Betty Walsh 1st Female 2011
Gaelforce North 2011 - Race Report by Betty Walsh
Gaelforce North 4th June was held for the first time in and around the Glenveagh National Park, in the northwest corner of Donegal. This is a remote and mountainous corner of our country, rugged and breathtakingly beautiful. The race finishes in Gweedore, an oasis for the Gaelic language, culture and very fine traditional music. This is the natural setting where, through the Gaelforce North event, limits will be challenged and new depths of perseverance discovered to push beyond perceived comfort zones to a better lifestyle.
Is glas iad na chonic i bhfad uainn.
Driving north was quicker than the AAroute planner predicted with good roads and all the small towns by-passed. We saw some sort of a large bird of prey soaring on the up draughts of the mountain pass at An Bearnas Mor, but I can't say for definite whether it was a peregrine falcon or an eagle as I didn't have the binoculars with me to tell. Anyway it was big, feathery, and hung in the air like it owned the sky.
Mol an óige agus tiocfiadh sí.
Two pitches full of youngsters at Gaelic football practise of a Friday evening made for an extra hum in the air at Event Registration in the Glenswilly GAA grounds. Armed with the brown envelope from the quick registration procedure and, after exchanging smiles and talking to a few other GF people there, it was off to Lough Gartan where the bike drop-off was in a field on the lake shore.
Go n-éirí an bóthar leat.
Carb drinks on board, last minute tweaks, tyre pressure & spare tube check, race number, helmet, a short cycle to the field and the bike was racked at transition area. With a promising blue sky, sparkling lake waters and verdant foliage swaying in a gentle breeze, it was the perfect start to a Bank holiday weekend. Driving back to the accommodation in Bun Beag, the road is a large part of the stage 3 cycle route and the hilly terrain and large stretches of exposed road skirting the perimeter deer fence of the National Park were noted alarmingly. The jagged peak of Errigal loomed ominously, partly covered in cloud, with the secretive and steely dark lough Altan to the north.
We stopped at the Errigal base carpark to stretch our legs and get a feel for the underfoot conditions - I didn't slip in my flip-flops but my son ran on ahead and soon slid on the soggy heather and then fell in a stream so I reckoned it was medium-slippy conditions and would need the extra grip that trail runners can give, but without the cushioning of road shoes for the race the following day.
Dá fhada an lá tagann an tráthnóna.
It was a bright & early start to the day, overcast sky and a nip in the air with a North-easterly wind. I tiptoed about getting ready, grabbing the mandatory kit bag, leaving the porridge pot to soak and slipping off without waking the innocent slumber of the kids at my friends place. Up to the 6.30 bus at Ostan Radharc na Mara, the Seaview Hotel, phew, first challenge of the day achieved! The bus pulled off and the trip to the start line was underway with Highland radio playing the tunes. This whole area is steeped in the folklore of Balor, Lugh, a fair maiden locked away in a crystal tower and the magic of the Tuatha Dé Dannan .
There were short spontaneous bursts of laughter from nervous participants as the quiet beauty of An Gleann Nimhine - the Poisoned Glen, slipped by the bus window and the road became narrower and narrower, until it looked like the road had become a narrow ribbon of tarmac. There was time for a quick trip to the portaloos where the bus stopped and a warm up walk to the start line where the race briefing was delivered.
Tús maith leath na hoibre.
3, 2, 1, GO! The downhill charge was momentarily paused as the front runner put up his hand to slow down the chasing pack while he opened the gate in the 6ft high deer fence. The pace immediately picked up again and there were guys barrelling past. I made myself take it easy down into the valley as I gently babied my right leg, which had felt a worrying twang in a tendon during a run in the Burren two weeks previously, into motion. There are herds of magnificent native Red deer roaming these mountains and I kept scanning the valley to see if they might come into view - they are fairly elusive and can usually only be spotted when they move.
The downhill mountain track gave way to softer level ground along the waters of Lough Veagh, thru a forest of native oak and birch. With Julia and another guy on my shoulder, we passed some of the guys who had initially hared off. On through the grounds of beautiful Glenveagh castle, I promised myself to come back the next day to explore the grounds and pathways with my son at leisure. The route then swung off up the Gartan Mountain with wild spotted orchids bordering the way. The track leveled out then, with one last scope round to the wilderness of the Glenveagh mountains, it was through another gate in the deer fence and soon we were going down on the tarmac until the lake shore to the start of the kayak stage.
Ní neart go chur le chéile.
Dib on the slipway, into a kayak and immediate relief as the weight came off that tender tendon. I waited for Julia to get in and we were soon off paddling through the rushes, "like in the Amazon" said Julia from the back of the kayak. Our strokes quickly matched up and with the wind at our backs we surfed a few waves and had a good paddle over to the far shore.
Is fada an bóthar nach bhfuil casadh ann.
