Mark Crothers, who is taking on all 4 Irish Quest signature events this year gives us the lowdown on the second event of the year, Glendalough, back at the start of April. Grab a cuppa and enjoy a good read.
As usual for in the run up to a Quest Adventure race I kept a real close eye on the weather for Saturday. It never changed all week – dry, bright but still a bit chilly. That’s how it turned out. I only trust the forecast when it is horrendous – so I still pack 3 raincoats – light, medium and heavy.
A Friday night and Saturday night stay in the Laragh Hotel was arranged – many weeks in advance. That proved very handy, given registration and pack collection was in the same place on Friday.
6:45 am is far too early to get up on a Saturday but this isn’t any Saturday, this is Quest Glendalough Saturday. Breakfast at the Hotel starts at 8:00am. My race also starts at 8:00. We were prepared for this anyway and made do with what we had brought – including a doughnut. I leave the hotel on my bike at 7:40 am and roll down the hill past a line of queuing cars to the start line. I am incredibly relaxed – usually at this stage I am nervous. But today, I know the route, the weather is fine and I have already decided not to push it too hard.
As I rolled towards the start line – there was the announcement, ‘Could all wave 1 participants enter their holding pen.’ Usually people are falling over themselves – pushing in etc to get in there. Not today. I was the only one around. Undeterred I got my pack checked and my dibber scanned and stood right slap bang in the middle of the pen by myself. I stood there on my own for two or three minutes pretending to fix my bag before one other person arrived. He gravitated straight to me. I could see straight away he was rather nervous – and I guessed this his first race. Big, tall bloke sporting an impressive beard. No one else entered the pen for a few minutes and we got chatting. This was his first Quest race and he asked me a barrage of questions – questions all too familiar, the very same ones I had asked 3 years ago when I had done my first Quest Killarney Race. Have you done any of these races before? Have you done this one before? This is my first time – is it hilly? How does the kayak work? I really hope I helped him somewhat. The only advice you can really give someone at the start is – don’t start too hard/fast. Turned out that he is from Willowfield in Belfast, I’m also from Belfast, so we chatted about that for a while too. The next person to enter the pen was another bloke who seemed even more nervous. He asked the exact same questions – turns out he was also a first timer. The three of us chatted barely noticing the rest of the people entering the pen. I pointed Mark Nolan out to them and said if you finish before him, you’ll win.
Safety briefing over and we were off. Everyone at the start in my group seemed to know the score. The real fast guys disappeared into the distance and everyone else casually filtered out pretty much where they belonged. I did the same and rolled out pretty much middle of the pack. The first climb is maybe the most famous cycle climb in the country – but in reverse direction – the ‘Shay Elliott Climb’ – named after the first cyclist from Ireland to ride in the Tour de France – he is also the first from Ireland to win a stage in that most famous race. For the first time ever in an adventure race I listened to my own advice – I didn’t start too hard. Given the first cycle is uphill and others are passing, it’s difficult not to get carried away in this first stage.
I arrived at transition feeling OK. I like to make transition easy – then I’m less likely to make a mistake. Park bike – hat (helmet) off – dib the dibber – start running. The start of this first run is handy enough. Down a slight gradient on a flat gravel forest road. It’s hard not to stumble at some point here as you try and catch a glimpse of the stunning views down the valley to the left. We could see far enough to see the leaders climbing uphill towards the summit. Now, and throughout the whole day, I kept getting little snippets of memories about the course (I raced here 2 years ago). The first came as we took a sharp right turn onto a rough, stony and muddy climb. I tried to run this previously – I didn’t today. A few round me tried to emulate the leaders and run this, giving up after a few steps. The path takes a sharp left and we are onto a flatter, but undulating muddy path. It reminds me of the ‘Sheep’s Path’ at home on the Cavehill. I love this. The more you run on paths like this, the more efficient you become. Maybe not faster but more efficient. We climb over a style, I notice it is carpeted with fake grass, nice touch. This is the summit, we dib and make our way down the mountain. The descent is pretty similar to the climb, this time I do push on a little, knowing we have 5 mins or so rolling downhill on the bike. Transition easy again bar a few seconds wasted searching down the wrong rack for my bike.
