Cycle like a girl
2113.3km | 25,225m climbing | self-supported
“I have a question for you. When the boys need to pee, they just stop at the side of the road, but what do you do?”
A cyclist’s mother in law asked me minutes before the start of the TransAtlanticWay.
“Well, I do what the boys do, just in a different position”
For the next 5 days, cycling my way along the Irish west coast, I could not stop thinking about how brilliantly this short dialog sums up what I was doing here. 11 men and I showed up for this 2100km cycling event and from the start I knew, as a woman, I had to do this differently – and people would wonder how.
The TransAtlanticWay has been on my bucket list for years. In 2016 I cycled the Wild Atlantic Way Audax with my buddy Linda. The event route followed the Wild Atlantic Way from south to north, start in Kinsale with the goal to make it to Derry in less than 7 days and 7 hours. We had an amazing time and ever since, I have wanted to cycle the Wild Atlantic Way in the opposite direction. Since its inception, I have followed the TransAtlanticWay and, since I live on route, I took great pleasure in cheering for the passing athletes and treating them to some home baked scones sponsored by Mam. Since the event usually takes place in June, one of the busiest months for Rachel’s Irish Adventures, I haven’t been able to sign up. The craziness of 2020 moved the event to September and freed up my summer schedule for some excessive cycling sessions, so the time had finally come to take on the TransAtlanticWay.
I made the decision to sign up during the Covid19 lockdown. An Adventure Race, Expedition Africa, I was going to do in April got cancelled and it was looking unlikely that any of the ultra-running events I wanted to do would be going ahead this year. Like most people at the time I struggled with the sudden interruption of my life and without a specific focus I was demotivated. Deciding to do the TransAtlanticWay 2020 was the perfect move to put a stop to this downward spiral. Even though I couldn’t be 100% confident that the TransAtlanticWay would go ahead, I had decided that I would follow the route as part of the event or do it on my own steam – so in any case it would pay off to put in the training.
June 1st marked the start of my TransAtlanticWay training schedule. Up until then, most of my training had been “Adventure-Racing-style” – mountain running, kayaking and mountain biking. I had to completely change my way of training and for the first time ever I decided to enlist the help of a coach to prepare for this event. I met my Canada based coach Jen Segger during the World’s Toughest Race in Fiji in September 2019. She helped me to do out a 3-month woman specific program to prepare me for this ultra-endurance cycle.
Train like a girl
Jen recommended that I read the book ROAR by Dr. Stacy Sims and I couldn’t thank her enough. Dr. Sims research is based around the fact that “Women are not small men!” and her studies and results have profoundly changed my approach to training. I realised that the way I was training wasn’t specific enough for the requirements of my female body and that most training methods are developed for men and these can be counterproductive for female athletes. Women fuel, recover and peak differently than men and I had to find out what works best for me.
My entire training plan was built around my monthly cycle. A few years ago I wouldn’t have talked about my period, never mind written about it in a blog. However, I feel like I have to write about it as women specific training based around my monthly cycle was one of the keys to success.
The most intense training phase starts while I have my period. Due to hormone levels this is the time of the month when a woman is strongest. During this phase, I had more power and was recovering faster than during other times of the month. Because of this, I was doing the hardest training in the 3 weeks from the day I get my period and using the days leading up to my next period to slow down and to recover.
I’m still amazed how this approach has revolutionised my performance. Being aware of the changes going on in my body during my cycle helped me to be good to myself. It made it easier to not get frustrated, especially in the days leading up to my period, when the body would be weaker than usual. During my strong days I was flying the hill repeats like it was nothing. I highly recommend reading ROAR for more specific information about this.
My 12 week training plan started off quite light. At the start I focused on shorter sessions with lots of hill repeats and build up to multi-day sessions. For example, I did 1,000km in 3 days in
August in horrific storms and used Audax events like the Connacht 600 and the Inishfree 400 as training and also to test my gear. In the week before the TransAtlanticWay I wound down and focused on stretching and yoga.
Plan like a girl
The TransAtlanticWay is a cycling event and supposedly not a race. However, having followed the event for years, I knew that it attracts competitive cyclists and I felt up for a challenge.. I had cycled the Wild Atlantic Way before so I knew I could do the distance. This time, I made it my personal challenge to push it and do it as fast as possible.
The 2020 edition of the TransAtlanticWay was different to other years for several reasons and I realised early on I had to plan smart to move at maximal efficiency.
Rest like a girl
How much and when you sleep is a game changer in a multi-day events. Too little rest can slow you down a lot and a tired cyclist is in danger of falling asleep on the bike.
The global pandemic had not only made the 2020 edition an Irish resident only event, it also meant it would be more difficult to find last minute accommodation. Many B&Bs have not opened at all this year and calling to the door without a booking isn’t much appreciated. Pubs are usually a good place to call in for food, water or even a powernap during late hours or in remote places, this year that wouldn’t be an option either.
The event usually takes place in June, the month with the longest days of the year. Around the summer solstice the nights are short, and it is only dark for a few hours. In September, more darkness means I would need stronger, longer lasting bike lights and I had to make sure that I was able to charge them frequently.
The weather is always an unknown factor in Ireland, but September could be expected to be colder and rainier than June.
