Sleep had not been forthcoming and the grey dawn crept over the corner of the field where I had bivvied for the night. Some food remained in my bag from the day before, so I sat groggily munching snacks, knowing full well that I should be getting going and eating on the move would save considerable time but lethargy had gotten the better of me, until Erik zipped past as sat on my ass. The sight of another rider disappearing up the road was the kick I needed and soon I was hopping back in the saddle and moving again.
The grogginess was not passing as quickly as I would have hoped. The euphoria of starting the race had given way to the realisation that there was still alot of ground to cover, many hills to climb and plenty undiscovered challenges down the road. My mind was fixated on upcoming effort ignoring the joy that would inevitably accompany the struggles, but for that first hour on the road, my mind was as grey as the sky above. My mental batteries were as empty as those in my Garmin, which I had to swap out for new AAs at the side of the road allowing myself to be overtaken by another couple of riders, one of whom cheerily enquired if I was having a second breakfast.
30km into the day, I entered the Horseshoe shaped inland detour from the road which, as is the philosophy of the TAW, showcases the beauty of the west coast of Ireland. Naturally, the landscape does not give up its secrets easily, and only after some climbing can you reach the hidden gems of this magnificent cul de sac. Although I was gaining on another rider as I entered the horseshoe, my lethargy and low spirits meant that he too disappeared into the distance as I crawled along the road unable to let its majesty lift my spirit. Progress was all too slow, and the respite of descending back to the main road was cancelled out by the sinking sensation that accompanies rejoining the road at the exact point you left it, inciting a sense (although patently false, given the fixed route) of not actually having made any headway towards the finish.
The first couple of days I had been happy to leave the hustle and bustle of towns behind and head out into the wilds, but with my mojo draining away, I was strangely pleased to hit Sligo, albeit during what seemed like morning rush hour. Coffee, food and a regroup was in order to get my head back in the game. Scouring the streets along the route didn’t offer up any appealing spots for a refuel until, on the way out of Sligo and opposite the bus station, the welcome site of a loaded bike outside a corner shop heralded a much welcome chance for food and contact with another rider. The rider was Philippa Battye, who clearly also needed caffeine and a pick me up, the salad bar in the store was a welcome respite from salty, sweet packaged snacks and I duly filled my books with real food. We chatted, minded eachothers bikes as repeated trips were made to the store, toilets etc until we both realised that we like the person who had left a near full packet of biscuits on the window ledge outside the store, should hit the road again.
If anyone reading this is wondering whether they dropped those biscuits or left them, hopefully that little mystery is now solved.
So, feeling recharged and rejuvenated I headed back onto the road in high spirits, remarkable what caffeine, food and a chinwag can do.
The route soon entered one of the more remote parts of the journey, past Ballina. In pre-race preparation I had noted on my map the section being devoid of feeding opportunities, but I had an idea there should be a pertrol station in the middle of the wilderness.
It could have been one of the loneliest stretches of the race, if it hadn’t been for the most curious of cosmic forces, the pull of racers in endurance races. An impromptu posse had formed on the road, myself, Turloch (o’Siochain), Mark (Newton), Philippa (Battye) , Fraser and maybe a few more but my memory fails me. This wasn’t some wind cheating peloton, more a mobile rabble of short chats, moral support and admiration of the situation we all found ourselves in.
Even with the rag tag of riders on the road the are felt remote, from another time. Single track road, sparsely populated, and barely any traces of modern civilisation like pylons, telegraph poles or even hedges and fences. When you factor in the gaelic speaking locals then we were truly in the wild atlantic way and a world away from the stresses and strains of modern life.
Refuge from the open road, growing hunger, greying sky and dropping temperature came in the form of the petrolstation and Spar. A proper deli counter for a freshly made sandwich and a hot drink was mighty welcome after a relatively long slog to this point. Chatting with fellow racers is all well and good out on the road, but in this case I got too comfortable and what should have been 15minutes turned into half an hour. Obviously 15mins doesnt seem like a big deal in a multi day event, but making a habit of it can lose you hours over the course of the race, and the longer you sit, the harder it is to go back out onto the road.
Having indulged myself to too long in the warmth it was time to head onwards to Achill Island as daylight drew to a close for the day. Another stop on the way to stock up for the night shift before stopping on the entry to the Achill Island Peninsula for another feed . This was another one of the spots where it was possible to catch riders who were ahead as they came back from the circular (or in this case figure of eight) loop back to the entry point. So having seen Matt Ryan leaving as I entered, scoping out a few potential bivvy spots and checking the progress of the riders online as I ate, I thought I could get round before sunset. But this turned out to be an overly optimistic assessment of my capabilities on the lumpy and windy route round the island. I was caught by Turloch and Mark, having left them at the Spar earlier and we finished the loop in darkness. Through the semi darkness the rugged and rocky beauty was still plain to see, along with the armies of holiday caravans clustered around the place.
Having completed the loop and backtracking to to Mulranny, I slowly (snail like to be honest) pulled away from Turloch and Mark, who had been toying with an early stop, pint and Bed all the way round Achill Island, I was also in no meed to go riding into the night so stopped in my pre-scouted bike shed in a school. A bit of hopping over a gate and I was safely under cover for the night. But when a car parked up at the gate (no traffic around so it was very obvious) as I munched on a family pack of crisps I was concerned that I may get asked to move on. Whether the driver saw me or not in the gloom of the bike shed, I am not sure, but after what seemed an age (probably only 15minutes) the car pulled off and I could turn in for the night.
