If you see anybody walking around today looking like a slower version of Frankenstein, it’s very likely that they completed, or survived, Gaelforce North on Saturday.
The stiff-as-a-plank and side-to-side walk will have been caused by a build-up of lactic acid from the incredible pounding the legs take (especially the quads) over a punishing 64k course of trail-running, cycling, kayaking and a rough up and down of the beautiful (but hostile) Errigal mountain.
The race, held in Northwest Donegal, is the little cousin of Gaelforce West in Galway and Mayo. Gaelforce West is the biggest and most established of them all and really established the vogue for adventure racing in Ireland (and is one of the biggest of its kind in the world). It attracts thousands of competitors each year to the amazing landscape that takes you from the mouth of the Killary fjord in Co Galway to the grounds of Westport House, with a scramble up and down Croagh Patrick thrown in.
The changed economic circumstances in 2008 certainly seem to have acted as a trigger for people to reeveluate priorities; begin to look to other things besides material gain to add dimension and quality to their lives. There has been a marked increase in interest in outdoor activities and rediscovering the landscape. As adventure racing embraces both, it has become hugely popular. Dozens of adventure races are held each year and other brands – WAR in Wicklow and the Achill Roar – also have a strong cachet.
I was one of about 350 who did the full course of Gaelforce North on Saturday. The course is tough (they all are!) but it is also a journey though some of the most eye-achingly beautiful landscape in the country. The 16k run at the start takes you through the heart of Glenveagh National Park, downhill for an age at the start, then along the banks of Glenveagh Loch, and past the fairytale castle once owned by the American tycoon Henry McIlhenny, before climbing steeply over a high pass towards Churchill and the Glebe Gallery.
Enjoying the landscape is a relative thing during these endurathons (a bit like the way Chevy Chase gave his family 1 second to view the Grand Canyon during National Lampoon’s Vacation before making a hasty getaway). But the hardship of the race was not the only thing taking my breath away.
It was Gaelforce by name, gale force by nature on Saturday. There was a gale blowing in from the west. They had to shorten the kayak course because of choppy waters. The cycle from Churchhill to the foot of Errigal was also brutal… over 8k of upward incline against a blowey wind with a couple of squally showers thrown in.
My own background is the mountain stuff but I really struggled going up Errigal and was also much slower than normal coming down. Incidentally, the winds and conditions were such, that they pulled us short about 100m from the summit for safety reasons. The final cycle was very scenic with a much longer section of rough trail stuff (still mostly do-able on a racer) than Gaelforce West.
I was happyish with my own time of 5.12 but should really have done it in under 5. Still all in all, a tremendous experience. At the other end, in the more rarefied atmosphere at the top of the leader board, winner Aidan McMoreland posted some incredible splits (including 35 minutes for going up and down Errigal) on his way to clocking an impressive overall time of 3.21.48. Second-, and third-, placed Padraig Marrey and Gary Crossan finished within 30 seconds of each other, both posting times of a little over 3.32.
Adventure racing throws up a number of choices and problems.
1. A lot of competitors get cramped up badly in their calves on the cycle stage. You need to hydrate very well and also take electrolytes to address this.
2. Over such a long period of exertion, you also need to ensure you eat. Some people get buy on energy bars and energy goo but I think it’s also important to eat real food, a banana and even a sandwich as well.
3. Equipment and backpack choice is another difficulty. I used a mountain bike the first time I did Gaelforce West. Never again. You lose too much time on the road. I have never been passed by a mountain bike in that race ever… I tend to use a small racing rucksack to keep my runners as I much prefer cycling with cleats. I also tend to use trail runners rather than ordinary running shows as they are better on rough terrain.