John Healy’s report of his Slieve Bloom Run.
Fifteen years ago, I got married and Orla and I settled in Killeigh, Co. Offaly, where we’ve been since. One of the main reasons why we chose where we live is the magnificent view which we have from our garden, across the bogs of Laois/Offaly , past Clonaslee and Rosenallis to the Slieve bloom mountains. Every day the view is different, whether sparkling in summer sunshine or shrouded in cloud, the mountains have always been there, and always will be, of course, for the generations that follow.
Im not sure when the Slieve Bloom way first appeared on my bucket list, probably in 2005 when I did the Conn Ultra for the first time. It was around that time that I started to recce the route and didn’t really think that it would be doable in one go. At the time, the way was roughly measured to something around 84k.I bought a map at the time, which remained in storage until 2010, when returning from a back injury, I walked/jogged sections of the way over a number of summer evenings, though by that time the Way had changed slightly and was slightly shorter.
As September 2014 was an exceptionally dry month, and we had a weekend break from marathoning , I decided on a Thursday evening that I might go for a run in the mountains that weekend, as I didn’t have a long run planned. Any wet weather would have meant wet feet from the start, which I didn’t want. As Saturday got closer, however, the idea formed in my head that I could have a go at ‘the big one’. I was determined though to follow the older route, the longer one, as I have always considered that to be the ‘proper’ one.
So Saturday morning arrived and my preparation was , as always, non-existent. I had breakfast at 6, and headed up to the starting point, Glenbarrow trailhead , just above Rosenallis village arriving before 7. Though I possess a hydro backpack, I decided not to bring it, and to travel light. So my kit consisted of my phone, car key, and the aforementioned map. It was still dark, and with the chorus of birdsong surrounding me, I headed off into the valley of the barrow river.
Though it was still dark, I could do the early sections along the valley floor quite easily , as I’ve brought many groups of children along here in the past, and the forest path is quite smooth. Coincidentally, its also one of the hidden treasures of the midlands, a place whether hardly anyone ever goes, yet is as beautiful a place as you’ll find. It had a spooky feel to it also, with the gurgling of the river and movement of the wind in the trees. My first encounter with a deer happened here, though she was more scared than I! Past Glenbarrow waterfall, and then heavily uphill towards Capard ridge. It was in a stretch here that I was reminded that parts of the way are just not runnable, and though this particular stretch was smooth underfoot, I was forced to trudge up the impossible gradient, hands on the ground. Arriving out on the ridge soon enough though, I began the stretch across it, about 5k, most of it on the boardwalk. From here, the view which greeted me was simply spectacular. For any geography buff reading this-picture this. From one point I could simultaneously see the Galtees, the Knockmealdowns, northward toward Westmeath/Longford and across to the Wicklow Mountains, over which the sun was rising. I easily had a view of 10 counties, probably more, and I was alone in that world. All along the ridge are dotted stone cairns, their origin uncertain, though Id imagine they were built as navigational aids, as people had populated these mountains since the O’Moore/ O’Connor clans had been ousted prior to Queen Marys plantations of the 17th century.
The king of these Cairns is the ‘Stoneyman’ , a fantastic landmark, very inaccessible yet so striking. I took a few moments in the silence of the dawn here, took a few photos. It’s a surreal world up there, which so few get to see, Leinster laid bare.
I had other business though, and continued across the wettest section of the ridge until I could head south, in the general direction of Ballyfin and downhill towards Monicknew trailhead. It was at one of the forest road intersections that I had my first navigational issue. My head and Map were telling me one thing, the directional arrow the other. I decided to follow my instincts however, and soon found myself in familiar territory on the descent to Monicknew.
Monicknew is a popular picnic spot with a large car Park and lots of easy walks in the area. I was surprised ,then , not to meet a single soul as I passed through. I had envisaged scrounging a sandwich from a picnicking couple- however it was only afterwards that it dawned on me that I had passed through at 9 a.m .. hardly picnicking rush hour!
