Snakes and Ladders at Gaelforce West 2019

One year on from that blurry and crazy debut in 2018 and I’m back on the road to Westport for my second cap at Gaelforce West. The usual WhatsApp groups formed, cars brimming with luggage and equipment, bikes hanging off the back, half day holidays booked from work, pickups around Dublin and we roll westward across our amazing country via the motorways. Myself, Barry Cronin and Thomas Downey make up the passenger list for this latest iteration of our adventure racing stories.

Prior to heading up to Westport Town Centre to register and drop our bikes for the transfer to Delphi for the next day, we have time on our hands, so detour to visit Croagh Patrick to pay our respects and say our prayers. A peacefully still and warm evening, with crystal clear views of the all the local ridges; the calm before the storm! It’s amazing how it never ceases to surprise you just how steep Croagh Patrick looks from a distance; not that it gets any flatter when at its foot! We recce the newly redirected bike course from behind the wheel. Back to Westport for registration, and meet the rest the of our weekend gang (Laura O’Driscoll, Barry Dempsey, Peadar Corbally and Shane O’Neill) for our Last Supper.

Early to bed for the early to rise. We casually arrive on time for the bus pickup at 6am. In any other sport, you would scoff at the idea of needing to be waiting at the top of the town ready for this time. But this is Gaelforce West, so it has been perfectly normalised over the years such that you couldn’t imagine it any other way. I love this bus trip down to the race start in the Connemara. The views are spectacular, and there is plenty of chatter among athletes. This year I was sitting next to Niamh Curran from Carlow, a Gaelforce West newbee. She was brimming with the usual nervous excitement. She had also dragged two of her most game friends with her for the added craic. It had me thinking as I was heading down to Glassilaun Beach that this race could and should now almost be considered part of Irish sporting heritage. It seems like something you could read about from a relic, bringing you back to an ancestral crusade from an age long lost.

Of similar linage to the breed of IMRA lunatics who run over mountains in horrendous conditions for fun, adventure racers are a similarly rare breed of adrenaline hunters with a love of nature, an appetite for pain, of rolling their sleeves up, getting their hands dirty, and overcoming whatever physical challenge is placed ahead of them, and all done in a positive spirit not endemic to all sports. This is the breed of people I feel most at home with.

Ahead of all of us lay nearly 70 kilometres of human powered traverse incorporating running, cycling and kayaking, with the Queen Stage being an up-down blitz of the aforementioned jewel that is Croagh Patrick.


Leg 1: Glassilaun Beach - Famine Trail - Killary Fjord Shore

Starting out on the traditional starting location of Glassilaun Beach, the horn goes off and a group of 8 of us lead out the race in the form of Myself, Barry Cronin, The Scully Brothers (Shane and Gary), Shaun Stewart, Peter O'Farrell, Dessie Duffy and Sebastian Giraud. Counties from all around Ireland are well represented in the early part of this race with all looking for maximum TV coverage. Down, Dublin, Tipperary, Donegal, Wicklow, Cavan and France all present!

The pace was good from the off - and even though we were running into a headwind, I was feeling much looser than last year and found the going competitive but very sustainable.

Off the paved road and onto the more rugged Famine Trail. Beautiful and spectacular, the running terrain gets both hillier and more technical here with rocks, boulders, rivers and styles to jump over. I follow Barry's lead but get annoyed by the accordion effect happening on the big boulders we have to scramble over, so I take up the mantle in leading the group while making sure to keep the pace high.

After about 10mins I take my first look back and our group of 8 is now blown out behind us leaving the count of the selection at 3 (Myself, Barry and Shaun - i.e. Two excellent kayakers and Me). The Scully Brothers looked about 40seconds back midway through the Famine Trail at this stage so I had two cards developing to play:

1.      Get across the kayak with Barry and Shaun and work as a 3 on the bike, hoping to get away from the Scullys in a 3 Vs 2, or more realistically

2.      Get dropped on the kayak by these lads but get picked up by the Scully train on the bike thereafter. The Scullys are beasts on the bike, with multiple Rásanna and A1 wins to their name and still as fully committed to their training as any young aspiring Elite junior athlete.