Taking all these factors into consideration I made the decision to cycle with an exact plan of how far I wanted to go each day and book accommodation ahead. The risk of getting stranded completely exhausted in the middle of nowhere was too big otherwise. I’ve slept in my bivi bag during lots of events. In Adventure Racing that is the way you do it in multi-day events and I have had many the adventure sleeping in cow sheds or random doorways but for this cycling event I decided to shower and lie down in a bed daily. I figured this strategy would boost my performance overall.
My plan was to stop for 3 – 4 hours every night. Less didn’t make much sense as it would take me about 45 minutes to get off the bike, eat, charge batteries, have a shower and jump into bed. In the morning it would take the 45minutes to get the bike ready, eat and head out. If everything goes to plan then a 3-hour stop means 90 minutes of sleep. I figured that would be enough to rest the mind and body.
I spent hours studying the route, it’s hills and road surfaces in an attempt to predict how long the sections might take me and how far I could make it each day. I love bringing tours along the Wild Atlantic Way so I knew most parts of the route and even planned to stop at my favourite shops and delis. I’m mad about good coffee and it’s sometimes challenging to get the real stuff at the petrol station shops so knowing where to stop is crucial 😉
An important part of my training was to get out in every weather condition. My dear Ireland didn’t let me down during the summer and provided ideal trainings conditions. Galeforce winds, storms and lashing rain. Once I got up at 4am to do a training-block of 1000km in 3 days, I looked at my phone and found a text massage from my Mam asking me to postpone by a day or 2 because the weather was horrendous. I thanked her, headed out on a cycle towards Donegal and praised the weather gods for the perfect training conditions.
A girl’s bike
I love my bicycle. I guess it must be true love to spend so much time on the saddle. For this type of event I think titanium is the business. I got my Van Nicholas Ventus in 2016, just before the Wild Atlantic Way Audax. I had taken it for a spin just twice before starting that event but from the start it fitted like a glove.
Titanium is unbeatable regarding stability and absorbing vibrations. During ultra-endurance events it isn’t uncommon to have a crash or come off the bike. An ultra-light carbon bike would probably break apart and the vibrations would make your body suffer more and recover slower.
This year I upgraded my wheels to Spinergy Z-lites and the difference was incredibly. For the first time ever, I used tribars. I only got them fixed onto the bikes 1 week before the event which was probably a bit too late. I should have trained more with them but in the end, I was delighted to have an extra position on the bike that took the pressure off my hands. A good friend and bike fitting perfectionist, Padraig Marrey, fitted the tri-bars with risers. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to be more aero but I was all about comfort.
My much-trusted bike mechanic, Chris Troy, serviced and polished my Van Nicholas Ventus bike to the max before the event. New tyres, new chain, new brakes etc. Without that, the bike probably wouldn’t have taken me over the finish line.
Probably the biggest disadvantage of my bike is that it does not clear 28” tyres and doesn’t have disc brakes.
Gear up like a girl
Self-supported can get heavy fast. It’s a thin line between packing too much and being too heavy and missing essential items. My Van Nicholas bike has a rather small frame so most bags for inside the frame don’t fit. I love my Ortlieb saddle bag. It’s fully waterproof and stable no matter how much or little I bring.
I can fit 3 water bottles, 2 on the frame and 1 in a Apidura pouch I attach to the handle bars, that hold 2 litres in total. The Apidura pouch can also hold a snacks like a protein bar. I only bring one other small bag attached to the front bar to hold my phone, power bank, extra bars or other small things. Even though I try to cycle as light as possible I make sure to have enough water with me. I don’t like stopping too often but proper hydration is crucial especially over multi-day events.
In this event I took a big risk and dumped my spare tyre after day 1. It was simply too heavy. I kept 2 spare tubes, a spare cable, pump and multi-tool with me.
Clothes I brought
- 2 pairs of Castelli cycling shorts (one 3/4 length)
- 2 jerseys & 1 base layer
- Cycling windproof vest
- Rain jacket (Columbia outdry, folds extra small)
- Hi-vis cycling jersey
- 2 pairs of gloves (one fingerless, one winter sealskin)
- Mountain bike shoes + neoprene overshoes
- Leg warmers & leg warmers
- 3 pairs of warm sock
- 2 sports-bras
- 1 buff
- Photochromic cycling sun glasses
Since the cycle was in September, I had to bring strong bike lights and be prepared to use them for up to 12 hours every night. I decided on bringing my rechargeable Aye Ups and a rechargeable Fenix as a spare light. It was risky to bring lights that don’t run on normal batteries and I had to bring chargers and cables along. Since I planned on staying somewhere for a few hours every night I decided it was possible and I had enough battery power to last 15 hours without charging so the risk was minimised.
A girl cycling the TransAtlanticWay
The TransAtlanticWay 2020 started in Derry at 10am. In multi-day events, I usually prefer to head out earlier in order to finish earlier but I knew I had to do at least 300km the first day to get going. My Aunts house is located almost exactly on the route at kilometre 335 and she offered to leave the key outside for me and I made it my first goal to get there. However, I had a number for a B&B 60km before that as an emergency backup.
