Thank you to everyone who sent in an entry for our ‘Quest Journey competition, we received lots of really inspirational stories and it was a very tough decision but we have chosen Mark Crothers’ entry as our winner. So grab a cuppa and enjoy a good read. Congratulations to Mark, and thanks for being so candid, well done on all your achievements!

I had never been a particularly athletic person, I once attempted to run a leg of the Belfast City Marathon and struggled through it badly. Roll on 14/15 years (2011) and things were much worse 16 stone in a 5’7 frame and I was out of breath climbing the stairs.

Then for no real reason at all, other than my wife, Laura and I deciding that we were both far too unhealthy, we completely changed our lifestyle. No more chips, huge cakes, crap food – enough was enough. Starting January 5th 2012, we changed our diet and our lives completely. Between us we lost a whopping 12 stone in 8 months and in truth it just took some serious commitment and the right changes – effort to cook and eat properly. But this was the start of something and we wondered what else could we possibly do that we once thought was too difficult.

I started running. Next my work started doing a cycle to work scheme. I got, what I thought then was a really expensive bicycle. Laura was so envious of my shiny bike that within a few weeks she had one herself. Then the Giro came to town – hook line and sinker. Nothing could hold us back. We cycled every weekend. We saw lots of other people enter cycle sportives, run 5kms, 10kms, marathons, but not us.  The reality was we were scared to do anything like that. The thought that we could do an event was terrifying – so much so that it took us years to pluck up the courage.

Around Christmas 2015 Laura and I were watching the Cycle channel and a programme about what was then the Killarney Adventure Race. I’d never heard of adventure races before – and I didn’t know where Killarney was – honest. We both watched every second – intently. I’m pretty sure Moire O’Sullivan won the woman’s race and I remember Dessie Duffy and Eric Wolfe battling it out. The beauty of the place – Strickeen – Gap of Dunloe – Mangerton – places I’d maybe heard in passing but never seen. I really dreamed of doing something like this.  Laura said we had a bit too much to drink and had entered it there and then. But I was terrified, I said to Laura ‘There’s was no way we could enter that, it isn’t for people like us.’ We looked at the website, I was desperately trying to find some reason that we would be excluded from the race. Did we need a qualifying race? Do we need to be in a club? Is it sold out? Where is Killarney? What the **** have we done Laura?!!!  We were entered – the race didn’t take place until October so we had plenty of time.

For the next 8/9 months all we really done was a bit more running, a bit more cycling, we entered a few sportives and think we maybe even ran a half marathon. But all eyes were really on October and Quest Killarney. I really didn’t know what to expect. One thing I did know, fear, I know fear all too well and it had stopped me from doing lots of fun stuff.

October came, we were well prepared, we had little adventure racer bags and everything you might need. Signing on was very straight forward, I was expecting some last-minute hitch, such as, where is your adventure racing licence? But no – it was simple. Here is your pack, check your chip and there is your free top.

Next stop Kate Kearney’s Cottage where we racked out bikes. We drove through Molls Gap and we wondered where Strickeen mountain was. We didn’t realise it was staring us right in the face. The beauty of Molls Gap was amazing and we knew the day after we would get to run/cycle/paddle through here. I think we must have stopped 5 or 6 times on our drive through just to take a few photos.

I don’t think I slept at all the night before, again fear played on my mind. Laura was doing the dual version without the kayak, her start time was a few hours after mine. I was alone. I boarded the bus and sat beside someone who had done it before. I’m sure he thought I was a moron. Is it hard? Is it far? Is it hilly? Is it going to rain? What underpants have you on? Just a babble of stupid questions! I didn’t even listen for the replies. Fear was replaced by downright terror. I was bricking it.

As we lined up on the start I looked around and realised everyone else wasn’t unlike me at all. They are all reasonably fit and their bikes are not any better or more expensive than mine. That calmed me slightly. I had even seen someone with the same shoes as me. It weird what goes through your mind. I must have registered in wave 2 or 3 that year, looking up I realised instantly where Strickeen Mountain was. I could see a little string of brightly coloured objects moving up the nearest mountain. ‘Holy shit is that where we have to go?’ I must have said this out loud. Someone replied yes but take a look around when you get up there, sunrise is due. I kind of laughed though, the only thing I could think of was it might be the sunset by the time I get up there.

The race started and it was a surprise to me. Ready steady then an air horn and we were off. After 3 steps, maybe even less, fear was gone. Control of the situation was the priority. I told myself, ‘don’t bust yourself on the first leg, this is a long day’. The run up Strickeen mountain was great. I honestly expected everyone around me to be off like the clappers while I wandered up the mountain. Reality was different though, a slow jog was the fastest anyone went. I relaxed immediately and took it easy on the way up. I even remembered to look around and the sun was just rising over the adjoining mountain. It even brings a tear to my eye now thinking about. It was beautiful. That very second the thought went through my head, this is where I am, and this is where I want to be. This is absolutely wonderful. I don’t think this memory has ever left me. Strickeen mountain will be in my heart forever. The way down was difficult, I had never really run down a mountain before.