So the race was playing out nicely, with plenty of positive future options. Last thing one wants in these tactical races is no plan, or even worse, to assess correctly how the race is unfolding around you but realise you're in a checkmate position - normally meaning being isolated Vs two team-mates or seeing a (bike) train leave the station that you're not on!

Off the Famine Trail and onto the road again; the three of us still running well and we see the Scullys now about a minute behind but looking ominous and sitting in the pocket. Those boys always stay together and work as a team - no doubt they could write a book of their history of (tactical) racing. I feel like allegiances needed to be formed here with Barry and Shaun otherwise I predict it would all come back together again on the bike. But Shaun says for us to all run our own race and not to worry about the Scullys. But I know they'll not go away without a fight.

The rest of the chasers nowhere to be seen - completely blown out and scattered across the Famine Trail.


Leg 2: Kayak Across Killary Fjord (Galway - Mayo)

On the 500m last stretch down to transition by the shores of Killary Fjord, I stretch my legs to make sure to be the first man into the kayak. I wanted as quick and efficient a transition as possible. This time last year I was swimming multiple times a week, but this year I haven’t been in a swimming pool once. So with no upper body strength developed I know I'm in for a hiding against Barry (who had an absolutely cracking kayaking performance in Dingle two weeks ago) and Shaun (who I've never raced against before but knew was a beast across the board in these races).

I hear in hindsight Barry had a slow transition due to us three athletes coming into transition a only a short space apart, and because there were only two marshals waiting to secure lifejackets, Barry has to wait his turn - a bit like a double stacked pit stop in Formula 1. No complaints from me, I needed every mini-win I was going to get in this next 10min Kayaking section.

Out onto the water and it doesn't take long for Shaun to pass me, paddling at a high cadence that looked effortless. Barry however does take a long time to come past, possibly as much as 5+minutes. Barry and Myself get snookered big time here. A speedboat cruises just up adjacent to us, but behind Shaun. We spend the next 5minutes battling the wake of the boat, but Shaun has a clean run. For a moment I considered alerting the driver to let him aware what we were suffering through but I decide against it. Shaun was always going to beat me well here, but Barry should have been much closer to him. Two ‘bad luck points’ for Barry in this leg, transition and speedboat wake combined.

Adding some spice to the unfolding race, Shane Scully has an excellent kayaking leg, by far his best kayaking performance to date. He arguably had the second worst kayaking performance of the Dingle Adventure Race of two weeks ago; ‘bettered’ only by myself after taking my well publicised dip in the water. Shane caught and passed me in the last hundred metres of so of the crossing, but ‘Man of the Match’ on the day in the kayak leg went to Sebastian Giraud who completely overturned his running deficit with an 8m39 (1m25 faster than Shane, and 3m07 faster than me - ouch!).

Shaun had a similarly excellent kayaking leg, but in this situation, it turned out to be somewhat of a disadvantage to be overly good on the kayak on this course. The day was young and you just leave yourself exposed on the bike - 1 Hunted versus many Hunters.

Shaun exits, then Barry, then Shane, then Sebastian, and then Myself. So I go from 1st to 5th in the space of about 10mins. I love using the analogy of "Snakes and Ladders" to describe how these adventure races play out. I stepped on a Snake, Shane went up a medium ladder and Sebastian went up the biggest ladder!


Leg 3: Killary Fjord Shore (Mayo side) - Delphi Bike Transition

Sebastian is now shortly up ahead of me but I manage to catch and pass him across the bogs. He's at big risk of missing that bike train due to leave the station. By the time you get to Croagh Patrick, it could be a free 5-10min saving on this bike stage if you can get in a group and work in tandem versus being on your own. He'd need to keep up with myself and Shane (or blitz the transition).

Next priority for me was to catch up with Shane Scully. In Bike (and Adventure) Racing, the only thing that is common throughout is self-interest. Friends are as loyal as stray cats. You play the game. Allegiances can be formed and unformed at every race situation cross roads. Two weeks ago at Dingle, Shane and Gary Scully were anything but friends with me on the bike. One was either attacking, counter-attacking, or in the armchair position with a free-ticket from doing any pulling at the front of the chase group as it’s not in their collective interest to chase down their own team-mate (or brother in this case). But when it's in both of our common interests, trade agreements are easily and efficiently sealed.