The event started at the peace bridge in Derry. I was so excited to finally get going. Adrian O’Sullivan, the organiser, was waiting at registration with trackers and a goody bag. I got chatting to old friends and tried to get a quick idea about the cyclists I didn’t know yet. The TransAtlanticWay is not a cycling race as such. You won’t get a medal or find a podium at the finish line but here at the start everyone talked about the race. I had planned to get to Kinsale as fast as possible but this was more to push my own boundaries than to compete against other cyclists. Anyway I don’t mind a little race attitude and was excited to let the boys race off, do my own thing consistently and catch them in a few days when the race actually starts.
It was clear that everyone that showed up knew what they were in for and it was interesting that everyone had chosen a slightly different set up. Most of us had shown up in mountain bike shoes. I had only decided to go in mountain bike shoes 10 days before after debating the change with myself for a good while. Now it seemed like a decision I should have made sooner. Because of the change of shoes and pedals my saddle now was about 1.5cm too low and all attempts to raise it up failed. Rachel’s pro tip for titanium bikes – move the seat post regularly! Apparently, the metal of the seat post can expand over time and will be caught in the titanium frame forever until you get the saw out…
At 10am sharp we started to cycle. We were paced by a local bike shop owner and friend of Adrian for about 4km until we got out of Derry city. The road was flat and I was averaging 35km/hr until Moville. Benny and Jason had gone off like bullets and myself, Peter and Donnacha switched places a few times. I started chatting to them both to get to know them a bit. Peter is from Germany but living in Dublin, an A1 road racer and you can see that with his bike set up. Donnacha is a bit quieter but maybe just a good listener. He had planned to do a big bike race abroad but as he could not travel, he opted for the TAW. He also has a background in ultra-distance running like myself. I asked him if he thought his brother Benny would be able to keep with Jason up front. He said yes, Benny was ready for the event and the 555 the week previous was only a warm up for him. I told him how looking forward I was to seeing the outcome and that my goal was to get to Kinsale. He said he was more about the adventure. Looking back at that conversation now, I laugh as we were both there for the adventure but also wanted to push our limits just a little.
The route would first lead us around the Inishowen peninsula to Malin Head. Ireland’s most northerly point. This was a beautiful but tough stretch and even though the sun was out when we started in Derry the Irish weather started to live up to it’s reputation. It didn’t take long and I was soaking wet and I knew I would most likely stay that way for the next 5 days. Once we turned around at Malin Head we were facing the famous headwind that makes cycling the Wild Atlantic Way in this direction so much harder.
Donegal is simply wild and the sheep are the size of little donkeys! The rugged and exposed terrain is known to deplete cyclists and over the years many had to scratch because of the Donegal hills. The legs are still fresh and it’s tempting to push yourself too hard. I watched the guys cycle off and knew they would start to race each other over the hills. I think I reached checkpoint 1 at Fanad lighthouse in 5th position around 7pm on of the first day. I knew the boys where far ahead but I was also certain that, if I stuck to my plan, there was a good chance of catching them. Adrian and his friend were waiting at Fanad Head Lighthouse to greet me and stamp my Brevet card.
He asked me how I was and I told him I was great and looked forward to seeing him at the next checkpoint in Killary. He said the lads in front had pushed on and would properly go through the night as most of the top riders supposedly do. I told him, I thought it was a bad idea considering the time of year, lack of daylight and weather conditions and that I won’t be doing that. Adrian said they were experienced riders, in fact both Jason Black and Benny Cassidy had done this event before and had come in the top 3. As I moved on, I joked and told Adrian that I might see them in a few days once they blow each other up. Little did I know then, what the outcome would be.. I know the hills of Donegal very well, it’s one of my favourite training and race playgrounds and at this point, I have run every mountain and cycled every trail and road in the region. My buddies Damien, Fiona, Shaun and Sharon Black, Jason’s wife, appeared on the roadside to cheer me on, some still suited in their formal work gear.
About 12 hours into the race I reached Glenveagh National Park. The event course took us off the Wild Atlantic Way to spice things up with a little off-road section. It was pitch dark when I tried to find the turn right off for the Bridal path. I was here before and ran up that path in previous events but I never cycled it. My navigation system (Wahoo) kept sending me into the ditch and when I eventually found the path I decided to run and push my bike rather then cycle up. The terrain here was probably more suitable for a gravel bike and I wasn’t sure if my 25” tyres can survive the ride. It was the right decision to wear my mountain bike shoes.
It was midnight when I made it out of the National Park. I was exactly where I had planned to be after 14 hours – 295km into the race and 40km to go until my first stop. The wind started to pick up more and more and it was tough going but I arrived into my aunts house around 2am – just as planned – and started my practiced routine. Organise gear / charge batteries – eat – shower – sleep. The alarm went of at 4:45 but I was already awake.
