Sat 12th May
The really well named WAAR or Wild Atlantic Adventure Race was one event that I wanted to experience this year having heard a lot of good reports about it in the last year or 2. It did not disappoint. It is a multi-sport challenge set in west Donegal and it certainly makes the most of the natural beauty of the area. It is based near Annagry at ‘The Banks’ in Mullaghdearg which is the home of Naomh Mhuire GAA club.
Myself and Darren, who is one of my running mates and is married to my wifes’ sister had signed up for the full course event which covers 55.5 km in all. It is made up of a 10k run at the start, a 30k cycle, a 2k hill climb, another 12.5 k cycle and finally a 1k kayak in Mullaghdearg lake to finish. There is also a sprint version of the race at 39km, a duathalon of only the running and cycling and then there’s the team challenge where competitors can take on the full course in teams of 2 or 4. There are plenty options for anyone looking to take part. This was reflected in the turnout this year which climbed over the 600 mark for the first time.
Training-wise, myself, Darren and Noel, the third leg of our running trio, had been starting to build up the miles towards the Derry Marathon which we will be taking part in on the June bank holiday weekend, three weeks after WAAR. So WAAR was a nice distraction from this training but at the same time we couldn’t afford too much time to focus on the world of adventure racing alone. The cycling would form the biggest part of this race and also the toughest from my point of view. I wouldn’t have too many miles clocked up on two wheels and have only recently got hold of a bike myself. I had started to come into a fair level of general fitness and was depending on this to carry me through. Darren who is pretty strong on the bike took me out on a few training spins on the road and was always good at offering me tips on how to improve. A couple of these we mixed with a bit of running to get the legs used to the element of changing over. The longest cycle we did was 18 miles which was still 8 miles less than I would need on the day. We also took part in the short Falcarragh Duathalon to help us prepare which was really enjoyable, but even the 16km cycle in this I found tough going. I have never experienced leg fatigue like you get after a bit of cycling!
Two weeks before the race in a conversation with three friends, Colm, Seamus and Michael I suggested that they should enter the team event for the craic if they got one more person. None of them had any of this kind of training done but not wanting to be the one to say no and maybe testing what the others would do, one by one they agreed to take part!
Michael would do the run at the start. He had done a bit of running before but was pretty much starting from scratch again. He quickly built up a few miles on the treadmill and then took part in the North West 10k on the Sunday before to get a feel for the distance.
Colm agreed to do the cycle on the day so he didn’t have too much time to prepare. He had a decent base of fitness from playing football and with a wee bit of experience on the bike and getting out on a couple of long spins in the lead up, he got himself ready.
Seamus had never been in a Kayak in his life before but he said he would do it! He knew a couple of people who had kayaks and was able to get out 2 or 3 times to give himself a wee heads up on what to expect. The kayak section of the team event would be 2km so it would take a right bit of paddling to get around it. I got out with Seamus on the Wednesday evening beforehand as well to try to get a bit of confidence built up at it myself.
Now they just needed a hill climber and once they got someone for this I got them signed up. Their climber ended up having to make a late withdrawal however, but on the evening before the race my brother-in-law Shaun agreed to step in and do the hill climb for them so there was no turning back now.
On the Friday night we had to go over to the race headquarters to collect our race packs and drop off our bikes at the first transition area. Darren and myself travelled over with Seamus in his van and we were able to take the three bikes with us in the back. It was a warm evening and there was a good crowd milling about. You could feel a buzz in the air and a real sense of anticipation. It was good to get our bearings and get a wee look at the lake too as we wondered what the exact route would be. The race would start in 3 waves 15 minutes apart. Darren and myself would go in the first wave at 8:15 and the boys would be in the team wave at 8:45. Everyone was asked to attend the race briefing at 7:45 so it would be an early enough start. As we came through Mullaghdubh on the way home Seamus set the speedometer on his van to get an idea of the distances we would be covering in the morning. When he dropped me at my house after what seemed like a long enough drive home we had covered only 52km so it made things that wee bit more daunting.
We said we would leave around 6:15 the next morning so I got up at 5:30 and had some porridge and a few bits and pieces and was ready to go. Michael came as far as my house and Darren picked us up. We would meet the others over there. The car parks were already rightly filled up when we arrived and the place was a hive of activity. It was a bright sunny morning although there was a chill in the air. It was the kind of day you knew would warm up though. You could sense the nervous energy of the competitors mixed with excitement for the day ahead as people dropped things to their bikes and made any final adjustments. Everyone gathered in the marquee for the race briefing as we were quickly talked through each of the stages before being wished a safe and enjoyable day. There wasn’t much time between the briefing and the start of wave 1 so after a few stretches and having kept my jacket on until the last minute to keep warm, I threw it to Shaun and it was time to go.
