Ireland: Day 11 (Skellig Michael, or the one where I move mountains) 

Back in early June, I realized I’d made a rookie travel-planning error: I’d taken someone’s word for something and didn’t check it out myself. So I very nearly missed out on Skellig Michael by waiting too long to book a trip. Just in time I found a guy with three available seats, but we had to rearrange our plans a tiny bit to make it work. Which was fine. 

Until it almost wasn’t. 

Because these trips are highly weather-dependent, boat operators sometimes don’t know until the last minute whether they can actually take a scheduled trip. So I was told to call Saturday evening. Which I did. At the end of the conversation about what time and what to bring, he told me, oh and it’s €75 each, cash only. He’d mentioned the cost a couple of times during the email exchanges I’d had to set it up, but he’d never mentioned cash only. Until Saturday night, when we’re staying in a small coastal town whose currency exchange happens in a post office, and nothing is open on Sundays. We’d been converting dollars to euros every couple of days so we had some euros, but not €225. In the end, after a panicked search through every pocket, we cobbled together enough cash, mostly euros but supplemented with American dollars. Thank goodness he accepted this mishmash of funds. 

So that’s how we found ourselves on a boat with nine other intrepid travelers, motoring our way out to this giant rock seven miles from the Kerry coast. One guy was more intrepid than the rest–he was horribly seasick. The rest of us mostly just huddled under our jackets for the 50-minute trip. 

And then we began the ascent. 

Skellig Michael (Sceilig Mhichil) was first settled by Gaelic Christian monks somewhere between the sixth and eight centuries, although some say it was as early as the fifth century. It was abandoned sometime in the 12th century; the island changed hands a few times, then became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. And it is the location–with no CGI needed, except the Millennium Falcon parked on the edge–of the final scene in The Force Awakens. A handful of licenses are granted every year for boat operators to land 12 passengers per day between May and October, but the weather in that part of the Atlantic can be so rough that it’s fairly common for tours to get canceled at the last minute. Thus my phone call the night before. 

The monastery itself is 600 steps from sea level, accessed mostly by a series of stone steps. The island is also home to protected populations of puffins and several other types of nesting seabirds. After we’d climbed a short distance, we met a guide whose job it was to tell us to be careful, stay on the path, and don’t step on the birds’ nesting areas. 


That was the sum total of our direction. No waivers, no restrooms, no gift shop or cheesy Luke Skywalker toys, and virtually no fences or hand rails. Just steps. Lots and lots of steps. 

I think I’m in decent shape–I just ran my 15th half marathon a week ago–until I try to climb stairs. It was … challenging. As we were beginning the last set of steps, a guy coming down said, “You’re almost there!” I asked if that was anything like telling someone at mile ten of a half a marathon that you’re almost done, and he laughed. His friend retorted, “So you’ve hiked with him before, then?” But we indeed made it to the monastery at the top. Added bonus: our boat was one of the last to arrive, so almost everyone was either leaving or on their way down as we arrived. It was quite peaceful. 

Words can’t adequately describe the scene more than 600 feet above sea level, alongside beehive-shaped huts built 1500 years ago. As I stood there, I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth they got the materials to the top? Assuming they built the stairs first, where did they live while they were building everything else? There’s austerity, and then there’s living on Skellig Michael. 

The way back down was easier physically, but since few of the 600 steps have any kind of hand rail or barricade, I found myself looking only at the few steps in front of my feet. I’m not really afraid of heights, but I think this place could make anyone a little fearful in that regard. 

Star Wars aside, the history of this place–enduring construction from the sixth century? Viking attack in 823? Continuously occupied for 600 years?–is fascinating. Even the “new” construction–two lighthouses and living quarters were added in 1826–are nearly 200 years old. We walked the same stairs and paths the monks walked 1500 years ago. And only a few people get to visit annually, and just for 2.5 hours. 

