Coming as it did, slap bang in the middle of my soon to be patented, hopefully never to be repeated, seven week training plan for Dublin Marathon, Killarney Adventure Race was a race I was both looking forward to and also trying to ignore. I really only wanted to run a few marathons this year but I can be a bit of an idiot at times, a prime example of which is responding to the post-race mocking I received from my old Waterford work colleague and friend Ben while in the pub last year by swearing I was going to do the 70k race this year. You see, Ben, and his considerably quicker and fitter wife Michelle, had completed the 60k version of the race, while I had stropped and staggered around the 27k, cursing both the rolling hills of Killarney and the rolls of flab underneath my jersey I had let creep back in. I really didn’t enjoy the race last year, annoyed at how unfit I had let myself get again, so my pledge to do the 70k this year was both a foolhardy retort to Ben’s crude barbs and also the kick in the arse I needed to get training again.
Which I had done. Up until Killarney Marathon in May of this year. Since then it’s been sporadic at best., non-existent at worst. Still, I was down here now, with at least some level of fitness, hoping that the fact that I was at least a few kilos lighter than last year would help me round the extra forty kilometres or so.
Another advantage I had this year was a slightly more performance focused pre-race preparation. Last year there was a whole bunch of us down here, and there was a bit more of a party atmosphere in our campervan. This year there was just myself and Benny, and his race face was well and truly on.
I should probably make clear at this point Ben is the older, swarthy, slightly husky gentleman on the right of this photo, my old running buddy from Bausch & Lomb, Benny is the wiry, mop-topped lunatic in the middle I’ve known since he was an even more mop-topped, even more lunatic teen.
Benny and I had made it down to Killarney in plenty of time, registered, and dropped our bikes out to Kate Kearney’s Cottage. By the time we made it back into the car park of The Brehon hotel though, our guerilla camp site for the weekend, there was nowhere really open to get any food so we went with the nightcap in the hotel bar option instead.
The morning of the race was an absolute masterclass in ‘just in time’ scheduling. Despite being camped up for the night approximately two minutes walk from the departure point for the race, Benny and I were the last two people on the last bus for the last wave heading to the race start out at Kate’s Cottage, and at that Benny only made it as I was getting the bus to hold on. This was going to be a decent test to see how well my fat adaptation and training on empty regime was going as well, as due to the faffing around last night and this morning I was heading off to start the race with only a very large espresso in me.
I hadn’t managed to meet Ben and Michelle the night before the race as, like most right minded people, they were in bed by the time Benny and I arrived in to The Brehon bar. I was keeping an eye out for them when I got out to the cottage but Ben spotted me first, unable to even say hello as I was squeezing a large sachet of nut butter down my gullet. We barely had time for hellos and a quick picture before it was go time, and there was Benny disappearing off into the distance. We had discussed strategy, what to do at the kayak and so on but really I was just smiling and nodding along because I knew as soon as the whistle went he would be long, long gone and it would be the finish line before we’d properly see each other again.
Michelle also scampered off up the road, the first stage being a 7k run up and down Strickeen. I really wanted to go after her but I’d learned my lesson about going off to quick after the first stage of Gaelforce West a couple of years ago so just went at a nice steady pace uphill. It was almost impossible to go too much quicker with the path little more than single file, but seeing as we were the last wave to go off when we turned around at the top the path down was mostly clear. Normally I’m a terrible descender but the bit of practice I’d had on Croagh Patrick and Ticknock, plus the fact that it wasn’t an overly technical descent meant I was actually making good time. For once I wasn’t hesitant and nervous, I just relaxed and actually really enjoyed it, overtaking some people on the way down, including Michelle. I think I relaxed a bit too much though because just as I was leaving transition with my bike Ben and Michelle were coming in and grabbing theirs.
While Benny had been a bit apprehensive about the first part of the cycle leg, from Kate’s Cottage over the Gap of Dunloe, I had paid it little heed. I’d run up and down over it twice a couple of years ago as part of The Gauntlet half marathon so felt I had little to worry about. I was a little surprised then to find myself only a few minutes later off the bike and pushing it uphill. The race organisers definitely knew what they were doing making us cycle uphill straight off our short mountain run, my legs, and the legs of just about everyone around me judging by how many people were in a similar situation, were completely dead and so when I saw three or four people around me hopping off their bikes and pushing I didn’t hesitate in following suit. Of course as soon as I did I berated myself and felt somewhat emasculated, which was made a hundred times worse immediately after by the motorbike and cameraman for the race passing me and capturing my moment of weakness on film.
