Sean McFadden admits he didn’t have the best night’s sleep of his life last Friday night.
The Letterkenny native was running through his final thoughts ahead of participation in Ireland’s first ever endurance event - The Race.
It was only a few months beforehand that McFadden had the seed planted to take part in the mammoth 260km event. Whilst trying to cajole Claire McIlwaine into enrolling for some adventure races, events like the Mulroy Bay Challenge that takes place in Cranford, she had a comeback, knowing that McIlwaine possessed an adventurous streak.
For The Race, such a trait is just one of the necessities. Competitors were to run 22km from Gartan Adventure Centre to Lough Swilly, kayak 15km from Ramelton to Rathmullan and cycle 100km onto Muckish Mountain.
There they could run, walk or scramble the 5km 500-metre vertical metres up and down, cycle 75km onto Doochary before finishing with a 43km to Gartan Adventure Centre - a marathon along the paths and trails of Glenveagh.
“Claire came on it on internet and told me ‘I have the race for you,” McFadden says. “She was right. I thought that it was for me. I’d consider myself a strong bike rider having taken part in the Rás twice, could kayak a bit, had climbed Muckish a few times in the summer and had ran with Letterkenny Athletic Club for years. It was a matter of piecing it together.”
The event was plotted by David Burns from Coleraine and Limerick native Maghnus Colins. In Janaury 2013, they completed the ‘Silk Roads to Shanghai’, a daring, unsupported 16,000km journey that had started in Istanbul almost 11 months beforehand.
They cycled to Kathmandu via Turkey, Iran, India and Nepal before trekking by foot over the Tibetan Plateau to the source of the Yangtze River and by kayak onto Shanghai. The Yangtze stretched was understood never to have been passed by kayak before.
In 2010, Burns and Collins completed the gruelling 250km Sahara Race over five days in temperatures that reached 44 celsius.
The year beforehand, 2009, they cycled to Ireland from Cape Town, South Africa. It was a journey of 17,500km that took 11 months to complete.
All three were completed for Self Help Africa, a charity that works with rural communities to help them improve their farms and their livelihoods. It was the benefitting charity for The Race, too.
Thirty-seven-year-old McFadden had all the natural resources, had developed more than a competency in the kayak and learned the best method for attacking Muckish with fellow entrant Gavin Harris whilst taking tips from Sean Stewart.
“I could do 200km on a bike over six, seven or eight hours,” McFadden, also a member of Errigal Cycling Club, adds of his endurance experience. “After that, who knows. I knew I was in pretty good shape but not knowing if I could put all the elements together was the biggest challenge.
“I know Gavin Harris and people used to tell him a few years ago he couldn’t do a half marathon. The more people that said that, the more determined he got. When the Race came up, there was a lot of people saying they would enter but a lot of them pulled out.”
McFadden used every moment he had to spare and some he didn’t from his position as skills labourer with Letterkenny Town Council. He thanks colleagues Eddie Lennon, Eugene McGettigan and Mal Dunleavy for their patience and understanding.
“It was always going to be tough,” McFadden continues. “I train hard anyway. But this was a real test, 24 hours. But I knew that the Race could be won in 15 or 16 hours.”
To get to that standard - a time many felt was overly optimistic - McFadden worked closely with Eunan Quinn, his trainer and physiotherapist and the man still in receipt of the Donegal Ironman record time. Together, they knew that Bill Wells would take some beating. The Canadian, a full-time endurance athlete who had competed, amongst others, in Canada’s Death Race 125km UltraMarathon and three Adventure racing world championships.
Michael McCarron, who spent his spare time cycling and running in the Wicklow mountains, had progressed from sprint triathlons to Ironman and was looking for an even greater challenge.
So, after a night of twisting and turning, it was around 3:30am when McFadden made his way to Gartan Adventure Centre. The crowds were gathering, well-wishers sprinkled among nervous competitors under a shroud of darkness.
“There was a phenomenal crowd, even in the morning,” McFadden adds. “I’d have to thank my wife Irene, who gave me the time to train and prepare for this. Eunan Quinn kept me right and Louise Alcorn, I have to say, she was the anchor.
“She has been there at every race I have done this year regardless of the time. Louise was there at 5am checking out the numbers, who was who, where the favourites were.
“I was going to try and win it. I was, first and foremost, very wary that I had to finish because of the amount of people that had helped me. I had to put on a performance. We did a lot of homework. We looked and Bill Wells and Michael McCarron. We picked out those two as the two we thought would do the damage.”
McFadden ate breakfast, which would rumble around his stomach all morning, before setting off with the other hopefuls at 6am from Gartan through Trentagh to Ramelton.
By his own admission, he began conservatively, finishing the first leg in sixth place overall in a time of 1hour 47mins 27secs.
The kayak saw McFadden make ground; the 15km with the tide being completed in 1hour 12mins 45secs before saddling his bicycle at Rathmullan and heading for a gruesome 100km over Knockalla’s windy roads, through Portsalon and Fanad Head before going over the Harry Blaney Bridge and onto the Atlantic Drive.