The second cycle – not for the fainthearted – definitely the fastest part of the course today. I’m comfortable on the bike – no one passes me down the hill. I do pass a few. I see later I hit over 90kph on the way down – I do like the feeling of speed. The second part of the cycle awakens my legs once one. I remember this climb from before, the bloke beside me comments “It’s hard to find a 6km hill to cycle up in Ireland – but Quest have found two together.“ It took me several years of cycling to understand what a ‘false flat’ is. Well toward the top of this hill we reach a ‘false flat’ where the gradient eases and even though you are still pedalling uphill, it feels flat because it was steep just before. After this again we descend at a slightly slower pace than before, take a left onto a minor road and again begin yet another long grind uphill. This road is a little rougher with the occasional grassy bit up the middle. I have company here and chat to a fellow competitor the whole way up this climb. He does most of the talking. Mainly because at this stage, I am breathing a bit more heavily than him. Can’t help but think that he could be a bit further ahead. We see the trees breaking ahead and again I remember transition is just at the tree line.
Same again – park bike(remember where) – hat off – start running. There was a child at the start of the second run. I remember her saying “Mind the puddle” and thought it was a bit weird – on these adventure races I have run through plenty of puddles – all without warning. So I round the corner and right in the middle of the path is a massive puddle – thanks for the warning! I actually have to stop, there is no one just ahead to follow. There’s a well-worn track to right but it is on the outside of the bend – and longer, I choose left. Left was rather muddy and uneven – everyone following went right – right in more ways than one. I consider a paddle in the puddle to clean my shoes – but then I’d look (more) foolish. A short climb followed before a steep descent on a slippery, muddy path into the woods. The descent ends abruptly with a stream to cross, I splash through – clearing the mud from my shoes – this makes me smile. Up a short sharp climb onto an uphill forest path. It’s not terribly steep, I could run it handily enough but it appears to go on for a long way. I decide it would be a good place to walk fast and take on some food. A Reeces bar – great for these races – chocolate, peanuts and easy to eat. I really do like peanut butter. The climb flattens a little and I break into a run – think I remember there a few steep rocky climbs soon so I run here when I can. I’m not wrong – just round the corner is the beginning of 3 distinct climbs. The first is steep and rocky, the second very steep and very rocky and the third and final is very steep and muddy. I’d like to say I wasn’t on my hands and knees. Mist, we could barely see 10 meters. At one point I wasn’t sure where we had to go, so I guessed it probably up – I was right. Patches of snow were evident along the sides of the final climb. I make out a figure just 5 metres above, its the marshal at the top. I notice the mound of stones to symbolize the summit. No views from the summit today anyway – we can barely see our hands in front of our faces, 10 meters of nice flat and firm ground, the path quickly turns into a descent. It is almost impossible to run this – it is very rocky – ankle breaking rocky. I pretty much walk here for a while until I notice others are taking to the slightly higher, grassy verge. I do the same. The path improves and flattens – I barely notice the mist has now gone. The path is no longer so steep and is easily run-able. This is my kind of run, downwards with a few flat spots and quite smooth surface. I pick my line down the trail and go as fast as I dare. Soon we start passing those coming up and a few minutes later I pick the right line at the puddle.
