Honestly, day 6 was… forgettable. After all the action from an exhaustive day 5 and an injury-ridden but beautiful day 4, it was a welcome alternative. It only ended up being 7 miles, and I was preoccupied by thoughts of life back home the entire way. I was admittedly becoming pretty uncomfortable. I’d been backpacking and hiking for 19 days, and hadn’t had a rest day for 6. My feet were slaughtered, and as October crept toward December, the water and mud and rain constantly soaking me to the bone were becoming colder and colder. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that I let my mind wander back to beautiful autumn days and my big comfy bed back home.
It makes me laugh thinking that 7 miles was now a short and easy lope through the woods, when that was close to the distance I was training back home to prepare. Today, I was able to run uphill, which I hadn’t really been able to do since I started. The changes to my body were becoming more and more evident: my face and arms were thinner and tanned and the muscles of my lower body were rock solid. My knee, ankles, and the blisters on my feet were constantly complaining, but my ability to ignore the pain had increased just as dramatically as my musculature. I thought I finally deserved the title of Trail Runner.
Leaving Waterville after a long night’s rest, I traversed a skinny cliffside road overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It was a sunny morning, and my mind bounced between appreciating the landscape and wondering about home. Yes, some of this crazy adventure was uncomfortable, but an overwhelming part of me needed to be there, dissecting microscopic thoughts I never knew I had while my skin absorbed the cool, salty spray of Ballinskelligs Bay. I was where I needed to be.
Later, the Kerry Way rounded the southern tip of the Iveragh Peninsula, and Derrynane Bay became the main focal point of the trail, tiny islands popping up from the water. I was in my cruise state, tucked deep in my thoughts, sinking as far into my head as my feet in the mud. Knowing today’s leg was so much shorter than the rest of the hike made me confident and I looked forward to tomorrow’s rest day.
Finally, the trail threaded through a part of Derrynane National Park, which was mostly thin forest skirting N77. It was muddy, and I was starting to seriously reconsider my choice of running shoes that day. I wanted to give my feet a rest from the cutting straps of my Chaco sandals, and decided to wear my Asics. The mesh surrounding my feet meant that every time I splashed through just a shallow puddle, freezing water sloshed into my shoes to be greedily slurped up by my socks, shooting cold spikes of water between my toes with every step. Unpleasant to say the least.
I broke free from the muddy forest, passed through a small farm, and returned to pavement for the last mile leading into Caherdaniel. Traveler’s Rest Hostel was easy to find, and empty of people. When I started the trail three weeks ago, I’d pass a handful of hikers every day but as winter approached, fewer people were hiking and I was going entire days without seeing anyone. It was becoming more and more lonely, which is probably why I spending so much time thinking about home.
To the outsider, my evening was pretty pathetic. I tucked myself under all of the blankets in my empty dorm room, studied for the GRE, read a lot concerning a future research topic I wanted to pursue and made a tiny dinner. To me my evening was perfect, and I was unbelievably psyched for my last rest day tomorrow. Caherdaniel was a tiny town near the ocean, and I had a full day of absolutely nothing planned.
This day wasn’t anything to brag about. I slept in until 9 am, well past my normal wake-up time of 6:30. The woman who ran the hostel informed me there was a laundry down the road, so I set off on foot to find it. After a mile or so, I gave up looking and squeezed my way along the narrow, dangerous N77 to get back to the hostel. The kitchen sink made for a fine washing machine…
After making some ramen I found in the free food cabinet, I did what I had become quite good at - I ignored my rest day and went exploring on foot. I saw the beach in the distance, and walked about 2 miles to get there. The crescent-shaped beach was empty, and I spent my time there rooting around in the sand and the shallows until it started raining. The Irish weather was really starting to bring me down. I began the wet walk back to Caherdaniel, listening to The Handmaid’s Tale on audiobook, and by the time I made it back to town the weather had cleared but I was soaked through. Huff.
The next couple hours were spent reading, writing and studying until a French guy named Nicolas checked into my dorm room. I wasn’t particularly interested in social interaction at this point, but he said he was going to take a walk down to the beach and asked if I’d like to come along (obviously not much else to do in Caherdaniel except walk to the beach…). I decided that feeling anti-social wasn’t a good enough reason to say no, so I led the way out of town.
I was really happy I did, too. Nicholas was fun to talk to and was on his own interesting adventure. He’d saved enough money as a pizza guy to travel the world and was on an even tighter budget than I was. Once we arrived at the beach, the sun was going down, a rainbow sprouted over the countryside, and a dark storm system traversed the ocean on the horizon. Not bad.