Gary Scully had serious problems on the kayak stage today (15+mins), so he was now out of the equation of the race, so Shane didn't have that free ticket on the bike like he would have had Gary been present. Hence, when I catch Shane in the bogs he's more than willing to team up and work together with me once we reach the bikes in order to try and neutralise proceedings in catching Shaun. If that catch is to be made, then it's fair game to become (the best of!) enemies again. But for the time being, the danger man was the man up the road in the form of Shaun Stewart, who is our sport of Adventure Racing’s current reigning National Champion.

We run together out the other side of the bog (not as boggy as last year) and see Barry up ahead on the road - about 15s further up. He's looking very smooth and very fast. Elegant running style. Scully compliments him to me saying he's going very well today.

I've given Barry a bit of abuse recently - for always playing the long game. This has resulted in lots of very impressive and consistent 2nd/3rd/4th/5th place finishes; but he is never putting himself out there from the gun and into the mixer from the off to give himself a chance at a big win. Two weeks ago Barry I believe could have stolen the win in Dingle against the Scully 1-2 had he given his all in the run (or the first bike). I outran Barry by 3mins on that 10k back to Dingle, but he didn't empty the tank the way he could and should have. If he had of gambled in the race, his 3rd place finish could have been top step of the podium (or 5th!).

I've played the opposite tactic in my short (18 month) Adventure Racing career - being compared to a finely tuned sports car - boom or bust! If all the ducks line up, and I'm feeling brilliant on the day - I can win these races. Either that, or I blow the gasket trying, possibly resulting in falling far down the standings if things go very wrong (I went from 2nd to 51st at Quest Killarney last year - a total implosion - but it's the way I'll keep racing).

My opinion on this is we're here to win these races and if everything does line up even just once or twice a year, those are the big days you'll remember for years to come. Winner takes all the glory. 

Outside of the glory step however, there is also huge pride to be won in just making it to the finish line, irrespective of whether you're 2nd or 702nd. I make sure to collect and keep all my finisher medals, because racing aside; it is a hell of an achievement to finish these races! But we are all still racing here, so the quest for glory comes before pride for the time being :-)

This time last year Barry didn’t gamble with going with the running pace being set by Keiron Kelly along the Famine Trial, so in summary, today I'm delighted to see Barry heeding my advice and going for it from the gun this time and at least putting himself out there for a chance at a (well deserved) big win here.

As we run into the bike transition, Shaun is exiting and hopping on his bike; he has close to a minute on us. Luckily we’re all reading the same page of the playbook with the three of us all agreeing to team up to try and catch Shaun. Given the choice, I was more than happy to be sitting in this chase group rather than being in Shaun’s position. Strength in numbers - it was going to be 6 legs Vs 2. Even though Shaun has also ridden the Rás multiple times, this was still going to be a complete mismatch and he'd be needlessly working harder than he should be until the catch is made. Not what you want in the hour leading up to the foot race over Croagh Patrick.

We all find our bikes and get to work. After climbing the biggest Ladder during the kayak leg, Sebastian fails to make it to transition in time and steps on a similarly sized Snake. “All aboard, this train is now leaving the station”! He'd have to cycle the whole trip from Delphi to Croagh Patrick alone.


(Eventful) Leg 4: Bike to Croagh Patrick

Shane Scully is the captain on the road for our chase group, calling the shots as to when to roll over on our turns on the front. I'd say Barry and myself have collectively less than 1% of the total bike racing experience of this breakaway. But we're all ready and willing to ride through and work hard for the collective. Still a very long way to go in the race, so no need to panic and do more than what is required during our turns on the front.

45 seconds of tugging from the front each, and less than 8k later we have Shaun exactly where we want him, lingering about 15-20 seconds ahead. He sees us and sits up, but we keep tipping over only gently, leaving him out there on his own as much as possible. We know we're coming up to the queen climb of the stage, the Sheeffry Pass (a 2k climb averaging 6%), and so only wanted to make the catch just before the foot of the climb. I know what's coming. Shane is lining it up to absolutely RIP IT UP once we hit the foot of the incline. I can sense his child like excitement at having his finger on the trigger of absolutely blowing this race apart. This was going to hurt big time!

