After the last time, I promised myself I would train for my next event, I even picked a goal event (Ecotrail 80km) and a follow up to complete while fit (Quest Killarney) to have as a carrot to train for.
Didn’t happen as you may well know.
Team Adventure Life:
My story begins the day after Expedition Africa when my teammate Damon asks if I’m interested in doing Expedition India. Hmmm I shrug, India. When I think of India, I think of the slums, congested roads, pollution. What would make me want to do an adventure race there, I ask myself?
But the seed is planted and over the summer an onslaught of images on social media show that India is a treasure trove of majestic landscapes. Still I’m not convinced. My sister Claire is visiting from Australia in September and I have The Beast in Donegal in August and I’m still tired after Exp Africa. And then on the 28th June I’m on facebook and a post pops up looking for two team members to join Team Adventure Life. Oooh, there’s a conflict raging in my mind for well, maybe a minute and then I’m tapping out a message of interest with a short resume and before I can catch my breath to question my audacity, I’m signed up and on my way to India. The team is assembled from all around the world. Jay in New Zealand, Mike in Switzerland, Zane from South Africa and me from Ireland and Kirsten our media guru. Communications consist of one skype video call and a lot of whatsapp messages. I’m happy though that we all seem to be on the same page as regards our ambitions and race outlook and as the race approaches I get more and more excited until finally my bike is in it’s box and all the bags are packed and I’m on my way to the airport for an early morning flight to India via Istanbul.
Monday, September 11th.
Delhi and Agra
Heidi and Stephan, the race organisers, promised that Expedition India would be an adventure from the moment we arrived in Delhi and this certainly proved to be no exaggeration. My flight landed at 04:30. Jay, Mike and I had arranged to join a bus tour to the Taj Mahal at 06:30. Zane would unfortunately be arriving too late so he was going to have to look after himself for the day. Terence, Adventure Life’s CEO and the event photographer, was deported a couple of days before we arrived because his visa was not in order so queuing up at the immigration desks, I was a bit anxious that I had the right forms printed out. I joined the wrong queue first of all. It’s a bit confusing and there’s nobody to give you direction and then when I was in the right queue, it was only by chance that I realised I had to fill out another form before I reached the desk. The line was moving really slowly and it took at least an hour before I was through. I couldn’t get the wifi to work, I had my bike box and two bags and I wasn’t too sure how I was going to find anybody so it was a great relief when I walked through the arrivals door and heard Jay calling my name. He had arrived an hour earlier and was waiting for me with Jose, one of the volunteers. There was some panic that we were going to miss the bus to the Taj Mahal that was collecting us at the Centaur hotel so with no time for niceties, we were quickly bundled onto the shuttle bus with our bikes and away we went.
The first thing I noticed in Delhi was how warm and muggy it was. Monsoon season was here but the rain was in short supply and the humidity made the air heavy and oppressive. The next was the traffic and the endless cacophony of car horns. Over eight million cars – more than in India’s three other major cities combined – jostle for space on Delhi’s roads. Impatient drivers use all available lane space and instead of slowing down when turning or approaching another vehicle, drivers blast their horns to warn others of their presence. They also honk violently at motorbikes, scooters, pedestrians, children, dogs, cows and anyone else unfortunate enough to be slower than them. The noise pollution is overwhelming!
Jay and I met Mike, who had arrived a day earlier, in the foyer of the Centaur hotel and also Murray from team BSB rangers and having left our bikes and bags in a safe corner of the hotel we were soon on the bus with mostly race volunteers to the Taj Mahal. The bus journey to Agra took about 3 hours. It didn’t seem that long. I think I must have slept ! The Taj Mahal is magnificent. So perfectly symmetrical and intricately carved, it’s hard to comprehend that it ‘only’ took 22 years to finish. As with most things in India though, the beauty and grandeur of the Taj Mahal contrasts sharply with the lack of sanitation outside the palace, the fetid smell that hangs in the air in places and the multitude of beggars and cripples who line the streets of Agra. We also visited the Agra fort and a workshop to see how the precious stones are carved followed by lunch and the bus ride back to Delhi. To avoid the infamous Delhi Belly we only drank bottled water.
The Taj Mahal
Photo: Terence Vrugtman
Outside Agra Fort
When we arrived back at the Centaur hotel, we caught up with Zane and Team Adventure Life was finally complete!! Tomorrow we were flying 650 km to Srinagar so we had to put stickers on our bike boxes and sort out our flights. Jay was on an early morning flight with the rest of the team a bit later and when we left for our own hotel it still wasn’t entirely clear what was happening to the bike boxes ….
Tuesday, September 12th.
Srinagar, Dal Lake
We woke a couple of hours before we were due at the airport. Jay was gone. Then we got a message that 3 of our bikes were still at the Centaur hotel and needed to be at the airport. Following a speedy breakfast with a very nice cup of tea and an even speedier checkout, we grabbed a taxi from outside the hotel, strapped Mike’s bike box to the top and did the customary negotiations for the fee. When we got to the Centaur hotel our bikes and Murray’s were the last ones there so we loaded them on top of two taxis and drove the short distance to the airport. There was lots of confusion at the check in desk because all the bikes had to be weighed and the excess charges paid for and then the bikes had to be taken to the oversize luggage. By the time all this was done our flight was nearly ready to leave and it was a mad rush through security where I lost Mike and Zane because I had to go through the women’s section and I didn’t have my boarding pass so the guard made me go back out and get it from my bag which was waiting to go through the scanner which was the other side of a barrier and it took me ages. So when I was done I couldn’t see Mike or Zane and I just sprinted to the plane but I got there before them because I was in my seat when they got on the plane looking for me! After an hour or so we arrived in Srinagar airport. It’s a military airport with lots of soldiers and guns and photography is strictly prohibited. We had to fill in more forms, load the bike boxes onto a big lorry and then clamber onto the buses which would take us to Dal Lake. During colonial times the English were not allowed to buy land so they bought boats to holiday in and these house boats would be where we would sleep for the night.
Our house boat
House boats with the Shikara boats in the foreground
We were taken across the lake to our house boat that we were sharing with the French team, Vaucluse Aventures Evasions, in the local Shikara boats. Very cool
After some tea and eggs and another boat trip around the lake to see the lotus flowers we had to get ready for the official opening ceremony which was a very prestigious event with the Minister of Tourism for the area and the CEO of J&K Bank in attendance. There was also a performance by some local Kashmiri musicians which was a big hit with the teams
Wednesday, September 13th.
Leg 1: Dal Lake prologue
We woke early (5 a.m) as we had arranged for one of the Shikara boats to take us via the water canals to the local vegetable market. It was a bit of a drag getting up so early but well worth the trouble. We bought tea and spices and chocolate from the very entertaining and persistent salesmen who would pitch up in their boats next to us.
Then it was back to the houseboat for breakfast of eggs and toast and a trip back across the lake for the short uphill hike to the Shankaracharya Temple. The temple is at a height of 300m and overlooks the city of Srinagar. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva and parts of it date from 200BC. To enter the top temple, we had to remove our shoes and then we were given a blessing from the temple priest. No photography was allowed.
The start of the prologue was in the large parking lot down the hill from the temple. Teams gathered here in front of the starting arch with some enthusiastic soldiers who were very keen to be seen posing nonchalantly with their guns in the photographs. After the countdown we ran downhill over trails and rocks and in our case through someone’s house for about 2km until we reached the edge of the lake where we could collect our Shikara boat. Each boat had a local child in front carrying our flag and the owners of the boat also came along for the ride. We had a map and two checkpoints to collect.
Padding the Shikara boat
Photo: Terence Vrugtman
The paddles were large and wooden with a heart shaped blade and the main issue we had was trying to keep the boat straight. Thankfully we didn’t have too far to go and we finished in a fairly respectable 9th position.
After devouring our lunch boxes, we returned to the houseboats and got ready for the 3 hour bus trip to Sonamarg.
Sonamarg, meaning “Meadow of Gold” is a sixty mile long valley and deep rock gorge, home to open grassy meadow land and village dotted slopes.
