At this stage most people that read about endurance distance racing have heard of ‘The Race’ in Donegal. My blog from two years ago gives a brief description of what it is like to take part. I still reckon that it is almost impossible to put into words what this race is really like. Some say spectacular, epic, gruelling, relentless, fun even, but for me it is no doubt Irelands toughest multisport race and this is how 2019 unfolded.
It all started at registration on Friday. It was a squally day with showers moving in fast from the west as I racked my bike in the car park near Rathmullan strand. This would be the starting point for the first cycle section after the kayak. I went for a short walk and had a coffee on the beach to stretch my legs. I had arrived up on Thursday. I decided that with The Race, the more rest in preparation the better and there would be no rushing. I literally had all day to register and to be honest I needed it. I will rewind a few weeks just for the background to training etc, but I’m not going to bore the hind legs off everyone, I promise.
So the two months before the race were made up of consistent but very short training sessions. I never got out on the road for more than 2.5hours and spent most trainings smashing out an hour on the turbo and maintaining fitness with plenty strength and mobility work. My running wasn’t great with a hip which had been giving issues but I still managed a few good trail and hill runs. I never ran more than 23km in the three months before this race, having finished the Dorset Ultra well on the 3rd of December, I decided that all the miles from 2018 would stand to me and at this stage over training would be my downfall. So it might come as a surprise to hear that after christmas I think about 9 hours was my peak weeks training. I was only a few weeks into a new job in the UK at the time and ended up coming back to Ireland at the beginning of March for another new job. All this piled in I knew I was in good shape but I also knew the mileage on the bike really wasn’t in the bag. You can never have it every way and now it was about turning up fit enough to be on the startline.
The bike racked in Rathmullan, check, registration complete in Garton at the startline, check, and boxes for transitions dropped off here too. Good stuff, now back to rest up and enjoy my last few hours before it all kicked off.
I woke up at 3am, ate some porridge, a pancake and a banana and Shaun gave me a lift to Garton for the start, which would kick off at 5am. Let the games begin!
I met my mum, Dee, and sisters Lisa and Linsey at the start. Fair play to them getting up at 4am to come see me off. The crowd gathered and the tension was real. I met Rachel Nolan and we went for a short jog. She could see the tension in the hall was getting to me a bit and reckoned a little jog would do us both good. We literally ran 100 metres and back to the startline. No point in doing a long warm up before a race of this multitude. So at 5am we were off, head torches dancing in the early morning as we set foot into the craziness of a race of 250km. The first leg would be a 23.5km run to Ramelton where we would head for the sea and out through Lough Swilly.
I decided to settle into my own rhythm and not hit the first run too hard, but at same time I knew the running was my strongest discipline so I wouldn’t be hanging around either. I ran at between 4.10 and 4.20 min/km and with the majority of the run on downhill or flat I remained comfortable throughout. The run winds its way along country roads, across the Leannon River and the Lurgy River, through Kilmacrenan village and as the light came into the day I sipped away on my tailwind and thought of my strategy for the day ahead.
Ah yes I had a plan this time! The last time I was here I had never taken part in an endurance event and really surprised myself in how well I did. This time I rocked up with a plan. My plan outlined was basically to knock out the first run in comfortable but fast pace, do a steady kayak and then try to get through the first hilly 96km without blowing up but in and around the 4 hours. From there I would hit my happy place on the mountain and this would catapult me around the next 65k on the bike before jumping off and running a marathon in less than 4 hours. Easy Peasy!!
I finished the run and transitioned onto the kayak in around 1 hour and 43 minutes, race results and splits at the bottom of the post, and turned the corner without breaking a paddle this year! The sun was just rising as I paddled out of Ramelton and the water was flat calm with a turning tide. There were kayak marshals all along the route and as the first relay team was already out of sight I had to pick my way from one kayak to the other most of the way in order to keep a good line. Thanks to all these kayakers and RIB safety crew for all their time on the water. Super support as well. I had a backrest, a nice light paddle and my buoyancy aid had a compartment for my bladder full of water and Tailwind. I sucked away on this for the entire paddle and felt pretty good throughout.
I think the paddle took a little under an hour and a half with a few minutes lost close to the pier in rathmullan as a tide race caught me off guard and I had to battle as if paddling upstream to get under the pier and into transition. I was passed and lost about 9 minutes on a guy in a suspiciously long sea kayak not far from Rathmullan and he would head out on the bike with a good lead leaving me in second place in transition. Two legs down and next up probably the hardest cycle leg in any race of this distance.
