As the pursuit is becoming increasingly popular in Ireland, we chat to some avid trail runners about the joys of putting on their running shoes and getting into the wilds
Potholes full of water have opened up on the trail. She jumps across them, not caring that she is already soaked. One of the joys of trail running for 52-year-old Nora Kennedy is being out in the elements and she wants to feel all of them.
Nora, who works part time in a residential care centre and is mum to a teenage son and daughter, says she’s tried every kind of exercise over the years but never fell in love with any of them. That was until she found trail running.
Trail running is growing in popularity in this country, and far from being the pursuit of wiry mountain men running up hills, more and more women are taking to Slí na Slainte routes, mountain trails and forest park trails to run.
For Nora, who lives in Wicklow Town, an early interest in scouts and later venture scouts began a life-long interest in the outdoors. She joined the Dublin and Wicklow Mountain Rescue team when she was 20, but after the birth of her first child her activity in this area stopped altogether.
She says: “I would have done a lot of walking with the buggy. Over the years I went through all sorts of fads. When the kids were a bit older there was a craze for couch to 5K runs and I’d meet up with a friend and go for runs.
She admits that over the years she struggled with her weight, joining Weight Watchers and later Slimming World to try to shed a few extra pounds. “I never really enjoyed running. I’d be out pounding the pavements thinking this never gets easier. I was waiting for the day I’d say to myself, ‘I’m dying to go for a run’. That never happened for me,” she adds.
Four years ago Nora went back to work part time and feels that this coincided with a feeling of wanting to try something new.
A friend had mentioned that she’d heard of a group of women getting together at weekends to run trails in the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains. She decided she had nothing to lose.
“The trail running really took off for me from there. I love the idea of trail running with others. It’s become very important to me now,” Nora says.
While she says she’s not striving for huge mileage and has no goal of being the fastest in the group or leading from the front, what keeps her coming back is being out in the elements and out in nature. Nora says: “I’m menopausal — I have a lot of stuff going on. A run can turn your day around. You can never have a bad trail day. Even if it’s just to be out for half an hour in the rain, hail or snow, I’m there. It’s the one thing you don’t mind setting the alarm for. Often I’m home before the kids are even out of their bed.
“It’s not a fad. This is on a different level. I’d love to be still out doing this when I’m in my 70s. There are benefits on so many levels — as you get out you’re tapping into the emotional side of things.
“You leave everything when you get out of the car and you just focus on your feet. You’re using all your senses. It’s like you’re taking in the energy from the ground and nature. You’re in nature in its purest forms. You’re running through the ferns and the grass, there are roots from trees and you’re pulling in all that energy.
“I love when I come back home from a run and I’m covered in muck and I’m proud. I’m not interested in times. I don’t have a Garmin and I don’t care about my elevation. Being last at the back doesn’t bother me. I’m just loving running and being out in nature.”
The group that Nora joined is called She Summits. It was set up by 43-year-old Alicia Christofi-Walshe, a mother of three who lives in Donard in west Wicklow.
Originally from Boston, Alicia moved to Wicklow with her husband in 2005. With children Henry (14), Tony (7) and Sadie (5), Alicia says she found herself craving exercise. A trained dancer and choreographer, she’d never done much running and so when she started it was a case of trying to run for a minute and building up gradually. Within a year she ran her first Dublin Marathon.
From her home in Donard, Alicia says she was always looking out at the hills and eventually decided she was going to try to take her runs to the trails. That was in 2015 and with every free minute she now has, Alicia spends it on the trails and is training to be a mountain leader.
Alicia says: “When you’re running on the road, you tend to focus on distance. When you’re on the trail, it becomes about the place. The challenge is what’s in front of you. It’s all about the terrain.
“You could be running over bog land and you have to be really in the moment. It’s hard to worry about stuff because your mind has to stay very present.
“I love finishing a run and being covered in muck. I find that very satisfying. It becomes your playground.”
After initially joining a mixed group of men and women to run, Alicia decided to take courses in mountain skills to build up her competence of reading maps and feeling safe on the trail so that she could lead others.
It was March 2019 when Alicia started She Summits to share her passion for trail running and the mountains with other women who wanted to build up their own skills. She had seen from the mountain running challenges she undertook that women were massively under-represented.
Alicia got in touch with an organisation in Scotland that was a female-only trail running group, and with the help of some friends, began to organise meet-ups in Dublin and Wicklow on the weekends.
Since they started nearly three years ago more than 500 women have been on the trails for a run. Many of them have also moved on to doing endurance mountain races.
According to Alicia, a good pair of trail runners — specialist runners with grips on the soles like those on football boots — are an essential part of the kit along with a rain jacket.
“We have a WhatsApp group and women have formed their own friendship groups within that. They meet up and do runs together.
“It’s all about getting more women who want to be on the trails out there feeling confident,” says Alicia, who trains six days a week when her kids are in school.
For 32-year-old Sarah Brady, an editor of a publishing company who lives in Dublin’s Inchicore, trail running is a big part of her life and she finds being on the trail much more social than road running.
While she takes part in races — varying in length from 50km to 127km — she also does shorter races and says it’s not about the clock, it’s about getting out in the wilds.
“When I first went out, I’d never experienced anything like it before. It was the opposite of being in an office. She Summits is great because it’s encouraging others,” says Sarah, who also acts as a guide for the group.
The friendships and the community are also what keep her coming back and Sarah says her closest friends are her running friends. “People do think it’s strange sometimes but it’s getting less strange and growing in popularity,” she says.
You can connect with She Summits on facebook.com/she.summits.trailrunning/or on Instagram @she.summits.trailrunning. See also Irish Mountain Running Association — imra.ie — for more information on races in your area.