What followed then was almost an hour of humbling and near humiliation. In my mind at least. I managed to grind my way to the top of The Gap of Dunloe at least, but as I got there it started to lash rain. That combined with the glassy smooth, newly laid tarmac which the race director had warned us about had me extremely hesitant as I started the descent. My already fragile confidence took another kicking as first Michelle and then Ben sailed past, all the while I was squeezing both brakes like a terrified kitten clinging on to it’s mother. As the rain came down harder and harder, and the road got narrower, steeper and bumpier I got worse and worse until I practically ground to a halt. By the time the road levelled out I was completely on my own, miles behind anyone with only wounded, chastened pride for company.
It was far, far too early in the day to crumble completely though and with what looked to be reasonably flat road ahead of me I was determined to catch up to Michelle. I reckoned that despite her fitness that on a flat road I should be able to put down a bit more power and claw some time back. I put my head down and started to work and eventually caught a glimpse of what I thought, or hoped, was her in the distance. Fifteen minutes or so later I had just about caught up but was bloody exhausted with my efforts, and it took another five minutes or so to close the final few yards. Michelle had been going back and forth with a small group of riders for some time, pulling ahead on the climbs, being dragged back on the flats, and I managed to latch on to them just as we hit (what Michelle told me was) the last climb. I had my cycling legs back by this stage and was determined to at least get up this incline on my bike, rather than pushing it, so I adopted a Chris Froome-esque approach, looking only at my stem and the yard of tarmac in front of me rather than all the way up the road.
This worked brilliantly and before I knew it I was at the top, flush with exhilaration, and delighted I could see beautiful, wide sweeping roads ahead of me rather than nadgery, gnarly country lanes. I passed Michelle just as we crested the top of the climb and decided it was about time to put the hammer down. Being able to see all the road in front of me meant I was much more confident, and after a couple of really fast sweeping bends I started to really get into it. The road tightened up a bit but I talked myself through the first couple of tighter bends “ok, it’s the same as on a motorbike, easy on the brakes, don’t grab. nice and smooth, look around the bend to where you want to go, you can see the exit, go, go, go, full gas” and before I knew it I was flying downhill, and despite the return absolutely loving it. I was kind of glad to be alone on the road now because between the talking to myself, smiling like a loon and laughing at how much fun I was having I might have seemed a little unhinged to anyone else.
Considering I’d been cursing it at the start I was really disappointed that the bike leg was finishing so soon, but at least I was getting off the bike in a great mood. I jogged down towards the lake for the kayak leg and had one of my bread rolls with Philadelphia and jam (no bloody brioche rolls to be found anywhere in Super Valu, that’ll teach me to leave my shopping until the last minute) before teaming up with a girl from Abbeyfeale who’s name I forgot to get. We had a very, very relaxed kayak, taking the scenic route around the lake but I knew Mangerton, the real meat of the race, was still ahead so I didn’t really mind an extended breather at this point. Soon enough though it was off the water and heading back up the road to the bottom of the mountain where the sensible people doing the short race would go one way, and all the masochists doing the long ones would go the other.
Almost right from the start of the run section my legs felt heavy and tired. I assumed they would come back to me at some stage but after 5k or so of relatively flat running through the forest, just before I got to the bottom of Mangerton where the real hurt would start, I felt the same pain and looseness around my right knee that I did towards the end of the Killarney marathon. Now I started to get a little worried as the last time I felt this I was out of action for three weeks, and with Dublin Marathon only three weeks away that wasn’t really an option. A few minutes later I got horrendous cramps at the bottom of my right hamstring, right at the back of my knee so I decided there and then my plan was just to get round. I wasn’t exactly racing anyway at this point but if I needed to walk all the rest of the way to get round without any further injury that’s what I was going to do.
I started the long, slow trudge up Mangerton, the whole time keeping an eye out for Michelle, presuming she’d be coming past me soon enough. After what seemed like an age I saw Benny coming hurtling down the mountain, still absolutely flying. He shouted that it was 54.8km at the turnaround point, so just about 3km for me to get there. It seemed to be taking forever to get up this bloody lump of earth, 100m was hard fought never mind 3000m but I just kept repeating to myself “one little step after another, one little step after another” like a mantra, ocassionally stopping briefly to pause for breath and admire the beauty all around us. I’d made the mistake in previous races of just getting engulfed in drudgery and not taking the time to appreciate where we were, but not this time. It might have hurt to get there but how many other people on that day were where myself and a few hundred other hardy souls were, standing atop a mountain in one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the entire country. It was a privilege to be up there, not some sort of penance, and I just had to remember that now and again.
