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Race review - The Half On The Head

Runner's World UK logo Runner's World UK 14/01/2020 Kieran Alger
a group of people posing for the camera: Kieran Alger discovers The Half On The Head, a diamond in the rough on the Emerald Isle. © Provided by Runner's World UK Kieran Alger discovers The Half On The Head, a diamond in the rough on the Emerald Isle.

Kerry Head, Ireland (2019 stats)

First man: Tommy O'Brien 01:19:09

First woman: Maeve McCartin 01:26:55

Last finisher: 3:34:01

No of Finishers: 308

In a world where ultras are all the rage and half marathons are ten-a-penny, it might seem excessive to jump on a plane to run 13.1 miles. But the Half on the Head – a gem of a race hidden on the windswept rugged west coast of Ireland – is the kind of destination run that’s as much a mini break as it is a race.

The Kerryhead Half – to give its other name – starts and finishes in Ballyheigue, a textbook sleepy Irish coastal village that looks out across choppy Atlantic waters onto the famous Ring of Kerry.

The famous Ring coastline is spectacular and thousands come to enjoy its picture postcard charm every year. But it’s partly in a bid to introduce people to this less popular part of the County Kerry coast opposite that the not-for-profit Half on the Head even exists.

It’s organised and staffed entirely by the community and it also generates much-needed funds for local community projects. From the race director to the marshals, no one gets paid. Everyone involved is a local volunteer, the race director’s wife even hands out the medals. What results is something that feels a bit like a parkrun on Craic.

a group of people on a beach: Race review - The Half On The Head Race review - The Half On The Head

The race starts against the perfect backdrop, a windswept beach that’s a focal point of the village. The tide is conveniently out when I arrive and some runners make the most of the vast sands to warm up while others collect race numbers from the nearby community centre or gather in the car park that doubles as a start pen.

There’s none of the ‘festival’ of modern race events. If you prefer your races with huge race villages and street-food vans touting artisan lattes, roads lined with support and water stations stocked like breakfast fruit buffets, then jog along to the next race report.

What you get here is raw, community-driven running stripped back to its split shorts essentials. Though not everyone who lines up alongside me is a short shorts kind of runner. As you’d expect for an event that consumes a village for a day, there’s a huge range of ages and abilities, not to mention a buzz of chatter you don’t get in the start pens at big city halves, where everyone’s a stranger. You get the feeling that most people know most people and though I actually don’t know anyone, this friendly vibe extends to anyone who’s travelled to run.

Despite being a distinctly local race there’s a surprisingly international mix among the 300 runners taking on the half marathon and 210 doing the 10k. This includes runners from Australia, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.

The start takes us through Ballyheigue past the four pubs, the butchers and the fish and chip shop (this small village is well-stocked), followed by a small section on a quietish A-road where the hills start.

The course mainly follows country lanes, straddled by green fields, past farmhouses kicking out countryside whiffs, and eventually shouldering the spectacularly moody coastline. It’s also 75% uphill. Or as one regular runner told me ‘It’s only uphill for the first 9 miles.’

a group of people walking down a dirt road: Race review - The Half On The Head Race review - The Half On The Head

As we hit mile three, the brooding clouds that have been building all morning finally let loose and the winds pick up a little. One thing about running on the Atlantic coast is that the weather is unpredictable. Fortunately, about half way into the race we swing a left and as we turn the corner the weather changes. It’s like we’ve stepped between micro climates. From moody grey skies, we’re into sunshine.

It’s not the only miracle I experience. Just as I’m getting to the point where my legs have eaten up all the slow, steady climbing they can take, I crest the final hill and I’m treated to the most superb view of the race so far. A wide open vista down into Dingle Bay below. It’s a fantastic pay off for all the hard work and just the boost we all need to propel us a couple of miles downhill where we hit the flat for a final miles back into the village.

Support on the course is virtually non-existent and if you’re someone who relies on the crowd buzz to keep you going, this race might not be for you. I’m grateful for the company of the pace group where there’s more friendly chat than I’ve ever experienced at a race. It feels like I’ve joined a local run club training run, with some bonus commentary on the scenery and history as we flick past.

The three official aid stations on course are sparse but functional with the odd box of Haribo and bottles of water. The locals bolster this by serving up water from their front gardens and I find out after the race that in past years, they’ve even opened up their homes to provide the toilet stops. This year, though, we get the option of a local school.

a woman standing in a parking lot: Race review - The Half On The Head Race review - The Half On The Head

When all the running is done, the event is far from over. It’s a cliche to laud the Irish hospitality and friendliness but you get it in spades here and we’re all invited to a free BBQ and prize giving at one of the local pubs. It’s packed when I get there, there’s a live band playing and the Guinness is flowing.

And that’s the crux: if you want a race that’s full of heart and makes you feel part of something much more important, then the Half on the Head ticks all the boxes. There so much more here than 21km of road and a shiny medal.

Run It: this year’s race is on June 13. Visit halfonthehead.com

The lowdown

Get There

Aer Lingus flies from Heathrow to Shannon (from £125rtn), followed by a two hour drive 2 hours drive. Or you can fly Ryanair from Luton or Stansted to Kerry (from £88rtn), followed by a 45 min drive.

Stay

The White Sands Hotel at Ballyheigue is clean and budget-friendly, andsmack bang in the centre of town, three minutes from the Start/Finish with its own pub attached.

Eat

A little 8km hop away in neighbouring Ardfert is Kate Browne’s a quaint Irish gastro-pub serving a decent runner-friendly menu with a laid back vibe.

Sightsee

The stunning, 25,000 acre Killarney National Park is only an hour’s drive away from Kerry Head. A tramp through here will cleanse your soul and flush the post-race lactic from your legs.

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