The question is, how do you account for a race of this time and distance in one blog post? A total of 247kms over 15 hours and 21 minutes. Can I try and account for this in a single post. I will give it a shot and hopefully give those of you interested an account of one of the toughest and most amazing days of my life. What an event to be part of. All proceeds going to Gorta and all the people organising it on a voluntary basis. It really was a privilege to be involved.
After a journey up to Donegal, accompanied by my sister Lisa, we arrived at the bike drop in Rathmullan and from there travelled to the box drop and start line in Garton Adventure Centre on the shores of Garton Lake. The organisation was superb and I had all boxes for 4 transitions and registration sorted by about 4pm. Plenty of time to settle in, get some food, attend the race briefing and get a few hours sleep before things kicked off at 5am. There was a great buzz about and everyone was in even better mood as the forecast was good for Saturday. I managed to get about 5 hours of sleep before the start. The start can be seen in the video above and the buzz is felt even in the video as we set off on our 23km road run to Ramelton for the kayak stage.
Stage 1 23km road run.
The run began at a decent pace and I found myself running with Shaun Stewart and Marty Lynch as well as another competitor early on. We were running a pace of 3.50 to 4 minutes per kilometre. This was way too fast for my intended time so within about 4km I backed off a bit and settled into a 4.25 pace for the remainder of the run. This was more comfortable but I also intended to save my legs as there was one hell of a day ahead and my intention was still to finish and wherever I found myself position wise would be. The run really had little to write home about as it was dark until the last few kilometres. I finished in 1 hour and 43 minutes and cruised into transition feeling nicely warmed up. I met Shaun as I went in the door. He was already on the way to the kayak and going well. Of course having raced and trained with Shaun and having become good friends, I was hoping the day would go really well for him and he would take the victory. I entered transition in fifth and exited in less than 3 minutes in third.
Kayak Stage 2. 15km.
I ran from transition with my paddle, buoyancy aid and backrest, grabbed a kayak, clipped on the backrest, almost slipped on the slipway and hoped into the boat to paddle away. The crowd were cheering us on with great vigor. I turned the boat towards the course and on my first stroke disaster struck! My carbon fibre paddle split in two. With disgust I through half of it away. I paddle back to shore with the other half and I roared at the marshal for a paddle and they quickly through down another one. I heard later that Shaun’s brother, Patrick, actually helped grab a paddle for me and get me going again.I had to laugh at this point of the chances of such a thing happening at the start of the paddle. My luck of course was that it happened here and not 5 miles out to sea. I got going and soon settled into a bit of rhythm. I could see Martin Lynch was only about 200 yards ahead and Shaun was almost out of sight. I was happy to push hard during this section but there was no need to go into the red. The sit on top kayaks only do a certain speed and time gained would be minimal. Energy could be more adequately spent later in the race.
The water was like glass as we paddled down the river and estuary into Lough Swilly. The tide was in our favour and the morning was close to perfect. A seal popped it’s head up between my boat and Martin’s about half way across the bay. I’d say he was unimpressed by 78 kayaks moving through his territory first thing in the morning. I decided with my luck so far it was most likely the seal would land on the front of my boat at any minute, but unfortunately it never happened. I had this experience while kayaking in New Zealand. Probably not the kind of thing that happens twice. So to this point it probably all sounds like a walk in the park. The legs and arms had a good warm up but the real race was about to start as we pulled into the Bike transition at Rathmullan. The final few paddle strokes were fun as we paddled under the pier with crowds of people looking down at us, including Lisa. I shouted up at her ” we are sucking diesel now”, which got a good laugh from a few of the locals. Out of the boat and a run up into transition for the bike.
Bike 1. 96km
I changed into cycling kit, out of pretty wet and cold kayaking gear. There were about 5 of us in transition with Shaun gone ahead and Martin soon got going. I took an extra two minutes to eat a jar of overnight oats and have a coke and some water. A good breakfast at my usual time of about 8.15am!
I came out of the transition trailer, left my box at my bike and grabbed my bike. At this point I realised there was no helmet with my bike. Disaster number two at transition number two! The marshals quickly got on the case and started searching. One of the race directors was straight in on the action and said he would sort whatever time I lost, as it was their mistake. Lisa was there and shouted that she had the car and could grab my spare helmet. Obviuosly an unsupported race but on this occasion it was not my mistake and they said go for it and get a helmet. Lisa found the helmet and 3 minutes would be deducted from my finish time. I didn’t get flustered by all this as I knew this was only the start of a long day and no point getting stressed and emotional so early on. Stick with your own plan and all will be well, start trying to race those around you at this stage and I could have a really bad day.
