Gaelforce North  – My end of season race by Jane Merrigan

It was the final race of the season for me, to complete the trio of medals that had enticed me all year, and it would be my longest distance race this year.  Training had been spot on, and up to this point, I was flying the adventure race flag high with many highs and a couple of podium finishes this year to be super proud of.  I had battled the uphill cycle in Gaelforce Dublin and laughed to the top of the hill wondering had actually anybody made it to the top and not dismounted? Gaelforce Connemara made me smile, I jumped gates and laughed to the top of the mountain and when realized I had, had a wardrobe malfunction half way up, my sports bra had popped, having to rope in the help of a Marshall on top of the mountain to fix me, onto the cycle to get my first puncture of the year.  I was super proud of finishing in my usual banter high form.

Even though the brief for Gaelforce North looked manageable, I know Gaelforce would be up to their old tricks and it wouldn’t be as easy as they make it sound.  Setting off from Arklow with one of my right hand ladies for the season, myself and Ava were in high spirits.  A quick stop off on the side of the M1 to meet Padraig from Kayathlon to do a quick drug deal (my tailwind nutrition order) and it was back on the long road to “the hills of Donegal” but delighted to reach the registration area.  My first ever linear race and a lot of organisation for nutrition that had to be left on the bike, looking around a lot of people adding gels or nutrition to their bike.  Gaelforce gladly helped and changed me from Wave 2 into Wave 1, as myself and Ava were travelling together but had registered in different waves.  A quick cycle around the car park to check all is ok with the bike and we handed our bikes over to the guys, Now anybody who knows me, knows that my bike is my baby and to hand it over was like giving away one of my children to an absolute stranger.

We headed to our accommodation which was pure luxury staying with relatives in a little place called Maghery about a 5 minute drive from Dungloe.  A couple of welcome beers to settle the nerves and a nights sleep.

An early start for us, we arrived at the bus pick up station which had 2 portaloos, one which had the door faced to the wall and the other one which shook like an earthquake when you used it. I thought to have a quick pee before we got on the bus was in order. As we headed off on the bus journey we started to  see what Gaelforce North had in store for us as we drove what would be the last cycle and passed under Mount Errigal, which at this stage started to unnerve me a little.  The bus started to descend on the roads and soon realizing that this was our first cycle, I knew we were in for a battle, we seem to descend for about 45 minutes, I now pitied the athletes who had signed up for the longer 62km route.  Eventually the bus stopped in what can only be described as no mans land, literally in the middle of the hills of Donegal with nothing around us.  I was hit with the cold, race nerves and early morning pee requirements,  myself and Ava frantically looked for the portaloo………… and watched as other frantic women looked for the loo….. Men were peeing everywhere and anywhere but us ladies had a whole other battle, I told the ladies we would make a human shield and we would go down the track of the race start and we could have a little bit of dignity and pee behind the human shield, so, 7 of us headed off to get the race nerve pee out of the way.

Back at the start line and the Donegal rain starts, apparently it always rains in Donegal. A quick race briefing and we were off, and what an amazing start to Gaelforce North, a little over a mile of downhill run and then it leveled off to a fabulous trail run along Glenveagh Valley, out of all the runs this year, this was the most spectacular run.  The weather now clearing up and the sun coming out, I hit 5K and looked at my watch, oh dear a very fast one with it only being 20 seconds off my PB time, time to pull back, as soon as I pulled back…. I hear this grumbling coming from my stomach. Yup, think I definitely ran too fast, again the grumbling gets louder, oh dear I’m cramping, I decide to walk for a little bit.  I’ve heard stories of people cramping and needing the bathroom but in 4 years of racing it has never happened to me, well today is the day and oh my god, my head is screaming “ I NEED THE TOILET” I looked around and I am not going to manage to go to the toilet anywhere along this track and I think of the images I have seen on Facebook, people with unsightly short stains and I’m panicking, I start to pick up the pace, praying that surely there will be a toilet in the Glenveagh National Park, at 8km we come into stone walled grounds and “HALLELUJAH” there is a toilet, not one but 4, with real toilet paper, such a luxury.  There are many of the athletes using the facilities all with massive smiles on their faces.