At the break of the next day I awoke to see another rider emerge from behind the school, where he must have been all night which may explain the local in his car coming round to check we were not up to anything dodgy.
Leaving Mulranny the route followed the first proper section of bike path since leaving Derry, riding up the greenway, I saw Chris White readying himself for the day ahead. The Greenway was pleasant enough, but a little bumpy and my rear was feeling a tad sensitive so I was rather glad to be back on the relatively smooth tarmac. Now it was time to make it to cover ground and reach CP2, but first coffee (appropriately named) and more food (always more food) at the first petrol station I found, which was conveniently just opening at 8am. It was at this point in the journey that I had my first Clonakilty black pudding roll, which I have now decided is the perfect endurance racing food, it really hit the spot and I regretted not having had any earlier, at least I still had over 1000km to fill my boots with them from now on!
On the road and into the idyllic valley at Delphi (not an oracle to be seen) which was quite breathtaking, so much so that it clearly appealed to the makers of the film ‘Leap Year’ in which I saw it a few months later. The almost Scandinavian high sided fjord at Killary leading us to the checkpoint was equally beautiful, and by the time I saw rolled into the hostel around midday I was riding high on a feast of pastoral Ireland.
Outside the hostel I ran into Turloch and Mark again, who had ridden through the night since I left them, the idea of a pint and a warm bed had morphed into an all night marathon ride to grab an early morning shower and some daytime slumber from which they were both waking. Adrian the organiser was on hand to welcome my weary soul and it was good to have a chat with him, Jack and Mick. It dawned on me that the race had taken its toll on my brain when Adrian asked ‘Any funny stories?’ and I was clearly too tired to remember any. But we chatted about the next milestone on the route, the ferry, and I started to think about how to manage the timing since there were no ferries that night. Being Sunday I had no chance to catch the last ferry. Some of the front runners had apparently zipped through the checkpoint in the middle of the previous night to try and make it, but I was clearly too far back from the sharp end of the race to warrant such urgency. So the plan was to take advantage of the fact that I was far enough ahead of schedule that I may be able to afford myself a half decent sleep before the morning ferry.
Following the Checkpoint came the the dramatically named skyroad which, despite this being Ireland, was hot and windy. With lots of hi-viz marshals around, it turned out that there was a running race about to start and where I stopped at the petrol station in Clifden I was right in th e throng of the runners as theu mingled about waiting for the off. It was only when I went in for another well earned sandwich from the deli counter (love the proper food on offer at irish petrol stations) that caught sight of myself in a mirror and notice my face like a beetroot, which wasnt overlooked by the cheeky lady behind the counter who followed with ‘your lot came through yesterday’ !
Mark caught me up and followed with a Sandwich, Tom Searby passed as we were chatting and eating on the forecourt before Mark set off on the road again. I knew I should really get going again as I wanted to hit Galway before deciding where to stay that night with a view of getting as close to the ferry crossing as possible. A quick check of the riders positions also showed I was tantalisingly close to a rider in front, who hadn’t showed up on my radar before so maybe he was dropping back from the leading pack. As I was honing in on Galway, there was a long drag with surprisingly high amount of traffic for a Sunday evening, the constant passing and rough road started to grind and I had to take a 10 min stop to clear my head, amazing how much more sensitive I was to the traffic after so many hours of blissful country lanes.
After what seemed an age tussling with the early evening traffic, I arrived in Galway only to see saw Mark going the opposite way, I can only imagine he was on the hunt for proper food. I made a stop at a petrol station on the way out of Galway, grabbed food and a coffee then saw the rider who I had thought was ahead of us pass on the road for the first time, I must have made some ground on him after all. Before leaving the comfort of the petrol station I checked booking.com to find somewhere to sleep that night, Doolin seemed the right distance away to arrive sometime between 11 and 12 and be close enough to catch an early ferry from Kilrush the next morning. filtering by price, 45Euro for a bed at a glamping place? Sounded interesting, I called directly and was answered by an friending indian accent, yes the bed was available, and after explaining I was cycling from Galway that moment, he assured me I could basically arrive anytime, so long as I pay now on the phone, perfect for me.
Really fantastic views around the coast entering County Clare, especially at sunset, and with the thought of getting a decent break in a real bed, I was making hay and catching the guy ahead, which I did in Ballyvaughen, but it seems it had little to do with my speed and more with the young frenchmen’s deteriorating knee, we chatted, I asked if he had seen Mark, he had, joked about our ages (he was half of mine and a third of Mark’s) and on I went , views got even better as I rounded the headland, local young romantic couple watching the sunset reminded me of my wife back home, and who was also on the island, the sooner I finished the race the sooner I could see her, maybe I really should start racing….
Doulin glamping site was not what I expected, the bed that I had booked was in a mini caravan! But good as his word, the owner had everything ready for me, towels, and coins for the showers. This was the chance to have a good wash of myself and my kit, the improvised solution to have a good clean was to use the scavenged lid from a fabric softener bottle to take hand soap into the shower for me and my clothes. In the caravan a small electric heater was on hand to dry the clothes and take the chill out of the air while I could stuff my face with the remainder of salt and vinegar crisps, before setting everything on charge and falling asleep in a cocoon of bliss!