Mile Failte 1200 –  Go on, go on, go on (& then go on some more)

Back in November 2017 had decided I would go try my first multi-day endurance event and settled on the Mile Failte 1200 – a long distance Audax run every four years in Munster. It had a few things going for it: Being centered in Killarney meant no bag packing/unpacking every night and made things a bit easier for a multi-day endurance novice. It would minimise the amount of gear to carry and you don’t have the logistics of organising a support crew like other endurance events.

To give you the best chance of completing the organisers require you to complete minimum of a 200, 300 & 400k event prior to the start date. As a result, my journey to the start line started on a cold Feb morning when I turned up for the Kings Mountain 200. Whitehall church on a dark frosty Sat morning in Feb would not be top of the list of places to start an epic journey. I had done a lot of longish events but this was probably my first proper Audax where the field is smaller, self-navigation and reliability is essential. I settled into a good group and really enjoyed the day. In advance I had poured over the advice on what to pack from the Audax website which is a great source of information and it really helped to be prepared for all eventualities encountered. Next up was Three Rivers 300 in Cork. Another memorable but epic route which really tested my endurance, resolve and navigation skills due to a few Garmin freezes (lesson 1 - always have a backup navigation plan). I also got to meet some familiar faces I would meet in later qualifiers and at the Mile Failte itself.

Approaching the event I was getting very nervous. The last qualifier was the North to South 400 in May and that had been a real eye opener. Cycling from Belfast to Malin head and back via the Sperrin’s had been a lot tougher than envisaged (despite glorious weather) and took a lot longer than expected. I could hardly walk at the end of it and the thought of having another three days after that made me re-evaluate what I was getting in for. I was briefly tempted to switch to a nice one day event on the continent with some sunshine but after a bit of research concluded the step from 300 to 400 is probably the biggest jump in Audax terms according to a lot of vets and I can see why. I eventually managed to switch from the glass half empty to half full mentality and started the final preparations.

Coming up to the event I was pouring over the weather forecast to decide what wet weather gear to bring and how to set up the bike. I shouldn’t have bothered as the weather forecast was for that relatively rare event in Ireland - heatwave with relatively light winds. Heat brings its own challenges but our once a decade Irish heatwave was way more preferable to the standard issue wind and rain. Based on experience from the North to South 400 I made a last-minute change to 28mm tyres and all seemed fine on a few test spins (but on the roads of Kerry a lot of stones got trapped in the brake callipers and I had to drop a wheel out on several occasions to remove them which was a pain). Also, with good weather I decided to travel light so off went the large saddle pack and carried only basic spares (hanger, tyre, chain links etc.) and left majority of wet gear and clothes changes behind.

I also had a quick chat with Dave Mc about his experiences and his advice was invaluable and comforting given that his recommended strategy aligned with my thinking – primarily try and hang with a fast group and get back to base every night as close to nightfall as possible. This would allow time for a good feed and shower and a few hours sleep. That was the plan anyway!!

I arrived down to Killarney on the Friday to get set up and prepped. The event had booked out the Killarney youth hostel for the duration of the event. There was a real event buzz as you pulled into the driveway with everyone setting up the bikes. The ranges of bikes were staggering with steel, titanium and carbon steeds kitted out with every configuration of bag pannier etc. There was even one recumbent. There seemed a few bikes traveling in light mode so didn’t feel I had to add on some last-minute luggage storage. I met Danny and Tony, the other Orwell participants who were doing last minute repairs and preparations. We had a brief chat around expectations and ruefully laughed at the madness we were about to partake in. We headed off to the pre-event briefing in which there was a lot to digest!

I officially checked in and got my dorm lottery ticket. Ended up in a ten bed dorm that was 50% filled with an international line-up of a Dane, two Filipinos and another Irish guy. The two Filipinos had decided to spend the night in a hotel and came back in the morning. I wish I had done that as I probably only got two hours sleep due to my snoring neighbour.

