Team IKAT ThermaTech ready for action.
Most of my friends, family, neighbours or pets have already heard my story of the ITERA race at this stage. In saying this I wanted to put something together in writing to remember it in years to come. It’s been a lot to process, which is why I’ve taken so long to publish this.
I think my last blog involved my final packing in Galway before departure for Killarney on Sunday, via Dublin for teammates. I picked Kelly and Byron up from the port and we hit for Killarney arriving there after 10pm to be greeted by Shaun. The team was finally all together. The next two days before the race are somewhat a blur. A logistical nightmare for a newbee to such a race but all in all we were ready to go. We even managed a short relaxing bike test down to the lake and Muckross House in the gorgeous weather. Little did we know this would be the last sunshine for days!
A little planning needed.
Wednesday morning arrived and the time had come to grab the bus to the start line. By now we knew this was Westport House in Co. Mayo; a four hour bus journey ahead of us. I won’t go into too much detail in this post when it comes to the nitty gritty of the race. We had our maps, had planned our route carefully, knew where we might or might not get rest and felt confident in our abilities to go out and give it everything. The only thing that could hamper everyone would be conditions and incredibly these would be worse than any team had imagined. I should have known, it’s the West of Ireland after all.
We lined up outside Westport House, a nervous place for all but there was also excitment in the air. There were clearly some pretty amazing athletes on show, some international teams that oozed class and some Irish teams that without doubt would be right in the mix. At 12.09pm the gun went off and all 35 or so teams tore off across the grass of Westport House to start the race with a 5km run around Westport town. I’m pretty sure this turned into about 7k but only a dint in 575km. We took our time on the run, conserving energy and planning our kayak transition at the quay in Westport.
On arrival at the boats we transitioned well. I twice put my buoyancy aid on after my bib, of course the race bib must be on the outside. I finally gathered my thoughts and really looked forward to the sea kayak. We set off with Kelly and Byron in one boat and myself and Shaun in the other. It was soon clear that our teammates were good kayakers and we were going to do well on the water. The first few kilometres were tough: we were going into an oncoming tide. It always takes a while for the muscles to loosen up in a kayak. Within about an hour two teams passed us, both of them set up to tow. The seals popped up between us and another team, probably for a good laugh at us lunatics! We came to a narrow gap between two islands and the sea turned into a river, a strong tidal surge sweeping us from one side to another. A quick decision to hit shore and jog past the fast water worked out nicely. We hopped back into boats, connected a tow line and after another kilometre had passed the two teams that overtook us previously. We made the decision to stay well out from the shore and go from one headland to the next along the coast, avoiding any surf or rough seas near the coast. I took a bearing on the next headland as the rain made the visibility poor. This worked out a treat until the wind and swell picked up alongside the rebounding chop off the cliffs. It was tough going, a relentlesss battle against the waves which were increasing in size by the minute. My own thoughts were how crazy this was. As my profession tends to lead to a lot of decisions about when to go on the water and when to avoid it, I knew this would be a day I would stay well away from such seas. I learnt later in the race that there were casualties on this section of the race and numerous teams rescued along the way. It all came to a head after about 6 hours on the water when the coastguard, (1 boat for 70 kayaks), informed us we were to go ashore at the next pier and would hike 15km on the coast before re-entering our kayaks to cross Killary Fjord. I was new to this multi-day expedition racing but I really didn’t expect so many last minute decisions, and they were last minute regardless of what the forecast said.
Despite the freezing bodies we were now out of the boats and hiking on the road in our wetsuits. Once off the road we scrambled along gorgeous beaches, up over sandy ridges, across fast flowing streams, over rocks, gravel and more sand, hopping over rabbit holes, following our map all the way to the next transition back into the kayaks. Of course none of this was planned, meaning we were putting serious miles under us in wet road runners and wetsuits. We had fun at the kayak transition as we pulled the boats down a stream to the sea. At this stage the race really felt like an adventure. I had managed to eat well and was feeling really good as darkness fell on Killary harbour. A 20 minute paddle and we joined the famine trail along Killary, well known to myself and Shaun from our Gaelforce West races. Once again we hiked and jogged in wetsuits and runners, occasionally emptying the runnners of sand and draining the socks of water. There were 6 or 7 teams close by on this section, and we were to find out we were in the top 12 teams at our first main transition, 8km later at Killary Adventure centre near Leenane. Everyone was doing well at this point and we reached transition at about 11.30pm leaving 30 minutes later. Some hot food, dry clothes and feet cared for and we all felt ready for the night. We were in good spirits and having fun but it would be a night to remember.
