It's always hard to write report on a race, especially when you have left it nearly four months to do it, as I have. Nether the less I was still anxious to give at least a summary of my experience of the 2015 edition of Coast 2 Coast Ireland, so here it goes.
The morning of the race was as gloriously manic as I didn’t want it to be. Before leaving Wexford, Ruth and I had gone for one last walk on the beach to clear my head before leaving for Sligo. We got back home, I kicked off my runners at the door and started placing the neat stacks of clothes and food into the car, mentally checking everything off the already checked-three-times checklist! Sure of course since I had already check my runners off erlier and couldnt see them in the pile I presumed I had put them in the car. Great thinking there Ciarán. So we left for Sligo with the runners at the front door.
Cue panic stations when I woke up on race day. Thankfully the race didn't start until midday so we had some time. We managed to find a sports shop in Ballina, a couple of miles down the road. The faces on the girls in the shop were hilarious when they asked what I wanted.
Girl: What do you need the runners for?
Me: Well I'm competing in the coast to coast race today and need a good trail running shoe.
Girl: The what?
Me: I’m racing from here to Co. Down in a day and I forot my runners.
Girl: Jesus Christ!
They didn’t have any trail specific shoes so ended up going for the comfiest pair I could find. It was ridiculous enough breaking them in by doing a marathon over a mountain so I might as well be as comfy as possible.
The rest of the morning was spent sitting in the car listening to a bit of radio. You have to throw on a few tunes to get you in the mood. It was funny when then we noticed that everyone else was doing the complete opposite to us. They were all scrambling around doing this and that to their bikes and kayaks. I don’t know why I was so calm about it. I just presumed that if I stuck to my race plan and not try and match anyone else’s I would get there in the end. The usual 'ah it'll be grand' Irish attitude to situations where you definitely should be thinking that.
Any nerves I had about the race were never really about the event as a whole. They were always about the first section on the race, the five kilometre beach run. I hate running on sand. It’s just one of those things. No matter how much I stretch before or after I always get pains in my calf muscles. So as we stood on top of the dunes at Enniscrone beach getting our final bit of a briefing and pep talk from the organisers, my thoughts were fully focused on this one small stretch of beach in front of me. I was so focused on giving the beach the 'you better not fuck with me' look that I almost missed the start signal. I liked that there was no all guns ablazing to the event just a good old fashioned 'GO!'.
Any butterflies I had on the top of the dune were gone at the bottom, now replaced by the thought of keeping my pace. I never used a Garmin or any pace device during my running training. I appreciate their merits but if anything was to go wrong with them you can be left a little high and dry if you're unable to judge your pace without it. I always prefer being able to personally tell what my pace is.
It wasn’t long before the racers grouped up. There were three distinct groups and I somehow found myself in no-man’s land a few meters back from the second one. Caught in the cruel headwind I had to go against my plan and increase my pace to catch up. Once I did I nestled into the back of the group for a bit of wind protection and was grand after that. I was delighted to see the halfway little traffic cone come into sight knowing that the wind would soon be at my back. Once around the cone it was plain sailing back to the bike. The groups had dispersed and there was now an endless line of competitors along the beach. The wind was quite strong and forced you to go at a faster pace than usual. It would have been more effort to fight it. This resulted in my good old friend the calf muscle pains arriving about 200m from the end. Curse you sand, curse you to hell.
My first ever time through a transition went pretty smooth. There was no major hiccups, I just wiped down my feet, threw on some new socks and cycling shoes and away I went.
The cycling sections were always going to be my strongest. I'm most comfortable on the bike and with the wind at my back I had nothing to fear. Having the wind behind me as I left Enniscrone was a great moral boost. I needed it as it took nearly a half an hour before my calf muscles stopped hurting. Once the pain went I was able to fully get into rhythm. The plan was to cruise at 30kmp, only going faster if there was no strain. I was comfortable at this pace and knew I would be able to go for long time without fatiguing.
I was by myself for pretty much the entirety of the first bicycle section. Ruth would report to me every now and then when I would pass her that there was someone not too far ahead, maybe only 2km. It was such an odd feeling knowing that there was someone so close for so long and yet we never met. I was overtaken by one person at the first support crew point. He would be the only competitor I saw on the section. I would end up overtaking him later during the night cycle and beat him, not that I'm gloating or anything.
I got soaked around the half way point by a brief shower of rain. There's nothing quite as miserable as cycling in the rain. For me anyway, just having your entire body being soaked from both above and below just isn’t fun. So when you hear someone say that "bad weather always looks worse through a window", they have clearly never cycled in bad weather. Thankfully, it was the only rain I would be seeing while on the bike.
The last time I was kayaking in this part of the country, I was in a sit-on kayak. That was grand for the Shannon trip. Well, when I say grand, I mean it didn’t matter that it was slow. Plus, due to the holes in the floor, I had a constant feeling that I pissed my pants. I learned my lesson for it and hired a proper sit-in sea kayak for the race. It was a cracking deal. I just paid them the fee and they would have the kayak ready for me at the start of the stage and then take it off me when I finished. No having to man-handle the 15ft kayak onto the roof of the car.
