The Rise of Ultra Mountain Running: A Journey Through Ireland's Thriving Scene

March 21, 2024

In the heart of Ireland's rugged landscapes, where mist-cloaked mountains stand as silent sentinels, a unique sporting endeavor has been steadily gaining ground: Ultra Mountain Running. This niche within the broader running community has been experiencing a remarkable surge in popularity, with enthusiasts pushing the boundaries of endurance and exploring the untamed beauty of the Irish hills.

Richard Nunan, Race Director for the Maurice Mullins Ultra, a prestigious race set amidst the picturesque Wicklow Mountains, reflects on the evolution of this exhilarating sport. "I am the race director for Maurice Mullins and have been for about 12 years," Nunan explains. 

The Maurice Mullins Ultra holds a special place in the hearts of mountain running aficionados, tracing its roots back to the pioneering spirit of Maurice Mullins himself, who conceived the idea of Ireland's mountain ultras. Over the years, what began as a modest gathering has blossomed into a must-attend event, attracting a growing number of participants eager to test their mettle against the unforgiving terrain.

Nunan notes a fascinating trend within the mountain running community – a progression from shorter distances to the grueling challenges of ultra-distance races. "What's really strange with the Ultra is actually the take up on the half marathon league in the mountains. We have a demand around that and that's quite well attended," he observes. "And that's really because people are pushing to go from the 10k to the half to the marathon to something longer."

Indeed, as runners seek new horizons and strive for greater feats of endurance, the allure of ultra-distance events has never been stronger. The emergence of the Irish Ultra Championships bears testament to this growing appetite for monumental challenges. "This will be the second year of the Irish Ultra championships," Nunan reveals. "That's really to facilitate the growth of the ultra championships that we've seen over the last number of years."

The surge in popularity is palpable, with the Maurice Mullins Ultra alone attracting hundreds of participants. "We would have roughly 300 at the Maurice Mullins," Nunan shares. "I remember when it was 10 people, it's now 300 which is quite a lot for an ultra that length in the hills."

But it's not just the Maurice Mullins Ultra that commands attention. Across the country, a vibrant tapestry of ultra-distance races unfolds, each offering its own unique blend of challenge and beauty. From the Sli Chorcai to the Beara Way, these events beckon adventurers to explore Ireland's wild landscapes in all their untamed glory.

Yet, organising ultras in mountainous terrain poses its own set of challenges. Nunan emphasises the need for meticulous planning and preparation to ensure the safety and enjoyment of participants. "In the mountains, it's probably a little bit more difficult to have than a regular road Ultra because you gotta make sure that when we plan these events that you're fighting the elements all the time," he explains. "So it's very necessary for us to plan these routes where we can have a plan A or plan B or plan C and the relevant aid stations to make sure that people get around the course enjoying it but also looking after themselves as they go."

As the allure of ultra mountain running continues to captivate athletes and adventurers alike, one thing remains clear – amidst the untamed beauty of Ireland's mountains, the spirit of exploration and endurance thrives, beckoning all who dare to venture beyond the beaten path.

Featured Image: Lianne van Dijk