Gaelforce West Ultra is a brand new event in the adventure racing calendar and hopefully it is here to stay!!! Those good folks at Gaelforce don’t mess around, this was never going to be a walk in the park and with an expected finish rate of less than 50%, those brave enough to take it on were going to be in for an unreal challenge and sufferfest especially in this awesome summer we are having!
A very early start this year…with the bus leaving Mill Street at 4am this resulted in getting up at 3am and driving the 30 minutes in to Westport and finding parking…probably left time a bit too tight and it was a bit panicky to make the bus. The bus trip out to Glassiluan beach can be the hardest part of the day…trying to fight the nauseous feeling, to get a bit of shut eye but trying to not fall asleep and be too groggy getting off the bus. Nutrition plans at this point was decent breakfast and 1.5 litres of water/tailwind and cliff bar to get me through to transition 1.
About 7 weeks before this I had been mountain biking down in Wicklow when the bike hit a rock and stopped…and I didn’t….so ended up with 1 fractured collar bone and 1 dislocated collar bone…this put a halt on any training for about 4 weeks. When I eagerly returned training I went back a little too hard first day out and ended up with an inflamed Achilles tendon. With a good base from early in the year I figured the best thing I could do was rest and that the latent fitness and a good dose of thickness would get me through so I went in to the event with a 7 week taper.
We gathered on the beach at the start line and after a nice brief update from Shane the countdown was over and we were off. The first km or 2 on this run is a toughie, a good drag up hill on cold legs, the heart rate quickly getting up there. A group of 10 or so hardy runners very quickly began to put a bit of distance in to us mere mortals so by the time we turned off the road after 3-4 km on to the Famine Greenway they had disappeared from view. Settled in to a nice handy pace and tried to maintain a steady hr, I knew this part of the route from previous Gaelforce West so figured that any energy spared here would be useful later. After 7-8 km the twangs of pain I had been fearing began to appear, every step caused a little dart of pain on the Achilles and with every step I feared that my day was going to be finished as soon as I got near to the Kilary adventure centre which we’d pass at 10km point. A bit of chatting with fellow competitor Finbarr helped pass the time and by the time we got to the 10k mark and turned off towards the mountain the pain had subsided a good bit and I decided to keep going and see if I could at least get around the first run. And so we headed towards the Mamturks….this should be grand right?
So to back up a bit….I was familiar with the first 10km of the run from previous years, I had made the trip west a few months earlier to check out the bike route so knew what that involved, I’ve been up Croagh Patrick numerous time so really the only part of the course I was unfamiliar with was the last 20km of the first run…and while I know the Gaelforce folks like to make things good and tough, its couldn’t be that bad…..I actually had no clue what lay ahead. And so began possibly the toughest 20km I have ever run/walked/hiked…with 1,000metres of elevation gain!!! The first km or so was flatish and boggy, the plans to keep the same socks on for the whole event went out the window the first time I missed a solid piece of ground and sank to my knees in a boghole. The wet feet and trail runners soon became the least of my problems as the ground began to quickly rise. Follow the fence to the top the marshal had said…my heart sank as I saw that the fence snaked up an almost vertical wall in front of me, could just about make out a few tiny dots of the back markers in the front group heading over the top. The lack of training and aerobic fitness began to show as I put the head down and tried to get a rhythm going and progress was slow but steady. Just get to the top and I’ll be all downhill after that I told myself. Finally hit the top and the legs could get a break, a nice little bit of downhill now and stretch out the legs back to the bike transition I hoped. As soon as the downhill started the cramps began, both calves cramping and the soft boggy ground was making it worse. I broke out one of the magnesium shots I had in the vest and lay on the ground to try and massage the calf muscles which were now both in spasm. 5 minutes later the combination of the massage and the mag shot kicked in and the cramps had begun to subside and I could tip away again, slowly, having been passed by a few people who had offered support but were fighting their own battles. I was in about 15th place at this point, only thoughts were finishing out the run and see how the Achilles was and if I’d be able to go on. Soon met by another climb, I though the climbing had all been done but apparently not, a quick glance at the garmin showed only 14km done, out of 30km….so maybe I was a bit hasty thinking I was on the home straight. Repeat the process for climb number 2 and soon I was at the top and heading downwards again. Through the fence where another marshall was and shouted which way, and then the heart sank…..the climbing hadn’t even begun, looming in front of me was Leenane mountain…..which at this point appeared to be the biggest mountain I had ever seen. To make matters worse we had to drop down a few hundred feet before beginning the climb so off in to the Col of Despondency and then the long tough climb up to Leenane summit. Very glad of the decision to bring 1.5 L of water as every drop was needed. The sun was well in the sky at this stage and even though it was only just past 8 in the morning it was baking out there. The views were unreal, such clear skies and you could see for miles, if you had the time or energy to do so!! Touched the top in 14th Place after 2hrs and 46 minutes and then started out the sharp descent back to Leenane. I had teamed up with Finbarr and Pat on the descent and together we jogged back to the transition point at Kilary Adventure Centre. A final twist in the tale was the last 4 km from Leenane back to T1, passing Leenane hotel we went off road once more and the last 4 km was a tough uphill slog. Not knowing the run I has estimated that it would take about 3.5 hours for stage one but combination of heat, fitness, injury and the sheer toughness of the stage I came in to T1 in 3:58…and was happy with that!
