How could I have possibly said no, when Padraig Marrey asked me if I’m up to do the Wild Mayo Ultra 650km, an ultra-cycling event around my home county Mayo? As a wild Mayo woman, cyclist and adventurer I was instantly hooked by the idea and I was curious if Padraig would actually be able to send me on Mayo roads that I haven’t discovered yet. *Spoiler Alert* He did 😉
Here I was again signing up for a challenge and figuring out the details later. When I first heard about this ultra-cycle I assumed it would be self-supported. After doing a couple of long Audax events and cycling the TransAtlanticWay in the previous year – this was what I was used to. However eventually, when I was chatting to Padraig on the bike while we were scouting the route for the event, he explained the race rules to me. That’s when I learned I had to get a support crew that would follow me in a support car for the whole race. And this is where the story of my first fully supported cycling race begins.
The moment I realised I had signed up for a fully supported ultra-cycling race I knew I wanted to make a sociable adventure out of this. The first person I asked to crew for me was my partner Iszy, and her reaction was: “But it will only take you a full day, what do you need me for?” Well, I guess we are both used to me doing unsupported events 😉. To be fair, I didn’t yet understand myself how to go about the planning for this race. I was used to packing light and minimalistic and carrying everything I need, but now there was suddenly so many different things to think about. The more options you have the more difficult it is to decide what’s right.
The second person I recruited for my Wild Mayo Ultra support crew was Stef. I had gotten to know this top-class Galway woman only a few months prior. We first met, how else could it have happened, in the middle of the Covid19 lockdown madness, online on a zoom call. We were both guests on the Connacht Cycling podcast and we immediately clicked. When I asked Stef if she’d be up for driving in a car behind me for 30 hours while I cycle around Mayo she instantly said yes. With the little add on: ‘I’ve never done anything like this but sure we can figure out the details later’ – ‘ I like your style’ was all I had to answer to that.
According to race rules 2 crew members would suffice but, since I was bringing my van anyway, I thought ‘the more the merrier’. Crew member number 3, the incredible athlete and coach Anna, I only met a few weeks before. Anna had contacted me for advice on cycling routes in Mayo because she was about to tackle a big personal challenge. Anna had planned to cycle 500km around Mayo over 3 days, then swim 5km from Roonagh pier to Clare Island and run 50km on the island. I love when women go and challenge themselves to explore new places and push boundaries, so I asked her if, instead of just talking about routes, she’d be up for a spin together. Chats on the bike are better than anywhere else and by the end of the cycle we had become friends. Anna rocked her #challenge555 and I didn’t have to ask her twice about crewing for me during the Wild Mayo Ultra 650km.
With Iszy, Stef and Anna our crew team could have been complete but since I love connecting people, I was delighted to add another woman to the mix. Shortly before the race briefing which took place on Friday evening, I met Cherie for the first time when I picked her up from the train station. Cherie came to Mayo to scout routes for a trail running tour next year. At first, we were going to meet up on Monday to spend a week running all around Mayo, but when I told her about the Wild Mayo Ultra 650km she insisted to jump into the crew car too. From that moment on I knew I would get on amazing with this awesome and adventurous woman, and it was the perfect opportunity for her to get a good first impression of Mayo.
Since the race took place on July 24th and the tourism season in Ireland had just kicked off – Covid19 related quite late – I tried to squeeze in cycling training between tours, bike rental and all the other bits related to Rachel’s Irish Adventures. Ultimately, I didn’t have enough time to properly train, but I also knew that I could rely on my experience with ultra-cycling events. Over the last years I had constantly trained on the bike and was out for a good few long spins. In saying that, I hadn’t done any distance close to 650km ‘non-stop’ probably since the TransAtlanticWay. My race strategy was to keep the exertion rate low to delay the onset of lactic acid. The goal I set for myself for the Wild Mayo Ultra was to complete the 650km in under 30 hours. Also, I didn’t want to push myself too hard and risk an injury as I had a trail running tour starting the day after finishing the race.
