The Race 2018 – a 250 km unsupported endurance adventure race across the rugged landscape of North West Donegal. To finish competitors have to complete 15km of kayaking, 166km of cycling, 5km of mountain running and 64km of road and trail running. It’s called the hardest endurance event in Ireland and for good reason….but it’s also one of the best events you will ever do. As an Adventure Race addict this was always going to be ‘The Big One’ and about a year ago I finally decided the time was right to make an attempt at it. Since then I have been getting ready for it. There’s been a few injuries and various mishaps along the way…sometime just getting to the start line can be a challenge! From I arrived in Donegal on the Friday right through to Sunday it was one of the most memorable events I’ve ever been part of. On Friday night the nerves were high, but chatting to the other first timers and the repeat offenders helped ease the nerves a bit and we all discussed game plans, which for the most part was ‘will we be able to finish’! Saturday, race day, for me was one of those days where everything went right, cramping came and went, I went in to the race with an injury and came out less injured! The food and nutrition strategy went perfect, got the right amount of calories in at the right times so never at any stage hit the wall, strange to say I actually felt strong and good all the way around. So much goes through your mind during the event, you are alone sometimes for hours, so much to be thinking about before during and after it…always thinking about what lies ahead. The Race is as challenging mentally as it is physically. The support was brilliant both on the ground and from those watching the dots on the tracker, the volunteers and marshals were all fantastic, always helping out. I’ve done countless events and crossing the line in them has always been a good feeling but nothing could compare to turning in to Gartan and running that last 300m or so in the dark to the finish line… You realize very quickly that other than the top 4-5 lads the rest of you are in it to get through it….other people’s supporters become your supporters and it’s like 60-70 of you together against the course….zero competitive feelings towards anyone else, you’d give your last drop of water to the fella next to you, a fellow foot soldier in the mucky trenches trying to get through the hell of the north!!
The Finer Details
Starting off with a 24km run from Gartan to Ramelton, even though there’s a cold morning air you don’t be long warming up! The first few km is uphill and then it’s a relatively flat/rolling run the rest of the way. Trying to maintain my planned pace for this section it takes a bit of self-discipline not to get carried away when there are people flying past you…its pitch dark and all you can see ahead and behind you are head torches. It’s a surreal fealing. I have to remind myself that there’s a long day ahead so finding a comfortable pace I settled in with a few others and the 2 hours to Ramelton passes fairly easily and the darkness has lifted. The transition to the Kayak stage is fast, have enough water in the backpack, grab a bar, stick on the waterproof bottoms and top and head for the pier.
I’ve been dreading the 15km kayak section; a recent hamstring/glute injury is still sore and the thoughts of sitting on that for 90 minutes isn’t appealing. The harbor in Ramelton is at high tide, is calm and the water looks like a mirror so actually start to think this might be alright….that feeling lasts for the 10 minutes or so that it takes to get out to open water! The wind has picked up and its very choppy…it’s looking like a tough morning ahead. After about 30-40 minutes Rathmullen pier comes in to view in the distance and for almost the next hour it seems to never get any closer, it’s always there in front of you and no matter how much you paddle it seems to never get closer. Waves are coming in over the kayak at this stage and theres a bit of a fight going on against the current. This is probably one of the harder parts of the day and there is no escape, you just have to get through it one way or another. The Race is unique in that each stage is just that bit too far, it seems designed to see what’s the limit a body can just about do and then adds 20/30% onto that just to break you!!
I finally get in to Rathmullen, we all have to be lifted out of the kayak, the legs have literally stopped working. I hobble my way to the transition for the first bike stage. I had set myself a target to be getting on the bike by 9am and bang on schedule I was ready to go…so far so good. The marshalls have my gear box ready for me and it’s a full change out of the soaking clothes in to dry cycling gear…a bit more food and drink on board and then its off for the 100 km cycle up through the punishing exposed wilds of Donegal to Muckish Mountain. I had been up in Donegal on New Years day to recce this cycle so knew what was ahead on this one…its not the big hill that get you , although the 15% bit on Lough Salt was no fun, it’s the constant up and down, every 500m there is another sharp little hill to go over, another change down through the gears, another out of the saddle…so you can never get in to a good rhythm…always thinking about what’s ahead. About 50km in I was going well, I had learned a lesson on the recce, I’d burnt out towards the end so I wasn’t going to let that happen again! The Lough Salt climb was tough…turning off after Geln the wind had picked up further and it was in the 34/30 gears on the bike all the way to the top, grinding it out up the hill…there was a decent bunch of spectators at the top so equal measures of pride and stubbornness helped ensure that I stayed on the bike all the way up! There’s a long drag of a climb up the final stretch to Muckish but the thought of finally getting a break from the bike kept me going. After about 4 and a half hours on the bike I rolled in to transition…I decided to just change footwear for the mountain run, so stayed in the cycle gear and stuck on the trail runners and headed off across the wet marshy mountain trying to avoid, if I could, the deeper