 

Day 1 – A spin to Craggy Island (382km & 3600m elevation)

My alarm went off at 5am to be ready for the 6am start. A full Irish was served for all participants and for some competitors it was like the last supper as they were really fueling up. I felt like the rogue invader having my Flavahan’s nut muesli, yogurt and fruit but stick to what you know. I also seemed to be only one going for the P20 as I walked around like an idiot for 15mins waiting for it to dry but sun protection was one less thing to worry about for the day.

I met Danny and Tony out front of the hostel and we were all in good spirits and ready for the challenge ahead. Final briefing and we were off and heading to Tarbert for the ferry. The first ferry was at 8.30 and it was an hour to the next one. With 75k it required speed of 30km/hr to get there otherwise it would be an hour wait. I thought a group might form and push the pace but it never materialised so I arrived into Tarbert at 8.45am, had a coffee stop and enjoyed the sunshine on the pier. The ferry hadn’t really been factored into the plan and was going to add 1.5 hours onto what was already a long day at 382km.

After a scenic crossing it was a strange sight watching 80 cyclists disembark – it had that apocalypse feel. From there it was on the first control in Kilrush. I didn’t spend long here and pushed on along the coast to Lahinch and Lisdoonvarna.  Descended Corkscrew hill then a sharp right and we were into the heart of the Burren. It must be the rocks, but it was like an oven as the mercury hit 30oC. Luckily I had stopped in Lisdoonvarna for a bottle refill as I wouldn’t have made it the next control otherwise. The roads had no shade and it was hard to get a group to form and was pushing on my own.

The scenery was enjoyable and rolled into Father Teds houses for the next control. This was the highlight of the day as we were served tea and scones while mingling with a hen party dressed as nuns. The women thought their Christmas’s had come early as they admiringly mingled with the lean and tanned foreign entrants aka the “quad squad”. I think some of the cyclists were considering early retirement and heading to the pub with the hens but the cycling die hards remounted the bikes and on to Cratloe for the next control. On this section I paired up with John from Cork and we worked well together. The heat was making it hard work and was glad of an extended stop. I was finished refueling and getting ready to go when the “five star” food service arrived. A pot of beef stew with rice had been delivered and we gladly extended the stop to get some substance into the belly. It was a long stop to the next control and this was a good call

The next step was Glin – we joked it would have been quicker to swim the Shannon. For this leg we joined up with Simon & Leigh - two tough Aussies with numerous 1200k palmares and we worked really well as a group into a stiff headwind through Limerick city and Foynes. Danny had warned me to expect some tough drags out of Glin but by and large the legs felt good as we motored, wind assisted into Abbeyfeale and Castleisland. It was getting dark as we left Castleisland. Fatigue in the group was setting in after a long day. I had cycled that route as part of the TKAS and was glad I knew the route and had to do a long tow on the front into Killarney. We got back to hostel just after 11.30. With showering, eating and stretching and preparing for next day didn’t get to bed till 1.00.

 

Day 2  – The day of disappearing bottle tops (371k & 3707m)

I happily slept until 5.15 alarm call then ather groggily got up and struggled to down breakfast. I eventually rolled out at 6.15am with John for company again as we headed east.

On a bumpy descent I heard something drop off the bike. I stopped and tried to figure out what had dropped. After a few minutes I noticed the top of water bottle had vibrated loose and had been lost in the hedgerow. Other bottle had also loosened so luckily I had one to get me to Bandon before I could get a Ballygowan substitute. I never had that happen to me but must be related to high temps. (it happened again twice that day and I still can’t figure out why!)

My legs felt very sluggish, I felt hungover with no energy and struggled into the first stop at Bandon after 90k at an average speed just over 20k/hr. Nevertheless we were still passing a lot more bodies than expected and I presumed a lot had gone on with little or no sleep from the first day. I had a big feed and started to kick back to life. What followed was a nice spin along the coast and I felt re-energized. Onto the next control at Skibbereen where, as was becoming standard, there was hearty fare on offer. I introduced a few of the international riders to Irish gourmet aka - Ham & Tayto sandwiches. Coke flavoured Calippo’s went down well and then we were back on our way. By now I had reunited with Simon & Leigh to add a bit more firepower.

