I grew up in the north of Ireland and was born in the remote region of County Donegal. So when I saw a 65km adventure race advertised 30 minutes from my birthplace, I couldn’t help but register.
The race was run by Extreme North, a new adventure racing company based on Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula. They have seen the potential of this remote part of Ireland, with its rolling hills, rugged coastline, and stunning, un-spoilt scenery. They have also seen the country’s rise in interest in long distances multi-sport races, with the likes of Gaelforce, Causeway Adventure Racing Series, and the WAR races becoming more and more popular.
It was wet, windy, cold, and generally miserable when I arrived at the race start. The weather only added to my apprehension. I’d never done an individual multi-sport race before. And to make matters worse, I’d never raced on a road bike before. In fact, I had just borrowed my bike from Peter Crommie, my Beast of Ballyhoura team-mate and owner of Roe Valley Cycles in local Limavady.
It was mostly men arriving at Ballyliffin’s Pollon Beach that morning. Only two other women turned up, and one of them did the short course. In fact it was actually quite a small turn-out, with 22 people in total in the extreme race. Quite a shame, as the race route turned out to be quite spectacular. It started with a 17km run around Doagh Island, returning to the start via Doagh beach. Then, a bike pick-up to cycle south on the country roads towards Urris hills. Then there was meant to be a 2km kayak section, but this had to be cancelled due to the windy weather whipping up the sea. This meant that we were straight on to a 7km hill run up trail, bog, and burnt heather. This was all finished off with a 20km cycle back home via the steep Mamore Gap and Pincher’s corner. Click here to view the full course.
Not knowing how to pace such a race, I set out at a steady run. For the first hour, I sat behind some other lads who looked like they knew what they were doing. The route took us over undulating tarmac, with views over deserted pristine beaches, too cold for sunbathers but perfect for intrepid surfers.
I got back to my bike after 1 hour 22 minutes, and then waited to be overtaken. Surprisingly, no one passed me. Everyone was wearing road biking clothes, so I was totally expecting to be nailed on the road cycles by the local peleton. But after 37 minutes I arrived at Urris Hill without having lost a position.
Then the fun began. Whilst the others were masters on the road, I was the mistress on the hill. I ran up it whilst the others walked, being shot dirty looks as I passed them out. Years of mountain running in Wicklow finally paid off as I disappeared down the boggy slopes, only slowing momentarily to make sure I didn’t lose the far-and-few between marks.
I only got to spend 53 minutes on the hill before I was forced back on the road bike. And with my legs tired already from 3 hours on the tear, cycling up Mamore Gap wasn’t going to happen. Later Peter, who leant me the bike, told me that the bike wasn’t geared for hills. No wonder that even in the lowest gear I wasn’t able to turn those wheels.
When I finally got to the top and began the steep descent, my biking gloves went flying out of my pocket. I wasn’t interested in investing in another pair, so pulled to a stop on the steep slope. Fortunately there was a garda car edging down the hill behind me. The local policeman hopped out of the car, grabbed my gloves, and bolted down the road after me in hot pursuit. I thanked the law enforcement officer who finally caught me for not making me trek all the way back up the hill.
I was tired on the final cycle home, but determined not to be caught by the lads who were out to get me after the mountain run. Fortunately I had recced the course during the week, so had no problems finding my way home. Such was not the case for Peter who ended up taking a wrong turn on this final leg, and instead of winning the race when he was in the lead, he came in a close second.
In the end, I finished the race in 3 hours 48 minutes, first female home, and third overall. It was nice to have a win on home turf, right beside where I was raised. And it was great to discover a bit more of Ireland’s northern coast that is so close to my ancestral home.
Want to hear more adventure race tales? Check out my book, “Mud, Sweat and Tears” with stories from the World Adventure Racing Championships.