Having previously raced City to Summit and Man vs Mountain, South African age-grouper Markus Pieterse has plenty of experience in long-course triathlons. But his search for new adventures and places to race brings him to a very dark place on the rugged landscape of Donegal, Ireland…
Coming across The Race was pure luck – not sure if good nor bad really, the link was hidden away in a blog that I was reading at the time. As soon as the homepage of The Race opened up in front of me I wanted to do this – a triathlon that includes a kayak across North West Ireland, why not?
In essence it involves a 22km run into 15km kayak into 96km cycle into 5km up and down Muckish mountain, into 70km cycle and finally into a marathon to end. People are usually laughing by the time I get to the marathon bit when talking about it.
Fast forward to 4am D-Day, the word gets spread that the weather is so bad that the kayak is cancelled and we’ll have to run another 14km or so instead. Strategy gets thrown out the window, and my heart sinks into my shoes. A 35km run before we even get to the hard bit? How the hell will I be able to do this? 5:50am, everyone is on the start line and there’s a mix of emotion in the air, the runners are happy and smiling, the rest of us not so much. 6am and we’re off, with only head torches to light the way for the first few kilometres.
It’s wet, it’s windy but it’s warm. The first 22km I’m getting passed by what seems at the time as everyone, finally sticking with a new friend called Declan. As we get to where we were supposed to kayak we grab a few gels and off we go again, 14km later we finally reach the first cycle leg, after 35 soggy kilometres.
The first 48km of bike leg one goes by smooth and fast, I’m thinking to myself: “Hey, this isn’t so bad.” But then come the hills, the wind and the very sticky tarmac. I’m barely moving, no cadence to speak of and now every muscle in my legs came alive with fire. Relentless hills draining energy, physically and emotionally. It’s the longest 96km cycle of my life and now I have to climb a mountain.
The halfway mark
At the transition we get the news that we can only go two-thirds of the way up as it’s too windy to get to the top – a bit of relief, though it was short lived. Just past the halfway mark is the first time I really think about throwing in the towel, two steps up and you’re down on your face in the spongy undergrowth, cold, wet and covered in mud. There’s no telling from which direction the wind will come next, only that Mother Nature will take you down as soon as you get up.
After a gruelling hour on the mountain it’s onto the final 70km cycle. “My legs feel good, but how?” I mumble to myself. Of course that’s rectified as soon as the headwind hit and I have to pedal to go downhill. It feels like my tires and the tarmac have merged and I’m constantly fighting to inch forward bit by bit. As it gets dark I arrive at the final transition, and after a quick change of clothing and a mouthful of sweets it’s off again. All I want by this stage is for it all to be over.
In the black of night
The final leg starts with a 14km run up a hill in the pitch black, with my head torch being the only light for miles around. Then it’s left and off road, the marshal who’s showing the way is the last person I will see for hours. In the black of night, exhausted, sore, physically and emotionally drained is where you learn the most about who you really are deep, deep down. My head torch gives a warning flash: “I’m still miles from the finish, what next?” I think to myself.
Digging through my bag I find my spare bike light – a bit of luck, now to hope that it will take me to the finish. Hills, hills and more hills. “How can I be going uphill all the time? Surely I must go down at some point? What is this place?” I mumble to myself, trying to keep on moving. The miles are going by slower and slower with every step I take.
On top of the hill I see light, or I think I do. “Am I seeing things? Again?’ No!! People!! And the only thing I needed to hear: “Just down to the left and you’re done.” It’s over, emotions wash over me, I don’t know what to feel but there it is, the finish to the toughest race I have ever done.
(Images: Paul Doherty)
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