My phone beeped. I looked down to see a message from Johny, a friend and photographer who’d be joining my impending adventure on the Irish Coast. We were off to tackle Tuff-Inish, a 132 kilometre dogged affair comprised of running, cycling and kayaking along the Wild Atlantic Way.
Staring back from the screen was a photo of a man capitulating to the thrashing rain; the headline announcing the devastating arrival of Storm Callum over the coming days. Perfect. No better way to bring out my steely self than fiendish wind and torrential downpour, coupled with a frightening feat of endurance.
In contrast, departure day delivered nothing but calm as we waited to fly from Inverness airport. Taking off in our tiny plane towards Belfast, blue skies and bright sunshine waved us off across the Irish Sea. We both breathed a sigh of relief, happy we’d made it that far.
Coming in to land, the rays had been replaced with lashings of rain; a more telling tale of the following day’s forecast. As we made our way toward the Irish border, we soaked in the scenery, eventually arriving in Moville, the start and finish of this rapid-fire round of adventure sports. With close to 2,500 metres of upward struggle, I had just twelve hours to complete it.
As we arrived at race registration, I gulped at the sight of bulging transition boxes. Other competitors were loaded with enough gear to circumnavigate the globe, never mind Donegal. Johny helpfully reminded me to focus on my own event, to which we set about building my bike and proofing kit for the inevitable onslaught from the elements.
As it turned dark, the tiny gathering of competitors huddled together for race briefing, in mutual anticipation of what was to come. A close contingent, it wasn’t much time before I’d struck up animated conversation with others in the field. We shared stories of past races, wished each other the best of luck and questioned our sanity in significant measure.
I never sleep well before a race. My mind churns at a speed I only wish I could match on a bike, and so blearily I forced my way to the shower, jolting my body and mind into action. Donning my armour of waterproof kit, I shovelled in as much food as my nerves could manage before making it to the start line.
A blast of sea air and sideways rain welcomed us under the gantry; the neon green numbers from the timing clock lighting up our nervous faces.
With a steady start, the group soon spread out along the road towards the first transition. As I adjusted to the harsh impact of tarmac under my feet, dusk turned to daylight and the sea view – once crystal clear – was now a sullen fog clinging to the Causeway coast. I kept my legs turning lightly, pacing myself for a long, merciless day that was going to require formidable force against a darkening sky.
At Magilligan Port, familiar faces rushed to help and acquaint me with a paddle for the second leg. Weather reports in the previous days had me convinced this section would be cancelled, but the storm showed some solace as I placed my paddle in the water; making silent strokes within the sea. Landing on the opposite pier, I’d managed to pick up some places and was delighted to be back on familiar – and firm – ground.
As I pedalled off, I zipped my jacket tightly up to my neck, the rain starting to shows its strength as I rode off to face the unforgiving climbs ahead. Following the Wild Atlantic Way, it struck me how few people, if any, we saw. Lining the road instead were dozens of donkeys, horses and cattle – all peering curiously towards the fast, flashes of colour riding past at speed.
A slow, perpetual ascent lead us further along the Wild Atlantic Way. Harsh, exposed and unrelenting, it was worth every inch of suffering for the view that came into sight. At last it topped out – keenly followed by steep, slick turns linking the road back down towards the shore. As I turned towards to hills again, I caught sight of Johny snapping shots and capturing our struggle against the dramatic scenery.
At the half way stage, with close to 73 kilometres covered, a final lashing to our legs was delivered on the brutal ascent of Mamore Gap. Gritting teeth, I caught up with Martina who was just ahead. We picked possibly the toughest few metres to strike up conversation and edged each other forward towards the transition spot, cheers from her chirpy support crew shared with us both.
Retreating from the rain, I snuck into an open van door at the hike transition, taking a moment to peel off my soaking layers and sip a cup of hot, sweet tea. Biting faster than I could chew, I chomped on a bar that was fast disintegrating in my pocket, then marched off up towards the summit.
Winding our way up the rocky route lead by tiny yellow markers, the path soon turned to bog and rugged hillside. With heavy legs, I picked my way through ragged boulders toward the top; racers flashing past me on the downward slope. Soon I was doing the very same, whilst making sure to look up and take in the North Atlantic views.
Our final ride delivered a sting right from the start. We’d transitioned half way up the infamous ascent; forcing me to stand up on the pedals, grip the bars with soaking skin and grind my gears with gusto. Passing a curious white stone, I later found out it marked ‘The Magic Road’ – an optical illusion that appears to pull cars uphill in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, no amount of magic made it any easier, but the reward was soon to come. From the crest, a seemingly endless descent led us straight towards the sea and the bustle of town life for a brief moment. Not before long, the route wrapped around misty, moody moorland towards our final transition to the run.
Our ultimate leg was a bold half-marathon distance, a true test of grit and resilience. With trepidation, we were treated at first to trail; my preferred terrain when it comes to pounding out the miles. Grimacing, my tired legs began to revolt though once I hit the road. Reduced to walking pace and furiously counting the metres, it called for herculean strength of both mind and body.
Shuffling and aching after what felt like an age, I caught sight of Johny again, snapping my every discomfort and growing disdain for manmade surfaces. As the route took a turn, thankfully so too did the ground. I distracted myself from the pain by counting short steps, edging myself the last few kilometres on the road and ticking off the now familiar markers towards Moville.
As I turned the final corner and climbed the remaining, cruel few metres to the gantry, rapturous cheers spurred me to the finish line. At last I could stop. Pain was quickly replaced with weary satisfaction. Summoning a smile, I retreating into the warmth. Congratulations came from those who’d already finish, with offers of hot soup and steaming mugs of tea a welcome reward for my efforts.