It was WAR alright. Driving up the boulevard to the Powerscourt Estate in Enniskerry, County Wicklow, I could feel any confidence I had rapidly disappear. Everyone around me looked slick and lean and professional. They looked like they knew what they were doing – and I didn’t, but I also knew if I didn’t change the way I was thinking I could just forget about it and head home, finished before I started. Well that wasn’t gonna happen. I got myself into this, I was going through with it, not sneaking away with a whimper. I’d joined WAR sport as my first adventure race – in a bid to assess my fitness ahead of the Helly Hansen Killarney Adventure Race on October 5th.
Talking with Zoe from the organising team beforehand I admitted that the run was worrying me most, partly because it was up and down the Sugarloaf, partly because running isn’t my strong point, and partly because I’d cut a chunk out of my ankle a couple of days earlier, sea-swimming in Malahide. I mentioned that I was happy enough about the bike because I was doing an average of 30k a day regularly. I commented that my cycle route into work didn’t have very many hills and I hoped I’d be able to cope with Wicklow. Zoe reassured me that there weren’t that many hills on the course. In fairness, she was right. There weren’t that many hills – just one – heading all the way up to the top!
As we pushed off from Powerscourt, I swiftly realised that I had totally underestimated the bike. The first 6k was totally uphill without a break. As I pushed against the incline, the rest of the racers swept passed and my warring mind returned. I was feeling out of my depth and overwhelmed and there was still another 30k and more to go! I started doing a mental checklist, was I ok? yes, was I out of breath? no, did my arms and legs still work? yes. So stop whingeing and keep pushing. I realised I wasn’t going to be finishing with any sort of decent time, and was probably going to have the mortification of arriving in hours after everyone else, so I reminded myself why I was here. What a wonderful opportunity to run, climb, cycle and kayak through the beautiful Wicklow hills that I love. I’ve hiked these mountains, and I’ve paddled on these lakes, and here was a chance to tie all my favourite things together. I started looking forward to the Sugarloaf and how it would feel to dump the bike and flex my legs with a trot up to the top, and after my recent run on Ticknock with the IMRA gang, I was dying to have another bash at running headlong down a mountain – last time was fun. The paddling was the 4th element in the race, and I knew I’d do well at that point, because I’ve been training all summer for the Liffey Descent so that would be my strongest sport right now.
As the hill got higher and my legs got wearier I told myself I was briefly returned from Tir na nÓg like Oisin, and would grow old and die if I put my foot to the ground. I decided I now had a new race. I couldn’t be fast, and I couldn’t get a good time, but my new battle was to make it up this hill without walking. Every sort of whimsy rattled around my brain, I’ll just cycle to the next tree, and now to the next bend, and now to the next crack in the road. I broke down that interminable tarmacadam mountain into bite size pieces and slowly made headway, until I saw in the distance the iconic volcanic looking Sugarloaf and knew that the second stage was at hand. Racking the bike, I took off on foot. Such a lovely mountain with such gorgeous views and a lovely scramble, so close to Dublin. I’ve climbed it in winter conditions and all year around and felt I was back on home turf – although I’ve always been in full hiking gear with boots and backpack, so galloping down in a pair of trail shoes was a new experience and I loved it.
Back on the bike for a long, but fairly flat stretch to the lakes section where the paddling was a delight, and then back on the bike for the final 17k of hills back to the starting point at Powerscourt. The mental battle began, but this time I knew the drill, and just pushed on and on, taking in as much of the scenery around me as I could. I got a great look at a hedgehog. It was my first time to see one moving around in real life, and not either squashed by traffic, or rolled into a protective ball. This little fella was all relaxed and running around on his little paws under his spiny coat, shining a kind of chestnut red in the sunlight. I got a really good look – when I finally managed to catch up with him!
There were good downhill stretches on this last section, but I couldn’t enjoy them, because my back-brake had stopped working and I was afraid to gather too much speed in case I had to jam on the front and went flying. I just resigned myself to getting home. I’d already learned loads and was counting the benefits of having signed up for the event. I’d discovered that my mountain bike with big nobbly wheels and a shopping carrier was a totally unsuitable beast for the event – made worse by my not bothering to have it serviced before the race….. counting out plasters to lighten my pack was a bit pointless when I was carrying at least a litre too much water… and cutting my ankle two days before the race was a bit thick. Yes I’d learned loads. I’d also learned not to talk yourself out of the race before you begin, and in fairness, I’d proved to myself that even when it all feels lost, I still have the determination to at least finish the job as best I can. Four hours and 17 minutes it took me to finish. At last count, I came in 166th out of 167 finishers… but the important word there is finish.
PS.. tomorrow – I’m off to buy a proper road-bike!