Through the shaded forest of Monicknew then and onwards in a westerly and very much upward direction, past the wolftrap mountain onto the roadway. This road I remember well from cycling throughout 2010, and is a real punisher on the bike. Indeed, it’s been known to break chains, or cause fit athletes to dismount and walk, such is the gradient in parts. This roadway I recall being mentioned as Gerry Duffy’s cycling training ground prior to his Ironman successes, and I can see why. As I was going over the top, I was passed by cyclist Mick Murphy, co-race director of the MCI marathon in Lilliput. The road itself at this point is painted with multiples warnings for cyclists, calling for extreme care on the descent. Mick duly ignored these and disappeared like a rollercoaster carriage and I freewheeled for a bit myself, back onto the trail, and on towards another valley, the Camcor. I began to feel hungry at this point , and put in a call to my friend Aileen who promised to meet me with a few goodies. Leaving the Camcor valley it got quite steep again towards Kinnity village , and our meeting point, in the gardens of Kinnity castle. There we dined al fresco amongst some hungover musicians who I didn’t recognise, though as they were staying at the castle, I probably should have.
Aileen had a lovely spread organised and I was back on my feet soon enough, and we walked some of the next incline together. I had to push on though, as my progress hadn’t been as good as expected. However, I was in good spirits, having had an enjoyable chat with a good friend, and one of my favourite sections of the way lay ahead. One of my splits from this section showed a 15 min mile, up to the radio mast -followed by a 7.30 downhill!
I adore the section of the way that skirts the Silver river, a flat pathway which winds its way through thousands of bluebells in the summer. I arrived at what is known as May Scully’s cottage and onwards, climbing again, towards Spink mountain.
Over the top and down then towards Cadamstown, a tiny village with a pub, though it wasn’t open today (I had planned on taking on some Iron). I had had an accident on some rocks on the riverside here in the Spring, while gorgewalking with a group of kids, knocking out teeth and breaking my nose, so I duly told that particular slab what I thought of it as I passed by, though the bloodmarks had been washed away in the meantime.
By now I was about 32 miles in, and flagging a bit. However having descended Spink on one side I now had to go up the other, and boy was it a slog, and although the ground was rough, I jogged it all. I passed by the mysterious ‘Giants grave’, resting place of Bladhma, who gave his name to the mountain range. I was motoring now and was heading for Glenkeen and Castlecuffe/Clonaslee. I passed through the marathon point on this section.
At one point., I emerged onto roadway again and met two auld lads in a Jeep. They stopped .
‘ Where are you going with the map?’
I said ‘I’m doing the way’
‘All of it?’
‘You are in your ********’ as they drove away.
Armed with this ammo, I headed downhill towards Clonaslee, stopping for a drink from the river a few times as I ambled along. I had to climb a few gates along here…comical at this stage though.
As I turned back uphill however, I knew that Glendineoregan lay ahead and I was at quite a low point. I passed by the back of a few cottages here. In one garden, a lad was cutting up some wood, so I asked him if he had an outside tap that I could drink from. He didn’t, but offered to get me a drink from inside. His glass size might have been suitable for whiskey, but not for me. Poor lad, in fairness, was in and out about five times.
The climb to Glendineoregan was an awful drag, and it didn’t help that I could see across the valley to where I would have to climb again. The descent into the valley is slippery in places, so I wasn’t able to run it, and the climb out of it is stepped, each step about 60cm higher, so it really is a killer. Emerging out onto the forest paths again, I was able to run for a while. About 42 miles in now, I suddenly felt very hungry and tired, so I lay down beside the trail, on the pretence of making a phonecall to Orla. I lay here for about 10 minutes, and watched the clouds go by…,and almost dozed off.
Up again though and up towards the Pass known as ‘the cut’, eating all the blackberries I could find along the way, then a sharp left towards Tinnahinch and back towards the starting point. I had just one more hilltop to crest at this stage (around mile 47), and knew that I now was more or less downhill to the finish. The forest road dropped steeply at one point, and I tore off down the hill for about two miles when I came to what appeared to be a dead end! I took my bearings and realised my first (and only)major mistake of the day. I’d missed a narrow dip into the forest, and had mistakenly stayed on the forest path. I was very annoyed with myself, uttered a few unmentionables, and had to retrace my steps back up the steep hill. When I did find the point at which I’d gone wrong, I wasn’t too hard on myself, as it was an easy mistake to make. However, it cost me at least two miles. Just three miles from home now, I plodded along, making sure to stay true to the way, though a number of shortcuts had opened for me .
Approaching the trailhead again was a great feeling,52 miles long since registered on the watch, no finishing gantry, nobody whatsoever about, and the car, thankfully, had survived the day, which was something I’d been slightly worried about. Just over 11 hours out on the trail. I mostly felt relief to be finished, and safe. Starving. My longest run yet. The sun was setting over Glenbarrow now , and I, after 15 years of trying, had finally conquered those mountains outside my kitchen window.
Now stop reading and go conquer your own.