View from the Snowland Hotel, Sonamarg
Photo: Zane Schmahl
In its vicinity lies the great Himalayan glaciers of Kashmir Valley, Kolhoi Glacier and Machoi Glacier with some peaks over 5000m. The town itself is at an altitude of 2800m and is abandoned in winter due to heavy snowfall and avalanches. When we arrived we were treated to Kashmir tea on the lawn and then we decided to walk into the town to buy some supplies for the hike in the morning. On our way we saw some locals playing cricket so the lads decided to ask if they could join in. We were warmly welcomed and it was just such a cool thing to do. I would have liked to play but alas my hand eye co-ordination is dismal so I had to content myself taking photos!
The cricket field
Thursday, September 14th
Leg 2: Hike to glacier ~ 29km
Another early morning start for Leg 2 of the race. The teams who finished highest ranked in Leg 1 and 2 would start the rafting paddle first. The air was noticeably thinner in Sonamarg especially on the short uphill hike to the start.
At the start of the hike
Photo: Terence Vrugtman
We set off at a controlled pace. There was so much to see and the landscape was truly breathtaking. We passed villages, herders with their large flocks of sheep and ponies, which were being used to transport goods from one end of the valley to the other and military personnel doing their drills.
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
Photo: Terence Vrugtman
On one river crossing I slipped on a wet rock and gashed my knee and ankle and earned the dubious distinction of being the first to end up on the floor. It was a really enjoyable hike but quite long. The lead teams passed us on their way back from the cp and they all said the same thing. ‘It’s longer than you think’. The distance didn’t bother us too much though
as we weren’t racing it and the terrain was constantly changing so we never got bored.
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
Photo: Craig Giese
And there was also a really fun downhill section in the woods which we skidded down on our backsides!
Photo: Zane Schmahl
Photo: Zane Schmahl
We were the last team to reach the CP @ ~ 3500m and when we got there we sat and had samosas that we’d bought in Sonamarg. I think Jay was fairly ok on the hike to the CP but on the way back he got bad altitude sickness. We had to drop the pace completely and Jay puked his guts up about three times. One of the dogs that was herding sheep had an early supper as he was passing!
As well as puking violently, Jay had a headache, very little energy and was unsteady on his feet so progress down the mountain was slow. He did improve slightly as we descended but he was still feeling pretty rough and the finish line couldn’t come soon enough for all of us and the two volunteers who had caught up to us.
At the finish of the glacier hike
Photo: Craig Giese
Friday, September 15th
We left Sonamarg at 4a.m on the long drive (~10hrs) to Leh. We set off in a convoy of buses from the hotel. We would be travelling over some interesting mountain passes such as Zojila which was the scene of the highest ever tank battle during the 1947 Indo Pakistani war.
We were sharing a bus with the Kashmiri team from Srinagar and Umar was keen to fill us in on the locality and its history. We passed through Dras which is the second coldest permanently habituated area in the world, after Siberia. On 19th January 1995 a temperature of minus 65 deg Celsius was recorded there.
The journey didn’t seem that long. There were lots of pee breaks and a visit to the Alchi Temple Complex. This is a Buddhist monastery complex built in the 10th and 11th century. We had lunch here sampling different traditional cuisines some of which were quite strange to my Western palate!
Not too far from Leh we had to abandon the buses and walk for a while as the road over a river crossing had been damaged in a landslide and it was touch and go as to whether the buses would be able to get up the steep incline or not. Thankfully they did!
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Leh and Team Adventure Life were soon installed in The Wang Residence. Having eaten lots of spicy Indian food for the last number of days, we were all craving something a little more familiar so we decided to walk into town for pizza.
Mike and Zane had beer but Jay was still feeling the after effects of the altitude sickness and I don’t drink beer so we decided to go with a chocolate milkshake. Big mistake!!!
Saturday, September 16th
Kardung La pass
We had an early morning briefing and ceremony at the Dragon Hotel so we got up and had breakfast (toast, eggs, porridge) at The Wang Residence. Everyone seemed fine. Jay ate as normal and then we all walked down to the briefing. We were waiting outside the hall when Jay suddenly didn’t feel so good ….
Jay not feeling so good – right about now!
Photo: Terence Vrugtman
We went in for the briefing but Jay was feeling really nauseous and he spent most of the time outside. Was this more altitude sickness or something else? We hadn’t incriminated the milkshakes at this stage because I was feeling fine.
We were due to meet back at the Dragon hotel for a bus trip up to the Khardungla pass. At 5,359m it is claimed to be the world’s highest motorable pass and spending an hour or two up there would be an important part of our acclimatisation process. Unfortunately for Jay he was in no condition to go anywhere especially not to an extreme environment at high altitude. He was stuck in his bed at The Wang Residence. He was trying to stay hydrated by drinking electrolytes and water but he was vomiting so much that it was literally coming straight back up again. I was concerned about him when we left because he looked terrible. His skin was a grey colour and he was so miserable. We had to wait for about half an hour before the buses left and I nearly went back to check on him but I didn’t.
While we were waiting on the buses, Simon, one of the media guys, came on and said there was space in one of the Isuzu jeeps for 3 people. Naturally Team Adventure Life jumped at this opportunity and that was how we found ourselves travelling up to Khardung La pass in our own jeep. It made for a much more comfortable journey and our Indian drivers were very entertaining. The road up is narrow and steep so although it’s not that far (39km) it takes a couple of hours to drive.
The road to Khardung La
Photo: Zane Schmahl
At the top:
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
When we got to the top we wrapped up warmly and headed out for some photos and some jumping jacks to elevate the heart rate.
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
We were supposed to stay up here for a couple of hours but after 45 min the race doctor said we must go back down as a number of people were getting symptoms of altitude sickness. Because the air is ‘thinner’ at high altitudes, your body cannot get as much oxygen as it needs so the only cure for altitude sickness is a drop in elevation.
When we returned to the hotel we were surprised to find Jay missing from his room. The door was locked but Mike climbed in the bathroom window and Jay definitely wasn’t there! We were due to start marking up the maps so initially we thought maybe Jay was feeling better and that he had headed down to start the map marking on his own. But when we returned to the Dragon Hotel Jay wasn’t there and neither were the maps. Eventually we found Heidi who told us that Jay had been taken to Leh hospital!!! Apparently Jay felt so bad about an hour after we left on the buses that he managed to stumble down the road to the Dragon hotel where he presented himself to reception, demanding a doctor. He was nearly collapsing at this stage and Heidi and Shaukat took him immediately to the hospital. Unfortunately when he got into the hospital there was a mixup in communications and he ended up in the surgery ward which is where I think Jay saw the blood and teeth on the floor!
Jay in hospital with Heidi
If Jay’s engineering career ever goes bust, I’m sure he’ll always find work as an actor because that is such a fake smile!!! I left Mike and Zane at the Dragon hotel marking up the maps which they had located back at the hotel and Shaukat took me to the hospital to see Jay. When I got there he was on his third half litre drip bag and his mood was alternating between hysteria and manic depression. He was convinced he was after contracting every infectious disease going from Hepatitis to Zika virus and that an air embolism was currently tracking towards his heart to block a coronary artery. This had me way out of my comfort zone. I do not do sympathy and compassion but thankfully I do have a medical background so I was able to offer some reassurance of some sort. The last drip was half way through and Jay decided he needed to defecate. In an ordinary world this is not a problem but this is India and the bathroom is a hole in the ground with no toilet paper. And Jay had diarrhoea. There was a moment when it looked like I would have to sacrifice my buff but Jay selflessly decided to use his underpants as toilet paper instead!
When we finally got back to our hotel, Mike and Zane had been busy marking up the maps and packing up our gear for the departure to the camp out in the morning
Packing up the bike boxes with pizza for fuel!
Sunday, September 17th
Camp out Nubra valley
Jay was feeling much better this morning so it was with much lighter hearts that we loaded the bike boxes into the lorries and our bags into buses for the 5 hour journey to Nubra valley. We stopped for the many customary pee breaks and at the top of the pass to allow for some more acclimatisation.
View across the pass
Photo: Zane Schmahl
Hambotingla Pass near Kargil (4024m)
The team was in good spirits and even took part in a good natured snowball fight. When we arrived at the campsite we saw to our delight that Rimo Expeditions had done a fantastic job with dozens of bright orange tents for us to call our home. After we had had something to eat Mike was the only one who felt like travelling down to the river to investigate the rafts. Jay was tired from yesterday’s ordeals, I had tummy trouble and Zane worryingly was starting to develop a chest infection.
