IN WHICH THERE WILL BE PAIN. THERE WILL BE CURSING. THERE WILL BE SNOT ROCKETS*. ALL OF THIS AND MORE AS A YEAR’S TRAINING AND A LONG-HELD AMBITION MEET HEAD-ON WITH THE WORST WEATHER THE WEST OF IRELAND HAS TO OFFER. AND THE WINNER IS…
Ever since I did my first triathlon, I think there was always a sneaky feeling that I would try to do an ‘ironman’. The brand has become synonymous with the long-distance event. You can hardly separate the two anymore, and there’s little point trying. If it comes up in conversation and you mention that you are training for a long distance triathlon, you can see a brief flicker of bemusement on people’s faces. When you say ‘ironman’, it all falls into place. In any case, it was always out there, on the fringes of the imagination, lurking in the dark. It just looked rather impossible. And even when I completed the half-iron event in the North last year, the thought of doubling-up on each event filled me with horror. Though I kept that to myself.
It’s funny how time compresses in at the end. No doubt the condemned man feels the same. After all the gym sessions, pool swims, open water trips, bike and run workouts… finally the last week was upon us, and the taper was well and truly in. In the last week, I hit the pool a few times. The last one was really to try out new goggles. I know you should never do anything new on these events, and I was loathe to ditch my old pair, but I had had a few issues with leakages in the last month or so, and it was playing on my mind.
Then the day of packing arrived, and the kitchen table was annexed. Gear was piled up and bagged. We had plenty of time for the drive down to Killarney; a good 300km spin from our home town. I had stopped looking at the weather at this point. Each time I checked it, it was getting worse. It seemed wise at some point to try and ignore it and focus on something else. That old joke came to mind:
“Doctor, doctor, I’ve broken my arm in three places…”
“Well then, you must stop going to these places!”
On top of that, I wasn’t feeling 100%; all week I could tell there was something not quite right with the body – a temperature, for sure, and a sore throat – and I just decided to ignore that too. The last thing I needed was a dose of strep throat which I have had in the past, as it will lay you low for days.
We found our self-catering apartment, and it was ideal. Close to the town centre, and it had a spare room too, which was quickly monopolised with gear. A quick bite of chicken and pasta, and then off to register.
The registration was at a nearby GAA club, and it is when you arrive that you really know you are finally at the start of it all. The formalities were done in a relaxed and easy yet proficient manner which was the hallmark of the event. The hoodie top is a cracker, and I can tell I will have a battle on my hands keeping it to myself. We were also given a video presentation to orientate us around the course. And it was a chance to meet up with some fellow triathletes and trade some banter. Much of which, in fairness, centred around the weather. It was now pouring down with rain, but in true west of Ireland fashion, it was also going sideways. This was not promising, and already there were rumblings about the swim, and whether it might be cut or not.
Back to the apartment, and an attempt at sleep. As anyone who has ever done any of these events knows, the night before is never restful. On top of the normal tossing and turning, I was up at 3am to have breakfast, and then another couple of hours of fitful rest, and then up again for the off. The weather was still appalling. The only plus side was that it was mild. A typical Atlantic depression front sweeping in off the ocean with buckets of rain and a savage wind to boot.
Arriving at the swim, and it was still dark. And still miserable weather. Hauled the gear down in a couple of trips from the car and checked in the bike, and then got changed into the wetsuit. Damn. Where are the ear plugs? Don’t normally wear them, but was concerned about such a long open water swim and ear ache and head staggers. Nowhere to be found in any gear bag. Bad start. Packed everything away. Wait. Delay for weather. Damn… where was the energy bar I was supposed to eat before the off? Packed away in the bags that were dumped in a larger bag for transport to T2… root through bags; find bar. Eat bar. Feel slightly better, and then suddenly the call went out to get in the water.
I have seen a few pics from the event. None of them can really portray the weather conditions. The ones from the lake make the swim look quite sedate. I can assure it was nothing of the sort. Think wrestling with an armadillo in a washing machine. Once out past Mahony’s Point and into the open water of Lough Leane, you were at the mercy of the wind and the full reach of the lake. The water was piling up and breaking all around. Each of the three legs had its own special issues. The first was a cross-wind from the right which battered you when you chose to breathe from that side. The second was down-wind and should have been easier, but as the waves were moving faster than the swimmer, the occasional breath and peek for sighting often culminated in a mouthful of the lough’s peaty brownness. The last leg was the most awkward; a turn for the last buoy which meant cutting across the prevailing wind and waves, which for me anyway meant constantly finding myself getting pushed off course. Sighting was tricky, and it made sense to find a solid point such as an island, mountain peak or church spire, as the big yellow buoys tended to vanish in the troughs and swells.
