Train, work, eat, work, train, eat, chill, sleep, repeat.
And so it goes, in our daily conquest to be the best parent, child, employee, boss, athlete, friend, sibling, neighbour.
Round and round, and over and over, week in, week out, and then…
Months go by, years fly by, and suddenly family have moved on, retirement is on the horizon and finally, finally there is time.
Time to do all the things we never had time to do. But now we are tired, the energy has lapsed and even the desire has diminished.
2020 has been a year like no other. For all the negatives that Covid 19 has brought, it has created some surprising positives.
At the end of February 2020 I was confronted with the untimely death of my dear mother, my little yogi. Having suffered from poor health for as long as I can recall, for the last three years Dementia took what was left of the most humble, resilient, kind, beautiful lady I will ever have the honour of knowing.
One thing my mother always had was time. We never felt rushed. There was always a sense of calm in her presence. Always time for a cup of tea and a chat.
Up until then I had been juggling multiple jobs – I was an architect, schoolteacher, yoga instructor, physical therapist, illustrator. I was training almost ever day, often twice, ‘fitting in’ visits to my mother, doing this course and that, ensuring I still found time for family, catch ups with friends, keeping in touch with too many people, planning races, events, holidays…
How do I deal with loss, with trauma, with shock, with anger, with anything? I get on with it. I fill my time. I run. A lot.
A couple of weeks after my mother’s death I was getting back on my rollercoaster. But Covid 19 had other ideas. Schools closed. Leo Vradkar announced a countrywide lockdown, ordering us to stay within 2 kilometers of our homes. So work slowed down, events were cancelled, training restricted, socials postponed to post-lockdown. Suddenly I was confronted with something alien to me for years – time.
One of the most beautiful gifts Covid gave us, bearing in mind not all of us, was time. I could not remember when I last had time to walk the back fields with my father, or bake enough variety of scone to feed an army, or get to read more than a chapter of a book in one sitting. Yes, I was still training in my hamster wheel radius, as much if not more, but now I was not worrying about the number of laps or when I had to be home. I also had time to get to know someone special, albeit at a distance, but that is another days story J.
I sat on the deck in the sun and breathed in the spring air, watching the garden grow. I cried. I cried tears of sadness, of anger, of joy. I cried because I had the time and space to do it.
I began to teach yoga online. Initially to keep my yogis practicing until lockdown lifted. Adding classes each week, soon I was practicing and teaching more than ever, and it felt good. The energy I received from teaching was amazing. Being able to connect with people regardless of location, time zone - golden.
I specialize in teaching yoga for athletes. The most common phrase I hear from my athlete, and non-athlete, friends is “Oh I would love to do yoga, but I just don’t have enough time’’.
Now finally some of them had time. Numbers grew. Practice became more regular, more frequent, as they noticed the physical, emotional and mental benefits. Yoga became a mainstay, as opposed to something they should ‘fit in’ to their weekly timetable.
But not only were they finding time for yoga, but time to spend with family, time to talk to a neighbor, time to fix that squeaky door or paint that rusty gate, time to experiment, time to breathe. People working from home suddenly had an extra few hours in their day to live.
Over the months, I found more courses to sign up to, more projects to commit to, new races to aim for, more socials to fill my time. That excess time began to shrink, that chapter remained unread, that deck less frequented, that back field left un walked, that army left unfed… ;)
Maybe it is simply human nature. Even when we are gifted with that time we always wished for, we somehow still manage to consume it, and continue to make excuses that we just do not have time.
Time does not change. It is what we choose to do with that precious time that really matters. Yes, live your life to the full. Yes, fill your time, but fill it with time spent laughing, loving, breathing, moving, caring, creating, growing, and then whatever time you have left over, just simply be. x
Lost in Transition…
An introduction to the Beast
‘Where do you even come across these nut job races?’ is a question many adventure racers have been asked perhaps more than once. Although I would love to answer, ‘They just somehow find me’. The truth is, the nut job within tends to seek them out.
The first time I competed in the Beast Adventure Race was back in 2015 when it was a 72-hour long event, being part of the European championships that year. It was staged down in its native homeland of Ballyhoura. I had been living in Australia at the time and planned to be home for a few weeks to catch up with family and friends, and, as a side trip, a slightly epic road bike expedition through the Dolomites with a few fellow nut jobs.