Transition is again simple, back on the bike. It is downhill on the bike for the first part, not as steep as the previous descents. So I go into an aero tuck position (looks ridiculous but no one close enough to see) probably saves me a few seconds. All too soon the downhill flattens into not a downhill. We round a corner and meet up with other waves and suddenly there are lots of cyclists around me. I pass a good few showing them who’s the boss from the expert wave. Big mistake – I get some cramp, it’s only minor and I can carry on slowly but they all pass me back. I thought to myself – yes I’m a dick(moron). We reach the top of the shortish hill. I roll down in the aero tuck position and pass a few of the same ones. I think to myself this time – who’s the dick(boss) now. The rest of the cycle is pretty flat and we work together like a little cycle team taking turns at the front. Transition is upon us, I rack the bike and carefully fire my helmet in the same general direction. I do remember this run from 2 years ago. Its uphill, then it’s downhill and the surface great. I carefully cross the pontoon and start the run walking as my legs aren’t up for it just yet. I take the opportunity to eat, another Reeces bar, a melted twirl and a few gulps of body warm water. “Refreshing” is the only thing I said to the person beside me. He nods. I run 20 steps/walk 20 steps over and over for a while until it flattens a little. I reach the summit, just ahead I see a group. It’s the scouts – I was in the scouts. A few boys are lagging behind. I already have my GoPro out and they notice. They run down beside me through the whole group hoping to be in my video, they cheer and the whole group, including the leader cheers and give me high fives. These 30 seconds is the highlight of the day, they lift my spirits and cheer me up for the remainder of the run.
I notice a gap in the trees to the right, it a beautiful view, though slightly hazy, of Glendalough. I see the hills drop to the lake. I see the red and yellow kayaks line the route of the course. I see the shore. It’s beautiful and is the highlight of the day (yes I’ve a short memory). Over a stone bridge I pass a few runners and see the photographer by her bike, I told her I’d seen her earlier, give her a wave and even remembered to say thank you. It is great down near the lake, its busy with spectators encouraging us. Life jacket on and head towards the kayaks. There was someone there waiting for me – happy days, no delay. He jumps straight into the front I’m in the back. We are quick in the kayak and passing 5 or 6 others and that is despite us chatting the whole way round. We discuss the scenery – our previous Quest events and beer – he is from Dublin – can’t remember his name. We get passed by a kayak near the end, I think they were travelling in our slipstream. For some reason our boat veers towards them and we gently ram them. We apologise, well I let the Dublin bloke do that, it his fault anyway. We park our boat – not sure of the technical term. My partner is out first and helps me out, we thank each other. I really enjoyed that kayak – the views are awesome – it’s really beautiful and peaceful. I struggle out of my life jacket and head onto the last run.
I hate the term ‘nearly there’ I think it needs to be banned from all adventure races. Maybe if in sight of the finish – I could almost accept it. As I leave through the mostly encouraging spectators I hear the ‘nearly there’ phrase being used. I think it even directed at me. We still have 2 km to run and we may have already come 55km – but that 2km is long, the finish is still far away. It may be mostly downhill but we are not nearly there. The spectators lift my spirits, despite this. I poke through my bag for a gel – I really used to use these far too much – they do spike blood sugars and are make you feel great for 5/10 minutes after which you feel like crap. But one gel here helps with the final run as I am nearly there – it tastes like fairy liquid though. The final run is an undulating affair with slight uphill’s but mostly down. I don’t get passed by anyone and pass a few others – several suffering from cramp. Luckily cramp doesn’t affect me on this last run. I start to pass others coming in the opposite direction and know I’m nearing the end. I cross the pontoon and arrive at the bike transition – cruelly the Quest folk make us run a full lap of the GAA club before being cheered over the line by the kind spectators. I cross the finish line in 4 hours 20 mins. I am overjoyed. In fact I think I have enjoyed this race more than any other. I paced it well from the off. I made a conscious effort to enjoy it more but race less. In fact that’s going to be my plan for race day from now on. Enjoy more. Maybe I’ll translate that into everything I do – starting now – I’ll work less, enjoy more – I’ll discuss that with my boss – later.
I take time to enjoy the atmosphere at the finish line. I even enjoy a post-race Erdinger – despite it missing its most important ingredient. Queuing for my chicken curry dinner, I get chatting to the bloke who won the Sport Race today, I’m a bit jealous of his massive bag of goodies. He was ecstatic about his win.
Really, I must thank all involved in the day, the marshals, the Quest team and everyone around start and finish lines. But I also have to thank every last one around the course, the spectators, the Garda and also my fellow competitors. I really enjoyed the whole day thoroughly and am counting the days to my next adventure race – unfortunately a long way off to Lough Derg. So see you all there.