This year, I have been looking for new adventures. And Quest24 delivered this, and more, last weekend.
For the past five years, I’ve been doing one-day adventure races around Ireland and the UK. By the end of last year, however, I realised that the ‘racing’ part was taking over, in a stressful, competitive way. The ‘adventure’ part of adventure racing was being lost in the fight to come across the line. So, this year, I bowed out of doing the races I normally do. Instead, I went to Quest Wales for the first time to check out this new wilderness spot. I did the Denis Rankin Round because I wanted to get to know the Mourne Mountains well. So when Quest24 was announced, a new long-distance adventure race for this year, I decided to sign up because it brought participants to parts of Ireland that I had never visited before.
My grandfather is originally from Kerry, but I’m embarrassed to say I barely know the place. Earlier this year, I looked at the course maps that had been just released. It promised to bring us further south than I had ever been before, to Valentia Island and Waterville, where my own father used to spend his boyhood holidays. I was excited with the prospect of running up and down Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain, something I’ve not done for years. And I was intrigued to learn the last stage was a thirty-five kilometre run along the Kerry Way, a trail that I had heard other runners wax lyrical about but had never stepped on myself.
My preparation for the race was as good as I could hope for… that is, until two weeks before the race started, I caught a sore throat and horrible cough. There was nothing else for it to back off, rest, and take all the medication I was allowed. Despite these interventions, the illness refused to budge much. Having raced sick before, I realised there was nothing much I could do. And if my goal this year was to have ‘adventures’, then the best thing was just to turn up to the start and just get around the course.
Despite swearing that I would just ‘potter’ round the 250km race, I couldn’t help but check the participant list to see what other girls would be there. I saw Linda O’Connor, an experienced multi-day adventure racer who had also completed the Denis Rankin Round this year. I saw Ailise Deane, a formidable, hardy woman from Dingle known for her amazing kayaking and mountain biking skills. In addition, I saw the name of someone I didn’t recognise with a Dutch flag beside her name. I couldn’t help Google ‘Sonia Bracegirdle’, only to discover she is an impressive professional triathlete with ironman podium finishes to her name. In my mind, she was bound to win.
It was a bright and early start on Saturday morning at 6 am. It was barely light and freezing cold when I lined up with fifty-three other athletes to take Quest24 on. The first leg was a 80 kilometre bike from Sneem to the base of Carrauntoohil (route here). It was a total shock when the pelaton took off at high speed, and I struggled to not get dropped. I looked down at my heart rate monitor only to see I was already in the red zone. For the next two hours, I contemplated just backing off, but knew that would effectively mean the end of my race before I had even really begun. Instead, I sat in as tight as I could, promising myself that I would recover once I got on to the run.
I arrived at transition 1 at 8.45 am. I had managed to keep in the same bike group as Ailise and Sonia, so knew that I was still in the mix. Heading out towards the mountain, we were greeted by bright blue skies. It isn’t often that you get to see Carrauntoohil in all its glory, magnificently mist-free, but on Saturday we were blessed with perfect weather. Within a few minutes, Ailise bounced past me on the trail but I resolved to let her go. Knowing that we still had so much of the race left, and how much energy I had already expended on the bike leg, I knew I had to go at my own pace, eat, drink, and enjoy.
I enjoyed the next two and a quarter hours on the thirteen kilometre trail (route here). By this stage, us Quest24 guys were bumping into the Quest12 competitors, which allowed me to happily swap a few words with familiar faces along the way. After hitting the summit, I enjoyed the descent via the zigzags, then the gentle albeit rocky descent back to our bikes. All the while, I waited for Sonia to come flying past me, but she didn’t appear. Instead, I saw Ailise in the distance and realised she was around a minute ahead of me.
Coming into the transition, I resolved to take my time. Back in May, when I did the Denis Rankin Round, I finished it quite traumatised. I had suffered from bad blisters, horrible chaffing, and a stomach that refused to calm down for over 21 hours. Before starting Quest24, I had made the concrete decision not to repeat the experience. I would change my socks and shoes and shorts often, drink a lot, and force-feed myself less. Such a plan meant that Ailise was in and out of transition far faster than I, but I was determined to do what I needed.
Getting back on the bike, I entered the stage I was dreading the most. What with having dodgy shoulders, I would never willingly sit on a bike for 110 kilometres due to the searing pain I usually get. But unfortunately, this third stage of Quest24 was exactly that, with a completion time of 4 to 5 hours (route here). The only redeeming feature was the fact that a biking mate of mine Mel, a Ras na mBan competitor, had told me that the route we were taking was stunning. And fortunately, she was completely right.
Soon enough, I caught up with a couple of Quest12 competitors who were happy to bike along with me. By working together, we soon caught up with Ailise and another Quest24 entrant, David. Together we all made our way towards Ballaghisheen Pass, up a stunning sweeping valley bathed in the last of the summer’s sunlight. The adventure I had so actively sought was upon me.
Up and over Ballaghisheen Pass, David and I broke free of the group. Then, as we cycled on, we picked up two more guys, Shane and Kevin. At this stage, I had absolutely no idea of our overall race placings. All I knew was that, if the four of us worked together, we could get this long stage over and done with as quickly as possible.
