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Quest 12 Beara 2021 Race Report by various contributors

Thank you to Padraig O’Connor for compiling this report for us!

Quest 12 Beara – we were haunted with the weather, encountered a few langers of hills, some right gowls of climbs and ended up gatting after the race – Beara, what a day, you are some flah of a spot……boy….. 

Nicole Butler, who had a fantastic race finishing on the podium in 3rd place, gives us an insight in to the preparation both mentally and physically required to undertake a challenge like this. 

Andy Reilly and John Phelan recount cycle 1, cycle 2 and kayak 1.

Padraig O’Connor, Patrick Power and Ed Thompson give us the run down on the run stages and the final kayak from Bere Island. 

The Preparation – Nicole Butler 

As I packed up my transitions boxes the day before the race a mix of emotions was going through my head. I was confident in my preparation for this race. I had put in the hours of training, dedicated the time and committed to giving it my all. I was nervous but yet so excited.

I signed up to Quest Beara because I wanted a challenge. A physical and mental challenge and boy did I get both. I had 10 months to prepare for the 12 hour endurance race down in the Beara Peninsula. These adventure races push you to the next level, make you question your fitness level, your mental strength and of course your sanity.

When I signed up last winter I knew I had a lot of training to do. I had participated in Quest smaller races before so I knew how amazing and well organised it was going to be. This particular race, Quest 12 Beara, is over 151.9km and was the biggest I would face to date. I had a goal – to get under 12 hours and to finish my first ever 12 hour endurance race.

As my training heightened, my confidence grew. I mapped out my training plan and asked one of my friends enter in the race with me. The encouragement, support and motivation we had for each other going into the race was incredible. We had weekly updates of each other’s training, shared funny stories and held each other accountable. If you can find someone as crazy as you to enter the race I would highly recommend it, this makes the experience much more pleasant and enjoyable.

Quest organised a training day for the event during the summer and this is where we got the opportunity to ask questions, train on the race course and get a sense of what we really signed up for. I was hooked on the location, running around Caha Mountains, and most of the time I thought to myself ‘I am so luckily to be participating in such an amazing race.”

Every single athlete at the training day was supportive, helpful and inspiring. Oliver Kirwin showed us around the course on what was one of my favourite training days of the year – thank you Ollie. Adventure racing is the most addictive sport ever, once you’re hooked in, there is no going back. I would again recommend attending training days, live social media Q&As, and get to know more crazy people like you who will be attending the race.

Training is the key to a successful race. The more time you dedicate to the training, the more you will learn about yourself, your capabilities, and you will surprise yourself on your determination. My race experience was fantastic, and I put that down to my preparation.

Stage 1 – Run 18.35km – Padraig O’Connor

Race day! A late in the day decision to have a lash at Quest Beara wasn’t up there with my best ideas but FOMO is real and so here we are … 

It’s 5:30 am, I’m in a tent, 50 metres from the start line and the hustle and bustle kicking off outside means it’s time to get my act together. The bike is off dropped to T1 … half a litre of coffee, a banana and a protein bar for breakfast is without a doubt gonna make up for lack of training or proper preparation.

I had recce’d the bike stages, but my only knowledge of stage 1 was from the novel Zoom safety briefing the night before from Ollie … uphill, wet and boggy and sloppy at Maulin … and apparently Princess Beara is buried up there somewhere (was the peninsula called after her or she called after it? Who knows, I must ask famous historian Seamus O’Callaghan sometime).

This was the stage I was most concerned about, I had very, very little running under the belt (a few 5 and 10k efforts in the preceding few weeks), so this could make or break the day. Given my suboptimal level of fitness I had decided to go with an overall 11 and a half hour gameplan, so target was about 2:20 for stage 1.

Countdown from Ollie and we were off, out past the golf course clubhouse (which was essentially basecamp for the day), across the golf course and main road, and then off the road and heading up the Caha Mountains towards Maulin. The first few kilometres were steadily uphill, plenty of chat for the first 2k with various adventure racers I hadn’t seen for a while, Karen Shannon, Andy Reilly, Dave White. The craic was good … and then the talking stopped, the heart rates were rising like the road, and after 4-5 minutes of silence someone shouted out in frustration “Jesus, when can we start walking?!” The ice was broken and finally people could relax and the ‘power hike’ began!!

Stage 1 is made up of 4 parts: first part is 4k of road/trail and uphill, gives you a little time to get the nervous energy out of the way and find the feet and get the heart rate up a little bit before you hit the mountain properly.

Second part is the 4k out/back spur up to towards Maulin, this is open mountain, boggy, slippy and steep at the final climb, the reason you have the heavy trail runners on.

