Chasing the dragon

IN WHICH, AFTER MANY FALSE DAWNS, THE SUN FINALLY RISES ON GAELFORCE WEST TO REVEAL THE STUNNING SCENERY OF CONNEMARA, BUT IN SO DOING SETS ON BÚCÁN MOUNTAIN…

Lough Shindilla, Just after Maam Cross on the N59

There was a point during the first part of the race that I thought to myself ‘hey, this trail running stuff is fun, I really must do more of it’. A few hours later, I thought differently. And then later again, none of it really mattered too much. But as is the way with these posts, I am getting ahead of myself, so once more, I will take a deep breath, another swig of tea, and attempt to start this journey again, at a sensible place; at a reasonable pace.

GaelForce West has been on the Irish race calendar since 2006. It quickly gained a reputation as being one of the toughest one-day adventure races around. Having climbed Croagh Patrick years ago with Saoirse, I could see how that reputation was well-earned. Well, these last few years have been nothing if not odd, and the dreaded Covid has wreaked havoc on all walks of life, including sporting events. I can’t recall when I first booked GaelForce, but it was probably at the end of 2019 (when SARS-CoV-2 was still wandering around in the gizzard of a Pangolin). The June 2020 date was quickly swallowed in a tsunami of tissue, toilet roll and masks, and pushed out to September, only to be cancelled until the following June, and then finally, this September.

By this stage, work had begun on renovating some of the much-used paths on Croagh Patrick, and GaelForce again drew the short straw. The fabled mountain was out of bounds. A new route would be required. A final change to plans meant that Saoirse decided to stay at home, so on Friday morning, it was just me and a car full of gear that headed west once more, towards Killary Fjord. I was staying in the Delphi Adventure Resort which is a handy 20 minute drive from Killary and Leenane and the end point of the race. Lovely spot too, if you are ever looking for a base to explore the west.

The bike racks on the evening before the big day

A hotel stay on one’s own is a strange thing. I am not sure I’ve done it before, and I don’t think I’d fancy it again. After dinner and one sneaky pint of Guinness, I hit the hay early. And when I say early, I mean about 8 o’clock. The alarm was set for 5.15am but the good news was that I woke to double-check the time every other hour, and so I rose eventually about ten past five and needn’t have bothered setting it at all. Not that I would risk such a crazy manoeuvre…

GaelForce may have been postponed numerous times, but the they run a tight ship. Plenty of car parking in Leenane village, and coaches to the start line at Glassilaun. Lots of markers and marshals on the course too.

Fox Moth caterpillar (I think). This dude was at the start line

My cunning plan, way back in 2019, was to set out in the first wave which kicked off at 8am, and in so doing, free up the rest of the day for S and I to explore. Well, that was a moot point now, but here we were, after all those delays, and finally it was nearly time for the off. Just before the official start, a local lady appeared at the top of this lane and walked her dog over the start line, to the cheers of the assembled runners. And then, without any further fuss, we were off. The front-runners made good time up the hill and I stayed mid-pack.

A little shaky shot of the famine path to Killary

A few kilometres of paved road lulled me into a false sense of security, but the veterans knew better. Up ahead was about 10k of gnarly path. It was lumpy, bumpy and in some places, there was nothing to your left but a drop into the fjord below.

But without doubt it was spectacular. You just had to remember to watch your footing. I had toyed with the idea of trying to shoot the race on the GoPro but abandoned the idea before it had a chance to take hold. There is an old adage in the design industry (which is common to all businesses, no doubt) which goes like this:

Client to designer: “I’d like a job done, please…”
Designer: “Certainly, sir.”
Client: “I need an excellent job, and I need it fast, and I need it cheap…”
Designer: “Pick any two…”

And this came to mind as I tried not to pitch myself headlong into the sea. I had decided that, whilst a full-scale GoPro production was off the cards, I would still record a few clips of the day nonetheless. And as I took a few shaky mementos of the journey with my phone, I realised there were three options here too, as per above: run the race, enjoy the scenery, take good shots. But I would probably have to sacrifice one of those things…

The run continued, and the elasticity of pace (this is a term I just invented but you are free to use it) that you find in any long run means that eventually, those that are ahead tend to stay ahead, and those that are behind, stay behind. Look, it’s not rocket science, I know.

The rocky road finally led us to the shore of Killary Harbour, through the base of Killary Adventure Centre. There was a lovely aroma of wood smoke, and it brought me right back to the time when we did the Great Fjord Swim in 2018. The kayak phase of the race was quite short, and here was the first deviation from the original plan, which would have seen us cross the fjord and continue the run in a different county. Now we did a quick looped paddle and back to the same spot. It was two to a sit-upon kayak, and whilst I know Michael was the guy behind me, I never even glimpsed his face; I was in the front, and we just set out and got it done.

A short uphill run then followed to get us to the bikes. A marshal reckoned I was top thirty at this stage, though I suspect there more than that ahead. No matter. Bike was never my strong thing anyway, so I expected more to pass me on the 35k loop. Some of this stretch was familiar to me from the Connemara100 run, though it was quite different to be doing it at speeds of 30km/h. I felt the bike leg went well, and on the whole was pleased with progress. Now the real business was to begin.

