THE RACE in Donegal
The 5am whistle goes and we’re off..
THE RACE in Donegal is known ultimately as Ireland’s toughest endurance event due to the harsh unpredictable weather conditions, the relentless hills and the duration of the adventure. Participants have 24 hours to complete the unsupported course of 247km which incorporates running, biking and kayaking.
It’s a non for profit event, with all proceeds donated to Gorta. The organisers and supporters were all volunteers and it has to be said the organisation of THE RACE was flawless and the supporters were outstanding and made us feel like their celebrities. I’m very grateful to have been part of this amazing experience and to have shared it with 78 other nutters on the course.
Stage 1: 23km road run
I told my training buddies Damien and Sinead that I’d stick with them on the run and save my energy with a predicted time of 2 hours 10 mins. I naturally pull off at the start for 200 metres with an adrenaline rush and Saturday 5am March 11th was no different. This didn’t last for long with a steep 200 metre climb, I quickly jumped back into my comfortable pace. I’d borrowed a head torch last minute from a friend and didn’t test it out which was a bad move. It was jumping around so I held it in my hand like a torch. I came up to Donegal 5 weeks previous and did this run so I knew what to expect. It’s relatively flat with a few ‘lumps’. I got chatting to a few people on route and was trying to make conversation to pass the time and entertain myself but not everyone was up for the chat and seemed to be memorised, like wild zombies galloping through the night! One lad I ran passed blessed himself, I’m not sure what that meant but I said thank you and offered him some jellies.
After 10km the quads started getting a bit sore and that was the start of our conversation, yes that’s right, my conversation with my legs. I went off to Gran Canaria 2 weeks previous and did the technical Trans Gran Canaria trail marathon which had a lot of decent and was very demanding on the quads. It was an amazing event and I knew it was too close to THE RACE but I was just greedy and wanted to experience it to explore the island and soak up the event atmosphere. I now knew I would have to manage the pressure put on my quads for the rest of the event and not put too much responsibility on them or injury would become a risk. I haven’t been running much in the past year and I’m not a fan of road running but all the same, I felt fresh arriving into transition in a time of 2hrs 2mins and in position of first lady. I kept this lead and grew on it throughout the day. There were lots of supporters out in Rathmullen and their encouragement and cheering was really motivating. I tried to keep somewhat focused, my goal was to see each transition as another stage and I was on a mission to get in and out as fast as possible. For those that know me will know that I love chatting and meeting new people so it’s best for me to talk while still moving and just keep moving forward on the course. Besides, I would rather have that extra time on the bike so I could take it that bit easier.
I stuffed an egg and avocado bagel into my mouth which was seriously overloaded with salt. It might have gone too far using a spoon to put on the salt but I’m just always so conscious that I have enough salt during events as I don’t want to end up in a coma again from hyponatraemia. You can read about that adventure in a previous blog.
After a quick toilet stop, I ran to the pier to get on the water. Transition one took me 2 mins 53 seconds.
Stage 2: 15km kayak
The reflection of the mornings first light on the calm water and the cheering from all the supporters set the perfect scene. I had my own PDF and paddle and grabbed a kayak, there was no backrest and I didn’t bother to bring one, they were heavy plastic sit-on-tops and I thought it wouldn’t be worth it for such a short distance. After having a bit of craic with the guys at the pier, trying to splash them, I got into a steady comfortable rhythm. I had no idea what time I was at but I knew I was the first lady. This is irrelevant at such an early stage and my goals were clear, finish in less than 24 hours, enjoy the course and chat to as many people, sheep and Donegal donkies as possible while still moving forward. I have never used a heart rate and don’t know anything about miles per km and all this jargon, I just go on feeling and stay in touch with the body.
After about 5 minutes, I passed out a guy looking like he was off to the artic and he said, ‘are you not cold?’ I realised that I forgot to put on my waterproof pants, I stayed in my running shorts and a pair of pink skins compression calf guards that I got for free when I worked with SKINS in France. I was soaking but the blood was pumping and I never cooled down. I don’t have a huge amount of experience in the kayak but have done some long kayak sections in rough sea conditions during ITERA (check out my previous blog to know more) and other endurance adventure races so this section between Rameleton and Rathmullen was not very daunting to me. I passed out 4 or 5 lads and cruised under the bridge to arrive at Rameleton pier in a total time of 1 hour 23 minutes.
I had my transition all worked out in my head; what to eat, wear and another quick pee stop was on the cards. The plan was to jump out of the kayak and run up to the bike and gear but instead I rolled out and the legs completely seized up. I dragged my body up the pier and while the crowd were taking pictures and clapping, I loosened out after 1 or 2 minutes.