Back at the hostel, I shared some bread and cheese I had with Nicolas, and he made the two of us potatoes that he found in the free food cabinet. After dinner, I resumed studying and spent a long time happily video chatting back home. All-in-all, a very mellow rest day. Only 3 more days until I would finish!
The 11 miles from Caherdaniel to Sneem was steep, and because the weather was the warmest so far I changed from leggings to shorts for the first time since arriving in Ireland. I was cruising! The daily grind was so habitual at this point that I felt immune to everything… sore muscles, bloody feet and animal poop didn’t phase me at all.
There were two significant uphill sections, but neither was too muddy. I took advantage of the extensive gradual downhills, and was able to keep a running pace most of the day. On my way up the second ridge it started misting. The cooler air was pleasant at first, but the rain began soon after and my bare legs turned red from the cold. The last two miles to Sneem were flat and dead straight though, so I didn’t feel like I was working too hard. By the time I rocked up to my accomodation for the night, I was absolutely drenched. Soaked to the bone and freezing… But hey, wearing shorts in the warm weather earlier in the day was totally worth it.
As I neared the end of this adventure, I was less and less inclined to venture out in bad weather to explore in the evenings. Instead, I took a hot shower, enjoyed the fish and chips and a glass of wine from the restaurant downstairs, and chatted with Trisha the bartender.
While on a short walk to stretch my legs and buy some much-needed chocolate, I witnessed the most hilariously stereotypical Irish scene. A dirty fisherman stood at the convenience store counter, shooting the shit with the cashier as he waited in line to buy just two items in massive quantities: tea and potatoes. A true Irishman.
After a good giggle, I returned to my room and crashed, hard. I had no idea that the next day would be the most excruciating day of my life.
Day 9 was 23 miles of bullshit (even literally at some points). As I look back on the trail descriptions and my journal, I recall that most of the trail was muddy and far from memorable. I was dripping wet the entire day, unable to run, and pissed about that fact that I still had another day left. Not even chocolate could make me happy because I’d been eating so much I was becoming sick of it. My audiobook was boring, my legs hurt, and I got lost. UGH.
I remember the morning being bleak. The trail was rocky, but since it was raining so hard, it turned into a small creek. I was used to being wet by now, but this was so bad that the tape on my feet refused to stay on, exposing the cuts and blisters to the ruthless chafing of my Chaco straps. I reallyyyy could have used some waterproof trail runners…
Being fairly confident in my navigating by this point, I was surprised to find myself wandering around on a private golf course. The frustrating part was that I knew exactly where I was, but the Kerry Way wasn’t where it was supposed to be. After retracing my steps but unable to find the right path, I headed out to the main road and navigated to its intersection with the Way a few miles from the golf course.
Ten miles in, I reached the most notable landmark of the day, the Blackwater Bridge. On a sunny day, I’m sure it would have been more impressive. Today, it was just a large stone bridge in the forest where I got to briefly enjoy a flat paved surface for .2 seconds before heading back into the wet woods. Yay.
The next stage was almost pretty, but the miles dragged on. I was moving excruciatingly slow, but at least the old forest I was heading through was kind of nice, with big trees and cushy mulched trails. The outskirts of the forest had been logged, so once I arrived there, it got muddy and rainy again without protection from the trees. This is surely the day where nice weather could have made all of the difference. The edges of the Kenmare River would have been so much more attractive under a bright sun and a better mindset. Instead, I trudged silently along with heavy feet and a bratty attitude.
I hit a few miles of pavement winding gently downhill, and attempted to run, unsuccessfully. Everything hurt and I gave up almost immediately. I could see the Beara Peninsula creeping closer from the south, closing the distance between between me and Kenmare, and I knew my day was almost done.
Just kidding! Just as I started to think I was finished, the trail turned northeast and headed away from town, into the cloudy mountains… and anger started boiling up inside me. I was the most exhausted I had ever been in my life, and the trail was worsening. My feet disappeared into mud that was 12 inches deep, over and over and over and over and over. The landscape was miserable; I was traversing a farm field with no redeeming qualities at a maddeningly slow pace. Had it been sunny, I could’ve seen the Caha Mountains, and Knockanaguish Mountain and Peakeen Mountain. I could have looked across to the Beara Peninsula and seen the trail winding far off in the distance to where I’d be finishing the Kerry Way the next day.
