Thursday 23rd June
After three hours’ sleep I got up, ready to begin the final leg of the Wild Atlantic Way Audax, a mere 309km, taking in the steepest road of the entire route at Mamore Gap. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror (such things should be banned on multi-day audaxes!) and was rather shocked to see the size of the bags under my eyes. At breakfast I was given wraps and cake to take with me for the day’s journey.
I set off at noon, and was soon aware of the need to go to the toilet. Not again, I thought! Hopping over a gate, I did the necessary and got underway again. My stomach was feeling really bloated, and my usual course of action to remedy this would be to pass wind, but given my recent medical history I didn’t dare do that without dropping my shorts first, for fear of the consequences. For the next few hours I would stop every couple of kilometres, clamber over a gate and drop my shorts. After the first few stops, I didn’t bother putting the straps of my bib shorts over my shoulders and they were hanging down either side of me (ps This is how you can tell a pro rider is having a bad day on one of the tours). I lost count of the number of times I had to stop, but it must have been well over fifty. I had to stop and purchase the closest thing I could find to toilet wipes, so as not to get caught without as had happened on Achill Island.
I was passing some beautiful scenery, and I remember thinking how tiresome this stopping was, ruining a nice bike ride! Just past Gortahork I stopped by the side of a road on a beautifully sunny grass bank and slept for 20 minutes, despite the passing traffic.
I stopped again at Creeslough, this time to get some more wraps made. The ones I had been given were delicious, and I wanted more of them to fuel me through the night.
As the day wore on, my physical condition was playing on my mind, and a comment by a medic on Facebook had got me wondering whether I might be doing lasting damage to myself by continuing. I decided to ‘phone a friend’, in this case Nigel Hart, a doctor who has climbed Everest as the medic on that expedition, and who therefore knew something about people’s health in extreme situations. After chatting with him, we concluded that I was probably not yet at the end of my tether, and that to continue would not be a completely reckless thing to do.
Suitably reassured, I got to the petrol station at Letterkenny before it closed to get a control receipt. I met a rider who was about to do a 555km race around Donegal and upon hearing my plight gave me several sachets of electrolyte powder to help with my rehydration. I am very glad to report that my guts had finally calmed down a bit.
It had been suggested by Eamon that I rest in Letterkenny, but the forecast had said rain was due later, and my plan was to try to push on and get to Buncrana, rest up for a bit, then tackle Mamore Gap, in the dry if possible. In the end I made it just past Burnfoot before tiredness got the better of me. I spotted a very nice looking bus shelter in which I bedded down for an hour at midnight.
Friday 24th June
It was a noisy hour, with the quality of shelter being better than the choice of location, at the side of a main road. The rest did however give me enough energy and alertness to make my way to Buncrana and on towards Mamore Gap. I knew the approach to the Gap, or so I thought, and it was my intention to stop and fuel up before tackling the road itself.
In the dark, the roads looked and felt very different, and I did not recognise the route that the 810 took me on. There were certainly a couple of steep sections of road that I didn’t remember from my N2S 400 ride a month or so back. Then another steep section was beginning. My light caught the sign “Welcome to Amazing Grace country”, and I realised, too late, that I was already on the infamous Mamore Gap road. All I could do was continue to click down to my granny gear, which didn’t take long, and then weave back and forth across the road, trying to minimise the effects of the steepening gradient.
I got maybe two-thirds of the way up before I gave up and came to a halt. Thankfully I have recessed cleats, but it was still a struggle pushing my bike up as the gradient continued to increase. Finally I was at the top, though, and I looked around for the sign that I usually rested my bike on while I got my breath back. It took a while to find in the dark, and I managed to get my feet wet while looking for it.
Now came what for me was the most dangerous part of the route – the descent off Mamore Gap in the dark. I crawled my way down, knowing from experience how quickly speed can build up on that descent. As I went round each switchback I counted them off, knowing that each time I was one corner closer to safety.
And then I was down, and I could relax, but not that much, for tiredness was closing in on me again. I reached the village of Claggan and saw a likely looking spot for a snooze – the area between two wings of a primary school. I had brought my towel with me from the last sleep control and laid it down on the ground, put my dry bag behind my head, and set the alarm for an hour and a half’s time.
Just as I was settling down, I heard voices. Thinking it might be locals wondering who was creeping about their school I sat up, only to see Nuno, Nick and two others cycle past. Calling to them I told them of my intention to sleep here. One of them asked if I realised that the cut off was 1pm that day. I said yes, but redid the calculations in my head to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake by taking time out here. I reset the alarm to give me an hour’s rest and then went to sleep.