The hike of the Twelve Bens and the Maam Turks had been altered due to course changes and the Race Director realising that we were not all from the Avengers Assemble movie. This meant we would hike 6km by road, then climb over one peak, descending a little to our first race checkpoint and then off the mountain near Kylemore Abbey before heading up onto 7 peaks of the Twelve Bens. A formidable hike for even the most seasoned hikers around and one we would tackle in severe condtions. On reaching our first climb Kelly decided she needed some weight off to tackle the climbs and the three of us would help out. Byron was navigating well in the misty dark conditions although the next few hours would prove difficult. The climbs were one of my favourite parts as it takes your mind off the race a bit as you push to make each peak. This is where I knew I would be strong, but also knew there would be times later in the race where the others would be strong and I would need their help. The next chapter of the race was CP1. As we summited our first peak we took a bearing to take us down a saddle and our checkpoint would be at a cairn on the next peak. We found a cairn where we thought it should be but there was no CP. Another team joined us and they were having the same difficulty. 4 hours later, including a lie down under the bothy bag and the daylight started to arrive, but still no sign of our CP. We finally decided we hadn’t descended far enough and started on down the mountain in the heavy mist and fog. Within minutes we found the CP and dibbed in. My first ever CP so I crawled to it and dibbed in with a Klinsman type dive. Not sure my teammates knew what I was doing!
Our next challenge would be two CP’s on the Twelve Bens, including 7 peaks and roughly 3500 metres of ascent and descent. This would take us all day, descending off the last ridge at around 7pm to be told we had until 10pm to make transition for the Corrib Kayak stage, and that is out of transition by 10pm. I will back-track onto the Ben’s for one minute. The hike was endless with the weather proving managable but the visibility still poor. Our teammates were not seeing much of the West of Ireland. The terrain up there as I know from training is extremely technical and takes it out of you. Once we reached the road to take on 20km of a hike we were all feeling well and Kelly was glad to be off the mountains. Byron was quiet but cool and positive while Shaun was probably the freshest of us all. I had begun to feel my injury from early this year in the back of my leg. The mountain descents were a killer. “Come on glutes, do something for me!” A few stretches and I was ok but I needed the break in the Kayak. The 20km of road was relentless and the clock was ticking. We realised we needed to run. We would maintain a speed to do our best to stay on the long course. The key was to stick together as a team and push for this transtion point. A massive push saw us make transition in the dark at 9.53pm. We were full of adrenaline at this point. Maybe a bit early in the race for this, but proud to be still on the long course.
We decided to get an hours sleep in Maam after sorting out our boats for the 50km kayak of Lough Corrib . I knew we could manage the kayak in 12 hours max if conditions stayed as they were. Knowing the lake so well would stand to us on this leg. A quick reminder of the West of Ireland lakes awaited. We set off from Maam bridge, paddling downstream on the river before hitting the lake. A sneaky gap in the reeds cut off a few yards and we were speeding across the lake past Castle Kirk Island and towards the Hill of Doon. This was when the whole race changed. Most of the teams were well ahead of us and would spend some time sleeping on islands, while we intended to paddle through the night, with only four hours before daylight. The other teams had, however, past the most open parts of the lake, which we ended up hitting right when the gale force winds blew up. The rain was torrential and the waves were huge. The battle would take it all out of us, possibly leave us hypothermic and in danger. My experience from the sea section was that there was no help nearby, so as a team we decided to take shelter at a spot I knew on the shore. My own training ground from all the months of training for the race. Little did I think or want this to be where things went wrong for us.
We had decided as a team that we would stay on the long course and wanted to complete all of the race as long as everyone was fit and healthy enough. This ditch on the lake would mean we would miss our CP in Galway and most likely be short coursed. I understand now that being short coursed is fine but after months of training, enormous cost and effort the short course was not an option. This was especially the case for myself and Shaun. The fact that Byron had completed an expedition race already this year meant himself and Kelly probably understood this situation better than us.
