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Matt Casey and Shane Kenny ascending the Devils Ladder

6.00 am Saturday 30/08/19
A group of about 60 souls are corralled in pens behind the apartment block of The Sneem Hotel. Why?
Because they’re mad, or maybe they just love the outdoors and a challenge. Well on that day we got loads of the latter too- because we are standing on the start line of the Quest 24-hour Race. An unsupported 247km one day race around some of the most scenic and toughest terrain that County Kerry has to offer. The mood is so-so, Mr Quest had warned the night before at the briefing that the River Gaddagh may be too high to cross which would take Carrantoohill out of the race. No word this morning, no one asking. Mr Quest (Ollie) is rabbiting on about something or other, everyone’s head is elsewhere. I am standing in the corral with James Crowley, the two of us are part of the “Because We Can” adventure racers from North Cork.  There are another 5 BWC racers in the 12 hour, I am also involved with Regina Sheehan as a coach to new fitness group “Into The Wild” and have another 4 racers doing the 12 hour- they’ll be starting at 6.30 am fingers crossed for all.

6.01 and we’re off
Within 2-3km a group has formed at the front. Within this group we have the reigning champion Paul Mahon, Kevin Leary (3rd last year) the phenomenal Laura O Driscoll, James Crowley (Because We Can), myself and a few more I don’t know. As we settled in it became apparent that some were workers, others sitters. The pace was yo-yoing and I was beginning to get restless – I knew I needed a fast first cycle as I would most likely drop time to the strong runners amongst us on Carrauntoohil. A cushion of 5-10 minutes would allow me to drop time on the mountain, yet still leave Carrauntoohil in a prominent group for the very tough and long second cycle. At approximately the 10km mark I decided to break and see if anyone was up for it – I went, 1 followed (another 1-2 would have been nice). Within a minute we had a gap, I could picture Paul settling in with the main group in for the long game.

For myself and my new BFF, it was full throttle to Kenmare. We flew to Kenmare and out the other side with an average of 35km /hr so happy days. Then we started our first climb of the day to Molls Gap, halfway up we were told we had 2 mins to the next 2 plus another 2 mins to a bunch of 5. We eased enough to introduce ourselves, found I was in the company of a very proud Tipperary man Shane Kenny, I kept quiet on my allegiance to Limerick/Kilkenny, especially as I felt he was hurting me on the climb. Avoca was a wonderful sight. Then we had the fun of 10km downhill before hitting the road to Ballaghbeama Pass. Shane and I worked hard but well together, we began coming up on racers from the 12hour, one of the first I recognised was Kay Quirke from our own “Into The Wild” training group working her way through the Pass. Next was the fast descent and then on to the road to Carrauntoohil. After the ‘Climbers Inn’, on the climb to Lough Accose Shane dropped off me and I pushed on for the mountain.  I met another (ITW) member Micheal O’Donovan just before Carrauntoohil, landed in Transition 1 after 80km cycle in 2.36 and averaged 30.6km/hr. Now for Carrauntoohil and wait for the chasing pack.

I ran through transition only stopping long enough to pick up a few gels and water. I was well into the run and nearing Devils Ladder when Shane caught up and passed me. Had a few words with Johnny O’Leary (BWC) and Sean Sheedy (ITW) as we ascended the Devils Ladder. Was back ahead of Shane here. But on final ascent he pulled a bit ahead but I was happy to reach the summit with only Shane ahead. On my descent I met my chasing pack – Paul, Laura and James, I felt I had up to 10 mins on them so happy days. I passed Shane on my descent, also came across Mick Fitzgerald, BWC, who looked a bit in bother and another BWC man Tony Murphy going well. I was surprised by the number of racers on the mountain encouraging me on. I was doubly surprised to be leading heading into transition for the bike.

Shane Kenny making his way across Carrauntoohil

In transition I changed into cycling shoes and grabbed my two new bottles and packet of Jaffa Cakes for the cycle. Was sorted as Shane arrived in – told him I’d go easy and to catch me rather than wait for the pack. The 2nd cycle is 112 km of tough cycling with nearly 1500 meters of climbing- not a spin to be done solo especially when facing a tough headwind.

2nd Bike
I tipped along and came upon Padraig O’Connor and cycled away with him for a while. It was beginning to look like Shane had opted to hold for the bunch rather than come up to me (which he hadn’t) after 20 mins into the bike I left Padraig and headed to Ballaghisheen Pass. In the wide-open country before Ballaghisheen Pass I came across Regina Sheehan (ITW) leading woman of the 12 hour and eventual winner. We climbed the pass together, at the top there is a great view down the valley just travelled, I looked back to see if Shane or a pack were near, no sign so I bid adieu to Gina and upped the tempo (only 90 km more on bike).  On the next big climb, I was passed by the same silver car twice so I knew I had company not far away. Next marker Caherciveen then on to Portmagee, the silver car never far away.  Before I reached Portmagee my left foot was going into cramp (rarely use cleats so presume the foot not happy), being clipped in there wasn’t much I could do about it.  Passed Portamagee Bridge and out to Valentia Island. Reckoned I was ahead of last year’s leading times in spite of the wind so all I had to do was keep it steady on the island, get over Coomanaspic and squeeze for Waterville. I managed to interrupt some wedding photo session on the bridge. Valentia island is a beautiful cycle route which helped distract me from my foot and in no time, I was back on the mainland looking up at the imposing Coomanaspic. The 3.5 hours of tough cycling had taken a toll and I dismounted approx. 1/3 of way up – bad move as I was unable to get clipped back in until I got up to the Shrine on the climb where I used a flag pole to help remount. My silver friend had passed but I wasn’t seeing anyone behind me. After Coomanaspic next stop was Waterville, at this stage I was 8 hours on the go, fuelling solely on liquid and some Jaffa Cakes, my stomach was beginning to say no more. So, I arrived in Waterville with a dodgy stomach and a dead left foot.