Part of my race plan was to be fast in and out of transition and I pulled this off well on the day. I managed to eat overnight oats and a banana before the bike and had a few bottles of tailwind and sweets for the journey ahead. Lisa, Linsey, Dee and Shaun were at transition and they gave me info on who was ahead etc, as I put on my helmet and ran out of transition. Most importantly, Shaun advised to take it handy and not go too hard on the bike, as tempting as it might be, it’s a bloody long race yet. The Race organisers put markers at every 5km, which is some feat in itself, but I can’t say I was admiring these too much over the next few hours.
As I spun my legs and got going I soon realised, only two or three climbs into the cycle that the first run had taken more than I expected out of my legs, where were my bike legs?, they just wouldn’t kick into gear. The hills came one after the other as I made my way out towards Fanad Head and Port Salon. The roads were wet after a few earlier showers and my hands and feet were cold. It was time to start digging deep. I would meet Shaun pulled in his van, every 15 minutes or so with words of encouragement and Lisa and the gang were driving in a separate car. They would come past, music pumping and beeping the horn. I would see them at every transition and the odd time in between as they made their way around the course. You can’t beat a friendly face when you are digging deep. I continued to battle the hilly course to Fanad Head and with a brief rest from the hills spun the legs out a little and soaked up the coastal views working my way towards Downings and a loop out and around another peninsula.
I was about 40km into the first cycle and at my lowest point really in this section before Downings. My legs were feeling heavy and I wasn’t able to climb like I usually am. A competitor passed me not far from here and he asked how far ahead the leader was. I reckoned he wasn’t much more than 5 minutes. This guy absolutely bombed on but I would later meet him in a bad way. He had pushed too hard too soon. As I rounded the loop from downings into Carrikhart another cyclist went by and I was now down to 4th place. I decided not to think about it and just concentrate on trying to recover my race. I wasn’t in a good place at all and the hills just kept on coming. Next up was the relentless long and steep climb up to the famous Lough Salt, a windy climb in the real wilds of Donegal. I started to climb a little better and decided if I reached the top without dismounting it would have to be a psychological boost. So I dug deeper and deeper and screamed at the sheep in the bog as I climbed. I saw the final climb to the top ahead and could see it was split in 5 by minor flat pieces. I would climb each little piece, inhale and climb some more. I reached the top and started to descend and something in me started to switch back to race mode. I can’t quite explain it but this was a turning point. Had I hopped off the bike, even though I probably could of saved time, I would of been beaten! The traits of a stubborn endurance athlete, or any athlete really!!
The next 20km before leg 4 on Muckish mountain were a little easier with only one really long drag in the few kilometres before the transition. The wind, sorry I forgot to mention the headwind which had been in our faces all day, was really strong as I passed Glenveagh National Park gates and made my way towards Muckish. I passed the guy who had raced passed me earlier on the climb towards the transition and came into transition in 3rd place and very happy to have that 96km under my belt. A quick change of shoes, a banana and a bar, stuffed all the food in my backpack, grabbed a bottle of Tailwind and I was away. I spotted Shaun’s Dad and his brother in law Ronan at this point. Both super guys and once again great to see the support. Shaun pointed up the mountain and said the lads were about 8 minutes ahead but that I could see them. I looked up and thought to myself. GAME ON!!
Muckish is class, well mountains are class. I hiked at below top speed, to conserve a little but I started to reel in the two lads and before the base of the steepest part of the ascent I was chatting to them. This was my terrain and I was gonna make it count. The mountain was in bad nick so it wasn’t easy to make time. I just hiked to the gravel track where it evens out a bit and the jogged bits to the top. I drank a can of coke I had grabbed in transition at this point as well. Evil evil stuff, but bloody amazing mid race! I began to open up the legs on the descent and open up a gap on 2nd and 3rd as well. They were both working hard and I knew this was only the start of a really hard sprint for the finish. Yes I know a 100km sprint, no bother!
Everyone always says that the least memorable stage is the next 65km on the bike. This is mainly due to fatigue and a less amazing coastline to admire. In saying this there are some nice parts, however, I had a serious goal in mind at this stage. I was in poll position and I wasn’t planning on letting it slip. As far as I’m aware it was Michael Flood that was on my tail, a serious biker and he as well as John Whoriskey, Danny McLaughlin and Matt Casey had all shown how they can run earlier in the race. Any mistake or bad luck on my behalf would most likely cost me the race at this point. I had to focus and make sure I did everything in my power to avoid any mistakes. The cycle went from Muckish to Falcarragh then Gweedore, and Crolly, before a nasty climb up some country roads and a descent to Dungloe before the final 10km towards Doochary. I was moving far better on the bike than earlier and any little niggles in my hamstrings seemed to be gone, for now at least. I threw on my jacket in one nasty shower but soon took it off again, sticking to just the tri suit and a light cycling jersey with arm warmers, as I had worn all day. No point in layering up, I wasn’t hanging about. Keep her lit, was all I heard as I cruised over the hill and descended into my final transition for the marathon.
