Over Christmas, Whilst having a beer I seen on FB a post about some race in Donegal.. 555km.. My initial thoughts were “Jesus that would be a test” how so right that proved to be.. more about that later!
My main reason for entering this race was to test myself mentally, and physically with the hope that it would provide me with the mental resolve to race hard in Kona..
Planning my year is a pretty simple affair, for me all roads lead to Kona in October, and anything else would just have to fit in round training for that.. The start of the year was just getting back fit, and then being in some sort of shape for Barcelona 70.3 in May. That came and past pretty quickly, and the realisation that I had a 555km bike Race to do 4 weeks later hit home. I had planned on getting up to Donegal and riding the route in stages, with recovery from 70.3 and just general stuff I did not get up. That was mistake number one! My actual training for the race consisted of a 7hr bike and a 10hr bike.. covering 300km for the 10hrs.. I kept my swimming and running volume up and fitness was good.. Alas I did not know the beast that lay ahead in the hills of Donegal!
I assembled a trusty crew of Alan Gray and Peter Tomany and my wife Ashling.. Alan, Peter and myself headed to Letterkenny on the Thursday for registration in The Mount Errigal Hotel. The guys done a great job check in was smooth and fast.. Once I picked up my bag the butterflies started.. “Jesus what have I entered” I was thinking, and then at the race briefing with a room of ~400 people I am thinking ” I might have bit of a bit more than I can chew here” This was brand new territory for me.. It is very rare I get nerves pre IM racing anymore.. even in Kona! I know exactly what is ahead and have my routine down to a fine art.. Here I had no idea of what lay ahead.. I had practiced food/fluids on the 10hr bike.. but I knew i would have at least double of that to do come race day. The navigational side of things was freaking me out..The use of two way radios to communicate between rider and car.. none of us had any experience of this type of stuff. Total fear of the unknown was gripping me. I like to be in control! But again the challenge of this was why I signed up.. In Kona it never ever goes to plan, you need to be able to adapt to the changing situations and just get on with it. Well.. I certainly was going to get a lesson in adapting to changing situations very very soon.
Off to bed for a bad nights sleep.. Just tossing and turning, sleeping for what felt an eternity, only to look at the watch and see 1hr had passed.. The alarm went off and I actually felt rested, but nervous.. I took my HR/HRV test and my resting HR was 12 beats above normal.. That freaked me out a little, I didnt feel that bloody nervous! I was just hoping I was not getting sick.. I hit myself a slap and said its just nerves.. “Get on with it” My only goal for today was to finish, I was under zero pressure and I just had to get that into my thick head. Breakfast with the lads, which went down no problem. Ashling drove down that morning with enough food to feed an army.. My plan was whole foods, no processed crap.. Mostly fats/proteins.. It works for me year round, so why change now.. I wanted to stay away from the sugars for as long as possible.
Suited up with my new RH1 gear from Base2Race all wired up with my radio and ear piece and off to the start ramp, there was a great buzz about the place TDF stuff!
I was starting on my TT bike which I am most comfortable on. I did not know how long I would be on it for, and I was hoping Peter/Alan would make the right call as when to switch.. Light rain starting, but it was warm(ish) and a tailwind.. HR was high for the effort I was putting in, I was concerned! Cruising along 23/26mph.. Ah Jasus sure this is great I was thinking.. Ah Mama Mia that all came to an abrupt end 60(ish) K out when I got the call to change bikes in Moville. Changed bikes quick chat, everyone in good mood.. I do not know any of the village names I was going through, all I knew was I was going up.. up.. and up.. hill after hill! Just steady climbing though and under no pressure.. We did take a few wrong turns throughout the race, Something I was not getting to stressed about.. “Sure whats a few extra kms over 555km:)” In the race briefing I did listen and was aware at some stage I would have a very quick decent.. sharp left hand turn.. We were warned to be in the wee ring making that turn. I took the turn, all pleased with myself for remembering to be in the wee ring.. I turned and F**K Me was my thoughts.. do i have to go up that! It was steep.. Very steep and with the rain my back wheel was slipping and I was all over the shop.. any man with a video of that will make good money.. Side to side.. even done a few track stands.. HR through the roof.. so much for have X as a power cap.. It was only a km long or so and I was pleased to get to the top without falling off.. Thank god for that i said.. looking a few K up the road to see another team car doing what looked like a hand stand going up another hill.. Holy Moly! After I get up that the car pulled up to give me a bottle.. Ash winds down the window and is shouting out * Honey.. I cant believe they made you go up that* I did not know weather to laugh or cry, because these hills on the route map were just bumps.. There would be a lot more climbing ahead and a lot more tests! Everything was going well.. I felt good the weather was ok and the kms ticked off nicely.. Up past Malin head strong winds.. but all manageable stuff.. Of course it was manageable.. I had not biked 5hrs yet!