Off I set again with stomach grumblings now gone, and we run through the grounds of the castle which are absolutely beautiful.  I hit the first transition area and look at my watch, the distance just under 11k and realize I’ve just ran my fastest 10k this year.  Onto the bike and out onto the roads towards Errigal, something is wrong, my bike keeps slipping gear and I’m not sure if my legs are tired or the bike seems to be dragging, I blame the tired legs after the quick 10k I’ve put in, I start my ascent and my bike is fighting with me more and more, I’m literally battling with it, I’m being passed and passed by more people and I’m starting to struggle mentally and physically, the bike is always my strongest discipline. I keep getting on and off the bike to see what is wrong with the bike and can’t see anything, I’m wondering if there is a problem with the chain, the brakes, I keep pedaling.  Pulled in at the side of the road is a spectator in a construction van, I ask him if he has any grease that I can put on the gears, unfortunately he hasn’t got anything to help, I head on and eventually come to the peak, of the hill.  All my friends call me the speed demon, no downhill fear so I’m delighted with myself to have reached the peak, but my bike is still battling with me, I can’t pick up speed and the gears are still slipping, I’m nearly defeated when I reach transition area.  I cross the road to begin the ascent up mount Errigal and I’m about 100m in, when I stop and fight with myself about giving up and turning around, I have a couple of minutes discussion with myself, I think it was an internal discussion but could have been an out loud conversation. Eventually positive wins over and tells me you will eventually get to the top and then its all downhill.  I’m taking it one marker at a time and struggling, really struggling, but when I look around so many others are too.  About a third of the way up, I meet Ava who is on her way down, she looks at me and knows something is up, she asks me if I’m OK and I just reply no.. She tells me she is in first position and takes off like a lunatic, I’m delighted for her as she has trained so hard but I turn and look back at the mountain, I talk myself through every single step, and at one point I have to sit down and look back this motivates me to see how far I have come, other competitors are cheering each other on and keeping up the banter, I’m talking about there being a pint for everyone at the top. This carries on for another 30 minutes and this time I lie face down and wonder why I have paid €100 to put my body through this, I could be on a spa weekend with a glass of champagne. Snap out of it Jane and just get to the god damn top, picking myself up and I reach the top, I feel like Kate Winslet in Titanic and I shout “Hallelujah”, then sit down again before taking on the descent. The descent is tough, slippy and with such large overgrowth you can’t decipher what’s underfoot and have no choice but to take it easy.  Looking at the poor souls starting their journey up, I give every single one of them a word of encouragement; they need it, back to transition and onto a short 3 km cycle to the Kayak transition.

I love the Kayak but am defeated and plod down to the area to put on my life-jacket.  I ask the guy next to me do you want to double up, he says “yes sure” and he sits in the back, we slide into the water and wallop I get a paddle to the head, I ask him to keep paddling and follow my lead, I ask him if he has ever kayaked before and he said yes.  We keep going off course and I keep trying to straighten the Kayak, I’m paddling hard and the guy says to me “Why are you trying to race this, slow down” at this point I just kind of give up but maybe he has a point and I sit back and relax, I know at this stage it is just a battle with myself and nobody else.  Out of the Kayak and I plod back to the last bike section.  I’m normally one for waving at the cameras and smiling happily  but I keep the head down and keep pedaling, the thoughts that I’m nearly there keeping me going, I keep looking at my watch and the miles seem to be going so slow, I perk up when I realize I’m coming into Bunbeg, the big downhill to the finish line is a welcome retreat, i throw my bike on the ground like everyone else and run out onto the beach and I think about what the man in the kayak said, why are you trying to race this and I walk along the beach with the spectators shouting and cheering me on.

I hear Ava call my name in the distance but it doesn’t push me on, up the little bank and down the hill into the finish gantry, a medal is placed over me and Ava is there with a smile on her face and a hug and I sit with a thud to the ground and cry, and cry until a beer is handed to me and I devour it.  After a few minutes of self pity and self wallowing, it’s time to pick myself back up and eat everything around me and listen Ava retell her story of her win and then how she got worried about me as I had said I would do it in 4 hours, unfortunately that was not to be, I crossed in 4.31.

On bringing my back to my mechanic 2 days later he doesn’t understand how I managed to get through the race at all, I shouldn’t have been able to cycle at all, something happened to my poor baby bike and it was in the wars, but she got me through.

However, when I look back, I had a great run, best run this year, the surroundings were absolutely stunning, the comradeship of the other competitors is outstanding in adventure racing, the event was well run (other than a missing portaloo at the start line) and I finished it, and my running buddy won, to finish our first year adventure racing year on a high.  We drank and ate and danced the night way and I cried again. But when we put our minds to it we can achieve anything.  Our minds are very powerful things, think positive and you shall achieve positive.

Looking forward to hitting the circuit hard in 2019 and if I could recommend one event for next year it would without a shadow of a doubt be an adventure race in Lilliput adventure centre.