I swore 5 years ago that I would never adventure race again. 5 years on, I have forgotten all the reasons why I made that very same promise. So, thanks to my amnesia, last Saturday at 6am I found myself at the start line of Ireland’s Beast of Ballyhoura 36 hour non-stop adventure race. It was dark and raining. I suddenly remembered Ireland’s shite weather was one of the reasons behind my original adventure racing moratorium.
I had agreed to race with some of the best adventure racers in the country. Paul Mahon, an old friend from mountain running days, had persuaded me to join his crack team of Adrian Hennessy and Peter Cromie. I figured that it would be a good way to spend some of my 6 weeks’ summer holiday in Ireland, catching up with old friends and fellow racers, as well as a chance to see again some of Ireland’s best countryside.
The course itself was made up of 56 checkpoints over 300km of terrain. 27 of them were optional bonus checkpoints. Looking at the map, there were two main dilemmas. The first was whether or not to do the kayak bonus early on in the course that was worth 60 points. This problem was due to the fact that our team was composed of runners and bikers, definitely not boat people. The second issue was that there were 320 bonus points on foot and 240 bonus bikes points available in Ballyhoura that was right towards the end of the course. Taking too much time picking up bonus points early on in the race could delay us reaching Ballyhoura with enough time to gather the 560 points on offer. In the end, the need to get to Ballyhoura meant that, before we even started the race, we decided not to go for the 60 kayaking points. We spent the next 36 hours second-guessing whether it was a good or bad move to make.
At 6am, we found ourselves with 24 other four-person teams at Farran Woods, close to Cork city, at the National Rowing Centre at Inniscarra Reservoir. Two of our lads dove into the Lee’s waters and swam 800 metres before handing orienteering maps to Paul and I. I was glad to be nowhere near the cold river waters at such an early hour. Three years’ in warm Asian climates had made me a little soft. At that point, the unending morning drizzle was enough cold water for me.
After a bit of rusty orienteering on my part, we jumped into our double sit-on top kayaks for 3.5 hours of paddling. The weather remained miserable for the morning, made all the more miserable when our team picked up a 10 point penalty for portaging our boats along the road after running out of water to paddle in. Apparently other teams had found the inlet, but we had failed to find the source.
By 10.30am, we were done paddling and headed straight for our bikes. When I used to adventure race, everyone used spd pedals that need a second set of bike shoes in addition to your running shoes. However our team were using power grips, straps that fitted across the pedal so that no shoe change was required. It made transitions very quick, with no need to carry the added weight of shoes, whilst still having some sort of traction to pull up the pedals whilst cycling. It was a good move.
The crucial decision at this stage was how many bonus points to pick up. One team member wanted to get into the next trek stage as soon as possible and pick up only two checkpoints on the way. Two others wanted to pick up all the bike controls before the trek, as returning to pick up bonus points at a later stage was not allowed. (At this stage I didn’t know what was best, so just kept quiet). Fortunately the majority prevailed and we proceeded to visit them all.
I’ve not been on hills for nearly two years what with living in flat Cambodia. But this didn’t seem to matter with the team I was with. Adrian and Peter had elastic tow ropes attached to their bikes, and as soon as I hit any slopes, all I had to do was take up the tows floating in front of me and hold on as they pulled me up, bike and all. And when on the flat, I would stick to the rear tyre of whoever was in front of me to save that 30% of extra energy through efficient slipstreaming. Admittedly there was one team member I didn’t slipstream much due to his high level of flatulence throughout the race.
Paul was the principle navigator, and he did an outstanding job of finding all the bike checkpoints straight away. Our only hitch was finding the one in the cave that was plonked in the middle of a forest that had paths running off in all directions that were not marked on any maps. Only Peter’s strawberry iced donuts could cheer us up after trying to find that one.
After 3 hours, at 1.30pm, we got off our bikes and began our ascent into the Boggeragh Mountains. After an easy climb on a rocky road, we headed to the bonus point on the summit. The terrain was shite beyond belief. Crap marsh and bog with long grass and heather. I struggled to keep with my longer legged teammates. We then decided to descend back to the main track rather than risk short cutting through a nearby forest that looked densely planted from above. Another good move, as we heard later of another team getting stuck in the dense forest undergrowth. A minor navigation error on the track lost us a few minutes before we finally found ourselves at the bottom of the valley and at Comeenatrush waterfall.
We were informed the checkpoint was in the center of the waterfall. By now it had been raining all day and the water was pounding down its slopes. We ploughed into the stream, only to be blinded by the force of the water. Peter got scrapped up badly as he headed further into its stream and ended up hitting the rocks. Fortunately Adrian saw the box slightly to side and we punched it, but not before I came out looking pretty much like a drowned rat.
