Some months have passed now since I completed TAWR 2018. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the event and what I’ve learned. The time is right to share my perspective.
This is written in two parts as I approached and experienced the race/ride as two distinct phases.
- Phase 1 make it to the ferry by Sunday night, day 4.
- Phase 2 make it to the finish as quickly as possible.
TAW 2017 was my first ever ultra endurance cycle event and I ended up retiring or “scratching” from the race just 300km from the finish and in an astounding, to me, 6th place. This was due to what’s known as Shermer’s neck whereby your neck muscles become so fatigued that they can no longer adequately support your head whilst cycling.
This condition is very dangerous when descending hills in particular as it becomes impossible to see where you’re going. You’re a serious danger to yourself and other road users. (Another rider in this years TAW and suffering from this ended up cartwheeling off the road into a field. He was very lucky to escape serious injury)
TAW 2018 presented a different set of challenges because race director Adrian O’Sullivan had altered the course to include a ferry trip across the Shannon. I saw this as having the effect of making it two races in one. Those who made it to the ferry before the last ferry on the Sunday (Day 4) night would have about a 10 hour advantage over those behind that missed the last ferry. Race two was within the group that made that Sunday ferry.
The challenge of reaching this ferry really piqued my imagination and inspired me. I knew it was a hard task and looking at my progress in TAW 2017 revealed that I made it to near the ferry terminal on the Monday (Day 5) at around 18:00. Basically I needed to shave about 24 hours off my 2017 time to cover a similar distance. Eeek!
I knew from my 2017 race that I could certainly ride more efficiently and I was also wiser about re-supply options and many other aspects of making progress. So, there it was, my challenge, make the last ferry on Sunday and then secondly make it to the finish.
My technique is to split the GPS route into ambitious but theoretically achievable day length targets. I use RideWithGPS for planning this as it offers me estimated times based on the terrain and my ride history.
The ambitious results look like so:
- Dublin to Buncrana – 363km
- Buncrana to Ballina – 428km
- Ballina to Costelloe – 428km
- Costelloe to Tralee – 294km
- Tralee to Kenmare – 367km
- Kenmare to Kinsale – 390km
I work best with high targets that I may fail to make rather than with sensible targets that I hope to surpass or absolutely have to make. You’ll notice that day 4 is shorter and you should note that Tralee is some 85km further on than the Kilrush ferry; this is the “cushion” in my planning. In hindsight I really think I should have planned more achievable days rather than trying to truly outdo myself!
The end result to the ferry was:
- Dublin to Buncrana – 363km, 15hr 28min moving time, 17hr 30min elapsed.
- Bunncrana to Skreen – 372km, 17hr 25min moving time, 19hr 44min elapsed.
- Skreen to Check Point 2 – 357km, 15hr 50min moving time, 18hr elapsed.
- CP 2 to Kilrush ferry – 315km, 13hr 26min moving time, 15hr 13min elapsed.
- Total duration from race start to ferry including sleep: 3 days 8 hours 30min
- Total moving time: 2d 14hr 9min
- Total elapsed time: 2d 22hr 27min
- Total fully stopped / sleep time: 10hrs 3min
I am pretty proud of this achievement I have to say.
No wonder I looked and felt knackered.
(I also felt extremely content!)
How those 4 days unfolded and my later refections
Coach Martin Burrows had done an excellent job in periodising my training up to the event. I was raring to go with all indications suggesting that I was about 10% stronger than the year previous. It was to be a staggered start organised alphabetically by first name, which meant I was in the first group away, accompanied by race favourites Bernd Paul and Bjorn Lenhard and so it was that I set off directly behind those two and 4th place finisher Aidan Allcock.
I could maintain their pace but I knew that I could not maintain it for more than a few hours so I eased back and let them ride off. It wasn’t long before I was riding alone, then surprisingly Bjorn rode past me, seems I had a better route! Then it was Karen Tostee who whizzed by with a smile. Awhile later she went by again, “I want your route” she said!
I knew that the only way I was going to make my target was to ride the 230km to Derry as close to non-stop as possible. I had 3 x 950ml of water and juice mix plus 2 Cokes and I think a Lucozade, as well as various snack bars. It was hot for Ireland though with temps in the high 20’s. This meant I didn’t have enough fluids for me to do this distance in these conditions but I didn’t want to stop either. As luck would have it I rode past a chap hosing his front garden who kindly let me top up my bottles with barely a pause. Result!