Seeing the ramp up ahead, we make the catch with Shaun, we stall for a few seconds and then I hear what I can only describe as an explosion coming from my bike! As much as I'd like to say that it was the sound of my engine revving for the effort up ahead, what actually transpired was that Barry half wheeled me from behind when we bunched up upon catching Shaun, and I blew two of his spokes off his front wheel against the quick release of my rear wheel! I had only a split second to realise my bike was in fact ok as Shane is opportunistic and pushes that little 'Go Baby Go' button and the race explodes.

My initial reaction to Shane’s attack was one of complete over-reaction. I stay seated and give it my everything for the first 10 seconds of the climb. My calves cramp up and my legs go into meltdown mode!

I manage to re-compose myself mentally, keep the legs spinning and start working with the intention to try and get back on. I look up the road and see Shaun reacted well initially but also gets dropped by Shane. So it was Shane up the road by about 20s and Shaun lingering in the middle. By the time we're cresting the Pass, I manage to bridge across to Shaun. I give off to myself for over-reacting and burning my legs rather than attacking the climb within my own limits and in my own style. I know I can ride the hills well (the longer, the steeper, the better) and I should have also stuck to my usual ‘out of the saddle’ dancing style and paced it such that it was a 2k climb, rather than staying seated and relying on seated power, and riding it like it was a 200m sprint. Lesson learnt, I'll never make that mistake again! Anyway, the selection is made, Shane wins the battle, but the war is long. At least I had Shaun with me and again wasn't isolated, so was again in a chase group, this time 2 Vs 1. All things considered, far from a bad situation to be in.

There is no Neutral Service in Adventure Racing, so unfortunately a DNF for Barry. This was a bitter pill for him to swallow after two punctures on this same course last year. Barry takes these things with excellent humour but I do know he was very annoyed with himself for his error. He learnt the hardest way. I'm sheepish in knowing that if he had of played his usual long game he probably would have again had an excellent result (albeit again not in 1st). But you live and learn.

Back to the race and Shaun leads me over the crest and we pass a marshal to our right warning us about the dangerous descent ahead. Down the Pass, we ride single file with Shaun ahead and I want to stay within a second or so such that he doesn't have to wait for too long for me in order to re-group once we make it to the bottom where we could reset and start working together to this time neutralise Shane's attack.

Riding at speed down roads like this is both exhilarating and frightening and presents a rare state of hyper-focus where one is fully immersed in the process of the activity. No amount of brain capacity is lent for any alternative or lingering thoughts. Your instinct has appreciation for the limit which our conscious minds are forcing our bodies to walk (bike!) the fine line on. Successfully executing these sections in races is typically greeted with relief rather than celebration.

This is when the second crazy incident of the race happens (and within only a few minutes of the first). Pushing 55km/h, spiralling down the winding corners of the Sheeffry Pass descent on the racing line, cliff faces on one side, cliff edges on the other, Shaun goes into the tightest of the corners ahead of me and out of sight. The next second I come in and around the same corner and come across him immediately in front of me, lying on the ground, face down and completely motionless.

Luckily I’m not forced to attempt a bunny hop at speed as I somehow manage to find the grip and space needed to avoid hitting him, but I immediately am in a state of worry about his welfare. I didn't know if he had just hit the wall or just slid out on the unfortunate spot of wet surface. I get my bike stopped, jump off and run back to his crash site. First thing I ask him was if he was ok (simply to assess whether he was alive and conscious - in that order of priority!). Thankfully he was alive, and conscious, but in a hell of a lot of pain, so much so that he could barely move. He had in fact slid out on that wet patch, and smashed into the ground collarbone first.

After seeing he was responsive, my next priority was that I really wanted to get him off the middle of the road before any more cyclists come flying around the tight corner we were sitting in the blind spot of. I manage to unclip his feet from his bike and pull the bike out from under him before helping him up. We move the bikes and ourselves to the inside of the corner where it'd be much safer than on the outside. He knew he had broken his collarbone from the location of the pain and the clicks from prodding on it. I knew he needed an ambulance and then remembered about the marshal we had passed at the top of the Sheeffry only about 100metres up the road.