I was getting a bit anxious though as I knew I had not gone up any of the major climbs, And then I seen the sign.. “Mamore Gap” I was excited because I know the lads climbed it a few weeks earlier during the Ras.. The only word for it is Savage.. never have I seen or being on such a climb.. I kid you not for those who dont know.. Its just a wall.. HR and all types of power records being broke.. I simply could not believe something like this was in Ireland.. There was fantastic support, with people cheering you on.. thank you to all.. sorry I couldnt reply. I seen the green flags ahead and thought surly that must be the top.. It was.. Crested to my relief only to be greeted with what looked like a 3/4k straight vertical drop.. It reminded me of a black ski run.. Just straight down.. I dont know what speed I was doing.. I was just holding on for dear life! The thyme continued.. Climb after climb.. Until we got back onto the carriageway I had being on earlier in the day with the lovely tailwind.. Block headwind the whole was back to Letterkkenny to start the second loop.. It really was a slog.. ~200k done at this stage.. Going up Mamore I felt a little twinge on my inside right knee.. was not sore but enough to notice.. Driving into this headwind seemed to be really irritating it now I was getting worried.. I stopped at the Hotel were we started to eat.. I forgot about the knee, but almost straight away once I started to pedal there was pain.. proper pain.. The car had gone on out the road ahead of me, and even though I had a tailwind I was really struggling to use my right leg.. my power split confirmed 70/30.. I could not even get over a small bump in the road.. I was biking ~5/10mph at most.. My race was over i thought.. completely gutted to think I was not going to finish the race.. The car had stopped to wait for me out the road.. I pulled up and said my race was over.. Options were take pain killers etc, but in my mind was Kona.. I might get another 1 or 2 hrs out of a painkiller and end up really busting my knee.. but I really really did not want to quit.. In my mind I was questioning myself.. ” Am I just taking the easy way out” ” Sure i dont need this race” ” Think of Kona” I honestly knew though I did have a valid reason to stop.. Alan said it was rolling for another 20k or so to another big climb.. Rathmullen.. He said if I couldnt get up that I had no chance for the steeper longer climbs that lay after that.. So I made my mind up, to bike that 20k, more so to ease my conscience. Because I knew i would be quitting at the bottom of it.. More pain, severe at times.. but I made the 20k that I did not even think i would.. At the bottom I did not stop I knew if I did I would not get back on the bike.. Painful.. but a glorious climb.. and a fantastic decent.. I was in dont let your mind think mode.. just keep peddling.. Still all the while I was moving forward.. The mind battle had truly commenced!
Onwards I went.. A lot of feeling sorry for myself all the negative thoughts of the day.. All the reasons in the world to quit.. but only one to keep going.. I kept reminding myself this was the exact reason why I signed on.. Mental strength.. fortitude.. I need to have these… and they can not be bought in a shop! From hour 10 onwards I decided to dedicate an hour to a family member/friend and I could not let those people down..
It was getting dark now and my task just seemed to be getting harder and harder.. The car had stopped in a village to put my night lights on, I pulled up and said to Alan/Peter ” I am done” I do not know if these two have studied reverse psychology, but there answer was ” Ok.. If you feel its not good to continue make the call” I believe if they had to have said, No keep going dont give up, I actually would have got off! This for me was the turning point, because I knew I was quitting not because of my knee.. but because I was wet, cold, tired.. I knew there was big climbs ahead.. and potentially another 8/9hrs of riding, mostly in the dark.. I so badly wanted to stop.. but so badly wanted to continue.. Thankfully the mood was lifted when i looked over at a chip shop only to see my wife head of the cue.. We just all busted out laughing and the demon spell was broken.. leg over bike and off I went.. Still wet, cold blah blah blah.. but I had won another battle.