McFadden was always expected to have a fruitful cycle and made his way over Lough Salt and onto the base of Muckish in 4hours 8mins 11 secs for a cumulative time of 7hours 8mins 25 secs.
He scampered up and down Muckish in 44mins 11secs - it was to prove the fasted leg of the day on the mountain - and was enough for second place, between Wells and McCarron.
“The gameplan was to start steady,” McFadden adds. “I gave a bit too much leeway as 1:47 for me for a 14-mile run wasn’t great. I was probably a little too cautious. If you look back at the splits, I was faster in the kayak by six minutes and faster on the mountain by six minutes - that’s 12 minutes. If I went with Wells - and I was well able to - it would’ve made a difference.
“That would’ve put me ahead of him after the kayak and that would’ve put my confidence up. Even if he caught me on the bike, I wouldn’t have been too far off. If I could see him, it would’ve been easier as it’s a bit of a case of out of sight, out of mind.
“The 100k bike was tough, probably the toughest leg. Wells was here in win and had nothing to lose. I had to finish first and foremost.”
McFadden hopped back on the bike at the base of Muckish and headed for the Bloody Foreland. If he could roll the clock back now, he admits he would’ve chosen an alternative plan.
“Wells used a time-trial bike and I didn’t,” McFadden says. “We looked at the terrain of Donegal and knew it would be a blowy day.
“I had him down to three minutes and really thought I had him cracked. I thought around Crolly I would see him but the next time gap I got was eight minutes.
“He was tucked down low and that really stood to him on a windy day. You can go serious well on one of those time-trial bikes. My bike set-up was probably wrong.
McFadden, with encouragement ringing in his ears from his mother Christine and auntie Dot, could almost smell Wells at the conclusion of the penultimate leg in Doochary, where the marathon would begin. Daylight had turned to night.
“When I did the transition Maghnus Collins said to me he was literally just gone out the door,” McFadden recalls. “ A friend of mine, Marty Bond, said he was only 0.4 of a mile down the road and then I heard Eunan Quinn telling me ‘he’s walking - you have cracked him’.”
With only the stars above and a small headlight to pierce the night, McFadden continued unabated on the lonely road to Gelnveagh. The legs were heavy but his heart was strong. Wells was still in front. He was running again.
“I got to the top of the Bridal Path but had a bit of cramp,” McFadden says. “I got a bottle of water and felt better. As I knew the area, there was a bit of cat and mouse. I turned my headlight off so could see the men behind me and in front of me but they couldn’t see me.
“Sean Stewart told me the gap was down to three minutes. That’s how it went but when I got down to Lough Inch, he walked up the climb and I ran up it. After that, I really started to suffer. Wells got a lease of life and went all ahead and that was it. Race over.”
With locals dotting the route, Wells made it to Glendowan Church still looking over his shoulder. He took the applause from the crowd to become the first ever champion of The Race, clocking 15h 22mins 10sec.
“I was all there but knew I couldn’t close the gap,” McFadden says of those painful few metres into Gartan as he walked for a little while, with his legs looking like they could seize up any second. He would run the marathon, after so much before, in 4hours 34mins 16secs for an overall time of 15hours 36mins 24secs. His pre-race prediction was on the money. McCarron would come third.
In terms of the fellow Donegal entrants, Gerard Callaghan finished sixth with 19hours 20mins 47secs, Gavin Harris was eighth with 19hours 54mins 30secs, Brendan McBride 14th in a time of 21hours 46mins 57secs and Arthur McMahon 19th in 22hours 36mins 46secs.
“I was happy at that stage as I had produced a performance and got second place,” McFadden says. “Not at one time did I feel as though I wasn’t going to make it. People asked afterwards how we ran a marathon to finish. But it didn’t feel like a marathon. The amount of support on the course was unreal.”
McFadden will continue to train with the same enthusiasm and would love to form part of the all-Donegal team for the Rás in May. There’s also consideration of an Ironman and another bite at the extreme sports. He needn’t decide right away. Unlike Friday night, that’s something he can sleep on.
“I’d love to see the Race coming back,” he adds. “Gartan Adventure Centre is the best kept secret in Ireland. People don’t realise what they have on their doorstep. The organisers looked at Galway, Westport, Dublin, you name it.
“Donegal had the facilities and the terrain. You have to hand it to Ursula McPherson, Sean McCrudden and Ciaran O’Brien and the organisers for a great event.
“I had a lot to prove and that was probably my only fear. That was my own fault. I’m the talk of the town today because I came second but would’ve been the talk of the town too if I hadn’t finished.
“I’m proud of second but as Collie and Ciaran O’Donnell, my friends from Letterkenny Athletic Club said: ‘McFadden doesn’t do bridesmaids.’ I would love it if The Race was on again tomorrow. I will definitely be back next year.”