I advise him to make his way slowly and safely back up to them and they should hopefully be able to get him a transport to the nearest hospital. He was very appreciative for the assistance but then also encouraged me to get back on my bike and race on. He made his way up and was looked after by the Civil Defence who brought him to Mayo General Hospital. (A clean break was confirmed through some graphic x-ray images shared on social media that night which did the rounds in the Porterhouse in Westport after a few drinks). A horrible, horrible accident. Heal up Shaun, I'll hopefully get to ride in that breakaway together down the line again before too long.

Before going back to the race here, I have received many messages from people reaching out by the usual means of WhatsApp, Strava and Facebook (including from Shaun himself) commending me for putting the welfare of a fellow athlete ahead of my own race. It’s something I didn’t think twice about, and as I’ve said to a few people already, this is not the Olympics we’re racing at. We’re all out to have fun and with the expectation of going home to our friends and families both safe and sound at the other side. When I saw Shaun stricken and motionless, I feared the worst. The human side over-rides any competitive athlete mentality in that situation. As beautiful as those bog oak trophies are, I’m sure we would all take a lot more pride in possibly saving someone’s life over an ornament on the mantle-piece. And I would hope others may look out for myself if in the unlikely event I might one day be found in a similar situation. If any positives were to possibly come out of this incident, maybe it would be the precedent being set that this is the standard we want in our sport.

Back to the race, and our breakaway of four athletes was within 3minutes down to two. After leaving Shaun, I do a running re-mount onto my bike and in the process, both my calves collectively say ‘No’ and completely cramp up. I don't know if it was from Shane's attack from the start of the Sheeffry Pass 10+minutes before or from the "interval training" I was doing of stopping and starting but it was like few cramps I’ve ever experienced before.

Not wanting to waste time dwelling on the issue, I keep spinning in a small ring in an effort to un-cramp them. This time last year I had attacked Kerion Kelly, and the legs were on a brilliant day. This year however, from here on, the rest of my race was a struggle. I was riding along, probably 5 minutes behind Shane and 2-3 minutes ahead of whoever was coming up from behind, so was sitting in no-mans land. I time trialled in the small ring the whole way to Croagh Patrick, trying to keep a high cadence as I just couldn't face pushing the big ring, my legs were burnt!

I keep looking back expecting to be caught but the gap behind was much bigger than I had expected, and I manage to make most of the way to Croagh Patrick before getting some company. Shortly before that left turn towards the Reek, Sebastian bridges across to me. In fairness to him he was very honest and gave me a chance to hop onto his wheel and wanted to work with me. I've never raced against Sebastian before so didn't know anything about his strengths (aside from learning earlier in the race he was an animal on a kayak). I learnt very soon however that he was also an animal on the bike. A very powerful rider, so in one sense I felt relieved that I could get a tow from him for a few turns. But then again my legs reminded me again after a few tugs on the front that they were cooked. I started thinking less like (Boom or Bust) Luke here and more like (Sensible) Barry, so told Sebastian to ride on as I didn't want to be holding him up and jeopardise his own race. I needed to pace myself to get home rather than ‘playing with the revometer’ as I call it.

So I let him go and paced my effort to Croagh Patrick. He had made about 20s on me by the time the road became less like tarmac and more like gravel, which was far enough ahead that he was 'gone', but still close enough that I could see him and consider him 'within reach'. When we started riding on the gravelly offload section, down and around the forest below Croagh Patrick, I tried to use my Cyclocross experience as much as possible. Through taking some risks on the corners and bunny hopping some craters (and the concrete bridge - which was fun) I thought I could possibly pull him back by the time we reached transition without requiring much extra power output from my legs. On the very steep rubbly section, Sebastian jumps off his bike and pushes it up over the brow of the hill to the other side but I ride it, making sure to keep my weight going through my back-side to prevent the rear wheel from spinning. Mini-win, I ride it successfully and bridge back to Sebastian's wheel and we enter transition together. We’re second and third bikes into transition. I look up and can see Shane on the upper part of the Zig-Zags, approaching the Shoulder, so was a long way up ahead (he had obviously blitzed the rest of the bike leg post his attack). There was also no sign of anyone coming from behind, so it looked like it was going to be Myself and Sebastian battling it out for 2nd place.


