Lillian Deegan: Running the 1,800mile Wild Atlantic Route

Last updated: 06-Nov-18

By Luke Jarmey

Irish runners Lillian Deegan and Tom Reynolds, have recently become the first people to run the entire 1,800mile Wild Atlantic Route. We had a chat with Lillian to learn what on earth inspired her to undertake this jolly jaunt and find out, how the hell it all went.

Q. So first off, tell us a bit about yourself Lillian?

A. I am not a consistent eventer, I go through phases of doing stuff, take a break and go back whenever. I have run a few marathons on and off since 2010. Back then my younger brother and I signed up for a 26.2 having done one 13-odd miler and enjoyed it.

Q. Have you always been a runner or is it a relatively recent pursuit?

A. I am a relative newbie to distance running. Having done my first ultra in the summer of 2014, a 39.9 miler in Achill, Co. Mayo, I knew this was something I could enjoy. I always loved sport during my school years. I have now come to realise I’m not necessarily built for speed, I tend to be happy enough once I finish anything I start. Sometimes anticipated wrap times go out the window during an event. Starting and finishing become the priority now and then.

Q. How long ago did you make the foray into ultra running?

A. I ran my first ultra in Achill in August 2014 and signed up for a 50 miler in Dingle, Kerry for the following month. I ran the Dingle 50-mile Ultra in 9h 12minutes feeling as sick as a small hospital for the last three miles. I knew I needed to figure out nutrition if I was to keep on the ultra scene. Trial and error figured out so much for me as it does for so many. 

Q. Nice, what other ultra’s have you dived into?

A. I did take on the Cape Wrath Ultra earlier this year. I was delighted to have toed the start line near Fort William and more so to have reached the Cape lighthouse eight days’ later injury free. That gig was huge in terms of learning how stage events go. I’m a tad precious when it comes to sleeping in the great outdoors. The Cape Wrath Ultra taught me I’ve a lot of adjusting to do if I am to enter the adventure racing world of 24hr and longer events.

Q. Did you meet Tom through racing?

A. I met Tom while running a ten in ten marathon event in September 2014. This event followed the Dingle 50 miler. Having not run a back to back 26.2 miler, I signed up to chance my arm at trying to complete ten in ten consecutive days. Thankfully each of the marathon daily distances were closed out injury free.

Tom and I wrapped up the year of 2014 doing a few more similar back to back events together. He was training for his MdS outing. He convinced me while we ran the Clonakilty marathon in December 2014 that I was ready to wrap on a 100 miler. Tom headed to Morocco in early April 2015 and ran a smasher of an MdS. I stayed home to close out my first real endurance run the same week. My first 100 mile run turned out to be very manageable and enjoyable. In terms of time, I wrapped in 21h 44mins; I now had a 100 miler time to work on. 

Q. So how and when did the idea for the Wild Atlantic Route (WAR) come about? And what exactly is the WAR?

A. We were heading to Kerry one Friday afternoon in the summer of 2015 to check out the trails of the Kerry Way. We had signed up for the Kerry Way Ultra race; a 200km trail run held on the first weekend of September annually. This event comes with a 40hr cut-off. It is a way marked route with a mix of everything and some of the most stunning views and terrain to be had anywhere. As we drove down to Kerry Tom asked if I had heard of the Wild Atlantic Way. “I had not” was my immediate response. The long drive south passed pretty swiftly as Tom spoke of a challenge he would love to complete. Tom had this challenge on his mind well before he mentioned it to me – WAR was born! The title and dates for our 2016 adventure pretty much began on the back of an envelope during that journey to and from Kerry that July weekend last year. 

Without hesitation, I was sold, it was all very exciting. The idea of how many miles were involved was somewhat irrelevant to me, getting to the start line and playing all by ear was how it was to be for me. I tend not to get flustered when getting ready for any of the bigger distance gigs, the WAW would be no different; each day would be taken one day at a time.    

