Mizen to Malin: A Survivor’s Report

In October last year, it would have been hard to imagine 21 cyclists from the club being able for a 3 day Mizen to Malin challenge averaging 250km per day. When we first came up with the idea we were imagining a bright, sunny, summer weekend with the wind at our backs – the trip would be tough but if we all knuckled down to some hard work we would be able to get through it.

Plans were put in place and the fear of not being able to cycle the distance galvinised the club and took our training to another level. Seeing the improvements made by each and every one of our cyclists over the last few months has been fantastic. The level of dedication that was required was huge and I can safely say that without that dedication there would have been multiple pull outs before we reached Malin head as the weekend of cycling proved to be horrendous.

We should have known better than to expect perfect weather, this is Ireland after all. In the space of 3 days we had every type of weather thrown at us and there were plenty of tears along the way. We talked a lot about the ‘tougher the trip is, the better the memories you will have’. This trip will certainly live long in the memories. Expect a delivery of an ‘I Survived M2M 2015’ t-shirt soon!!

To sum up our 3 days on the bike – 1 day good, 2 days bad.

Day 1 – Bad: Bloody head wind!

It was pure carnage out there on our opening day. There were multiple descriptions of Friday being the toughest day ever experienced on the bike (little did we know how tough Sunday would be!). There were multiple hunger knock victims and the bubbly atmosphere that had been present in the camp down in Mizen quickly evaporated. Why? simple answer = head wind!

Typically for a Mizen to Malin attempt the wind will blow you most of the way up the country. Of course, Nenagh CC would just have to be met with a fresh northerly breeze which would proceed to make life hell for everyone for the whole day. As if 175 miles / 280km of cycling in one day wasn’t hard enough! Expected average speeds of 29 and 31 km/h were replaced with 27 and 29 km/h. This meant everyone spent a lot more time on the bike than expected.

It all started off  well down in Mizen. The sun was shining, spirits were high and even though we were 1 hr 20 mins late starting, we were all happy out. The combined group of 21 cycled together until Bantry where the group split in two, with 8 in the faster front group and 13 in the back group. The gap between the two opened gradually but soon the front group were out of sight.

The first major obstacle of the day was the 5 mile ascent of the Caha Pass. The reward of a food stop in Kenmare was enough to get people up and over the top without much trouble. People were still full of beans at this stage. Bit by bit, that would change. Moving onto the climb of Molls gap and the wind was causing havoc. People were getting distanced from both bunches but were paced back on. The descent down Molls Gap proved to be the main highlight of the day.

Onwards we progressed past Killarney and onto our main food stop in Tralee. There was now about 30 mins between both groups. The harder pace of the front bunch meant two opted to move back to the main bunch. While recuperating over a bowl of soup and some sandwiches it was clear that many were starting to struggle.  There was still 90km to go so now wasn’t the time to start feeling sorry for ourselves.

Both groups made it to the ferry in Tarbert just in time. Will Rymer and Andy McLoughlin were rivalling each other for the biggest black hole in their group. All light, joy and happiness had been sucked out of their bodies as they entered stage 3 of the knock. Not even the sight of dolphins on the crossing could brighten up Andy’s day. “Never again!” had become his catch phrase.

The final part of the cycle would take us through Co. Clare up to Lahinch, with some opting to do the full planned route and others (the main bunch) opting to take a short cut! Nobody could blame them though as the last 50km proved to be the toughest of the lot. The bare landscape meant the wind punished everyone that stepped up to lead the bunch. The kms ticked down in slow motion but we all dragged our way across the finish line in Lahinch.

It was well after 6:00pm when we finally got off the bikes. That was almost 10 hours in the saddle and 2,500m of climbing, all into a strong head wind. Thankfully there were no mechanicals or spills off the bike. The only thing that was damaged was the collective confidence of the group. It’s amazing how quick everyone cheered up though once off the bike. It wasn’t long before everyone was laughing about it all. We couldn’t have got a tougher start but that’s why we all trained so hard for the past 10 months. It couldn’t be as bad as that the next day could it???

Day 2 – Easy: What a difference a day makes….

The mood of the group was lifted once we opened the curtains after our short sleep. It was going to be a clear day, but more importantly – the wind direction had changed. Hallelujah! The route for today would take us from Lahinch up to Ballina via Connemara. There was a lot less climbing on the agenda today so we had our fingers crossed that we would sail through the day.

After the usual big breakfast and bike checks we set off early in one big group again. It was a tough start with lots of little hills to test us. Everyone was feeling reasonably fresh though so we were making good time. At the 40km mark, the bunch split in two but this time there were only 5 volunteers for the fast bunch. Yesterday obviously scared a lot of people off. Despite much pleading from the fast group nobody was willing to leave the safety of the main bunch. After yesterday’s sufferfest, who could blame them?