I had never been west of Clonakilty so was now into new territory. The roads though Roscarberry, Ballydehob, Schull and into the control at Toormore were comfortably negotiated. I was a bit disappointed we weren’t heading onto Mizen (saving that for another day) as we started to head back east on the other side of the peninsula. The scenery was epic as we followed a beautiful coastal route through Durrus, Ahakista and into Kilcrohane. Every turn opened up a new scenic vista of shimmering blue water against craggy headlands and mountains. One or two were even tempted for an impromptu dip to cool down and relieve aching joints.

                                     Heading into Kilcrohane

I got to the Kilcrohane control which was a strategically setup camper van (we got there early but I heard late arrivals were subjected to a midgey fest). It was more a water and snack stop and wasn’t doing much to address what was an insatiable desire for carbs.  I headed off to the village but the café had just closed. We would have to wait until Bantry. I started to ascend the aptly named Goats Path. It had just been resurfaced and my back wheel was spinning on the steep hairpins. It was late afternoon and it was the hottest I have ever felt cycling and there a literal stream running down my face. The toil was well worth the effort as at the top you get to see across Bantry bay to the north and Dunmanus bay to the south. From there it was a scenic coastal spin into Bantry before heading for Glengarrif and onto the Beara peninsula. I rolled wearily into the day’s final control in Casteletown Bere around 9pm. The control was in a function room in a local pub and had been set up with inflatable beds for riders who wanted to rest. The thought of a few beers in the pub and some shuteye was tempting but Killarney was calling.

There was a selection of dinner options available. The only one that interested me was a chicken Jalfezi which probably isn’t the best for the stomach on an endurance event. One of the attendants (an experienced audaxer) was very disapproving of my choice but I didn’t feel so bad when one of the experienced Aussies opted for the same. It had been a long day and there was a lot of heel dragging at the stop and we set off nearly an hour after we arrived for the final push. The sun was beginning to set, and we had the low sun in our eyes all the way to Eyeries. We had lost one from the group to rest a sore knee but gained Toshihisa, a Japanese national living in the US. He seamlessly integrated into the group. The stretch of road from into Kenmare is perhaps the most memorable stretch of road I have every cycled as the sky turned shades of orange, red and purple and the Caha mountains were reflected in the purple hued sea.

                                     Sunset spin into Kenmare

The only thing that was ruining the experience was the pain in my hands. The vibration from all the secondary roads had taken their toll and I could barely hold the handlebars. I tried to wrap my arm warmers around my gloves but didn’t do much good. Just as night fell we arrived into Kenmare. The start of Moll’s gaps was horrible. The surface was terrible, and I did the first 3k’s of the climb cycling with no hands on the handle bars until the road surface improved. The second half of the climb passed relatively quickly. There is something serene about climbing in the dark - the climbs never seem as hard when you can’t see the gradient and rely on feel. After a fast descent, arrived back into Killarney just after midnight. The legs were ok, but the hands were in agony and I was resigning myself to a lot of hurt for the rest of the event. After a shower, feed and stretch I got to bed around 2am.  We agreed to regroup and aim for a 7.00am departure.

 

Day 3 – The search for a loaf of bread and forgotten bananas (357k & 3600m)

I got a good 4hours sleep as I was the only one in the dorm.  The first task was to go out to car. After digging through my gear bag I found a pair of long fingered gloves with more padding and different pressure points. In spite of heat these were still the best option and alleviated some of the pain.

My legs were surprisingly good as we started going back up Moll’s gap. They had reached the stage where they had stopped trying to resist. Near the top was first sight of an Orwell face in a while as Tony wasn’t heading back to Killarney after spending the night in the Castletown Bere control. From there we headed towards Sneem and onto the ring of Kerry. I went to reach for a banana but had left it behind. This was to be the start of the day of forgotten bananas as bike brain had truly set in and I left them behind on three separate controls. Again the weather was great, and scenery was just getting better and I had an impromptu stop to soak in the views of Derrynane Beach before rolling into the Waterville control.

