Gaelforce West is a race that most people have heard about, and represents the “Old Lady” of Adventure Racing in Ireland. It’s a 6 Stage Point-To-Point race starting in the stunning Killary Fjord in Galway, involving the following stages:
13.5km Running (tracking through the hillsides by the shore of Killary Fjord)
1.0km Kayaking across the Fjord (crossing County borders from Galway to Mayo)
4.5km Bog to Road Run
32.0km Cycle to the Base of Croagh Patrick (via Pass)
4.5km Return-Trip Mountain Run from the Base to the Summit of Croagh Patrick
12.0km Concluding Cycle into Westport Town Centre for the finish
Myself, my younger (taller) brother Rory, and my good friend Thomas Downey had taken some Annual Leave from work on the Friday and together made our way cross-country from Dublin in the early afternoon, arriving at Westport in the early evening for registration. After dropping off our bikes, signing in at our digs, and getting some dinner with the rest of our crowd of friends from Dublin, we set about for an early night, with alarm bells set for an early 4.50am to give us time to get washed, changed, breakfast, and be on the buses (to be sitting waiting for the athletes at the top of Westport Town Centre ready to leave at 6am), in order to deliver us 90mins later to the race start location down in Galway. Being an event around the summer solstice, the sunlight was still beaming through the window when we eventually hit the hay shortly before 10pm; having to use the blinds as best as possible to block as much light out from the bedroom as we could.
We all surprisingly slept reasonably well, waking up a few hours later, and feeling like there had been no darkness at all as the strong light was still shining through the window when we woke up. Our B&B Landlady was unbelievably accommodating, having us breakfast for 5.15am along with another pair of great chatty lads from Wexford (who I remember thinking had the ability to not just talk for the County of Wexford, but for the whole of Ireland!) who had been coming back year-after-year for this event. We arrived on time for the buses leaving and got to enjoy the spectacular mountainous scenery out of the bus windows and the morning dew arising from the adjacent fields as we made our way to the race start.
The Dublin 7 - Pre Race Group Shot
Stage 1: 13.5km Road/Fell Run
From the off, a three-man group formed reasonably quickly with Killian Heery setting a decent pace so I was happy to sit in and shadow in 3rd place. Not long into the undulating off-road section, I felt the pace drop slightly, and before I knew it, Keiron Kelly had made a dart past Killian and into the lead and significantly upped the pace again. Killian surprisingly didn't respond, letting a small gap build, so I found a gap and skipped through as well and re-joined with Keiron. We continued to run the remainder of the 13.5km road run stage together, working very well together and built up a substantial c2.5min lead on the rest of the field. During this run, we had passed through 10km point in just under 40 minutes.
It was at this stage I was starting to think long-term about the race and discussed tactics with Keiron and agreed we'd work together on the bike if we were not too far apart after the kayak section. He strongly warned me that the kayak section had always been his Achilles’ heel, and he had thrown away many races as a result. He told me to make my own decision as to whether I’d wait for him at the bike transition or not.
Running together - discussing tactics
My worry at this stage was twofold; firstly with the concern of Keiron being swooped up by a chase-pack on the bike if he was left isolated (and end up working against me rather than with me), and secondly, the fact it was a long race ahead and having an ally in the form of a 2-time winner like him who knew the route (which I didn’t) would hopefully work in my favour.
I was well aware of having to navigate Croagh Patrick (now christened ‘the Beast’), lying ahead late in the race. I was convinced the race would be won or lost in that section. I was also confident in my running form of recent weeks and was prepared to back my ability as a mountain runner against Keiron later in the day in the hope I’d come off the mountain with a sufficient lead to bring it home into Westport.
Leg Time: 55m30s
Cumulative Time: 55m30s
Gap to Keiron: -1s
Stage 2: 1.0km Kayak
It's at this point in the race that I would normally just follow Killian Heery's wake given that in the two adventure races I have competed in to date (Gaelforce Dublin & Quest Wales), I have always found myself mounting into the kayak immediately on his tail. This has the benefit of not requiring any sighting skills or prior knowledge of the course. This was hence unchartered waters for me being first to get in and get paddling.