Darren and myself ran together and started off steadily enough and watched a fairly large leading group open up a gap. We had talked about keeping the run fairly comfortable early on as pushing the pace too much would prove costly later in the race. The first part of the run was along the main road and although we were sitting happily back in the bunch we still knew we were tipping along nicely. As we passed Bonner’s Bar in Mullaghdubh, Darrens watch beeped to signify 1 mile done. He checked the pace and said “we’re away too sharp”. I asked “was that about a 7:20 mile?”. He said “no, 6:40!” So we were nearly a minute quicker than we planned but we still knew that it would settle. We then turned left off the main road and ran towards Carrickfinn airport. As we approached the airport we ran down a steep downhill section and it was as easy to let the legs carry on here as holding back. We then entered the grounds of the airport and past the terminal building. The route then took us up along a grassy path which hugged the perimeter fence and travelled parallel to the runway. The day was definitely warming up as we worked along nicely keeping the chat to a minimum. When we reached the end of the path we crossed over and ran around the fire engine that they had parked there as a marker, before coming onto the end of the runway and running back up the entire length of it. This was definitely a first! Shortly after starting up the runway I realised Darren had sat back a little and I had opened up a small gap. I had settled into a nice rhythm while ensuring to stay comfortable so I decided to keep going as I was. There was a breeze meeting us head on the whole way up but it was still easy to keep an even pace and it was a really enjoyable bit of running.
The whole run was very well marshalled with volunteers at every junction and they offered plenty of encouragement. The atmosphere across the event all day was also very positive overall. We then left the airport grounds before crossing over the beach area and back out onto the road. This run had a bit of everything. After a short distance we turned off the road for a bit of a cross country section which offered nice underfoot running although you had to pick your steps at times. I have to say as 10k runs go it was one of the most enjoyable I have ever done with the varied terrain and the stunning scenery alongside. Usually during a race you are at a pace which is as much as your body can maintain and its often not that enjoyable until its completed. It was nice to allow myself to run just within the comfort level although still working at the same time. I kept the pace steady and as I rounded the monument at the end of the cross country course some of the runners ahead started to come back to me and I overtook a few here and there. After about another kilometre of running we ran onto a wooden walkway and down some steps onto Mullaghdearg beach. Crossing the beach was hard work as the sand was soft and when we reached the end we had a sharp climb up over a large dune to get off it which asked plenty questions of the quad muscles! From this point it was more or less free wheeling back down towards the road and the clubhouse and thinking about the bike. Colm was at the gate to give me a shout on as I passed and we then ran past the football pitch and into transition. I completed the run in 44:39 so I would have been happy enough with that.
I didn’t spend long in transition and got out onto the road and away I went. I just tried to settle into a rhythm and work at a tempo that I thought I could maintain. I was never going to be fast overall but I just wanted to keep the workrate as honest as I could. It wasn’t long before I could feel a bit of a burn in the legs but it wasn’t too bad yet. The first bit of cycling towards Kincasslagh was enjoyable enough with a few ups and downs but nothing too bad. A few of the stronger cyclists that were behind me on the run began to come by and this would continue right the way through. I was blown away by the pace and power of some of them as they steamed past. You could hear the crunch of their pedals as they generated serious momentum. “Surely they can’t keep that going all day, can they?” I wondered to myself . Some were in the zone and would just power past, while others were more in cruise mode and would offer a bit of encouragement as they eased by.
After about 3 miles or so I heard Darren shout from behind and we had a quick chat as he came past and I told him to keep working. The route carried on through Keadue and Burtonport and then on along the main road towards Dungloe. There was a strong enough breeze in our faces the whole way to Dungloe and I found this section pretty tough going and the legs were screaming rightly. I had a small pouch on the bike with an energy bar and a handful of jelly babies in it so I took a bite every so often and kept sipping at my bottle of Lucozade Sport to keep myself fuelled.
We turned left after Dungloe and we seemed to get out of the wind for a bit as I settled into a steady pace, all the while wondering how bad the steep climb up Tór which lay ahead would be. From here on it was mostly back roads that we travelled on and there was plenty smaller climbs but also downhills to get a wee breather. I came round the corner after one of the downhills for one of the more amusing moments of the day. Travelling up ahead of me was a large Massey Ferguson tractor with two sets of double wheels on it and it filled the entire width of the road. There was a steep hillside on the left and a wide drain on the right so there was no way past. The driver turned and gave me an apologetic wave and signalled to wait for a minute. I laughed and signalled back as if to say “no worries” as I half enjoyed the opportunity for a quick rest. Up ahead he was able to pull over a bit to leave enough of a gap for me to squeeze past and on I went. It added to the magic of the day!
It wasn’t long before I passed the painted sign at the side of the road which read ‘dig deep’, so what could I do but just that as I gritted the teeth and crested the top of it for a fast downhill and then the approach to the steepest climb of the day. It was long and tough but manageable once you shut the mind out as I alternated between standing and sitting and slowly made my way to the top. The last bit was a long gradual climb and once I reached the end of it I suddenly felt like I had the day beat.
