Trail Runner Interview: Rachel Nolan
5 years ago when I did the OCC in Chamonix, I ended up in a coma for over 40 hours after suffering from hyponatremia…
Meet Rachel: Spontaneous, energetic, with an insatiable thirst for adventure, you could find Rachel anywhere. Running up Nephin mountain overlooking Loch Conn, sea kayaking among the rugged, cliff-lined coastline of the Wild Atlantic Way, biking hard in the Ox mountains by night or sitting down in the local pub with friends enjoying her favourite whiskey.
Rachel has made her passion her job and set up Rachel’s Irish Adventures in 2015, offering tailor made private tours and trail running adventures throughout Ireland to experience, discover and taste the best the island has to offer.
Tell us how you got into Trail Running?
I got into Trail Running because it is a discipline in Adventure Racing. For me it’s an excellent opportunity to explore and enjoy the outdoors. The first trail run I did was a short IMRA run in the Cooley mountains in 2010. Myself and my adventure buddy Linda decided to do it as a training run for our first adventure race which was 2 weeks after. To this day, I don’t think I have ever suffered so much! It was only about 8km but it was the first time I had attempted to run up a hill like that and it was mild torture. Linda was used to chasing sheep up the hills growing up so it didn’t seem to bother her too much. Two weeks later, we took part in the Wicklow Adventure Race. On the drive to Glendalough, we blasted on the Killers ‘I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier’ and we were pumped- this is still now my go to motivation song. It still makes me smile to think back to those first trail running and adventure racing experiences and how basic our kit and experience level was back then. That run up from Glendalough was so tough but the atmosphere and energy was just amazing. Linda had borrowed a bike and didn’t know how to change the gears, I was on my commuting hybrid bike, we were under prepared to say the least but we had such fun, met amazing people and I still remember having a few ice-creams after in Glendalough and sharing our stories with others which was such a highlight.
That was it, we were hooked and this was the start of both of our need and want for adventure. It was now time to push some boundaries, have more fun experiences and explore more stunning locations. I started to hit the trails regularly, gather experience and found lots of new training buddies. In 2012, I went back and did the Cooley Legends half marathon and came second, passing that same 8km section that seemed a lot easier this time round. I happened to bump into the well-known Irish adventurer and event organiser Paul Mahon who was and is always on the lookout for women to join his adventure racing team. From what I remember, I think I did his Run a Muck event that he organises and won it. He saw my interest and decided to test me. He entered a 3 person team into the 24 hour Rogaine, so it was Paul, Adrian Hennessey who is one of Ireland’s top mountain runners and myself. I had no idea what I was in for and WOW it certainly did test me. Paul knew the area so well and Adrian was like a natural born mountain goat. Keeping up with their running pace I spend a lot of the time in the red and I had also never run on such open wild terrain. My body was not used to being under this pressure but I never said anything. I soon learned that was my super power – just getting on with the situation, pushing boundaries and enjoying the moment with a positive energy. I really enjoyed the chats with the lads and the openness of the discussions, I realised once we are out on the hills and pushing it, there are no limits of where a conversation can go and no judgement. We are all equal and just living in the here and now and taking it all in. This was it. I knew I will never get enough of this type of adventure. We won the event and it also seemed as I had passed the test. I teamed up with Paul and Adrian and often times Peter Cromie, another top class runner, for more adventures in Ireland and France.
How often do you go trail running?
This really depends, I have no set number of days I need to go trail running and I just go on feeling. Ireland is great for trail running and in the west of Ireland particularly, there’s more open mountain running with less marked trails, which I love. As I travel for the winters, I really like to go trail running in new locations to explore the regions and also to meet the locals who share the same passion. For example last winter, I joined a trail running group in Chang Mai in Thailand, the year before that I joined the Vienna Trail Running Club and the winter before that I was back in Nantes with my buddies from Cap Endurance trail running. It’s so easy to make a connection with people when you have a common interest and passion. I love that the world wide trail running community is so open and welcoming.
Are you following a specific training plan?
I have never really followed a plan for running and just go out running when I feel like it, to meet up with friends or if I’m in a location that has some nice trails to explore. My original goals, pre-lockdown, for 2020 included Expedition Africa in April, The Wicklow Way in July, The Kerry Way Ultra in September and then Eco Trail Wicklow in September before going away for a winter adventure. With all the uncertainty and having no tours with Rachel’s Irish Adventures, I’ve recently changed the focus to cycling as I’ve as many hours in the day as I want to be out on the bike and might not have this opportunity again for a while. I’ve recently decided I will sign up for The TransAtlanticWay which takes place September 3rd. This is a 2500km self-sufficient cycle from Dublin to Derry and then follows the Wild Atlantic Way to Kinsale. Due to the Covid restrictions, we will not know if it will go ahead until July 20th and registration will not reopen until then. Regardless if the event is officially on or not, I think I’ll blast off and do it anyway as a nice adventure holiday. I have never had a coach or training plan up until now and always just enjoyed the flexibility of going out running or hiking in the hills, on the bike or kayak whenever I feel like it. This is great but to progress I know that I need to learn about using different gears and not just being a one pace diesel engine. I have started following a training plan since June 1st so that gives me 12 weeks to get the body and mind ready for The TransAtlanticWay. The plan is to keep me focused and not just to be continuously out training with no rest. My focus is now on hard days out and complete rest days.
To top off my September adventure month, I will need to speak nicely to the lovely legs and hope to take part in The EcoTrail Wicklow on September 26th.
Where are your favourite trail running playgrounds?