I was away at 4.15am, rueing the fact that I wouldn’t see the sunrise from Malin Head. I was on familiar roads now, and as the dawn came, I looked around at the sights I had seen a good few times before – The Rusty Nail pub, Glenevin waterfall, the sign to Doagh famine village. Then I was through the square at Malin and not long after that on the road over the hill that leads to Malin Head, and there was Banba’s crown visible in the distance, getting closer. A final effort up the hill and I was across the start/finish line at Malin Head, and my End to End was over! I opened my dry bag, got out the WAWA jersey and pulled it on for the first time since trying it on for size in the Temperance hall in Kinsale. What a feeling. I had finally earned the right to wear it!
Trying to take a picture of the bike and myself at Malin Head at 6.15 in the morning with sleep deprivation proved challenging, my first attempt ending up with a photograph of the bike on its side and me nowhere to be seen. My second attempt got all of the bike and most of me in it, nursing a shin knocked against the rocks in my clambering about. That will do, I thought, and took a quick selfie minus bike with the sign at Malin Head.
I knew that the route wouldn’t take me down to Kinegoe Bay and the tough climb out of it, but beyond that I hadn’t studied the profile of the remainder of the route, so was rather caught out by the long climb after Dunegard. At the top, I was so tired that I had to sit down against the garden wall of a house. I fell asleep while talking to Denise on the phone, and just had time to set the alarm before passing out! Twenty minutes later I was on the go again, but moving slowly. I was really hungry, and yet couldn’t now face the wraps that I had got made especially a few hours earlier in Creeslough. There will be something open in Culdaff, I thought. No. Gleneely then. Wrong again.
It was in a state of near exhaustion that I finally arrived in Moville at 9.00am and made for a shop that I knew. A black coffee, large scone with jam & butter and two tubs of Maud’s rum & raisin ice cream with fudge sticks later I was a new man! The owner was the first person I had met who was visibly astonished by the feat of endurance I had undertaken. He asked to take a photograph of me, and pledged to support the charity for which I was raising money.
I was now flying down the road, looking to get to Derry before 11.00am. I gave Denise a call from Redcastle, with the sun now shining warmly. I had initially planned to return to Belfast by train, but we had decided that given my illness, and not knowing what state I would be in when I got to Derry, she would come and pick me up in the afternoon. She informed me that she now wanted to see me cross the Peace bridge. Ok, I said, where are you? In Belfast, she replied. But I’m only an hour away from Derry!
Had I been thinking clearly, I would have continued apace to Derry, crossed the Peace bridge to secure my event time, and then waited for Denise and re-enacted the finish for her. Instead, I applied sun cream and dawdled my way down the coast, reflecting on the feat I was about to accomplish against the odds. I would make it before the time cut off, no doubt of that now, so the pressure was off. I practised the ‘hands in the air’ celebration that I would make on crossing the finish line, mimicking the rider on the trophy that I had seen and coveted, and which would soon be mine.
The start of a heavy shower brought all that larking about to an end, and I stopped to once again don the waterproofs. The showers continued on and off until I reached the Guildhall, when the heavens properly opened. I took shelter in the café and waited for the phone call from Denise to say that she was there.
I will simply say here that I waited a while before getting that phone call, but it didn’t matter. The woman who had supported me through all my long hours of training wanted to see me finish the WAWA, and who was I to say no to her.
The call finally came, and I set off, ignominiously taking an age to wheel my bike across the busy dual-carriageway that separates the town from the river. Then it was onto the bike and climbing over the bridge, seeing Eamon and Seamus and Denise and Paul O’Donohoe, raising my hands and roaring a big YESSSS! as I crossed the finish line of the Wild Atlantic Way Audax. Despite my setback, I had completed the ride with an hour and a half to spare!
I was in something of a daze as I handed my brevet card in to Seamus, then stood atop the podium as first Eamon and then Paul presented me with medal and trophy respectively.
It had been more than a journey, more even than an adventure. It had been a voyage of discovery. Discovery of myself, of what I was capable, and to what lengths I could push myself. I had achieved things in the past week that I couldn’t have imagined doing even a fortnight earlier, I had overcome the obstacles that had been put in my way and I had triumphed. As Eamon said to me at the Peace bridge: No one will be able to touch you now…
Route: WAWA day 7 Lackenagh to Derry 312km
Next: Thanks & Epilogue