Third section is just pure class, 5-6k of Beara way trail bringing you through the Caha Mountains and looking down over Bere Island in the distance. This is the nicest part of the stage, although there are plenty of ups and downs to put manners on you.

Part 4 is the killer, the 4k of road back to the golf club … the less said the better, but I guess you can’t have the roses without the thorns!! 

I wasn’t too bothered about people passing me and I stuck to the pre-planned script. I had little doubt I’d be meeting those folks soon enough once the initial bravado/giddiness had worn off them. A bit of self discipline now, no point destroying the day on run 1, plenty of time to make up ground later … so ran/hiked/walked/chatted my way across the boggy mountain to the high point of the run on Maulin, turned and started the return trip.

A spectacular run back down and some of the most scenic trail I’ve been on (which would become a theme for the day), more chats with random fellow competitors and keeping an eye on the heart rate, and a bit of an eye on the elapsed time, we arrived back down to the main road for what was maybe the most difficult part of the run: the final 3-4k on the road back to T1 at the golf club.

General consensus had been that heavy lug trail runners would be better on Maulin but the trade-off was a tough on the feet finish on the road back and so the hard tar meant the feet were burning as we shuffled on the main road. Nearing the end of the road section I was met by the leading groups who had already reached T1 and had left on the first bike stage, a quick look at my watch, 16.5k done, I was about 20 minutes behind them, not as bad as I feared.

Glad to get back to transition 1 in 2hrs 15min which was more or less the plan, and reasonably confident that I hadn’t burned all my matches yet!!! There were about 30 people in the T1 area when I got there, a quick change into the bike gear, helmet on, quick bite of food and out on the bike – and most of the 30 people were still there getting ready … so things were all good so far!

Stage 2 – Cycle 82.3km – Andy Reilly

Transitioning from the 18km opening trail run to the first cycle brings a mixture of relief to be off already, tired legs and a sudden realisation that there are a few tough, tough hours in the saddle ahead. The lads in Quest warned this was the hardest stage of the race and “The Healy Pass is the easy bit” of the 82.3km route with 1442m of elevation gain.

The winds of Beara are a wondrous thing … cycling northeast from Castletownbere golf club towards Adrigole and they hit you straight in the face, not overly strong yet enough to seek out the refuge of a wheel to try to hang on to. Turning to head southwest at Lauragh, any expectation of a tailwind was short lived … that headwind was somehow still there. The dynamics of winds on a mountainous peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic are a force of nature. I have no doubt the anticlockwise route was designed for maximum difficulty.

The Healy Pass was like something from the Alps plonked into West Cork. A gradual climb including a series of switchbacks meandering to the top and the Cork–Kerry border. It is as stunning a place as this island possesses, and a pleasure to the senses to cycle on a bright dry day like today.  That pleasure wasn’t extended to my calves though, that took it in turns going from threatening to full blown cramps on the ascent.

Passing Quest photographer and staunch Kerryman Niall Foley, who took one look at me and quipped, “You’ll be in Kerry soon and you’ll be grand!”. The long descent from there to Lauragh was a nice break and those cramps disappeared.

I was cycling solo from Lauragh heading for Ardgroom and got caught by four lads doing up and overs. I hopped on and we did 1km at the front in turns. This made a huge difference to the speed and the level of effort required.

Turning right in Ardgroom was the start of a 20km series of short, sharp ramps, steep descents, hairpin turns and just about the perfect combination to make any momentum impossible. Cycling with three other lads, we had one overshoot a turn early on, a second go over the handlebars in the ditch on a steep descent, and a third get the gearing wrong on a hairpin and hit the road. No injuries thankfully but a new found abundance of caution.

Rolling into Eyeries was a chance to fill the water bottles, hydration is essential on a long day, and as the sun appeared it was getting really hot. The route hugged the coast for long stretches and the vistas from the bike were like an ad for Discover Ireland. The pace was nice and fast, and our little group worked well on the flat parts and reverted to ‘every man for himself’ on the series of steep climbs. Some of them were the out of the saddle just aiming to stay upright and get to the top type … 19-20% gradient in places according to my Garmin.

Following one last climb, the route finished with a nice decent to the transition at Garnish strand. A fantastic cycle route, but much tougher than the distance or gradient would suggest.  On that last decent we were greeted by a couple of marshals — real characters. They were sitting at the crossroads in the glorious sunshine playing cards and encouraging everyone. They summed up the general vibe of the day – we were all happy just to be there.

Stage 3 – Run 12.1km – Patrick Power

For maybe the last 20 minutes of the first cycle I was done with it and just wanted off the bike but wasn’t really looking forward to trying to run on tired bike legs. However, the transition was an uplifting experience with cheers, applause and kind words from marshals and spectators alike, along with a change of top, cool water and a quick snack I was off.