The camp at nightfall:
Photo: Terence Vrugtman
Monday, September 18th
Leg 3: 75k rafting
Leg 4: 42k bike
Monday morning dawned bright and clear. Jay was good. Mike was good. My tummy was a bit dodgy and I still had mild diarrhoea but I was good. Zane was not good. His chest infection was worse and he was coughing like someone with the plague. We put on wetsuits ( I also had a base layer and my cag jacket on) and made our way down to the start. All the teams lined up beside the flags and Stephan got us to stand for a moment and just take in our surroundings before the race started with a 75k paddle down the Shyok river. When it was our time to go, we ran down the short hill, hobbled over the rocks until we reached our boat, turned the boat onto the water and jumped on.
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
The first 30k was super fun. The water was flowing quickly and there was loads of rapids to keep us entertained. Zane was managing the paddling and we were flying along. After about 3 hours though Zane started to feel chilled and lethargic and we decided it would be better if he rested in the boat while the other three paddled. This was working fine until we reached a large rapid going under a suspension bridge where all the media were stationed and Zane had to jump into action to keep the boat steady. Soon after this the water flow slowed considerably and it was harder to pick the right channel. With Zane resting in the front of the boat, we were soon relegated to last position but it was a small price to pay as our main consideration was to keep Zane in the race for as long as possible. This was actually one of my favourite boat legs in an adventure race. It was such an amazing place to be, nestled among the mountains with the sun beating down on us and the raft was super comfortable. A far cry from our torturous kayak across the atlantic in gale force winds and 4ft swell during Itera!!
The Shyok River winding it’s way through the Nubra valley:
Photo: Terence Vrugtman
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
When we reached the end of the kayak, there was a small group of race organisers to greet us and direct us towards the bike transition. Zane was still feeling rotten and it took us a while to get our bikes organised. Our bikes were cool. They all had prayer flags that we had bought in Leh on the handlebars.
As we were leaving to start out on the bike leg, the lead team Skylotec came flying in on their bikes. They told us it was an easy leg and it had taken them maybe an hour and a half.
We had to cycle about 500m across rocks and up a slight hill before we reached the tarmac road. Zane was wrecked after this and needed to stop for several minutes to recover. A portent of what was to come! Even the slightest climb sent his heart rate rocketing. The only way we were going to progress was if Jay towed him. I believe this was the first time that Zane has ever been towed in a race!!
Even though he was being towed Zane was still finding the bike tough and at one stage we had pulled over off the road because Zane was despairing that he wouldn’t be able to finish when Terence and Kirsten passed us in the media jeep. Zane was hoping he could get a lift back to transition with them but Terence was having none of it. The media are invisible! We were going to have to tough it out ourselves! They did agree however to alert the medical staff so they could be on standby.
Zane in trouble on the bike leg
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
We eventually got to the first bike CP and the turnaround point while it was still daylight. Zane was just about managing on the tow but we were travelling at a very sedate pace.
Collecting the bike cp
Photo: Zane Schmahl
We collected the second CP with no more problems and then it was a straight ride back to transition. When we arrived back Zane was not in a good place and was taken immediately to the ambulance. The doctor said he had a chest infection and gave him antibiotics and painkillers and a banana which he promptly puked straight back up.
Zane in the ambulance
Photo: Terence Vrugtman
On the bike back, Zane was adamant that he was in no fit state to continue the race and we had decided, as a team, that he should pull out and Mike, Jay and I would continue as soon as we had transitioned with the next leg which was the 53k trek. However, when we reached transition there was a lot of media and race personnel who were pushing for us to sleep until morning so that Zane could recover and go with us. We eventually agreed to do this. It’s hard to say definitively if this was the right call or the wrong call but it’s what happened. We slept until 4 a.m. in two tents which had been vacated by the media.
Tuesday, September 19th
Leg 5: 53k trek
Leg 6: 120k bike
When we woke Zane seemed to have improved slightly and was happy to accompany us on the trek so we set off with two volunteers who were coming with us to collect the CP. It was another beautiful morning and the hike, from what I can remember, was really enjoyable. Once we had collected the CP at the river intersection the volunteers left us and we climbed higher out of the valley. Zane was finding the uphill parts difficult and consequently our pace was relatively slow. Our route was following the Shyok river back along the valley which we had rafted yesterday.
Jay on the hike back along the Shyok river valley
Photo: Zane Schmahl
We tried to stay as low as we could but in some cases this wasn’t possible and Zane needed to rest for several minutes in places. Once the sun had risen fully there was very little shelter to be had and the intense UV rays, added to the altitude (we were climbing to over 4000m) made this quite a difficult section.
The sun beats down on us:
Photo: Zane Schmahl
My favourite part of this hike was a section where we had to criss-cross through the river to avoid climbing high in the mountains followed by a tough scramble across the cliff face. The glacier water was so cool and refreshing.
The last three or maybe four hours was a real struggle for Zane. He needed to stop frequently for long rests to recharge himself. And he looked sick. He had the same grey tinge to his skin that Jay had before he went to hospital. When we were discussing the race at the finish, Zane said that getting through this leg was the toughest thing he’s had to do in a race.
Our route was taking us around a cliff face and we seemed to have been looking at the same cliff for hours and hours without it getting any nearer. We continued to plod on tenaciously and eventually rounded the cliff and made our way by road for the last 15km to transition. We were coming into a little village when Stephan drew up in front of us in his Isuzu. He asked us how we were, gave a dismissive shrug of his shoulders and told us to get in the back of the bakkie (South African word for pick up truck). In spite of the fact that Zane was like a dead man walking, we didn’t want to be short coursed but our attempts to convey this to Stephan met with only one response. “Get in the back of the bakkie”.
Stephan said that we needed to leave a.s.a.p on the bike leg if we were going to have enough time to get to basecamp and he had already picked up a few other teams at this point and that it was simply 15 km on tarmac roads so there was no challenge to it! Driving back to transition was somewhat of an anti-climax but it turned out to be quite a long way so we ended up being quite thankful of the lift!
It was late in the evening when we reached TA and the dusk was beginning to settle but there was no time to dilly dally as the organisers were waiting for us so they could move our bike boxes to the next transition. We quickly made up some dehydrated meals, filled our water bottles and reassembled our bikes for the next leg. Zane helped with the bikes which made us a bit quicker and then we said our goodbyes and Mike, Jay and I rode out on the next leg while Zane got some much needed rest and recovery.
Wednesday, September 20th
Leg 6: 120k bike cntd
Leg 7: Trek to homestay ~ 7hrs
Leg 8: Trek to basecamp
When we left transition, we were shortly followed by the Isuzu jeeps of the race organisers. Some of them were heading to the next transition and Stephan was following us to collect the two bike controls after we had passed through. Once we were certain we were on the right road the bike was pretty straight forward. I think both CPs were on bridges and the second one was before the last military post before you enter Pakistan. It was 20 km from Pakistan and 40 km from the second highest mountain in the world, K2. After taking our CP photograph we crossed over the bridge. The soldiers must have been asleep or just not bothered and we began the last 90 km on mostly tarred roads.
There were no big hills to climb, just lots of little undulations and plenty of lekker downhills. It was a long ride though and after about 3 a.m, I started to get really sleepy. I was drafting off Mike’s back wheel and Jay was keeping an eye on me behind and we were tipping along at a good old pace but it was really hard to keep my eyes open. I also had some kind of heartburn or indigestion and my throat was sore but as long as I kept sipping water it didn’t get any worse. We stopped for a ten minute nap around 4 a.m but it didn’t do much to revive me.
Transition was at an eco village and the last km up the narrow roads was really hard for me. Kristen and Zane and some of the organisers were there to meet us when we got off the bikes. My eyes had completely glassed over and I was finding it difficult to focus so there was no arguments from me when I was instructed to leave my bike with Zane and head off for a shower and some sleep.
We had a lovely shower in Kirstens room and slept for a couple of hours and we also got breakfast (scrambled eggs and toast). Stephan was keen for us to start on the next trek immediately so that we would have enough time to summit. He was following the other teams on the tracker and had a good idea of how long it would take us. We reckoned about 7 or 8 hours to get up to the homestay @ about 4000m which was our intermediate goal and then another 8 – 10 to get to base camp @ 5000m and then 12 – 14 to summit @ 5600m and descend.