Get dressed – gear up bike – eat – cycle! I was out on the road again at 5:20am and had slept for about 1 hour. The adrenalin was pumping, and I felt amazing. The head wind was still strong, up Torr hill and then the sneaky super hilly peninsula after Dungloe which offered stunning views and woke the legs up. I was focused on Ardara, the 70km mark of the day where I would take the first break in the Centra petrol station where Mary worked. I had met her a few weeks ago during a training ride and I knew she’d prepare an extra special sandwich for me. She told me before I should ring ahead to put in my order but I forgot and anyway she was speedy. During my 12 weeks of training I happily fuelled myself on wraps filled with humus, boiled egg and cheese. I had even brought 5 wraps with me to the start-line, so I didn’t have to stop and could just eat on the bike for most of the first day. I took a bite of wrap number 1 and realised I just couldn’t stomach eggs at all anymore. I tried again a few kilometres after. Absolutely no chance I would have any of those delicious wraps. I was surprised but I also had experienced this before. For years I was eating lots of nuts and dried fruits during events until the World’s Toughest Race in Fiji when I suddenly couldn’t look at cashews, peanuts and walnuts anymore.
I took the time to enjoy my morning coffee and some fresh croissants that Mary warmed in the oven for me before heading on to cycle the last peninsula of county Donegal. Adrian was out with his camera as I cycled up the Poison Glen, a postcard perfect switch back climb and one I am familiar with as I use this route for some of my bike tours. I glided up the hill at my own comfortable pace, never leaving the saddle. On the way out to Malin Beg I met Jason Black who was a few kilometres ahead of me and on the way back in after the turn around. I had not seen another cyclist since everyone split over a day ago in Moville. Lots of people told me after that it often looked like I was cycling with someone but what looks close on the tracker can be a few kilometres apart in reality. I had a quick chat with Jason and he told me he had stopped in Glencolumbkille for a rest and was not long back on the road. It was nice to see someone else and super cool to have the quick chat. I knew since his legs were fresh now I probably wouldn’t see him again today as he headed on. I kept doing my own thing and followed my plan. From the start it was my first priority to do my own thing and not to let the other cyclists make me nervous. I knew if I pushed it too much at the start I’d be in danger of picking up an injury. The hills of Donegal are known for bursting your knees too early in the competition.
Today’s goal was to make it to my hometown of Ballina. Yes, living on route can be an advantage. Over the years a good few participants of the TransAtlanticWay stayed in my Mam’s B&B, enjoyed a shower and breakfast here or were followed around by me and treated to some scones. I was aiming to do 325km on day two and spend the night at home. I have to say this was quite a risky move since it felt very tempting to sleep in a little longer or get delayed chatting with Iszy about all the things that had already happened. My alternative was to push on another 70km to Kilcommon Lodge where I had told the lovely German owner, Betty, to maybe expect a call from me. She had emailed back saying she would leave one of the hut doors open, light on and a kettle out. It was between midnight and 1am when I arrived in Ballina and I felt that was enough. I had climbed up the leader board to 4th position. I tried to stick exactly to my procedure. Organise gear / charge batteries – eat – shower – sleep.
Alarm went of at 4am. Iszy looked at me with one eye and I could feel her doubting my sanity before she said “Happy Birthday morning crazy lady!” I had just turned 35 and couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday then to cycle for 20 hours.
Get dressed – gear up bike – eat – cycle! I started to get into the rhythm of this routine and almost forgot to turn on my little navigation device on the way out. I knew the next section like the back of my hand. This is my home, my training base and I cycled out this road countless times. My good friend and keen dot watcher Scott was out for his morning spin and crossed paths with Jason who had rested in Ballycastle about 35km from Ballina. We all cycled together for a bit and Jason told me his hip was not a 100%. The hills of Donegal had probably taken their toll. I still felt pumped by my extra strong birthday coffee out of my favourite mug. I approached Peter McColgan from behind who also spent the night in Ballina. He said he thought he might have to dropout as he was really struggling with his knees. At this point he had his buff wrapped around them. I cycled with him for a bit and told him to find a pharmacy in Mulranny or Achill sound and get a knee strap and he would be perfect. He thanked me for the recommendation and I then pushed on. Jason caught up and we cycled together around the Kilcommon peninsula. I enjoyed the chat with the lads and it was like a sociable Sunday spin. Myself and Jason shared many highs and lows exactly one year earlier where we were part of Team Ireland AR taking on Eco Challenge Fiji- The World’s Toughest Race. When you go through an experience like that together, you develop a bond and respect that will last a lifetime. Next thing Jason stopped, I thought he possibly went for a pee or maybe would rather cycle alone. I continued on to my coffee stop in Bangor. Jason arrived in and was in a lot of pain, he said he might be out. He pushed on to catch up and this really aggravated his hip, perhaps he had pushed too hard in Donegal or did not have enough rest coming into the event. Carmel, the super friendly owner of the shop, overheard us chatting and offered Jason some horse muscle rub. She went home and got it and Jason tested it out, the whole situation of the horse muscle rub was just hilarious, I’d never heard of it before and initially thought it was a joke. From Ballycroy National Park onwards I was in 2nd position and looking forward to crossing paths with Donnacha Cassidy, the man currently leading the field.
I met Donnacha on the way out to Keem Bay on Achill island and later in the afternoon in Achill Sound. I had just arrived and was trying to jump the queue in front of the shop when Donnacha came out. We said hello and when I briefly turned around to look at the queue he was gone. I started to really enjoy this game and was all in for a little mind play. What better day than my birthday to get this party started. Achill island is known to be super exposed and this day was no different, it was wild and spectacular like always. I spotted a friend of mine, Michelle, a Ballina Ironwoman, on the side of the road cheering me on, it was so incredible to see her and it gave me a boost but this was definitely not the time for a chat, I was on a mission to keep moving.
