The TransAtlanticWay Race
On Thursday 7th of June 2018, 160 cyclists gathered in a carpark, outside of Dublin. They were about to set off on the TransAtlanticWay Race, a 2500 km, one stage, self-supported 2500 km adventure between Dublin and Cork via the Wild Atlantic Way.
It’s what we were designed to do. After 2-3 days in the race, it’s the closest you can get to a caveman. You just have to survive, everything else is behind you.
I wanted to see all the places I missed last year because of the rain and fog.
The TAW was my main target for the year, something I’d trained extremely hard for and my first chance to measure myself against some of the giants of the ultra cycling world.
Many people may struggle to understand the appeal of racing such a distance. For me, the attraction of an event like the TAW is the opportunity to totally explore my limits and fully commit to a single thing without the many distractions and compromises of normal daily life. It feels kind of primal, like a survival mode.
After finishing the TCR in 2017, I wanted a new challenge for the following year and TAW seemed like the perfect choice. I have never been to Ireland before and I was drawn by the wild landscapes and by the idea of cycling close to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Route? Utterly ridiculous.
There was a lot of up! But I knew that. Nothing can prepare your body for that much constant up and down day after day.
I love the ups and downs. Sometimes they are so steep that I have to hike up.
The route is brilliant and maddening at the same time. You’ll be minding your own business, flying along some decent tarmac and then your GPS will tell you to take the next right onto “Goat Track”, and some dire looking trail emerges from between two bushes. At first, I was annoyed but then I quickly realized that every time there was a sudden turn, you were in for a wicked climb, an incredible view, or often both.
I went with no plan and rode by feel. I wasted huge amounts of racing time because of inexperience so I’ve signed up again for 2019 to ‘do it properly, race it!’
Well, we went ‘this way’, ‘that way’, ‘forward’ and ‘back’ all close to the Irish sea. This, a bicycle, this is my mate Jamie, this is a hip flask of whiskey – well, that was the life for me!
I loved the route, the climbs were ridiculously hard and the fact that I had a 28 as my largest cog didn’t help!
Other than the maddening out and backs, it was damn near perfect. I had no expectations, barely even looked at the route pre-start, so there was a surprise around every corner.
I remember surprising little of day two beyond it being hot. My Wahoo recorded a high of 32c. What I do remember however is the infamous gravel section of the route at the Glenveagh National Park. This was a delight because as I reached the lower sections there were lots of teenage school kids ambling along oblivious to my speeding approach. I’d recently invested in a proper old style brrrriiinng brrrrring type bike bell because these don’t seem to annoy anybody and frankly, it just gives me a smile.
So to alert the either chatting or phone distracted youths I took to ringing my bell cheerfully and high five-ing them as I rode past. It must have been a funny sight and I delighted in the connection, an old git celebrates the day with the young! It raised my spirits and hopefully theirs.
Anybody would love the ride around the Achill Island, but it was not possible to love it because roads are too bad over there. To make it even more difficult, I had another issue. Usually, my right Achilles doesn’t like my rides, and I’ve got used to that and I can say that we are doing pretty good together. But this time it was the left one and it became painful on Achill Island. I had to stop and tape it, hoping that this would be enough. I saw Karen passing me by, so I jumped back on my bike quickly but then the whole ring around the island was painful and dreadful. Even with those wonderful views, I was only thinking to finish it and go back to the main road hoping for better roads.
The first sunrise of the race was out on the road towards Malin’s head. I stopped by several fields and checked they were empty with my torch. Just as I finally settled on one, another rider, Aid Robbins appeared from down the road and stopped, and we decided to stop in the same field. I was definitely grateful for the company. The field turned out to be home to millions of ravenous midges aka little bastards, and I had a terrible nights sleep constantly brushing away the little shits. I got up just before the sun came up and got back on the bike.
I knocked on the door of a B&B at around 10 pm one night. The landlady eventually answered in her nightgown and looking confused, grudgingly, showed me to a room.
“Did I want breakfast?” Maybe (I hoped to sleep long past breakfast)
“How long did I want to stay?” Not sure
She frowned; clearly not used to such vague, indecisive, guests.
I like to sleep outside, a B&B is too comfortable, you wake up cold outside so you really have to hurry up and get on the bike. This makes it faster. Last night I slept in a big concrete pipe.
The headwinds through the Black Valley and slims such as the Gap of Dunloe and Molls Gap were incredible. I was thrown around the road like a rag doll and the good weather lifted for torrential rain. I found a hardware store where I was able to buy some cheap hiking overtrousers and lend some scissors. I cut off the knees and wore them as waterproof shorts, cursing myself for leaving my fancy Goretex mountain bike shorts at home!
