It’s hard to believe that this time 2 months ago we were on our way over to Ireland for the start of the Race Around Ireland! Our journey started in less than auspicious circumstances with John managing to put a large dent into the van we’d hired to take the kit across! A slight hiccup at the ferry terminal and then some sat nav challenges meant that we all arrived in Trim at different times and in differing moods…. The Friday and Saturday were spent picking up the RV and ensuring that both that and our other two vehicles were packed and properly decked out with lights and signage for the race, shopping for groceries and getting the bikes ready. We sailed through Registration and Inspection thanks to the great preparation work done by Kyle.
The Race Launch on the Saturday night was a good chance to meet fellow racers and their teams but also brought it home to me the somewhat illustrious company I was in – people who had not only done Ireland, but also won RAAM! Dani Genovesi was the only other woman racing. She was fresh from a victory in Italy and won RAAM in 2009. I felt privileged to be sharing the tarmac with her but knew that I wouldn’t be offering her competition, barring a catastrophe on her part. Luckily she had good luck and good legs and went on to win the women’s race and set a record which will take some beating.
The race started at 3pm on the Sunday afternoon. We were blessed with good weather as we lined up with our Follow Vehicles. Kyle and Adrian were on point for the first stint in the Follow Car. I managed not to do anything daft like fall off on the start ramp and after my start line interview I headed off for a 4 hour stretch on the Argon. It was a pleasant evening and a nice atmosphere for the early stages as the teams and other solo riders gradually came past with their vehicles. I was riding well and felt strong going up the first climb.
As we headed into the night, my stomach started cramping – a problem which was to plague me for the next 36 hours. Whilst not disastrous, it meant that I was struggling to eat my required nutrition and having to stop more frequently for the loo which cost us time. We found novel ways to get the calories in – liquorice was a favourite and custard also helped! Toast also played a big part on the menu, much to Zoe’s amusement!
On the first night as we headed past Coleraine, the crew took it in turns to have a shower and a good breakfast with Martin and Tracy Barnett, friends who live in Castle Rock and who had hosted one of my training weekends. It was great to have their support and a little respite for the crew.
I took my first break around 4am and had a 25min nap, before heading off around Malin Head. Thankfully this wasn’t as windy as the last time I rode it, but it was just as beautiful although a stiff cycle to get there. The afternoon saw me riding up the Gap of Mamore – at 25% and 2km it’s the toughest climb on the course. I had another nap before conquering this to ensure I was fresh and then headed out with John and Adey behind me to get it done. It hurt…. but less than it had done in training and for me definitely vindicated the hours of strength endurance work I’ve done under my coach Nick Thomas.
I had my first proper sleep on the second night, a 90minute cycle as recommended by my Sleep Coach Nick Littlehales. This was in the back of the car on the airbed, with the pack-a-shack up as we’d tested. It worked as planned and I slept well, although luckily I set my own alarm as the crew had all gone to sleep as well… and not just those that were supposed to be asleep! Those that were on duty swung into action and we were soon back on the road. The stomach cramps were impeding progress and the nausea came and went which was frustrating but the crew kept me on the road and fuelled with the obligatory toast, porridge and scrambled eggs. I normally use Torq energy bars when riding and this had been my plan but I found it easier to take in their energy gels and these gave me the carbs needed to keep going. I was still climbing well which was just as well as the Sheefry Pass was a cheeky climb!
I had another nap in the afternoon as we headed through County Galway and the wild bogs of Connemara. The scenery for the whole race was stunning but at this point as we headed into Tuesday evening, I began to realise that the pain I was getting in my neck was not only getting more intense but that it was also beginning to affect my ability to raise my head. Around me, the crew were now in full “race mode”. They’d changed their schedule to ensure that they were getting enough rest and better able to support me. The bikes were getting more TLC than ever thanks to Adrian and Zoe was ensuring that not only my nutritional needs were being met but also keeping my body mobilised after my naps. Adey was on top of the kit situation and he and John were ensuring that the RV was where it needed to be. Kyle and John were just keeping everything running and I was impressed not only with the crew’s performance but also with the fact that I didn’t hear a cross word the whole time we were out there.