We got to the only place on course were I had to sign on myself, this is a great idea and gives the race directors a chance to assess the rider, to see if they are fit to continue.. Warm food and coffee was a god send.. I got to stretch out my knee/hips etc.. spent more time than needed there, but I was not racing anyone.. Only me! From the nice warm hall onto the bike it was baltic… Almost dark.. Peter said ” A loop of Hook Head now” Another steep climb which warmed me up.. Only to be treated by views that would raise a dead mans soul.. I done the loop and it was now dark.. For some strange reason I felt at ease.. Never rode in the dark before, but i had a weird sense of calm.. And for some reason once it got dark i fully knew in my mind I had won the battle… I would pedal with one leg to the finish line if needed..
One thing was looming in my mind though.. This ” Glengesh Pass” everyone warned me about.. I was thinking ” Maybe they cut it out” All the irrational thoughts off the day.. It started to rain quite heavy but spirits were high.
Alan was out on the road, and his words were ” Owen just climb it steady, it kicks up at the end” Here goes I thought.. I looked up to my left and it was like a scene you see when you see snow ploughs grooming slopes at night.. you can not see the mountain, but judging how small them lights are its a long way up.. lights zig zagging all the way.. Thankfully it was pitch black and I couldnt see were I was going.. I just rode looking at my front wheel, passing some of the other 2 or 4 man teams made me feel better, as I was not the only nut case suffering up a mountain in the dark and pouring rain..Out loud I was saying “Dont give up’just dont give up’ Over and over again.. The climb I had feared all day was over in a flash.. Either that or I fell asleep for most of it! I had a great sense of accomplishment.. Going down was hairy.. Ya know the saying.. “close your eyes and hope for the best” More climbs came and went.. I looked at my watch.. 3am.. I looked to my left and thought I seen the sun rise.. ” How out of it was I” Still raining and having to dodge some sheep and foxes on decents. Dawn was breaking.. Surly I am nearly done! nope still 100k or so to go:(.. At this stage I could see my eyes were starting to get real real heavy.. apart from the knee.. legs were great.. I had a few close calls with road furniture etc as real and proper tiredness kicked in.. I just felt like was drunk out of my mind.. Thats the only way to describe it.. Nothing was making sense, and I was getting confused as to how much I had done, and how much more I had to go.. I know I could have asked the lads.. But I told them at the start.. “dont tell me distance or time” Either way I just had to keep peddling.. Through Killybegs at early dawn was surreal.. It was wide road now and I was thinking, great only 20 or so K to go.. Seen the sign! LetterKenny 49km… ” Deflated” But no other choice to keep moving.. Drunk Drunk Drunk.. Eyes swelled to the point of closing.. Just keep peddling.. Broad daylight now and the sun was out.. Exhausted beyond belief.. People along the road cheering raising your spirits. This helped and I am sure took a smile to all athletes faces.. Just tip on home now owen I was saying.. Until Alan called over the radio and told me the guy who was one position ahead of me was 3k ahead.. I had to catch him, and put 2 min into him as he started behind me.. FFS!!!! why did you tell me that.. ~10/14k to go.. and it was ” Hold onto your ass Fred, Snowman is about to put the hammer down” caught and passed and put 1.58sec into him.. Ah jesus! Still I was happy to have that power with over 540km in my legs.. The Mount Errigal was a sight for very heavy, puffed and sore eyes.. not to mention legs. I was done! I did not quit…. I WON! Not the race..but the battle with myself.. I achieved exactly what i set out to.. I knew that this race would be a serious challenge.. I faced demons that I did not know existed.. I feel an immense sense of accomplimshment and pride in sticking it out..
Congratulations to all finishers.. From solos to teams.. You conquered a beast!
What is the lesson that stands out most for me in this race.. ” When I think i am done.. Finished! I have another 12hrs in the tank of mental strength”
Yes I biked it.. But no way could i have done it without my team.. Peter/Alan/Ashling were absolute stars.. The 4 of us stood at the finish line.. All 4 equally exhausted.. Thank you so so much!
Base2Race Dublin for all my gear, and Peter in the Shop for having my bikes running 100%.. Ray at The Bike Station for helping out also.. Thank you to all those people who stood out at there homes in the middle of the night just to cheer us on… The people of Donegal take a bow! To the race organisers take a bow on an outstanding race.. I simply cannot believe we have this scenery in this lovely country.. Words cannot describe properly the beauty of this course.. Anyone reading this from far away.. put this on your bucket list.. Anyone considering to do the race next year as a solo.. Prepare properly.. not like me!
Thank you for having the patience of reading.. Until the next time:)
Owen… Donegal Atlantic Way Ultra finisher:)