Without prior expectation of being in the lead at the beginning of the kayak, I hadn’t researched the course map thoroughly beyond knowing the kayak section was approximately 1km long. I didn’t realise this leg was to be a point-to-point section and after a few paddles I found myself shouting for the marshal’s help asking “Is it a clockwise or anti-clockwise loop?” He just shouted at me to head straight ahead for the buoy”. I looked up, saw the buoy and set my sails accordingly.
Once arriving close to the buoy, I stopped paddling and started gliding, looking around to the right in search of a second buoy which would form part of (what I now believed to be) a clockwise loop. With no luck and thinking my eyes were deceiving me, I heard a stern shout from Keiron to keep paddling and go straight ahead to the shore in the distance. It was only then I finally realised the small specks on the shore in the distance were actually the race marshals that I should be aiming for.
From here I managed to get going and paddle in a relatively straight line, albeit struggling through the large ripples created from the speedboats circling past in the area (which I now assume were to be used as a pick-up to bring the used kayaks back to the start for the use of athletes in future waves due to start behind us).
Leading the race with Keiron in the background
I had put about 90 seconds into Keiron by the end of this section and started in my 4.5km pursuit for my bike sitting ready for me in transition. I had to now start calculating whether it was worth the risk to wait so long for him and possibly jeopardise my race. I definitely had my doubts but I still felt it was too long of a race to be on my own and I took a gamble that I should hopefully make up the 90 seconds (and more) time spent waiting by the bike through having an extra pair of legs to work with me (and spend half the time sitting on his wheel and recovering). In future years I’m almost sure I’d have soloed it but the unknown of not knowing the course played heaviest on my mind at this stage.
Leg Time: 9m53s
Cumulative Time: 1h05m23s
Gap to Keiron: -1m31s (Delta: -1m30s)
Stage 3: 4.5km Bog/Road Run
I was well versed about this boggy section by my good friend Thomas Downey. He’d done the race before a few times and was giving me some inside knowledge on the way up the motorway in the car on the Friday afternoon. I distinctly remember telling him that although he may have found it boggy in past years, given the wonderful spell of weather we’ve experienced of recent weeks, I was dismissive of it still being a bog at all this year. I was wrong.
I found it almost impossible to find a good line or good footing as I was jumping from wall to shuck and back again multiple times - while at the same time juggling with keeping an eye out for route markers. It’s not an easy task leading a race at the best of times, but when both eyes are needed for spotting where you're putting your feet and avoiding the many holes and craters, it makes it all the more difficult!
I managed to survive back onto the main road and had a good look back, but struggled to see Keiron. It was around this time I started slowing up to let him start catching, while at the same time hoping he had not been hunted down and swallowed up by the chasers in pursuit. In particular I was thinking about athletes like Barry Cronin who is a top class runner in his own right, but in particular thrives in the kayaking section, along with the experience he has built up while winning almost every adventure race there is to win in Ireland. I got to transition and eventually found my bike. Before the race I had wrapped some colourful bar tape on the handlebars to help the bike stand out more in this transition and hopefully facilitate my efforts to find it. I was worried the day before the race of having to look for an all-black bike among 600+ others; and thought I could do with the little extra assistance. Thankfully this trick worked a treat, with the tape catching my eye before the bike itself. I do think I’d have probably have passed by the bike if it wasn’t for the tape.
I waited a few more seconds, and Keiron and myself were able to mount together onto our bikes for the 32km trip cross country, with all sails set for Croagh Patrick.
Leg Time: 18m52s
Cumulative Time: 1h24m15s
Gap to Keiron: -16s (Delta: +1m15s)
Stage 4: 32km Road Cycle
I was comfortable in that I couldn't see the chasers when looking back shortly after the start of the bike leg, so we both set about riding hard together, agreeing on doing 45 second turns each on the front. Both of us were riding well together, and with the roads very rolly, narrow and twisty, I was confident that a 2-man break working well together was probably the optimal situation, and expecting a larger chase pack behind would be unlikely to be able to co-operate as well together and hence would struggle to make much, if any, inroads on us.