Instead of Croagh Patrick, we were to tackle Búcán Mountain. At 550 metres, it’s no small beer. And unlike the tourist trap that is the sacred mountain of our patron saint, Búcán does not have any paths or tracks. It’s all springy grass or bog underfoot, with the occasional rocky outcrop. To reach it was a trek too, over very rough and boggy terrain, and yet more of that rough famine trackway. Then it was ‘right turn, Clyde’ and straight up the mountain. Any tentative plans I had at the outset that I was going to keep moving at a good lick to the top were dashed within a few paces. This was going to be a relentless slog. And the only consolation was that everyone else was in the same leaky boat. Somewhere up this climb I came to the realisation that whilst I had legs, I did not possess ‘mountain legs’. The mountain runners truly are a different breed. Us flat-earthers really haven’t a chance when the hills start a’ rollin’.

The pace, if that is the right word, plunged from the average slog along the paths to the base of the mountain into the teens, and then the twenties of minutes per kilometre. There was a false dawn when I reached what I had believed to be the top, but it was a saddle and a ridge to the actual ‘peak’, though in truth, it was just the highest point of boggy, soggy grass. But the view! The view! I did take a few clips of video but didn’t have the wit to take a still. Mind you, I earned this visual feast, and you didn’t, so perhaps it’s only right that some things are pay-per-view. In this case, payment is accepted in time, effort and much sweating and cursing. Around this point, I decided to re-christen the mountain Fúc Off.

This was not the end of the race, as we had to descend and cross the line, but it turned out tragically to be the end for one competitor. The downhill was very technical and difficult, and some runners seemed to slide down rather than run. My lower quads were kicking up quite a fuss. I made it to the finish line and collected my bag of stuff, and some well-earned soup and a roll. I sat outside in the sun with the other finishers and as I chatted to some of the other competitors, I realised something was not right. The mountain had been closed and all runners were now being diverted back to the finish. An ambulance arrived with a fire jeep. A helicopter flew over and made for the top of the mountain. News started to filter through that a man had taken ill. One or two had passed him and asked him if he was okay and he had said, yes, he was fine. I gather soon after he collapsed and suffered a heart attack. At that stage, those nearby stopped and some began CPR. The emergency action plan would have kicked in straightaway, and the man was taken to the nearest hospital. But sadly, he didn’t make it.

The mood at the finish line became quite sombre. I must have been ahead of Carl by minutes. He leaves behind a wife and four daughters. That he passed away doing something he clearly loved doing is of scant consolation, I am sure.

Before the news filtered through… It does rather look like the place is deserted, but there were hundreds of folk milling around behind me, and plenty still crossing the line

A quick cycle back to Leenane (to stretch the legs and pick up the car) and then back to the hotel for a bath in the peat-stained waters. Back into Leenane for lunch and catch the All-Ireland Final. The curse lives on for Mayo, beaten this year by Tyrone.

A pint of Beamish in Gaynors Pub where some of the ‘The Field’ was shot.

Dinner back at the hotel, and then yet another early night. It had been a long day, and a tiring one, but it had finished in a very sad fashion. I know people’s hearts give out. We attend enough cardiac arrests in our job. It’s part of what we do, but when you are working and are called to these events, you know what you are heading to. A very different prospect for those runners who reached the top of the mountain today only to find a fallen comrade and then try to get stuck in and offer as much help as possible. I hope they are okay too; that’s a tough place to be, and they will be briefly commended, no doubt, by the ambulance crew and other professionals, but then they will slip back quietly into the general hum of the day’s events, and back into their busy lives.

The following morning was bright and beautiful. Indeed, it often seems to be when some tragedy has struck. Maybe its the world’s way of saying ‘we move on’. Maybe that’s just some form of anthropomorphic, semiotic bullshit. Like coincidences. We only notice them when they are ‘coincidences’, and fail to see all the myriad times the coincidence never happens. I guess that’s what makes us human. We are always looking for signs.

I was awake far too early for my breakfast slot, so I took my good camera and slipped out to the Bundoragha River in front of the hotel. There was a gentle mist rising over the water, and the sun was peeking around the mountain tops. It was, by any measure, a beautiful morning. After breakfast and a detour to the spa for a whistle stop tour of the jacuzzi, steam room and sauna, plus a deluxe seaweed essence bath, I checked out and headed up to Doo Lough Valley and took some more photos. Along with a few from Sheeffry Pass, here are a collection of pics from the trip:

I suggest clicking on them to enlarge, as there are some nice pics there. The story of the Doo Lough Famine Tragedy is worth a read. Here is one great piece. The list of famous people who have commemorated this tragic event on the annual walk is quite something. 172 years. That’s how long ago it was. What would they have made of us all today, careering around the tracks and trails of north Galway, with no real purpose, other than to complete 60 kilometres, and drive home with a goodie bag, medal and shirt? Their walk was about 18k. They were starving. They were turned away, and had to try and walk the same route home. We set off with full bellies and GPS watches strapped to our wrists, and mobile phones stuffed in our pockets. We all carried enough sugary gels to drown a cat, and when we were done, we could relax in a hot bath and ponder what to eat from a list of options. Such opulence. But such is the world we have created.