On coming ashore we made the decision to contact race control. Being honest it may have been a mistake but I value life more than a race. I have been involved in drowning recoveries and I know what these lakes can do. My feeling was that teams were in danger that night and the race should of been re-routed. I have heard stories of kayaks been found on the shoreline of the lake with teams stranded on piers. The race organisers didn’t learn from the calamity of the sea section early in the race and sent people out on a lake they had never seen in a storm. I understand that this is an expedition, a survival of the fittest and an ultimate endurance race, but for me the lives of my team mates made the final call. I think the fact that I was on home soil I felt somewhat responsible and the team felt the decisions were right.
We spent the night at a friends house only a mile up the shore with team Endurance Life from the UK joining us, all in a cold state. A massive thank you to Martin Butler for saving 8 very cold people that night. The morning came and I had managed an hours sleep. My first sleep since Wednesday and it was now Friday morning. I have to say the lack of sleep didn’t bother me too much, there was too much happening.
We had made the call to seek assistance that morning and Team Endurance Life, an experienced team, felt it was the right thing to do. We would become non-competitive. My workmates are enjoying the term non-competitive this week, knowing I’m over things now and they can have a laugh. They know too well I am ultra-competitive.
Friday involved a bus trip past our bikes in Galway to Kinvara, a sleep on the floor for an hour, some food and finally the arrival of our bikes. We hit the road some time in the afternoon and being honest we were deflated. Not only were we losing time and being forced to skip sections of the race, but we were left waiting in transition three hours for our bikes. The motivation was beginning to falter and most teams that were non-competitive were setting their sights on Killarney, via the most direct route. We knocked out a tough 70km on the bike, with head winds and rain on the latter parts that afternoon and until midnight Friday night. A stop at the Ailwee Caves in Co Clare to get two checkpoints was fun and refreshing. The next thing that faced us were the Cliffs of Moher which we found at 11pm and both us and Endurance Life who joined us for the day decided shelter was paramount in this storm and the cliffs could wait until another day. The wind was storm force but we made it to Lehinch and a hostel for the night. The race was somewhat over for us and we decided why sleep outside in a storm when shelter is available. We managed 6 hours sleep and woke to the wind and rain, hopped on the bikes and took off into the storm. There were a lot of teams in the area and we met some teams still on both the short and long courses. They were in high spirits and I was delighted for them, even though our own efforts seemed in vain at that stage. Skipping sections of the course, the course changing by the hour due to weather and the lack of motivation caught us that morning and we decided as a team to knock it all on the head. We retired after 55 hours of racing.
Every team out there has a different experience and hits parts of the course in different conditions. I spoke with teams that had a calm first half on Lough Corrib and enjoyed the cycle on Friday before the storm kicked up and they realised we had ended up on the course at completely the wrong times. This may go down to experience. One thing that is for sure is that we were totally gutted and I still am. I felt let down by the organisers most of all. I understand that the organisation and logistics are enormous but this race needed a plan C and D and there was none. I also know that it has been a serious learning experience for myself. I learnt so much about expedition racing and team racing that will aid the next time. And yes, for those of you wondering, there will be another and I intend to give it my best shot once more. Our teammates may have to head back to New Zealand but myself and Shaun will team up soon, no doubt. For now it is back to training and getting the body and most importantly the mind back to normal.
Before I finish this post I want to mention the amazing results from Irish teams and from people I know in Itera. Incredible efforts of endurance and teamwork were seen. A massive well done to Rachel’s Irish Adventures Team, Columbia Ireland and Team Dar Dingle who completed the long course and my friends on Team Tri Harder who finished the short course. I hope to spend lots of time racing and training with all of theses brillaint people in the future. A special mention of Team ARSE who put a lot of work into the race but had an accident on the sea and were forced to retire. All are well and I know ye will be back to fight another day. Thanks to all my friends and family for the support before and after the event and for following that dot with such great intensity. A big shout out to my uncle who barely slept throughout, I think he is hooked on dot-watching! I know the weather that night kept my dad awake all night. He loves his sleep but has a respect for the lake and knows it’s dangers.
As a final note I’d like to thank my teammates for helping throughout almost a year of planning and the race. It was great to race with Shaun rather than chasing him around in the multi sport races. Thanks to Byron and Kelly for the massive effort to get over for the race and getting us through the logistical mountain that it was. As alsways thanks to Emma for massive support throughout training and post-race when I was tired and grumpy. I wouldn’t be close to achieving these goals without those close to me.
The sun came out after the adventure!