Working well together on the bike
Coming to the foot of Sheffrey Pass climb (a 2k climb at c6% average) I had to make my 2nd conscious race management decision as to whether or not to attack Keiron and go long for the win. I had seen this rather significant lump on the bike stage profile while doing some pre-race research scouring through previous iterations of this race on Strava, and identified it as an opportunity spot where I could potentially attack the race.
Knowing the climbs is where I've historically had a comparative advantage over the years in cycling on my competitors, I decided to go for it; dancing up the long climb to the crest, and proceeded to put the head down and drive it on solo to the foot of Croagh Patrick. In the end I made very good time (close to 3m30) by the time I got to transition and thought the race was under control and now in my own hands. Let’s just say if I was given the choice to stick or twist, I’d be choosing to stick every time.
Leg Time: 1h09m25s
Cumulative Time: 2h33m40s
Gap to Keiron: -3m18s (Delta: -3m12s)
Stage 5.1: Base to Shoulder
With the cycling legs having delivered when asked in the preceding hour or so, it didn’t take long for me to realise that now having to run up hills was going to be a somewhat more of a challenge.
I have spent many an evening running up and down the steep hills of Ticknock, with beautiful views overlooking Dublin. At times you really feel ‘on it’, and feel like you are floating up the inclines without having to work hard. Other times you do feel like you have to put some effort in to run well; but in both situations you still find yourself running pretty fast and completion is never an issue.
On the very first boggy drag up to the start of the Zig-Zags, the legs didn’t seem like they were floating and they also didn’t seem like they wanted to run when putting some effort in either! It was a somewhat surprising situation given that the first drag up to the start of the Zig-Zags didn’t in fact seem overly steep and I would have probably run a similar profile a hundred times over in training without paying much attention to it at all.
This was also my first time up Croagh Patrick (I had done the Westport Triathlon the year before and seen it from afar, but it’s not until you stand face-to-face, with it staring you down that you realise it’s one hell of an obstacle, that really sticks out from the local landscape). I didn’t spend much time dwelling on its beauty at the time, but it’s certainly something I got to appreciate on the wind-down day on Sunday.
Given how the legs had reacted before the Zig-Zags, I made another conscious race management decision to use 'brain over brawn'. I took a learning from Quest Wales a few months back where I punctured late in the last cycle, rode back to transition on a flat front tyre and found myself almost a minute down on the leader going into the last mountain run leg. I there decided to gamble and throw the kitchen sink on the steep uphill section of the last mountain in an attempt to bridge back.
Although I believe I would have gained a few seconds over the course of the steep uphill, for the remainder of the run I had found my legs had burnt all their matches. I ended up losing much more time on the remainder of the mountain run than the few seconds I gained on the way up. For this reason I learnt it to be very important to pace whatever obstacle lies ahead of you, commensurate to what is best for the whole length of the mountain (up and down), and not use emotion to dictate your pace early in the stage.
For this reason I opted to power walk all the very steep sections and get the legs running again on the "flatter" sections. Generally the aim was to just keep moving forward and keep the momentum going. Upon reaching the top of the Zig-Zags, somewhere around the Shoulder of Croagh Patrick I was able to see Keiron (for the first time since attacking him up Sheffrey Pass) down below on the undulating boggy section which I had just navigated. I could see I had a material lead, thinking the race was very much in my own hands and believed that smart racing and pacing should be enough to get me back to my bike alone, with still time to spare in the back pocket to take it home.
Leg Time: 13m07s
Cumulative Time: 2h46m47s
Gap to Keiron: -3m30s (Delta: -12s)
Stage 5.2: Shoulder to Croagh Patrick Summit
By this stage the sun was starting to flex its muscles and temperatures were noticeably rising. I was offered some water from the marshal at the Shoulder (which was very gratefully received). From here to the Summit seemed like a near vertical cliff over bowling-ball sized rocks and the decision as to whether to run or walk was no longer optional - it was a case of either power-hiking or sitting down. Given the situation I had worked so hard to put myself in, there was no thought of doing anything but pushing through the pain (and gravity).
