Part 4: Cycling Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way
4am and it’s time to take on day 6!
Even though the body wasn’t fresh, I was excited to get up and eat again. Growing up in a Bed & Breakfast and having a mother that is passionate about baking and experimenting with new recipies, I was fortunate to always be surrounded with the finest of food. Of course Mam got up to have breakfast ready and what a spread! After an hour of indulging on porridge, pancakes, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, fruit and a gallon of coffee, we jumped up on the two wheels and we were off down the road, just over 600km to get to Derry.
Cruising down past my local pubs, Crockets on the Quay and Keanes pub and onto Enniscrone where we passed the new glamping site with the Boeing 747 plane, it was like a Sunday social spin. It was a glorious morning and with the sun shining over Easkey village, we could see as far as Benbulben in Sligo and Sliabh Liag in Donegal. We had a pitt stop on the side of the road after Easkey, there were no cars out yet and if there were, they would have the lovely site of two not so beautiful white arses!
We didn’t stop until we got to Rosses point where we had our first control. We had arrived before the caravan so we took a picture for proof of being there. It was a pity cause we were excited about getting a few coffees and a dose of fruit cake from the lovely volunteers. We ploughed on- direction Mullagmore, I told Linda is was only down the road and that we would stop there for a drink and food. Well it turned out to be a bit further and with the sun blasting down on us, the salt was coming out through my jersey once again. We both ran out of water and decided to stop in a small house/shop for a coke and packet of salty tayto. The lady kindly went into her house and made us strong coffee. After our sugar, salt and caffeine fix, we were back on the road and sang our way around the Mullagmore loop. This 10km loop is a hidden gem along Sligo’s Wild Atlantic Way, myself and Linda were here last November on a different little adventure holiday where we combined hiking all Ireland’s north western mountain peaks and cycling the northern section of Donegal’s Wild Atlantic Way. Little did we know we would be back retracing some of our steps on another duo adventure. We spotted two elderly ladies sitting on a bench overlooking the crashing waves while savoring a big 99 ice-cream. Myself and Linda looked at each other and knew we were thinking the same thing, laughing Linda said, fast forward 40 years and there we are, eating ice-cream after a hike up Knocknarea. Hopefully we are not still single at that point but if so, it sounds like a fulfilling place to be at 70!
The boys were back, the teddy bear and his Guinness buddy. Throughout the week, we kept crossing paths with these two Audax riders. They were always at a steady pace and like myself and Linda, worked in duo to enjoy the company and share the experience. We continued all together to the slot machine surf town of Bundoran where the next control was waiting. I just loved that caravan, they now had tuc biscuits too but not for long once I got at them. I’m not sure how but I devoured a packet of tucs at every stop as well as the buns, fruit cake and coffees, my body possibly just craved the salt and I happily gave it whatever it demanded once it keep moving forward.
My knees were now in agony, I overcompensated on the left knee to take the pressure off the right knee and I was paying for it. This was the first pain killer I took but it did nothing. Strange as it sounds but that didn’t bother me, with only 450km to go I was getting there and the legs would just have to take me. The plan was to get to Gweedore, 30km past the day’s final control, to stay with my lovely cousin Deirdre. We now knew that this would be a challenge and just focused on each 45km. Most of us have heard of the song, ‘Hills of Donegal’, well from experience I can tell you, there are lots of them and we sang that song for hours, making up our own lyrics, some of which are not appropriate to put in this blog!
Dropping down into Donegal town and dodging the buses of American tourists, we took a left heading toward Killybegs. The mist started to get heavier and we were struggling to keep warm. The body was getting more and more fatigued and at this point, the knees were not co-operating. We started to stop more often and broke the journey into sets of 35km, where we then stopped off for a coffee and more food. The caffeine sent us wired and that topped off with lack of sleep and pure madness, we were up for any devilment possible from loading up at petrol pumps to flirting with old farmers with a bit of road frontage!
I had heard so much about this mamore gap hill and wondered just how bad can it be after all we had already conquered. We arrived at the top of a big drag and there was a good looking young guy there with a box filled with bars and coke. We were in the middle of nowhere and there was no sign of civilisation. This young man had recently joined the Errigal cycle club and was following the Audax event through the online tracking system. He came out of his way to place himself in this issolated spot to fuel the riders. Myself and Linda were so grateful, it was like an angel had jumped out of the sky to reward us. We passed up another few hills and I thought we had done the Mamore gap until we took a left turn and there it was. We looked at each other and laughed, WOW.. as we both always say, ‘it’s all craic without the cocaine’. We have accomplished many hills together which includes running up the steepest street in the world, in Dunedin, New Zealand but this was up there with the toughest. It was short, about 1km but if you stop at any point you would roll back to the starting point if not finish in hospital. We are both so stubborn that walking would never be an option, after lowering the gears right down I got into a steady rhythm and gently made my way to the top. My Van Nicholas titanium bike is really perfect for these long trips but on the hills I can feel it heavier and more robust that my light and fragile Giant carbon racer. The views from the peak were spectacular and the winding lane down was even steeper than what we had come up.