Instead, all I got was mud, thorns, rain, pain and excruciating bitchiness bleeding from every pore in my body. I fell over again and again when my feet wedged beneath thick mud and bushes, and sliced open my index finger on my left hand after a particularly hard fall. I was almost crawling across the ground, bawling my eyes out. I had totally lost it, and I’m not going to write this like I didn’t.
After some of my slowest miles of the entire journey, I topped the ridge and saw Kenmare tucked peacefully into the hillside, a disgustingly beautiful contrast to the rage seeping out of me. After another mile I finally reached solid terrain. I sloshed into town, mud up to my elbows and knees and soaking my legs and my butt. I looked like a miserable little cave monster. All dignity was lost. I smiled at the hostel owner and acted like a happy little peach but I was so, so drained.
Showers were hardly the best part of my day anymore. My feet burned and bled everywhere, and just standing up for long enough to clean the mud off was almost impossible. I was too tired to talk to anyone, and I was going broke trying to keep up with hostel fees. It was time for me to leave Ireland, but I still had one day left.
Later in the evening, in cleanish clothes and a comfortable chair, I broke into tears. I had reached a level of pure exhaustion so intense that the little comforts I was enjoying in that moment squeezed the last ounce of energy from my body. It was just 23 miles. It was just 8.5 hours. I still feel guilty about losing my cool so terribly. That was not the hardest thing I’d ever do, and by far one of the most pathetic among endurance adventures athletes take on every day. Is that how I act when I reach my limit? Is that how it’s going to be? I squirm just thinking about it. I ordered a heaping plateful of Irish comfort food but couldn’t finish half of it. I passed out as soon as my face hit the pillow.
15 miles stood between me and the end of the Kerry Way. After yesterday, I was feeling pretty wrecked but I was so looking forward to being done. I knew I could finish this, and I had known that since my first day on the trail. Today would only end in Killarney, my limbs still firmly attached to my body and 131 miles behind me.
There were two steep mountains in the first 6 miles. I knew this from the trail description and mentally prepared for the same shitstorm I had faced the day before. I was ready. I knew I could finish, and wouldn’t let anything get between me and my victory Guinness. Two muddy, rainy, painful mountains before an easy 9 miles through Killarney National Park on perfect trails…
I don’t quite remember leaving town; the suburban scenery was no longer new to me so I zoned out pretty hard. Soon, I arrived at the base of the first mountain, and it was… PAVED? HELL YES! It was too steep to run, but I speed-hiked up the glorious hard surface and reached the top in no time. It was an excellent start to the day, but I steeled myself for the second treacherous mountain.
The daily rain began as I was tromping through farmland at the top of this first ridge, but I could hardly think about it. I’d been rained on for 23 days straight and had no energy left to whine about wet clothes. After a muddy descent, I could see the next ridge out ahead. I could tell it wasn’t paved from where I was, and again prepared for the worst. As I topped the first gravel rise, the rest of the trail appeared and the whole thing was rocky. How did I keep getting so lucky!? Steep, rocky trails were the stuff of dreams at this point.
Yesterday, the trails were liquidy bogs, sucking my feet underground and burying my body in mud and sheep poop. I flew to the top of this rocky ridge, only a little muddy and racing ever-closer to the finish line. When I reached the top, the entire trail became covered in deep, black mud. A wooden board had been haphazardly thrown across the muddiest section, and I tiptoed out on to it. As soon as I put my full weight onto the board, it sunk beneath the mud, throwing me off-balance, and dunking my left leg into the muck.
And my left leg kept sinking. Really, it was just a couple seconds, but by the time my foot reached the solid ground beneath the mud, it had crept almost all the way up to my left knee. My right ankle was submerged too. I was able to rock up on my right foot and tug my left leg from the abyss, and place it just a couple feet ahead on solid ground. After another tug, I managed to free my right foot. This four-foot section of trail was home of the deepest mud I’d faced the entire way.
Flustered, I continued to the bottom of the ridge where I found a wet rock free of sheep poop where I was able to sit down take my shoes off. I peeled off all the tape surrounding my feet, and waded into a nearby puddle to wash off all the mud. Here’s a nasty image for you… I had cuts and scrapes covering my feet, and here I was washing them off in a puddle of water and dissolving sheep poop pebbles. Yummy. But in all honesty, if the excrement that had been absorbed into my feet every day hadn’t gotten me sick yet, I figured nothing could.
At the bottom of the second ridge, I entered into Killarney National Park. Both mountains that I had traversed had been pleasantly easy besides my brief run-in with the mud. After all the mental preparation I had gone through, I was finally returning to a part of the trail I was already familiar with through Killarney National Park.