George Bernard Shaw visited Skellig Michael (by rowboat, no less) in 1910, and described it to a friend:

An incredible, impossible, mad place … I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in; it is part of our dream world …

I didn’t run the morning. But I climbed the equivalent of a 60-story building, so I acquired most of the day’s 12,500 steps vertically. And I could not be happier about it. 

Ireland: Day 10 (County Kerry)

Day nine involved a nerve-wracking drive from Kinsale to Killarney, through the Killarney National Park (dodging every tour bus in the country) and down to Waterville, on the Ballinskelligs Bay in County Kerry. 

This picture, taken by my teenage navigator, shows you all you need to know about that drive:


After a sedative dinner, we took a walk around Waterville and learned about the town’s role in the laying of the transatlantic cable back in 1884. 

My Saturday morning run was shorter than usual and fairly uneventful–I managed three miles, beginning in the town center and following a narrow road along the cliffs. I just haven’t wanted to venture too far on unfamiliar roads to run more than a few miles. 

But the real workout came later. 

We drove from Waterville to Portmagee, stopping for photo ops at various points along the way–even with fog and clouds blanketing the area, it was incredibly beautiful. 


We visited the ruins of the 15th century-Ballinskellig Priory, stopped at a beach, drove narrow, one-lane curving roads, and ultimately crossed the bridge onto Valentia Island. There, we paid €2 to park the car–the 1.25-mile hike to the top of the cliffs (and conversations with cows) was free. 


Many of my pictures include Skellig Michael (Sceilig Mhichíl) in the background–that outcrop of rock first settled by Gaelic Christian monks sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries. They abandoned it in the 12th century, moving their settlement to the aforementioned Ballinskelligs Priory. It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996, and is probably most well-known outside County Kerry for its appearance in the last scene of The Force Awakens. I wanted to visit it before I learned of its Star Wars connection, but I have to admit this is another cool thing about it. We have plans to take a boat trip out there tomorrow, but these things are kind of unpredictable due to the weather. Fingers crossed. 

If we make it out there, climbing its 600+ steps will pretty much serve as my workout for the day. I may not be running my usual distances on this trip, but the number of steps I’ve climbed and hills I’ve ascended should count as a decent substitute. 

Ireland: Day Eight (James Fort)

This morning’s run, I decided to try something different and visit James Fort (Dún Rí Shéamuis) on the other side of the harbor from Charles Fort and the route of my previous days’ runs. Or at least try–I wasn’t sure just how far it was from the town center since I had to do kind of a switchback thing because only one bridge crosses the Bandon River to get over there. It didn’t look far, but I really had no idea. 

I ran along the pier where we’d boarded the harbor cruise a few days ago, and continued along the road toward the bridge. Yay for good sidewalks along this stretch and across the bridge! At the far end I followed the sign for James Fort, still not sure how far I had to go. I reached a community called Castlepark; the next James Fort sign directed me into this narrow alley–footpath really–that eventually led to the fort’s entrance.

It was almost exactly two miles out to the fort itself, which would make for four miles total–more than I ran the last few days, but certainly not problematic, distance-wise. As I reached the fort, I saw a man walking his dog, heading away from me. Well, looking at his phone while his dog walked nearby. The dog said hi, but I’m not sure the man ever saw me. 

Once again I’m amazed how European history is so accessible. No, I couldn’t go inside, but I could walk around the exterior, touch the walls, and traipse all over the grounds. Nothing prevented me from running my hands along a structure built in 1607. In the U.S. we rope off things much newer than this, and put up signs that say Keep Out! Not here. Want to find a remnant of medieval city wall? There one behind some random commercial building in Kinsale. Unmarked, unremarkable. 


Anyway, the fort itself is just ruins now, but the site is well-maintained with paths leading to various viewing spots of Kinsale, the harbor, and Charles Fort. 