Leg 5: Croagh Patrick

I remembered this initial (pre Zig Zags) boggy section from last year (very) well. It was a struggle to run. This year was even worse given the situation my legs were in. Myself and Sebastian started out together heading Northwards, but by the time we made it to the Zig Zags, Sebastian had put 30s into me (a contrast to the 3mins in the first run and the 1min20 in the second run I was able to pull out from him earlier in the race).

It wasn't until we got to the shoulder that my legs started to remember how to (sort of) move again. Myself and Sebastian then after maintained an almost identical distance the whole way up the top cone of Croagh Patrick, all the way to the summit. We dib in about 30s apart and turn to make our ways South again to get back to the bikes for the final push to the finish line in Westport.

The obvious weakness in my armoury last year was my ability to descend off the Reek. Back then; Keiron Kelly turned the race on its head overturning a 3m30 deficit. I had since done a lot of thinking over the course of the past year trying to logically work out the smartest method to overcome this technical obstacle. Brains can often overcome brawn on a section like this. I think evidence to suggest truth in this argument can come from the fact that the best runners on the flat or up the hills can often be (significantly) outrun by 'good descenders' on the way back down. They technically have an edge - and this is the chest I've tried to unlock in my thoughts over the course of the last 12 months. Last year I thought I needed grip, this year I wanted to try and slide down and run on as unstable a surface as possible. Weight down through the heels and pretend I'm in the French Alps skiing. What transpired was what I consider to be a big positive step forward. Even though my legs were cooked (over 90s slower going up this year Vs last year) I managed to descend nearly 2minutes faster off the difficult section (7m39 Vs 5m46). The new technique must have worked. This also gives me hope for future years of hopefully taking another 30+ seconds off if I had fresh legs underneath me. Anyway, I'll take all my mini-wins today while I can. During this descent, I passed by Sebastian and outran him by 1m20 by the time I made it to the Base. No doubt he'll be thinking a lot about this section himself over the course of this next 12 months - or just simply read this race report! ;-)

So I now had approximately a 50s cushion to try and get my backside home into Westport in 2nd place which could still could turn out to be an excellent result given how much pain the legs were in. Have I emphasised this point enough yet? :-)


Leg 6: Bike (Croagh Patrick Base - Westport Town Centre Finish)

Onto the bike and straight on past the left turn over the Skelp. I loved this section last year - proper Adventure Racing material. It tested all your off-road skills to the max. I'm sorry to see it go but for safety reasons it was probably the right decision. So instead it's paved roads the whole way back to Westport. Time-trial mode. I feel like my legs have marginally improved as I'm at least able to push a big ring, but it was far from impressive work. Sebastian catches me after a few kilometres and tells me Dessie (Duffy) is coming up behind. Dessie is a staple in the Adventure Racing circuit of the last load of years, with multiple national titles to his name. It looks like today we was "doing a Barry" - pacing it from behind to come through at the finish and steal one of the last podium spots. Sebastian tells me to hop on and work with him, I do a couple of turns and unsurprisingly and the legs complain again. Deja-Vu to an hour ago, I tell Sebastian to go for it himself - and try and hold off Dessie for the 2nd place.

Maybe I'm not cheeky enough, but I was tempted to have asked Sebastian to gift me a free ticket home, letting me sit on his wheel the whole way back to town at the promise of not stealing his 2nd place. But unfortunately, given we'd never met before or built up any previous friendships, no doubt he'd have been very sceptical at any form of the (crafty) ask, so I refrain from the cheek. I should have offered a cut of the money maybe as a bribe :-). There are a lot of the Adventure Racing folk around the country who I'm sure have done this in the past for team-mates (Dessie and Killian, Shane and Gary). Maybe it's time I started buddying up with others for these races such that I'm not always a lone wolf. It could have been worth a few bob to me given the cash prizes on offer at Gaelforce West each year.