After a short section from the top of Tór we soon reached transition 2 for the hike up An Grogán Mór. It was a bit of a relief to get off the bike. As I walked in to rack my bike a marshall offered to hang it for me so I quickly made my way onto the climb and kept moving. Anywhere that it levelled out I jogged but on the steep parts all you could do was walk or hike. On the first section there was competitors meeting each other in both directions but as it got steeper the course went in a loop where you went up, across the top and back round the far side again. I began to pass one or two on the way up as I was travelling pretty ok. There was one fairly tall man here with his hands on his knees taking a breather and he looked well spent from the hike up. I shouted at him to try to keep it going as I carried on. Once I got over the top I broke into a jog across the flat part and rounding the corner to head back down I picked up my momentum where the main part now was to pick your footing. It was quite slippy and you had to be careful but it was very enjoyable. As I got near the bottom again I met Francis Diver of the Tirchonaill Tribune and Milford AC on his way up and he handed me a cup of water which I gladly gulped down. I ran on into transition but I couldn’t find my bike for a few seconds. The marshall had hung it a bit away from where I had given it to him. I scanned up and down keeping a look out for the Lucozade Sport bottle as so many of the bikes look the same at a time like this. It wasn’t long though ’til I spotted it. Shaun was standing at this point for his part in the day as he waited for Colm to arrive in from his Cycle. As I got back on my bike I remarked to him that I almost felt more like running the last 12.5 km back! Shaun and myself would record an almost identical time on the hill of just under 17 minutes.
The last part of the cycle was on nice sweeping roads through Loughanure and Annagry and I started to think about making it to the Kayak and the finish. The legs were pretty tired and it was still tough going keeping the wheels turning and keeping the momentum going as there was still some sharp little climbs but also some fast downhill sections. A couple of miles after the hike the man that I had seen struggling near the top of the hill came sweeping past me on the bike looking strong! It really brought it home to me the different types of fitness required for an event like this. Also on a flat road section about 2 miles from the end a girl came up alongside me seemingly well out of breath. “I’m not very strong on the bike” she said. “Ah its tough going, isn’t it” I replied. “I haven’t had the bike out since WAAR last year” she continued as I assured her that at least we were nearly there now. She cycled alongside me for a few hundred metres before powering away and opening up a gap! I just laughed and looked forward to the kayak.
Finally I swept back down towards headquarters and quickly racked the bike and jogged towards the kayak. Seamus and Michael were at the entrance to the lake and gave me a cheer. Out onto the lake I started into as steady a rhythm as I could. There were 3 yellow buoys on the lake so you had to paddle out to the first, do a square right and travel straight across the lake to the second. By now a fair wind had started to get up and the water was a bit choppy. It was quite hard work keeping going and I really couldn’t believe how far 1km was. The only thing I could think about was how Seamus was going to manage 2km of this! Around the second buoy, I turned left and put the head down and kept going towards the last marker at the end. You had to fight a bit to keep the kayak straight at times and the arms could really feel it. Out around the last buoy it was then just a matter of keeping the paddle moving as I eased happily back towards the shore. I never felt like I was going that well on the lake but I actually passed a few people on my way round so I had a good enough run out.
Out of the boat, off with the life jacket, I then jogged out and across the football pitch and through the finish. There was a great sense of achievement and relief to have got this far. My finishing time was 3 hours, 9 minutes & 17 seconds. There was 294 competitors in the solo, full course section and this time would give me 86th place overall. I headed into the marquee where a warm cup of soup was most welcome before I went over to the boys at the entrance to the lake. Darren was now here with them too and had finished just over 1 minute ahead of me in 80th place overall. At this stage Seamus was anxiously waiting for Colm to come in on the bike so he could get out on the lake. Michael was all smiles as he had his work done early and he could enjoy the rest of the day. Seamus had to wait until the very end and he didn’t know exactly when he would be going as he didn’t quite know when Colm would get back. Darren had informed him how much of a struggle it was out on the lake so this wouldn’t have helped him a great deal! He got a boost though when one of the officials announced that as it was now so windy the teams would also do just 1km in the water. Shortly after this Colm arrived on the bike and he looked quite fresh after his days pedalling. Seamus was off and once he got out on the lake he settled in nicely. Shaun had also arrived back from the hike area and when Seamus returned, the 4 of them had to run across the pitch and finish as a team. They did really well overall and actually ended up as first all male team on the day so they can be more than happy with their outing. We went for a few drinks later on to unwind and as the times became available online and were broken down for each discipline we knocked a great bit of fun out of comparing and dissecting everyone’s performance. The best kick I got out of it was hearing them talking about getting some training done and doing one of these events as individuals. The bug can bite when you least expect it!