Thankfully my legs (although understandably 'feeling it') still seemed to be power walking well and I still felt like I was very much moving up the cliff face with the handbrake off and was reasonably sure I was giving a decent account of myself time wise all the way to the top. Aside from the banes of lactic-filled legs, the heat from the sun, and the lack of water, another factor causing discomfort was the fact that my previously well lathered pre-race sun cream was starting to stream its way down into my eyes and causing a lot of stinging and discomfort. I was rubbing my eyes with my fingerless gloves which themselves seemed to be saturated in sun cream. It was just another obstacle to hurdle and challenge to overcome. One of my favourite sporting sayings is “who ever said winning was pretty”. If I was going to come out on top, I was going to have to suffer for it. And I was fully prepared to.
My run training this past few months had been very consistent, supplemented by a few podium finishes at recent IMRA and NIMRA races acting as confidence boosters along the way on where my running fitness was at. I had also recently made selection, and raced on the Northern Irish Mountain Running team for a Fell Running International in the UK. All this collectively gave me confidence in my ability to hold my own against Keiron, and at the time I distinctly remember thinking that he probably shouldn’t be moving substantially faster than me - certainly to the tune of 3.5mins which was the approximate gap I had worked out from seeing him below me from the Shoulder (more on this false sense of security later). I wondered whether he was possibly going to make the same sort of (throw the kitchen sink) gamble I made at Quest Wales, but to the possible detriment of his long term result.
I dibbed at the top and turned for home, knowing the hard part of Croagh Patrick (and one which I'm aware doesn't necessarily suit my strengths) still in fact lay ahead. The common misconception from people who don't do Mountain Racing (i.e. the sane portion of the Irish population) is that it's harder going uphill than down. I’ve long known the untruth of this fallacy.
Upon analysis of the timing chips, I was the 2nd best runner on the day from the Shoulder to the Summit, 17s ahead of 3rd best man, the aforementioned Barry Cronin. This backed up my belief that I was still physically performing well, but what I didn’t consider in my probabilities was the possibility of Keiron having an absolute stormer of a run, running this section 1m05 even faster than myself! I still held a 2.5min lead but the race was starting to get possibly interesting!
Leg Time: 13m49s
Cumulative Time: 3h00m36s
Gap to Keiron: -2m25s (Delta: +1m05s)
Stage 5.3: Croagh Patrick Summit to Shoulder
After dibbing-in at the Summit in front of the erected white church (no time for prayers now), I turned for home and for the first time was able to see how far back the rest of the (near and far) competition was.
Even though the ascent and descent combination of Croagh Patrick is only a mere 4.5km, given the nature of it's steepness, it's amazing how even a field that was spread out by up to an hour can become so squeezed into such a small distance. I firstly passed Keiron after only about 90 seconds or so and was both surprised and impressed at how well he had climbed the first half. This was the first time I considered it a possibility for him to actually catch me again – but I didn’t have too much time to dwell on it given how much focus was required on coming down off Croagh Patrick, both fast and alive.
A few minutes later I passed Peter O'Farrell, himself a stalwart and very much part of the history of this race with 4 former wins (and 10+ appearances). I remember researching this race back in 2011 when still a fresh faced student in UCD and seeing a short video clip at the time of him dibbing-in for the win in his orange Wheelworx jersey and remember thinking that there'd be no chance of me ever getting close to his level. I was also conscious that Peter had battered me separately in both an IMRA (Mountain Running race) and a Cyclocross (off-road cycling) race within the past year so knew him to be dangerous and one to never count out - in particular when it comes to technical descending off something like Croagh Patrick.
I was relatively cautious coming down and thought it'd be smarter to run on the very edges of the track (where there were fewest rolling rocks to potentially slip on and where grip would be best). In hindsight I learnt this was a poor decision and only after being told (I'm not 100% sure by whom, but potentially it was Killian Heery who gave me the advice as I passed him) to run on the looser rocks as it's faster as you can slide down with them and there is less impact on the joints and less shocks up through the body - so a thanks to him and something I'll definitely implement if I am to make the start line again next year.
It's a minor pity I picked up this piece of advice just short of reaching the Shoulder (where the terrain becomes more manageable and runnable again). As I dibbed at the Shoulder for the 2nd time, I again asked the marshal there for another swig of his water bottle, and again he was extremely obliging (I owe you a beer if I ever bump into you in Westport again!).