First things first, we needed to get to the homestay. We set off just after midday from transition. The sun was beating down and it was super warm but Stephan said we would get a good bit of shade from the cliff face on the trek. The first part of this leg was a camel safari so we walked to the top of the road and waited for a few minutes before our camels arrived. The Bactrian camels are native to central Asia. They have two humps to store food and water and they’re not very friendly. They’re mostly domesticated and the ones that we were to ride on had nose rings and a put upon expression. Safe to say they were not in love with life. They had to lie down for us to get on and off and their knees and hocks were badly scuffed from lying on the rocks. I didn’t mind being on them but the boys found it a bit more uncomfortable especially with our loaded backpacks.
Mike making friends with his camel
2 km up into the canyon we were deposited from the camels and left to our own devices. We were quite high up and the air was thin. The canyon was fantastic with a large river flowing vigorously through the middle of it and high cliffs to either side. Such a fantastic place for a hike.
I can’t remember when we first noticed that Mike wasn’t feeling well. We were all short of breath and my throat was still sore but Mike seemed to be suffering a lot more. We thought maybe he’d picked up Zane’s chest infection. He was only able to move very slowly and he needed to stop several times on the way up for 10 minute naps. I was setting the pace and trying to keep it nice and steady by counting in my head.
We stopped for a breather before we crossed over the river about 4 km from the homestay. Mike was sitting on the ground, Jay was facing uphill and I was facing downhill so I saw the Indian lady as she came around the corner but the others didn’t. She gave a cheery hello to us and Jay nearly jumped 2 foot up in the air with the fright. It was very funny. She wanted us to follow her but she was booting along at a good clip and after a minute or so I had to tell her that we were happier on our own going at a more pedestrian pace!!
As we neared more habitual areas, there was a well built wall fencing off some farmland and we passed some villagers who were grinding wheat. They were very friendly and we exchanged lots of “Juley” meaning Hello in Ladakhi. It was about half six when we first made out the yellow brickwork of the homestay. Mike was suffering a lot by now and the last climb seemed to last forever so it was a pleasure to see the Expedition India flag and be greeted by the volunteers as we climbed up the stone steps, took off our shoes at the front door, laid down our heavy rucksacks and trekking poles and entered the warm, hospitable environment of the homestay. Heidi had asked us to bring some toys for the little boy who lived here and as we handed over the colouring pens and books and the toy car his little face lit up like it was christmas!
Photo: Terence Vrugtman
The medic was waiting for us to check our blood oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter. The human body requires and regulates a very precise and specific balance of oxygen in the blood and measuring the oxygen saturation is a quick and effective way to diagnose how well you are coping with altitude. At sea level normal levels are between 95 – 100%. Levels below 80% may compromise organs such as the brain and heart and action needs to be taken as continued low levels may lead to respiratory or cardiac arrest. Mike’s oxygen saturation was 70% so he was immediately given supplemental oxygen and told that his race was over. He stayed on the oxygen for 20 minutes and he looked a lot brighter when he was done. Stephan told Jay and I that we should have turned back when Mike started feeling sick. That made us feel a bit guilty but we honestly didn’t think he had altitude sickness and by the time he got really bad, it was quicker to continue to the homestay than to attempt the descent.
My oxygen saturation was 85% and Jay’s was 89% so Stephan said we were allowed to continue to the basecamp as long as we agreed that if either of us felt nauseous on the way up we were to turn around. The Swedish team Skylotec had already needed a helicopter evacuation from the mountain and Stephan was not too keen on having to do another. If we got a slight headache we could counteract that by drinking more but the only cure for nausea, which is a sure sign of mountain sickness, is to drop elevation.
Before we tackled the journey to basecamp we filled up on some delicious homemade noodle soup with plenty of tea and water. We also decided to sleep for a couple of hours to try and ensure that we were as rested as possible. While we were sleeping, Mike was being towed back down the mountain by Stephan to where the bus was waiting to take him back to Leh.
When we woke just before 11pm we both felt good and excited about the task ahead. We said goodbye to our hosts and headed out into the cool night air. The stars were twinkling overhead but the moon was nowhere to be seen so we were reliant on our headtorches for visibility. And I had packed the one that had no batteries into my rucksack at the last bike transition. Fortunately Jay had a spare one that I was able to use.
We hiked up over lots of farmland before meeting a branching river which divided the valley. Jay was leading. He has much longer legs than me so I had to keep reminding him to slow down the pace. We crossed the river several times trying to find the best path. Not easy in the dark. As we got higher and higher it was more difficult to keep on the right path. And we were climbing all the time.
We must have had about four and a half hours done and we were at 4500m when I noticed Jay was becoming slightly disorientated and he started complaining about feeling dizzy. I wanted to stop, pitch the tent and wait until dawn when I thought it would be easier to see where we were going. Jay didn’t seem too enamoured with this idea and as we were on a rocky outcrop we continued onwards. Less than ten minutes later Jay felt nauseous and we made the call to turn back. It was an easy enough decision at the time. Jay had been really sick with mountain sickness on the prologue and he didn’t want to reach a stage where he was feeling terrible and couldn’t get off the mountain. My throat was still sore and I didn’t feel anyway nauseous but I don’t navigate and I did not want to be responsible for Jay feeling sick and being stuck on the mountain.
It took us an hour and a half to descend. We managed to find a much better path than on the way up so it was slightly easier. Jay was still quite disorientated so I was trying to choose the route as well as I could with his help. When we reached the village we had a bit of trouble finding the right path to the homestay but we got there in the end. We had to wake up our host by knocking on the window. Thankfully he was a light sleeper and even in the early hours of the morning having been woken from his slumbers, he still managed to be friendly and welcoming. Jay was feeling bad and he had developed a headache so I woke one of the volunteers who gave him oxygen. He started to improve after an hour or so and we were able to settle down for some sleep.
Thursday, September 21st
Trek to basecamp cntd ~ 5.5hrs
Bus to Leh over Kardung La pass
We slept until 10 a.m, when we were roused by Stephan who was ready to take us to the buses. While we were sleeping another team, Addicted to Adventure, had had to turn back before they reached basecamp and they were waiting to go too. They had had an eventful time with one of their team members needing CPR for nearly an hour before she was able to descend.
We said another goodbye to our hosts and hiked about 4 km down the valley. It was a lot easier going down than up but Stephan moves at a really fast pace and I empathised for how Mike must have felt the previous night! The last bit was a steep climb up to the buses and it really taxed both my legs and lungs.
It was a sorry group of adventure racers who loaded onto the bus for the 5 hour journey back to Leh! As the bus climbed out of the valley we saw 5 antelopes in the distance. They were perched on a sheer rock face and as if to emphasize the limitations of the human body to us, they were moving at ease up and down the vertical cliff!
The route back included the Khardung La pass which was good for Jay who missed out on going there when he was in hospital but not so good for all those with altitude sickness as we would be heading back up above 5000m. Not helped by the fact that when we were nearly at the top the bus had to stop for road repairs for about twenty minutes. I noticed the altitude was making my face tingle and my tummy didn’t feel so good so I was happy when we reached the tar roads and could descend quickly.
The bus stopped in the middle of Leh and we all got out. We hoisted our backpacks onto our backs and walked the short distance to collect the final CP. From here we turned the corner and ran the short distance to the finishing chute on the main street. There was loads of supporters and cheering as we ran under the arch to complete our journey. Kirsten was one of the first people we saw and she told us that Mike and Zane were on their way with their race bibs for an Adventure Life reunion …..
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
Team Adventure Life reunited
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
Photo: Kirsten Roberts
I love adventure racing. I get to meet the most amazing people and do the most amazing things. It’s such an awesome experience and I go away from every race with a new (and improved) outlook on life.
Some people live their whole life and never see even a fraction of the places that I have seen. Visiting places like India makes me realise what a privileged life I lead and how lucky I am to be fit and healthy and in a position to do the things I do.
To my Adventure Life teammates, thanks so much for letting me be a part of your team. I had so much fun with you guys. You all helped to make my Expedition India an unforgettable experience!