After shaking off the buoyancy aid it was off up to get the bike, push out of the field and hop on to face the demands and demons of the hilly cycle ahead. Much appreciated words of encouragement in the lovely Donegal accent were heard from of the people living along the route. The hilly section gave way to open exposed road with that North-easterly still blowing to give a headwind which gave way as the road turned westwards and until the jagged peak of Errigal came into sight. There was long incline for a few kilometres and I wondered who put the lead into my legs but the demon drag did end eventually. As bike transition area came into view the daunting task of going up Errigal was quickly becoming a reality.
Giorraíonn beirt bóthar
Rack the bike, helmet off, dib & away up the mountain side. My initial optimistic jog soon slowed to hiking pace as the large tussocks of heather and grass made the going fairly difficult. The pace slowed even more as, along with tricky underfoot conditions, the ascent became alarmingly steep and did not show any sign of levelling off! Focusing on getting to the summit was taking all the physical and mental energy I had. At least going up this southern side of Errigal was sheltered from that North-easterly wind. The sight of the race leaders on their way down the mountain reminded me that this is a race. So, ever onwards and almost vertically upwards the route went, tussocks and heather giving way to rocky underfoot terrain, and on past the two Mountain Rescue stations. I could hear red and white Sikorsky Helicopter of the Irish Marine Emergency Services before seeing it as they did a fly-over. It was more of a fly-by than a fly-over from the height I was at as I just had to look across to see the cockpit bubble, the winch man’s hook and door and the distinctive shape of the chopper head on.
Pressing on as the trail narrowed, a blast of cold wind off the northern edge of the mountain signalled, along with the whiter quartzite rock, that the summit was getting near. The dib station was wisely situated before the narrow summit ridge, the 360 panoramic views a sight to behold clear and sharp. And so began the difficult descent which was proved to be every bit as tough as the ascent . There wasn't much time to be made up on the descent as each step of the steeply sloping ground had to carefully chosen and executed not helped by that wonky tendon still giving jip. . Words of encouragement were given and received to and from fellow participants who were digging deep to keep going. The route finally started to level off and, after sloshing through the wetter lower ground, the bike transition area was reached again.
Ar nós na gaoithe
It was refreshing to hop onto the bike and take off downhill. And there was thankfully alot of downhill, on into Dun Luiche, a sharp left, a straight downhill between the two lakes and off-road into the shelter and quiet of the forest track. A steep slope up, where the racing bike tyres had no grip had me off the bike and pushing, attempting to run, walking and running again. I didn't like the look of the puncture alley type sharp edged stone chip surface when the slope levelled off and so I continued to run (probably more of a jog at that stage actually) with the bike until the forest track became a finer sandy surface. Onto the pedals again and it was a rattling roll for the rest of the way, at times unable to focus on the track as both bike and rider were shook to the limit. Arriving at the road junction it was time to "give it socks" with a sniff off the finishing line in the air. The route came off the main road again and wound it's way through the backyards of Bunbeg till the signpost for "an Trá" where a high vis marshal was stationed. More speed on the last short descent, squeeze on the brakes and into the final transition. Off the bike and legs were gone to jelly for the first 100 meters. On into the sand-dunes for a final test of "what yer made of" and over the line, finally finished. Whoop!
Ní bhíonn an rath, ach mara mbíonn an smacht.
The beautiful medal that everyone receives for their efforts on the day was presented and it was a bit overwhelming there at the finish line with people asking "how was it?" Tough question, Gaelforce North was everything except easy. A huge Go raibh míle maith agaibh agus Maith Sibh!" thank you and well done, must be said to all the Gaelforce crew for having the vision to put the route together and for staging the event, and of course a special thank you to the smiling volunteering marshals who I hope are not too scarred from midget bites.
Ní hiad na fir mhóra a bhaineas an fomhar i gcónaí.
A wholesome tomato soup and a roll was generously provided for competitors, and the 99 ice-cream that I had with my son soon after went down a treat. We stayed round finish line to welcome in the other competitors - it is as much an achievement for the last over the line as it is for the first person. The buzz in the finishing area got going as people trickle in, greeting and comparing times and analysing where improvements can be made, and, as if Gaelforce North wasn't enough, people are wondering what's the next event to do!
By 6pm we're sitting up in the Ostan Gweedore bar while the event crew were taking the finishing tent apart when, loo and behold, a couple of participants appear biking down the hill determined to finish. Out onto the balcony everyone went and gave them huge cheers of encouragement and applause - much bigger than the winner of the day got. After 8 hours on the go everyone agreed that it is a fantastic achievement to finish a Gaelforce through to the end.
Gleanntain Ghlas Gaoth Dobhair
I had to leave the after-party at the Ostan early to put the young fella to bed. Then, after putting trail shoes out on the window sill, we went off to the pub but only got as far as sitting outside the pub, Huidi Beag's, to listen to the famous trad music of this unique gaeltacht community, and in the notes and airs that came off the fiddlers bow it seemed that the lilting notes mirrored the ups and downs of the hills of Donegal.
Ádh mór agus go mbeire muid beo ag an am seo aris!