Race day – my time out
Myself, Anna and Cherie started the race at 8:30am from the Mariner Hotel in Westport. After a few busy days I was excited for this time out from the real world. When I get on the bike for an event like this my phone usually stays with Iszy and I can disconnect from the fast-moving digital world. This gives me an opportunity to truly focus on living in the moment. Whenever I start pushing my physical and mental boundaries like this the world and life seem suddenly simplified. Cycling in general is one of my preferred ways to connect with myself and nature. In this case I had many hours to do that. It feels great to only focus on one thing – cycling. The rest of your needs are as basic as it gets – eat, drink and don’t forget to breathe.
It’s all a learning experience
Since I was so used to solo events, I wasn’t sure about the best support van strategy. Shortly after the start, I sent Anna und Cherie off for some sightseeing around Doolough valley. ‘See you in 2 hours then’ was what I said. Luckily, they didn’t follow my command too seriously and looked for me earlier. It was a hot day, and I was already out of water. From there on they stayed behind me and would only go ahead to wait at the next pee/food/stretching stop or to grab some ice coffee for me. As I was coasting down a hill after a steep climb up through what I now call Drumlin road, I felt something sharp hit me in the stomach. It started to sting badly straight away. I had just gotten stung by a bee which hit me at high speed. This now took the attention away from my legs as it got progressively more itchy and irritating. I pulled in to check it out and I couldn’t see a sting but there was already a little bruise and it was inflamed. Next thing Darragh and his crew were coming up behind me so I decided to push on and deal with it when I was finished and back in Westport. It bothered me for the entire event although I didn’t let it take over, and took four days for the swelling to go down.
First half – Westport to Ballina
The first half of the race took us around south Mayo, meandering through spectacular drumlin valleys and all the way down to the Killary Fjord. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the temperatures climbed up to 26C, that’s what we in Ireland call a heat wave. I don’t remember every doing a cycling event in Ireland in weather this warm. Usually, Ireland treats me to gale-force winds and lashing rain whenever I head out for an ultra-cycle. Even though I’m a big fan of sunshine and I loved the weather, the body started to struggle. My legs were perfect, but I lost my appetite, which could have become a serious issue over time. I had lots of wraps, sandwiches and little ‘easy to eat on the bike’ snacks prepared, but whatever my crew offered me I felt like I couldn’t stomach it. When Iszy caught up with us in the afternoon she brought some delicious banana cake (see video) with her, something that I’m usually always up for. Cherie and Anna kept me hydrated with one bottle of Skratch after another, but I knew I had to eat more to stay fuelled.
I tried to stop for very short breaks to stretch and have a few mouthfuls of a vegan Bolognese that Iszy had prepared for the race. I’m not gonna lie, it was difficult to swallow anything, but I knew I had to, or I would run out of power very soon. This was the first time I remember feeling like this. Usually I would maybe develop a strange aversion or preference for particular food groups, during the TransAtlanticWay for example I started to drink smoothies for the first time, but this time I didn’t feel like anything at all.
I forced myself to have as much as possible and hoped it would get better once the temperatures started to go down.
The night: Ballina to Mulranny
The crew did a quick switch in Ballina. Iszy was already in the van and had observed the system that Anna and Cherie had put in place. While Anna and Cherie took a short break, Stef jumped in the bus for the nightshift. It was great to cycle into the sunset along the North Mayo coast and I fell in love with the spectacular scenery of my home turf all over again.