On the kayak, I was already picturing the cycle, what I would wear, how I would feel and how looking forward I was to devouring those chocolate coated coffee beans. I decided to leave on the pink compression socks although I’m not really a ‘pink’ lady. This later became a statement and supporters named me ‘Go pink legs’. I put on the cycle shorts, a thermal base layer and sleeveless bike top. Sharon Black arrived into transition as I was getting ready, I’d just met Sharon the previous night and we were roommates at Gartan. She’s a Letterkenny woman that runs a bar with her sporty husband Jason. Myself, Sharon and our other roommate Catherine had a great chat the previous night and I was in serious admiration of their commitment to training for this event, something that I lacked and was very aware of going into the event. I had just hoped that past experience would pull me around.
I’m not the competitive type, well only against myself and that’s one of the reasons why I rather endurance events where there is a time limit because the goal is to get over the line in the timeframe, the atmosphere is friendlier and everyone want their competitor to get there too, it’s an achievement to finish. Sharon was also feeling fresh, I didn’t wait around to chat, just wished her good luck and continued with my plan. I loaded my pockets with food and they were bulging like I’d robbed a sweet shop, there was no way, I’d get through half of it or was there?
Stage 3: 98km cycle
The legs quickly loosened out but I knew that this was going to be my toughest section and I had to keep reserve in the tank. The first 20km is all a gradual climb with a few steeper parts, infact the entire course had this same profile. I was familiar with most of this course from last summer when I cycled the Wild Atlantic Way in winter conditions. Today the weather conditions were ideal, about 12 degrees, clear blue skies and a light wind. Donegal is a spectacular county but Donegal on a fine day is paradise. The hills on this section were relentless and there was no chance for the legs to spin out and have recovery time but over every hill was another golden beach, sheep lined along the cliffs edge or country house with smoke out the chimney and the smell of burnt turf really tempted me to go in and ask for a cup of tea and whatever was coming out of the oven.
During this entire section, I passed three people and two people passed me, it was nice to have the ‘me time’. I much prefer team events but I’m fairly OK at entertaining myself and playing mind games. I often rate the houses, I have a criteria listing which include the garden, the front door, the amount of light getting into the house etc. and I give them a mark out of 10. Sometimes, I can almost figure out what they are having for dinner. I do also talk to the sheep, cows and whatever else is around and sometimes they talk back in their code language. Another game I do on the hills, is I count to 20, every left leg stroke is one and then I move onto the right leg. I can do this in 5 languages so it takes time and when I’m alert enough I then count backwards.
After about 50km, we arrived in Carrigart village and 200 metres on, we turned a right to take a tour around the peninsula. My past experiences cycling out here with my adventure buddy Linda were horrendous, with gaelforce winds putting us to a standstill. Today, this was not the case, the sun was out and there was a headwind to keep us cool. It was a lovely spin around and I just kept it steady although at one point I looked down at my new speedometer and I was at 64km per hour. That sounds great but at other points I was at 7 km per hour. After this we the hit Lough Salt, this is known to cyclists as ‘bloody hell’. It’s a gradual climb up for a couple of kilometres and then bang, a sharp incline for 200 metres to add the icing on the cake. I actually found this part OK and just kept within in my comfort zone, passing out a couple of lads as they walked the bike up the last part. There were supporters at the top of the hill and I was delighted to see them, although I didn’t know any of them, there encouragement and just being there was greatly appreciated. The final 3 kilometers before hitting Muckish felt like an eternity, I started getting really warm and was now rationing my last mouthful of water, I’m not a regular coke drinker but right then I wanted a bucket of cold fizzy sugary coke. There were cars all lined up along the hill approaching Muckish and all the supporters I passed, I asked, ‘Have you any coke?’ I was like a cocaine addict and just needed a quick fix. I got to the top of the hill to the transition and there was my Auntie Doris and Uncle Seamus. They’re from Gweedore and very kindly came out to cheer me on and soak up the atmosphere. Beside them was Kieran, Sinead’s boyfriend who I knew would be loaded with jelly beans waiting for Sinead to arrive into transition. I didn’t want to waste time but I did have visions of jumping behind the barriers and grapping all the sugary jelly beans of him. I said hi to everyone and clapped to the crowd while running into the container to get my gear box. We were allowed a 32 litre plastic box at each transition. I used nothing except for the shoe change over and a small amount of food but this would have been different if the weather turned. At every station, the marshals told me my tracker was not working and gave me a new one and this transition was the same but they got it working. People at home can follow the dots and I’m sure anyone that was watching me thought I really had gone off to the pub as I’ve done during previous events! The 98km took me a total of 4 hours 42 minutes which sounds like a lot but it was a fairly average time considering the hills.