This event is the brainchild of 3 people, Ivan Park the man behind the Beast of Ballyhoara, Avril Copeland a prolific Adventure Racer (who is retiring again!) and James Thurlow has organised over 100 Adventure Sports events in the UK over the past 11 years with Open Adventure. The idea of showing off the country at its finest is what motivates the team behind the ITERA.
ITER – Latin for “journey”.. and the “A” stood for little more than the ADVENTURE (where on that journey the outcomes are uncertain)…
The teams will be racing through Ireland over five days in August 2016. The race will finish in Killarney – and the start – you will have to wait till August in 2016 to find that out..
Race Report: The Beast of Ballyhoura, AR European Championships Final 2015
#TriHarderAR Team #47
0-24 hours: The Game Plan and the Fun Bits
Ah back to my old stomping grounds, the University of Limerick. I have many happy memories here and a great place to host the HQ of the Beast of Ballyhoura, AR Euro Series final. There is a lot to be done the days before a multi-day race. Gear checks, bike checks, build bike boxes, prep kit bags and nutrition based on the route schematic for 72hrs, rope skills test, signing your life away etc… It was a busy but relaxed a fun day for the team. The excitement was palpable and the bike p0rn no less emphatic that a triathlon transition set up. It was interesting to see the types of towing rigs, tyre choices, paddle choices and how teams went about their business.
The 2 important meetings were
Ivan the RD
1) The Race briefing. It’s not like the 5-10 minute shout above the crowd before a triathlon. Its 1.5 full hours packed into the Jean Monnet Lecture theatre in front of a giant screen for all the competitors, marshals and RD. Ivan Park had the look of a man who had both worked tirelessly long days and months, yet still had the patience to handle the many questions from the throng of foreign teams. There was just one thing on everyone’s minds. The maps! When presented the team captains formed a mosh in front of the theatre table despite the maps and route book being packed neatly into an individual folder for each team. 16 maps total, plus one more we would receive during the race. The next few hours were all about planning our route and strategy, laminating the maps and getting dinner.
2) The Captains Q&A. Sean finished off the maps while Kate and Shane attended to kit bags and bike down in the PESS hall. I attended the 30 minute Q&A with 49 others plus Ivan and his assistant RD, Mark. I found myself sat beside Sinead from team Arse. She was concerned about the swimming section but I reminded her that she had 3 teammates and her smile returned. The questions were varied and the quick gabble of translating going on around the room constantly tested Ivan patience. A French lad behind me was having difficulty with his northern accent and asked me about the tides in Waterford, “when is a good time to paddle?”… Your choice buddy! I was aware of the penalties for not completing special tasks and for crossing farmland but I had a very specific question about crossing road that were off limits to travel.
Nick Gracie from Adidas Terrex beat me to the punch and asked about an offset (by maybe 100m) “crossroad” somewhere on the main Cork road E30. Could you travel for just 100m and join the road on the other side? No! I asked about a similar shorter junction at the Ballyhoura Mountains and the response was also, No! Ivan basically said that we would have to find another route at these points and crossing farm fields to avoid them was also out of the questions. Both of these roads were on our planned route so I made a note to mark them. Many teams would later fall to penalties on both of these junctions.
With the meetings done, bike and gear loaded onto trucks it was sleep time. Difficult, as the adrenalin was now on overdrive. Our strategy was simple. High Value mandatory checkpoints only and make sure we did all the fun special tasks. We had broken the 72 hours down to 6 sections with checkpoint times for the team. Our progress against that would determine more during the race. I was absolutely determined on this as I felt responsible for making some bad calls last year to go for tough bonuses that, along with Nav errors meant we missed all the fun stuff and were ultimately short coursed. In every way I wanted this to be better. I felt the team deserved better.
0430 race morning and we manage to swallow some coffee and eggs on toast. 4 Buses rocked up in a light mist and packed 200 excited Adventure Racers aboard for a trip to Curraghmore House Estate in Waterford. It was a simply stunning setting for the start of a race and the sun was shining. 0835, High fives, whoops and off we set on an 18km trail run around the grounds of the Estate. It would be easy to think it was just a trail run the way everyone took off “running!” up a hill. We dialled the effort back to a march on hills. Sean was filming with his Garmin VIRB and each of us was a TEN!!!* *We used this numbering system all through the race to guage the spirit of the team. If anyone was a 5/10 or worse, ultimate teamwork kicked in ☺ We started right at the back of the pack but had slowly picked off some teams. There was a section of the run on an old railway line and if you didn’t clear it by 11am you had to run on road. Running on road with a backpack and trail shoes is not fun for the Adventure Racer and it heats your feet up much quicker. It required a short choppy stride to run on the track sleepers but I enjoyed this bit. We passed the Munster Raiders Team, some of who whom I knew. Everyone was in great spirits. We cleared the railway and finished the run after 2hrs 14.
Transition was simply getting the backrest onto the boats and getting on the water, Kate and I in one, Sean and Shane in the other. We had to haul the kayaks down a steep muddy bank. Sean gave his a whoosh and it seems to aquaplane across the knee deep sticky mud and onto the water. Meanwhile I spent 5 minutes dragging ours inch by inch through the mud. We were caked in it stepping into the Kayak. Sean and Shane just decided to flip in and wash themselves to get it over with. This seems to be Sean’s initiation to partnering with him for a paddle ☺ The Munster Raiders had a better transition and were out on the water ahead of us.
The next 1.5 hours was a paddle down the middle of the river, avoiding some spinning eddies, passing a few teams. Personally I went from fat burning to glycogen burning. It just needed a bit more effort to keep up with the 2 boys. Kate was setting a good rhythm and we kept close for the most part. My right hip was a little sore after the trail run and it manifested to glute cramp and tight right hamstring. I had to stretch periodically and should really have eaten while stretching.
We arrived at Waterford to a hive of activity. The top teams had completed their urban orienteering and were flying down the ramp in a hurry to get back on the water. We stood on the pier holding our Kayak waiting for a half dozen teams to be given right of way. We dropped the Kayaks up the ramp and received our orienteering map. Sean took charge and we ran 5km+ around the streets collecting 3,000pts. It involved a run through a park and shopping centre much to the amusement of locals. Did I mention we were RUNNING! Again, in a 72 hour race we were running. This is something the top teams do right? I basically dragged my cramping glute around after the other 3. One of the controls on a Tower was fittingly for Ivan, located in the highest point in the town.
Less than 5 hours done and we were back on the water. People tracking us told we were back in 42nd place at this point. We thought we were moving along nicely! Just shows the pace that teams started out and the general level of competition in the European Championship Final. 67 more hours to go… when would this pace bite?
The next Kayak was the first of 3 ball breakers in the race for the team. It was a 32km paddle down the estuary to the sea and around the headland to Dunmore East. I knew the tide would turn at some point but not as soon as it did. We had about 13km done and had followed the river on to the wide open estuary and busy shipping lane and the going got tough. There was a Ferry crossing to negotiate at Passage East with the Ferry leaving every 15 minutes. You basically had to time it to clear the path as quickly as possible. Once beyond it was a further 6km or so to K4 on a beach. It was a slog, pure and simple.
The tide pulled us right toward the centre and the waves started to brake. A static wave of about 4feet stayed with us for a while and we also had the wake of big boats to negotiate. I saw a boat capsize further to our right (in the strongest flow). There was a coast guard on the river but the guys had flipped the Kayak back over and got back in by the time the CG got to them. Kate and I were shelved and the Boys were feeling it too. We pulled into a rocky beach about 2km shy of the Control to get some layers and gels on. We hugged the coast and took a better line to a tower that indicated the beach was next. Thankfully we pulled into the beach and flopped down. It was a brute of a paddle and we were still some 13km short of Dunmore East. We collected the 1,000pts at K4 before the Marshal told us that “Bad Weather Option B” was being put in place due to the conditions. Boats were now being directed straight across the Estuary to a beach where the remaining 8km to Dunmore East would be done on foot. Sean and I swapped boats and it was in better spirits we paddled the next hour across to the opposite beach.
Any boats behind us were being diverted across short of K4 and we were told only 2 of the leading boats actually got K5 further down the coast. A few other boats that got close to it would be credited with the points but also receive a time penalty. We were just happy to cut the paddling short and collectively went from about a 3 to a 7!
