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Outdoors / The Pack / Sean McFarlane

IRISH COAST TO COAST WITH SEAN MCFARLANE

Sean McFarlane delivers his most recent adventure described as "double epic"when he took no the Irish Coast to Coast race. Read more about his non stop journey.

The 2014 race season was starting over 500 kilometres from home for me. I couldn’t work out if the fact that the race would take me more than half the way back home was a good thing or not. But one thing was clear – the first ever non-stop edition of the Irish Coast to Coast race was going to be in the top adventure category of “double epic”.

We arrived after a long day of travelling on Thursday evening. The decision not to take the hour detour and look at the midpoint in the kayak course would come back to haunt me but it very much felt like the right one at the time. A pint of the black stuff and some decent nosebag and it was an early night for the team. But the start of a sore throat was worrying. Friday morning was all about preparation. It all seemed to go rather quickly, no doubt due to a couple of decent cafe stops, a photo shoot on the beach, and a play in the surf. It did achieve the key aim of putting a smile on our faces though, so job done. My cold was certainly there though but there was nothing I could do about it now.

The non-stop version of this race, a new feature for this year, didn’t start until midday on Saturday. Much talk had been had about the merits or otherwise of doing so, but that was the rules for everybody and all too soon we were standing on the beach awaiting the start. I knew my cold was a big issue but I was always going to start this one and make every effort to finish. The key was just at no point too far from the finish to totally knacker myself, so that was the aim. My good friends Nick and Al were also doing the race as a team and we’d agreed, as you’re encouraged to do, to bike the first 110k bike leg together as much as possible. So the first 5k out and back beach run was a leisurely affair and fine by me.

Into the first transition, bike kit on and off we went. Quickly. The wind at our backs was great and we biked the first section pretty hard. After an hour or so I was convinced we were in the lead but meeting the WAGS at the halfway point we were told there was one single guy two minutes ahead. I pulled away from the others with about 20k to go, confident that they would catch me on the kayak and we could maybe work together once again.

 I’d done this race once before, and totally messed up the kayak by going way off course and even falling in at one point when I was luckily close to shore. I was fully focussed on not doing that again. So off I set, about ten minutes down from the leader at that point. After about 45 minutes the safety boats approached me, told me I was closing on the leader, only to then blast off and cause a sizeable and alarming wake. I could have handled that and just take the waves head on. But I was approaching a bridge right at that point so the waves banged off its sides and came back. High sea time and I was in trouble. Over I went. I quickly got back in and felt ok. But soon afterwards I hit the large lake on the course, Garradice, where I had messed things up before. It’s a very exposed piece of water and the wind was creating some decent waves. I managed to paddle solidly and quickly to the corner of the island in the middle but with my clothes soaked I was getting cold, really cold. Once at the corner of the island, I was jubilant, thinking I’d done the hard part. And I had. But I was freezing. I wasn’t sure at all at that point where to go and was too cold to stop and check the map. So off I ploughed, in the wrong direction, for a long time. It was a massive mistake. Eventually I began to shake so much with the cold that it was obvious I would soon capsize. So I beached, fully intending to abandon, began doing star jumps and hill reps to keep warm, then walked towards a farmhouse confident that I was on course and my support team were round the corner. Having warmed up, I eventually decided getting back in the boat was a better option, so I continued, still in the wrong direction. Eventually the safety boat reached me and pointed me in the right direction and I was eventually back on course. The tracking shot tells it all.

I’d lost over an hour. I was 10th person (including teams) into the half way point. It was a disaster. But at least I had plenty to overtake now. So off I went on the rest of the paddle. Four and a quarter hours after starting, the paddle was over. Just the small matter of a 140k overnight bike and 35k run up and down Ireland’s highest peak left. We’d been incredibly lucky with the weather which was forecast to rain all day but up until now had been dry. But the clouds were looming and the ride started with some unwelcomed drizzle. Same for everybody though. The rules for this bike leg were that during the hours of darkness the support car was to drive 50 metres behind you the whole way with the hazards on. I was keen to only do this when it was properly dark and Andy had leant me a light that light up the whole of Western Europe. So I biked in a somewhat Zombie-like manner until about 11pm and then the car joined me. Biking overnight, on a time trial bike at a decent pace was a strange and new experience. I enjoyed it, though won’t be looking to do it again anytime soon.

I arrived at the run start transition at 1am. It was a very mild night though I knew my cold was now causing me to run a fever so although I started in short and t-shirts, my good sense, aka my wife’s advice, kicked in and I returned to the car for a base layer. The leader was now literally miles ahead so the clear aim was to consolidate second place. I’d hoped my legs would feel better for the start of the run and I wasn’t moving at the pace I’d hoped for. But I’d passed both third and fourth placed competitors on the bike and they both had frankly looked done. So I wasn’t overly concerned. I looked back after about 10k and couldn’t see any lights at all so began to relax.

Half way point on the run at Spegla dam was preceded by a kilometre climb on the road. This signalled the start of my walking. Meeting the team at 4am for a final time before the finish was strangely alarming because as they set off to the finish, I knew I still had a long way to go and was, to use a technical term, totally cabbaged. My stomach was in a bad way. It had held up remarkably well given the nasty combo of chemicals I’d thrown at it since midday, together with what was now a full-on cold. But I was now completely done. After 16 hours of racing, this was now getting into “expedition” territory and both me and my body were very aware this was new to us. The day began to dawn and lifted the spirits, slightly, but it was all far too little too late. The approach up the mountain section was now a walk for me. Up and onto the ridge and magnificent Mournes, I just had to stop and look around. And I did, a lot. They really are fabulous and being the first, well actually the second, person up there that day was without doubt the highlight. I was very close to sitting down for a proper awe inspired gaze but I knew if I did I’d fall straight to sleep. Plus I had to summit Slieve Donnard.

Eventually on its final ascent, I was especially grateful for the sturdy wall on its western flank and the shelter it gave me from the howling wind as I had stupidly not packed any tights. Finally on its summit, I dibbed and then walked down, very slowly. With knees now aching badly, the slow walk continued until into Newcastle itself and only the fear of pictures awoke me from my saunter to manage a shuffle across the line. Runner-up for me in almost 20 hours. I was more than convincingly beaten, by almost three hours, by Finbar McGurren. Even cold free, with an upright and straight line kayak, I would have been nowhere near him. It was a mighty impressive performance by the affable Irishmen- they all are.

It was a great race and the lack of sleep added to the dream like nature of it. It may have been a nightmare at times but I was now only a short ferry ride and hour drive from home.

29/05/2014
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