6 days after my first half Ironman I woke up at 3.30am on a rainy Saturday morning in Westport for the RAW Ultra 50 Mile Western Way. During the week I wasn't sure if I was going to race as my left leg had been bothering me. I injured it in the lead up to the Challenge Galway tri and running a 1:38 half marathon at the end of that didn't help. But I really wanted to be involved in this inaugural ultra that I'm sure will be held again and again.
I rested a lot during the week. I had a lot of admin stuff to do in relation to the boat, for example ordering more kit and sorting out things like registering my EPIRB(Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon), one of the most important bits of safety kit involved in an ocean row. This takes up to 10 weeks to register via the coastguard in Falmouth. That and a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon).
The EPIRB is for my boat and the PLB is for me, along with 2 sat phones and a tracking device I will be truly connected whilst out on the vast Atlantic Ocean. Another vital bit of kit I picked up during the week was my 4 man life raft for one person. That and trying to get my head around 5,000 calories a day for 90 days. I took a delivery of nearly 300 freeze dried high calorie meals consisting of - 800 cal porridge breakfast, 1,000 cal main meal for lunch like spag bol & chicken korma, same again for dinner and a dessert. A massive shout to Extreme Adventure Food for supporting me with their tasty meals. I've tried all the expedition foods out there and these are my favourite. I genuinely have to stop myself tucking into these before I go. But having said that when it comes to food I've never eaten anything I dislike and the reason I feel I am made for expeditions is my stomach holds up 99% of the time and I can force feed food into me like it's going out of fashion.
My good friend Emmet who doubles as my physio saw me twice during the week to try figure out what was up with my leg. He figured my glutes weren't firing (story of my life) and my calf and hammy was taking the brunt of it. So he got me doing some more glute activation drills and away I went to Westport for the weekend.
We all met at about 4.30am in a car park in the centre of Westport. Weather was promised mixed and we were ready for the usual changeable Connemara antics. We set off on the bus to Maam Cross where the race would begin. It would follow the Western Way, one of Irelands longest way marked trails. It's relatively flat and Don Hannon who organises the race spiced it up by taking in a nice section of the Maam Turk mountains early on in the route.
There was a few hardy souls taking on the 100 mile race which was an out and back from Westport to Maam and back. They were approaching Maam when we arrived as they set off the night before at 6pm. About 22 of us set off just after 6am along the main road for what would be a long day of 80 km through the mountains and trails of Connemara.
After 3.5 km we were taken off road and directly up the side of Corgermore Mountain, It's pretty steep and there is a gain of 500m in less than 2km, there is no trail here at all. My leg wasn't great ,but I was moving now and was just going to see how things panned out. We caught up with Barry and George who were the 2 leaders of the 100. I was thinking if I was them I would try tag along with us who were the front bunch of myself, Brian, Ronan and a guy I'd met for the first time Liam. George stuck with us and I tried to monitor my HR during this uphill section. I didn't want to blow up early on! Having run the entire Maam Turks in a day, I know what these steep ascents and technical descents can do to a man.
We power hiked the ups and ran the ridge lines along this epic section of the Maam's before dropping down off Binn Mhor to Maamean and checkpoint one. My pace per km was well over 10 min at this stage and was I ready for a long relative flat section where I could chip away at it and get it back down nearing 8 min which was my goal. Also the descents around here don't allow for any gaining back what is lost on the up, so the flats have to be maximised.
At this stage it was myself ,Liam, Brian and George then not far behind was Ronan and Northy ( a fella from Newry). I left checkpoint one not needing much as Brian was going full cookie monster on some sandwiches. Myself and Liam trotted along a nice boreen. Next thing my mate Richie pulls up from The Galway Cow to shoot some snaps, I stopped for a quick chat and Liam carried on. I got going with Liam about half a km a head and looking back could see Brian and George spread out. This section is right through the Inagh valley which divides the 12 Bens and the Maamturks, with Lough Inagh smack bang in the middle. It's a lovely vast and long part of the route.