We crawled down, hands glued on the breaks and still trying to absorb what we were witnessing. This was paradise, looking out onto the sea, mountains, green fields, sheep, cliffs and the occasional idyllic thatched cottage.
It was a long spin into Annagry where our final control shelter was. It was only 30km further to my cousin Deidre’s but it was just too far and we were wrecked. I was now suffering more than Linda and my knees were swollen and the dagger like pains were coming more often. We were both looking like escaped zombies but we had the finish line in sight and we were already talking about the after party and getting to have a nice warm shower and put on underwear. Yes, that’s right, it was only a few months ago I learned that you don’t wear underwear under cycling shorts.
Relieved to arrive at the day’s final control, we ate everything in sight, chatted with all the other riders about the day’s ups and downs, showered and put our head down for a few short hours. We pulled the deflated mattresses into a shower room and the constant dripping from the shower head was tormenting until Linda had a brain wave to put our towel around it.
The FINAL day had arrived, after 1800km, we had just over 300km and we were at the finish line. Yes the body was in pain and 300km is a great distance but we had over 40 hours to get there before the cut-off point of 7 days and 7 hours.
After a beast of a breakfast we got on the machines and peddled 30km over past Jack’s hill in Gweedore to my cousins house where she had a royal spread ready, from sandwiches, cereals, fruit, cheeses and breads. We ate as much as we could fit in and enjoyed the chat and heat from the open range fire. As she works in a pharmacy, she has all the lotions and potions and kindly got us cream, OK so it was nappy rash cream but it saved our asses- literally! It was difficult to leave as we knew the route from here, for me the bloody forelands is one of the wildest and most undiscovered parts along the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s extremely exposed and isolated so there’s lots of thinking time. The headwind was fierce and this put pressure on my knee, I pulled up my SKINS compression guards over my knee to offer some support before Linda forced me to stop in the next town to buy a second knee support. Linda was now leading the way and I was following her trace. This is the nice thing about having an adventure buddy, throughout the journey we both had strong and weaker points, we don’t talk about it and the stronger warrior just silently takes control. Although the singing had died down and we were digging deep, the views were amazing and for those seconds when the sun battled its way through, it was breath-taking!
Once we arrived in Letterkenny, we knew we had the toughest of the day over, we stopped off for 30 mins in a garage, drank lots of coffee, got some more sambos and tayto and just got ourselves together before hitting the road. The rest did me wonders and I was back to life again. We now had good tarmac roads and I was happy to start leading the way, we were averaging 35km per hour comfortably and the sun came out. The singing started again and time was on our side. Seeing the signs for Derry was great but we had to take a detour to Malin head before following those signs.
As the evening approached the sun disappeared and it started to rain. We decided to stop more often as we had lots of time. Looking back, this was a daft idea and we should have just kept going. We stopped off in a few pubs to drink Lucazade and eat bacon fries and salty tayto and mingle with the locals. It’s true that the people from Donegal are incredibly friendly and I’m in love with their charming accent.
When we turned off for Malin point, it was time to put on the bike lights. I cycled Mizen to Malin 8 years ago to raise money for Autism and I remember it being a long road up. It was now lashing rain and felt like we were on an expedition in Antarctica, we had to focus on each pedal stroke and think happy thoughts. There were no shops and no one to be seen for hours untill we spotted a closed pub. We had no choice but to get the pub opened, luckily the owner lived next door. We rested there 10 minutes with a Lucazde and bacon fries and we bought more salty tayto and caramel squares for the road. I hinted 100 times that the pub couch looked lovely and I’d like to just sleep on it but he was not having any of it.
Back in the rain and at this point, it was verging on slight misery but we keep laughing and continued the next 15km up to Malin point. The slogan for the night was ‘This is no joke’. On the way, we saw what we thought was a hostel. This was our motivation, we said we would hit the Malin head check point and come down and get into that hostel. On arriving back down to it, we realised it was a coast guards grounds. Even better, I was sure they would put us up for a few hours. However, the gates were locked, I rang the bell, shouted to grab their attention but there was no response. We motored on another few kilometres looking for hay sheds, shelter or open sheds or cars but no luck. It was near midnight, lashing rain and freezing cold. There was a sigh of relief when we both saw the church but it was closed, the next option was a community hall. This too was closed but there was a little sheltered area with a bench and we decided to stop here out of the rain. We put two bins under our legs and awkwardly sat on the bench with our legs cocked up in the air. We were soaked and freezing and sleeping was not really possible but we needed rest as were exhausted. There were more hills to come and we said we would hit off at 2am to arrive back in Derry for breakfast. We always seemed to have food on the mind, it was often a motivation to get from point to point.