Of particular importance from a race development perspective was the crazy realisation that Keiron had run a blinder, both up and down, and upon dibbing at the Shoulder, only 7 seconds now separated us! He had rolled off the mountain like a boulder and put over two minutes into me in this, the “third quarter” of Croagh Patrick!
Leg Time: 07m39s
Cumulative Time: 3h08m15s
Gap to Keiron: -07s (Delta: +2m18s)
Stage 5.4: Croagh Patrick Shoulder to Base
The race had been thrown on its head and had come full circle! The 3.5min lead that I had built up on the bike over the Sheffrey Pass (and the remaining of the cycle leg) had been completely wiped out and Keiron and myself and converged once again after being significantly separated over the past hour and a half of racing.
I was conscious that seldom does the race lead change that late with the athlete being passed go on to win the race; so a small part of me had resigned to the fact that there was now a good chance that today may not in fact be my day.
I have however been racing for many years so knew from experience that anything can happen (crashes, punctures, mechanicals, wrong turns, sugar crashes, etc.) and that nothing was decided until chips were dibbed in Westport Town Centre; and if I was going to lose, I was at least going to make him work his b-hind off for it and make it as painful as possible for him to take the honours.
I know that steep technical descending is one of my weaknesses. However, I also feel that I am quite good at holding my own dancing down though undulating off-road sections that are less steep. I passed my good friend Ann Horan (who was part of our gang of 7 who had made the trip together from Dublin - who told me after all was said and done that I was like a ghost passing her) on the boggy section between the start of the Zig-Zags and the Base. On that last stretch back to transition, there was nothing between Keiron and myself. It's amazing that we actually mounted side-by-side (almost hand-in-hand) both knowing it was all to play for and the bookmakers would have struggled to come up with any accurate odds as they'd have been as clueless as to who was to come out on top as we were.
Leg Time: 06m28s
Cumulative Time: 3h14m43s
Gap to Keiron: +02s (Delta: +09s)
Stage 6: Base of Croagh Patrick to Westport Town Centre Finish
Knowing Keiron had won the race twice before, I opted to stay on his wheel for the whole of the rocky off-road section between the Base of Croagh Patrick and until we were back on solid and flat ground of the haven of paved roads. A lot of this section was very sketchy and past experience (of doing this race before) would have been very valuable in knowing how to ride it and where it is necessary to get off and run with the bike. Barry Cronin offered me some advice as I passed him around the Shoulder of Croagh Patrick on the way down, emphasising not to take any risks on this section and to execute it safely with no mishaps.
Given the situation, we still did however both ride hard (as close to the limits of keeping our bikes upright). Doing a few seasons of cyclocross had definitely built up my confidence to throw a road bike around on rough surface and at no point was I intimidated by Keiron's ability to ride so well on this off-road section - but I was definitely as 'in the zone' here as anywhere else across the whole 66km route. We both stayed on the bikes for the most part of this section prior to adjoining to the road, with the exception of the crater near the end, which looked like the site of an asteroid landing. We both hopped off and ran carrying our bikes to the other side before re-mounting.
Down onto the paved road and this was the first time Keiron had gaped me in the whole race. This section was downhill, very narrow and very twisty, with lots of gravel and loose chippings across the middle of the road and was no place to meet a car coming the other direction. We were sliding at full speed (as fast as I could keep the bike perpendicular to the road) and once we got back onto the main road into Westport, Keiron was now 5-10 seconds ahead and definitely holding position and I was riding at full gas keeping, but not closing, the gap.
Eventually after another 5mins of chasing, we converged again, as I finally managed to bridge back onto his wheel. We had recently passed a sign signalling "4km to Westport" and I knew that this race was actually going to go down to the wire and it could be a race through the final transition to decide the final outcome of the race. I sat on Keiron's wheel and was trying to work out how I was going to jump him when I saw in the close distance a sharp enough drag (probably averaging about 5-6% for about 250m) up ahead. The thought went through my head that I had to either 'Use it or Lose it'. Seeing this ramp up ahead gave me full clarity as to what my game-plan was going to be in order to attempt to terminally snap this elastic-band.