The Nav began once we were on terra firma. We bumped into the Munster Raiders again too. We had passed them on the river but they passed us again while we were on the rocky beach getting warmed up and fed. There were 2 distinct routes to Dunmore East. We opted for the slightly longer but straight forward route vs. the more off road hilly version the other team chose. We hit Dunmore East before them so that worked ☺
The next stage was a run down to a rocky beach entry and coasteering around the coastline. It was a short section with 3,000pts on offer. These were to be gained by clambering over wet rocks and swimming between beaches. We collected the first 2 points on lifebelts and it was fun. We wore wetsuits with PFDs and helmet along with our shoes and bib. Only the bag with the GPS tracker had to be carried so we had that in a dry bag to be attached to the waist and dragged behind the swimmer. Shane took it for the short swims and I was to take it for the second last longer and longest last swim.
C7 was a special task. We had to climb up onto some rocks and jump 25ft into the water below. If you thought about it you would freak out so best to just jump! I knew Enduro both didn’t like swimming and hated heights so I wondered how someone like him got through this. He later told me he simply closed his eyes and had one of his teammates push him! There was a significant point’s penalty for not doing it and his team, Get No Sleep were properly racing at the pointy end. I
managed to have my palms facing toward the water when I jumped so I got a right stinging slap on both hands.
It was nothing compared to the pain clambering over the rocks to C8. My calves locked in a vicious cramp. Normally that’s enough to stop you in your tracks but when I pointed my heel, the shins joined the party. It was excruciating and there was nothing I could do. Shane was in the water already and came over to help. He grabbed my calf to find the trigger point and squeezed as hard as he could. I don’t know if he was under water or what but I was very grateful. After a few painful minutes it eased and I swam very tentatively to C8 and the longer swim to the final beach. Cramps aside, I really enjoyed this stage. It was great fun. We had our first transition with our kit bags and bike boxes next. It involved climbing a hill to get to them of course!
It was in TA4 we learned that the second 6km coasteering section was cancelled. Mainly on account of the brute of a Kayak stage. Teams would now cycle through that stage instead. Brilliant! This had us in great form as darkness began to fall. We fed up, stocked up and put the bike together. We left TA for a long bike after 12 hours racing. Spirits were high and this would prove to be a lucrative and fun section for team #TriharderAR.
We biked down the coast road to collect more points. There were 9,000pts available on the mandatory course back to TA7. B9 and B10 were easy as would B13. We did take a wrong turn to TA5 which was the start of the coasteering section. We were not the only ones to do so. It was only 7 mins lost though so quickly rectified. We dibbed C13 next and my chain broke when I stood up to push straight back up the hill we had just come down. Shane came to the rescue and we fixed it efficiently. We dibbed B14 near Stradbally after a nice full moon lit pedal along the coast, all the while chatting and laughing. It crossed midnight along the way and we were still chirpy and happy after 16 hours racing.
B15 was trickier to find. We cycled past it initially and continued 2km down the coast before I realised we must have passed it. Double back and it was through a hole in a hedge! We hoisted the bikes through to find a sign pointing us to B15 in a tunnel along the tracks. We cycled down to an old tunnel and easily one of my favourite parts of the course so far. We dibbed the control and continued along the eerie solemn tunnel. It felt like something from a Harry Potter movie. B16 was waiting for us on a gate at the end of the tunnel and it was only a few minutes to find B20. We had thought about a bonus control here that would have basically been a 4km climb up a hill and descent straight back down but decided against it. We saw the Comeraghs as potentially our biggest Nav challenge and wanted to get out on them with as much daylight as possible.
From B20 it was a straight shot to Kilmacthomas but it presented the first real critical Nav decision. We were on the bike for the bones of 50km at night when we hit a junction to the main E30 road. It looked a lot like a crossroad on the map and you are allowed to cross over these main roads but not travel along them. When I looked closer it was an offset crossroad and I could see the turn off to Kilmacthomas about 80m down the road to my right. 2 more teams arrived at the scene; a French and Czech team and promptly travelled down the road and turned left onto the Kilmacthomas road. This was exactly the junction that Nick Gracie of Team Adidas Terrex (The winners) had asked at the Q&A briefing. We decided to turn back and reroute an extra 4km or so around to a clear crossroad. I hoped the teams would be penalised and they clearly broke the race rules for a short cut. It turned out that junction was indeed a penalty so we made the right call.
At TA5 we dibbed in to collect our climbing equipment and wondered happily down to the stairs up to the Railway Viaduct. It was a spectacular night. Some light clouds shrouding a massive full moon. The army were on hand to ensure we were strapped in before we threw ourselves off a 100ft height. The first 10ft were off a wall then a clear drop for the rest. It was relatively quick but I loved it and the brake from the biking. So far so good. It was about 0430, about 20 hours in and we were still on great form. After the abseil are spirits were back to a bunch of 8-10s ☺ this stage was also a good opportunity to get food on board. We were sticking with an “eat every 45-60 mins” plan and were constantly reminding each other to eat and drink. I was drinking water and had quadruple strength electrolytes in my bike bottle. Somewhere along this route we took a 15 minute power nap under a hedge outside someone’s front garden!
It was a mere 20+km to TA7 and it brought us around the Comeraghs. It meant lots of hills, the worst of which included a sadistic hike-a-bike. We had a full 3.5 hour off road mostly pushing our bikes uphill over rocks, heather and mud. It was truly energy sapping on tired bodies. It slowed things right up and if the 2nd coasteering had not been cancelled would have really messed with our plan. 3 more teams of different nationality joined in the fun of lifting, dragging, pushing and carrying bikes. We eventually reach B21 at the top of the hill. Even though this was a slog of the highest order, I usually relish the descent and forgive the mountain. It was not to be. The trail was too rocky to descent to we cut downhill through thick green lumpy landscape to find a road that took us the remaining few kms to TA7. We checked into TA roughly 24 hours into the race. We had cycled the bones of 81km over the previous 10 hours, including the abseil and the 3 hour hike-a-bike marathon. We collected our targeted 9,00opts and were tired and need food and sleep. We knew the sooner we got out onto the Comeraghs the better so we agreed on 2 hours transition including sleep.
24-48 hours: Green Witches and the Moment of Truth…
It brushed 11am Friday morning as we got ourselves together for the next stage, the Comeragh Mountains. I had slept particularly well. After a recovery shake and some tuna stuff I lay in my foil blanket but slept no more than 40 mins. I awoke shivering. I think it was here that Kate handed me a hot chocolate. It was watery but warm and hit the spot and its one of the moments you cherish your teammates, like Sean taking over bike Nav when I got too tires to focus or Shane taking my bag when I was flagging climbing a hill.
We kited up for trekking and set off with Shane and Sean on Nav. It was a long walk to C22 and on reflection it’s the one part of the 16 maps I could have planned better. There was a more direct route but we stayed safe on road and trail initially. Once off the track and on to open terrain Shane brought us to the next 2 CPs within 3 hours. We met team Beast Mode en route to C23. They were on their way back and perhaps had 10-15 minutes on us. We dibbed the control by the lake and doubled back. The track took two options, a high contouring one or a lower more definite trail. The other team went low and we went high. Within a half hour we converged on C24 together. No extra effort, just better choice ☺
We were now in a bowl in The Comeraghs at about 400m with cliffs surrounding us. It was both spectacular and daunting simultaneously. Beast Mode looked like they elected to get off the mountain and head back to TA8. It was about 4pm on Friday afternoon and we still had plenty of
daylight. We opted to climb one of the cliffs in a zig zag fashion to collect 3 more CPs on top. We had 3,000pts from this trek in the bag but there were 10,000 mandatory points on offer. We spent an hour beating our way to the top which was much more open and windy. The cliffs dropped off the sides of the plateau and peat hags hid the terrain from view at times.
The trouble started here. We took the wrong direction to C32 initially and it chewed time. I took out my compass to support the Nav but it seemed to be off with the orienteering compass and the ABC watches. We thought we were on the right Gully edge but seeing Mahon falls below which had C29 700m beneath us confirmed we were wrong. We hugged the cliff edges in search of the CP until we got to the right Gully. The wind had picked up now and it was scary to get close enough to look over the edge. We found footprints in the mud and knew we were on the right track. Sean dropped down onto a ledge which was covered in footprints. On the map we were right on C32 but it was not there. We searched for 20 minutes but no joy. The weather was closing in now and we decided to skip any more CPs and head back down from this height.