But unknown to myself was the fact that I had extended my lead on Shane and the chasing trio of Paul, Laura and James.

Matt Casey and Regina Sheehan pushing hard through Ballaghisheen Pass

Kayak:
Glad to be off the bike and getting into my comfortable trail runners, optimistic that my foot would loosen once I got going. Picked a bottle of home brew for the kayak hoping the stomach would settle and off again. On exiting the GAA grounds, I realized I left the kayak seat behind, leave it or go back? Went back in for it – sickened as it’s hard to take mins out of this route without just throwing them away.

The kayak itself was comfortable- the route had been shortened due to rough sea and high wind which had eased a bit by the time the 24-hour racers hit the lake. Although I did manage to get stuck in the buoy twice (with Paul Mahon giving out to me as he does) and nearly knocked Laura out (accidentally of course). It was a restful 40 mins. We had to do 5 straight out and backs. This allowed me to put a time on the gaps between the leaders. On finishing the kayak, hit transition, grabbed a running belt and gone.

Ger Kelly making the kayak section look easy!

I estimated Shane to be 15 mins behind and the other 3 at least 22 mins – the only problem with this was that the pack knew what they had to do to catch me. Was this going to be enough? No – this 34 km run was a minimum 4hr trek for me and I felt I would need the 30 minutes on Paul and James and possibly more re Shane and Laura. So, a case of Run Rabbit Run!

The run starts with a few km of road before joining the Kerry Way up Coomakista, I had a very slow start on this part as the foot came around. Probably for the first time in the race I had time to take in the stunning views and enjoy the beautiful afternoon.  I met Shane Kenny’s other half (Jennifer) at top of Coomakista, she told me I had a good lead on Shane but that the chasing pack were moving fast and were close to Shane. I was working off 5km splits and knew if I didn’t buck up – I’d be caught at Caherdaniel.  I descended the long road run from Coomakista to the coast and on to Derrynane in a semi comfortable pace, then on to the beach run – met Mr Quest (Ollie) at the beach, he informed me I went out too fast in the morning (at that moment in time I couldn’t disagree) then on to Caherdaniel (last transition) . On approaching the final transition, I met Anne and Pat Crowley -James’s parents – James was having a cracker and still hunting me.

I felt good, body relatively good , stomach good and head strong , checked my running belt – felt I had enough of everything – gels, jelly babies and knew I’d be passing streams so I skipped the transition and was on the final leg of the race. This part of the race can be broken into two segments, the first being 10km including 3 big climbs and various terrain from road to mud, the 2nd part is the 8km from the summit of final climb to the finish this is either falling or flat on good surfaces – so all one has to do is get to that last summit.

Started the last leg in good spirits and had a number of 12-hour runners on the route to chase. My calculations were telling me I was looking at more than the 4 hours – not good but I was still in front. I had turned on my phone after Caherdaniel and at this stage was getting plenty of texts from my daughters, these were both entertaining and frustrating as the intel wasn’t the best – I imagine the dot watchers were having great fun trying to figure out what was happening. Bit by bit I was edging towards that last summit and nobody had joined me, had a few words with the 12 hr racers I came across – on one stretch I came across Kieran Buicke, Kieran had done the recce day earlier in the year that I was helping Ollie with. He was buzzing, he was defo going to make it, a brilliant achievement.
Suddenly I was running down toward the flowerpot man, the mountain air was full with the smell of a muscle rub, in front of the flowerpot man there was a man busy rubbing, prepping for the final climb -10 km to go, 2km to final summit.

Matt Casey, Laura O’Driscoll & Paul Mahon at the finish line.

On that final ascent my quads were beginning to scream, I took a time out well up the climb and had a look around, again the view out to sea was just stunning and then in the corner of my eye I spotted someone moving very lively on the boggy plain below me, reckon maybe 2-3 minutes, time to move . Decided best course of action was the reasonable pace with very little walking (easier said than done). Met James’s parents, Jennifer and Philip Smith 6km from Sneem where the Kerry Way touches the N70. Was informed that Paul Mahon was my hunter approx. 3.5 mins behind but Paul was also being hunted – by Laura o Driscoll. Brain into overdrive – 6km to go, 3.5 min on Paul, he needs to be doing his km 30 seconds faster than me, could Laura catch both of us?  On entering last off-road stretch Paul had reduced the time to sub 3 mins, was he running out of road? I tried to get as close as I could to 5 mins/km for the last stretch, as luck would have it, I spotted an ITW jersey on the long straight home, I zoned in on it to get a bit more out of the legs. I caught Kay not far from town, I last met Kay on the bike climb to Ballaghbeama many hours earlier and she was as chirpy now as then.

Just as I hit the junction for Sneem town, I was told I had 300 meters and to hold the pace, I duly stopped and walked. Caught my breath for last big push, trying to figure out what was 300 meters in time – couldn’t, Brain had stopped. Into town, turn right towards church, left to avoid church, right towards pier – A 200- 300 meter straight before entering the final wood. Before entering the woods, I looked back – no Paul – I had it won. I enjoyed the woods, savoured the moment then heard my four girls and Trish shouting from the hotel patio. I was one proud man running along the water’s edge and then up to the finish line in 13 hours 55mins 17 seconds – not bad at all.
Paul Mahon came in 13.57.04
Laura O Driscoll.        13.58.32
Shane Kenny              14.06.01
James Crowley           14.27.49
On another day any of the chasing four could have got the win – but not today.