Surprisingly the legs felt good as I shuffled along the trail path leading back to the road above. I stopped at the top to take in the stunning views of Garnish pier, the beach and white strand bay below and check in with a fellow competitor who was doing the same. I don’t remember much of the winding road and trail as I was trying to establish some form in my run on the flats and hikes on the short hills taking a similar pattern as my fellow competitor.

My first real recollection of the run came upon meeting the marshal directing us over the trail steps and away off to the right towards the crow headland. Jokingly I asked if it would be possible to take the short route back, but did as instructed.

This part of the trail run was relatively flat with a few undulating low-lying hills. The path was narrow with the course and grass encroaching from either side so care was needed to place one foot in front of the other. I was really starting to feel the hot sun and unfortunately had drunk all my water by that stage. I suspected the lack of water was going to make the return leg even more challenging. 

It wasn’t long before I felt a welcome sea breeze over my left shoulder and amazing views of Dursey Island and the cable car over my right. I recall thinking one of the many benefits in doing adventure racing is seeing the many beautiful parts of Ireland that I would not have known about otherwise.

Fellow competitors were streaming past me on their return leg. With a little envy and a nod, I’d stand to one side and see them past. It seemed to take forever to reach the turning point, and by that stage I was parched from the thirst. The marshal congratulated me and gave me some words of encouragement. I told him my sole thought was about drinking cool beers later that evening.

As it seems to do the return passed quicker than the outbound leg and I had more of a spring in my step. That ended when I reached the marshal who directed me off to the right and onwards up the hill. Up to that point I was wondering about the 385meter elevation, and soon realised there was a lot yet to do before getting back to the transition area. Upwards and onwards I went, slow and steady pausing every now and then to catch my breath and take in the rugged beauty around me.

On the decent I met one of the many photographers on the course and stopped for a brief pose and chat. I always look forward to receiving the event pictures. After the trail came to an end and I re-joined the road there was an older man sitting in the garden of his house which was situated overlooking the sea and cliffs below. I stopped for a chat mentioning he had a ring side seat of the action and what a beautiful setting and location he lived. He asked where I’d come from and if I’d like to buy a small souvenir, to which I could only respond that I’m in a race with no cash and with that wished him well and on I went.

The rest of the road back was hilly, the descent hurting my quads and the rises hurting my lungs, but I just kept shuffling on until once again I came across the marshal siting at the edge of the road by the turn off for Garnish Pier. The transition area was bustling with people changing and chatting. I satisfied my thirst by guzzling what could have been a litre of water and with a change of top I was back on the bike.

My legs felt weary now and I struggled with the hills and finding my cycle form. I knew now that the end was in sight and that I was not going to be beaten.

Stage 4 – 25.88km Cycle and Stage 5 – 1.5km Kayak – John Phelan

This was for me the most pivotal part of my day. Which, by the way, was incredible from start to finish.  Quest 12 Beara was so much more than a sporting event, as you’ll see from my inside scoop on these stages.  

Pizza boy: I tried to laugh as I reached into my transition box and pulled out the pizza box offering it to everyone in transition.  It had one and a half slices of goat’s cheese and mushroom pizza inside, the remains of one of my many dinners the day before.  I had strategically poured a cold can of coke with loads of ice into a thermos flask and threw it in before we handed in the boxes so that it would be reasonably chilled for this transition, a psychological boost more than anything!  

But it was the pain at the side of my right knee for the last 15mins of the previous trail run that had me really concerned.  As a physio, I knew exactly what it was, the dreaded ITB pain. The last time it raised its head was in early June on Day 3 of a three-day bike pack trip with a friend.  We bit off more than we could chew that weekend, clocking up 24 hours of cycling in total! I needed to stop and stretch my quads every 100 yards to get some relief during the final section of that run, and so this transition area complete with pizza and coke offered me a chance to really give the quads a proper stretch.  

I did just that.  I took my time, losing track of my position in the race.  In hindsight, I’m so glad I took the time to stretch because when I did jump back onto the bike, there was no sign of the ITB langer!

Let’s work:  I was never so happy pedalling my bike at this point.  With no pain outside my right knee, it was like I had the wind back in my sails and everything to play for.  I pushed on and locked a target in my sights at the T-junction where the back road joins the main road to Castletownbere.  

The conditions need to be right, but when chasing another cyclist and at the same time given the right of way by the marshals at the T-junction to let it rip, who else experiences a surge of adrenaline coursing through the bloodstream in this instance?!  Love it! I caught up with the rider who happened to be Louis.  I can remember saying, “Let’s work!” And he was more than happy to do so having completed the first bike stage on his own.  That’s another story!  

I met Louis a few times that day, and introduced ourselves to each other at 6:30am that morning when cycling into the golf club before the start of the race.  We opted for a kilometre up front and then rotate until we got to Castletownbere.  