Once we got back on the road, we were stiff as a poker, every kilometre seemed like 100km but we didn’t care, we had 100km to go and we were home.
After 40km, I was falling asleep on the bike and we were both talking nonsense and starting to see things as well as having conversations with the sheep. We passed a small town and there was a closed petrol station. I lay against the petrol pump and ate my healthy 4am breakfast, 2 packets of tayto and a caramel square. The petrol pump was quite comfortable, better than sleeping on packs of coal, which I resorted to at a previous event. I woke up with a shake and continued eating what I had in my mouth. Linda told me I was asleep and I just responded, ‘oh dear, I must have doodled off for bit’. I don’t really remember it but after another public pee stop, we were off again.
With only 50km to go, the Derry peace bridge was within reaching distance. Throughout the 7 days we took turns of being on front, changing up every kilometre and we kept this going till the end. It helped us both stay alert, focused and gave us a break. That last 50km was fun, we where suffering from overload exhaustion and could not stop from continuous hysterics of laughing, so much so that my legs got weak and the tears were dripping down my face. With only a 10km decent into Derry, we decided to have a final coffee and food stop, to make the most of our time, have a quick reflection moment and thank each other for yet another epic adventure together.
Cruising down along the Quays in Derry, we were delighted to see the Derry peace bridge, we had accomplished our goal with over 9 hours to spare. We finished side by side to a heroes welcome from Eamon and the WAWA team who presented us with our medal and trophies. There were a few finished riders around, we all congratulated each other for achieving our task. That was it, we had cycled 2100km, the longest defined coastal route in the world, Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, in less than 7 days and 7 hours.We got a spin back to Iona’s hostel where the four lady finishers shared a room. That warm shower was a little piece of heaven. My hair was nearly in dreadlocks and the dirt was almost glued to my skin but after 30 mins I came out like new!
Myself and Linda went downstairs and had a huge breakfast and chatted to the riders who had arrived in. I have not talked much about the riders throughout the blog but they are the ones that made the adventure what it was. We met amazing and inspiring characters throughout the 7 days, we made lifetime friends. Each person came on this trip for their own reasons and had their own tactics to get to the end. Out of 56 riders, over 30 made it to the final line in the 7 days and 7 hours and although it’s nice to finish, just to sign up for this type of an event takes a certain ‘special’ person and I have a lot of respect for each person that set off from Kinsale with this mission in mind.
There are a few people that really stood out for me and to mention just a few, the two brave men that started out on the epilitigos and the organiser Eamon and all the volunteers. On day one I got chatting to a good looking charming Canadian who came over on his own just to take on this WAWA adventure. He had lots of cycling experience and was excited to explore Ireland’s west coast. It was not until day 5 that I realised that he had one artificial leg, even writing this now I’m filled with emotions of pure admiration of his courage, determination and no limits approach to life.
After an hour rest, it was time to eat again, two dinners this time washed down with more coffee. At this point there were more riders in and we all had great fun sharing stories of seeing things, sleeping in sheds and meeting amazing locals. Phil, one of the riders developed Shermer’s neck, where your neck muscles fail. Eamon used my Dad’s gardening cable ties to attach his helmet to his shorts to hold up his head. He cycled like this but it was just to dangerous at night coming down hills.
That evening we all shared pizza and had a few pints. Myself, Linda and the two other ladies who I have to say, are just awesome women, got a second wind and got the party started. We were all already talking about our next adventures and decided we would all do LEL in 2017 (London Edinburgh London).
There are a few people I would like to thank for making this adventure an amazing experience. Firstly, a huge thank you to all the volunteers and the AUDAX organisation for putting this amazing week’s holiday together. Thank you to GC Sports for sponsoring me with ‘Nico’, my Van Nicholas titanium beauty that I have fallen in love with. This is the perfect bike if you are planning a long adventure, it’s reliable and due the lack of vibrations with the titanium frame, the body is less fatigued and can go for longer! I also owe Michael Hopkins in Ballina a lot of cake to thank him for his help in putting the bike together and answering some of my daft mechanical questions. During our trip, a few people came out to join us for a stretch and keep us company and also fuelled us, thanks to them for their hospitality and sing song. Finally and most importantly, thanks to my adventure buddy Linda for sharing this epic experience, our holidays are always interesting and push the limits!
So the adventures continue, my third endurance goal for 2016 is already completed, a 5 day non-stop Expedition race called ITERA! This took things to a new level- keep an eye out for the blog in the coming weeks.