It took just a few strokes to get used to the kayak and away I went. I got to the first junction in the river about 100m from setting off and I just sat there for a minute trying to think - why in the world did I not look at the river section before the race? Me being me, I kind of presumed that the river was small and sure where else could I go but in the same direction as it. I eventually chose to go right. And right I was!
I couldn’t get over the speed of the kayak compared to my own. With Ruth and a marshal to help me with the kayak at every lock and with the wind at my back, I was making way better time than I had planned. I even started catching up on people. The smooth sailing (I'm not going to excuse the pun as I fully meant it) stopped when I got to the lake. Not necessarily a huge one, but with the strong cross-wind, it had become very choppy. This shouldn’t have been a problem but as I was running with the 'ah it'll be grand' approach to the race, I forgot to ask how to use the skeg on the kayak. As a result I had to constantly fight really hard to stop the kayak from turning around. I actually thought I was a gonner at one point! The kayak had turned and the waves were hitting side on, making it sway pretty bad. A fair bit of water got into the hull before I was able to get it back straight again. I was able to use the island as shelter for a good stretch of the lake before finally exiting and heading back along the calmness of the river.
This calmness was great, but the downside was that there was little to break the monotony of the rhythmic paddle strokes other than toilet breaks. I didn’t want to hand the kayak back to the guy full of pee so I did the gentlemanly thing and pissed on the bank of the river. By the time I reached the end at Ballyconnel I had caught up to four other competitors. When handing back the kayak, I mentioned to the guy that he needn't worry, I hadn't pissed in it! Don't worry, he says, I've found much worse in there. Jesus. Thanks for that thought.
I was able to have my first proper full meal since breakfast after the kayak section. I tell ya, there's nothing like a cold chicken pasta dinner and a coffee to keep ya going. It was a short break of just fifteen minutes but it was the longest break I had taken all day.
Back on the bike, it didn’t take long before I overtook a fellow racer. It felt great as I hadn't overtaken anyone since the beach run. A little morale boost, one might say. I wanted to savour the moment so I stayed with the guy for a little bit just so I could have a conversation. It was his first time doing a race like this as well and had even bought himself a new €2000 carbon fibre bike at Christmas especially for it. It made me laugh a little when I left him because I was now beating him on my five year old, €700 aluminium bike. It just goes to show, it’s not all down to the bike. I always saw it as having the body of a Ferrari but the engine of a Lada. It might look pretty but with a bad engine you’re going nowhere fast.
As the night drew in I was heading into my unknown. I had never done anything this long before and was interested to see what would happen during the night. The roads were quieter but I didn’t mind. Ruth had to drive behind me for safety reasons, so every now and again she would blare out some absolute tunes. It was usually some cheese fest of a song or 90's dance. What else would you want while cycling a bike at 1am.
I was surprised at how quickly the night section was going by and how little I was hurting. My strategy of keeping my own pace was paying off as one by one I caught up to the people ahead of me. Some I passed while they were cycling; others while pulled in for a rest. In the end, I overtook six people during the night cycle. At one point, myself and two other cyclists were passing through Armagh just after the nightclubs were closing. Not the greatest of moments to be dressed in lycra with flashing lights all over your bike. The abuse that was thrown at us was insane. I didn’t feel threatened by anyone because I knew I could cycle faster than they could run. It was the bottles in their hands I was worried about. Thankfully nothing was thrown at us other than a few useless insults.
All was going well until just before the stage end at Newry. I began to get a sensation in my chest. I knew it was related to my breathing and nothing to do with my heart, but I was unsure what to do. We were unable to get hold of the medic on the phone but got through to one of the organisers. He advised me to pull out of the race and go to the hospital. He said it could be just fatigue but since it was chest related he didn’t want to take any risks. I felt this was a bit of an overreaction but I knew they had to take the "just in case" approach. Maybe it seemed foolish, but I knew it was breathing related and was just ringing to see if there was anything I could do to help it. I sent a text to confirm I was going on at my own risk and they wouldn’t be held accountable if anything happened me. I slowed down my pace for the last few kilometres just to give my lungs a bit of a break and the pain slowly eased off. Slowing my pace meant that two of the people I had just overtaken caught up to me. One of the guys was pulling out at the end of the cycle. He had crashed quite badly 10km into the first cycle and his knee was in severe pain since. It was sad to hear, as he was a good laugh to talk to and he seemed really disappointed that he had to stop right before the last stage.
The hardest bit of the race so far was the 100m hill up to the carpark at the end of the cycle. Thank god it was at night and no one was around because, my god, did I curse. A lot. It made rolling up the checkpoint all the better though. By the time I finished the cycle it was nearly three in the morning. There were a few others there as well, so I decided to take a half hour break to recuperate. I hadn’t stopped at all while cycling, other than to refill my water, so I was dying for a good meal. It took some time to psyche myself up to get out of the warm car but eventually I dragged my ass out and headed for the forest.
