I think as race titles go, the Great Fjord Swim beats ’em all. It’s a swim. In a fjord. And it’s great. I’ve only done it twice, but I would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes a splash in the sea surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery in the world. What’s not to love?
[As for the other debate – is Killary Harbour Ireland’s only fjord? A fjord is a drowned glacial, U-shaped valley, typified by steep cliffs plunging into the sea. Think Norway. What about Lough Swilly and Carlingford Lough? Well, possibly sea inlets, more than fjords. The good folk of Killary certainly like to think theirs is the only true fjord in the country, and good luck to them. At least it’s not as savage as the ‘who has the highest sea cliffs’ argument. Don’t let’s get started on that one…]
Anyway, that’s where we were this weekend just gone. The fjord is 16 kilometres long, but I only had to swim about four of them; two out and two back. The official course was 3.9, but nobody had that on their watch when they checked after the event. As I am not really an open water swimmer, I don’t have such a device. Nor do I have one of those wonderful robes that real swimmers possess. Nor the sense to wear flip-flops down to the start line at the beach. It was 2014 when I did the 2k swim there, and obviously in the intervening years I had forgotten how unbelievably tricky the beach is to negotiate. Not sure why; it looks reasonably innocuous with sand, gravel, pebble and stones, but one or two steps in and you are wincing and prancing about like a cat who doesn’t want to get its paws wet. I can still feel the dull ache in my right arch from one nasty stone.
We had traveled down on the Friday afternoon. It’s a long spin for us. A good 250 plus kilometres. But once you get past Galway, the drive just gets better and better. Moycullen and then Oughterard, with glimpses of Lough Corrib to your right, and then the Maumturk Mountains begin to appear on the horizon, followed by the Twelve Bens.
A right turn at Maam Cross brings you on one of the best drives in the country; a match for the Inagh Valley and Sky Road, which are also a stone’s throw from here, in fairness. Little wonder film director John Ford shot a lot of The Quiet Man here. Before you know it, the road drops down into Killary Harbour and the small village of Leenane. We stayed in the local hotel this time around. It’s only a couple of miles away from the race start at Killary Adventure Centre, where Gaelforce has its HQ.
We had an early start which meant we (sort of) skipped breakfast. In reality, we had brought some food with us to our room so had a quick snack around seven am, then ran into the breakfast bar and made a quick ham and cheese sandwich and ate that on the way up to the centre to register. Then it was the wander down to the beach and into the tents to change. The heaters were blowing out some serious energy which was just as well; it was fairly nippy down by the sea with the sun still to make an appearance from behind the mountains above us. I changed beside Ray, who is a seasoned swimmer and regularly takes the plunge at Clogher Head in Louth, and also helps arrange the Boyne Swim, which is one I must do one day. Greetings, Ray, if you happen to be reading this.
Once out of the tent, the pool of swimmers (for what other collective noun could there be for swimmers but a pool?) all blended into one amorphous blob of neoprene and blue latex. This blob slowly crabbed towards the sea’s edge and introduced some of its many toes into the water. Yep. Cold. And there were some ‘skins’ there too; swimmers who eschew the wetsuits for the real immersive experience.
The mandatory PA sysyem was thumping out Bon Jovi and The Killers, but the last song I recall hearing was I Want You Back by the Jackson 5. As tunes go, not a bad ear worm to take with you into the deep, I guess.
I made sure to hunker down, and splash some water around my neck and face, and do the old spit routine for the goggles. I was well-lubed up with Glide – no way was I going to repeat the amateur mistake from 2014 when my shortie wetsuit all but sawed my head off.
The route was, well, not hugely clear. There were buoys out there alright. Probably too many. We were to follow the red ones in an arc that curved out into the fjord, and gradually turned anti-clockwise. Somewhere out there was a green buoy, and that was our mark to turn for home. As someone with red/green colour blindness, this was not the best news I’d had all morning. But also confusing was how to navigate home.
‘Just keep the buoys on your left going out, and on your left coming home’ was the simple and sage advice. Splendid. Well that’s settled then. Of course, when you are swimming in open water, the one thing you don’t do well is swim in an arc, so I, like several others, wandered off course to the right on the way out, and to the right on my return.
