IRISH people are taking to the roads, hills, lakes and rivers with feverish sporting endeavour, like never before. Men and women, of all ages, have thrown down the gauntlet of getting themselves fit, and racing against each other.
It’s as if there’s been a personal boot-camp movement. Think of any feat of endurance, stick the ‘adventure’ tag on it, and there’ll be a queue outside the door. As each new event surfaces, it’s immediately bombarded by those who want to run, swim, paddle, pedal or even abseil their way onto a higher plane of being.
But why put yourself through what appears to be sheer torture? Well, there was only one way to find out — experience a bona fide, multi-discipline circuit, for myself. With the Beir Bua Waterford adventure race looming on May 19, I threw the bike in the car, and made my way to the Déise to meet up with Alan Ryan, who’s pulling the whole thing together.
The spit of Ruby Walsh, Alan was kitted out in full sports gear by the time I pulled into the side of the road, just outside Cappoquin. “I suppose the adventure phenomenon is for those who’ve reached a certain age,” he said. “They may have given up their hurling and football, and they’re looking for something to fill that gap.”
With the rain pelting down, we headed for higher ground in the Knockmealdown mountains; cheekily motoring up the climb the cyclists would embrace en route to their mountain run, at the Vee.
I didn’t twig this would mean my first encounter with the course would be the sheer rockiness of the Sugar Loaf.
Once free of the car, Alan bounded on ahead while my leaden legs struggled to keep up. Within a few dozen strides, my lungs followed suit, and I began to bellow and wheeze, and invoke the heavens to release a few more torrents to hose me down. Back at the foot of the escarpment, and biding a little recovery time, I queried the sanity of the whole thing.
“I suppose it’s something to train for,” Alan said. “A focus of sorts. It gives people a push to get out and train, whatever the weather. No excuses. If there’s an event coming up, you’ve got to get the runs in, and the few spins on the bike — to make sure the legs are ready.”
The heavy clouds obliged by the time I’d sat up on my bike to sample the gradient I’d driven earlier. Even though the pedals were turning in the right direction, I was being propelled backwards by a savage head wind. As if the ascent wasn’t tough enough, the elements were conspiring to drain the life from my limbs.
“Adventure races demand cross-training. It’s way better for the body. You’re not battering away at the same joints,” said Alan, promulgating the nation’s new gospel. “You’re building strength too. Training for marathons, you can fall away to nothing. And get very bored. This is hugely sociable, with groups popping up all over the place.”
All I could manage was a nod before descending to Melleray Abbey, to pace out the start of the race. And as the sun reappeared, with it came my second wind.
So, I agreed to test a couple of miles of the run through Glenshelane Woods. And it was worth it. The leafy canopy and the winding trail coaxed me, unlike any unforgiving road could.
Padding along, mostly behind my sherpa, mind you, I began to understand the draw of adventure racing.
“How many this year?” I gasped. “About 300,” said Alan, as if he were stood still. “And next year, it’ll grow again. Trust me — you’ll be hard set to sup a pint afterwards. But the story-swapping is great.”
In my mind’s eye, I was scratching my name down for Beir Bua 2013. Must’ve been delirious. But watch out all the same.
It starts and finishes at Mount Melleray Abbey. Last year you had to venture all its disciplines: running, cycling and kayaking. This year the organisers have cleverly added a duathlon option — for those who don’t feel comfortable on the river. There’s also a ‘team relay’.
Stage 1: a brisk 6.4 km run through Glenshelane Wood.
Stage 2: a 15.7 km cycle up into the Knockmealdown Mountains to the Vee.
Stage 3: a loose stone ascent of the Sugar Loaf, for the ‘elite’ racer, who’ll be rewarded by the sight of six counties; or the more civilised run to Bealough lake; both runs stretch to about 2.5km in total.
Stage 4: back to the bike and downhill most of the 13km way to Lismore for the adventure racers; the duathlon racers head straight to Melleray to finish.
Stage 5: hop in a kayak at Lismore Castle (which can be rented) and paddle 6.4km to Cappoquin, which will take 30 to 60 minutes, or so.
Stage 6: a leg-sapping 6.4km run to collect your bike.
Stage 7: a 14.6km cycle back to Melleray Abbey and the finish line. After which, you’ll be forgiven most of your sins.
The Blackstairs Adventure Race (Jun 2)
This event splits in two to accommodate the fit and the super fit. While the former cover five of the Black Steps, and a distance of about 50km, the latter face seven of them, and an extra 15km — running, kayaking and cycling. It’s a pretty unique way to take in the natural beauty of Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford, by skipping along the county borders.
Beara Grills (Jun 22 — 24)
With a name that almost teases the famous adventurer and survival expert, Bear Grylls, this event has a lot to live up to. And it does. The participants have to endure a 48-hour monster hike between Allihies and Glengarriff, on the Beara Peninsula. A fundraiser for Cork Cancer Research Centre and the Irish Sudden Infant Death Association, this challenge pushes the toughest to their limits.
The Beast of Ballyhoura (Aug 3 — 6)
Probably the event of events for diehard fitness aficionados, the ‘Beast’ is a non-stop, 36-hour race across the counties of Cork, Limerick and Tipperary. If you didn’t think the surroundings were magical and ancient before you started, you will for sure by the time you finish. Massively popular, this mammoth calls for mixed teams to face a mountain run, biking, kayaking, abseiling and orienteering. And some shooting too. Meet your demons. And maybe even find a few new ones, while covering 280 km on your travels.
Gael Force (Aug 18)
Gaelforce West — the largest one-day adventure race of its kind in the world. It is a multi-sport adventure race involving cycling, running, hiking and kayaking. The course, about 67km, stretches from the breath-taking Glassilaun beach to Westport, taking in Killary Harbour, bog and mountain paths. And Croagh Patrick!