I didn’t make it all the way down to the waterfront blockhouse, mostly because I didn’t remember it was there (and couldn’t see it from my vantage point) even though I’d photographed it from the water the other day. D’oh. Still, I’m glad I made it out to both 17th century fortifications on my morning runs around Kinsale. 

Tomorrow we’re off to the Ring of Kerry. Not sure whether any kind of running routes are available, but considering all of the walking and climbing of narrow staircases we’ve been doing, I’m not too worried about maintaining my fitness. Just as long as I offset the food….

Ireland: Day Seven (The Ministry of Scilly Walks)

This morning I managed to sleep later than yesterday, but unlike in Texas it’s still possible to run at 8 A.M. and not fry.  Yeah, the Irish keep mentioning how warm it is–and admittedly I was prepared for highs in the 60s not mid 70s, although it still doesn’t qualify as hot–but it was still pleasantly cool when I headed out to find the Scilly Walking Tour trail. 

I can’t be the only one who went immediately to the Ministry of Silly Walks skit, right?

I retraced my steps from yesterday but could see no signs or gates indicating its location. I knew, though, where to find the other end of it–almost to Summercove–so I ran (hiked) up the High Road and figured I’d follow the Scilly Walk back. 

And it was amazing. 

Hilly at first, then mostly flat as it followed the curve of the harbor toward the town center. Narrow, paved with asphalt, and incredibly green. Gates and doors led to various residences, and one person had even gotten a car down there. But the vegetation obscured most signs of human habitation–it was quiet and peaceful and incredible. I encountered two people the whole way. 


Once I followed a dirt path, just to see where it went, and it deposited me on the High Road in a place I immediately recognized. It had one of those zigzag barriers that people can walk through but vehicles can’t negotiate, just like the one at the far end, but this one was unmarked, sitting unobtrusively to the left of a private residential gate. I never would have recognized this spot as an entrance to the Scilly Walk had I not just appeared through it from the other direction. Not only that, a second entrance flanked the gate to the right, but I decided to go back the way I came and save that rabbit hole for tomorrow. 

Back on the main path, I followed it until it reached a cluster of homes, and the main road. It was on kind of a treacherous curve that I had skipped by taking a side staircase that allowed me to stay on the sidewalk, so it’s no wonder I hadn’t found it on the way out. But now I know how to access it from both directions. 

It turned out to be only 2.5 miles (since I didn’t run all the way out to the fort this time) so when I reached the town center I just ran up and down the twisting, narrow streets until I reached three miles. It wasn’t a long run, but it was hilly and quite scenic. And I’m getting spoiled by the non-Texas temperatures. 

Ireland: Day Six (Charles Fort)

Kinsale is hilly. 

And my bedroom has more of a skylight than a window, and therefore no curtains. So at 5:30 A.M., since I was wide awake with the sun, I decided to run through the town and out toward Charles Fort (Dún Chathail). It was first constructed in 1682, considered the “new fort” compared to James Fort on the other side of the harbor which dated back to 1607. 

Yesterday from the boat tour I’d seen a road or path that followed the harbor around to the fort, and I wanted to check it out. But pretty quickly this turned from a run to a hike–between running a half marathon and climbing the world’s steepest steps to my bedroom, I was in no shape for hill sprints. So I took it easy. 

It was about 1.6 miles to the fort, which of course was closed at that hour, but I could walk around a bit and see it from the outside. 

On the way up, I encountered one car. On the way back, I saw two more cars and three people. Guess this town doesn’t really wake up early. 

Looking at my Garmin map, I see that I must have missed the trail I saw from the boat–there’s another path between the road I ran and the harbor. Well, I saw the end of it just before the village of Summercove, but never found the beginning in Kinsale. So maybe tomorrow I’ll try that route. Perhaps it will be slightly less hilly.  

Ireland: Day Five (post-race hills)

Climbing up the Rock of Cashel (Carraig Phádraig in Irish) was a little challenging the day after running a half marathon. But only a little. And so worth it. 