Having heard about the infamous Beast of Ballyhoura over the years, it was the first time I felt semi-confident on a mountain bike, and I decided sure why not throw in a 72hour adventure race into my trip home. Who knew when I might be home again at a time where myself, and the Beast might coincide, right? So I ventured online and stumbled across a team who needed a member two weeks out. Well, it would be rude not to, right?
This first experience for me was more mentally challenging than anything. Having just met the team the day before, we somewhat acquainted ourselves on the three-hour drive south, and over dinner, (during which one team member passed out! Surely this did not bode well?) It was all systems go for the following 72 hours.
Not to dwell on the experience, and not to digress too far from more recent escapades, I will summarize the experience through highlighting lessons learned. In no particular order:
A reintroduction to the Beast
So from where did team Big O materialize? Already a team with many misadventurous years between them, Big O was mostly made up of Dave, Ciaran and Kieran (AKA, from here, Duane), three ex-rowers, outdoor adventurers and all round sound lads. I got chatting with Dave at the 72-hour after party. Dave being a good friend of a mutual friend of ours had heard that I might be a little bit more competitive than I would have thought I was myself. He mentioned they were often looking for an extra team member and I said to give me a shout if I was ever back on home soil and the opportunity arose.
Fast-forward to March 2017 and I received a text from our mutual friend Mick, asking whether it was fine to pass on my digits to a potential Beast team in need. At this stage I had returned to Ireland and could see myself there for the foreseeable future, and so I thought, take two, why not? The whole lesson of ‘know your team’ kind of got shelved, but at least we had a sound friend in common, right? So they had to be ok, right?
At this stage team Big O were two members short. Myself, and Brian, a fellow wee county man, jumped in to fill some pretty big shoes. Yet again, we met on race day, but at least this one was a 36-hour as opposed to 72-hour adventure. I had an idea however this time of the team’s general psyche. What they were looking to get out of the Beast was a little more in line with my own ambitions. With two new members, perhaps we might not be in it to win it but by god we were going to give it our best shot, and hopefully have a bit of craic along the way.
We were determined to finish the long course and place as high up the ranks as we could. All was going relatively well until what latter became known as ‘Heartbreak Lake’ alluded us for many dark frustrating hours, finally getting the better of us, and forcing us to resign to the fact that alas, 2017 would not be our year.
Again not to dwell, or digress, I will focus on lessons learned:
We survived this bout with the Beast and in fairness we were not too far off the podium. The taste was enough to whet our appetites for 2018 when the original three Big O musketeers, or as I fondly referred to them as the Beastie Boys, were reunited and I had somehow, for my sins, passed my 36-hour initiation test.
The Beast. Take three.
Set in the wondrous unyielding, brutally beautiful and honest hills of Donegal, we were set for the Beast 2018. This time we had aimed to get a lot more ‘Know your team’ training sessions in, between biking, hiking & kayaking in the Dublin, Wicklow and Cooley mountains. Training had been going relatively well all round, apart from a newborn here, a new house to be renovated there and a few niggling injuries veering their ugly heads along the way, but nothing beyond the usual life challenges. We knew Ivan Parks, the race director, had designed a mother of all courses when a 65km foot section was casually dropped in to the race breakdown as one of the initial sections. But we were ready. We thought. We hoped.
Issued with the course checkpoints, distances and maps, we plotted out our chosen route. Ciaran and Dave were our navigators extraordinaire. Duane mapped and calculated the distances. I was given the title of Captain, which is similar to the title of President in Ireland. It allowed me to believe I was performing a very important task. Secretly I reckoned they were hoping that carrying the GPS tracker unit would slow me down. ;)
My great ambition to conquer my navigationally challenged mind was short lived. Apart from a couple of days in the Cooleys with my Dad and a compass, one orienteering course with the lads and my best efforts to not surrender to Google maps when and ever I could (resulting in some very high mileage, expensive, but mostly scenic drives in the preceding weekends). I was a little more informed but still lacked the confidence to seize the map board and point the finger. But sure we would be grand. The lads had it nailed…right?