The first food stop of the day seemed to arrive in double quick time, although the two groups stopped in different towns. Pushing on through Galway we would soon encounter what would prove to be the biggest problem of the day – motorists. You start to lose count of the number of kamikaze over taking manouevers being pulled throughout the day. It is just one of those problems cycling bunches have to deal with. The fast group, of just 5, were travelling in single file for most and that still didn’t feel any safer. It just attracted more dodgy overtaking. I can feel my anger levels rise just writing this so I had better get off the topic!

The two groups travelled through the beautiful scenery in Connemara and for once had time to take it all in. Both groups would bump into each other once again at the main food stop in Leenaun. One group was going while the other group was arriving, but we all jumped in for a quick photo before heading off again.

There isn’t actually much more to write about this day. As days on the bike go, it was rather uneventful and incident free. When the weather is favourable, everyone is more than able for the challenge. The racing group mixed things up a little, throwing in 2:30 of rolling over to pass the time. In the racing group were Kenneth & Matty Kennedy, Sinnead ‘half wheeler’ Oakes and Shane & Gary Scully. Sinnead was well able for the speed and well able to half wheel! Gary was showing that his fitness level of last year was returning quickly. The other lads were solid as per usual. Coming into Ballina they had an average of 31.5 km/h, which shows you the difference in toughness from the day before.

The main group were much fresher on the 2nd day. They settled into a pace that allowed everyone to get through it without too much difficulty. Pat Reddan did a fine job keeping everyone together. Our girls, were proving to be some of the toughest in this group too; rarely missing any rolling over. Will Rymer was showing great bouncebackability after yesterday too. Towards the end, the group pulled in for an unscheduled stop in Castlebar but they were well ahead of schedule so fully deserved this bonus stop. The average pace for the bunch was just shy of 29km/h which is good going with 1500m of climbing to deal with en route.

Thankfully, the group had a lot more time to relax in the hotel afterwards. Spirits had rebounded and it felt like things were back on track. Only one man was contemplating pulling out at this stage (no prizes for guessing who), but we were confident he would be on his bike again the following morning. The wedding and loud music we all had to deal with for the night didn’t help. The weather forecast for the following day was also starting to look ominous. We all just hoped the forecast was wrong.

Day 3 – Hard: Survival of the fattest

The plan for the final day had been for the main bunch to head off first and for the racing group to chase them an hour or so later. This would hopefully mean that we would all arrive up in Malin head together for the obligatory end of cycle photos. The extra hour sleep in the morning would be very welcome.

That wasn’t to be as Shane and Kenneth (who were sleeping in the smelly room) were rudely woken by a loud pounding on the door. Shane opened it to find a near hysterical Gary crying about a hurricane outside and there was no way he was going an hour later. Oh no, Shane thought, Gary has been Stallioned – a new verb that stands for / being scared to continue on / or/ to quit in shame / or / to bail out when the going gets tough / (verb source – the Stallion himself – Andy McLoughlin). Note to self: on future club expeditions the Stallion must be quarantined in a room by himself for the saftey of others.

“We are going later and that’s it” was the reply. Hurricane, pffft are you having a laugh? Little did he know that Met Eireann had a status yellow weather warning out, with high winds and rain expected for the day. The annual climb of the reek at Croagh Patrick, not far down the road, had even been cancelled (reports later from this would tell of cases of hypothermia from those who made the ascent despite the warning). It was clear that this was as bad a day as one could expect.

30 minutes separated the two bunches as they finally pulled out of Ballina on the final leg of the trip. At first it just seemed like a soft Irish morning, but within a half hour the wind started to pick up and the rain started falling heavy. Core body temps were falling fast. The wind was also playing havoc as the cycle over to Sligo was alternating between head wind and cross wind. Both were equally tough and three of our cyclists got blown off the road onto a grass verge. This was not going according to plan.

The first food stop of the day was 80km away in Cliffoney, which is 15km the far side of Sligo. Long before we even got to Sligo things were taking a turn for the worst. All talk had stopped. Everyone was saturated and freezing. Faces were turning purple and things were starting to get dangerous. This was not a day to be out on the bike. You wouldn’t even get a day as bad as this in the winter! Something had to be done or we would never finish the trip.

The racing group had already decided on a change of plan. They were going to stop in a hotel / leisure centre in Sligo, get warm, get a change of gear, get something to eat and get back on the bike. It was all about survival now. The problem was they were well behind the bunch ahead. To stay warm they cycle hard to catch the bunch ahead. They finally came across the main bunch pulled into a garage on the far side of Sligo. There was talk of abandoning the day out of some, but most were convinced of the new plan to stop and recuperate in Sligo.

At this stage we just had to focus on finishing the trip – what time we eventually made it up to Malin Head was not important. There were others in the group that were not quite feeling the cold as badly. They wished to push on ahead and were let go while the rest of us went with the new plan. Violent shivering was evident out of many so getting to a hotel quick was important. The Sligo Park Hotel did us a huge favour on the day and let us use their facilities. We spent 1:30 in this hotel and only considered leaving when we all felt ready and able to hit the road again.

