“I’m going to do an adventure race before my maternity leave is up.” It was a promise I made to myself before my baby was even born. It was a goal I needed to mentally make, something to get me back on my bike and back wearing my running shoes within a few weeks of the birth.
I initially signed up for the Rugged Peaks race in October, close to home up here in Donegal. But when it was cancelled at the last minute due to low entry numbers, I had to find another race to aim for. The only one left on the calendar was the Sea to Summit race. It was scheduled for the start of November in Westport, County Mayo. I had seen the photos from last year’s event, lads in skimpy triathlon suits running up the snow covered peak of Croagh Patrick. It looked cold and painful, but it would have to do.
There wasn’t much time to prepare. My son was born in mid July. I was back on the bike at the start of August, but couldn’t run properly until September. My ultimate goal is to be fit for the 2014 season. So for the last two months I’ve built my endurance base, resisting the temptation to be race fit at the end of this year.
A week before Sea to Summit I did a series of time trials. A 22 minute 6 second run over five kilometres quickly showed me I didn’t have much speed for the race. And I knew I was up against some savage bikers and triathletes who’ve been competing and winning all season. Looking up previous year’s results, I instead gave myself the goal of completing in less than 4 hours. And I decided to use the race to have a bit of mountain running fun, to enjoy the savage, steep and stony descent off Croagh Patrick.
1500 participants gathered at 9am on Saturday morning outside Westport’s Castlecourt Hotel for the start of the Sea to Summit. 461 of them were in the Supreme race, the longer one I had entered. In front of us lay a 4km run to Westport Quay, a 8km cycle to the base of Croagh Patrick, an ascent and descent of the 764 metre mountain, a 35km bike ride via Maum Gap, with a final 4.5km run back to the start via an obstacle course.
What worried me most however was not the race but leaving my baby for a whole four hours. The longest I had left him before was two and a half hours, by which time he was starving and crying for milk. So on the pavement outside the hotel I gave me a quick top-up feed, before leaving him with his father and a promise to be back before 1 O’clock.
The race started at a gallop, with the series leaders Fiona Meade and Marie Boyle sprinting off at the start. Much as I wanted to join them, I opted to run at my own pace and see how I got along. Getting to the bikes, I came out in 5th position. And then drafted as much as possible on the short cycle into Croagh Patrick.
The last time I raced up Croagh Patrick was back in 2008 during IMRA’s Connaught Championship. I could tell I hadn’t mountain run for a while as I slowly made my way up. The ascent was just as painful as I remembered from all those years ago. And it was obvious I had lost some descending courage as I stuttered and stammered over the rocky descent. Fortunately I had enough braking power to avoid mowing over some of the short-course Spirit competitors. Still, my time earned me the second fastest woman on the mountain, and by the bottom, I had worked my way up to third position. And who was waiting for me at the bottom but my son and husband, giving me tons of encouragement.
I greeted my family, grabbed my bike and headed out towards Maum Gap. Racers were spaced out along the road, the Reek having separated us out, reducing drafting possibilities. The road steepened at times to ridiculous gradients, making me get off my bike and push so as to not blow up my heart rate. I got to the top of the hill in 42 minutes, and from then it was a push all the way to Westport. I cycled as hard as I could, knowing that brilliant girl bikers were behind me. But despite their looming presence, I got into the bike transition without another girl passing me.
It sounds like a trivial amount after all that we had been through, but the last 4.5 km run nearly killed me. I heaved myself over the hay bale strewn obstacle course and shuffled along the greenway back to town centre, all the time waiting for a woman to overtake me. I reached the finish in 3 hours 47 minutes and 44 seconds, well under the 4 hour time limit I had set myself. And less than a minute later, a fellow female competitor crossed the line behind me.
A quick check on the internet later and the provisional race results confirmed I had taken a podium place. To say I was chuffed is an understatement. My son was fast asleep by the time prize giving rolled around that evening. So I carried him up in my wrap so that he could sleepily share in my 3rd placed result.
It may sound crazy to compete in an adventure race less than four months after giving birth. But more and more women are now proving that it can be done. Pregnancy doesn’t have to automatically mean lost fitness and weight gain. And in fact, the training after my son’s birth and the goal of racing again has kept me healthy and happy during these post-natal months.