Through Caherciveen village, I knew we had to make a turn on to Valentia Island at some stage. I started getting nervous, however, when I didn’t see arrows sending us on to the island that was evidently cast off the mainland to our right. Fortunately Shane and Kevin seemed to know the area, and reassured me that the bridge was further on. We soon crossed over and completed the island loop, before coming back over the bridge and turning right at Portmagee. Ailise, not far behind us, unfortunately did not make the same turn. Crossing the bridge back to the mainland, she turned left instead of right, and headed back to Caherciveen. Five other men followed her, until they were pulled over a race official, asking where they were headed. They lost nearly an hour through this detour, unbeknownst to me at the time.
Out of Portmagee, further on up the road, our group headed towards the Coomanaspic climb. I had been warned that the incline was steep, but nothing could prepare me for the climb I saw towering in front of me.
‘This is the point you tell me that it looks worse that it is,’ I said to Shane as we approached it. ‘Sorry, but I can’t lie to you,’ he replied. And with that, I changed down to my lowest gear.
It was at this point that I realised Kevin was missing from our group. We had already biked together as a foursome for nearly two hours, and I had admittedly grown fond of our team. It was almost like I had forgotten we were actually racing each other. ‘Where’s Kevin?’ I shouted, upset that he might have missed a turn. ‘He stopped to buy a coke,’ David reassured me. And with those words, Kevin, as if on rocket fuel, went blasting past us up the slope. Little did I know that that would be the last I would see of Kevin that day.
Up and over the pass, I survived the severe hairpin bends, and reunited with Shane and David at the bottom. In the end, we stuck together until we received Waterville where stage four, the kayak section awaited us.
If I thought the 110 kilometre bike section was going to be the worst part of the race, I was very wrong. As I arrived at the kayaks, the wind picked up, blowing participants all over the course (route here). As I started my first lap of what we were told would be five, my arms felt so tired and heavy from leaning on my bike for the last four and a half hours that I could barely paddle my boat. I was spent. Only the knowledge that I was still leading, and only had a run to do afterwards, made me batter on. And when the safety boat informed me that I had only four laps to do instead of five, ten kilometres instead of twelve and a half, I realised I should just keep going.
After two hours of battling the wind and waves, I finally reached the shore. Ailise had still not passed me, much to my surprise. So, I ran to the transition and changed into the warmest gear in my box to prepare me for the final thirty-five kilometre run. It was six o’clock in the evening, and knowing that I would probably be running in the cold and dark, I knew I had to be well prepared.
The ultra-runner Gavin Byrne was in transition when I arrived. He was muttering something about hating kayaking with a passion, and wanting to do some feckin’ running. Shane, my biking companion, sped after him on to the final stage and I followed their lead. However, I soon lost sight of both of them, and just put my head down to complete the final leg, a thirty-five kilometre run along the Kerry Way (route here).
It was 6 pm when I started the run, twelve hours after the initial start. I was really happy it was still early, allowing me to see the stunning coastal scenery in daylight as I jogged along. The Kerry Way was surprisingly a lovely route. We had a minor detour via the picturesque Derrynane Beach, well worth it even though I ended up with sand in my shoes. Not wanting to risk any blisters, I stopped at transition three in Caherdaniel to change my shoes and socks. When I arrived in, the staff were lovely, offering me cups of tea. ‘You’re first lady,’ they told me. ‘And fifth overall.’ Thus far, I had been totally oblivious to my standing in the rankings overall. I stood around, eating crisps with them, as I thought about what lay ahead. I only had another twenty kilometres left to run before the finish. I could do this.
I continued on up the Kerry Way as darkness drew in. Donning my head-torch, I realised I also needed to put on extra layers. I was coughing more and more frequently, and my chest was starting to wheeze from the cold air. I just needed to keep everything together for the final few hours.
In pitch darkness, after over four hours of running, I at last saw the lights of Sneem town below. Keeping my stride, I entered the main street, drinkers on the pavement enjoying their evening pints, oblivious to what I had just put myself through. The race arrows brought me around the back of Sneem hotel and finally towards the finish. I crossed the line at 10.19pm, 16 hours 19 minutes after my dawn start. Ailise arrived just before the clock hit eleven, finishing second lady and eighth overall. Sonia had decided to call it a day after the second bike, preferring to save herself for other training and races scheduled later in the year.
After the obligatory pints (or pint in my case), I hit the sack. I also wanted to stay up to celebrate Paul Mahon’s win in the men’s event. Paul and I will be teaming up for the Mourne Mountain Marathon in three weeks’ time, so it was good to see a teammate doing so well.
If you considering doing a longer adventure race that is fully marked, then Quest24 is definitely one for the calendar. Ollie and the Elite Events team have devised an incredible race format in one of the most stunning parts of Ireland. They even managed to get the weather to be kind to us. Thanks too to Rowan and the Primal Tracking team for allowing our friends and family to track the race from afar via our trackers. My husband and kids were glad to know that I was safe and sound out there while racing such an epic event.
Finally, thanks to Eamonn my coach who stayed up for eighteen hours to watch my dot go round Kerry, and for telling me not to train in the lead up to the event. And of course, to my long-suffering family for letting me go awol for two whole nights just so that I could race.
Quest24 Results can be found here.
More photos of the event can be found on Quest Ireland’s Facebook Page.