The rain had cleared up slightly and the wind was less of a hindrance now that we had turned Northwards in Sligo. People had put on extra layers as we were under no illusions about how tough the rest of the day was still going to be. Our next stop was a hotel in Ballybofey some 100km away from Sligo. The cyclists from the racing group did most of the pulling at the front and bit by bit we progressed down the road. It wasn’t fast but with each pedal revolution we were getting that little bit closer.

Half way to Ballybofey and we were back to square one with the whole group saturated and cold. It was miserable!! We could do nothing else but knuckle down and get through it. Just get to the next hotel and we would do the same thing again – jacuzzi, sauna, drying of clothes, hot soup etc. That was all that kept us going.

Two punctures in the group did not help proceedings one bit. Normally, it would be a simple case of getting Bertie out of the van to put on a spare wheel. But as Ned & John Gleeson, Ken Hassett, Anthony Sherlock and Noel Kennedy had gone on ahad, Bertie had driven ahead to give them spare clothes. Changing a tyre in yellow weather warning conditions is not a pleasant experience. A tyre splitting and having to rim it for a few miles before Bertie got back with a change is also not a nice experience. Showing we are all a tough lot, we all eventually made it to Ballybofey.

By now it was getting late in the day. It was getting close to 5:00 (the time we should have been in Malin head at!) and we still had 90km ahead of us. Would we be able to finish it before it got dark? We still took our time in Jackson’s hotel and made sure everyone was able for the last part of the trip. Unfortunately the Stallion had stallioned himself and jumped in to Bertie’s van to help him out on the road. This help was very much needed!

The group ahead had reached Buncrana when the rest of us pulled out of Ballybofey. They had a nice lead but the average pace of the bunch was starting to slow a lot as the poor conditions continued to take their toll on the bodies in the group. Ken ‘the Entertainer’ Hassett was keeping the morale off the floor so they kept digging in and digging in.

Back down the road, the main bunch were moving well. The weather was clearing a little from the south so the form in the group was a lot better. They were making good time but they had to. If calculations were right, it was looking like a 9:30 finish. As the miles left ticked downwards the group were hit by a spate of punctures. The chase back each time was hurting some but there was no time for waiting around. We were in a race against the sun going down.

There was not much time to enjoy the scenery of the InisEoghain peninsula. We passed through Buncrana and Carndonagh without much of a glance. The only thing we were focused on was Malin Head. Where the hell was it?!!

An hour up the road, the front group had reached their final destination. The lads were delighted to have made it (we reckon John Gleeson was the victor but they maintain it was a team win!) but with the rain still falling and a biting wind blowing there wasn’t much time for celebration and they jumped into the van to be taken back to Malin. As they unpacked, the main bunch came through the town and they were given plenty of support.

Tha last 13km up to Malin Head were very enjoyable as we all knew we had enough strength in the legs and enough light to make it. Still, the end point took a while to come into view as the terrain was very hilly towards the finish. After 750km of cycling people were still eyeing up a win in the final sprint of the day up to the mast. With 6km to go Shane punctured out so that was him out of the picture. Kenneth Kennedy got the jump on Gary and took the all important win. After suffering more than most on Day 1, Will Rymer stormed through for 3rd place! Paddy last was Shane.

Even though it was almost dark, the relief to have finished was clear on everyone’s face. This was a brutal day on the bike. We all had to dig so deep just to get through it. It was after 10pm when we finally got back to our hotel in Malin. Dinner was served a little late at 11:00pm!! After that, some were just fit for bed but some stayed up to laugh and slag each other off till the early hours.

Over the next few days and weeks the magnitude of what everyone in the club achieved here will seep in. We set a target that a lot of people thought we wouldn’t be able for, trained very hard for it, fought through some seriously tough days on the bike and reached our goal. It doesn’t get much better than that. For many of ye, this will be the fittest you will ever be in your life so savour it and savour a job well done.

A few thank yous….

Of course we couldn’t have done this without help of a lot of people. We would like to thank the following: Herons Cove, Joan Donovan and Fortview B&B’s Mizen Head, Meadowlands Hotel Tralee, Lahinch Golf and Leisure Resort Hotel, Leenaun Hotel, Ballina Hotel, Jacksons Hotel, Malin Hotel and Sligo Park Hotel…who accommodated 16 lifeless souls in their hour of need. Thanks also to our courier and bus service Dinny O’Brien and Aidan Claffey…punctual and accommodating. Thanks to Ken Hassett for allowing the group to make use of his van, and the biggest thanks of all goes to two club members – firstly to Bertie Sherlock for being the best support vehicle driver and putting up with our hissy fits over what must have been 4 long days for him – and secondly Majella Moyles who put this whole thing together ‘The Majella Way’. There was a lot of work involved in putting this together so fair play to her for doing a fine job.

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