Earlier this week I bumped into a jubilant podium placer in the Ladies Expert Race in Quest Killarney, Ann Horan. She had just come in third in the longest of the courses. Previous to that, we briefly met after Quest Achill where Ann placed fourth. She seemed in extra high spirits this time around and as we chatted there was more to this than met the eye. More than just a podium position, but the journey that got her there is
So grab a cuppa, settle in…This is Ann’s story.
My mother passed away last November. I was fast asleep in bed in Dublin when I got the news. My phone rang on my bedside locker. My brother was on the other end of the phone. He informed me that Mommy was dying, there was no hope for her and I had to come to Tralee hospital immediately as we all needed to be there before they switched off the life support machine. I had to wake my sister and break the news to her. We made the journey to Kerry together. Helen drove; she was still in shock. I thought of my last words to my mother after a lovely mid-term break at home in Killarney. Before getting into the car to drive to Dublin, I came into the kitchen and said ‘Bye Mommy. Thanks for everything’ followed by a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Goodbyes don’t come much more perfect than that except you never want to have to say goodbye. You want your mother to be around forever.
Christmas wasn’t easy. It was hard seeing everybody in such high spirits while our family were just going through the motions, trying to make the most of it. We all knew deep down that we were looking forward to all the fuss being over. A few of us climbed Strickeen Mountain on New Year’s Day. As I stood at the top, I decided that I needed something new to focus on, something to challenge me and something great to look forward to….Killarney Adventure Race October Expert Route. My brother had completed it in 2013 and 2014. He described it as ‘The hardest thing he’d ever done-harder than the marathon or even a full day spent shearing sheep.’ His tactic had been ‘go as hard as you can for as long as you can’. This tactic served him well until he got to Mangerton Mountain. I decided I needed to be slightly more strategic in my approach.
I entered a few other adventure races in 2017 as practise and training for the big one in October. Killarney Adventure Race ended up being my seventh adventure race of the year. During taper week I kept yo-yoing between thinking I hadn’t done enough training to asking myself if I was going into the event completely overcooked. On the Friday before the event, the start list was published. As I scanned the list of names I silently cursed every time I saw a familar name. I made a list of nine names that I felt could challenge me and then highlighted three of those names; the ones that I felt I couldn’t beat. Moire O’ Sullivan and the 1-2 from Quest Achill -Laura O Driscoll and Eimear O Brien. I’d pretty much resigned myself to a top 5 placing and maybe a decent time.
Some people like to visit their loved ones graves a lot after they die. I’ve only been to my mother’s grave twice. I don’t really feel anything when I go there. I feel her presence more around me in every day situations. I particularly feel her with me when I’m doing big sporting events or faced with other challenging situations. I remember the morning of my first adventure race in March. I got up early. The house was quiet. No matter how early I’d get up for an event, Mommy would always have risen with me. It was strange that morning how I could hear her voice clearly in my head saying ..’ Do you want porridge?..It’s an awful bad morning. I suppose ‘twil be cancelled. Take it easy now today and don’t be killing yourself… Will you know many doing it?’ The kitchen was empty that morning but I felt far from alone.
I felt nauseous with nerves collecting my race number in the Gleneagle. I don’t usually get that nervous but I’d built this event up in my head. It was dark when I pulled into the Gleneagle on race morning. I parked my car and kept myself busy with all the routine stuff. When I was satisfied that I had all I needed, I made my way to the start line. The wonderful thing about adventure racing is the friendly people you meet along the way. I waved and smiled at a few before discretely barging my way towards the start line, until I was as close to the front as I felt appropriate. I wasn’t looking to ride the first 14km on Killian Heery’s wheel but at the same time I felt I didn’t want to get stuck behind anyone moving slower than myself. I was relieved when we finally got moving. We rode to Kate Kearney’s at a steady pace. I made sure I was always sheltering on a wheel and never out in the wind. I felt very fresh but reminded myself not to get carried away. Adventure race guru Brian Keogh had advised me that the race would be won or lost on Mangerton mountain.
I dismounted my bike at Kate Kearney’s and made a mental note of exactly where I’d left it. I ran for the exit before realising I was still wearing my helmet. I had to double back and attach it to my bike. When I returned there was a queue for the dibbers. My legs felt strong heading for Strickeen. I was in 3rd place. Soon enough Eimear passed me. I let her go by as I figured I needed to run my own race, at my own pace. I met Barry Cronin on his way down. He shouted ‘fast feet, light steps on the way down’ I was grateful that he was taking time out of his own race to coach me. On the descent of Strickeen I passed by Eimear and made a mental note that the more technical Mangerton descent would be her Achilles’ heel.