Stage 4: 5km mountain hike/crawl/run
I powered down the hill to reach the foot of Muckish as the crowd were ecstatic taking videos and pictures. It was then a short slog through wet ground before the incline started, with a total of 500 metres to climb. I brought my sandwich and drink with me to have a moving picnic. I rather slow down and eat then stop and eat, this way I’m still moving forward even if at a slower pace. I knew I had an advantage over most people on this stage as I’ve a lot of experience in the hills and particularly downhill running. I had done this section 5 week previous and knew I could do it comfortably in 45 minutes on a normal day but today the plan was to take the uphill very handy, fuel up so I could keep the transitions slick and not to do anything to risk injury. I passed out 2 or 3 lads on the climb and the break off the bike was nice. Having reached the top and making the U-turn, I took in the view and said to the marshal how lucky he was to be there and that all he was missing was a bottle of nice wine, olives and smelly cheese! I started jogging the downhill, it started off with loose rocks on very uneven ground before I was back into muck and slippy terrain. After about 5 minutes, Sharon Black and Christina McKenzie were battling on the way up and just behind was Sarah Enright.
Christina has won THE RACE twice and everyone kept telling me that she was a power house on the bike and they were not joking when you see her times. I knew the three ladies would now be competing against each other to get out in front and this would push them on. Me on the other hand, I was on my own, singing away and it was difficult to keep the focus. I only had about 10 or 15 minutes on them but I knew I’d gain another 10 minutes or more on top of that as I was running downhill and it was doubtful they would be going at the same pace. Normally I catapult the body down mountains but that has resulted in me at West Doc getting stitches so this time, I cautiously bounced down and felt really fresh arriving at the bottom. I ran back up the hill to transition and straight to the toilet for a pee, as you see I have a small bladder. It’s not very classy to say this but I’ve possibly gone for a pee outside in the nature as many times I have in a civilised toilet.
A quick shoe changeover and I was gone…
Stage 5: 68km bike
I was like a bomb on the 10km downhill into Falcarragh and felt like a rocket being launched cruising along Donegal’s Wild Atlantic Way. It was only at this point that I decided that I could potentially come in as first lady. If needed I could push the marathon and get out of the comfort zone. This event is not about coming first, second or third, it’s about finishing but this was now my new entertainment; how much lead could I build up while still keeping reserve in the tank?
The spin around the Bloody Forelands is never a joke but the beautiful scenery makes up for the hardship the legs were going through. My quads were burning from the 10km mark on the first run so at this point the pain was just part of my event and the mind had taken over. I told the legs that they were lucky to get all that Vitamin D in the Gran Canaries and I would treat them to a seaweed bath in Kilcullins in Enniscrone when I got home.
I passed by my cousin Deirdre’s house who was actually away on holiday and then the pharmacy where she works before hitting Jacks hill and pub where my Uncle likes to hang out occasionally, I knew this area and felt at home. After passing through Crolly, we had a turn up to the left, passing by a quarry with a steady incline on rough terrain for about 10 km. I’m very fortunate to have been sponsored by Van Nicholas through GC Sports and have the Titanium Ventus model. This type of terrain is really where you feel the difference in titanium, the only way to describe it is ‘indestructible pleasure’. Yes it is heavier than a carbon bike and I am slower on the hills but for long demanding endurance events, it is reliable and you don’t feel the same vibrations from the road which helps reduce overall fatigue.
This last 30km into Doohery seemed long and I was really struggling to get food down, I just didn’t want to eat the food I had which is very unlike me. Throughout this entire section, I passed one guy and a different lad passed me near the end. We had a quick chat and both described what it would be like to have a big breakfast back in Gartan. I told him that I wasn’t eating and he gave me a Mars bar and said ‘get that into ya’. It was the nicest Mars bar I have ever ate. I savored it and had bite of it every 3 km until I got back to the next transition. I felt good arriving into transition and the crowd got me pumping, arriving in at a time of I asked how far away were the 2nd and 3rd ladies and who were they. It was Sharon and Christina but Christina had started to pull away, they reckoned I had 30 minutes on Christina. I had a salty soup, a bottle of Lucazade and some John West tuna before heading off.