The water stop gave us a chance to change into dry clothes before continuing on with the trek. We made good progress, all of us running the flat and downhill parts of the course that was by now way-marked. We ate as we ran, sharing our fare between each other. Paul tucked into a huge bag of cold pasta. I enjoyed cheese and pickle sandwiches and chocolate. Adrian was into his mother’s flapjacks with apricots. There was good banter and good humour. We knew we were moving well. Our good time meant we decided to get all the bonuses on the trek, heading up one more mountain towards the end and before sunset. The area was badly flooded with the day’s rain, the trails more rivers than roads. But fortunately the rain stopped for the night and wouldn’t start again until Sunday morning.
We finished the trek at 9pm, 7.5 hours after leaving our bikes behind. However when we arrived at the place where the organisers were meant to transport our bikes, they were not to be found. We were immediately taken off the clock. All of us put loads of clothing on, stuffed ourselves food, and Adrian proceeded to fall asleep in the back of the marshall’s van. The CamRacers team arrived in 5 minutes later, and their bikes weren’t around either. We had to wait a whole hour before the bikes were to turn up in the van. By then it was dark and we had lost an hour of daylight to bike in. But there was nothing that we could do.
It took me a while to get used to biking in the dark again. The speed at which the lads shot down the roads in the pitch black terrified me as I struggled to catch up. And then the sleepmonsters started late in the night. I saw a few zebras in the hedge. The hedges then turned into giant castles and arches that we biked under. I couldn’t remember my team members’ names. When Adrian spoke, I didn’t recognize his voice and thought that a random man had turned up in our team and was telling us which direction we should go in.
Soon however I settled into a rhythm. I stuck close to Peter and his bike lights so that I could see where we were going. We made good progress as we continued to pick up all the bike controls. It was 3am on Sunday morning by the time we reached Ballyhass Lakes, and we had punched all the bike and trek controls thus far. All we had failed to get was that 60 pointer kayak bonus which still continued to haunt us.
At Ballyhass, we found a shed full of adventure racers. They were huddled inside drinking tea and looking shattered. Paul wouldn’t let us delay however and got us straight out onto the orienteering loop that involved a bit of running and kayaking. Then it was down to a rock face for a climb and abseil. I hate anything to do with climbing or heights, but given that each team member could gain 250 points for going up and down, I wasn’t going to cry off.
No sooner were we done than we jogged up to the shed, pulled out clothes and food, filled our water bottles, greased our bikes, and sped off after an hour of arrival. The idea of all the points available in the mountain range hurried us out the door by 4am. One hour later, we arrived at the GAA club that was the base for Ballyhoura. It was earlier than we expected to arrive, so we were looking in good shape.
For the next 8 hours we picked up all the trekking points over a 30km course. The terrain was pretty crap in places – marshes, rutted bog, uneven heather mounds. And then it started to rain again. Everything was going fine until we failed to find a point labeled trig point. It was a really tricky control located nowhere near a summit as expected and deep in a forested area. Unfortunately the delay in finding it meant I started to get cold and stiffen up. A leg muscle I used during the 3am climb section started to stiffen up. Running became a shuffle. I felt so bad as I didn’t want to annoy my team or let them down. So they filled me up with panadol and I promised to move as quickly as I could.
We got back on our bikes at 1pm, later than we had hoped. Our new cut off time was 7pm given the delay we had in collecting our bikes the night before. Fortunately the leg muscle that was giving me trouble wasn’t needed for biking. But by now we had all slowed a little, tired from over a day of adventuring.
All but two of the Ballyhoura bike controls lay on one side of the mountain. We made the decision not to climb over to get the two stray ones on the other side. One of our team members wasn’t happy with this decision. He was worried that the teams who had got the 60 point kayak bonus control the day before could still beat us if we left these two out. But the rest of us thought that it was too great a risk to try and get them as it could have meant arriving back at Castletownroache after the cut-off time. It was very difficult to tell who was in the lead and who was doing well, such was the nature of this bonus-strewn course.
We got back to Castletownroche around 5pm. Two ziplines and a rubber tubing section down the river later and we crossed the finish line with over an hour to spare. Then we began to wait to hear the final result. In the meantime, the lack of sleep began to catch up on me. Having not done a multi-day adventure race for over 5 years, I had driven myself to exhaustion. I needed three layers of clothing to keep myself warm, completely lost my appetite, then fell asleep in the pub. Fortunately someone gave me a lift back to the base so that I could grab 2 hours of sleep.
I felt better by 10pm when they had worked out how the teams had done. And in the end, our strategy of bagging 53 out of the possible 56 controls had worked. We had won the race by 50 points from the UK based second placed team. I was totally relieved. I knew how unprepared I was for the race after years of training in flat and warm Cambodia. So it just goes to show what an incredible team the Outfront/MSAI lot are that they could pull me around and still manage to win. It was a privilege to race with them and to see their tricks of the trade. And was great to dip my foot again into the Irish adventure racing scene again and to see just how fit and vibrant it is.
Results from the 2012 Beast of Ballyhoura can be found here.
Coverage in the Irish Independent Fit Magazine can be downloaded here.