I grew up on a small farm, in a community of mainly small farmers, in south County Sligo, amongst the green fields of the west of Ireland.
The nearest village was called Aclare, a couple of shops, a few pubs, a new Garda Station at the top of the hill beside a builder’s providers and the doctor. The village also boasted a petrol pump and a Post Office and was bounded by the River Inagh – the location of the village predetermined by a early ford across the river at that point. And, in my teen years, occasional pony fairs.
That’s me, in the middle. The local priest in the dark suit in the middle of the photo, who, later in my life, helped marry me, but thats another story.
As with many things, I look back on those days with greater appreciation as they become more distance in time. Life’s experiences teach you to appreciate so much; times and events that meant little when they occurred obtain a golden shimmer when viewed from afar. Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young. That’s not to say that life was idyllic then, but then life never is.
You cannot argue with the Buddhist assessment of life and their Four Noble Truths; the first one of which states, “Life in this mundane world with its craving and clinging to impermanent states and things, is ‘dukkha’, unsatisfactory and painful“. Too true, too often, i’m afraid.
Our neighbour was a widow, Breegie Lundy, who farmed her own acres and, whom, i occasionally helped out with some of the farmwork. Breegie passed on to me much knowledge and many stories about farming and animals. She taught me how to harness a donkey, both to a cart and with creels and made sure that i always respected the donkey and never overworked it. Instructions i obeyed with the occasional exception of racing down the Bog Road, standing upright on the cart and imagining myself to be a charioteer in ancient Roman times.
Me, with Bob the donkey and two of my cousins
Now Breegie had many sayings, most of them rooted in the country and in farming, but one of them had different roots. ‘Troopers’ was how she described someone who tried hard and worked hard. I don’t know if it was in general use at the time but to be called a ‘trooper’ by Breegie was a serious compliment.
Which brings me to this Saturday and Trooperstown Hill. The first trail race in the Summit Series was planned for Trooperstown Hill, organised by Irish Trail Races and i had signed up some months ago for the 15k race. There was an 8k option as well. It was a beautiful morning and we headed off shortly after 8.00am. I had never visited Trooperstown Hill before and was in for a pleasant surprise – the views from the top stretch all across County Wicklow across the Irish Sean and the mists of Wales – but first i had to get up there. Readers will know that i’ve struggled to train, for struggled read ‘haven’t’ for some weeks and struggled to run, read ‘painful and painfully slow 5ks’. The temptation to drop down and run the 8k was significant and i was trying to separate fear of failure from wisdom – not always the easiest distinction to make. I collected my number and the lady commented, ‘There you are, last on the list’. Having seen the small group of fit-looking and experienced runners who were also running the race, i replied that i suspected she might be proven to be correct. The two races had different numbers and so i committed myself to the 15k, along with about about thirty others.
And we were off – as usual, not that i’m very experienced, trail races start off with a serious climb – the only option is to shut down the brain and just run – otherwise you will give up before you even start. Slightly flatter areas are a godsend – and, like youth, more appreciated when they are past and the gradient steepens again and your heartbeat rises and your lungs scream at you.
The Irish name for the hill is Maolin, meaning bald, as in a bare hill. The wonder of that is the views, mentioned already and spectacular. By the time we had reached the summit i had drifted back to being last and could make out my fellow competitors crossing the bottom of the hill ahead and turning back uphill. I love running downhill but in a race like this, all such pleasures come with a health warning, ‘Going Down means Coming Back Up again’, except when you get close to the end, when, if you are still able, you can enjoy a long downward loop to the Finish. The Finish – that magical place which, at times during the run, you attribute the existence of to be as likely as Tir Na Og – the mythical Gaelic land of everlasting youth.
Fortunately, for my enjoyment and sanity, i had read that even worldclass trail runners walk parts and so i didn’t feel to bad when the steepness of the incline slowed me to a walk and, occasionally, to a stop and a breather.
Fortunately also, i had read ‘Your Pace or Mine’ by one of my heroes, Lisa Jackson, of whom i have written before and, therefore, coming last had no real fears for me. To finish is the thing and finishing last proves that you have truly tested yourself, that you have gone beyond your normal capabilities.
Lisa Jackson has run over 100 marathons and come last in quite a few of them. She also describes the camaraderie of the long distance finishers, who chat and laugh and share their tales of efforts and finishes and who’s experience of running and racing is completely different to that of the elite runners at the front. I’m glad to say that i would have made Ms Jackson proud if she had been running with me as i chatted to a couple of my ‘finishers’ who, ultimately left me behind.
The route was marshalled at regular intervals by friendly encouraging volunteers – tiredness affects your concentration and getting lost would not be helpful. Finally, i knew i was on the final downhill gradient. I summoned my last reserves of energy to ensure that i ran all this section, in honour of the race, the other runners and, of course, the organisers.
And finally, there it was, the magical, elusive Finish, some two hours and eleven minutes after i had set off. Last but far from least. Two hours was my estimate, so i was pleased enough. Bathed my weary feet in the stream, ate enough orange pieces to keep the economy of a small equitorial country ticking over, shook hands all round and promised to turn up for the next race in the Summit Series.
Troopers one and all.
Keep pushing the boundaries