So what can we say about our next racer to go under the spotlight. Although relatively new to the sport, his racing record is about as roller coaster as you can possibly get. Wins, DNF’s, DQ’s, stories of unheralded selflessness. It’s all in there. Ladies and Gents, we give you Luke McMullan…
WHERE ARE YOU FROM:
I’m from East County Down; home of the majestic Mourne Mountains. Newcastle is a small seaside town at the foot of Slieve Donard (Northern Ireland’s highest mountain) and I’ve been a member of the Newcastle & District Athletics club for about 15 years now. We’ve no athletics track local to us so the natural thing to do is to use the forest parks and mountains on our doorsteps as our training facilities. I’ve been based in Dublin for the last 5 years (and in London for the 3 years preceding that) but have always maintained my membership with the home club and even still enjoy going home once of twice a month at the weekends to train with the club and catch up on their local gossip and craic.
How old are you?
I’m 30 years young ;-). It’s funny that I distinctly remember turning 17 and feeling old! But now that I’m 30 I feel like a babby, especially when turning up at these Adventure Races. Distance sport in particular favours the ‘more mature’ athlete, as it is all about the cumulative effect of years built on years of training. I remember hearing a quote (I think it was from Sean Kelly) that it takes 7 years of full time commitment to take your sporting potential to it’s peak, irrespective of what age you start at. I feel like I’m only starting to constructively take my sporting performances forward as of the past 18 months or so – so I am very much looking forward to seeing what this next decade has in store.
Seeing the likes of Keiron Kelly race me to the line at Gaelforce West last year (at 48) and the likes of Roger Federer making Wimbledon finals aged 37, it goes to show the way sport is going these days. If you look after yourself, train in a healthy way, eat well, sleep well, and be sure that you are happy in your own skin and ensure you do sport for the right reasons (i.e. the fun coming first, performances second), the question of age becomes less and less important – if anything, it’s a disadvantage to be young ;-).
I work as a Statistician/Actuary in the insurance market – so naturally I love playing with numbers. I also like to carry this skillset across into the planning and over-analysing of my own training and racing schedules and performances. It’s constantly a refinement and a learning exercise as to how your own body is reacting to certain types of training, diet etc.
What is your sporting background?
My sporting background is as long as it is diverse. My first sport was horse-riding, and I rode horses competitively from the age of 7 to 21, starting out in Pony Club and then moving into Eventing Ireland. As funny as it sounds, if it wasn’t for the horses, there is a good chance I’d never have got involved in all the other sports over the years.
Through the Pony Club, we heard about, and got involved in a sport called Tetrathlon (which is a points based multi-sport competition combining the disciplines of pistol shooting, swimming and running with the horse riding), and is a derivative of the Olympic Modern Pentathlon (after adding in the fencing).
So from the age of about 10, myself and my (super-) Mum used to drive to all corners of Northern Ireland going to competitions and training days. Come my mid-teens, I had become obsessed with the sport and it was all consuming – training most days with either the swimming club or running club, as well as competing across all corners of the UK and Ireland multiple times a year. This brought some great memories and successes. Notable highlights include being crowned as British Team Champions in 2007, Irish Team Champions in 2008, and an individual Gold Medal at the British Championships in 2009.
These successes contributed to selection onto the British Team for a Home International in 2008, and as Captain at an Away International in California in 2010, competing against teams from Ireland, Canada, the United States of America and Australia. Athletes I competed against at the time have since went on to compete at multiple Olympic Games.
Coupled with this, I played Gaelic Football from Under-12 level through to Minor level. After giving up the horse-riding in my early 20’s, I quickly swapped the horse for a bike and went on to take part in Triathlons. My best results to date in triathlon have been a top-20 finish at the Standard Distance National Championships in 2018 and a 10h45 at Ironman Wales 2018 (22 minutes short of qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kona – I’ll be back to try again in the next few years!)
Safe to say, sport has been a staple in my life to date.
What got you into Adventure racing?