Over the next half hour a cloud quickly descended and visibility became more and more challenging. We no longer had anything to sight that was within 50m so I took a bearing and walked 50m then took it again and walked 40 etc… It was about 7pm and the Cloud now enveloped the top of the mountain and we were in the middle of it. Something was wrong. We should have been descending but we were not. We should have been heading northwest but we were going south. Stop to check and the wind is howling now and it’s getting cold and wet. My compass was the problem. I had a little magnetic clasp on my rucksack strap and it had demagnetised the compass! We were lost! Sh!te!
It quickly became apparent and there was concern. We could barely hear each other over the wind and visibility was down to no more than 30m. We entertained an idea of pitching the tents and waiting until morning or better visibility. Sean suggested we leapfrog on a bearing and He, Shane and I did just that while Kate just kept moving to try to stay warm. It was slow going. 40m at a time using two people in a line in front then looping over to traverse a dead straight line. It began to drop height slowly but not enough. We had run perhaps 30-40 reps of this relay when we reached a glimpsed a lake ever so briefly between some clouds. We were sure we matched the shape and size to one on the map and took another bearing. After 2 hours or so lost in the cloud we eventually found a stake, then another stake and followed down off the mountain under the cloud and to open terrain again. The relief was clear. Sean took out his video for a quick monologue as I fell over. We had found ourselves in a very tough spot but as a team, and only a team, did we get out of it. Again we went form 2s and 3s to 6 and 7s, ate for the first time in hours and pressed on back to the Community hall and TA8. Darkness fell as we got of the mountain and onto road. We still had 8km to go and in no form for running. It was therefore a 2 hour walk on road. Our spirits dropped back to 4s and 5s.
We had planned on sleeping when we got back from the trek no matter what happened. We collected 3,000pts so it was not entirely a waste of time but we did drop a few hours to tighten our schedule. We all hit a low walking along the road and I felt particularly sleep. The sleep monsters decided to visit. One minute I was talking to Sean, the next a little lime green witch on my right on the grass verge. I first thought it was Sean still talking to me but this witch was giving me a good scolding for endangering my team and jeopardising our race!
Shane asked how long we would be in TA for. I could hear the croak in his voice. It was 11pm Friday night. We had been racing for about 38 hours with a 1 hour sleep and had just been through hell. I called 3am for the start of the next stage. Up to each person what they wanted to do with the time. We usually had tighter role plans for TA but this was a case of the team needing a break. I think
Shane ate something, climbed into his sleeping bag and conked out for 3+ hours. Kate sleeps less than all of us anyway but still got some good kip despite taking a chunk of time to fill all the water bladders and bottles. I swapped a tin of creamed rice; yum and a recovery shake and went back to shivering for 2 hours in the hall. The real concern I had was my feet. I used cleaned and powdered them before sleep and again afterwards. It made a difference.
Around 0230-024 we all arose and it was immediately evident that we were in a stew. I felt rubbish. I didn’t want to get on my bike. Shane flat out said he is not trekking anymore. Kate (Our Queen Gru) looked wrecked but ready and Sean was wrapped in his sleeping bag until we were practically on the bikes. I brushed my teeth and snapped out of it, told Shane and Sean to get moving and quickly sorted maps for the next long bike stage.
While we got organised I noticed Ivan rise form a sleeping bag and tell a team on the way out the door that B39 was cancelled because of an angry farmer. Teams now had to take an alternative route through forest trails. I broke the new to the guys but they didn’t care much. Spirits were low. It was probably our lowest ebb actually and as such our moment of truth. Would we mentally throw in the towel and just bike back to the finish? I wasn’t sure. I felt very ropey myself.
We left TA at about 0310, more or less as planned. We were only across the road and I had to stop. I wasn’t fully awake yet and I wasn’t going to Nav my way into a maze of forest trails in the dark if I couldn’t even focus on the map. I pulled it together and set off. We were instantly uphill and my derailleur got caught leaving me on a big ring. The last thing I wanted right now was to mash up this hill and break the chain again so I stopped again for the second time in 10 minutes to sort it out. The others cycled on ahead to the next junction. I bolted up after them once sorted and realised it was another special moon out. There was some could cover but it was dry and calm.
We spent the next 1.5 hours slowly spinning up yet another mountain through forest trails. It involved some hike-a –bike but nothing like the previous night. We eventually ran out of trail and had to hop a fence to an open field. We first questioned if we were on farmland but there was no other way across and we were on top of a mountain. Another British team arrived on the scene and plugged on ahead through the filed toward the forest that fell down the opposite side to a river. We more or less followed suit and found the trails on the opposite side. It was some fun descending until we re-joined trails and Nav’d our way to the river. We crossed it and began to climb again as day began to break. The hills before came to view and we could pin point our target easily enough. Queue more hike-a-bike! We entered a field at one point that definitely felt like a farmer’s field and we were worried about penalties so we got out through a hedge as soon as we entered. We hit the top of a modest 300m ridge and followed a rocky trail. We were tired again. It was more the mental weight of not having punched a control in over 13 hours that was getting us down…
48-69 hours: Back in the Game! 48-69 hours
All of a sudden Sean shouted “Croosssss!” And the clouds parted to reveal a large cross overlooked an extensive view of south Tipperary. Our 5s became 6s and 7s as we dibbed B40, finally! We threaded our way down through forest trails again to find the Munster Way and B41 at a broken down castle. 2 controls within an hour and the spirit levels were rising. We were eating and drinking and laughing again. We met another Irish team at the castle and got a glimse of how teamwork does not happen. We had to cross to the other side of the river, through trees and up a steep bank. The other team worked as individuals and were going nowhere. Their Nav looked frustrated and had a look of “here we go again”. Sean rallied them to action and we joined in, creating an assembly line to get all 8 bikes across and onto the Munster way on the other side of the river. We promptly left them behind afterwards.
Teamwork was one of our core objectives. We do things together. We tackle gates, hills, streams, transitions and everything between, together. We have room to improve but the communication and laughter was the glue that bound us. The Munster way took us through the sleepy town of Newcastle in Clonmel and Queen Gru spotted an open shop. We pulled over and she raided the place for coffees, ham n’ cheese sambos and a pile of chocolate bars to fuel for the final stages. Aah, picnic in the sun, burned tongues on molten hot coffee, liberal roadside application of chamois and waving a couple of teams on by. Over 50 hours in and we were on the up. 7 and 8s became 8s and 9s ☺
Soon back on the bikes and we were cycling happily to our next CP. B42 was up another mountain in the Knockmealdowns on the Liam Lynch memorial. It involved some more hike-a-bike but on grass and much easier. The sun was out and it was a smashing view across Tipperary from the fire road up at 500m. The memorial was hard to miss and we dibbed our 3rd of 4 planned 1,000pt CPs. It was just so enjoyable at this stage. We felt great and were ever rewarded with a high speed switchback gravel descent down the mountain. Woohoo! TENS!!
At the bottom of the descent the Munster way met the Tipperary Heritage way and we needed to turn off onto the road to get off the mountain. Staying on the mountain meant entering Bonus point territory, forest trails and likely stiffer hike-a-bike. It was not the plan. The plan was to hit the roads and arc around a forbidden road to get to Clogheen and a good road we could follow to the end of this stage. We missed it. I saw it and just got distracted by the Tipperary Heritage way signpost and all of a sudden we were on single forest track threading more or less parallel to the forbidden road to our right beyond the trees. Crap, crap, crap. I thought I had made a grave error that would take us hours to get out of. I even entertained ideas of climbing back up steep hike-a-bike to to a viewing point to hit a bonus CP and a main road. Not the plan!
I focused so hard on the map an compass, the trails more or less all lead west. We just had to travel far enough to clear the 5-6km forbidden section of road. You were not even allowed to cross it so turning right too early would have meant a certain 500pt penalty. The day was going so well, I couldn’t bear to tarnish it. Shane was clocking the distance and Sean was backing up the Nav. We made shorter work of the single track than expected and spat out onto the road well clear of the forbidden road. It was even a fun trail so it worked out well. I figured it took roughly a similar time to the big road arc option and was infinitely more enjoyable MTBing ☺ Phew!
