Ultra marathons make Paddy O’Leary right at home in the wild

‘I also love finding out where my feet can take me, out there into the wild, open terrain’

There is a certain myth and perhaps misconception about the ultra marathon trail runner which Paddy O'Leary appears to talk up and play down at the same time.

The ultra marathon trail runner is an outsider and sometimes a stranger to society. O’Leary is from a dairy farm in Wexford, and currently works in cancer biology research at the University of California, San Francisco.

The ultra marathon trail runner is all about crazy distances, and doesn’t care for standardised events. O’Leary ran 2:20:42 at the Californian International Marathon in November on two weeks’ notice after wildfires forced the cancellation of the North Face Endurance Challenge, a 50-mile trail race.

The ultra marathon trail runner is a loner and not particularly social. O’Leary has spent the last week driving around Kerry with a gang of Irish and American friends, completing a documentary about Irish mountain running, sinking plenty of stout along the way.

“Most people get into this sport just for the love of it,” says O’Leary, with a suitably mountainous smile. “For the purity of it, something that’s true. I also love finding out where my feet can take me, out there into the wild, open terrain. There’s just something cool about that too.”

O'Leary is telling me this in Poppies Café in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, 24 hours after breaking the record on arguably the most challenging of Irish ultra marathon trail runs – The Wicklow Round. Starting on the Old Military Road just north of Kippure, the looped course takes in 26 of the main summits in Wicklow in strict order, including the bulking Lugnaquillia at 925m ,the highest peak in Ireland outside of Kerry.

With only a paper map and steel compass for direction, and no support outside the eight designated road crossings, there is also a strict time limit of 24 hours. Most of the running is done around Wicklow National Park, at 20,483 hectares the largest continuous upland region in Ireland.

Setting forth at 4am last Saturday, with only a last blast of wintry conditions for company, O’Leary dropped in and out of record pace, before finishing the roughly 100km in 16:27:20, breaking by over 40 minutes the 17:09:44 mark set in May 2018 by American ultra runner Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy.

O’Leary had also run roughly 6,000m in climbing – two-thirds the way up Mount Everest. In the end there wasn’t even a finisher’s medal.

Must be mad

So how are the legs?

“Great!” he says with another mountainous smile.

There is another myth and perhaps misconception that the ultra marathon trail runner must be mad. If that is the case O'Leary is certainly not alone. It's one of the fastest growing sports in Europe and in the US, where O'Leary first found his feet, so to speak, after joining a voluntary fitness group known as the November Project.

"I still consider myself a lacrosse player," he adds, fuelling a little more eccentricity, the traditional Ivy League field game being his first proper sport during his college years in UCD.

He later captained the Irish team at the 2012 European Lacrosse Championships, before moving to California in 2013 to pursue his medical interests. He is specialising in methods of preventing resistance to cancer therapies.

Ultra marathon trail running is therefore a hobby, a deeply competitive one nonetheless. O’Leary also ran 2:30:34 at the 2017 Boston Marathon, and at 31 hasn’t ruled out someday giving that distance his full attention. Yet for now he’s perfectly happy where he is: out on the mountains, whether that’s Wicklow, Kerry or San Francisco.

The Wicklow Round is a relatively recent event inspired by the Bob Graham Round, an iconic run in the English Lake District going since 1932. The route was designed by Irish mountain running veteran Joe Lalor, along with some amendments from Brian Bell, Tony Kiernan and Brendan Lawlor.

In 2009 the first "winner" was a woman, Moire O'Sullivan, from Co Down, finishing in 22:58:30, before a day later Eoin Keith from Dublin clocked 17:53:45. That stood as the record until McConaughy, and now O'Leary.

So how tough was it?

“The longest time on my feet, that’s for sure. I’ll show you,” says O’Leary, standing before a large map of Wicklow on the wall of Poppies, running his finger over the pain peaks:

"So starting off before Kippure, then towards Sally Gap, Carrigvore, Gravale, Duff Hill, Mullaghcleevaun, Moanbane, Silsean, Table Mountain, Lugnaquillia, down Carrawaystick, into Drumgoff, up Derrybawn, Glendalough, up to Tonelagee, up Scarr, Knocknacloghoge, Luggala, then over Djouce, War Hill, Tonduff, which is a disaster because there's no trails at all, then into Glencree, Knocknagun..."

Perfectly exhausting, in other words.


“There are actually 29 points. The start, the finish, the crossing point at Drumgoff, and the 26 summits. The first third was the hardest, the fog was so thick, being pummelled by the head wind. A lot of it is about the spirit, about honesty. You have a GPS in your back pack and tag each summit, and that also means people can follow you, know where you are, even though you mightn’t.

"But you want to do it right because you love it. The Wicklow Round has a lot of history in its short history. All I had to go off is the time of day on an old Casio watch, plus the map and campus. That's quite a weird experience, but also quite uplifting. Eating mostly sugar gels, waffles, bananas, though I did have a Double Decker bar running over Djouce, which was just delicious. I couldn't handle any more gels. And I always get song lyrics stuck in my head, and this time around it was Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains, covered by Christy Moore recently, very apt.

"Irish mountain running is a small enough community with great tradition, like John Lenihan, 1991 world champion. And it is all about the purity, being able to handle yourself on the mountains, in all conditions. That's something we all hold true and dear."

For more information see www.imra.ie