IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Conquering ‘The Race’

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Conquering ‘The Race’
Last Saturday, The Race - Ireland’s first 24-hour unsupported endurance event, which takes place over 250km - was staged in Donegal for the second time. This is the story of three local competitors.

Last Saturday, The Race - Ireland’s first 24-hour unsupported endurance event, which takes place over 250km - was staged in Donegal for the second time. This is the story of three local competitors.

Gerard Callaghan- a 41-year-old father of four who works as a self-employed mechanic and panel beater in Letterkenny.

Callaghan, who has competed internationally in motor sport, was sixth male in The Race in 2014, having taken up adventure racing in 2012.

Denis Shields - a 45-year-old who owns North West Packaging, who also has four children and lives at Glen, Carrigart. Shiels played soccer in the Donegal League for 18 years with Cranford United.

He trained with friend Adrian McGettigan from Kilmacrennan for The Race having opted to take part this year for the first time.

Sean McFadden - the 38-year-old is a skills labourer with Donegal County Council and recently opened a gymnasium - Motiv8 Fitness Tri-Evolution - with Nigel Drain.

McFadden, who has four children, has taken part in the Rás twice and finished in second place in the inaugural staging of The Race last year, behind Canadian Bill Wells.

SMF: I was gunning for it since last year. There was a bit of pressure.

GC: Compared to last year, I was in better shape and had put in a good winter training.

DS: I was doing too much partying to be ready for it last year! I had times for each of the stages in my head but from very early I knew the wind and rain would change that.

It’s 5:15am on Saturday at Gartan Outdoor Education Training Centre and 64 competitors are awaiting the start of The Race.

Stage two - a kayak between Ramelton and Rathmullan - has been cancelled by the coastguard due to stormy weather.

The 22km stage one run from Gartan to Ramelton has now been extended another 12km onto Rathmullan.

SMF: I was ready for whatever the day would bring. Last year I went out too slow and was more aggressive on Saturday - maybe a bit too aggressive. I knew if I got out of sight early I could get away.

Eddie Brennan was ahead and I passed him at Trentagh crossroads. But no kayak it meant there was no let-up.

GC: I’m not really a runner. When it was announced that there would be no kayak my heart sunk. Last year the kayak gave an opportunity to rest.

But it was too stormy on Saturday. People would’ve ended up in Buncrana. It would’ve been like letting off a clatter of rubber ducks.

The toughest part for me was running onto Rathmullan at the start. After a full winter training I thought it was going to end in tears there and then.

My knee started hurting. I’d never run more than a half marathon before. Last year on the last stage I walked half of it. I wasn’t prepared for the extra distance on the run.

DS: Running is my comfort zone so I wasn’t too bothered when I heard about the kayak. I get bored running and seldom do much more than an hour but can get through it.

Stage two is a 100km cycle from Rathmullan over Knockalla through Fanad Head, the Atlantic Drive, Lough Salt onto Muckish. It’s wet and extremely windy. Sean McFadden leads.

SMF: By Kinnegar my left calf was cramping and around Atlantic Drive I started to hurt. Lough Salt was impossible in the wind. I was going about 2 mph and was actually crying.

Pulling out crossed my mind. I know it’s an adventure race but there was no lull whatsoever.

DS: From being reasonably comfortable, at Knockalla the cramps started. It was like a knife sticking into me the whole way as far as Muckish.

I was roaring in pain, waiting on my calves to explode. I live right by Lough Salt. I could see my house and was tempted to cycle home.

You get some mad thoughts. I tried to think maybe my wife Josephine and kids were ahead of me somewhere.

GC: I always enjoy the cycle. I saw loads walking the bikes at Lough Salt. All I kept thinking was of was the first bike race I ever won - it was a slow race at Scoil Colmcille when I was a child. It had come back to that.

I’m almost 42 and have been cycling since I was three. I’ve never been out in worse conditions. But after a worrying run I knew that I was going to make it.

Stage three is a 500-metre trek up and down Muckish. Competitors are warned about the gusts they will experience on the mountain - the summit is not visible because of cloud.

Sean McFadden is 21 minutes and 14 seconds ahead of Eddie Brennan from Dublin, while Westport native Sean McLoughlin close by is third.

Denis Shields is 16th with Gerard Callaghan ninth.

SMF: I did Gaelforce North before and damaged my quad. I was dreading coming down Muckish. Sean McLoughlin had been up with me training and we had gone up Muckish.