As the night started my appetite came back and I tried to replenish my reserves. With the fuelling problem sorted a new issue I never had before started to challenge me. From just before midnight on I was really, really tired. While this may sound natural it wasn’t just fatigue I struggled with, I was tired enough to fall asleep on the bike and seriously struggled to stay awake. Never had I felt like this during a race before. Usually in Adventure Races I would be the one talking through the night and entertaining the other team members. Now, my main focus was keeping between the ditches and alert to make decisions. At a few points the legs were spinning all by themselves and my mind drifted off and I started dreaming. Stef and Iszy tried to help by singing to me out of the window behind me. The night was calm as it gets in the west of Ireland. Mostly mild 17 or 18C and no wind. I guess I missed the rain bashing my face as a constant gentle wake up call 😉 Ultimately, the reason for my struggle was accumulated sleep deprivation. Days are long in the Irish summer-time and I often struggle to get enough hours in. This fact was now catching up with me and I realised no matter how well I handle sleep deprivation, there is a limit to it. Therefore, I made a mental note to myself – get some serious rest in before events! Also, now looking back and having researched more into it, I think I was suffering the effects of heat induced fatigue that I had developed and built up during the day.
The second morning – Achill
Eventually dawn was breaking and I felt energy returning to my body. Cherie and Anna waited for us in Mulranny and jumped back into the support van so the whole crew could follow me around Achill. The toughest climb of the race was still ahead of me and I downed an extra strong coffee before tackling it. Since Cherie and Anna were fresh and rested, they decided to run up the hill next to me – could you imagine a more supportive team?
Race organiser Brian was waiting at the top of the Minaun with more delicious coffee and seeing him gave me another boost. After a few stretches and some bites of food I enjoyed freewheeling down the hill before taking on the last 100 kilometres of the race.
The last stretch of the race on Achill island included an out-and-back to Keem beach which was beautiful and definitely one of the highlights of the day. It was still early in the morning but the sun was already strong and warm. Coming off Achill and cycling towards Westport the traffic got super busy. I was delighted to take a little detour through Furnace and from there I only remember thinking ‘Almost there’ and stopping at a road construction traffic light for a ridiculously long time. The girls jumped out of the bus for a little run and stretches. Not long after I left them behind in the Westport traffic and cycled through the finish line.
Learning from the Wild Mayo Ultra
Like all events in life, I always feel it is important to look back and reflect on the good moments but also where there is perhaps room for improvement. Sometimes it takes a few days or weeks to let it all sink in naturally before doing a recap and acknowledge certain situations. I had a few big personal learnings and realisations from this event and here are just a few.
- It’s the people involved in an event and around you that help create an energy of a challenge. On this occasion, I feel privileged and fortunate to have made lifetime bonds with 3 new women that I only met in the weeks before the event and that I had 4 strong women with me to share this experience
- This is not a new lesson but one that is always good for me to revisit. Taking on events in the middle of my Rachel’s Irish Adventure/work season will never be a race. My body during this short tourism season is mentally and physically running on adrenaline. Being sleep deprived and not having enough personal training/time-out is just part of the game.
- I think the fuelling for events is so specific and it’s an constant learning curve. What I could have done differently in this event is having very cold foods form the start to delay my core overheating. Perhaps I should have soaked my buff in cold water to put it around my neck. On reflection, I should had quite coffee for a few weeks previous so it would have had a bigger effect with less quantity. This is something I probably should always do for big events.
- Mayo is a spectacular county, we really do not need to go far to realise what a treasure we have on our doorstep. There should be a Wild Ultra event in every county to showcase the beauty of all 32 counties.
Bike set up
Van Nicholas Yukon with integrated dynamo lights.
Saddle: Infinity saddle
Top tube bag: Apidura
Tri bars: Profile design Legacy 2 with 40m risers
Kit: Rachel’s Irish Adventures Gobik shorts, jersey, wind gilet, buff, extra shorts Castelli
Gloves: Fingerless Endura extra gel
Shoes: Specialized – basic wide fitting and half size bigger
2021 for me has been a year with very little targets and I have really enjoyed just living in the moment with no training or event commitments. My goals were The Off Road Everesting and the Wild Mayo 650 and now both of these are achieved. My focus for the rest of 2021 is to firstly reduce down all mileage for 3 months and focus on gym strength, conditioning and mobility with short multi-sport sessions in between. Once the Rachel’s Irish Adventures season is over, I will start a 3 month training aimed at the Adventure Racing season in 2022.