My plan for today was to push on for 385km in total. That would take me 50km past checkpoint 2 in Killary Adventure centre and I would be a big step closer to making the mandatory ferry between Killimer and Tarbet on Day 4. However, I did have an alternative as I had asked the owner of Letterfrack Hostel to keep me a bed just in case. This was located 20km after Killary and was a nice safety net.
For the whole day Peter, Donnacha and I were close together. Peter had caught up a lot between Achill and Westport. I only found out quite late that Benny Cassedy had to drop out in Sligo because of a knee injury and that Jason scratched it in Achill. The two odds on favourites were out of the race but this was actually not an uncommon occurrence for the TransAtlanticWay. Many times before, the top field cyclists had, metaphorically speaking, blown each other up. Pushing it too much too early often causes injuries and preventing those is an important part of a good strategy. The remaining cyclists in the lead were all just as strong as the scratched favourites and I knew this would continue to be an interesting match.
Cycling through Doolough valley Peter and I were in the lead with Donnacha only a small bit behind. As a birthday surprise my friends Deirdre and Lonan had shown up out of nowhere. Each at a time kept me company for a few kilometres. It was Deirdre’s first time to cycle in the dark and we were lucky enough to cycle this section with Peter. As I mentioned earlier, Peter is originally from Germany so myself and Deirdre decided to give himthe full guided tour of Doolough valley and it’s long famine history. We talked about the surrounding mountains and I sang out a blast of the Green and Red of Mayo. I’d say Peter didn’t know what was going on, was this a race or what are these women at. After long hours alone on the bike it was great entertainment. Deirdre left us and myself and Peter cruised into Killary adventure centre, the second and last checkpoint until we hit Kinsale.
We knew both of us would put up a good fight for the win but at the same time we could both enjoy a cycle alongside each other just as much. That’s the mindset I enjoy during these events. A friendly competition always helps me to push my own limits and keeps me motivated.
Peter asked me if I was going to stay in Killary since the event organisation would provide a bed for us there. I said I was feeling good and so would push on a bit more. He was really exhausted and decided to take the opportunity to sleep and recharge his own batteries there. We both collected our stamp from Adrian and, while Peter headed of to bed, I enjoyed a birthday brownie made by Misunderstood Heron. Shane Young and his wife, friends of mine and owners of Killary adventure centre were there to sing me Happy Birthday with Adrian. From what I remember, they lite matches on the brownies as a substitute for candles. I put a few homemade flapjacks in my pocket and headed out towards Clifden.
I have to say it was mild torture to see the road signs stating Clifden was only a few kilometres away but I had to loop out to Cleggan and cycle the Sky Road before I could finally get some rest. For a while I couldn’t help thinking that it was a really bad idea to leave the cosy warm Killary Adventure Centre so early.
On top of that my right foot was on fire. Since a very young age, I have suffered from Raynaud’s disease and on the bike my feet often get ice-cold. During my stop at Killary they warmed up a bit as I changed my socks and heading out into the cold again caused the nerves in my toes to protest firmly. Slowly but surely another stinging and awfully familiar pain manifested itself in my lower stomach. Out in the wilds of Connemara, in the middle of the night I knew I had just gotten my period and the cramps would be getting stronger. The bend over position on the bike never helps and I tried to focus on the positive side of things. As mentioned before, the days leading up to the period is usually when a woman’s body feels the weakest. From this moment on I’d be at the peak of my performance and I was going to use that extra hormonal boost to my advantage.
I made it to the B&B in Clifden just before 2am, searched 3 flower pots to find the key and: Organise gear/charge batteries – eat rest of birthday brownie – shower – sleep.
Alarm at 4:30 – Get dressed – gear up bike – eat – cycle!
The day of the race for the ferry. I headed out towards Galway guessing Peter had left Killary early and would just be ahead of me now. My sole focus nevertheless was on my planned goal for Day 4: Catch the ferry this evening! The ferry has often been a game changer in the TransAtlanticWay and I had 260km to cycle to reach the port. I knew it was possible, but I didn’t have a huge time buffer for uncalculated events like navigational errors or mechanical issues.
After the first 100km I stopped in a petrol station outside Galway for my second breakfast when I bumped into my friend Sinead. She had followed the tracker all night while also attending to her newly born child. I got a quick update on the other cyclist. Peter was about 10km ahead and Donnacha about 30km behind me. We all had a good chance of making the ferry today but the two of them would have to spend 50km more in the saddle then me from their morning starting point. Time to go go go!
Around midday, I was cycling along county Clares coastline when I saw a tall fella lying in the ditch. Shoes off & feet up next to his bicycle. Peter, who had left Killary in the middle of the night, was experiencing a deep energy dip. We were more than halfway through the event and his knees had suffered. I jumped off the bike, gave him a big bear hug, told him to rest and then keep going. I needed him to keep up the friendly battle for the craic. He said he was a broken man, his phone was broken, a piece of his tooth fell out and from what I understood his bike oil spilled on his shorts chamois in his bag and was now burning the arse of him.
