The best way to see a country? Run an adventure race. Millions of tourists come to Ireland each year, many of which experience it only from behind a bus window. You need to feel the wet, spongy bog beneath your feet, breathe the salt air, paddle the lakes and coastlines, or cycle through the forest trails in order to get a real feel for the country.
Thanks to Columbia Sportswear, Failte Ireland, and Killary Adventure Co, a group of us were able to run Gaelforce North in County Donegal, up in the northwest of Ireland. Over a course of approximately 42-64 kms, you run, bike, climb, and kayak your way unsupported alongside hundreds of others through the rugged countryside. First started in 2006, numerous Gaelforce events are now held across the entire west of Ireland, encouraging visitors to come experience the region and making adventure sport more accessible to the Irish as well as the odd crazy tourist.
Columbia Pour Osity Jacket: Ireland is not exactly known for it’s sunny weather so although we got lucky, you can probably expect to get wet during the race. You need a jacket that can breathe while you work hard but still properly protect you from heavy rain and wind.
Bike Helmet: A requirement of the race.
Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 2.0: The adventure race is unsupported, so you need to carry all the water, food, and gear required for the day. Ultimate Direction packs and vests are purpose built for ultra and adventure racing with a low profile hydration reservoir, pockets on the straps for easy access to snacks, and emergency whistle (another requirement of the race).
Montrail Rogue Fly: With an aggressively lugged, sticky rubber Gryptonite outsole, I had no problems clambering up and down steep, slippery terrain in these minimalist trail shoes.
After an early morning start to get to the race location, the van let us out on the side of a tiny road, with nothing but an inflatable start gate surrounded by endless bog land and rolling mountains. We received our race numbers and our “dibbers” that we would have to wear for the duration of the race. A small box sat at the beginning of each stage where you had to “dib” or check in to record your leg time (and make sure you weren’t lost on the course).
Neither Berne nor I had run an adventure race or really ever raced much of anything for that matter, so as the midges swarmed our heads at the start line, we made a pact to run the course together and enjoy the experience for what it was—a way to see the country and interact with the local community.
I signed up for the 42 km sprint rather than the full course. It consisted of 7 stages, starting with a 10-11km run through Glenveagh National Park (the second largest national park in Ireland) and past Lough Beagh, before we hopped on our bikes and rode to the base of Mt. Errigal, the tallest point in Donegal, for the second leg of the journey.
This bike portion was my favorite. Although it would have been amazing to hammer out the newly paved road sections on a lightweight, carbon fiber race bike, sitting upright Kermit-style on my cruiser bike enabled me to better enjoy the scenery and chat with fellow riders.
One particular section appeared as though we had been transported directly into the Walter Mitty movie where he longboards across the countryside of Iceland. Riding on a wide open road with a view of Mt. Errigal in the distance, I felt free.
There is no way to describe Stage 3 and the climb up Mt. Errigal other than a thigh burner. I had this image in my head of a lovely trail run to the summit, but as soon as we parked our bikes at the base and looked up, it was evident we would be off-roading through bog and scree straight up the side of mountain. Some people climbed on all fours on the way up and all fives on the way down—it was that steep and slippery. And that’s after 3 weeks without much rain. Regardless, everyone cheered everyone else on as we universally pushed and endured the burn.
After making it back down the mountain, we grabbed our bikes and pedaled to Dunlewy Lough, where we hopped in a two person kayak for a quick but incredibly scenic spin around a buoy in the middle of the lake.
The last bike stage was all off-road through the forest into Bunbeg on the Atlantic coast. Portions of the trail were extremely rocky—many of the roadies preferred to walk some treacherous sections, while more than a few people flatted. Apart from those really pushing for a place on the podium, almost everyone else was willing to stop and help a fellow racer. We came across a poor guy with a rear flat and no idea what to do, so Berne hopped off and changed the flat for him.
Just when you thought you were finished, the final stage included a short run down the beach and up through the sand dunes before crossing the finish line to the cheers and support of the crowd. I successfully completed my first adventure race, and in a beautiful, friendly country to boot.
The day ended with a well-deserved Guinness (or two) at one of the local pubs scattered along our drive back to Lough Eske Castle. With the pain in our legs starting to dull, we found ourselves already discussing our trip back to Ireland to run more Gaelforce events.