What follows is a piece that Charlie produced for 220 in October 2014 from the Killarney Adventure Race that captured the wit, self-deprecation and sense of adventure of the man. “I raced for the beauty, the pain and the glory of finishing,” said Charlie of his Irish experience…
I’m a sports/adventure journalist/charlatan, who’s been royally battered into submission by numerous ultras and marathons, and has dipped my hobbit-like toes into a handful of sportives, duathlons and obstacle races. I’ve also entered the 350km Mark Webber Challenge in Australia, where I was unlucky enough to get a leech on my eyelid and a kayak partner built like Ghandi.
Training-wise, I’d been in ultra-snail mode over the summer, so I hauled my carcass over a hilly 18-mile run along the Jurassic Coast five days before the Adventure Race (7km run/35km bike/1.5km kayak/9km run/6km bike). On the bike, I only had time to murder my quads on a series of hill repeats up a 17% ramp, so I was worried there was a somewhat soft belly to my bike endurance. The kayaking, meanwhile, looks short enough to wing it.
My pre-race thoughts were the usual range of miracle middle-aged glory and not curling up into the foetal position on the first hill with cartilage problems. I settle on surviving unbowed and unbloodied in what is likely to be good ol’ Irish weather, descending the wet roads and rocks like a lily-livered toddler, and then taking off towards the end like a freed lifer with a day pass to the Playboy Mansion, hopefully burning an unstoppable furrow into the front-end of the field.
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Race and craic
After a delayed flight and a windy bus journey, I join a crew of motley adventure hacks in Killarney and go straight to dinner, where every dignitary from adventure sponsor Helly Hansen to the Mayor of Killarney says a few encouraging words. After an early hotel breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, tea and pineapple, I arrive at the race start alongside 1,800 or so others for what’s billed as the largest adventure race on record. There’s a festival feel, yet everyone seems intent on pushing themselves – a good balance between race and craic.
The first 7km run section up Strickeen Mountain is like swimming in a crowded shoal of kindergarten fish. Many go off too fast with adrenalin and then slow to a walk just in front of me. The loose rocks and mud on the way down are treacherous and I slow down after skating on a bit of slate and nearly poleaxing myself, while a few brave fell-hardy descenders come past at breakneck speed. But my old legs are starting to crank up.
I slip into the toe clips for the 35km bike, but cackhandedly screw up the gears and veer across the road into a horse and cart. I seem to have invaded a Caffrey’s advert. The Irish pony then nuzzles my helmet as another guy swerves and loses his shades in a muddy puddle. The sun peeps out as I slurp up a couple of chia seed gels like a desperate toad, and start the ascent to the Gap of Dunloe. It’s a gradual few kilometres, then pow! There’s a steep ramp ahead and I see riders getting off their bikes as I disdainfully weave past them out of the saddle on the 15% climb, soon regretting my bravado as I cling on to the top round the last few bends.
But over the next climb and on over the panoramic Moll’s Gap, I shrink in stature whenever we go down. It’s wet, the road surface is sketchy and there are tight hairpins. My hire bike brakes squeak as I bottle every corner like a petrified mouse while other bikers, free from hang ups, ride free, and I have to wait to catch them on the flats like a pesky fly. Getting off the bike, I find it hard to re-enter the lactic atmosphere of run from bike, but I make it through the short trot to Lake Muckross and wade in up to my shorts.
The spirit remains
The 1.5km kayak is so short I almost think I must’ve cheated, but my pairing with a top French adventure racer means we pick off seven other kayaks. As I start the final run, I start to believe. I pick up my pace to a speedy lumber on the 9km hill up past Torc Waterfall to Barr na Currane. I’m in the zone now, albeit a lowly one, and I really let go on the descent to the final bike. I’m ready to hammer the pedals on the flat tarmac to Killarney, only skidding for one moment to stop my race being derailed by a ponderous terrier.
I finish and realise that, for the distance, it’s a killer on the bike and on foot, but it’s a seminal, ramshackle race experience. I did plough a furrow into the front of the field (97 of 654, in under 4hrs) and drank enough Guinness to ensure the bus journey to Cork on the Sunday was a more bruising experience than the race itself. Next for me is a more leisurely gastronomic road bike tour in Spain and more ultra-snailing towards 100 milers. But the spirit of Killarney will remain.