a friend of mine. At thirty-three years old I think I’m getting to the stage where I want to do things like this whilst I still can, and also to prove that I’m not too old to do such things.
I also decided that if I was going to do something that challenging, that I really should make some money for charity at the same time. Knowing I was never going to make masses of money, I wanted to do it for a small charity and I made it one with a personal connection. A young lady called Candice Roberts had worked at the same youth club as me, sadly she died on her 26th birthday last August. Although I only met her once or twice I had a strong image in my head of her being an absolutely fantastic person, an image that is backed up anytime I speak to anyone who knew her well. Candice died from the extremely rare, and horribly debilitating, Guillane Barre Syndrome. Her parents have decided to set up a charity to increase awareness of the syndrome and the amount of research that is done on it. So I was more than happy to collect for them.
So the plan was for five of us to do this walk, but one by one, three of them dropped out, all with different, but genuine, reasons for not being able to do it. Like something out of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, then there were two, the sender of that original message and my good self.
The Art O’Neill Challenge is based on a historical occurrence. Back in 1592, Art O’Neill escaped from Dublin Castle, with the aid of Red Hugh, and they headed for the safety of the Glenmalure Valley. Travelling through the night, in winter, across heath land, bogs, around some mountains and over others, proved too much for Art, who died when they stopped to rest, around seven miles from safety. When I read this story at first I thought it was strange to be celebrating the act of some escaped convict. However in fact it was the English who held Dublin Castle at the time and Art was a political prisoner. Standing up against the English, as in Scotland, has always been more than enough to make an Irishman a hero. As we gathered amongst the confines of Dublin Castle, with the other 454 starters, a great speech was made about the history and heroism that the walk is based on. Whilst loving the sense of history, I also had to acknowledge the irony of two Englishmen taking on this challenge. Maybe we should have started twenty minutes or so after everyone else and anyone we passed would be out of the challenge, having been caught by the English.
It is split into three stages, the first being 25km of road walking. This is where the mind games begin, having got to this point around 4.30am, you begin to think you’ve broken the back of the challenge, having covered almost half the distance and still feeling fresh. However, despite the gradually incline for virtually the entire 25km, this stage is by far the easiest of the three, so your work is very far from done. At this first checkpoint you are assigned to a group with two guides per group. From now on you will be walking across open countryside, and unless you’re experienced and gifted at orienteering, a guide will be necessary to get you to the finish line. It is up to you to decide whether to go into a fast, medium or slow paced group. We decided to go for the medium pace and are put in a group with two young guides.
Within the first half an hour of the second phase it’s clear we are a little bit lost, but to be far the guides seem to recover quickly out in the open heath land, with our head torches providing the only illumination, getting us back to the track we are supposed to be on. Once on this track the pace definitely feels on the fast side of medium, a feeling backed up by the fact that a fast group in front of us only stays fifty yards or so ahead of us throughout the trek along this path. Just before getting off this path, our lead guide stops and we wait a few minutes for everyone in our group to catch up. When the last two in our group do catch up, the man of the two says, ‘Well that’s the fastest medium pace I’ve ever known.’ A comment that is back up by the lady walking with him.
Once off this path we really are out in the open, walking round hills and mountains, whilst consistently having to pick our feet up to avoid being tripped by heather and other such shrubs. The combination of the altitude, the exposure to the wind and it being the early hours of the morning, meant that this was the coldest part of the walk. Being well wrapped up and working so hard to get through the heather and up the hills meant that we never felt too cold. Although at one point my mate did point out that my face looked frozen.
Around the time it should have been getting light, it was extremely foggy, so full visibility was at least an hour or so longer in coming than it would normally have been. As the sun is battling to break through the fog, my mate tells me that he’s pretty sure we should be heading in another direction. This, along with several, murmurings from the people behind us is not helping with my confidence in our guide. When he’s questioned about how long we’ve been out here for and how long we’ve got left, he doesn’t convince me with his answers, sounding like he’s trying to cover something up. At this stage we are down to one guide because one of them had to stay back with an injured member or our group. When this guide makes his latest change in direction, one of the people behind us snaps and yells out something along the lines of: ‘You’re going the wrong bloody way!’ Then he points out that the people we are heading towards are people who are about half an hour behind us, heading toward us.
The certainty in that man’s voice and the lack of confidence in the guide causes us all to stop for a rest. After a five minute discussion between the guide and his accuser, the guide does admit his mistake, when the man shows him his GPS gadget. At no stage did I have any feelings of fear of being lost on a strange, deserted mountainside, because my one overriding train of thought was; ‘if you’ve made me walk a single step further than I have to.........’
Not long after we change direction the sun is out fully and we start seeing other groups, heading in roughly the same direction as us, coming from slightly different angles. The guide has dropped to the back of the group to make sure that the slower walkers aren’t being deserted. Rather than wait for him, we decided to press on ourselves and follow these other groups. Eventually we find our way to checkpoint number two and the best tasting porridge I’ve ever had. The fact that I would probably have ate a cow pat had someone put it in a bowl for me at that point, probably helped make the porridge taste that bit better.
For the next stage we got ourselves a different guide, and set off in the sunshine. This was definitely the most picturesque part of the walk, but it had a lot in common with Jessica Ennis, extremely pretty but extraordinarily tough. One part in particular was an almost vertical climb that seemed to go on forever. Clambering up with your hands and driving up with your legs, trying to find safe bits of grass and mud to hold onto or push up off. At this point I could clearly imagine Candice looking down on me and laughing her head off. Just as I got to the top of that cruel climb our guide was saying that the rest was over and time to move on.
Fortunately that was the last climb, all that was left was a few kilometres over snow covered heath land then the last four kilometres or so along a winding, descending path. The descending part might have been a real treat for the finish, had it not been icy and every third or fourth step involved a slip of one foot or another, jarring your legs when that was the last thing you wanted. Crossing the finish line out in the middle of nowhere, did bring a great sense of satisfaction for the pair of us. One of the toughest aspects had been the lack of sleep, with the challenge starting at midnight. It was around 2:15pm when we finished, so we’d been walking for over fourteen hours. It had definitely been a mental challenge as much as anything. Neither of us had done enough training to do the challenge with any degree of comfort, but it is amazing what you can do if you force yourself into thinking that there is no other option. Definitely one of those things I’m glad to have done once, still no sure whether I fancy doing it a second time, but it has definitely whetted my appetite to do more challenges like that, especially if I can raise some more money.
I did put up a just giving page for the guillaine barre syndrome association, please feel free to donate by following this link:
To read more about Candice’s story, follow these links: