The Race 2017
Looking back now I am not sure why I was drawn to The Race but something about running trails in the dark, mountain running and learning to kayak appealed to me and it seemed like it would be a great challenge and huge adventure. Entry opened at the end of March 2016 almost a year before the event and once it was secured it went to the back of my mind and I spent the summer training for Challenge Galway in June and then Ironman Barcelona in October. For me the enormity of the task I had taken on did not become clear until 8pm on the 18th of October 2016 when I sat down with Brian Jacob and David Connolly in Martin Kirwan’s house and he spelt it out for us. Words like ‘brutal’, ‘relentless’ and ‘nearly finished me off’ were thrown around as he walked us through his experiences of The Race 2016. He certainly didn’t sugar coat it, and with good reason, this event demands some respect and the training was going to be substantial. He later reassured me with ‘do the training and you will have a good race’, and this, as it turned out was absolutely true.
The training for this event involved long back-to-back sessions, 10-hour training days, running morning and evening, lots of hills, an enormous amount of gear and early starts weekend after weekend for months. There were plenty of times I thought I would not be able to see it through to the end. Times I got up at 5am to rush a bowl of porridge before setting off to Carrigavantry wondering if I had made a big mistake. It was brilliant. An essential part of the training and preparation for The Race was a training weekend organised by Martin about 4 weeks out from the race date. Over the three days we spent in Letterkenny we cycled the two cycle stages, climbed Muckish and ran a good section of the final stage from Dookery through the Glenveigh National Park. In total we cycled for twelve and a half hours, and ran/scrambled for about three and a half. The knowledge and confidence I took away from this really stood to me on race day.
All the week leading up to Saturday’s race was spent putting together the gear and constantly checking the weather forecast which was improving as the week went by. The event is essentially self-supported, all of the gear, food and drink required are packed into four boxes that are handed in at registration and left out at four transition points on the course. This gear included, 2 pairs of runners, trail shoes, cycling gear, 2 tri-suits, 5 base layers, 3 pairs of leg-warmers, kayaking gear, waterproof pants, 2 cycling jackets, 5 changes of socks, 2 head torches, 3 balaclavas, a trail running vest, 5 water bottles and a 1 litre bladder, 12,000 calories in energy bars, fruit cakes, sandwiches, Brazil nuts, dark chocolate and jellies, energy drinks, 4 coffee-to-go cups, 3 pairs of gloves, several changes of clothes, and the usual essential kit (emergency blanket, whistle etc.) and thanks to my wife, Róisín, some motivational notes left in waterproof bags to keep my spirits up. I travelled to Letterkenny on Thursday and met with the lads and their support crews, Siobhan Kennedy, Katie Jacob and Nicola Dunphy who along with Róisín and my Mother and Daughter, and Brian’s Sister and Brother, deserve medals of their own for enduring life with us over the winter and for being there on the course all day Saturday encouraging and supporting us to the race end. I spent Friday at a leisurely pace, dropping my bike to the second transition point at Rathmullan, registering and generally trying to stay calm and take on food and water. I stayed in Gartan Adventure Centre on Friday night and shared a room with a couple of lads who had previous Race experience, one had done the ‘MDS’ and several ultras. I could have been forgiven for suffering a bit of ‘imposter syndrome’ but I kept my mind focused on my race and getting some rest. Once the race briefing was over, at about half eight, I headed to bed and tried to get as good a night sleep as possible. My alarm went off at half three and fairly quickly I was up and doing my best to swallow porridge and some scrambled eggs. I got myself into a tri-suit, put on my race vest and packed some gels and an energy drink and was ready to start.
Stage 1: 24 km Run
The Race started with some nervous anticipation, with a 24km run from Gartan to Ramelton, the weather was mild and it would have been easy to start this stage overdressed, I knew I would warm up quickly so left without the usual jacket and balaclava. The run is in the dark and after an initial climb over the first mile or so it is relatively flat. I tried to keep my heart rate under control as Martin warned and not go out to fast on this stage, it would be easy, full of energy, to get drawn into the pace of over-enthusiastic or more experienced runners and end up paying for it later in the race. After the first few miles the field starts to get spread out and except for the occasional runner I found myself alone most of the time and this would be the case the rest of the day. Except for in transitions you only see other participants every now and then. It was amazing how much support there was out on the road so early in the stage, it really creates an amazing atmosphere compared to the dark runs on the Green Road and Lacken Road earlier in the year. As the stage went on I began to enjoy myself and the experience, I was smiling as the sun rose at Ramelton, I don’t think I stopped smiling for most of the rest of the day.