Back at Kate Kearney’s, I grabbed my bike and set off for The Gap of Dunloe cycle. I hadn’t gone too far when Eimear passed me on the bike. She flew past and I noted she was choosing to wear cycling shoes. I let her go. There was a long race ahead. On the descent of Moll’s gap, I remained cautious. Memories of the 2013 Ring of Kerry, skidding on gravel, hitting the crash barrier and being tossed over it still haunt me. On that occasion, I landed in briars. It was a soft enough landing but I got a bad fright and broke my carbon bike that day. Ger Kelly whizzed past me on the descent. She was on some guy’s wheel. I was happier descending on my own so I let them go.
By the time we got to the kayaks, I had caught up with them and we were neck and neck. Despite asking for a single kayak, I was urged into the next available double with some guy already seated in the front. The kayak didn’t go so well. I had to ask my partner to slow his stroke rate down several times in order for me to keep up with him . I noted the kayak was going more in a circular than a linear direction. I prefer to kayak silently and get into a nice rhythm with my partner. Today I ended up giving a running commentary on everything that was going wrong in the kayak for the entire 10 minutes. My quads were cramping badly at this stage to make matters worse. Luckily the kayak section was only a kilometre long and we were soon back on dry land. As we headed for Torc steps I noted Ger was lagging behind a bit and as the road kicked upwards and I looked back, she had disappeared from view. I was now in 4th place and keeping pace with a Galway man. The chatting was a good distraction from the fatigue that was beginning to set in from head to toe. My friend and cousin had promised to cheer me on at Mangerton road and they were as good as their word.
I’d already been up Mangerton Mountain many times over the summer and looked forward to the steep part where you have no choice but to walk. I always tend to be better at power hiking than running. As I was climbing, I still had my new friend from Galway keeping me company. Barry Cronin gave out to me for wasting energy chatting as he sailed down the mountain at break neck speed. As we got closer to the Punch Bowl, I could work out how far ahead everyone was. I reckoned 3rd place was at least 3 or 4 minutes ahead. On the way down I gave it everything I could. I even ran through some wet and boggy bits that I could have easily avoided. I hate getting my feet wet but I’m beginning to learn that trying to keep your runners clean on the mountains is a futile exercise. Everyone I passed gave friendly words of encouragement. As I got close to the base of the mountain a man informed me that the 3rd placed lady was only 200m ahead. I soon caught up and passed her out. I doubted that I’d be able to hold her off as we were running out of technical terrain.
At the base of Mangerton, I ran right past the dibber and had to double back for the second time that day. I was still in 3rd position as I ran back along Mangerton Road. Eimear caught and passed me in the woods. She sailed by convincingly and I just couldn’t respond. Torc steps were busy and there were runners from other waves making their way up as I was coming down. A lady approached me from behind and spoke to me saying ‘I wouldn’t like to be going up there now’. I thought it was Ger Kelly ( It turned out to be her doppelganger) I was annoyed that she’d caught me again and vowed to hang on to 4th and hammer it into Killarney on the final leg. I grabbed my bike and after some encouraging words from Anto Butch I set off for the finish line. I noticed a nice bike with disc wheels in front of me and spoke to its owner. ” Do you have much left?” He said “About 6k”. I replied “I mean. Are you feeling strong?.I’m cramping here and the girl in 5th is right behind. Can I sit on your wheel?” He was happy to help and was going at a good clip. My cramps subsided and shortly afterwards he announced ” I’m cramping now!” I overtook him and took off on my own for the finish line.
Near the Gleneagle there were lots of riders from different waves on the road. As I got close to the finish line, I noticed a girl wearing black shorts cornering into the Gleneagle car park. Her jersey was an event jersey. Several people were wearing it on the day. Unfortunately for her, her shorts had a distinctive pink pattern down the side. I couldn’t believe it. In my haste to cycle away from Ger Kelly, I had inadvertently managed to catch the 3rd placer. I made a quick calculation. She’s in cycling shoes, I’m in runners. She doesn’t know I’m there. She’ll probably waste a few seconds removing her helmet. I won’t. The timing was spot on.
I sprinted along the barriers after her and closed in on her quickly. I dismounted and flung my bike on the first clear space I saw on the nearest bike rack. I then headed for the finish line. I knew what I was about to do was cruel. Coming fourth is horrible. I hated coming fourth in Quest Achill a few weeks earlier. I didn’t want to come fourth again. I dibbed in and claimed my podium spot by a mere 6 seconds. I was over the moon. I felt so lucky. I thought of my mother and of how proud she would have been.
I’ve received a huge amount of help and support from a number of people this year. I went to a training talk given by Paul Mahon and Ollie Kirwan in the Great Outdoors back in February. At that point, I was a complete beginner to adventure racing. I’d a strong cycling background but had never run on mountains before. When I start something new and get hooked I’ve been told I ask a lot of questions. Thanks to everyone who patiently answered my endless string of questions. One thing I’ve learned in adventure racing is that anything can happen and it ain’t over ’til it’s over. You really have to keep fighting all the way to the line.