Once out on the road I found myself swapping and changing with Peter O Donnell, another of the local guys. We were in 4th and 5th throughout the cycle with Michael Mchugh, Martin and Shaun ahead of us. I was happy to spin up the hills and try get some speed up on the downhills. The average speed was decent but the hills, well what can you say about this cycle. I suppose my cycling experience, apart from some multisport races, a few sportives and charity cycles and my own training really isn’t that amazing. I haven’t cycled in multi day events and since I started adventure racing in 2010, cycling has been my second sport to running. Therefore I may be corrected on this but in my experience this 96km is the hardest 96km you can do in Ireland. If anyone knows harder, give me a shout and I’ll come for a spin! Hill after hill after hill, relentless in and out of the saddle. One man said to me after the race that the hills were so bad that he couldn’t spin out his legs to shake the lactic acid as the gradient was too steep. Slow and painful on the ascent followed by teeth gritting and elbow tensing fast decents, far too fast to spin your legs out.This was the case for 4 solid hours on that first cycle. I actually feel like I enjoyed it so much more than my first experience of the area when training. Maybe I was fitter or maybe the weather played a part. When I looked up from the pain of the hills there was nothing but beauty around me. The beaches, the hills, fields full of lambs, small country cottages, everything was in it’s finest spring glory. The sun was splitting the rocks and the fluids were leaving my body faster than I could replace them. A local pulls up along side me in his car and says “this is a long one, keep her lit”, as I start the ascent of Lough Salt hill. A long long gradual climb to the finish at a steep short climb. Almost all the locals i met said “keep her lit”, a saying you hear all the time in Donegal. I decided I better take local advise and keep on pushing. The top of Lough Salt is only about 20km from the end of this stage. I thought the last 20km would be ok, I was far from correct. The climb from the valley up to muckish was relentless. My legs were beginning to burn and the hills were annoying my head. I stayed positive when I saw the sign for 130km’s gone. This meant of course that I was over half way around the course and anything positive is good when the tiredness begins to set in.
The signage throughout the course was top notch and the marshals and support at every turn in the road gave the whole race a more positive feel. The sections where you go for hours without a seeing anyone are by far the hardest. I arrived at Muckish mountain in just under 4 hours and looking at my time I was about 45 minutes ahead of my predicted race time already. A quick change of footwear, a bite to eat, some tea and a toilet break saw me in and out of transition and off up the mountain by about 12.10pm.
Thats me at the base of the mountain.
Stage 4 Muckish 5km mountain hike.
Muckish would be my strongest section on the day but my plan was not to expend too much energy trying to go up and down fast, risk injury or burn out. This was a race to finish. I started the hike in 4th postion. The ground was soft and pretty nasty in areas. I met a lady half way up that was supporting Michael, her brother, who was up ahead of me. She was full of enthusiasm and like all the support on the day her encouragement pushed me on. I reached the top feeling strong and the legs were loving being off the bike. What a view from the top. A picnic would of been fantastic but it was time to start running. I ran the majority of the downhill, landing on my ass twice, but luckily on the slippy boggy sections further down. I passed Michael on the way down and came into transition a minute or two before him. I sat down to change for the bike and my first and only bad cramp of the day hit on the inside of the leg. A good lesson to keep moving and probably not sit down at all if you can avoid it!
Bike transition for stage 5 and my helmet was found.
Stage 5. 68km Bike
Stage 5 would be a total unknown stage for me. The first 10km or so were mostly downhill with some nice rest and good speed picked up. I managed to take on lots of fluids, a few gels, some coke and some cake during this section. I knew from the race profile that more hills awaited so I needed as much fuel as possible. My second jar of overnight oats and cake at the muckish transition area wouldn’t be enough to get me as far as the marathon. This bike stage is almost a blur to be honest. I was probably tiring but I do remember the climbs going into pretty remote areas, down worn country roads, though marsh and bog land, along the coast, through small villages and up more hills. The locals were out to say hi, while some of them really didn’t seem to know what we were doing there. I was of course only the third bike through the area that day.Michael passed me half way around the stage but I quickly passed him again as he had a few punctures. Somehow he managed to fix 4 punctures and arrive into the next transition only minutes behind me. Amazing you might say.. My bike was performing well until with about 5 km to go one of the cables became fraid. I couldnt change down gear but luckily I wasn’t far from transition. Once again the timing of this was in my favour. After battling the hills and the backroads the final few kilometres were also on the main road, so my gears got their first rest in hours. I arrived in transition 4 in about 2hours and 43 minutes. My total time at this point was around 11 hours, giving me plenty time to try hit my goal time of 16 hours in total.
Stage 6. 40km road and trail run.