One name – Ann Horan! I had got involved in the South-Dublin based Orwell Wheelers and raced in their Thursday evening Club League races. After the last league race of the summer; doubling up as a Race and a BBQ Social evening, I got chatting to Ann and she was extremely enthusiastic about getting me involved in the Adventure Racing scene and joining her racing group. She had found out about my running background and with my recent cycling performances put two and two together and said the adventure racing was a no-brainer for me. Maybe it was the way she sold it, but I was totally game for giving it a lash even though I’d no idea about the details, it sounded great on the surface!
Ann is a tough cookie – and takes no prisoners. If I was going to do it, no less than straight into the deep end doing the Expert Races was allowed! She wasn’t for letting me dip my toes and enter any Sport races. I love that attitude. It’s infectious! We should all be aspiring to push ourselves to our limits and not taking the easy option, irrespective of what it is that makes us tick – be it music, theatre, dance, sport etc…
How many races have you done?
My count is at 9 races that I’ve toed the start line on. That doesn’t tell half to story though as I’ll get to explain later.
You have had a bit of an upside-down season, as far as luck goes, it would be fair to say you haven’t got the rub of the green…
I wouldn’t be so quick to dwell on this “bad luck”. The unpredictability of the sport of Adventure Racing is one thing that attracts me so much to it. It’s Snakes and Ladders throughout. The races are so long, are multi-disciplinary; everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and strategy also plays a big part in determining the overall standings at the end.
Predicting the podium is a punt at best – as I’m sure Padraig has realised in trying to come up with the (very enjoyable to read) form guides this year! 🙂 To quote the great Murray Walker: “Anything can happen in these races, and it usually does”! Crashes, punctures, wrong turns, mechanicals, sugar-crashes all add to the beauty and un-predictability of this sport. It all makes for a great war story and de-ciphering session at the finish lines!
Last year on my first attempt, I won Gaelforce West. Some might see that as a “first of many”, but I very much came back to Westport this year still basking in that win as I am very much aware that I might never win that race again given how hard it is to come out of the pack and put it together on the day. I look forward to the future wars in years to come and hope I can pip one or two more wins while at it!
Your heroics at this year’s Gaelforce West, while still being in strong contention for a podium spot are stuff of legend, care to tell the rest of community what went down?
I’ll not go into too much detail here – there is a race report floating out on the ether there for anyone interested in reading what went down. To give away all spoilers from my closing paragraph:
“Gaelforce West was another crazy, but amazing racing experience. After everything that happened across the course of the day; blitzing the first run with Shaun and Barry, kayaking through the wake of the speed boat, crashing with Barry, the leg burn up the Sheeffry Pass, seeing Shaun crash, managing to avoid him and then making sure he was ok, the legs cramping the whole way to Croagh Patrick, the fun Cyclocross section bridging back across to Sebastian after he had dropped me, losing that ground to Sebastian again on the way up the Reek, but passing him out again on the way down, being in 2nd with only a few kilometers to go into Westport, and coming away with a close run to the podium. It’s not your typical Saturday morning :-).”
When/What was your first race?
Gaelforce Dublin (17th February 2018) – on my 29th Birthday – was my first ever Adventure Race and it was a memorable one! I surprised myself and beat the previous year’s National Champion Killian Heery by attacking him on the final bike leg up over the Featherbeds into the Dublin Mountains (I know those roads well and generally count myself very lucky for having such great training facilities on my doorstep)! I should have retired then as Killian has enjoyed some payback later in the year – but it all makes for a bit of craic ;-).
This is a very tough one to answer. I love pitting myself against the ‘big hitters’ in the ‘big events’. I enjoy being a small fish in a big pond. As such, a favourite race has to have that ‘National Series vibe’ to it to be in consideration here. I’m going to sit on the fence here and say it is a three-way toss up between the Dingle Adventure Race, Gaelforce West and Quest Killarney. Each has their own in-race jewels. I also really like the people from these organisations who run these three races. Noel O’Leary, Ollie Kirwan and the girls in the Gaelforce office are all fun, friendly and infectious to be in company with and definitely adds that extra layer of gloss to taking part in their events.
If you could design your own race, what would it be?
Haha, everyone is going to hate me here. But my answer would be for a monstrous profile of up and down continuously (no flats at all), both on the bike and run. One of my favourite French words is dénivelé – which translates to height difference/elevation changes! So if I was to design a course – it would have beaucoup de dénivelé! 🙂
What inspires you?