Off to a good start
And so the alarm buzzed, breakfast was inhaled, and we hesitantly left our comfortable beds in Letterkenny hotel, fully decked out in wetsuits, runners, bicycle helmets and a dose of blissful ignorance as to what lay ahead. Akin to a bus full of rookie triathletes that simply could not decide what kit to wear race day, and subsequently attempting to wear everything bar the bike, we boarded. Nervous chatter combined with a few last savoured snores filled the air. Thoughts as to what the next 48 hours would bring were never far from our minds.
Stunning a few local sheep, we strutted our wetsuit-clad bodies along the Donegal bothairins at Muckross Head, to our first cliff jump and sea swim at Teelin Bay. ‘Swim’ being a choice word, as much as one could with a bicycle helmet and runners on, but team Big O had been working on their Baywatch moves and after a short but ultimately sweet coasteering section of rock jumping, crawling and swimming, we were first onto the 65km foot section which began along the beautiful Slieve League cliffs, the highest sea cliffs in Europe at over 600 meters.
Slightly daunted by our assumed podium position, we consciously slowed the pace. One area I personally benefit from most, working as part of a team, is that of pacing. Left to my own devices I generally go hell for leather, and eyeballs out, from the start, blow up and then hope to hold on for dear life until the finish. Surprisingly this unorthodox strategy has more often than not worked for me, however over a 48-hour race I may not have made it past the Slieve League visitor Centre.
We decided to stick to the pace of Rachel’s Irish Adventures team and managed to maintain this intermittently for the first half of the hike, picking up and dropping back depending on navigational decisions. We knew these were a strong team on foot and were conscious not to burn ourselves out, as the bike section to follow should allow us make up any time lost on foot.
Although it had been an overcast start to the morning, the heat was there, and combined with undulating rolling hills and a few steep sections, the bodies were dehydrating. Fortunately there were numerous flowing streams to refuel at and we were all conscious of keeping the salts up.
At one point Dave was noticeably slowing. This is normal in an expedition adventure race. Generally everybody goes through peaks and troughs. Ultimately the preferred scenario is that these do not occur at the same time for all team members. So we took turns relieving Dave of his pack (honestly, Duane the horse, was the main carrier) until he came back to form again. Which he did.
At checkpoint 8 of 9 we arrived at a waterfall along with three other teams. At this point we were still in contention for the podium. We were all feeling the hours on foot but fortunately spirits were still high, and after a quick refuel we continued, confidence in our teams navigational decisions improving with every step.
A spanner in the works
And this is how we continued, until just before we reached our transition in Kilcar village, our navigation was thrown into disarray, when a road that was on the map seemed to have disappeared, resulting in us searching blindly for what was not there. Eventually after losing a noticeable chunk of time we finally arrived at the community centre. We had fallen into fourth position by our error, but we were confident that the 140k-bike section to follow could save us. And so the plan was to keep it to a short and smooth transition. Fuel, fluids, gear change, map reconnaissance, equipment check. Easy, right?
Dave re-entered the hall, looking somewhat somber and called for Duane to follow him out. Shortly followed by Ciaran. I was beginning to wonder whether a secret team meeting was been conducted and I was about to be politely asked to pack my bags. Three solemn heads eventually emerged. ‘Something is up with Dave’.
The other two had been called out by Dave to check out the contents of the toilet bowl. Suddenly I was pretty relieved to have been excluded from this particular team discussion. The synopsis, sparing the detail, urinating blood can be a symptom of dehydration, which can lead to kidney & liver dysfunction and eventual failure. Although Dave insisted that he felt fine otherwise, we were all a bit concerned and made the decision to take a time out and wait for the event medic to assess. Half an hour later and we were still waiting. It was suggested that we continue and that the medic could hopefully track us down on the bike course.
Spirits were low. Less than 8km out on the road and Dave was unable to move his hands. One certainty was, that he was not going to rehydrate too quickly with a 140km bike leg and nearly 3000m of that climbing. With thoughts on his young family at home and the hours of doubt that lay ahead, Dave made the wise if difficult decision to call it a day. A call only he could make.
Devastated. Speechless. Disappointed. We all respected the decision but we had not been mentally prepared for it. Being short coursed, potentially. Getting lost? Likely. Falling into a ditch on the bike? Definitely, well in my case at least. But a teammate down, and the rest of us continuing? Never.