Stage 6: 42km run
It wasn’t yet 6pm so I didn’t need the headlight. The legs felt relatively fresh and the mind was focus on getting back to Gartan. My plan was to run at a slow pace, about 9km per hour for the first 8km and depending on the lead time I had gained and how I felt, to walk the remainder. The start of the marathon was fairly flat with a long gradual climb. I was carrying my Ultimate Direction bag, 1 litre of water and the mandatory kit. The question is how many other people did this? My stomach started acting up and toilet issues became a new issue. My quads were absolutely on fire and I was kicking myself for doing that marathon 2 weeks previous as if not, they quads would have been sore but not to this extreme. On the turn off to Glenveagh National Park, I put on my headlight and asked a marshall how far back were the 2nd and 3rd ladies. I had no watch and the time was irrelevant, I was only a couple of hours away. At this point, Christina was 7km behind me and Sharon had nearly caught her. The gap had now grown to about 50 minutes so I knew that unless I completely stopped, I would cross the line first. All I had to do was keep moving forward and that is what I did. If I was under pressure, perhaps I would have knocked 30 or 40 minutes off the overall marathon time but it felt more comfortable not to have to do this and it could result in injury, something that I cannot afford to risk in my line of business. The wander down the Glenveagh trails was something that will stay with me for a long time. There was no one around and not the only noise was me plodding along, the moon was reflecting in the lake and I felt a strange warming sense of peace. I reminded myself a few times how lucky I was and how these moments and sensations are why I love exploring and taking on new challenges.
There were a few good climbs on this marathon and I was definitely walking, I caught up with one guy walking and walked with him for quite a bit, just enjoying the chat and keeping each other company. He had really tight calf muscles and physically couldn’t run anymore but the pace of his power walk could take him to the Olympics. He was an absolute gentleman and I don’t even remember his name. This is often the case on these events, you meet amazing people, have a great bond and shared experience and then everyone goes their separate way. All the same, some of my closest friends I have met through endurance events, you have a certain connection that goes further that just meeting in the local for a few whiskey. It’s a bit like the bond I had with teams back in my football days.
The last 6km for me was mild torture and I just wanted to get back to base. A lovely couple from Waterford pulled up in a car beside me and asked if I was OK and told me I was nearly there. I don’t know who they were but I want to thank them for their kindness and support. They had a can of coke and gave me a few mouthfuls and told me how long was left. My motivation to run was gone, I was going to finish anyway and the mind was already thinking about recovery for the body. I ran the last 1km before the feeling of utter relief, crossing the finish line. Three young local girls jumped out of a car and ran the last 400 metres with me, I’m not sure who they were either but I was told them to keep up the training and I’d some them on the course some year.
The lights were bright and the music was blarring. They were calling out my name, I was delighted to be finished, 18 hours 3 mins, first female home and a new course record.
My training buddy Lonan arrived in 4th position and he and his sister Lisa were there to share the celebrations. Sinead and Damien, my other adventure friends arrived just over 2 hours later and also achieved their goal to cross the line of Ireland’s toughest endurance race un under 24 hours.
The adrenaline was pumping and the energetic atmosphere was electric. I had a coulpe of bowls of cereal and toasted cheese sandwiches before going for a long shower and coming back down to cheer in the other participants.
It was great to chat to everyone and share the moment of delight as some of the winter training sessions were not in such pleasant conditions.
The day after and a quick recap
The Gartan Outdoor adventure centre is located in an adventure paradise but most importantly the team of staff were the friendliest and most accommodating crew I have ever met, it really is a home away from home. If you have never been there, you are missing out so put it on the holiday list.
After a power snooze following on from all the madness, I got the munchies at 6am so went downstairs into the kitchen and made a couple of toasted sandwiches. I was finished with sleeping and was feeling fresh, I couldn’t wind down. I have a fairly speedy recovery and that’s one of the reasons why I like the multi-day events.
I strolled down to the lake and pulled up my shorts to go in hip deep, it was about 7 degrees and felt lovely. It was like a scene from a film where I was being immersed in water at first sunlight, if there were a couple of crocodiles it could have added a more energetic scene.
I spent the morning chatting to all the participants, organisers and supporters, sharing our experiences, the high and lows of the gruelling but beautiful course that THE RACE is renowned for. We were all talking about our next adventure. For the past couple of years, I pick three main endurance events per year so this is event number one for 2017 ticked off.
The prize giving took place at 1pm and there were once again more welcomed trays of food. It was nice to receive the prize of first lady and the new female record holder but the real glory is in finishing.
Once again a huge well done to the organisers, supporters and volunteers and of course all the warriors that took part. Also, thanks to Paul Doherty for the stunning images taken during the event.
If you are on considering to do this event and on the fence, JUST DO IT and if I can be of any help with getting you across the fence, just pop me an email and it would be a pleasure to help out!
Magic happens when you leave your comfort zone!