I felt good at this point except for the constant urge to stop for a pee. The cold, wet weather combined with the approx. 20 hours I spent in the saddle each day had caused and infection in my urinary tract. Most women will know what I’m talking about. I constantly felt like I needed to pee and had to restrict myself to only stop every 25km at most. Each time, I stopped it felt like I was peeing out fire. To avoid this burning sensation, I really didn’t feel like drinking much but I knew I needed to keep on top of hydration or it would lead to even more issues.
On the way to the port, I crossed paths with a few lads that are in a local triathlon club somewhere in that area and they were intrigued by the dot watching of the TransAtlanticWay and rode with me a few kilometres asking me about my gear, saddle sores, why I do this and all the usual questions. They told me about their training plan, after running 20miles that morning and their speedy cycling sessions. They seemed like 3 really nice lads but the chat was short as I had already reached the ferry. When I reached Killimer port around 5:30pm I was relieved but also felt completely out of it. The ferry would sail at 6pm and I used the 30 minutes to use the toilet, get a bite to eat, a hot drink and sit down for a minute. My plan was to push on after the ferry to Tralee. I looked and the little cheat sheet I had prepared for each day. (Insert photo of cheat sheet) For the whole day until now I was sure I had to go another 50km after the ferry. Now I realised it was another 90km to Tralee. It’s funny how such a little thing can completely throw you off in a moment of exhaustion. I was convinced it wasn’t a possible to go more than 50km after this ferry. “Flip the stupid plan” I thought “I’ll just stop wherever I fall off the bike and that will be soon”.
I got on the ferry, I got off the ferry, I started cycling. “Ok!”, I said to myself “It’s only just after 6pm, it’s not bedtime yet. Let’s go until it’s dark!” and I cycled. Surprisingly, I got a new burst of energy and felt amazing and this section was like a fun training cycle. As sun set, I could see a jeep in front of me with his warning lights on slowing down and after a few minutes, speed off, this happened for about 5km. I didn’t know what was going on as I don’t know many people down this side of the country but I had created all sorted of fun scenarios in my head. Then the jeep was stopped at a crossroads with a man out of the car waving me down. I stopped, he said he was a brother of Dan, a participant last year that had to abandon the race with only 60km to the end even though he was in first place. He asked me to do a little video for Dan to say hi as he was following us all on the tracker. I can’t even remember what I said but I often thought back to that moment during the next 2 days as I developed symptoms of Shermer’s neck – the reason Dan had to scratch.
By the time the sun had fully set I was close to my planned night stop and I was so motivated. It is fascinating how in ultra-endurance sports you’ll always hit deep lows that make you think everything is over. Only experience can save you then. I’ve learned over the years how to judge if I’m seriously in danger or just adequately “fecked”. What can save you then is knowing you’ve been at this point before. Knowing you can get out of this and continue. The power of the right mindset is incredible.
I made it to my planned night stop in Tralee around 11pm and I was now the lead cyclist of the field. Donnacha stopped around the same time but 60km behind me and Peter was sleeping somewhere in Clare over 170km further back. All I was looking forward to was my routine:
Organise gear / charge batteries – eat – shower – sleep, this time for almost 4 hours.
Alarm at 4:00am – Get dressed – gear up bike – eat – cycle!
The hills of Dingle – the perfect way to start a Monday morning, especially with a warm up plodding up the iconic Connor Pass with its funnel headwind out to greet me. I was finished with the Dingle peninsula by lunchtime and stopped for a bite to eat. After getting my sandwiches, scones and coffee in the petrol station I sprawled myself on the ground outside the shop, I could see the benches 30 metres away but it just seemed too far and a waste of energy to go there.
In the last few days, I was like a machine, eating anything that came my way. After I suddenly had developed a serious distaste for my previous favourite cycling food – wraps with boiled eggs, hummus and cheese – I had diverted to lots of tuna sandwiches. Temporarily retiring my usual vegetarian diet, I also fueled on chicken curry and anything else that I could get my hands on.
This morning I had struggled even with my porridge and hadn’t had much since. Fuelling your body is crucial in ultra-endurance events, even if you don’t feel like eating. My body had started to react further to the extreme pressure I’d put on it. My lips and mouth were full of little blisters and I had lost my appetite. My toes were on fire whenever I went from cold to warm, my UTI was getting worse and I could feel a worrying strain coming on in my neck.
I forced myself to have a warm drink and I stocked up on some soft and mild foods like apple pie slices and I also knocked back a couple of litres of Innocent smoothie. Now it was time to tackle the Kingdom!
Donnacha was about 40km behind me when I met the organiser Adrian at the start of one of the Kerry loops. He had brought his bike to keep me some company and a message from Donnacha. The Kerry man was going to use his home advantage for an attack. “Jez!”, I said “He better hurry up, we are almost down in Cork and us Mayo women are not easy to catch!” I loved the craic that was going on and I’m always up for a bit of banter. Even though this year’s event wouldn’t count as many participants as usual, it certainly was not less of a nail biter. Peter seemed to have recovered great during his break and was obviously on a mission to catch up with us again while I was still awaiting the Kerry man’s attack.