The rest of this long 76km bike was easy and we soon collected our last bike 1,000pt CP, B46 at Mitchelstown Caves. We arrived in Kilbeheny, 4,000pt richer, happy and ready to take on the Galtees. We had made good time and our schedule was still in play. Everyone was feeling motivated. We were further motived seeing some of the top teams in TA9 getting ready to head out on the Galtees. We felt like we were back in a race now. Shane had a steely look of determination and the whole team was switched on. I sat down to consider our plan carefully while the guys got stuff ready. I necked a tin of creamed rice, a shake and took care of the feet. They were in good nick. Just over 30 minutes later we were cycling up to Kinds Yard to begin the Galtees Trek.
We had come a long way mentally from 12 hours earlier at 0230 that morning when none of us wanted to even bike, let alone tackle another trek. At Kings Yard we tucked the bikes away and after a quick argument, set off. We were still a bit stung from the Comeraghs and set a careful plan of collecting the nearest CP and “seeing how we went” or rather “seeing how the weather went”.
While Shane and I debated whether to include Galtee Mor or not Sean grabbed the map and set of, man on a mission.
It was gorgeous day in the Galtees. I have never been up here in such fine conditions. We could see every peak clearly and it invited us. We set a time limit of getting back to Kind Yard inside 7 hours, so whatever we could accomplish in 6 was it. We crossed trails to the west and found a wall the curled up the side of a mountain. We followed it and bumped into the Sleepmonsters crew. We had great craic with them as they snapped pics. We knew they had to be on the route to we took stock that we were heading the right way and sure enough C47 on tree 50m south of a house just like the route book called it. 1,000pts on the Galtees inside an hour was sweet. Onwards to Galtee Mor then. It was a good hike away. Over a 500m ridge, back down and back up to a 700m ridge. Sean gave me one of his walking poles and it made such a difference to my hamstring. Until then my hip, glute and hamstring were stiffening up, sloing me down. With the support of the pole I found another gear.
2.5 hours later of very enjoyable trekking we were dibbing into C48 at the summit cross of Galtee Mor. It was an amaaaazing view and we were all buzzing now. We caught sight of 2 more teams in the distance to the next CP, B56 on a summit in a concrete building. It was basically a shed on a mountain top 3 peaks away. Less than an hour later we had descended to the right height, found the right trail and were dibbing in to another 1,000pts in the shed at B56. 3,000pts was as good a return as we had gained from the long Comeraghs trek and we wondered if that was it. We had made good time. We had 2 hours of our window left so to hell with it, go for the last mandatory control and get them all on the Galtees. It was on a massive Oak tree beyond another peak and down a valley. We quickly descended and crossed a river. I flagged a little contouring around the next peak and Shane took my bag. I was reluctant to hand it over but almost immediately I found another gear.
When we eventually caught sight of the huge Oak and 3 other teams running to it we were elated. Sean was nailing the Nav on this section and we were having such a laugh the whole time. Dibbing C57 under that tree was magic. We interacted with Beast Mode who we had met back on the Comeraghs and we had the maximum 4,000 mandatory points on the Galtees. We had pep in our step now and passed Beast mode and another French team on our way back to Kings Yard. En route we bumped into Sleepmonsters again and they caught pics of Shane carrying Seans bag and Kate carrying the map (Sean and I were taking a natural detour). We had some laugh with the Sleepmonster boys running down the hill with us and Sean trying to get his bag back. We wasted no time at Kings Yard, grabbed our bikes and flew back to the hall in Kilbeheney. It was not yet 9pm Saturday night; we were 60 hours in, had collected all of our planned CPs in the last 12 hours and were feeling great.
We had momentum and we were back in the game ☺
The original plan was a power nap back at TA 10 in the hall in Kilbeheney but we unanimously agreed to push on through to Ballyhouras. We were on the home stretch and barring disaster were going to make it home to finish ranked having collected CPs on all stages. Best case scenario!
We quickly transitioned to the Bike as it got dark. I was on Nav again but only for the first 22km. Sean had the other map on his mount to take over for the remaining 11-12km. As we set off with the well wishes of the marshals, it began to bucket rain. Shortly into the route we had to hike our bikes over a gate and following the map to avoid main roads we met a dead end at a hedge. We had a Belgian team with us for company. The route we had marked on the maqp looked like a clear cross road across the main road but we faced a stream and ditch. It was into a farmer’s field too so we had to reroute and Nav on the fly to avoid a penalty.
We took an alternate route up a climb with ever thickening grass in the middle of the road. It was raining heavily and visibility was poor. The map board could have done with a window wiper too. The Belgian team had bombed ahead but we reeled them in when the kept stopping to check their map. They jumped on our tail for the last km of the climb and even when I turned off to the left. I was careful too and the pace was slower as a result. We passed a left turn that the Belgian Team thought was the right way. I was looking for junction to turn left and continued on. The Belgian Team went left. I knew they had gone wrong but still for the briefest moment questioned my choice. We on the go for 19 hours since our last sleep and any mistake would cost us dearly.
It was slow going with occasional stops to check the route for the rest of my map. I handed over to Sean at Glenroe and we were close enough to Kates hometown for her to perk up and confirm that were on the right track. There was one tricky Nav choice left. The road crossing I had asked about at the Captain’s Q&A was coming up but Sean was on it. We missed a turn at Castle Oliver but quickly realised it and doubled back to climb up the south side of Ballyhoura. It was a steep relentless climb in the rain. We were cold and now awake 23 hours. It was over 63 hours into the race. We flew down the fire roads to the trail head centre and it was a hive of activity. There were head torches piercing through the trees all over the mountain trails.
Anything we gained now was a bonus. We chose the small Green trail loop to bag 100pts bonus for the cherry on top. We popped into the smelly steamy visitor centre initially to change batteries and raid the vending machine. There was gear everywhere, lights, nudity, snoring, you name it.
We soon hit the trail and completed the 6km green single track loop in under an hour. It included stopping for Sean to fix a mechanical, Sean falling off, me falling off and stopping to joyously dib the bonus control ☺ Back at the trail head centre the boys packed away the bikes into the boxes while Queen Gru attended to her feet ahead of the final trek/run. We dibbed out of transition at about 3am Sunday morning with bags of time to complete the 12km cross country to the finish.
Kate and Shane took off RUNNING for the first 2-3km on road and soft mud. Sean and I followed trying to keep up. We passed 3 teams in the first 3km at this pace. It felt insane to be RUNNING after 66 hours of racing. Nuts! The rain continued to pour but our spirits were high. Kate was reliving her mountain marathon win on the route and was positively bouncing. I faded after an hour and went into la la land. This route just meant following red arrows through mud, trail and fields but 25 hours on the go without sleep was taking hold of me. Sean had to force feed me with gels to perk me up.
With less than 2km to go we were still in danger of penalties. We entered a field with no apparent arrow. Kate and I were about to climb through a gap in a hedge when Shane spotted the arrow on the far corner. I just plodded in the direction of his voice. Having at one person lucid or semi lucid at all times had been crucial. If we had all hit a low point (like the march home on road after the Comeraghs), then a power nap was the least we had planned to do. No need this time, we ran most of the last km to the finish. It was an incredible feeling.
This was an awesome race. It’s a super challenging route no matter what level of team you are or how you approached it. Ivan Park and his team have not just put countless hours of planning an Adventure Race for the Adventure racers, but he is actively growing the sport in Ireland. Again it
was a special event. The volunteers getting sleepily out of their cars to greet teams, Ivan being disturbed from his sleeping bag in a smelly community hall every 10 minutes with questions, the marshals playing little jokes on sleepy racers. It’s all brilliant and what’s more is that I got to share it with Kate, Sean and Shane, 3 brilliant teammates. We finished strong in the last day to climb to 29th in the field and 6th Irish team home. It represented a step up in performance for team #TriHarder. It represents a new platform for us to build on to the next step. Stay tuned!
Watch some of what happened at the finish line in this video! Prize Giving is about to start!
Posted by The Beast of Ballyhoura on Sunday, 2 August 2015
#TriHarderAR finish video about 20sec into the clip..