Coming up to the foot of the climb I had a good look back to ensure there was no cars about to pass us, and seeing it was clear I made the jump, stood up on the pedals and danced as hard as I could to the top. I had a quick glance around on the crest and saw I had gapped him by between 5 and 10 seconds, so had found the jump I was looking for. At this point I just put my head down and drove it home the last 2km into Westport.
After nearly missing the turnoff into transition by flying around the corner into the Town Centre too fast, I threw my bike into transition, headed for the finishing chute before having my first look back since the crest of the climb and could not see him. I finished up with a running fist-pump into the air just before the dibbing machine and took my maiden Gaelforce West title. Probably the most epic (ding-dong) racing experience I've ever taken part in. All the more special that it was in a battle for 1st place as opposed to the more minor places that I've spent the last 15 years of my sporting career competing for and building up from. Kieran dibbed in at the finish a mere 13 seconds later; so over the course of 3hrs40mins of racing, that is what separated us on the day. Peter O’Farrell rounded out the podium, clocking in nearly 9 minutes later.
Top 3 - Keiron Kelly (2nd), Luke McMullan (1st), Peter O’Farrell (3rd)
I'm proud to have taken it on, used the cards that were dealt to me, used sensible race-management and delivered on the day under some hype and some (self-inflicted) pressure, while at the same time having appreciation that I didn’t have any bad luck worth mentioning like I did during my previous Adventure Race in Wales.
Keiron Kelly is a class act - a phenomenal athlete and an absolute gent. We shared a really great race together and I hope to race against him again in the not too distant future. In one sense I feel quite sheepish that a 48-year old granddad was so able to school me up and down Croagh Patrick, and execute such a great race. It also gives me hope that ‘Age is only a Number’, and who knows what the future holds, but I like the idea of still being able to do these races when I’m close to 50 – and beyond.
He got the best out of me on the day that was but also taught me that I've 3.5minutes of improvement capacity in my legs to bridge in the “running-off-the-bike and up-the-mountains” department. I know many an athlete who can run well on the flat, a few less who can run well in the mountains, but nobody who can run the mountains after such a tough bout of cycling as Keiron Kelly.
Leg Time: 25m02s
Cumulative Time: 3h49m45s
Gap to Keiron: -13s (Delta: -15s)
It was also great to have been part of the friendly team of athletes who made the journey from Dublin and spent both Friday (eating) and Saturday (eating and lots of drinking) together. My little brother, Rory, joined me for this, his first Adventure Race, and he has said a couple of times already “Luke, I know I've said this already, but thanks so much for telling me to do this race. It was probably the most fun event I've ever done and I can't wait for the next one". He now has his eyes firmly focused on future adventure races, including Gaelforce North in September. We’ve done many a Tetrathlon and many a Triathlon together over the years, but hopefully this represents the first of many “Adventure Races” that we can add to the “annual-family-day-out” To-Do List in the coming years.
Overall, it was a great weekend experience for our Dublin crowd, with most of us finishing in the top-40 from a field of nearly 600, and we’re all eager to come back again next year to try and replicate the fun experience we had this year.
A special thanks to the Killary Gaelforce crew for organising the race and giving us athletes a great weekend to look forward to, and to the marshals for directing and keeping us safe out there (and in particular the sound marshal manning the Shoulder of Croagh Patrick offering me two separate swigs from his personal water bottle!). And lastly a quick thank-you to Dave Mc in Joe Daly Cycles in Dundrum, South Dublin; without whom I'd probably not have raced at all, giving me a loan of a rear-wheel as I had blown two spokes on the previous Thursday evening on my last training spin before GFW.
This is my third Adventure Race to date and the third day the sun has split the trees so long may this trend continue. You learn a lot about yourself during these long distance multi-sport races and gives you lots of material to dissect on the other side. I’m always proud to be 'on that side of the tape' and having the opportunity to get out there and live life to the full by doing these events. Hopefully there are many more enjoyable days and weekends like this lying ahead. For now it's back to porridge, back to the day job, back to training and back to plotting the next adventure.
Luke McMullan 27/06/2018