Adrian and I were cycling along, just chatting about everyone’s strategy as I saw a woman with a bike standing next to the road. I couldn’t believe it, it was my best cycling buddy, Linda. She had come all the way from the east coast to get out on the bike with me. 4 years ago we cycled this stretch together but in the other direction as part of the Wild Atlantic Way Audax and I think following me on the tracker brought back the good old memories. This girl is a serious athlete and the best of craic. We’ve done lots of events together like the Marathon de Sables, dozens of ultra-mountain runs and the Edinburgh-London-Edinburgh cycle. Seeing her gave me a A1 moral boost and I felt I could do anything. Myself, Linda and Adrian continued cycling together for the loop and had such fun, it is one of my best memories of the TransAtlanticWay. Adrian made it his mission to get out and cycle a stretch with all the athletes and I think he really enjoyed it as with such a small field this year, it was actually possible to really connect with everyone. I kept telling Adrian that Linda said he had a lovely bum and she had an eye for the good ones a mile off. I think Adrian had never experienced two women like this in tandem on a bike that just never stopped laughing and ‘pulling the piss’.
I learned a lot about myself during the TransAtlanticWay. For example, it reassured me that I’m able for solo events but I still prefer to head out with a team. I can handle myself and don’t mind being with my own thoughts for hours or even days on end, but I guess it’s just not as much fun and it’s just so amazing to share these experiences and develop life-time bonds with your teammates.
I made it to my planned stop in Adrigole by around 1am after putting on small races with the fastest sheep and entertaining myself with the wine gum flavour guessing game. I was a little wrecked.
Organise gear / charge batteries – eat – shower – sleep.
Alarm at 3:45am – Get dressed – gear up bike – eat – cycle!
To stop in Adrigole was probably strategically, the smartest move I made in this event. The route would take us from here out to Lambs head and back the same way. As it was dark starting out, I struggled with my navigation to find the exact little road to start the loop but once I was on it, I was motoring. I finished the loop which was windy and wild and went back to my accommodation for a shower and a powernap. I had developed early symptoms of Shermer’s neck that I knew I couldn’t cure. My only chance to make it to the finish line was to handle this smartly by slow the deterioration of my neck muscles down as much as I could. I decided to stop more often, stretch the body and keep my neck warm.
I had stopped in a pharmacy in Castletownbere and got self-adhesive heating patches for the neck. My appetite hadn’t returned but I forced myself to eat mashed potatoes with gravy and other “baby-food” wherever I could find some. Plan A was to not stop until I crossed the finish line, but I had an emergency plan B up my sleeve.
The rolling hills out to sheep’s head and back became a challenge for my neck but I was just about good enough to continue. I cycled, I stopped, I stretched. Certainly not the fastest way but I still had another about 200km to go. While enjoying a hot soup and a cup of coffee at Sheep’s head I planned my next steps. I knew I must still be leading with a little buffer but that could all change soon. Would I be able to push on like this to the end?
It was one of those crazy foggy days and, even though it was only around 4pm, I felt like I was cycling in the dark. I couldn’t see far ahead of me; it was truly tiering and I was just about to hit another motivational low point when a familiar face emerged from the fog. My Adventure Racing buddy, Adrian, came down to Mizen for a family holiday and only realised last minute that I was doing this crazy cycle and would be passing by soon. He hadn’t brought a bike on his holiday but got a local bike hire, that wasn’t open for business this year, to lend him a bike with the promise to make a donation to a charity. Adrian has a fear of missing out and wanted to see what this was all about and I was more than delighted to see him. He knows me well and we’ve been through a lot together, racing as teammates for over 10 years. It was so nice to have him with me for a few kilometres and meant a lot to me that he took the time in the middle ofhis family holiday, with his wife and 2 very young children, to share this moment together.
He was just about to head back to his family when we bumped into another cyclist that was enthusiastically welcoming me. He had waited for me, looking at the tracker for a good while and asked me how I could be going so slow. The TransAtlanticWay veteran cycled alongside me for about 20km and in Schull where we met Adrian the event organiser. Myself and Ciaran had talked about life, how we are so lucky to be enjoying the moment and spending time outside our comfort zone. I hadn’t met Ciaran before but he said he was following my adventures on social media for the past few years. He told me he spends long days on his own at work, I understood he said he was a Guard, ‘as in policeman’. He said he mostly worked for one estate. I was baffled, a Guard only working for one estate and spending long hours on his own, what is he specialising in. After having this conversation in my head for 10 minutes, I asked him what unit in the Guards does he work for. He laughed and said he was a gardener. I had definitely lost the plot, I was now hearing things..
It was not even 10pm when we arrived in Skull and met Adrian. They asked me what my plan was. I had slowed down a lot and knew I had to rest my neck for at least a short while. Plan B! I told the guys I had to leave and didn’t disclose my plan of action as I didn’t feel like getting their opinion which I presumed would be to not stop and just keep going. With only about 120km to the finish line I decided to take a break at my plan B resting spot.
Organise gear / charge batteries – eat – shower – sleep.
Alarm at 00:30am – Get dressed – gear up bike – eat – cycle! – for the last time
I gently placed the heat-patches on my neck, put all the clothes on I had and started cycling. I had a lot of night-time left to cycle through and I was reassured knowing I had 2 backup lights just in case. With no coffee stop in sight for the next few hours I found it hard to get into a good rhythm.