A double spanner
All in our own thoughts, processing what had happened, we were only down the road another few kilometers when it was apparent that Ciaran was suffering. Having had trained quite a bit with Ciaran, and seeing him getting stronger and faster on the bike, if anything, I was concerned that I might struggle to keep up particularly on the off-road. The pace eventually slowed to a stop and yet again an unpredicted situation arose.
Ciaran had been in agony from early on, fighting a chronic back injury. 65km plus on foot, carrying a heavy pack had exasperated the pain beyond being bearable. Nursing any injury coming into the Beast bodes for disaster. Sometimes the mind can fight through the pain, accompanied perhaps by some strong painkillers and anti-inflammatories, but it is only a matter of time, and when the mind has already been crushed, and the chance of placing already taken from our hands, it begs to question, what the actual #:@* ? Ciaran had been fighting these thoughts from early on, and now with our team reduced to three, he had a hard decision to make. Alas we lost him to the Beast.
For me this situation was even more unprecedented. Ciaran had been my most consistent training partner and we had had many fun sessions in the preceding months. We had talked about the Beast, and seeing the effort he had put into preparing to kick some Beast ass, I could not imagine finishing without him.
Duane, I had met and trained with twice, but I knew he was a cool camper. Strong, sound and no bull shit. But there we were, the two non-navigators suddenly alone, in the dark, questioning whether we could continue for the next thirty plus hours. I could not help but be reminded of some wise words that Ivan the race director had uttered – ‘big decisions should not be made between transitions’. We had just made two.
And then there were two…
Neither of us could dwell on the situation too long, as with the unplanned roadside team meetings, the cold had begun to set in and we needed to keep moving. Our plan, being two relatively strong cyclists, was to complete the full bike section and reassess the situation at the next transition, which would be the kayak. Here we would hopefully be reunited with the lads, and perhaps they might have recovered enough to join us on the water.
We managed the first few check points with little drama, and were feeling quietly confident with our newly acquired navigational skills. Maybe a little too confident, as we made the mistake of leaving our bikes to access a CP (check point) that we believed to be a lot closer and more accessible by foot. After a longer than perceived hike, we realized that we had underestimated the distance to the location and we had also figured that we could actually continue on from this CP to the next. We reluctantly returned to our bikes and recommenced our mission. This became a bit of a push-bike section as the terrain was a lot boggier than we had remembered and after a few falls and a lot of energy expended we finally made it out to the road. This section on hindsight could have been avoided and it was this that nearly broke us.
I could feel my eyes closing as we descended the road. Thinking if I kept talking I would be ok. I eventually had to surrender and we decided to regress back up the road to a petrol station that we had noticed was opening for a quick roadside nap and a couple of coffees. Looking at our GPS tracking it had been assumed by onlookers, that at this point that we were lost, but in fact we had made an informed team decision that ultimately set us up for the following hours.
We decided that realistically the lads probably would not be rejoining us but we were still determined to complete the Beast. After all the time we had lost up to this point we realized that the long course was realistically unattainable within the time especially with our limited navigation skills. So the decision was made to short course the rest of the bike and then reassess. Oblivious to the fact that two CPs had been cancelled we only actually would have needed one more CP to complete the long course bike section.
We arrived at Burtonport Community Centre, relieved, somewhat tired, but still with enough energy reserves to consider the following kayaking section. Delighted to see both Ciaran and Dave looking a lot more human, and in good spirits, a few short exchanged words confirmed that sadly they would not be rejoining us.
We were keen to keep moving while it was still daylight, as however questionable our navigational skills were by day, they were pretty much useless by night, and at sea. Unfortunately however we were not allowed to proceed as two. For safety reasons we were required to set with at least one other two-person kayak. We took this as an opportunity to catch a quick 20-minute power nap while we waited for a team that we could tag on to.
Kinsale Adventure Team were the lucky ones. This all-male team allowed us to join them on their voyage across the bay to Arrainn Mhor. We were off to a rusty start when I lost my footing on the slipway and with my feet disappearing from under me I came down hard on my arm and behind. Determined to not allow the tears seep out I was up in a flash and into the kayak, suffering silently out to the island.
On the island we had short trek to complete to the nearest summit. We were up and down in relatively and surprisingly good time. However, we still had to wait for our newly adopted team in order to complete the kayak back. We took the opportunity to refuel and take a breather. At this stage we had surrendered to the short course and we were determined to enjoy it, as much as one could with relatively no sleep and half a team.