And it was three laps of this course. At one point, the clouds broke, the wind dropped, and the sun made a surprise appearance. A tiny sliver of a rainbow appeared above Tomies. The rays penetrated the chop, and my hands were small copper paddles, slicing into the water, leaving a trail of bubbles. The respite was very temporary. Nothing else showed itself in the gloom below, which is perhaps no harm. There was enough to contend with above the surface without worrying about what might be lurking underneath. I had no idea where I was in terms of the race placings, but that was irrelevant. As it turned out later, the event was a war of attrition, and quite a few had fallen before the first hurdle. Over a hundred individuals had registered, apart from the ten or so relay teams. About 15 or 20 had failed to show for registration, and a similar number who did sign up then failed to show up for the start. According to the chip-timed race results, only 47 individuals finished. Quite a few didn’t make the swim. Some were forced to retire on the bike leg, and some managed to make it all the way back to T2, and then called it a day. 22 DNFs all told, one of which was a relay team.
Out of the water, up the ramp, and into the bike gear, and off into the gloomy morning. Saoirse was waiting in Killarney as we passed through, later than expected.
Not long out of the town and the first few landmarks appeared; Muckross House, Torc Waterfall, Ladies View, and then the long climb up to Moll’s Gap. The wind and rain came down, but it was even windier on the descent into open country and the drop into Kenmare before the turn towards Sneem on the Ring of Kerry. A large truck barreled past as I headed out of town, making the oddest sound. It was only as it disappeared into a cloud of misty rain that I realised I had just been passed out by a TIE fighter from Star Wars. Perhaps with all the filming they’ve done in Kerry recently, you can get your vehicle modified to sound like a space craft? And if not, you heard it here first, folks…
The cycle continued out south-west, into the wind (though not the worst of it, as we were to find out later) and rain. After a few hours we hit our second big climb of the day at Coomaciste, beyond Caherdaniel. This climb should reward the cyclist with some of the best views in the land but on that day, it was simply all you could do to stay upright and avoid getting blown off the bike. As we turned north-west, we were turning into the teeth of the gale, and there was nothing but empty ocean to your left and the wind whipped across it with glee. Somewhere hidden under a veil of grey were the Skelligs but there was no point trying to find them. Instead it was all hands to the pump as the wind threatened to throw you under a bus, and at one point, a gust blew me to a standstill. Coomaciste is deceptive too; just when you think you have reached the top, another stretch of road unwinds before you. The descent into Waterville was almost as dangerous as the climb. Fresh winds from the left threatened to throw you off your bike, so the promise of a little speed to ease your pain was dashed. At least there was a food pit-stop ahead, and it was a relief to get off the bike and have some solid food and a toilet break. 99kms done. Another 80 or so to go.
The turn for home after Cahersiveen seemed to take an age, and even then there was still a long haul back. The rain continued to fall but now we had the evil wind at our backs, driving us on. By this stage, I neither passed anyone, nor did anyone pass me. All of that had already happened, and in any case, most of the other competitors were ahead of me. On into Glenbeigh and Killorglin and the final stretch back into Killarney. The speed was picking up, and it was almost a joy to be tipping along at 35km/h. Almost. It had been a long day, and it was nowhere near over.
As a little wind-up, the road into the town tricks you into thinking you are nearly there, and even when you reach the Castlerosse Hotel entrance for T2, you have to cycle past and down to the roundabout and back to make up the distance. Lest you forget the name of the race you’re in!
Finally, the dismount line appeared, and I nearly skidded over it.
As I was finishing up the bike leg, I got a rather disconcerting pain in my left knee. Something I had not had before in training. As I made my way to the tent to change for the run, it was there, nagging away. I put on a brave face for Saoirse (one should always smile in transition; there’s always cameras around!) but I could tell something was amiss.
Apparently I looked good heading out for the run. In reality, the knee was banjoed and I was in a bit of pain. I don’t mind discomfort, and can stick a fair amount of pain if I have too, but this was more in the realms of end-of-race pain. I slowed to a walk and decided the first course of action was to ignore it and hope it would go away. It didn’t, of course. So I distracted it with conversation. I met up with Keith from Carrickmacross who was on his second lap, and we had a good chat all the way round for the first nine miles. He kept me going, and when I hit the second lap, I met up with another runner and we chatted for a bit as I continued a run/walk strategy that I hoped would see me round.
As I headed out on the third and last lap, I made sure to take my head torch and reflective bands. The weather was still fresh and gusty, and there was to be no glorious sunset over Lough Leane to mark the end of this event. It was now a battle not just with a bandy knee, but also with the head and the elements. The knee pain was now only manageable if I kept moving, albeit slowly. Stopping at water stations for coke or jellies was a temporary relief but not worth the grief afterwards, trying to convince the old bones to get going again. As I said to S at the end of the second loop, if I was a horse, they would have shot me.
The route plunges into the woods in Knockreer Demesne, and is a popular walking loop for the locals and tourists alike. It passes by Ross Castle, which is stunning, though by the third time of asking, I was not so keen. Even the dedicated and wonderful team of supporters at the water stations had called it a day by the time I was on my final leg (in every sense of the word). Like my Garmin watch which had packed it in at the end of the second lap, they had the good sense to finish up. I ploughed on into the gloom, fearful I would miss a marker and head off into the wilderness, never to be seen again. As I turned for home with a few miles left, I did indeed take a wrong turn and arrived at pair of locked gates. I didn’t weep but my heart sank. I retraced my steps and discovered my mistake. One would think after a couple of loops that the third time of asking would be autopilot. Perhaps, in the calm of a beautiful evening. At this point, I had no idea who was still out on the course, if indeed there was anyone crazier than me.