I guess we’ll never know for sure. I have made the cinematic pitch in my mind, though. The scene is set. The wind sweeps down the valley and the family huddle around a poor turf fire. Outside in the gathering gloom, a triathlete has just passed through a magic portal and is transported into Famine-stricken Ireland of 1847. He knocks on the cottage door and is brought inside to share the meagre heat. Only the young daughter has enough English but she gamely translates the stilted conversation. ‘From the future, you say?’ says the old man. He motions to the bike outside, leaning under the sods and thatch. When it is finally explained how much the bike costs, no words are needed to explain that this would have fed the family for a year, comfortably. ‘Tell me more about your world,’ he asks. The lycra-clad man tries to describe the car. Then the mobile phone. He thinks about the Garmin and satellites, and realises there are no words for any of this in Irish. Maybe then the old boy would stare into the turf fire for what would seem like an eternity, and would suck on his pipe and then say to no-one in particular ‘sounds like a glorious life altogether… fair fucks to ye’. And the young girl would have stared at her feet, not sure whether to translate that last sentence. And we fade to black…

We return home to our families, and our loved ones ask about the day, and was it hard, climbing that mountain? Sure. It was hard. But was it hardship? Not on your life. Not in comparison to the folk who once trod these paths, and whose only reason to reach the top of Búcán in times past would have been to rescue a sheep. Maybe a little tinge of survivor’s guilt has crept in here, so I will change the subject. I’ll clumsily segue into something less maudlin with an artistic reference. Stand by.

Every new vista in Connemara is a Paul Henry painting. Indeed, that is something of a tautology, because he seems to have painted every possible landscape in Connemara in the 1920s. His style is instantly recognisable. Indeed, there is said to be a Paul Henry painted from Búcán Mountain. And having seen the view of Killary Fjord and Mweelrea in front of me that Saturday, I can see why anyone would wish to haul an easel up there.

A view of Croagh Patrick from Old Head beach near Louisburgh

I detoured via Clifden, and then headed home. The peaks of the Twelve Bens and the Maumturks slipped away in the rear view mirror, to be replaced by the flat tedium of east Galway. Over the Shannon, and back into Leinster, and the wide expanse of the Bog of Allen, once the peat powerhouse of the nation. Then home, and the ritual emptying of the car and sorting of detritus. Dirty clothes to the machine, rubbish to the bin, bike to the shed… a place for everything, and everything, more or less, in its place. Yet another bath and then a chance to unwind.

In time-honoured fashion, the top was laid out on the table complete with race number and medal. Again, the crew at GaelForce put on a great event. I would recommend any of their gigs. Though of course, Saturday’s race will be remembered by them for very different reasons than the normal ones.

According to the stats, I was 71st overall, and fifth in the over 50 category. The 13.5k trail run had taken 1:17, the kayak just over 8 minutes, the run back uphill to the bike about 7 minutes, and then the bike itself was about 1:23. The mountain added another 1:47. Here’s the route map from Garmin:

It was a memorable weekend, but clearly for the family, friends and colleagues of Carl, one that they will recall in a different way than the many race-goers who took part. There has been a massive outpouring of sorrow and condolences on social media, so clearly he has a much-loved man by all those who knew him.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h’anam dílis. You made it to the top.


12 thoughts on “Chasing the dragon

  1. An enthralling beginning but a sad end. Just reading this left me with a bunch of mixed emotions, so I’m sure had a major effect on all those involved in the race. Similar tragedies have happened twice in races I’ve been in, and really brings to the fore how temporary this whole shebang of life is.

    Anyway congrats on getting the race done, looks beautiful views with tough terrain. So what’s up next ?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve managed to write a post that is both uplifting and terribly sad 😔 It seems somehow callous to hit the “Like” button…

    Congratulations on a very successful personal Gaelforce. That really is a very beautiful part of the country, it’s a shame Saoirse couldn’t go and share it with you.

    My thoughts, this evening are with the friends and family of Carl. What terrible news to receive (and to give!). RIP 😔

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know what you mean. It wasn’t easy to write and I’m not sure I even have the right to publish it. But that’s part of the communal spirit of the thing, I guess. I’ve thought about it a lot since then. Thanks for your kind words. It is indeed a beautiful part of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. An epic post, filled with all the beauty and intensity of the extended anticipation, formidable challenge, extraordinary circumstances, triumphant finish, and unexpected tragedy of the event. Hearty congrats on the top-5 in your class finish. Heartfelt condolences to those closest to Carl and the entire running community. And big thanks for my new desktop background (cobweb).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. To be fair, I passed BY the Gaelforce route and spent most of my time hiking the Twelve Bens and around Ballynahinch Lake.
    I read that mourners were encouraged to wear casual, colorful clothing to Carl’s funeral. Well done … seems fitting.

    Liked by 1 person

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