I had two minor crashes in the darkness of the night. First, I hit a road barrier that, I swear, jumped out at me from behind a corner. Later I came off the bike after hitting a sandpit at the end of a downhill. I had tried to gain momentum to get up the next hill and hadn’t seen the sand in the darkness. It was a soft landing at least but I was forced to stop and clean the sand out between my wheels and brakes. This was as good a time as any to take another burning pee brake and stretch out the neck a little. I certainly wasn’t moving very efficiently at that point and even took out my phone and considered giving Iszy a ring for some motivation or just something to distract me. That’s when I saw the message: “Move! PM right behind you!” Iszy apparently had a sleepless night following the tracker and was wondering why I was moving so slow. I looked at the phone, I looked at my bike, I turned around and looked at the road behind me. When I saw a light in the distance slowly coming towards me, I was convinced it must be Peter trying to catch me.
Not this time! I experienced an enormous motivation boost and put the foot down. Here I was, the sweat pumping out of me, still wearing all my gear with the hood of my rain jacket on under my helmet and a heating patch on my back. As fast as I could, 90s pop songs blasting through my headphones, without any further pee breaks I pushed it to the limit for the next 40km. I didn’t even attempt to look around to check if I could see him – I knew he was there, and it made me move!
The next time I stopped was just before sunrise and I had calmed myself down enough to risk a pee. I figured there was no way he put in the same sprint that I did and if I kept going consistently for the last 30km I should be… I didn’t dare to finish the sentence in my head. I still needed a bit of luck to make it to the finish line and didn’t want to jinx it so close to Kinsale.
It was a beautiful morning; the sun came out and I had to laugh about the irony. In Derry we started with dry weather and blue skies but since then the unpredictable Irish weather hasn’t spared us from windy and wet surprises. Now closing to the finish line, the sun was coming out to tickle my nose and a calm day was breaking as if nothing had happened. The scenery around Old Head coming into Kinsale brought back memories of being here as a child with my Grandparents and stopping off for not one put 2 large 99’s in Kinsale on route back to their home in Cork city. It was a sentimental last 30km for me and I took the time to slow down, soak it all in and be thankful for living this moment.
The pain that had accumulated in my body over the last days tried to peak but I was drunk on my last bit of adrenaline. Pull, push, pull, push – one pedale stroke at a time. Sure, look it, what else would I be doing on a sunny Wednesday morning.
Adrian then managed to confuse me a little by waiting for me at the bridge into Kinsale. I thought I’m home, but he promised me another little hill. No problem, the legs were still fine. Pull, push – peddle up the hill with the same motivation and calmness as the first hill in Donegal… Iszy appeared on the top of the hill and ran the last few meters besides me.
I had finished the TransAtlanticWay in just under 5 days & 23 hours. My personal goal was to finish in less than 6 days and I did it! As a bonus I was not only the first Irish women to finish the TransAtlanticWay but also the first women ever to finish it in 1st position. All the training and planning had paid off and I finally participated in this amazingly organised event!
Big thanks to Adrian O’Sullivan for being flexible and putting together a top class cycling event even in these uncertain times!
To all the little trail angels cheering for me and surprise jump outs.. You are superstars and I appreciate your efforts so much!
To all the people, especially women, who read this blog because they want to participate in this event: Train for it, plan it, do it! It’s amazing! If you have any questions, get in touch! I’m delighted to share my experience and get more people out on exploring on the bike!
Periods and cycling
I decided to give this topic an extra paragraph. The period and its impact on female athletes is still a topic that’s often put aside. Many women are still ashamed of this most normal body function and wouldn’t discuss it openly and certainly not in front of men. I am myself often reserved and don’t tell someone about my period during sport events even though I would discuss a rash on the bum or diarrhoea without feeling it is inappropriate. Lots of completely normal things happen in our bodies on a daily basis and are part of this amazing organism we can be proud to inhabit. During sports event, especially in ultra-endurance sports, athletes have to know their bodies and handle its functions.
In my 20s I did a lot training; mainly ultra-running and my period had stopped for over 10 years. I went to a few physicians and they told me it is normal for a woman that trains a lot. Only years after I found out that there is a name for what I experienced Low Energy Availability syndrome (LEA).
I was basically constantly under fuelled for the training I was doing. Even though I was eating normally I didn’t pay that much attention to what ended up on my plate and sometimes skipped meals when I was busy with work or something came up. After a year filled with lots of long distance running events I collapsed after a race in France ended up in a coma. Read up more about it here.
At one point I decided I had to gain a few kilos and my period came back. From that point on I was always hoping I could make it through events and races without having to deal with my period. The TransAtlanticWay is the first multi-day sports event I ever did while on my period. I can say it was an extra thing on my mind. The cramps I experienced on the first day of my period and the bent over position on the bike were uncomfortable. Tampons don’t work that well for me while cycling and I use a menstrual cup. For any female cyclist that wants to try the cup I recommend not doing it for the first time in a sports event but during a more relaxed time at home since it needs a bit of practice to feel comfortable.
Any questions? Don’t hesitate to contact me.