Still running with the 'ah it'll be grand' approach I hadn't invested in a proper head torch. I had brought a crappy Tesco one which I quickly realised was severely inefficient. Thinking fast, I decided to bring my front bike light with me as a torch. It's an odd feeling running through a strange forest at 3.30 in the morning. Needless to say, I scared the crap out of two guys as I overtook them. I was told by one of the competitors who was from the area not to push the pace at the start of the run. It was full of short steep hills so he told me to walk it and wait until I exit the forest to run. It was the best advice I got for the whole race and paid off brilliantly.
Once I exited the forest onto a nice tarmacked road, my old friend the rain decided to turn up, drenching me. Turns out my mac in a sac isn’t as waterproof as it says. I had to change my clothes when I reached Ruth at the first checkpoint. This checkpoint was meant to be the halfway point in the running stage. I can tell you now that this is a load of codswallop. I was now sitting around 9th or 10th in the overall standings and, as the light began to break over the horizon, I started to see other competitors up the road ahead of me. It didn’t take long though for us to return to the single trail and sheep tracks that marked the route over the mountain.
I much preferred the mountainous bits of the race as they reminded me of running after sheep when I was younger, failing desperately to herd them in one direction for my grandad. At one point, the trail stopped altogether and with only a strobe light in the distance I had to navigate myself through a bog. Needless to say I was happy to see the small footbridge on the other side that would take me back to the road and to the next checkpoint.
It had been raining on and off for the past two hours so I was soaked again. By the time I made it to Ruth again I had to make another change of clothes. I'd run out of rain gear so I had to take Ruth's raincoat, which she was wearing, off her. I felt bad but not bad enough to give it back because I was freezing and I still had Slieve Donard to summit along with ten more kilometres to run.
Back on the road I was in a world of my own until a car suddenly stopped up ahead of me. What the hell, I thought, as two guys hopped out with a massive video camera. Turns out they were the official videographers for the race and were just capturing me for the video. Happy to oblige, I put a face that said "I'm definitely now knackered right now" and ran alongside them. My only worry was that they would catch me falling on my arse as I tried to run down a slippery field. One of the guys gave me the last of his Jelly Tots as a sugar boost. I thank you kind sir, as it was a nice treat. I got to try and flick them out of my teeth with my tongue for ages afterwards, as always happens with Jelly Tots.
After leaving the camera lads I spotted two racers ahead. It was the two Scottish girls. They had entered as a team and changed from the two day race to the non-stop last minute. I was delighted to catch up with them again. We seemed to be playing a game of leap frog during the night cycle, with one overtaking the other as we took breaks but they had been ahead of me up until this point of the run. I was determined to beat them. I had that look of hunger in my eyes, the kind you get from not eating for a while.
I met Ruth for the last time, until the finish, at the end of a dirt road on the side of a mountain somewhere. It was my last chance to fill up the camelbak and horse a bit of good food into me. I wasn’t the only one thinking this as another racer was there. He had injured his leg on the run but was determined to finish even if he had to walk it all. Fair play to him because he made it in the end. With everything filled up I was off. I had a different strategy to the two Scottish girls. They seemed to run for a certain distance, then walk for bit and repeat. I took the approach of only running on a downhill or flat and walking uphill. It took a bit of time before I caught them but when I eventually did, we stuck together until Hares Gap, or the ladder as it is also know. (I soon found out that the nickname "ladder" was a very apt one). I lost the girls at the beginning of the climb as I hopped from rock to rock making short work of the climb. My hopping didn’t last long, I tell you that. I was nearly on my hands and knees by the end of the climb. Not long after Hares Gap, the girls caught up again and we ended up staying together until the summit of Slieve Donard.
Fatigue really began to kick in as we reached Slieve Donard. I had to slowly stroll to the top using the wall to my right as wind protection. I was so happy to finally see the small marshal tent at the top. I felt sorry for the poor girl. She had been there all night because they didn’t know when the first racer would be through. I sat for a bit chatting to the marshal and the Scottish girls before saying my goodbyes and heading off for the final stretch of the race. I went down a lot quicker than I went up. A little too quick as it turned out. My knees were in agony from the constant hard impact of running down the mountain.
The final stint meant negotiating the forest just outside Newcastle. This proved to be a little more confusing than I had anticipated. I managed the first few junctions but then I ended up at a T-junction and hadn’t a clue what to do. I went right, as it sloped more downhill. Seemed like great logic at the time. Evidently, it turned out I should have went left. I eventually found my way down to the promenade where I got my first glimpse of the 26extreme arch. Nearly a day after beginning the race, it was weird to finally be able to see the finish line. It also made me panic a little. I knew I had gone wrong and didn’t know how much time I had wasted. I didn’t want the Scottish girls to overtake me so I legged it. I got a lot of funny looks from people on the promenade but I didn’t care. I was nearly there. All I could think was, 'god those girls better not beat me'. Turns out they hadn't. I crossed the line in 22 hours and 6 minutes. I was the 6th solo person back and 8th overall. I couldn’t believe it.
ar an rothar
endurance cyclist, adventurer and usually hungry