In and out in about 2 minutes and now it was make or break. How would the legs react after another 2 hours 49 minutes on the bike. I was over 200km into the race and it was time to run a marathon, mostly on road I might add, not my thing really, but it was what it was. Lisa roared at me as she passed, that Michael flood was about 13 minutes back and moving well. I was struggling to get going and was running closer to 6 min/km over the first 6 or 7 k. Michael must of been around 2.5km behind and soon Shaun passed and said it looked like about 10 minutes and the gap was closing. There is a long drag at about 10k before what they call the Minor’s Pass. I had to get myself moving a bit more and it was now or never. I started the climb and really worked. I was pouring with sweat, both from nerves and working hard. I knew if I could climb well that the chances were this would be the difference. I got to the Minors pass and a long trail descent down to the lake began at this point. I just opened up the legs and let fly. I was running 4 min/km on downhill and smiling. I felt better and even strong on the downhill. I glanced to my left and a big herd of deer were roaming the hillside, the lake was flat as the wind had finally dropped a bit.
I scared a man and woman on the trail as I bounded past not far from the Castle on the shores of Lough Beagh. I ran through the castle grounds and another marshal was there to greet me. They seemed to be everywhere all day, many on their own, but in mighty spirits and encouraging all the way. I was tipping away at around 5 min/km on the flat sections and after the castle the trail turns right and up a long drag. I almost hiked in one or two sections of the steep trail but kept the hammer down as much as I could. As I turned one corner I came face to face, well almost, with a big red deer stag on the side of the trail. I could see the whites of his eyes and realised I was been greeted in Glenveagh National Park by one of the founding creatures. He was magnificent and in hindsight maybe an omen for me. It took a lot of willpower not to stop for a chat and a selfie!
I met the camera crew led by Paul Doherty as I topped out on the hill before descending towards the gates of the National Park. Shaun was at the gates and ran with me for a few minutes informing me that Michael was 16 minutes behind according to those at the Minors Pass and that I had it if I could maintain a steady pace. I was flying as I ran the descent out of the park and managed to keep a steady 5 min/km or less pace on the road as I started the last 10k of the run. This is a mostly flat section with a few nasty sharp hills to negotiate. I ran it all, shuffling up the hills, in quite a lot of pain, but managing to let the legs go and pick up speed on the descents. Funnily during this race my downhill running was nearly better than up, not normal for me! Who knows.
It was dark at this point and I had my Petzl headlight on. I had borrowed this and many words of wisdom from Sinead Keogh, who was caught up with work and couldn’t make The Race this year. She had told me how to race today and to be honest I had followed her plan almost exactly. I thought of her wisdom and lots of other things on this final 10km. I realised even though I was hurting that I could also soak this up a bit. I felt a load come off my shoulders as for the first time all day I knew I had a gap.
I thought of Emma and how proud she would be if I could pull of this final 10k without falling on my face, of all my family here to support and how they would get a kick out of it. My friends had supported me so well in the lead up to the race, telling me I had a great chance and I had the experience to do it. I would never of gained the confidence to pull it off without them. Most important on the day was Shaun Stewart as he had basically given up his day to follow the race and continually give me advice throughout. He had roared at me on a few occasions, “come on O Farrell, pick it up” and other nice things! !
So I passed the last set of marshals and began to climb a few mini hills over the last 2km of this epic event. A tiny part of me, and I mean tiny, wanted more but most of me wanted that finish line. This was my time and my chance to enjoy the sport I love. Not only was I about to finish but I was about to win the race. STOP those thoughts, Focus, Focus, Focus. I saw the light on the final direction sign, swung left and ran towards the line. I could hear the speakers call my name and as traditionally I do, I flashed my headlight on approach. See below what followed!
A nice added surprise at the finish line were my Aunt and Uncle, many people already know Greg for his fanatical approach to following the races. Thanks so much Greg and Deirdre, absolute legends.
Thanks to the organisers who helped me gain my bearings at the finish and who all day had put on an excellent show. The volunteers and the supporters are what makes this race. The scenery is second to none, the hills, well enough about the hills and the other competitors, well done to each and every one of you. Whether you finished or not, just taking on this event is a huge step. Be proud of it and don’t forget 2020 is another chance to let rip in Donegal.