10pm and we’re en route to Dublin Castle, the weather forecast for the night ahead couldn’t be better – clear skies and about 4 or 5 degrees. We arrive, and immediately the sense of anticipation is all around us. The tunes are pumping around Dublin Castle from the mobile DJ Trunk. I look around and everyone is grinning excitedly…for some reason! I think back 12 months and don’t remember last year’s event being so positive at this stage. I make my way inside and register, which is done in less than 10mins. The first hurdle over and I step outside into the courtyard of Dublin Castle – the crowd has suddenly increased dramatically. I decided a cup of coffee will warm me up and also do me the favour of keeping me awake – it’s a long night ahead.
11.45pm I drop my heavy bag off at the drop off point in the Castle’s courtyard and head over to the front of the castle to hear the briefing – the usual safety tips and warning us all to be good to our environment (secretly hoping the environment will be good to us!). With the briefing over and spritiual words read to us by the organisers ringing in our ears, we all set off out the gates and head left towards Christchurch. Once at Christchurch we turn left and begin the long trek up towards Templeougue.
It never seems this long when I’m driving! As we walk through the streets of Dublin I can see quite a few bemused pub customers looking at us as we pass through…it’s late on a Friday night, so we’re in very different mindsets.
There’s 9 in our group and we’ve decided to guide ourselves this year. Our pace on the road isn’t bad. We get to the back roads of Tallaght in under 2 hours. We’re moving well and our group has broken up into 3 groups. There’s a long steep climb up from Bohernabreena to the first check point at Kilbride. The skies are clear and the temperature is just about right. As we get up past the Dublin County Golf Club we look back and we see lights of Dublin City disappear in the background. It’s not long before we’ve reached Kilbride and Checkpoint 1.
We get to Checkpoint 1 in just under 3hrs 30mins. I look around and I can see 4 of the lads that started in our group of 9. That means there’s 2 to come in to join our current group of 3. I grab my main trekking pack from where it’s been left waiting for me. It’s time to change to the walking boots as I know it’s now that the Art Challenge really starts. Once I get changed and drop my small bag back into the drop off point in Kilbride I grab a cup of soup and the sandwich my wife kindly whipped up for me before I left, along with one or two brownies that she’d wrapped in tin foil for me to keep me going. The 2 lads have appeared so we’re back to 9.
After about 40 mins waiting at checkpoint 1, we set back off on our trek. We begin the slog up towards Black Hill. We’re beginning to move with purpose and we must pass at least 20 people on the way up to Black Hill. It’s a long and winding climb up but with the weather being so good my spirits are high – I have visions of last year – unbelievable snow & ice cold. I can remember the hardship that we experienced last year so I keep myself from getting carried away. Last year we got lost soon after passing Black Hill! So as we begin to move off the road on the final push up Black Hill we have a brief stop to re-group. With 9 of us together again we begin to move up the hill. It’s not long before the terrain turns from trail to just pure bog. We get to the top of Black Hill and begin to move along the ridge. It’s close on 6am – normally I’m tucked up in my warm bed at this time!
We begin to seperate at this stage and in my group there’s 4 of us. We’re moving at a decent pace and we’ve passed Group 2 of the guided groups at this stage. We can see Group One in the distance and begin to follow them. Soon we recognise the Valley we went through last year before Checkpoint 2 – the only difference this year is that it’s 7.30am and last year it was 9.30am! We follow the markers of the route and we soon reach the forest …out of the bog and onto a trail.
8.20am and it’s just after sunrise – we reach Checkpoint 2. I’m chuffed. I remember last year we didn’t get to Checkpoint 2 until 11am. We’re moving well. Soon after, 3 of our group get into Checkpoint 2. We decide we’ll hold on and move as a group. A bowl of porridge down us, and a cup of coffee to warm us up, and we push on. We’ve waited around 35 minutes at Checkpoint 2 but no sign of the other lads.
The views are spectacular as we move up towards Art’s cross – it’s daylight now, so the head torches are off and we feel a bit better under foot now that it’s no longer a guessing game. Our group has now gone from 7 to 5. Last year we went left up the trail towards the cross but this year we decide to go right – we thought it would be easier, big mistake, it’s not! The climb up is long and steady and soon we’re in 1’s and 2’s. The conditions underfoot are extremely wet. The slog is really taking it out of the legs.
We reach what I think is the peak only to realise we’ve another 600 metres or so to go! My heart sinks, but I push on. Soon we’re at Art’s cross.
I’m feeling good. It’s around 10am on Saturday morning – I’d usually be getting up. We wait around and get a few photos and move on as we begin to feel the cold snap. We set off towards Glenmalure… and the final push. It’s a long stretch, with visability at about 30 meters, that brings us up and down through bog marshes before we hit the valley that leads us into Glenmalure and the finish. As we get off the marsh and move down the valley we’re all moving with a spring in our step because we realise we’re nearly there. Off the marsh and then it’s all downhill. There’s 5 of us together as we move down the winding path and into the finish. I remember the route from last year and I remember the pain I was in. It’s a completely different journey this time as I feel good. We cross the line at 11.45am and we’ve completed the course in around 10hrs 30mins. We’re all well chuffed with that.
The rest of our group come in 2 hours later and we all meet at the local pub for a beer before getting the bus back to Dublin – the feet are pounding a bit, feeling tired from being awake through the night, but nothing compared to last year. I feel relief more than anything at this stage. On the bus I can see it’s taken a lot out of people as there’s little or no chat, but you can also get the sense of acheivement for everyone on board. The Art O’Neill challenge is a serious event and is well managed and well run. Just felt a slight bit of disappointment that we didnt get a medal for our efforts, it’s always nice to have a momento after such a hard slog! But at least we have the (painful) memories!!
Well done to all who finished the Art.