I am a little biased but Mayo and Sligo have some of the best variety of terrains and scenery for trail running and they are still relatively undiscovered. Here are my top 5 in no particular order: Carrowteige 18km coastal trail, Nephin mountain, 806metres, tour of Clare island 16km, Achill island Croaghaun coastline extending to Slievemore, 20km taking in Ireland’s highest sea cliffs and Knocknarea loop 11km in Strandhill, Co. Sligo.
What are your favourite trail running races in Ireland and abroad. Any trail running achievement you’re particularly proud of?
I enjoy taking part in trail running races but I also like going away for a few days on running adventures with friends where as well as pushing ourselves on the trails and exploring new places, the social part is equally as important. I lived in 4 different regions in France for 4 years and trail running was how I socialised, explored and connected with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. I took part in at least 2 trail running events a month and loved travelling to different regions to discover new trails and taste the local specialities after with new friends, I always stood out as the Irish girl with the cute accent. Some of my favourite events and areas in France include: The 2 day Euskal Trail in the Basque region, Raid Edhec in Nice, OCC in Chamonix, the trail running Festival of Templiers in the Milau region, the coastline and rolling hills in Bretagne, the lakes of Annecy and the Killian Classic in Font Romeau. Here in Ireland, there are so many great events and fortunately I still have a lot left to discover. Some of my recent favourites are The Gaelforce Mountain Run, Maurice Mullins, The Seven Sisters and The Nephin mountain run. The three events top of my list to discover are The EcoTrail Wicklow, The Wicklow Way and The Kerry Way ultra. Outside of Ireland, the only trail running event on my list at the moment is La Diagonale des Fous in La Reunion. I don’t think I’ve any particular trail running achievements that I’m proud of, I suppose I feel proud of myself for arriving to the startline of any event and feel very lucky to have so many amazing opportunities. Taking part in events both at home and abroad are also a great way to travel, for example when we did Le Marathon des Sables, we extended the trip for 2 weeks to explore Morocco and 3 years ago, the Transgrancanaria Trail marathon in Gran Canaria was the perfect excuse to get some winter sun, practice my Spanish and eat lots of ice-cream in February. The Eco Challenge last year was the perfect reason to go across the other side of the world to Fiji to discover a new culture and learn more about myself and the importance of team dynamics.
Can you share any trail running personal advice?
My main tip for anyone considering on getting involved in trail running is to just go for it! Reach out and connect with someone in the trail running community and join in. Once you meet a few like-minded running buddies, you will be hooked. Sign up for an event, have a focus and enjoy discovering more about yourself, meeting new fun people and discovering stunning locations. When you start to gain more experience and you want to increase the distance and time out exploring, it’s important to get the nutrition right and continue to look after the body as you don’t want to have an expiry date for your adventures. For me, yoga and stretching has also become a part of my daily routine and I feel it helps me keep in tune with my body.
Have you any trail running stories?
Well back 5 years ago when I did the OCC in Chamonix, I ended up in a coma for over 40 hours after suffering from hyponatremia. I was doing great, apparently just behind the 3rd female and then with 10km to go, I started feeling not so good but thought it was just the heat. I slowed right down and walked a bit and made it across the finish line with a injection of adrenaline. I went for quick soup and massage and the medics noticed I was not 100% but I convinced them I was OK. Less than 30 minutes after, on the way to the Irish coffee pub where I had agreed to meet my friends, I had a seizure outside McDonalds. Patrick Basset, who is an anaesthetist intubated me with a general anaesthesia and I was sent on a helicopter to Annecy hospital. After over 40 hours I woke up, luckily without any brain damage. My buddies had been looking for me and spent over 24 hours ringing hospitals and trying to find out where I was but as they were not family, they struggled to locate me. The medics were so surprised that I did not have brain damage and my case is still now used as an example with the events medical team Dokever for the UTMB events and salty foods must be at aid stations. That year, I competed in several ultra distance and multi-day trail runs and although I had consumed over 50 salt tablets, it was not enough. If this is of interest, check out more details in this blog.
Having more experience now and years of research and learning about my body, I realise I was suffering from LEA (Low Energy Availability), something that is very common especially among women athletes. It’s important to remember that women are not small men and it’s necessary to fuel and train according to our bodies and our capabilities to reach full potential and stay healthy. These are all topics I talk about in the Rachel’s Irish Adventures Women’s Trail Running Retreats
Is there any particular pieces of gear that you absolutely love?
I’m a bags and shoes lady for sure and have tried and tested so many different trail runners and different sized bags that this would be a blog in itself ;-). The best advice I can give is that there is no one shoe that suits everyone and no one bag that suits every event, it’s all about finding what suits you best. My trail runners choice for perfectly groomed trails is the Columbia Montrail Calorado and for open mountain I like the Women’s Merrell MTL Long Sky. For bags, I mix it up depending on the duration of the event, what I need and also the weather conditions. I like the Columbia race pack for very short runs, the OMM 30L for multiday events and the Out There USA 45L for very long events where I need to carry a tent. I always wear or carry arm warmers, I bought a pair for 6€ about 7 years ago and they are my most used item. I also always have a light rain jacket with me and the Columbia Outdry pocket jacket is just unbeatable. Unfortunately, I inherited crocket toes from my Mam so I really need to always look after my feet and for this reason, I almost always carry an extra pair of socks to change over if my feet are wet for too long. In the past few years I’ve become a big fan of toe sock and Injinji are my favourites. Finally, the last piece of kit I absolutely always have with me is at least one buff. I use them for everything, to keep my ears warm, hands warm, dry my feet, wipe the muck of my face or whatever else I can think of.