Sebastian shoots up the road and I'm tipping over behind him, going as fast I can. I know what’s coming next, the inevitable. Even coming off the Reek, when I had maybe 90seconds on Dessie, I knew in the back of my mind there was a good chance we'd be meeting again before the end of this race. I look back and see him coming up, and I don't even try to save any energy to accelerate to try and jump onto his wheel - it was never going to fly. Dessie accelerates from behind and blitzes past me. Podium chances gone, I cruise into the finish into Westport, leave my bike in transition, under no pressure. This time last year I raced through transition with a running fist pump prior to the dibbing machine. This year I jogged down, letting out a big sigh of relief to have made it.

Gaelforce West was another crazy, but amazing racing experience. After everything that happened across the course of the day; blitzing the first run with Shaun and Barry, kayaking through the wake of the speed boat, crashing with Barry, the leg burn up the Sheeffry Pass, seeing Shaun crash, managing to avoid him and then making sure he was ok, the legs cramping the whole way to Croagh Patrick, the fun Cyclocross section bridging back across to Sebastian after he had dropped me, losing that ground to Sebastian again on the way up the Reek, but passing him out again on the way down, being in 2nd with only a few kilometres to go into Westport, and coming away with a close run to the podium. It's not your typical Saturday morning :-). Last year was all about the trophy, this year was all about the medal. I'm bloody proud of that medal and I worked my backside off all day for it. I have it hanging up in my room and will be there until it's replaced by a newer memory.

The finish line is always a fun place full of chatter, with all of us all filling each other in on our own war stories from around the course as to how the race unfolded beyond our own peripheral vision, and finding out where each of us finished up. From our own group, I saw Laura come into the finish after blitzing the Women’s field, bringing her to the top of the Women’s National Series, a class above! Barry Cronin made a sheepish appearance from behind me, leading with the question “Is your bike ok?” :-) Before this, I just thought he got a tyre blow-out as I didn’t feel the impact of him hitting me. I actually arrived to the finish line before him, as he had spent the course of the last few hours trying to get a lift back to Westport, in the end he thumbed a lift! Give that man a medal!

The rest of our crew got also had great days, with Thomas delighted by his best ever finish of 32nd for his 4th cap, Shane improved by a few places from last year to 13th, and Peadar truly looking like he was just back from a stint at the front line – leaving it all out there on the course. Niamh Curran and her two friends all made it to the finish as well – though I think Niamh will struggle to twist some of their arms so easily to come back next year :-). She was delighted with her performance none the less, coming in 7th in the Women’s category. Barry Dempsey came in for his 9th Gaelforce West Medal, another one to add to the collection. And lastly I was also chatting to my good buddy from work, Pat Power (who makes all the great GoPro video montages that goes on YouTube), who messaged me later that evening saying I was in great form at the finish line – which made me realise from a third person view how much of a buzz I was on at the finish line and proud of myself for the day. Just failing to make the podium was obviously indifferent to me!

This is our second big Adventure Racing Weekend in the space of three weekends (after being down at the Dingle Adventure Race two weeks ago). I have to say that these weekends are fast becoming the highlights of my year. They’re amazing, full on, full of craic, but also exhausting, and not sustainable more than 4-5 times a year. In particular, given this weekend did come off the back of such a quick turnaround from being at Dingle, I am very ready for a couple of months back to normality to recharge the batteries. I guarantee however I'll be akin to a little kid on Christmas morning again come early September at the prospect of heading down to do Quest Lough Derg. These are not just great races, but great weekends! They’re a means to meet new (like-minded) friends, to test yourself against some of the toughest competitors from all around the country, an excuse to let the hair down, dress up, go for a drink and a boogie, as well as get the opportunity to visit beautiful parts of Ireland that one otherwise wouldn't. People abroad use the excuse of a 'Holiday' to visit the beautiful places in our country, but at the moment I'm using ‘Adventure Racing’ as an excuse to visit these same places. It really is great to be able to get out there and live life to the max by doing these races.

And finally a big congratulations to all the podium finishers - Shane Scully, Sebastian Giraud and Dessie Duffy in the Men’s competition and to Laura O'Driscoll, Aine Mahony and Collette Sweeney in the Women's Competition. And a massive ‘Pat on the Back’ to everyone who earned their medals this past weekend. One year older, one year stronger, one year fitter, and one year more experienced, I look forward to rubbing shoulders with you all again on Glassilaun Beach in 365 days, but hey, who’s counting ;-)

Luke McMullan