I was looking for a carb fest but being one of the first to arrive at the control the the bread hadn’t arrived yet. I must be the only cyclist who doesn’t like pasta and lasagne so after drinks and a few snacks I decided to make a break for the petrol station to get a roll as I wouldn’t survive to Castlemaine. I had just gotten my roll when the group passed so had to remount and chase them down while gulping down my ham salad roll. Through Cahirceveen, Killorglin and onto the Castlemaine control. The road surfaces were good and the new gloves were keeping the hand pain at bay. We had reduced to three, but were really in sync as the tempo was that ideal of being hard but not putting you into the red.

At the Castlemaine stop bread was again in short supply so I tucked into a plate of boiled spuds and quickly back on the road. Stops were being kept short and we were motoring though the field. I was back on more familiar turf as I knew the Dingle roads from the TKAS and pre-kids surfing trips.  I knew the next section to join the main Dingle road was crap (secretly hoping it would be resurfaced) but no such luck as the nerves in my hands were subjected to the kanga hammer treatment again. As I passed Inch beach I was reminiscing on some of the epic surfing trips and was laughing as we headed out onto the cliffs on the headland that I used to climb down with a surfboard to surf the point break. I don’t know which was crazier. I was glad when we hit the main road but struck disaster.

There were roadworks in Lispole and a truck came up the wrong way on the detour lane and nearly took us out. Unfortunately there was a bit of an accordion pile up and I ploughed into the back of Toshihisa. I was somersaulted into the air and somehow managed to land feet first on the footpath and straight into a protective roll. I had just missed his hanger and had hit the rear cassette. I had a front wheel buckle and knee grazes but luckily that was all. The organisers had been passing at that instant and complimented me on my best superman impression. I remounted and sheepishly onto to Dingle with a throbbing leg and listening to my front wheel rubbing.

The spin around Slea head is always spectacular. One of the controls was the cross at the head and I had never previously taken the time to stop and soak in the views.  In one direction you got divine inspiration while looking to the south you could see the Skellig’s for a bit of Jedi inspiration. Back to Dingle but I had to retreat down the Conor pass after missing the control in the harbour due a parked bus.  The inflatables for the later arrivals were being prepared and definitely one of the best located controls you could get.  Plenty of pasta and pie options but still no bread. My need for a slice of bread was becoming psychotic but was happy with a healthy feed of fried rice. I picked up two bananas but left them behind –doohhhhh

                                     Slea Head – not sure who was getting crucified

Up over the Conor pass, the Cima Coppi of the Mile Failte. I had assumed the worst of the days climbing was over but a check of my Garmin indicated still a third of the climbing left. I had hoped it was a routing mistake but I have learned that these Audax boys don’t generally make mistakes and usually have a few nice surprises up their sleeves.

We had a nice tailwind into Tralee but the increased speed on the rutted road just added to the handlebar vibration and the general consensus was this flat stretch had been the final straw for the hands and was near Carpal tunnel inducing. Arriving into Tralee with over 1000k done was the first time the body was beginning to wane. I could see the wind farms on the hills and had a feeling that was the next destination and sure enough we swung a left and started climbing for the next few kilometres to the days final control at Knocknagoshel. I personally rechristened it the “Knock the bleeding crap out of you” given the climbing into and out of it. Entering the control felt like a visit to a Buddhist shrine as we had to take our shoes off so as not the damage the newly varnished and polished parish hall floor. A sliced pan was located and it was like an episode of a Bear Grylls’s survivor show as I demolished a plate of ham and cheese sandwiches like a rabid animal. Eamonn was manning the control and his enthusiasm was unbounding. We were all out on our feet staring at the ceiling and he was going round trying to entice us into the WAWA 2100k in 2020. You just had to smile!!