Although our time was affected waiting for the Kinsale lads to complete the trek, their sea navigation was superior to ours and no doubt we might still be out there paddling around rocks if it were not for them. A beautiful kayak section among countless islands and white sand beaches in, fortunately for us calm waters, we made it back to base before the sun was about to set.
We arrived back to the transition, somewhat fresh, eager to continue onto the ropes section. However we were informed that no team, bar the three teams left on the long course could proceed until after 1a.m. The ropes section was to consist of a zip line over a small sea inlet and in order for the front teams too remain fairly competitive it was decided that they should be given priority on this.
Another false start
Secretly, delighted at the prospect of some unplanned slumber, we knuckled down for nearly an hour and a half of precious, if broken sleep. When we were finally permitted back out on course we set off with perhaps a little too much gusto on the bike, and immediately took the wrong turn out of transition. After a few choice words, and to be honest our only near fall-out of the race, we gradually passed the teams that had left the transition after us and were zipping across the bay in the dark in no time.
Once out on the bikes we were making great time, albeit slightly perturbed at the fact that we were racing round the roads of Donegal in the wee hours of the morning on a Bank Holiday weekend. We only needed to locate one CP on the short course, one that we might have missed, were it not for the team who had generously decided to take a nap in the dark right beside the CP (later introduced as the Crafty Divils!). As we zoomed around the bend, we realized that this was in fact the ‘Track bend’ referred to on our map, and slowed down by the sight of bodies in bags off the bend, we checked in and set off for our last trekking section. The formidable Slieve Muckish.
Having competed in the Seven Sisters half marathon a couple of weeks previous, Muckish had been the first of the seven peaks, and from ascending the Miners path to the summit, I was well aware of what we may have to contend with.
Ivan being Ivan, and not to let being short coursed interfere with a good old-fashioned challenge, had left only one CP for the short coursers to locate. However, this one CP required us to summit Muckish, descend the Miners Path to the CP, re-ascend the Miners Path and re-summit Muckish on our return back to our bikes in the lay-by were we had left them hours before.
Unlike my previous Muckish ascent in fog, rain and wind, this one was almost pleasant. As the sun rose, we were blessed with almost crystal clear views of the mountain. Navigating was made a lot easier when the track was visible, and apart from my misjudgment of us ‘surely not having to go to the very bottom of the Miners path’ we made little work of the trek and were back on the bikes racing down the road to Letterkenny in no time.
And another false start…
Perhaps racing a little too hard, we somehow missed a turn, which had us back tracking on ourselves on the final checkpoint of the race. Wheeling down a country road, not 100% certain if it was the correct one, a chance encounter with a local farmer, who although initially mistook the road we were on as a river on the map (reassuring), was able to confidently point us in the direction of Letterkenny. This was after a friendly interrogation regarding who we were and where we had come from, and an exclamation of surprise that we were in fact racing and not just strangely attired tourists. At this point I was about to break, mentally, but luckily Duane, ever the gent, held it together.
We crossed the line. A slight anti-climax, as often it is when you have been racing for over 50 hours and teams have been coming in some hours apart. We had conquered the Beast, albeit with half a team and the shorter of the two Beasts. We had finished, something that at various points had been questionable whether we could or would. Physically, uninjured, and surprisingly ok, but for me at least, mentally and emotionally jaded.
The lads had been shipped from transition to transition through the night and day as we continued the race. They had caught up on some much deserved and needed sleep and had made the most of their alternative adventure race experience, getting to fully appreciate the amazing work that goes on behind the scenes in these events.
That evening spirits were high. Food was inhaled. Stories exchanged. Wedding proposals accepted (Ivan). Prizes presented. We received the coveted ‘Maps prize’ and title of ‘Team that got lost the most’, which was a set of road maps, proving convenient for my trip home the following day where I was determined to resist from using Google maps (my phone died). Duane insisted that the title referred to the number of team members we lost in transition.
Following the after-party feast and pints, and a debrief later that night over a happy meal or two in McDonalds (note, where we also bumped into one half of the DAR team, one of the podium placers), I had by now lost all ability to form sentences, and so resigning to my own overactive mind and internal dialogues, I tried to gauge lessons learned.
Yogi, adventurer, athlete, designer, coffee lover, teacher, student, anatomy geek, lover of life.