The round tower is the Rock of Cashel’s oldest building, dating to 1100. The other structures are only slightly newer, and over the last 800 or 900 years the site has served as a cathedral, fortress, and a castle. At one point some 18th century archbishop had the roof removed because only buildings with roofs paid taxes.

We got there before the tour buses (well, most of them) and were on our way out as the crowds descended ascended. Thanks Rick Steves, for that advice!

From Cashel we drove on the motorway to Cork, then headed south to Kinsale, a coastal town most often associated with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, as survivors (and bodies) were brought there. These were the narrow local roads we were warned about! Most were one or (if I was lucky) 1.5 cars wide, and very twisty. Meaning lots of blind corners–with speed limits of 60-80 km/h, which is 40-50 mph. That is insanely fast on a two-way road barely wider than our Audi. And the streets of Kinsale itself are just as narrow, but with parked cars taking up half the driving lane. I got a parking space outside the house where we’re staying, and I’m afraid to leave again for fear of having to negotiate these 16th century streets in a 21st century vehicle. 

The house is about 3/4 of the way up a steep hill, past the Desmond Castle which dates back to around 1500. And we walked up and down that hill to the town center and back four or five times. I may not have run today, but the day after a half marathon I’ve racked up more than 15,000 steps, most of them on an incline. And that’s with two hours of driving and an hour on a harbor tour boat. 

The “heat wave” (it was almost 80*) is supposed to break tomorrow, returning temps to the 60s. I know my friends back in Austin find that amusing; I’m just going to enjoy it. 

Kildare Thoroughbred Run: half marathon

The half-marathon starting area was maybe a block from the hotel, and when I headed out, I was pleased with the overcast, almost drizzly skies. But as soon as we started, naturally, the sun came out. 


I don’t know how many people ran the half, but it was nowhere near the 700 indicated on their Facebook page. Perhaps the 700 was for all four distances combined? Because as we took off, I was literally at the end. Greeeeeeat. I kept pace with the group in front of me, but I paid for that later. 

An interesting thing about the race: they closed maybe one section of road (at the very end) the whole distance. Even as we started, we had to dodge cars in the square. But one thing I’ve noticed here is that drivers are much less impatient, much less aggressive than what I see back home. So while a vehicle coming up behind me was unnerving at first, especially considering they directed us to run on the left–with traffic, not facing traffic–I feel like it was far safer than a typical run through my own neighborhood. 

And it was a … rural race. Two-lane roads were the norm, but at times the road was only one car wide. Course marshals did an excellent job directing us at tricky junctions–twice they had to open gates so that we didn’t run over cattle guards. And the signage was good, although it took me until about mile eight to realize that after the halfway point, the distance markers (in km) counted down. 

I think just before mile two I passed someone who stopped to walk. Near six I passed another. I got in front of one guy just after the second water stop and two more who stopped to stretch at the third one near mile 11. I passed two more between 11 and 12. And maybe one more person in there somewhere. So I wasn’t last. But I couldn’t quite catch the group of three ahead of me on the homestretch–remember when I said I paid for trying to hang with that group early on? Yeah, although my first half looked strong, I couldn’t hold on to it. While there were shaded spots, especially around the beautiful National Stud horse breeding facility, the sun was still a factor. My headphones died (possibly permanently?) at mile 10. And only three water stops for a half, on a warm day, was less than ideal. My best races have been in winter, with temps in the 30s and 40s. But… no excuses. 

While I didn’t PR (I kind of knew by mile eight that was off the table) I did finish my fifteenth half-marathon in my second-best time. And it was great to experience a race in another country–some things like mile/km markers are different, they don’t sing any kind of national anthem before the start, and they don’t hand out medals at the end (we had to pick them up from the community center a block or so away). But the human spirit is the same. Random strangers stop to applaud the race leaders. Runners who have finished yell encouragement to those still on the course, and friends jump in to help each other make it across the finish line. And we all walk a little gingerly when it’s over. 😉