Q. Ok, how feasible did you actually think it was? I mean, heck 1,800 miles is quite some undertaking…

A. We would both be of the mind-set that anything is possible with a will to want. From the start planning wise, we knew the adventure was going to be massive with distance in mind. Specifically, a gauge on exact miles had to be figured to see what ground needed to be covered over a period of four weeks. Tom is a whiz with figures; he went about breaking distances down going on available maps and so forth.

Q. Idea formed, route studied… so the next step, how did you train for this?

A. I continued to run varied treks with weekly mile amounts up to 120 odd at my peak this past spring. I have a preference for mountain terrain in the main. My race events leading up to the WAR gig were planned and completed on trails mostly. Post WAR, a little bit of me thinks, I really should have spent much more time on tarmac.  

Q. Soon after you set off on the WAR, I read that you encountered a bit of an injury right at the start, what was it? And at that point, were you entertaining the possibility of pulling out?

A. Yes unfortunately such was the scenario at a very early stage for me. My right quad decided it didn’t want to be as active as my brain half way through day two. It took me a while to warm up and get a handy pace going the morning of day two. On the tip of Mamore Gap in Donegal, you look down at the most beautiful long straight stretch of ground, all downhill – heaven to me usually. It was lashing rain, real heavy hood up or feel great pain rain.

I shot down this section knowing I would see crew man Pat at the next discovery point close by. Things went wrong, very wrong for the next while. Closing out on Day 2 had me thinking all sorts. At no point was I quitting, this was not an option. So much time and energy had been invested in the months prior, I had started and I was going to finish this gig. The left quad would go out in sympathy a few days later. 

Reaching the look-out to Tory Island will always be special, not sure if that is a good or a bad thing. The area up there on the Donegal coast line is magnificent. I really didn’t know how I was going to manage quad aches in both legs from there. What followed over the 40 odd days was a number of visits every other day to physio folk to have muscular issues looked at. And sometimes I would heed their advice of taking recovery in-between rest days, usually when the pain was really unbearable. Not being a fan of pill popping, my body seemed to source a way to break through and relieve pain itself.

In hindsight I feel the only time I got annoyed was when a doctor refused anti-inflammatory meds for a shin issue that came about on day ten. This doctor felt it would be remiss of her should she not insist I attend an A&E in Mayo for an X-Ray to confirm a fracture as opposed to just swelling of tissue. I did not head for an A&E; I went back to Achill Island that evening and closed out 40 odd miles to clear my head.

Q. You must have had some real highs and lows (other than the injury) during the run. Tell us about some that stood out?

A. An every other day low moment was seeing dark clouds come in from the big blue. When the rain came in off the Atlantic, it usually lasted an age. When the wind joined forces, it was always a tough outing. Trying to battle high winds in wet weather was great resistance training but soul destroying time on the legs.

Highs were found as day broke on an overnighter and when I finished in any of the nine counties on the WAW. I had some of the most amazing early mornings on the WAW. A second high came when I clocked up anything over the 30 or 40 miler distance on any given run. Getting half my day’s work behind me was the best feeling ever.

Another high would be the daily phone calls from one of my brothers living in Australia. When he rocked up in person in Bantry, Co Cork, I was totally blown away and found a new energy to push on and finish the gig.  

Q. Any laugh out loud experiences? 

A. Heading for the Belmullet area in north Mayo, crew lady Finn O’Mara kindly sourced hot food for the last stage of that day’s run. I had rice with chicken curry and ate on the hoof as Finn drove alongside me trying to shield off the gale winds. The wind was chronic that evening, I feared losing the fork to the elements. The hot food tasted great and was blown everywhere; it was hilarious at the time when battling the wind was hard work in itself.

The Belmullet peninsula has a trek of 70 odd miles from the bridge. My little sister/ crew lady Nuala ran the last two legs with me. On the last leg, she says “Ok, there is one house down here and then we are there”. We had but 16 miles to close out to finish and return to the bridge crossing in the town. I was up to house number seven and counting, wondering which house was to be the “one house”. As it happened from Nuala’s earlier drive about, she was equally as amazed at how the other six houses had been missed earlier. We were both agreed, it was hilarious funny at 4:30am once we eventually reached the discovery point. 