bogholes. The mid-section of this stage is a hand and knees climb, slow going. Stop every 200m and let the heart rate drop was the advice I got from a fella on his way down…this turned in to stop every 20m for me! Turning at the top is always my favorite part of any race and I enjoyed the run back down the mountain…and after nearly 500m of climbing and an awesome decent, I was back at in transition about 54 minutes after I had left it. I was about 20-30 minutes ahead of my pre planned times at this point so again I thought all was going ok. Changed back in to the cycling gear, fresh baselayer and rain jacket, got about 1500 cal on board. Time to get back on the bike and tackle the tough 70 km trek to via Bloody Forelands to Doochary. The first 10km of this is downhill and gives a nice boost…I got to thinking that this actually might not be too bad…and then I hit the bloody Bloody Forelands!!!! Smacked right in the face with a headwind that would stay strong all the way to the end of the stage, the next 2 and a half hours was brutal, without a doubt the hardest part of the day…I hadnt recce’d this section and had no idea of the hell that was the second part of this stage. Fighting the wind all the way through Bunbeg and in to Crolly the course turned left and initially I thought I might be getting a break from the wind but instead, what followed was miles and miles of climbing in the lowest gear with the wind blowing me backwards! Donegal actually defies the laws of physics…even the downhill sections of road actually go up! You get so used to the hills that when you get on a flat or less steep part you actually think its downhill and stop pedaling and you stop or go backwards!! It was a slog to get through the never-ending hills and finally roll down the hill in to Doochary. My plan had been to get to the start of the final marathon stage with enough time in the tank to be able to walk it if I had to and still make it within the 24hrs…I was off the bike for the last time with about 12:45 on the clock so I knew at that stage that I was safe, I had 11 hours to finish it and I felt a huge relief and zero pressure for the final stage. Taking my time in the last transition, I changed in to the running gear, got another 1500cal or so on board and headed off just after the 13 hour mark….
The winner, Marty Lynch, was in his final few km at that stage but I had a bit to go yet. I had thought I might be walking at that stage but I felt good so set off at an easy jog and got through the first 10k in about an hour…I realized after about 2k that I had forgotten my gloves but made the decision to push on rather than go back and get them; I figured I had spare neck buffs in the race vest which could double as gloves if really needed! After 10k the road started to rise so the pace slowed to a walk for a few km, then run down the bridle path along the lake past Glenveigh Castle…a final sting in the tail was the climb over the mountain which was wild and windy! Coming off this back on the main road you can look across Gartan lake and see the light and finish line…but you still have 10k to go! At this stage it was pitch dark again with the only light being from my headtorch. I fell in to a nice rhythm for the last 10k and covered it in about an hour, I passed a few people along the way, we shared our stories of the day so far and offered each other food, water, batteries. A few sharp climbs right before the turn off to Gartan were a littl
e surprise but the last 300m run in to Gartan was amazing, all the aches and pains just vanish and you are running the dark and suddenly the finish line and light appear in the distance and it’s a sight for sore eyes! Crossed the line at 11:02pm….18 hours and 2 minutes after setting off from that same spot at 5am that morning. I finished about an hour and a h
alf on the good side of the target I set myself and was the 14th person to cross the line.
I actually don’t know if I could do it again because I have nothing but good memories and I’d hate to spoil that. In saying that, it would be hard to sit at home watching the dots move around Donegal next year and not want to be part of it!
The Race in numbers:
- Running: 65km – 1200m elevation
- Cycling: 164km – 2100m elevation
- Kayak: 15km
- Mountain run: 5km
- Total time: 18:02 hours
- Calories burned: 16,000
- Tailwind: 4 litres
- Hi5 4:1: 500ml
- Water: 2 litres
- Coke 2 litres
- Fulfil bar: 2
- Potatoes: 10
- Nurofen: 4
- Magnesium Shots: 5
- Energy gels: 1
- Ensure high calorie drink 2
- Bagels: 1.5
- Bags of crisps: 2
- Twirl bar: 2
- Mars bar: 2
- Jelly Babies: loads!
- Coffee: 2 cups
- Good Memories: countless
- Bad memories: 2!
- Sweat: 2 buckets
- Regrets: 0
Interesting facts and things I learned about Donegal
- The wind is able to blow from all directions at the same time, but always strongest directly in your face
- The laws of physics don’t apply in Donegal…the roads are all uphill, even the downhills are also uphills
- If I wasn’t an engineer I’d swear even the kayak section was uphill
- I now know what a “tight wee climb” means
- I also know that we are a “tight bunch of lads and lassies”
- If you suspect you might be mad to be doing The Race then you are probably right
- However, you are surrounded by equally mad lads and lassies so its all good
- Those mad people are the best you will ever meet and happily share their last jelly bean with you
- For The Race weekend Nurofen is, partially, one of your 5 a day
- The top of a rocky mountain can have lots and lots of bogholes
- It is tricky to get out of said bogholes when you fall in to them
- It’s a bit freaky the first few times that people start calling out your name as you go past, but then you realize that it’s the tracker system and they know you are approaching
- Each stage appears to be designed to see at what point you will start to hurt…and then either keep you at that or push you further for another
- Donegal is a beautiful county (not as good as Kerry obviously but close J)
- The Race is an amazing event – Kudos to Maghnus & team, Primal tracking and everyone else)
- The volunteers and marshals are unbelievable, I cannot thank them enough