I’m not sure that inspire is the right word, but there are many things that give me that drive to get out of bed early in the mornings to get the training in:
1. The general love of sport (and the physical and mental benefits it brings with it). I love my shot of dopamine in the mornings – it beats caffeine 😉
2. The love of the outdoors and of nature
3. The physical fitness challenge (and the fact that it’s not easy)
And for the racing weekends:
4. Getting to surround myself with positively minded, upbeat, fun and game people.
5. Being all engrossed by ‘the buzz of the race’ during the event.
6. Getting to visit and race around many beautiful locations in our country.
Collectively, I think sport has a power to heighten our happiness and enhance our purposefulness that I think is needed in a world seemingly dominated by what I consider to be unauthentic social media posts. Sport and Adventure Racing gives real life experiences with real people worth spending time with.
What’s the plans for the upcoming calendar year?
Well we’re in August now so the year is now half up. The ‘Minor’ goal for the year was to enjoy the Adventure Races and try and sneak a win or two if possible – similar to last year. The ‘Major’ goal for the year was to excel in the Mountain Running season. I’ve had a constructive (and memorable!) year winning the IMRA Leinster League title and now have my eyes set on trying to gain selection onto the Irish Team for the Mountain Running World Championships. I have a trial race to negotiate in a couple of weeks so all eyes are currently on that.
Aside from that, I have the last two Quest races (Lough Derg and Killarney), and a full Winter Cross-Country season to look forward to, and even see if I can take a pop at some PBs over 5 and 10k this Autumn. Loads of life left in 2019 to enjoy and look forward to!
What would you consider your strongest discipline…run, cycle or kayak?
Haha, I’m surprised you even included the kayak in that question! Definitely not the kayak after capsizing the thing in Dingle! Even though it cost me a podium spot, I do love the fact the kayak can cause such great shake ups in Dingle – it adds extra spice to the race.
As for the other two sports, it very much depends on what I’m focusing on at the time. This year my running would be much stronger as I’ve been focusing on it this year. But I also fancy my ability to out-climb almost anyone on two wheels when I’ve a good 12-week training block in the legs. The beauty (and frustration) about being an amateur athlete working full time is you’ll never be as fit as you’d want to be across all sports. So it’s always going to be a juggling game.
Runner of choice?
Asics are the only brand that seem to fit me right and I don’t get any feet problems with. I remember doing a running workshop with Catherina McKiernan when I was about 15 and she referred to Asics as “the runners runner”. That quote as always stuck in my head since in terms of brands. I have always considered brands like Nike and Adidas as “Sports Fashion” aimed at the masses so have always avoided.
Bike of Choice
I ride a Trek Emonda as I got it on an end of season sale. But I honestly have no affiliation to bike brands. As long as your race bike is kept in good condition and is close to 7kg, you’re not going to be under-equipped on the race day against any of the other ‘big hitters’.
Week before race…what do you do?
The day before the race day is always a day off (and always involves lots of driving) but otherwise the week leading up I like to keep a good balance of easy aerobic runs and easy spins. If it was a major goal race for the year, I might take two days off before the race day, but otherwise I like to train easy up until the Thursday before.
Morning of race…what do you do?
I would say I’m still learning on this one. I’m still playing with my nutrition and warm up plans and definitely haven’t mastered them yet. Barry Cronin is a good person to lean on for advice on this sort of thing. He’s been around the block for many years and has that growth mindset as well of trying to refine what is best and works for him.
Any race superstitions?
Haha – I’m a scientist and a statistician. No wool over these eyes! Put in the consistent hard work over a few months leading into the race and you’ll do well!
Any embarrassing moments you wish to share?