Karen rode past again! She’d stopped to refuel, that lady is quick and if it hadn’t been for some mechanical and other problems she’d have been a serious contender for a win I think.
I made it to Derry as 11th to CP1, I was pretty happy with that. I rode on a bit and stopped at a Spar to refuel and provision for the night ahead. So far so good. It was refreshing to be into the cool of the evening but I was well aware that I still had about 130km to ride to make my days target.
All was going well and I’d already ridden well past my previous year’s bivi stop in daylight when I hit a pothole and my tracker bounced out of its cradle into the long grassy roadside verge. Doh! I spent what felt like a very long hour trudging up and down with my torch until I finally located it. Other riders either flew past or paused to check I was ok. Some helped me look though they probably shouldn’t have according to self-supported rules but either way I did find it myself by treading on it! I stubbornly pressed on to Buncrana and made it at about 04:00 as the sky was brightening and with the challenging climb of the Mamore Gap completed in darkness.
It was my worst ever bivi spot choice though, a midge infested field! My bag has a fly mesh but that doesn’t stop all the sods that join you inside. Never you mind the unpleasantness of the wet wipe ablutions before you get in. The midges were intense on many occasions during TAW 2018 whereas in 2017 I didn’t meet a single one.
First night’s rest was not so brilliant but still I was on the road again at 07:28 with another long day ahead of me. Happy enough though and awake without an alarm,
I remember surprising little of day 2 beyond it being hot. My Wahoo recorded a high of 32c. What I do remember however is the infamous gravel section of the route at the Glenveagh National Park. This was a delight because as I reached the lower sections there were lots of teenage school kids ambling along oblivious to my speeding approach. I’d recently invested in a proper old style brrrriiinng brrrrring type bike bell because these don’t seem to annoy anybody and frankly it just gives me a smile.
So to alert the either chatting or phone distracted youths I took to ringing my bell cheerfully and high five-ing them as I rode past. It must have been a funny sight and I delighted in the connection, an old git celebrates the day with the young! It raised my spirits and hopefully theirs.
This was also the day of a very hot Glengesh Pass ascent.
A lot of riders had passed me in the night but gratifyingly I was slowly moving back up through the field and was back to 12th by late afternoon, though there was a huge and intimidating number of riders very close behind. Again I rode past my previous year’s bivi stop many hours earlier, in bright daylight. I pressed on until about 03:00 which moved me back upto 6th just behind Karen. (I only know this now from re-playing the tracker) That night I bivi’d in the shelter of a timber mill loading bay, midge free.
On the road again 07:25, alarm set but again not needed. Operation get to CP2.
At this point in the race I’m physically fine apart from increasingly painful saddle sores but all good elsewhere. Equipment wise my Igaro usb charger wasn’t working but I had a powerful power bank as backup that might well see me through to the finish anyway. So no real problems, though I could feel the fatigue and my slowing pace but that was only to be expected.
It was about now that I began to meet familiar faces passing me on the road. Firstly Gavin Dempster, young, fast and friendly. We’d chat briefly and compare notes. He was riding fast and recovering longer I was riding slow and sleeping/stopping less as I just don’t have riding that fast in my bag of tricks.
Then, come Achill Island, I met up with Matt Ryan and we fooled about to and fro right till the ferry. Achill was very different to how it was in 2017 and rather boring by comparison. In 2017 it was a gale of wind, rain, sea foam blown from hundreds of feet below and kamikaze sheep leaping into my path. This year it was a slog more than an adventure!
On exiting the isle I stopped at a little grocers to feed and stock up for the night, Matt also paused briefly but then rode on ahead. This was a long night section to make it to CP2. Fortunately I love the peace of night riding and find that time just blurs into a continuum but as the hours passed I was seriously ready to rest and desperately trying to calculate the distance to the ferry and how far I had to get before I could back off a little.
Foolishly I hadn’t worked out how far the ferry was from CP2 and in my head I had it at around 250km, a relatively easy day’s ride. It turns out that it’s actually 315km.