Louis was at the Quest 12 training day and was able to recall that this section was forgiving, so we didn’t hold too much back.  We certainly had a moment when steering into the entrance to the golf club and recalling our first encounter with this road 8 hours beforehand.

Knowing me, knowing you:  The next transition was a total team effort.  Louis changed his shorts, I wasn’t arsed.  We shared gels and sun cream and made our way down to the kayaks.  

Here’s another reason why Quest 12 is more than sport.  We set off on the kayak, keeping a nice pace but really paying more attention on getting to know one another!  Louis is some sound skin.  We talked about how Beara got its name, how Louis ended up in Kenmare with his wife, and had a right good laugh over John Magner when he shouted across at us from his kayak in panic asking us if there was anyone chasing him!!

The kayak across went by in no time, well 19 mins 56 secs to be exact, but it felt like no time at all!  We were greeted on Bere Island by some lads and a lovely gentleman who informed us of our position in the race.  Sixteenth and seventeenth.  Not bad for a pair of rambling eejits!      

Stage 6 – Run 10.2km and Stage 7 – 1.5km Kayak – Ed Thompson

Having landed on the beach in Bere island the thought was two more stages and I’m home. Finished. Finito. Oh but I still had to get out of the kayak though.

That was a struggle. Slowly raising my limp body to a vertical position, buoyancy aid off, camelback on, I realised (for the first time) when planting one foot in front of the other I had chaffing on the inside of my legs. NICE. I also realised that the salt water from the seat in the kayak was stinging the chaffing. NICE. My thoughts turned to how am I going to complete this stage.  

A quick detour behind a few boats to carry out some in flight repairs, and we are back moving again, up a short gravel climb across the road and upward through heather and gorse heading up the hill toward the Martello tower. Two thirds of the way up this climb, which I was walking but at least moving, and here one is offered stunning views of Renville on the island. It looks beautiful today in the good weather. A little distraction as I turn right for the tower.

Slowly up to the top, I knew I had a descent downhill to the road where I could let gravity take hold. But I also knew (from the training day) the biggest climb on the island was yet to come. I just didn’t want it to be true. Anyway gravity took hold down the hill, onto the road running short little sections, until I turned left then right over the stile and up the last big hill.

This was tough. I normally don’t cramp but this was now setting in. A fellow competitor offered me an electrolyte tablet. The quickest way to get it into me was to let it sizzle in my mouth followed by a decent amount of water. Not on their instructions I might add.

I slowly got to the top of the hill, looked to my right, out passed the cross on the island toward the golf club, and for the first time since 40k into the 1st cycle stage I realised I’m going to finish this.

Slowly jogging down the trail from the top, I kept reminding myself don’t trip, raise my feet as much as I can and don’t stub the foot and fall. The views to the southwest of the island were amazing. Out to the road and turn right, less than 2k to go. Ah feck another hill and a couple of more on the road. Short they may have been, but there was just no need for it at this stage.

As I passed the hotel with two fellow competitors, a round of applause broke out from those in the beer garden for us. That was brilliant to hear and just the little nudge that was needed to push us on. Down passed the church and onto the beach. One stage left, the end in sight.

Now I was looking for a fellow competitor to kayak with. There was only one person there and into the kayak we both got. My partner in crime for the next 15 minutes or so was Aine Hutton.

The sea water in the kayak seat meant the chaffing was back and stinging again but I focussed on getting across, talking to Aine, trying to enjoy this unique kayak from island to mainland, as we passed the shipwrecked Bardini Reefer.

The usual kayak question was asked: ‘Do you do many of these adventure races?’ passed the time, the water was still and we both worked well to kayak back across to the beach. Aine was out of the kayak quicker than me, and I grabbed my bag for the 30 metre sprint to the finish line.

Did I say sprint?! In reality it was a John Wayne shuffle to the finish line with my two sons who had been waiting for me. FINISHED! I had completed all of the stages available to me. But boy did this test me! Emotionally, mentally and physically … Never again, in fact NEVER ever ever again, and also Ollie Kirwan was now officially off my Christmas card list.

One week later: Ollie all is forgiven, what date is Quest 12 Beara 2022? 

And so that’s a wrap for Quest Beara 2021, an awesome adventure in a spectacular setting with the weather gods smiling down upon us! It tested us, it broke us, gave us the toughest cycle stage in any race out there, but ultimately it was magnificent, what a day out!!! Can’t wait for Quest 12 Beara 2022.

All that is left now is to discuss the war stories over a few pints …. and the hills on the second cycle that are getting bigger with each telling of the tale, I swear they were nearly 50% gradients in places, almost vertical really …

Thanks, Padraig