Lone runner or running with the tribe? Adventures in Achill give me the answer

Why did I enter a 63km adventure race? In part to prove to myself I could do it. But also to prove that I could do it alone. I have embarked on several long and challenging running adventures with friends over the past couple of years but I was still unsure whether I could endure a long solo event. I love Achill, one of the wildest corners of Ireland, what better way to experience more of it?

I worked out a training plan and stuck to it. I planned meticulously what I would eat and once my bags were packed according to my well-thought out list, there was nothing left to do but enjoy the experience. At the start I was a little nervous, there was a gale blowing and that would make the bike section along the Atlantic coast pretty difficult. I scanned the crowd at the start line to find another woman, Women Run Strong together after all. I joined a little huddle of two other women standing at the edge of the crowd and chatted. One was a veteran hill runner, her second time in the race, it hadn’t gone to plan the first time so she wanted to chase that demon. I hoped that my race plan would work.

After the final briefing which warned us to take care in the stormy weather, the pack raced along the beach. I was happy to run at my own pace, keeping an eye on my watch to make sure that the spectacle of the crashing waves wasn’t distracting me too much from my target timings. This is where I love to be, I thought to myself. The hill we were about to climb loomed grey above us but I just enjoyed the energy of the sea and the sight of runners streaming for 3km ahead of me.

On the climb up the hill it became apparent that many of the runners were not prepared for hill running. They were wearing road shoes on a boggy cliff path. I fell over a couple of times overtaking men who were sliding around and in danger of crashing into someone. No harm done, mud is soft. Feeling a little foolish for falling, but smug in my trail shoes, the biggest climb began. Up in the mist the silence was beautiful, all the runners focused on the climb ahead. I should start eating now I thought.

The gale hit us with full force as we got to the first summit, a statue of Mary marked the spot. Only in Ireland! The next section was treacherous and needed full concentration, bog and rock, no room for mistakes or time to eat. Happy to reach the checkpoint at the top I faced into the wind for the descent and was almost blown over.

I love running downhill. This was an extra special experience, this is what I came for. The beach and the whole island stretched out before me. The best view ever. Elated I bounced over the heather, whooping with happiness. There is no better feeling of freedom in the world. Over 90 minutes had passed without sharing my joy with anyone, so I was delighted to spot my sister-in-law coming up the hill to her checkpoint. I waited so we could run back to our bikes (4km) together.

Once back on the beach and battling to run straight into the wind I felt that something was wrong. I had run out of energy. I simply couldn’t keep pace with Liz and told her to continue without me. “How could this happen?”, I asked myself. I just hadn’t eaten enough, what a stupid rookie mistake to make. Shot blok, ½ cereal bar, ½ bagel, all should have been consumed before now. I recalled my eating plan and tried to get back on track. I ran, walked and ate my way back to my bike, shocked at myself and worried that I still had a 45km bike ride ahead of me, probably almost 3 hours to race.

At the bike I focused on my plan. Hydration salts, banana, change backpack. Feeling heavy I hauled myself onto the bike, glad to sit down. With the wind in our backs 10km passed quite quickly. I was being overtaken, but I expected that. I wasn’t worried just riding my own race. I knew the route and tackled hills and descents with renewed confidence now that my sugar levels were back up. “I can do it”, I thought as I sailed down the hill before the junction which would take us back to the coast.

Then I felt a sudden pain in my leg. I glanced down to see a hornet flying away. As I was going too fast to stop suddenly I continued, turned at the marshal as planned, and a little way up from the junction stopped in agony and feeling a little sick. I can’t ditch the race because of one small insect. “I just have to get rid of the pain”, I said to myself, #strongerthanyouthink is my motto after all. I took a couple of paracetamol, and a shot blok for sugar and caffeine to keep the energy flowing. “I’ll be fine”, I decided.

And I was! I battled the wind along the coast for the next 20km or so, trying to admire the view when I wasn’t straining too much to get up a hill or hanging on the handlebars to stop myself getting blown off on the descents. It is the most spectacular route in Ireland and that’s part of the reason I wanted to do it. The crashing waves around every corner are exhilarating, if you could forget about the long road ahead.

I had promised myself I would walk up to the final checkpoint, a chance to eat and take a few photos. It was wonderful to see the marshal and the checkpoint. In my race plan this was the point where I had allowed myself the option of pulling out if I felt truly awful. I gritted my teeth and decided I could make it home.

The rest of the race was a bit of a haze, over two hours on a bike does that to you. The undulating section over the bog with great views was almost relaxing as I found a man who was happy to chat and ride at my pace for a bit. By now people were falling by the wayside, stopping, refuelling, perhaps thinking about how far there was still to go. I fought against the wind uphill and down on the final 10km home, spurred on by the fact that the faster I went the sooner it would be over. Carefully keeping the sugar levels high I even managed to overtake a couple of guys on the final stretch.

I dropped my bike, stretched out my wobbly legs and turned to run to the finish. I couldn’t believe it, home at last. I had done it, 4 hours 32 minutes alone against the elements… and a hornet. So happy to finish, happy that mentally and physically I had succeeded and very sure that I didn’t need to take on the same challenge again.

When I entered the 63km Quest Achill adventure race I didn’t imagine that I was signing up to be a lone adventurer. My previous adventure racing experiences were at the 31km level where even if you started the race not knowing anyone, by the finish you had built a rapport with other participants. The struggles to climb the hills and battle the wind were shared. Participants shouted encouragement to each other. I discovered that at double the distance the folk that race are out to test themselves, not to chat with random strangers.

I learned a lot about myself. While I am happy to be very independent and confident in my preparation for adventures, it’s a much richer experience for me when the challenge itself is shared. I enjoy sharing the highs and lows, sharing the elation at the top of the mountain or when faced with the roaring Atlantic waves. To congratulate other participants along the way and acknowledge that in our shared struggle we are #strongerthanwethink.

The race reconfirmed that Women Run Strong is my tribe, and that running with the tribe is what I love to do.

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