“We have to go out fast”, our team leader said. We all agreed. Looking around the room, there was some serious competition. Not only had Irish team “Get No Sleep” turned up, but there was a group of foreigners in our midst. They had to be good if they were sponsored by Salomon and had travelled all the way from Denmark just to race.
We were in Northern Ireland’s Sperrin Mountains for CCAR’s Raid, a 24 hour adventure race on the cusp of winter time. We were prepared for 13 hours of darkness and wet, boggy mountains. We were even ready for the clocks going back by an hour in the middle of the night to mark the official beginning of winter.
Other teams had similar race tactics of setting a brutal pace. No sooner than we were started, everyone charged up Crockbrack Mountain for the first control. We reached there first, but were quickly followed by the Danes. I had figured that, living in a flat country, they’d be useless on the hills. Little did I know how wrong I’d be.
With the Danes now ahead of us, our race plan had to change. “Going out fast” changed to “Follow the Danes”. It was a inspired idea. We headed to Derrynoyd Wood and proceeded to follow them around the orienteering course. Their slick navigation saved us minutes and we came out of the woods neck and neck.
We sat together for the next few hours whilst we trekked over the mountains, watching and waiting for the other team to make a move. It was only when we headed towards the waterfall south of Meenard Mountain that we went our separate ways. We decided to contour around Mullaghaneany Mountain on better terrain whilst they went to the saddle west of the mountain’s summit. And, though their route choice gave them a lead of some 5 minutes on us, our speed on mountain slopes meant we arrived at the control at the same time, just as darkness fell.
It was around 7.30pm when we arrived at our bikes, having cleared all of the controls thus far. It was dark and raining. My hands wouldn’t fit into my gloves. My socks were wringing in cold bog water. But despite all this adversity, we still managed to edge away on our bikes before the elusive Danes.
The lead wasn’t to last. First we overshot a control by accident and had to go back for it. And as we returned for it, the Danes cycled past. Then with three punctures in quick succession, it marked the last we saw of the Danes.
At 2 am, we arrived at the Shepherd’s Rest Inn for a spot of rifle shooting. All 4 of us had 5 tries each, and though I had never shot such a gun before, I managed to get all 5. “What do ye expect?”, said one of my team members. “She’s from Derry” a notorious place during Northern Ireland’s troubles.
Our misses though were to make the race all the more tight. The Danes had scored 19 out of 20. And they were now over 30 minutes ahead of us. We were resigned to letting them go. But later on we found out that Team Get No Sleep had gained the perfect score. Though they were behind us, they had more points, meaning that we were now in the race to keep our second place.
On through the night we rode picking up all the controls, whilst taking our time on the night foot orienteering section to make sure we didn’t lose our way. A careful eye was kept on the clock to make sure we didn’t miss the kayak cut-off time. Teams were to be on the water from 7 am to 8.30 am. Arrive before then and you got to go off the clock if you had all the controls up to there. So we were a happy bunch when we arrived at the shores of Lough Neagh at 6.50 am, earning us 10 minutes to eat and change. The Danes were already there snuggled up in their sleep bags, luxuriating in having arrived over an hour before.
By 7.30 am, we were on the water, paddling the short distance up to Ballyronan Marina from our Battery starting point. It was a novelty to be sitting down and to be travelling in daylight. It didn’t last long as after 90 minutes we were back on our bikes and cycling towards The Jungle and its high ropes. I hate heights and high ropes and anything to do with falling. So it’s not surprising that I did the bare minimum and lost our team bonus points.
Our calculations were that Team Get No Sleep’s score was perilously close to ours. But they were behind us on the course. The only strategy we had left was to get the 100 point control by trekking to the summit of Slieve Gallion, and hope that they wouldn’t have enough time to get it. It was miserable up there. The wind and rain was howling, and the trail was badly eroded and sodden. The things you do for a couple of points is quite ludicrous.
From the top, we ran down to Lough Fea and picked up our bikes, two hours after having left them before. A 30 minute cycle and we were back in Sixmile town and crossed over the finish line. Our calculations had been spot on. We secured second place with our Slieve Gallion visit, behind the well-deserved Danish winners. But regardless of places, we all headed to the Shepherd’s Rest Inn for food and pints, to retell the tales and relive the battles that took place on that wintery weekend in the Sperrins.
All photos courtesy of Andy Lyle.
Want to hear more adventure race tales? Check out my book, “Mud, Sweat and Tears” with stories from the World Adventure Racing Championships.