The crowning jewel of my embarrassing moments so far in my Adventure Racing career has to be my epic fail/capsize at this year’s Dingle Adventure Race. I entered the kayak in 3rd place having given my everything on the preceding 10k Road Run; Gary Scully (just ahead in 2nd) was veering off course and Shane Scully (in 1st) was caught in the currents and facing the wrong direction! I remember saying to myself “I can still win this race”! Less than a few minutes later I was head over heels underwater and ended up losing 10 minutes as a result, dropping down to 6th! I’m glad to have provided some entertainment value to the rest of my nearest competitors though. 😉
As an aside, while not necessarily an embarrassing ‘moment’, my Adventure Racing record is far from one to be proud of :-)! Outside of the big wins at Gaelforce Dublin and Gaelforce West, my resume otherwise includes: 2 DNS’s, 2 Bonks, 1 DNF, 2 DQ’s, 1 Puncture, 1 Kayak Capsize, as well as the Crazies of Gaelforce West this year (which I could maybe summarise as ‘2 Crashes in 1 Race’). That’s some record to have on my first 9 adventure races (face palm!). Hence the assessment from Barry Cronin: “I’m like a finely tuned sports car, either boom or bust!”
Post-race…do you spoil yourself, if so, how?
I’m normally exhausted after the race and need a couple of hours kip after a nice hot shower to be reinvigorated prior to the evening activities. This normally involves eating out with the gang for the weekend before heading to the local pubs or nightclubs for a night out. These nights out are well earned! I put no limit to the amount of calories to be absorbed on these evenings, with the local craft beers being my favourite means to replenish those expended energy cells!
Strangest thing you have seen on a race
There is a clear winner here: Gaelforce Dublin 2018 (my first ever race).
There were ‘Prancing White Horses’ dancing through the field of racers on a narrow road in the Dublin foothills. I had finished my run for the day and during the initial section of the last cycle you had to overlap the runners going in the opposite direction on the road. So between the two-way traffic of racers, there wasn’t a lot of space to try and avoid some horses overly-excited at taking part in their first Adventure Race! 🙂
Most beautiful scenery?
We have so much beauty packed within such a small landmass here in Ireland. My three favourite Adventure Racing locations mentioned earlier, as well as my own playgrounds of the Mourne Mountains in Down and the Sally Gap/Featherbeds in Wicklow represent my highlights reel thus far.
Outside of Ireland, I’ve also been to Nepal in two separate years, having hiked both the Annapurna Circuit and to Mount Everest Base Camp. The scenery and culture there is absolutely worth experiencing for anyone with a love of nature and mountains.
Hydration/Gels? Do you use them? Do you use any particular brands?
I’m a big fan of Dextros Energy Tablets. They’re tasty, dissolve easily in your mouth, are full of quick-release sugars, and are kind on the stomach. Gels are a sticky mess and feel like half the pack goes everywhere but in your mouth – and you hear lots of stories of people who’s stomach doesn’t agree with them.
In terms of hydration, I always go for 50:50 Lucozade Sport:Water in my sports bottles on the bike. When racing over long periods of time, you need your water and you need your sugars. So I feel this mixture best addresses this need. I find Lucozade Sport on it’s own too thick to stomach when racing hard.
I’ve also learnt to carry a small bottle over the long mountain runs to sip as I go. Racing up and over the likes of Croagh Patrick or Mount Brandon mid-race is too long to go without supplying your body with the energy and hydration top up’s.
Advice for absolute beginners?
I think the key is to have that growth mindset. Don’t get caught up on results early on (I still don’t get caught up on results – maybe I will in a few years but at the moment I still feel like I’m learning and maturing as an athlete and shouldn’t be expecting to win anything. If I do it’s a massive bonus!). Aim to tweak and constantly improve your training load and intensity year-on-year (view it high level – Strava or Garmin Connect can be good for putting an annual number on things).
Also – do it because you find it enjoyable. If you find you love the training, the improvements/results will come. You should be putting a lot more energy into getting into a good routine (the bread and butter) with your weekly training than over-thinking a race on the horizon.
I’m also a big fan of the 80:20 rule. 80% of your training should be aerobic volume based (steady, tipping along, and enjoying your surroundings), and it can be supplemented by that harder 20% by means of a hard session or a club league race every week. If you’re pushing yourself on every training session, you’re going to burn out.
I also like to get my training done and dusted in the mornings before work when everyone else is still in the land of the dreaming. It’s one of the very few times in the day when nobody is going to ask you to do anything/meet up etc. I love the solitude of the mornings and enjoy listening to the sounds of the birds and enjoying the views of the Dublin Mountains before any cars are on the road.