Eventually I made it to CP2 at around 01:30 to the unlikely sight of Chris Herbet smoking a cigarette as he and I think David Thomlinson prepared to depart. Adrian O told me that if I carry on now I’ll be in 5th. That wasn’t an option!
I’d planned on another 3hr sleep but I discovered that it was 315km to the ferry rather than my hopeful 250km-ish. Holy cripes! I had it in mind that the last ferry was at 20:00 but I wanted to target the 19:00 one so as to give me some contingency time. All I had to do now was stop an excited Adrian form talking so much and get some sleep. A mere 90 mins lying on a bunk fully clothed and virtually unwashed. This time my alarm dragged me slowly, wearily, to reluctant consciousness and so began my time trial to the ferry. 03:50 am Sunday.
This was certainly the hardest riding and most exciting ride of the race for me. I felt fully on the mission, go, go, go! Whilst I wasn’t riding as physically powerfully as day 1 I was giving it my all rather than keeping a bit in the bin. It’s very exciting to fully give something your absolute all.
This is a flatter section on the route in general but it is also plagued with some horrendous, cracked, corrugated, saddle sore jarring road surfaces but I ignored it all and basically trashed my neck and hands by spending too long on the TT bars and by taking the weight off my oh so sore backside with my arms and hands.
09:00 had me at Costelloe for my first full Irish breakfast of the trip. The cafe manager smiled and said “you in the race as well? The others left not long ago”, “Indeed I am! Full Irish please and two black coffees” Off I went to freshen up in bathroom. Upon my return a large rotund chap was sat eating a full Irish…my full Irish!!
Don’t they know I have a ferry to catch! The waiter, whom I think hadn’t seen me, just brought it out and gave it to the only customer in the room. Oh well, another was duly ordered and I set about my coffee and catching up with the race on my phone.
One event that I haven’t mentioned was that I’d accidently left my down jacket hanging on a garage toilet door, though I could not say exactly where without lots of battery and time hungry tracker reviewing. My wife had sent messages to race HQ and the media cars were on the lookout which was nice though I knew that even if they found it that they could not return it to me before race finish. Happily, the weather was warm and it was less than essential, even if it did also serve duty as my sleeping bag. I had a few other layers and could keep warm in mid teen night temps.
Breakfast done it was time to crack on! At this point I was once again ahead of Karen, Gavin and Matt and our pack was building a steadily increasing gap ahead to the main bunch behind us. Bjorn and Bernd were in a race of their own well out ahead.
Matt reeled me in at around 15:00 near Doolin and chided me for not stopping long enough at CP2 🤣. Once more he rode off into the distance and I carried on my steady plod. A fatigued while later I stopped for supplies and decided to double check the ferry times. “Ummm last ferry is 21:00 not 20:00, oh fine I’ve got plenty of time then.” I relaxed and bought another coffee.
Then the thought, “Ummm so how far is it yet? Oh, so I could still just make the 19:00 ferry. Better go for that then”
Now began the really exciting bit with long flat fast sections where I though “Yes! I’ll make it easily if it doesn’t get too hilly” only to then be confronted with a hill. At this point I was on an emotional roller coaster, from crying for no reason other than the emotional release, to laughing, shouting and cheering for the shear foolish thrill of it all, relishing the singular purpose of catching that darn ferry. I even accidentally climbed a very steep hill in my 34×28 gear rather than the 34×36 grandad gear that I usually resort to!
Matt caught up again, he’d had a stop as well, and I kept him in my sights ahead as we completed the final dash. Made it with just minutes to spare! A grinning Pawel Pulawski and an incredibly tired looking David Tomlinson were there as well; having just missed the 18:00 ferry. Photographer Richard Marshall captured some images.
It was gratifying to see how totalled these young chaps looked.
I did it, I bloody did it!
I was going to celebrate with a shower and a B&B on the other side!
Reflections, what I might do differently
- Go easier on day 1 in particular. Spread my effort so less recovery is required.
- Plan my days more accurately and efficiently.
- Relax my bike fit.
Not much else, pace, recovery and comfort are everything as I see it. I made the ferry but to have achieved a better final position I’d have had to pace slower and miss the Sunday ferry. I don’t regret this though. These intense 4 days will stay with me forever,
In part two I’ll cover my steady decline from 9th place to 43rd, a different kind of ride/walk.