I hit Kenmare around 10:30 pm, I figured it was only about 400km to the finish from here and I could push through the night if I cleared the next peninsula. I had some pizza slices, another trifle, coffee and for some reason a large chocolate rabbit, and rode into the storm until about 3 am. It hadn’t died off and simply got stronger and stronger until I was physically unable to push my bike against the wind. I took shelter in my emergency bivi bag behind a brick wall at a school and sheltered out of the wind for a few hours. I’d ridden 12,000ft of climbing and 195 miles since waking up. The rain had killed my phone and I had no idea if those behind me were still moving or if as I’d hoped, they’d stopped early to shelter from the storm. The wind was roaring and I was pretty scared as even my bike was being blown along the ground as if it was tumbleweed.
All day we’d all battled into Storm Hector working our way around the Ring of Kerry. Every rider you met was well and truly soaked and thoroughly trashed and we’d all had a tough day with the high winds and driving rain. I came out of the supermarket with replenished food stocks and who should roll up but Lockie with a pair of yellow Marigold rubber gloves on, and one sock missing. “Da’ ya like ma new gloves?” he said proudly. “My other ones blew away”.
I looked down at his feet and enquired as to his solitary sock. “I didn’t have any toilet paper” OK. He then informed me, despite the raging storm that he was riding through the night.”It’s a fackin’ tailwind man, ya gotta ride the tailwind!”
“Have you got a bivvy bag?” I asked. “Nah, it gotta a load of holes in it so I chucked it away” “I think you’ll die of hypothermia if you try and keep on riding tonight without a bivvy bag and only one sock” I tried to talk him down from the edge of certain disaster, not easy.”But what about the tailwind? Ya gotta ride the tailwind!”
I explained that I’d booked a b&b in Glenveigh and was holed up for the night. I explained that I’d bagged the last room they had but I could see he was processing the attraction of a nice warm bed over staying soaking wet and tired. He asked if I could phone and see if they had another room. They were brilliant, Caitlin’s Pub, they swapped us into a double room so disaster was averted. “I’m gonna get a few hours sleep and set off at 3 am” he announced.
We rode some tailwind, got to the b&b, booked in. He ate a bowl of new potatoes and fell fast asleep. I didn’t set my alarm.
I arrived at the finish line Kinsale in great, fantastic mental state, and my general physical condition was pretty good. But at the same time, some parts of my body were totally crashed and I have felt that I have been too hard on them by riding TAW as I had been racing the IPWR in Australia just 60 days earlier. My hand, my Achilles, my knees and my bottom were really, really bad, and as I’m writing this after three weeks, some of these parts are still in pain.
But still… I loved it all the way and wouldn’t change this time for anything else. It was a race to recover. Mentally, I’ve come back home in a much better state than after Australia. This race was what I needed. Physically, TAW smashed me. It was fun.
I wasn’t prepared for the mental challenges that arose post-race. Crossing the finish line a few days ahead of my target was great as it gave me time to start to process everything that I had gone through, which I didn’t give myself a chance to during the race. There was an initial flood of relief, glad that I didn’t have to get back on the bike, but then I kinda hung out in this weird state of limbo while I tried to figure out the answer to the popular question “So, how was it?” I finally settled on “It was everything and nothing at the same time. The highest highs and the lowest lows of your entire life experienced in one week on a bike.”
Weird. Riding for 7 days pretty much non stop towards this physical end point puts you in a one set mind. The months of physical and mental preparation in the lead up to the race sickened a lot of my friends and family off with my obsession. For this all to end suddenly was weird, that’s the best word to describe it for me. On the other hand, being handed a beer from the riders I had met and got to know during during the ride down the west coast was perfect. We had all been through this weird experience, and we all absolutely loved it.
“Never again!” I think were my first words before someone passed me a beer and a well-done handshake from photographer Jim Imber. This is a race I’d encourage anyone to do, its more a battle of the mind than the body but whether you finish or scratch you’ll take something powerful away from the experience. The sense of community both before during and after the race is fantastic, with riders buying in beers and food for the next finisher and encouraging each other on the course.
I was totally spent after riding continuously for 27 hours to get to the finish. I had a can of beer thrust into my hand and an overwhelming sense of relief at completing my first ultra race
Living for a year with the disappointment of scratching in 2017, completing the race in 2018 was arguably one of the greatest feelings ever. So pumped was I when closing in on the finish line, I fist pumped the air as I passed the finishes party in Kinsale where I was cheered on by the celebrating riders. I smashed Barrack Hill – at any other point during the race I would have walked it – and arrived at the end. I was tired yet delighted to have actually finished the hardest challenge I have ever attempted.