That day, he was cramping but on Saturday he was going like a train. I passed him and Eddie, who was second but was holding onto the heather - struggling - on my way down.

In your own head you’re trying to work out how long ago you passed by that same point. Sean passed Eddie for second.

GC: It wasn’t the worst but my goals had changed. It went from trying to build on last year’s performance to getting home in one piece.

DS: The wind coming down was like someone throwing gravel at your face.

Beforehand I imagined that if I made Muckish then I would finish. But conditions on the day meant I couldn’t be sure. ‘I’ve to get back onto this bike and face the wind’ was all I could think of.

Stage four sees the competitors head off on a 75km cycle from Muckish towards Bloody Foreland back through Gweedore, Dungloe and onto Doochary.

SMF: Out by Maghery the wind was that strong I was going from one side of the road to the other. All day I was getting time gaps. Some were right and some weren’t. You have to know who to believe is accurate.

GC: I love that area when I’m cycling and seeing the white horses bouncing off the rocks. It was just a matter of staying on the bike. Darkness fell very quickly.

DS: It’s a different ball game then. It’s lonely. It was pitch dark. I’d a lamp on the front of the bike and I’d be as well off with nothing.

I thought Doochary was closer than it actually was. The hills kept coming and I was getting weaker. I just worried in case something happened on the bike - a fall or a puncture - as that might’ve been it. I knew if I made the last run then it was down to me and only me.

As Callaghan and Shields complete the cycle in the dark, ahead of them McFadden has set of with a lead of 12 minutes or so with declining sunlight. Stage five was the final leg - a marathon from Doochary via Glenveagh National Park and back to Gartan.

SMF: I wasn’t for quitting but was, in my own head, ready to settle for second. My friend Ciaran O’Donnell gave me a few home truths and I started running. I got moving.

GC: The rain got into the headlight and out it went. I hadn’t planned for that. It was pitch black up as far as the Bridal Path. There was a guy there who gave me a bicycle light from his van and he helped me out. My challenge was making sure the knee didn’t get any worse. I was slowing but still going.

DS: I went 20 metres ahead of Adrian for the craic at one stage. I heard him shouting ‘wait, wait, wait’ and I looked back and he had legs like John Wayne. We laughed.

At the Bridal Path, it’s all water. I thought I was getting hypothermia. At the castle at Glenveagh we saw two lights.

It was Gerard Callaghan and Gavin Harris from Convoy. We wanted them to come with us but they told us to go on. When you get out on the road you can see Gartan and that’s the worst bit.

There’s 12 kilometres to go as it’s across the lake. You consider swimming it.

At 9:08pm Sean McFadden approaches the finish line back at Gartan. He crossed in 15 hours five minutes and 30 seconds swinging his top around his head as he salutes the those gathered in the rain.

SMF: There was a huge crowd; my wife Irene and the children, my mother, my sister - it felt like half the county was there. I was relieved.

McFadden is followed by McLoughlin and Brennan with Brian McBride from Gweedore in fourth. Shields and McGettigan come home in a time of 19 hours 39 minutes and 10 seconds for 10th and 11th place. Callaghan arrives at 20:24:43 for 15th.

DS: I was three hours down on what I thought I’d get. But I didn’t care. The toughest part was the last two kilometres. It was brilliant to finish. I was glad Adrian and I finished together. We kept one another going.

GC: I actually got a cabinet made for the house to put my medal in. That’s how much it means to me. And I never did that for anything before. All the rest of the stuff is laying at the bottom of a drawer.

It’s an epic event and a credit to the organisers. The county is built for this type of event - we’re honoured to have it here and Gartan is a brilliant base. We feel like shareholders in this now!

With aching limbs, the competitors all have stories to tell. Already the talk is about 2016

GC: I was always into sport and then life took over. But after a while you look back and think why did I worry about this and that.

All that matters is that you and your family have good health and you can enjoy life. If you can get a notion into your head that something can be done then it’s up to you to go and do it.

SMF: I like to win and I like to compete. Someone said to go back and do it and enjoy it next year but I can’t see that. It’s all or nothing with me. The support was massive.

It can be hard for people who are hurting out there and I was but I got great support. This year was 10 times tougher than last year.

People ask how I did it and I just tell them, there’s no rocket science in it. If you are willing to put in the hard work then you will get your reward.

I came second last year and I was around the schools and managed to get sponsors on board and who knows, it might be the same this year?

The Race has certainly changed my life.