Going Good at Donegal’s Gaelforce North Adventure Race

There’s nothing like a race on home turf. So when I saw that the next race in the Adventure Race Series was up in County Donegal, I definitely planned on entering.

The last bike section to Bunbeg, with Mt Errigal conquered already.
The last bike section to Bunbeg, with Mt Errigal conquered already.

Gaelforce North’s course goes through parts of the county I’d not been to in 20 years. It starts with a 15km run through Glenveagh National Park, taking in its castle and beautiful gardened grounds. Then there is a 2km kayak on the waters of Lake Gartan, followed by a bike to Mount Errigal. Despite having lived in the north of Ireland for over half my life, I still hadn’t managed to climb up that local mountain. And with a final bike west to the Atlantic coast and Bunbeg, it is a mouth-watering route that I knew I would relish.

Unfortunately I wasn’t going to be allowed to go sightseeing. The Form Guide released a few days before put me as firm favourite. I emailed Paul Mahon, its author and runner of the Series, to dampen his expectations. However my second place in Dingle apparently showed I was in “good form” and so “hard to beat”. I also had distance on my side. Donegal is the far end of the country, a four hour plus journey for Dublin residents. For me, it was an excuse for a trip home to see the parents and the bonus of a weekend adventure race thrown in.

Saturday morning and my other half dropped me off in the middle of nowhere on a rural road at the south end of Glenveagh. The giant inflatable Start arch was the only sign that a race was happening… that, and the 400 other competitors that were mulling around waiting for the off.

The run along Lough Veagh.
The run along Lough Veagh.

Bright and early, we were gone by 8.30am, sprinting down a 2km trail leading down to the shores of Lough Veagh. Soon enough, I knew I was the leading female.

But despite this knowledge, I ran my own race, keeping a close eye on my heart rate, resisting the temptation to overtake fellow athletes. This was a good plan, as I didn’t know that we had started with a bunch of speedy Sprint athletes. After the Castle, they peeled off to the left, whilst the Full course runners headed on up the hill. Suddenly, the numbers doing the longer 64km course were few and far between.

Down to the transition, I met the leading males exiting with their bikes. I however still had a kayak section to do before hitting the road. I got in a boat with a guy called Tom, and we paddled quickly up to the buoy and back. I noticed the next girl getting into a kayak just as we finished our paddle, so I reckoned I had a 7-10 minute lead on her.

On to the bike and I spun the legs to get them moving again after my brief kayak sit-down. I had been warned that this bike section can have terrible headwinds, it being on an exposed wide road heading west through a mountainous valley. But somehow, the Gods had blessed us, and we had blue skies and only warm gentle breezes for the whole of the day. By now our race route coincided with the Sprinters so bikers were littered all along the road section. And, looming large, was Mount Errigal right in front of us.

Ascending Mount Errigal. Courtesy of geograph.org.uk
Ascending Mount Errigal. Courtesy of geograph.org.uk

Off the bike, I started to climb this 751 meter mountain. “Why do we do this to ourselves?” a girl wondered out loud as I passed her on the grassy slope. I didn’t have the breath or brainpower to answer her. The Sprint course went as far as the shoulder, but the Full course headed on up to the summit via the rocky path. I met the leaders coming down, and began to release that I was in the top 15 overall. I resolved to keep safe for the rest of the race, not to push too hard and blow up, or fall over down the mountain, or puncture on my bike.

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I was up and down the mountain in 45 minutes, then back on the bike for the final leg. I knew this section was off road, but was prepared with my trusty Gaitorskins. I forgot though how bumpy off road can be on a non-suspension road bike, and managed to bump a huge blister onto my right hand. I kept pushing on, politely asking Sprint course athletes to make way as they at times rode two a breast on the dual tracks.

Back on to the road and signs said Bunbeg, 3km ahead. I pushed on, looking forward to finishing and hoping to make it home before 4 hours. Dumping the bike, there was a short 500m beach run over some dunes before doubling back to the Finish line. I crossed in 3 hours 44 minutes, ahead of what I had hoped. But more importantly, I was first lady home, so had 100 points in the bag for the Adventure Race Series to add to my 99 from Dingle.

Next up on the Series, it’s Gaelforce West in August. Last year, 1400 participants took part. It’s going to be a big one.

Results from Gaelforce North can be found here.

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