Next up was the bike and by this stage I wasn’t even remotely scared and fear was gone for the day. I am more comfortable on the bike than running. I actually can’t put into words the ride through the Gap of Dunloe – stunning is a word. I’m not sure it does it justice though. To race my bike through there is a privilege and very humbling. I had never raced a bike in any shape or form ever to that day. I had no clue how hard or how easy to go. I just winged it. The drive round the cycle route the day before definitely helped me. However thinking back, I rode the cycle far too hard. I attacked the hills far more than I should. I look back now and call it inexperience. I loved every second of the cycle, it was great. Speeding through the corners and passing people. Sitting on someone’s wheel then taking a turn at the front of the small group, this was all new and really exciting for me.

I got off the bike and started running towards the kayak. A marshal told me I still had my hat on. I said “what”, again he said ‘your hat’. Then I realised, he means my helmet. Ever since then, I have referred to my helmet as my hat.

My legs had stopped working. They had stopped communicating. I said run, my legs said, nothing. They were like jelly. This really was a new feeling. Thankfully I wasn’t alone, others around me were in the same boat. Not just metaphorically either. Someone handed me an oar and pointed me towards a boat. There was a girl waiting there. She had been waiting a while, several blokes didn’t want to paddle with her. I was just relieved someone would go with me. I later learned that this a common theme, men thinking they’re too good to paddle with a woman. Me, now with some experience, I’d choose to partner with a woman hands down every time. Generally speaking they paddle harder and are far more selfless in the boat. Not to mention, they’re usually lighter and most likely have paced themselves better. And blokes if they get in the boat the same time as you, they’ll finish before you and that’s a fact! (Well I made that bit up, but it probably is a fact). I had been in a kayak a few times before but on my own. I was quickly instructed, get in the back and follow her. It worked out really well. We were as fast as anyone else. Oh and I didn’t drown. I also realised I had no upper body strength.

To his day I had the worst cramp in my legs on the steps at Torc Waterfall. I couldn’t move. I thought for sure that my race was over. Someone told me ‘just keep going that way’ pointing up. I nearly told him where to go…the cramp eased off and I went again but at a reduced pace. I now know what the bloke meant when he says just keep going, I really do. I started to know when the cramp was going to come and quickly accepted this. I ran through woods up little hills and down little hills. This is great I thought, we must be near the top of the mountain now. Finally, the forest cleared and the sight that greeted me, Mangerton Mountain towering above. I could see brightly-coloured spots miles away high up, much higher than I. Crap, I still had to go up there. The view was awesome. Coming down that mountain and coming down through the forest and then the waterfall, well that’s a really difficult bit too. Exhaustion plays its part. I fell twice on my way down Mangerton Mountain, lucky not to injure myself. I did the same the next year too.

The final leg on the bike again. I am relieved to get on the bike, it’s the most natural place for me to be. I had to take it carefully, cramp still reminding me that this is something you’ve never done before. But the finish line beckons and there’s someone behind me trying to steal my hard-worked-for place. I hold them off and cross the line in 5 hours 36 minutes. I finish 156. I am ecstatic, I think I have a little cry to myself. This is without doubt my greatest sporting accomplishment ever.

The reality is it is a tough day and you need a bit of fitness to do it. For me, overcoming the fear to sign up for the event was the difficult bit. I wouldn’t have signed up but for Laura, signing me up to do it. Fear is something I have lived with all my life and still do. It stopped me from doing many things. It kept me quiet when I should have spoken up. This day taught me far more than any other day of my life. It taught me a little about how to fight fear. It taught me lots about myself and my character. It showed me a new part of Ireland, I hadn’t known about. It taught me that adventure racing is awesome.

The next year 2017, Laura and I completed the whole Irish Quest Adventure Series. I got faster and stronger and more experienced, as did Laura. 2018 we even brought a few friends along. 2019, this chapter is still to come, but I am excited. All the bad fear has gone. My hotel is booked in Killarney for October. Watch out all, I’m going for a top 5 in my over forties male category.

My Australian friend’s favourite saying is “eat concrete, harden up”. Quest has helped me to do just that. My biggest regret in life is age 18-39, fear ruled, unhealthy, watching the telly, sitting on my ass, I was all too comfortable. People say life speeds up the older you get. The last few years, I haven’t found that at all. The more new and challenging experiences you cram in, the longer the years last.

Killarney has a massive place in my heart. I will never forget it as the first place I ever took part in an adventure race. I will remember that day as if it were yesterday until the day I die. It was all the more special that I shared the experience with the Laura, the love of my life.

My final thought is don’t let fear stop you from doing something you will love. “eat concrete, harden up”.

Mark Crothers – see you all soon at some massive big mountain!

Thanks to all at Quest Adventure Series for putting on such great events, they mean a whole lot more to me and everyone than you could ever dream!!