The first wave (those planning on winning this thing) set off briskly, and then the rest of us sort of, well, just followed on behind. Even though we were all chip-timed (cunnily concealed in your swim hat), the gun marked not just the start of the race, but the clock, so dawdling on the beach was just eating up seconds and possibly even minutes of time.
As I got my head down and started to stroke out into the open water, I had time to reflect on this wonderful decision to do the long option. As I have said elsewhere in this blog, I have a stubborn streak which is rather wide. Saoirse had wisely opted, and trained for, the 750m. I, on the other hand, had done less swimming, and certainly not enough to justify going for what would be over 4k of open water sea swimming. But sure there ya go. I did even wonder, within the first five minutes or so, as the body tried to come to terms with being immersed face-first into the Atlantic, whether or not I would even complete the task. My mind went back to the 2014 swim. That had felt long. In fairness, I had only really started swimming again that year, so once more, a fine example of my rash behaviour. And here I was again, repeating the same madness.
Hey, ho, but when you’re out there swimming, there’s nothing for it but to keep going. The other option is roll onto your back and raise your fist in the air and wait to be rescued. And it seemed like a long way to go to do that, so I stayed the course.
At one point, a female swimmer did actually swim over me. This is one of those things they warn you about in triathlon; a sort of ‘ten terrible things that can happen to YOU in your first triathlon!’ article that the internet likes to throw up like possetted milk. Well, as it turns out, having a woman crawl up your back, clad in slippery neoprene is not nearly as exciting as it sounds. There was no dinner, no movie, and once she had made her point (I was in her way), she was gone. I didn’t get the reg. But it wasn’t a problem really. (Nor is peeing in your wetsuit, by the way. In fact, when in the Atlantic, I suspect it’s unavoidable and usually welcome…)
Red buoys came and went, and I tried to swim in this gentle arc that was required in order to avoid a scolding from the kayakers. Finally, the bright green buoy appeared, and I could see I wasn’t going to have an issue with my colour-blindness. This thing was green in the way the Incredible Hulk is green. Or Kermit the Frog. Or a green salad, or perhaps even a… (‘get on with it!’ ed.)
Anyway, it was green, and it was only as I turned did I realise that there was indeed a tow on the water. We were catching the last of the incoming tide, so in theory, the swim home should be a little easier. In theory. The issues with going off-piste were the same as the outward journey, but now we had another thing to contend with: the sun had now crested the mountain tops and was now peering down on some of its many, tiny subjects as they threw themselves at the mercy of the sea. It was a re-run of one of Aesop’s Fables, where in this case, the sea and the sun fight it out to see who can be the most annoying element. Sighting was all but impossible and I did veer of course before a kayaker gently nudged me away from the mussel lines and back to the buoys. We all ploughed on, all trying to find our own lines, and a little space, and hopefully something in the distance that resembled home.
As it turned out, vague shapes and lines turned into boats hauled up on to the shore, and the changing room tents, and perhaps the best one of all, the thin smudge of smoke from the log fire that was lit on the beach near the finish. The shapes came into focus, but as is the way with open water, they seem to stay out of reach for some considerable time. My hands were cold. So cold that I couldn’t keep my fingers together which was slowing down progress a little. But eventually the dark depths beneath began to lighten up, and the sea bed seemed to welcome us all home. Before long, it became too shallow to swim, and it was time to find out just how good your sea legs were after spending an hour and a half in the horizontal. Shaky enough, it turns out, but after a few head staggers, it was up the mat and under the finish in about 1.32. I say under and not over, as the finish banner was overhead, as was the device for reading the finish chip in your hat.
A few quick words with S, and then into the tent to warm up and change. A few souls had clearly not had a good day, as they were wrapped up in foil and wool blankets and were placed in front of the blow heaters, with a few medics gathered around. They must have been plucked from the sea. No harm, because it’s a wise thing to get out of the water if things are not going your way, and not all of us are blessed with such wisdom.
Between the 3.9k, the 2k and the 750m, over 750 souls braved the fjord, and no-one came a serious cropper. S did her thing in the 750m while I gently roasted my cooling body by the open fire back on the beach. Once S had warmed herself with some hot soup, we made our way back up to the centre. As we handed our hired tow floats back to the event crew, one of the ladies reminded me that the prize-giving would be taking place shortly, upstairs. I smiled and said I wasn’t really in line for a prize, but did suggest that just being here in the first place was reward enough. Yeah, I know. What an insufferable lick!