I stayed in transition 4 for about 13 minutes, to get some decent food, some tea, soup and overnight oats into me. The volunteers were so friendly and helpful, giving us a table each, having boxes laid out and ready and offering as much tea as we wanted. I can’t thank these people enough for thier kindness at every transition. I changed, stocked up on food, grabbed an all important can of coke and started on the next stage. I was once again so happy to be on my feet, although my legs were pretty much spent at this stage. I brought my poles along as an aid, I could run and keep the weight off my knees once I had the poles. “Who’s yere man with the sticks”, was a line I heard a few times from some of the locals! As I made my way along the small road at the start of the marathon, I realised I was way overdressed. There was no breeze and the evening sun was warm. I decided to ditch my warmer long sleeve top and go with one layer, plus I had a jacket in my bag if things changed. One of the relay team guys pulled up along side me near the start and offered great words of encouragement, said i was doing so well. Another couple pulled up and told me I was an inspiration. Another family stopped and all jumped out to clap and cheer me on. I can honestly say I’ve never experienced such encouragement during a race and these people are the reason I managed to keep going.
The first 15km were on the road, gradually climbing to the start of the minors pass, a section of about 10km of trail that runs down to Garton House and along the lake. The trail then takes a turn right up over a hill though some bogland with more small lakes to one side before descending back down onto the road for the last 10km. As I did in the Race I will take this run in sections. The first as already explained was monotonous, on the road. The views were nice but the road really takes it out of you when there is little left in the legs. The trail was a welcome sight, with some downhill and I started to gain a bit of speed. I was averaging 6min/km on the road and soon brought this down to 5.30’s or so on the trail. A competitor came out of knowwhere at this point, passing me out at great speed, but withing 100metres I met him bent over getting sick on the side of the trail. Like so many others he had possibly pushed too hard and the body said no. He did manage to finish the race but lost alot of time at this point. I was still holding third for the time being with Michael, and his crew, now in sight behind me. As I made my way along the lake I could see the trout were on the evening rise and wished I could stop and drop a dry fly over them. The Moon was coming up and was huge over the hills while the sun was going down behind me. Boy was I glad I was half way through the marathon before it got dark.
I left the lake to climb the section of trail back up over the hill. I hiked the majority of this section, knowing that I still had a small lead on the group behind. I wasn’t really worried if I was passed out as I knew I was going as fast as I could and I wanted to finish and not blow up this late on. Lisa once again met me as I came off the trail and met the final road section. I would say I was at my lowest point at this stage. I was in pain. My right hamstring was sore and all my legs were screaming. My feet were good though and once I went from hiking with poles to running and back to hiking I could manage. I adopted the run the downhills and parts of the flats to hiking the uphills method. Michael passed me soon after I had met Lisa and she told me I was doing so well, was in control of my position and had only 10km to go. Lisa ran along side me for a few hundred metres and then said she needed to go to make the finish line. I laughed thinking she would have heaps of time as this was going to be the slowest 10km of my life! The thing that saved me was that I was prepared. I had told myself in the lead up to the race that if I got this far that the last 10km would be torture.
There was no doubt it was torture but there was support out on the junctions and I had a brilliant experience in the middle of it that made me laugh and got the spirits going! As I ran through a forested section of the road I saw 6 eyes bearing downing the trail at tremendous speed. Once in view I saw that there were 3 badgers closing in on me at full tilt. The badgers ran passed my feet and on down the road as if I wasn’t there. Had I been on the trail a few days I would say I was hallucinating. There was a sight you don’t see mid race too often. But then this is a full day of adventure racing in Donegal and anything can happen. The final few kilometres on the road were sore and slow but I found myself on the home straight before I knew what was going on. I could hear the mike call out my name and the crowd cheering as I made for the line. I flashed my headlight as I crossed over and felt an amazing relief lift from my shoulders as I realised I had just finished one of the toughest 24hour races out there. All the training and all the effort came down to this. It is only now three days later that I am starting to understand what an incredible achievement it is for everyone that takes part in this race. To test yourself this way is amazing both physically and mentally.
At the finish. 15hours and 21 minutes later!
All in all the Race couldn’t of gone more to plan for me. My transitions were good, my fueling was good, I had no stomach or intestinal issues and I made the finish line. This was all I could of asked for and hopefully it will give me the confidence to try some more of these long distance events.
I have to thank Emma, my family and friends for all the support in the last few months. The training effort since Christmas has been pretty massive but the encouragement from everyone top class. A huge congrats to my training buddies Rachel Nolan and Sinead Keogh, Rachel who won the ladies race in a course record time and Sinead who came 4th. They are incredible athletes and it has been a pleasure to train with them and make friends with them along the way.
I have to mention the battle that took place ahead of me all day. Shaun and Marty fought out to the death for the win. In the end Marty finished stronger on the marathon and Shaun came in behind him. The effort and times they put in were unreal. Both of them smashed the course record and I’ve no doubt without one pushing the other on this may not of happened. Shaun will be back to fight another day, but for now I hope he is in recovery for our High Peaks Challenge FKT in April. A far more important few days out!! .
The race stats! 4th place!
A few more pictures to round up The Race 2017.