Stage 2: 15 km Kayak
After a quick change and some rushed food in the Ramelton community centre I stuffed some dark chocolate and a banana into my life jacket and was launched off the slip into Lough Swilly. The morning could not have been more perfect, dry and bright, we had the wind to our backs and a strong tide pushing us towards Rathmullan Pier. The water was like glass and the views of the coastline over the 15km were beautiful. There’s a reasonable chance that the weather could result in this stage being cancelled extending the first run, kayaking is new to me but we put in a good few hours over the winter and I was glad that wasn’t the case this year. Rathmullan Pier comes into view on the horizon after about 20 minutes of paddling and you could be forgiven for thinking you would be there in no time but it’s still a long way off and I was an hour and half on the water before I got out in Rathmullan. I tried to get though transition here without wasting too much time, although I did take the time to have a quick coffee, this was part of my race stategy, as I discovered in training my caffeine dependency if ignored could result in poor performance as the day went on.
Stage 3: 96 km Cycle
Most of the cycling in The Race is along the roads of the Donegal section of the Wild Atlantic Way and is breathtaking. To say the first cycle is undulating does not come close, it is a constant series of climbs and keeping to the heart rate zones set by Martin was the difference between enjoyment and suffering through this. After heading north out of Rathmullan the route passes through Carrigart and out around Atlantic Drive, about half way through the cycle. Myself, Brian and Dots fell in together for a few minutes at this stage and it was good to see the lads were still going strong. Soon after this we were faced with one of the major climbs of the day up to Lough Salt, this ramps up
nicely towards the end and it was great to have support from our own crew on the way up here, it’s a long climb seven hours into the day. Soon after Muckish comes into view, it’s a very distinctive flat topped shape. The final climb on this stage is up to the bottom of the mountain, it’s challenging enough and I was glad to swap the bike for trail runners for a bit.
Stage 4: 5 km up and down Muckish
I was looking forward to this since we were up here on the training weekend; I found running down the mountain great fun and refreshing before getting back on the bike.
The scramble up Muckish reveals just how much altitude has been gained, at 666 meters above sea level it’s a beast of a climb (sorry) and the view from the top is like looking out an airplane window. The route here is well marked with flags and there are several marshals on the way up to the cairn at the top, it’s steep enough in places and only the last section on the way up is really runnable. Once I made it to the top I threw a stone onto the cairn for good luck and headed back down. The mountain was a lot wetter than the last time we were here, and I fell several times coming back down but still a really enjoyable section.
Stage 5: Cycle to Dookery
The second cycle starts with a long descent down from Muckish back down to the coast before turning south past and out past Bloody Foreland and Doonbeg. This would be considered the easier of the two cycles but as I hit hours 12 and 13 nothing was easy. This second half of the stage includes about 15 km of poor road surface with a bit of a climb and I was glad to have it behind me in daylight hours, it would be tricky enough in the dark. I was feeling good, for the most part, throughout this stage but was looking forward to finishing with the bike for the day. The sight of Mount Errigal on the horizon and I knew I was about 10 kilometers from Dookery. I completed the stage in daylight, a huge bonus on the day and saw Brian leave as I went in, still going strong. Transition here is in a bar and I picked up my box, sat in a comfortable chair and had one of the nice volunteers bring me coffee. One of the tips before the race was not to spend too much time here, it’s comfortable and it’s too easy for time to slip by. I was about 25 minutes here chatting with Ronan O’Brien but was in good form and delighted to be still going at this stage. Only the small matter of a marathon and I was home and dry.
Stage 6: Run from Dookery to Gartan
It was a huge benefit to have run some of this and seen it in daylight before the race day. Running in the dark you see only a small patch of ground lit by the head torch it really separates you from the place you are running. Glenveigh national park has amazing views of lakes and mountains but I couldn’t see any of it. The first 9 miles the route climbs up into the mountains, it’s a steady enough climb and rises in steps rather than a constant drag which I had found before gives plenty of opportunity for recovery on the way up. There was good support at the top where the route turns and descends along a bridle path into the park. I was really enjoying every minute at this stage, this was what I wanted when I set out, to go running in the middle of nowhere in the dark. Running through the national park in the dark alone through the 15th, 16th, and 17th hours of the day I just remember feeling absolutely happy. I knew I would make it now no matter what, all I had to do was keep moving forward. There was a good crowd of supporters including Martin (finished at this stage) and Siobhan at the exit of the National Park around mile 17, it was nice to get a little lift again at this stage. Martin stayed out on the route to see us home over the last few miles and was shouting advice out the window of the car before I tackled the last few climbs back up to the entrance of Gartan.
It was such a great feeling running back down that drive 18 and a half hours after I ran up it, it was a long day but all I can remember are good things, this is a special race there is no doubt. Even without spectator-lined streets, red carpet or daylight it is a finish I will never forget. I never expected to enjoy the experience so much and it has definitely been worth it. No doubt this would have been a lot different if not for the dedication and guidance of Martin Kirwan and the support and tolerance of my wife and family.
A lot of people have asked since if I would do it again, I honestly don’t know whether I would or not but if I don’t it won’t be because of any bad experience, it is a credit to everyone involved in organising and marshaling the event, there is a great atmosphere around the whole weekend, it is a race I will never forget.
David Mc Connell