I was listening out for the music. That low, booming, thudding sound you get from an over-cranked PA at an outdoor event is usually a grating irritation. That evening, as night fell around Killarney and all I had for company were bats and pairs of reflected eyes from my head torch, that sound was a beacon to guide me home.
Transition came into view, and there was a small knot of supporters and marshals, egging on the last survivors of Hardman 2016. Alan and Hugh demanded a big finish, and from somewhere, I managed to sprint the last hundred yards, but of course, that was just for show; in truth, I was not in the best of shape. But I was over the line, and that was the main thing.
A cup of tea and a slice of brack were like manna from heaven. After a short recovery I knew I had to take up the bike again and cycle back to T1 at the golf club to collect the car. I always knew I was going to have to do this, and it turned out to be quite a cathartic spin. The worst of the wind and rain had blown itself out. The evening had settled down, and it was an eerie but triumphant cycle back for a couple of kilometres to get the car. It was strange to see it again; the last time we had parted company, it was dark. And here it was, dark again. I popped open the boot, and kissed the saddle on the Orbea before sliding her into the back of the car. Hard on the outside, maybe. Soft on the inside!
Back at transition, the gear was gathered and bundled into the car, and we cheered on the last of the runners before returning to base camp, where I cracked open a beer to celebrate.
For the record, I finished 42nd out of the blokes, and 51st overall including one woman and the relay teams. My splits were:
|Place:|51||Declan KENNY (11)||Total:
|Ages 45-49 (5)||Male (42)||Swim:
Overall, looking back, it was a great achievement. The swim, once again, proved to be my favourite part, despite the maelstrom. The bike section was like 12 rounds with Mike Tyson and a fire hose, but I would fancy giving it another crack one day with better weather, to see what sort of time I could do. And the run, well… I did have other ideas about times, but these went out the window with the wind and the rain. And the knee. Not excuses. Just facts. But still happy to have finished. I have yet to see a physio, but some feedback from a few guys the next day at the brunch was IT band. I will get it checked out. I tried a run today with Mark but had to pull up after a kilometre, so clearly something is not quite right. Rest, for now, and then some professional advice.
We stayed on in Kerry for a few days, and the Weather Gods continued to have a chuckle. This time, they plied us with scorching hot sunshine and gentle winds. One could only smile in reply. We drive around much of the Ring, throwing in the Gap of Dunloe and Kells Bay Gardens, which I would highly recommend, topping the night off with a great meal and trad session in John Benny’s pub in Dingle, with fabulous entertainment from Seamus Begley and a wonderful fiddle player whose name escapes me.
We also took the ferry out to the Blaskets to round off the trip, and the sun continued to beat down. The scenery is stunning; not for nothing the Dingle Peninsula and Slea Head with its views out over the Blaskets and the Skelligs was once described by the National Geographic Traveler as “the most beautiful place on earth.”
And as Saoirse would remind me at some point, ‘it’s not all about you, you know!’
She’s great like that. Keeps me grounded! So, here is a picture to finish off this epic journey. It’s my daughter who had her debs this week, with her brother.
What’s next for the Unironedman? No idea. Get the knee sorted anyway. And then hopefully hit the gym and pool, and get back out on the bike. There’s another adventure out there, without doubt. We’ll find it, don’t worry!
I am a very ordinary athlete. In fact, I am reluctant to even use the word athlete. I did two triathlons in 2014, two more in 2015, and now a long distance one. It’s proof that anyone can do this if you set your mind to it. The Hardman in Kerry is a cracking event which I would heartily recommend. The weather is always out of your control, and I had to luck out eventually with triathlons. I’ve only done a handful but up until now, I have always had the finest weather possible. I have been spoiled. But then if it wasn’t difficult, they couldn’t really call it a hardman, now, could they? Huge thanks to the team, including Alan, Hugh, Dan, Douglas, Aoife and Siobhan, though I know that leaves out loads more who helped out with the kayaks, marshaling on the course, manning the food and water stops on the Ring, the motorbike marshals who were fantastic and a great encouragement, all the young kids who helped out in T2, and everyone who gave us a shout out on the run course when spirits were willing but the flesh was weak. Thanks too to everyone who has been following this small journey with me online for your kind words and support. And most of all, thanks to my long-suffering family who have put up with my long absences, my aching bones and the plethora of stinky lycra I have deposited around the house over the last year or so as I have tried to train for this event with the vagaries of my work. Saoirse, Dallan and Tamsyn, you guys are the best, and I could not have done this without you. Whether you want him or not, you have your husband and father back again 😉
*Snot rockets is a phrase I picked up from an Irish blogger, and you can read the hilarious account here.