At the stop we had finally caught a glimpse of the lead rider for the first time in three days. He was the only one ahead of us which had showed the good pacing.  I thought the worst was over as I had done Castleisland to Killarney before but we turned off for Currow and it turned into a sufferfest with rolling ramps on grass rutted backroads. It is probably the only time I really cursed the route planners.  As Churchill said if “you are going through hell keep going”. The banter in the group had been good all day but everyone was suffering. For the last 60k I don’t think any of us said anything too each other (or anything of consequence) as we ploughed on in darkness. I was beginning to wish a pothole would just swallow me up. Finally we passed the neon lights of the 5 star Agadhoe Heights hotel and knew we were nearly home. What I wouldn't have given for a dip in its pools and a good steak but it was onto my bunk bed in the hostel.  Arrived in at 1.25am. We were second home and the hostel was like a morgue compared to previous nights when it was a hive of activity. I think the fatigue was even telling on the organisers as the field was really spread out and at times I think they were working as hard as the cyclists. With 120km left to do in next 24hrs it felt like we were nearly there and there were a few celebratory handshakes and backslaps after what had been an epic few days. Had agreed to aim for a 9am start

 

Day 4 - The final day (125k & 1200m)

I had expected an empty dorm having been one of the first arrivals but 50% of my dorm room had abandoned so I was treated to another snorefest which woke me early after 3hrs sleep and there was no hope of getting back. I got up at 6am and decided to head off early as there no point in waiting around. I felt like I had a hangover.  Energy levels were low and it is never a good sign when you drink a bottle of Lucozade Energy as the opening salvo of breakfast. I had breakfast with some of the arriving cyclists before heading back out on the route we had come in the night before. In daylight I appreciated the horrors of the road I had cycled the previous night. A cow path might be better to describe some of it as patches had more grass than tarmac. The first 40k were a real struggle and it was relief when I finally joined the main road to Kanturk.

I stopped for a coffee in Ballydesmond as I needed more sugar and to reflect what the hell I was doing. I got back on for the mainly downhill section to Kanturk. After a gluttonous ham and Tayto sandwich fest washed down with Jaffa cakes it was back on the road for the final sector. I had driven to Killarney on this stretch on Friday and had noticed the crappy surface. Normally having some advance knowledge prepares you but the next 25k were grim as the last feeling in my feet and hands disappeared - I felt as if I was riding a bucking bronco mounted on a kanga hammer. It was hitting 30degrees which only added to the challenge.

Suddenly out of nowhere I saw the sign “Welcome to Kerry” just before Rathmore and like Moses parting the red sea – the surface tuned to shiny new tarmac and a tail wind picked up to whisk me home. Halleluiah. All I can say is that I will never say anything bad about the Healy Rae’s ever again. I got back onto the Killarney ring road and knew I was nearly there. Into Foss and up the ramp to the hostel. I parked up the bike and collapsed into the canteen for drink and food and to hide from the heat. It felt a bit strange as I had finished while most were heading out on the final leg to finish before the 12am cut off.

After a few minutes a few more finished and realised I had forgotten to sign in at the final control so went off to complete the formalities and collect my medal. After that we shared a few beers with what energy was left.

Summary

It was an awesome event. We really lucked out with the weather and got to see Ireland at its best. You sometimes don’t appreciate what on your doorstep and with this event and the qualifiers I have seen more of the country than I have seen in the last 30 years.

Like all audaxes it is the dedication and passion of the organisers that really make the events. Their enthusiasm and encouragement make sure you want to get to the end. them being there when you arrive past midnight preparing food, handing out drinks lifts the spirit and goes beyond the call of duty. A big thanks to all the organisers and volunteers for everything

The people you meet on these trips are unbelievable and it is amazing how a group of cyclists from all around the world can just click to help each other achieve a common goal. The audaxes are really complementary to the sportives as you get more time to soak in the scenery, talk to people instead of what can often become the heads down hammerfest.

They are tough. As Tony said he felt he was in a boxing match which is the most apt description.  You keep getting digged in the ribs, some times you feel you are getting on top, other times it hurts and you keep going and a few times you can knocked to the canvas but you crawl back up and survive and get to the end the reward and sense of achievement is unrivalled. As the events motto says “always finish smiling” and due to the organisers, competitors and weather that was definitely the case.

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