My reverie was shattered very soon after by the sight of a tiny figure in green t-shirt and red bandana flying down towards me. I was sure Michelle was still behind me but apparently, and quite obviously I was mistaken. I asked her how and where she’d overtaken me but Michelle wasn’t hanging around for a chat. A wave of fear and dread crept over me now. If Michelle was ahead of me maybe Ben was too. Benny was always going to finish miles ahead of me, and Michelle most likely too, but Ben? Dear God no. If I did anything today it was at least catch him. Sure enough a few minutes later I spotted him lumbering down the mountain towards me, his gait looking as strained and laboured as mine. We stopped and chatted briefly – his dodgy knees were killing him, someone was stabbing me in my hamstrings – before we both carried on. I still had 2km to go to the turnaround point, but I also had 9km then of downhill to catch Ben and I was certain I could do it.
I won’t say I had a spring in my step then, but I definitely had a bit more zeal about me. I got up to the turnaround point, as happy to see the marshall with the checkpoint as happy as I’d ever been to see a complete stranger. Then it was time to get my arse in gear and begin my descent. I knew there was a quicker, if considerably riskier, path down the right hand side that Benny and all the quick guys had been taking. Despite my lack of descending skill I was encouraged by my run down Strickeen earlier and I knew it was the best chance I had of catching Ben, so I set off down the spongy, soggy trail, making really good time and just about staying upright. In a matter of minutes I spotted Ben’s unmistakable lumpen form, and very shortly after I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I caught right up to him. He was really struggling with his knees, me with my muscular woes so I suggested bringing it home together.
I’m delighted that he agreed to do it, because his company was a godsend. I felt so empty and drained coming off the mountain, that the last few kilometres of forest trail felt like a marathon. It was great to be able to relax, chat, have a laugh and drag each other along when needed. Both of us were suffering so we just walked the uphills, jogged or shuffled best we could the downhills, and then staggered down the Torc steps like a less athletic Statler and Waldorf, oohing, aahing, mewling and yelping, attracting the pity of children and pensioners alike, all of whom were moving more quickly and easily than we were.
The relief at approaching the bikes once more, and the knowledge that we could get off our feet again, was one of the most fantastic feelings I’ve ever experienced. We were practically giddy with excitement getting on to our bikes, so giddy in fact that we couldn’t tell left from right and could barely get out of the way of the other competitors crawling past us. Once we were out on the road for the last little spin into town though we felt great, finally able to laugh at the misery we’d put behind us and even discussed crossing the line hand in hand. We’d long gave up hope of getting across the line in under six hours, but seeing as we were entering the final bike drop at 6:05 there was a chance we could crack 6:10. 6:09 reads and sounds way better than 6:10, so we gathered ourselves for one final push to the line. We (almost) ran the few hundred metres to the finish, with only the bastard bridge to cross. I hit the bottom steps at a canter, but could hear Ben whimpering behind me. Benny and Michelle were on the other side, cheering us on and for a change it was now me exhorting Ben to come on. We crossed the bridge together, setting foot on to the red carpet side by side for the last fifty metres to the line.
At which point I sprinted for the line as hard as I could, laughing my arse off as I could hear gasps of “what a prick” from the crowd, laughter, cheers and and all sorts of swearing from Ben wheezing behind me. I was laughing so much I could barely dib in but just about managed to, an entire, and massively important, second in front of Ben. 6:09:52 for me, 6:09:53 for Ben.
Benny had finished in a spectacular 4:50:26 for 63rd place overall, and first of our little quartet. Michelle had finished in an equally impressive 5:38:32 to be the 14th woman home. I honestly think though that I was happier than either of them to finish with the final podium spot for our group, relegating poor old Ben to the first loser position.
(Dickishness aside for a second I was hugely impressed by Ben’s efforts. Due to various ailments, aches and injuries he’s barely got to put any decent training in but through sheer toughness and bloody mindedness he dragged himself, and me, round the toughest race I’ve done to date. I said as much to Benny afterwards, though I couldn’t possibly have admitted it to Ben. Huge, huge congratulations to Benny and Michelle on their efforts too, phenomenal showings.
I think too that huge credit must go to anyone that got round that course. I have as much respect for the people who did it in eight and a half hours as I do for the absolute animals who cracked it in under four).