You see, the Kerry Way trail is roughly shaped like a balloon on a string. It starts in the town of Killarney at the end of the string, and threads through Killarney National Park (KNP) along the string until it reaches the balloon. I had been hiking around the balloon in a counter-clockwise direction, and had finally arrived back to the junction where the loop met the string. The last nine miles were along the string, back through KNP and to Killarney at the end of the string.
I turned right and jostled up a short, familiar hill. The weather was wetter than my first run through the park, and although the trails here were well maintained, they were still a little slick. Compared to the unpredictable and harsh trails on rest of the Kerry Way, I was in heaven.
When the trail flattened out again, I saw the strangest sight… other people. Hikers and runners, people talking to each other and talking to me. I had gone days without seeing anyone on my adventures, and I was profoundly surprised at how happy it made me. By the time I got to my accomodations at night, I was rarely in the mood for conversation. But out here on the trail in the middle of the day, exchanging small talk with strangers felt so good.
I remember complaining about the uneven trails through KNP on my first day, but after miles through sheep farms and craggy mountain sides, I reveled in these paths. I was far more athletic now than I had been when I started. I was jumping further and higher under the weight of my pack, and easily balancing on the shakey, skinny plastic planks traversing the boggy lowlands while running as fast as I could. I came to an uphill and didn’t even hesitate to run it, a feat I couldn’t imagine when I set out.
As Torc Mountain came into view, I switched from my Chacos to my runners. I knew the trail ahead was less muddy and chock full of steep downhill, and I wanted to take advantage of it. There was one particular hill I had been looking forward to for the last couple days, leading into the forest beneath Torc. At just 400 meters long, this packed gravel hill had been exhausting on the way up, but when it came into view steeply sloped below me, I couldn’t help but smile.
See, this is what an adventure like this does to a person. Here I was, incredibly excited about basic human interaction and a hard-packed quarter-mile downhill. I absorbed the tiny glory of these simple things. As the tips of my shoes edged over the curve, I felt the weight of my pack pushing me forward and I darted forward. My feet didn’t hurt, I didn’t feel any raindrops, and for the first time I truly RAN.
I was running so quickly downhill that I let out an involuntary whoop as I neared the threshold where I would fall forward over my feet. I was going too fast, and I didn’t care. The hype of just five miles between me and completion fueled my careless final push and I dove ever-downward toward Torc Waterfall.
The hill leveled slightly, but the trail continued folding down to the valley as the forest thickened with mist and tourists. Now I was on a wooded trail, ducking around photo opportunities and past hand-holding couples. I photobombed selfies while I ran past and took a quick glance at the falls, overwhelmed by 200 people, more than I had seen on the trail in the last two weeks combined. They stared at me too; green-packed, dirty and out of place. They didn’t know that this was my trail, that I had earned it far more than they did on their mellow 5 minute amble to the waterfall.
As I curved around to Muckross House, the downhill ceased and my adrenaline waned. I semi-ran the last few miles into town, disappointed I couldn’t keep up that incredible pace forever. The last mile dragged on further than any had yet, and for some strange reason, I didn’t recognize where I was.
I clearly remember the first mile of the trek, but seeing it in reverse didn’t ring a single bell. I followed the Kerry Way signs and I was on course, navigating as I had the entire way, but didn’t remember my surroundings at all. Where is the end?
In what is the strongest contender for the most anti-climactic moment of my life, under a cloudy sky and all alone I arrived in the same square I started from, 131 miles ago. I looked around half-smiling, half-confused. Where was the victory music? The podium? The cheering crowds? Didn’t anyone know what I had just done to get here?
I sat on a bench and looked at my legs. I felt exactly as I had every other day on this journey. My feet burned like the pack-rub on my shoulders. My lower back gleefully released as it had every day when I finally assumed a packless seated position. As my body temperature dropped, my wet clothes made me feel cold while the mud slowly hardened in layers around my calves.
I picked up my extra bag from the hostel in Killarney and caught a bus to Tralee. I checked into a hostel there. I bought myself a bottle of wine and a massive bar of chocolate that I didn’t want. Words of congratulations from friends in the US came trickling in, and my strongest supporters shouted unending laudations, but no one was with me to celebrate. I went to a bar and had a Guinness. I drank the wine I bought because I felt like I was supposed to. The next day I flew home, and it was over. I got off the plane in Savannah, blinking under the southern sun like I was waking up from a weird dream.