I decided that the injury wasn’t going to get worse and that the bike wasn’t going to aggravate it too much so I would keep going. I didn’t want to delay at T1 so quickly got the transition box out, got the cycling shoes and helmet on, checked the water bottles, drank half a bottle of coke, eat a cliff bar and headed off on the bike
First few kms are lovely, downhill and cooled me down. I opted to stay in the same gear for the full event so was soaked in sweat getting on the bike and the cool breeze felt almost too cold on me but I knew that wouldn’t be long changing. Turning right in Leenane the climbing began. This wasn’t my first rodeo so take it nice and handy was going to be the order of the day, just keep the hr low and conserve the energy as best I could, keeping in mind there was a fairly strict cut off point later in the cycle so keeping inside that was the only target at this stage. Turning left in to Maamtrasna valley the fun really began and passing by Lough Nafooey and Lough Mask the scenery was spectacular…a few tough little climbs and some rolling road brought us to Tourmakeady. Refilled the water bottles here, was in 10th place by now, the eventual winner Drew was nearly an hour ahead at this stage but I was gaining ground quickly on the others in front of me. The toughest climb of the day on the bike is out of Tourmakeady, a steady slog for about 4-5 km.
Dropping in to 34-28 gears I just spun it steady and eventually reached the top, the heat was getting fairly serious at this point and the water bottles getting a good hammering! Coming over the top here you can see Croagh Partick in the distance but a glance at the gamin showed only 45km done so another 65km to go before getting there! From here it was rolling road all the way to Aashleagh where the water bottles were filled again, then along the north side of the Fjord and into Delphi Valley. I knew I was well inside the cut off times at this stage so that little panic was over. The climbing wasn’t over, the Sheffrey Pass is always a good test of the legs and after about 7hours on the go at this stage the legs were feeling the strain. It was so hot going up there that the tar had melted and the tyres were picking up melted tar and stones which were getting jammed in the brake calipers and at the top of the forks, twice I had to dismount and clear the stones and tar before going on. More rolling road and turned off at Owenwee for the last bit of climbing on the bike, it’s a long way to the base of Croagh Patrick but at least those of us on the Ultra could stay on the road and not have to go the bog track like the regular Gaelforcers. I had been eating and hydrating well all day so by the time I go the transition point I had caught up with the front group. Happy enough with the bike time of 4:43.
Seeing the other Ultras leaving for Croagh Patrick as I got to T2 gave me a fresh burst of energy, a very quick change of footwear, ditched the helmet, grabbed a water bottle and I headed off up Croagh Patrick. Things were busy here now, loads of people from the normal GF and with the fine weather there were scores of tourists and day trippers. I hit the shoulder in pretty decent time, passing a few of the Ultras on the way to the shoulder and then negotiated my way up the cone through the throngs of day trippers. The sun was pounding down now and it was baking on the hot scree but again I tried to keep a slow steady rhythm and got to the top in good shape, ‘you’re in 6th place’ the marshal informed me so was happy but wanted to see if I could push things a bit further. Back down to the shoulder in about 9 minutes to the amusement and horror of everyone around me, not the fastest but not bad after nearly 10 hours on the go and then 9 minutes later I was back on the bike after another speedy transition and was now in 5th place. I had seen Sean Higgins as I was hitting the top of Croagh Patrick so I tried to set myself a target to catch him but he was long gone. I emptied the tank on the bike all the way back to Westport and crossed the line in 10hrs and 38 minutes in 5th place.
Super event, one of the toughest things I’ve done. Great job by Bridget, Shane and all at Kilary Gaelforce.
Stage 1: 30km run 1142m elev gain – Very very tough! Hard Terrain and climbing – Character Building!!
Stage 2: 110km Cycle 1260m elev gain – A few tough climbs, lots of rolling road, a kicker at the end up to Croagh Patrick!
Stage 3: Croagh Patrick 470m elev gain – Burns whats left of the legs but such a feeling when you dib at the top, the hard work is done!!
Stage 4: 13km Cycle 35m elev gain– The home run, mostly downhill, empty the tank, beware the cramps!!
Do yourself a favour…sign up for this next year…you won’t regret it!
All photos were provided by the awesome folk at Clearskiesahead.com. Thanks lads 🙂