That night we headed over the Cliffs of Moher to Spanish Point. I had my first full on “falling asleep on the bike” moment and veered across the road in front of the Follow Car, much to their alarm. We discussed a sleep stop but I had well and truly scared myself awake so we settled for continuing with Adey doing a sterling job of talking to me and keeping me awake. My stomach had settled (possibly thanks to some Imodium) but the neck was becoming more problematic. I had a couple of neck braces in the first aid kit, but whilst these are find standing, they don’t give you the necessary neck extension when cycling.
By Wednesday morning it had become painfully obvious to me that my race was over. I was unable to lift my head to see the road in front when in a normal position on the bike and the spasms in my neck muscles were so severe that I was struggling to breathe. Adey and Kyle had done a great job trying to devise a mechanical solution out of my heart rate monitor strap (elasticated) and Kyle’s belt, but nothing was able to provide me with a sustainable solution.
We re-grouped on the tarmac outside Fanny O’Shea’s pub. The landlord came to investigate and brought us tea, scones and fruit bread which was very welcome and was a superb demonstration of the friendliness surrounding the whole race. Zoe worked hard on my neck and liaised with Andy, her boss back at Reflex Chiropractic, to see if there was anything else she could do. Adrian flipped my handlebars and stem to give me more height and I went for a short ride with John in the car behind to see if this would at least get us to Limerick. It seemed better so we got on with the race again, but a couple of miles down the road the pain was back. I was halfway into the race, but with over 600 hard miles to do with lots of technical descents that would need me to be on the top of my game, I called in to Race HQ just after the halfway point to announce my retirement from the race due to Shermers Neck. Two other racers dropped out of the race with the same condition, which whilst gutting for them was a little consolation for me that I wasn’t the only one succumbing to this bizarre condition. Anyone who has read or watched anything about RAAM is familiar with Shermer’s Neck. It’s a condition named after Michael Shermer, one of the founders of RAAM who suffered catastrophic failure of his neck muscles in the race in 1983. In cycling, you are bent over with your head extended, putting huge strain on the muscles at both the front and the back of your neck which aren’t meant to work hard in this position for so long. If you’re unlucky, they spasm and then fatigue spectacularly. It usually takes rides over 300 miles for it to manifest itself and once it’s happened you’re in big trouble as I found out.
The Crew had done all they could to get me through it, including greeting me in fancy dress at the halfway point. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. We headed to Limerick for a much needed lunch, then back to Race HQ to hand back our GPS tracker and catch up with the brilliant staff there. I’ve never been involved in a more friendly event – so well organised and you really do feel part of the family.
A few may question me choosing a race of this magnitude as my intro into true ultra racing but although I didn’t finish, the result in some ways vindicates the decision. I’m frustrated as there was so much more in my legs but had I done a shorter race, I wouldn’t have Shermers and it would still be out there, lurking as a risk for RAW and RAAM. We proved our preparation in getting to the start line and learned SOOOO much out on the road that we wouldn’t have learned in an easier race. You also learn far more from things going wrong than you do from them going right. Whilst the Crew got themselves into the swing of things on Monday, it was Tuesday night and Wednesday that they went from great to awesome. It’s for them that I’m most disappointed.
Nick Thomas – I gave you a year to get me in shape for this. I trusted your plan (evil though it was) and you got me to the start line in great shape. I have every confidence that the legs would have delivered me to the end given the chance.
Moose, Fletch, Zoe and Adrian – I’m gutted that I couldn’t do more to reflect your efforts. You all stepped up to the challenge and did both me and yourselves proud. Driving, navigating, keeping the bikes going, keeping me awake, fed, on the road and safe – you all pulled together and I don’t think I heard one cross word, just a lot of laughter. It was a pleasure and a privilege to share this with you.
Mummy and Daddy – thank you once again for trudging around the country after me. I’m sorry you didn’t get to see the southern half of Ireland! Your support both directly to me and indirectly to the crew were invaluable.
Kyle – I asked you to be my Crew Chief and you stepped up. Registration and Inspection spoke for themselves. Above all, thank you for putting up with me as a wife, let alone as a racer. I wouldn’t have got anywhere close to this without you and neither would I want to.
Preparation for the Race Across the West starts now!