With the rain being pretty much ever the further south we trekked, one night sitting in the car in a place called Barna outside Galway city with crew lady Gillian. I was taking five eating a Müller apple/rice feeling totally drained. We were finishing in Galway that night but getting the last few miles in was hard going. Gill was great at giving weather updates. I asked what the weather update was; I get the reply “the app says it’s to be dry for a number of hours” and just then the heavens opened. We both just sat looking and laughing heartily at the rain beating down on the car. On the plus side, the sugar hit from the Müller rice was marvellous, we soldiered on to the prom in Salthill, drenched and happy enough to finish. 

Another funnier moment came from my little 11-year-old nephew. We had crossed the river Shannon, gladly leaving Co. Clare behind us arriving in Tarbert, Co. Kerry. We carried out a route check of the next day’s run in the Limerick direction and headed to our sleep station after dinner with my nephew saying he was living the life! My sister and I found it the most amusing thing ever. Being a crew person is not as easy task at the best of times. They had a fair whack of sitting about waiting for me to arrive at various destinations.

Q. When did you finish and what were the final stats? Including mileage, days and how much money did you raise and for which charity?

A I finished in Kinsale, Co. Cork on the evening of Wednesday Sept. 7th. I await the final stats. Some not fully downloaded from a borrowed Garmin. I was on the WAW 47 days in total – 42 days running and the remainder were in-between rest days.

On the charity side – I had a target of raising 2,000€, reached thanks to so many generous people. My charity was Billy’s World Ireland; it was nice to be able to raise the profile of this charity during our adventure.

Q. Amazing stuff, well done! Ok we all love the kit questions, so looking back on it, what bits of gear and nutrition worked particularly well for you?

A. Hoka One One shoes would be what we use a lot on the regular everyday outings. For WAR, a size bigger than my usual was required, I dressed my feet from day one and had very few foot concerns throughout. With the feet dressed, the shoe size need was one up. No other special running gear, I just always made sure to change completely if there was a continued wet spell. I packed neither wet leggings nor long leg bottoms by accident, it was August and I expected a lot of warm sunny weather. My OMM’s were hanging in the spare room – a great place for them!

Finn O’Mara kindly sent me a few sets of clothes to serve me super well from Ballina to Kinsale. I ended up doing a fair whack of my miles overnight due to traffic on national and regional roads being difficult and dangerous in daylight hours for me. 

I ate very well, always trying to eat at a reasonable time each evening. Going to bed on a full tummy if the run went ran late made sleeping difficult. The first week of our event had us rising around 5am to be on the road for 7am if not before. I love food and will eat anything. I didn’t focus too much on any specific foods. Always felt conscious of not wishing to put the crew under any pressure to source specific stuff.

For the last few days/ nights of my jaunt, I happily ate noodles or sea food chowder where available. They were easy to digest when my whole body felt tired. There were times when I had no interest in food but knew I needed to refuel for the next outing. I found having a beer most useful to encourage hunger. It always worked, never failed!

Q. Is there anything that you wished you’d bought along in hindsight?

A. No not really. Well perhaps wet gear, maybe just waterproof trousers but in truth what Finn loaned me wet gear wise worked better than what I didn’t think to pack myself.  

Q. Looking to the future, have you got any more challenges? Or are you a tad run out after this one?

A. Thankfully I am getting back to a regular daily life; the constant feeling of tiredness has passed, delighted to have finished injury free. I am pretty slow on the feet at the moment and I have noticed I have a little fear of descending hilly terrain. I expect that will correct in time.

Looking to make time to plan my 2017 calendar at the moment, it’s a work in progress as they say. It pleases me to say out of all my on-the-road days during WAR, at no time did I not want to pop on the shoes and go. I was always eager to get out at whatever time of day and see how far my legs would allow me to close out. Hands down, I’d give the route a second shot to see could I do it in a shorter time frame.

Thanks Lillian, that was a truly amazing run and good luck for any future escapades!

All images Lillian Deegan except when stated.

"At no point was I quitting, this was not an option. So much time and energy had been invested in the months prior"

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