We had already checked out of the Leenane Hotel, so we headed into the village and found a lovely coffee shop and devoured hot chocolate and chocolate fudge cake. The weather was taking a turn, so we headed on to our next hotel, the Delphi Adventure Resort. This is new on my radar, and it’s a great spot. Obviously it’s built with adventure in mind, so no doubt it’s buzzing in Summer. For us, it was perfect. The room was wonderful, and I took a wander around the grounds before we availed of the spa, and had a fantastic meal in the restaurant. The rain had cleared for a spell, and the last of the evening sun was catching the mountains. There can be no better stage for the play of light between sun and cloud than the ranges of Connemara.
It was a wild morning, but we fortified ourselves with a great breakfast before setting out for Clifden to meet up with some old art college friends of mine who run an art gallery. We took the Inagh Valley route, though we may as well have been in a submarine. The rain was coming down in biblical proportions, and the locals had packed up the scenery for safekeeping.
We met our friends and swapped stories over tea and cake, and then headed for home, but not before one last stop off in Oughterard for a rendezvous with a couple we’ve known for years who have recently started a small business making natural skin and body care products. See here for the full range.
And then it really was time to head back east. It had been a long weekend, and a tiring but very enjoyable one. The folks at Gael Force put on a great gig. It’s well organised but relaxed in equal measure. No doubt they carry that ethos into their other events.
Of course, all this gallivanting around Connemara was wonderful but it did mean sacrificing some running. This weekend should have been the last hurrah in terms of long runs; 32k on the Sunday, for starters. Not to mention the missed runs on Friday and Saturday. But that’s okay. We’re back on track now, and there are over a couple of weeks left. There is the taper to consider, but overall, I think we’re in okay shape.
Mark is flying. He didn’t skip a beat over the weekend and got all his runs ticked off. Not that I like to predict anything, but I suspect he’s going to be solid in the marathon, and will get in under four hours, which will be impressive for a first attempt. All I can do is hang on to his coat-tails.
The plan for next year is beginning to form. I was looking at doing one big ‘thing’ in 2019. Perhaps even one last big thing. Not that I would be hanging up my boots or anything like that, but just one last big ‘hurrah’ before my weary bones can’t manage any more of the madness. I was looking at a coast-to-coast multi-event race, or another similar gig up in Donegal, but the one that has won out is the Connemara 100.
It’s a one hundred mile run around Connemara, with a 30 hour cut-off. You must have a support crew with you at all times, and there are few aid stations. It’s a rough figure-of-eight course amongst some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere, though with the fickle weather in this country – and especially out west – you really can (and should) expect all five seasons in one day. I say five, as the west of Ireland has probably invented some types of weather that don’t really fit into any of the traditional seasons. The course will test every physical and mental part of your body, and I expect to be stripped to the core and rebuilt by the time it’s over.
That’s assuming I finish, of course. The attrition rate is quite high.
I’m not sure I have any right to be doing this event, but I have often pondered, when out running, just how far could you go if you just set out one day with all the time in the world, and just ran, and kept going until you could go no further. I suppose I might just find out next August.
I’m trying to find some comfort in the fact that the average walking pace for an average bod is about 3.1 miles per hour. So if you took the maximum allowed cut-off allowance of thirty hours, you could cover just over 90 miles, allowing for toilet breaks and food. Not quite 100 miles, but close. All you need to do is jog very slowly and you’ll make up the difference. And as any ultra-runner already knows, walking is very much a part of the gig, as is eating.
So that’s the spark that is dancing around inside my head at the moment. I’ve been reading race reports from this event, and have been in touch with one or two successful competitors who have been very generous with their time, proving what they say about the ultra community. There will be a learning curve, but every day is a learning day. Or at very least, we should strive to make it so.
As I’ve said before in this blog, it’s a privilege to be able to do these things at all. There are many who simply don’t have the luxury of spare time, or money, to spend on events such as marathons or triathlons. Indeed, there are probably tens of thousands of folk who will be forced to walk many hundreds of miles just to stay alive next year, without the promise of a hot meal and a warm bed at the end of their journey.
And I will bear that in mind as I prepare for this next epic adventure.