‘Sometimes things fall apart … you just have to suck it up and keep going’ – what it takes to be a trail runner

He has run and won two marathons already this month – the second of which, last Saturday, left Enda Cloake with a pain in his glute so severe he couldn’t run for most of the past week. But creaking limbs and nagging doubts be damned, he’ll get back on the line in Bray this morning, with 46 hilly kilometres ahead of him at the EcoTrail Wicklow.

rom Bray Head, he’ll run up and over the Sugarloaf Mountain, past Powerscourt Waterfall and along the Wicklow Way, with 1,675m of climbing in total. The literal pain in the ass he’s been dealing with the past two weeks will be recognised but ultimately ignored. It’s an approach that might make a physio wince, but Cloake sees method in the madness.

“There is something about the mental resilience of knowing you’re sore, but you’re going to do it anyway,” he says. “Hopefully, somewhere down the line, I’ll be in agony at some important race, and being in a lot of pain and pushing through won’t be an unfamiliar feeling. That’s why I’m sticking to it – hoping at some point it’ll pay dividends.”

Cloake has been one of the standout figures on the Irish trail and mountain running circuit this year, winning 10 of the 15 Irish Mountain Running Association (IMRA) races he has contested. Today’s event will gather a lot of Ireland’s best, along with many from abroad, who will contest four races (19k, 30k, 46k and 80k). The course record for the 46k event is 4:03:39, and Cloake says he’s “definitely going to break that”.

At least, if he doesn’t break first.

“There’ll probably be a bit of fatigue in the legs, but we’ll give it a go. The guy who has the record now is French and it’d be nice for an Irishman to take the record. It might inspire somebody else to think, ‘If Enda can do it, I can do it as well’.”

Cloake is 25 and a native of Castlebridge in Wexford. For most of his life, running was not his thing. That was martial arts, with Cloake a taekwondo obsessive, aged five until 17. A keen hurler and footballer, his start as a runner came about as it often does: with a desire to get a day off school. He still remembers the date (30 November, 2014) when he lined up at the Wexford Schools Cross Country, winning and subsequently joining a local club, using athletics as a means to get fit for field sports.

After school, he joined the navy, then spent 18 months stationed at the Curragh Camp before relocating to Baldonnel in west Dublin, where he now works with the Air Corps. His employers have long supported his running exploits, one of his co-workers unwittingly helped him down this path. In 2018, Cloake entered the Clonakilty Marathon with a colleague telling him there was “no way” he’d break three hours. “So I said, ‘F**k you, I’m going to break three hours!’”

Cloake ran 2:54:11 to finish fourth and the following year he was runner-up at the Wexford Marathon in 2:45:00. In 2021, as the lockdown was lifting, trail races were some of the first to get going, the volunteer aspect meaning they were typically easier to get off the ground than major road races, which so often faced postponement due to unease and uncertainty among commercial sponsors.

He ran his first trail race in June last year, a new world opening beyond the track and road where he’d long plied his trade. “I loved it, it was like nothing I’d seen before,” he says. “Everyone was so nice and I made loads of friends – friends I’ll have for life.”

He had grown accustomed to being out in the wilderness from his time with the Defence Forces, with Cloake thinking back to a 14-hour hike they completed through the night in 2020.

“I thought, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything’. So when it comes to a 40k trail race and 20k in, when you’re feeling terrible, it’s like, ‘I did 14 hours of this; the next 90 minutes isn’t going to be too bad’.”

Like most runners who seek something more, something tougher than the marathon, he’s richly skilled in the art of suffering.

“I’m a bit pig ignorant to put up with hardship,” he says. “It’s not that I had a very tough upbringing, but I’ve always put myself out there and got out of my comfort zone. Sometimes you need to shut up and get on with it.”

Cloake’s runs about 120k every week, involving about 2,000m of climbing. He has become a big fish in the relatively small pond of Irish mountain running, but in July, he got a taste of the big time, competing at the European Off-Road Championships in Spain, finishing 29th.

“Sometimes (in Ireland), you know you’ll win before you start, so you don’t push 100pc, but when you go abroad, and you’re way down the pack, you sometimes have to give absolutely everything just to not be last.”

Earlier this month, he returned to road marathons and scored two victories, winning in Dingle in 2:35:20 before fighting through injury to win the Medieval Marathon in Kilkenny last weekend in 2:38:15. He has many more outings planned in the weeks ahead, with a vertical kilometre race in Italy on October 8 followed by a trail race there the next day. The niggle he’s carrying hasn’t gone away, but running through pain is teaching him something about the sport, and indeed, himself.

“You can usually deal with more than you think,” he says. “Sometimes things fall apart, and you just have to suck it up and keep going.”

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