Brian caught up to me after about 10km and George wasn't far behind either, Liam was slowly extending his lead and I knew how strong Bri was running at that moment. I pipped him last week in the Tri and he had just spent the previous 2 weeks in the Pyrennes trail running, so I knew I needed to get to work with him and see what happens. I necked 2 panadol with caffeine and looked at my Garmin to see we had run 30 km. I was feeling like shit but I was in deep and this would be good mental training If anything.
As we approached Killary Harbour and the adventure centre the trail goes a bit haywire due to some logging, having run out here a lot doing Gaelforce events I knew my way around the woods. We had a nice downhill section along a proper bit of trail onto the road into Leenaun and checkpoint 2 which was just under halfway.
My one and only drop bag was in Leenaun and I quickly changed tops and got stuck into a load of tasty baby food. A couple of minutes later we saw another person coming running along toward the checkpoint, we assumed it was Ronan and that Liam had been and gone from here. But it was in fact Liam who had taken some wrong turns. He didn't know the route so it was going to be a long day for him. Myself and Bri left and got moving up the road and into County Mayo and my favourite section of this trail.
We knew Liam would be gunning for us and we put in a few faster km's feeling fresh again after the checkpoint. But I looked over my shoulder a few km down the road and could see Liam coming behind us, so we decided not to blow up and just do our own pace. We went off road at Asleagh Falls where again we met the lively Richie snapping pics and full of banter. He chased us up along the river and took some great pics. We knew we had a nice soft few km's along the scenic Errif river through the fields surrounded by the Sheefry Mountains with the aptly named Devilsmother towering above us to the south.
I kept looking behind expecting to see Liam on our toes but no sign of him. I decided to quickly check the tracking app to see he hadn't taken the turn off the main road and was now on the other side of Killary harbour, running in the complete opposite direction! We just kept running our own pace which was mainly lead by Bri with me doing a little bit of work but he was stronger and I was grunting a lot at this stage.
Through Tawny forest park and up to Sheefry pass we trucked along in a lot of pain but still enjoying the views and landscape we were in. I wasn't looking forward to the last tough climb up Tawny Rower. It was one foot in front of the other stuff, constantly aware that Liam was hunting us down looking back down the valley I could see George flying down the small road that lead to the bottom of the climb. We dropped over the other side down to the lost lake in full view of Croagh Patrick and the last 20km. We both knew we had to keep pushing if anything for a reputable time as breaking the 11 hour mark seemed to be getting close to the wire.
As we neared the last checkpoint, I checked the tracker one last time to see we had made a good gap on Liam, but we could see George about a km back still coming hard at us, this guy was a beast, no matter what I felt like it pales in comparison to what this guy was going through on his way to smashing 24 hours for 100 miles.
Brian started putting a gap on me after I stopped for a piss, I knew it was that time! I'd be riding out the last 12km on my own. I met him at the checkpoint as we hoovered up some poundland coke and sour squirms, then away we went for the last bit of torture.
As I made the last small climb over the far east ridge of Croagh Patrick and seeing Westport I felt a sense of relief that was short lived as George raced passed me on the downhill's along the scenic country boreens that led to the main road. I was slowing up and the descents were hurting a lot. As soon as I hit the flat again I knew I had to get moving. Liam was coming!
Luckily I had a secret weapon to get me through the last 5km, my sister and family had joined us for the weekend. We were camping in Westport house and they spent the day enjoying the activities then came down to the Sheebeen pub along the quay to cheer me on. My nieces made signs and ran along shouting and screaming at me as I picked up my pace to 6 min km.
Onto the greenway for the last 2km with George just ahead of me and no sign of the notoriously strong finisher Liam! Over the line in the car park in just over 11 hours and a broken man. Barely able to walk but with a big smile on my face I was delighted to be involved in this race. Having only ran in Wicklow a handful of times and seeing the vert in the Wicklow Way 50 being considerably more than the Western Way. I assumed this would have been easier, although a few runners remarked this was tougher. Whatever way you look at it ultra running in the mountains and trails of Ireland is both brutal and beautiful.