Quest Killarney – Race Report

by Shane Scully

The bruises and cuts all over my legs, reflect how battered my brain is at this stage of the season. To say I am delighted to be hanging up the trail runners for the year is a massive understatement. Racing these tough events with the wrong attitude is not the place to be. I started tuning out of the sport about 8 weeks ago and was lucky to get to Quest Lough Derg still in pretty decent condition. Fast forward a month later and now I am half a stone heavier and mentally retired for the year, but I still have one more race to do to become National Series Champion. That race also happens to be the toughest and longest on the NS calendar. If I could have backed out of Quest Killarney I would have. However, with only a top 5 finish required to win the NS, I said to myself I would go down there and just do a job. In saying that, I knew myself that if I didn’t win I would be disgusted with myself and it would leave the worst taste in the mouth all throughout the winter. I have won 7 out of 8 races this year and all I can think about was the one I lost. I hate losing more than I enjoy winning. Even though the brother and I were well off full fitness we would go down and battle and at least make the others work hard for the win.

We made our way down to Killarney on Friday evening, opting to stay in a B&B instead of driving down on the day. We were up at 5:30 eating breakfast and getting things ready for what was a 7:30 start on the bikes. The main competitors on the start line were Barry Cronin, Luke McMullen, Killian Heery, Seb Giraud and Mark Pinfield. At this time of year you don’t know who is fit and who is not. Maybe they were all in the same boat as us (clinging on to what was left of the summer fitness)? As always the event itself seemed very professionally run. It seemed like a big deal so it wasn’t hard to get the Adrenalin flowing on the start line. Pre-race tactics were kept to a minimum; it was pretty much to deal with events as they cropped up. If a chance came to break away take it. If not sit in and save energy. In past races, I felt others were at times a bit reluctant to take the race by the scruff of the neck. This was certainly not one of those races as the brother and I found ourselves 3 minutes behind after just 30 minutes. Was disaster about to strike?

14km Cycle: it was still a little bit dark as we started on the bike. A couple of hundred people cycling at just 15km per hour behind a car in the neutralised zone is a little bit hairy at that time of the morning, but before we knew it the racing had begun. I threw in 4 or 5 break away attempts on the first flat cycle but they were all chased down immediately. Others went too but nothing stuck to T1. It was all very negative riding with loads willing to chase down and few willing to break. I am always amazed by how hard some people chase down others on the bike. With 4 or 5 hours of racing ahead why are you so keen to burn so many matches early? Can you keep up that pace for the whole race? if no, stay back out of the way and conserve your energy. Why go to the front, into the head wind, at all?

I knew T1 was coming up as the ever alert Barry Cronin made a big move up to the front to ensure he got off the bike first. Himself, Killian and Seb came into T1 together and got away quickly. I was stuck behind with Gary and Luke and lost 17 seconds in a queue looking to dib in. It was still very early in the day so need to panic. What was worrying me was my breathing, I couldn’t get a deep breath as I was bloated from the most awful diet you could possible imagine. It feels like there is no room for my lungs to expand as my stomach is bloated.

6.5km Mountain Run: the breathing difficulties made it hard for me to run well. I struggled on this early climb and lost a lot of time. I found myself running with the brother and Luke. We also had Mark in tow for most of the way up but he descended well and got up to the lads further ahead. There were only 3 lads ahead at the top. Killian was clearly going for broke and looking to establish a big lead on a course that he has won on multiple times. Behind him were Barry and Seb and they too were working hard and moving well. Gary, Luke and I chatted most of the way up the hill while still working pretty hard. We agreed early on to work together after the run to reel the lads in on the bike but we had our work cut out as the gap had grown to 3:15 to Killian and 1:30 to the group of 3 ahead. This was a big lead to give to anyone so we got to work straight away.

36.5km Cycle: I set our time at the front according to how I felt each one was feeling. Gary was puffing and panting so 30 seconds, Luke was looking ok so he did 1 minute and I was feeling and breathing much better now as the breakfast in the stomach started to disappear so I did 2 minutes. We worked fine together until we reached the first set of hills. Luke started to struggle so I dropped the pace and sat on the front for much longer periods. We didn’t want to drop anyone at this stage. With the gap to the group of 3 coming down (they didn’t seem to be working that well together), if Gary or Luke were struggling badly they would get a rest once the group ahead were caught. My group got to the top of the hill all together and Gary came to the front to push the pace on the downhill. He is a good descender and with the group of 3 now split up and all within sight, he had something to aim for. After surviving the pace on the uphill section, Luke let the wheel go on the descent and dangled just off the back as 1 by 1 we caught the rest. This left just Killian out alone by himself and well out of sight.

I tried to get this new group of 5 working together. Again, I was still doing the lion’s share of the work on the front as I didn’t want the gap to Killian getting any wider. I wasn’t expecting everyone to do the same amount on the front but you had to do something. 1 lad in the group had his own tactics and wouldn’t roll through. I gave two warnings that I was going to just break away if he didn’t roll through. After the the warnings expired I broke away. I couldn’t spend any more time stalling on the bike and having arguments. This was just playing into Killian’s hands and I wasn’t willing to give up on 1st place just yet. Mark Pinfield came with me on the break but was unable to hold the wheel going up the next long climb up towards the Kenmare Road. I was out on my own and I settled into a nice pace.

Coming close to the kayak section, it was only starting to dawn on me that I was only just half way through the race and I still had 2 hours of racing left. I eased back a bit on the throttle and took a more long term view of reeling Killian back in. No point destroying myself on the bike to catch Killian only to have no legs for the all important Mangerton run stage. By the end of the cycle I had reduced the gap to Killian by 2 minutes so he had just over 1 minute advantage getting to the kayak.

Back behind on the bike, Gary got himself into a stand off with Barry Cronin. They were obviously viewing each other as the main threat on the final hill run so they marked each other out of it and lost many minutes on the bike because of this. I can’t understand for the life of me why this happened as all was still left to play for in the race. Gary said he wanted and offered to work but Barry didn’t seem to want to. In the end, Barry bet Gary on the climb so he might feel that tactic worked but I look at it and think Barry could have won the race by working with people when it made sense e.g. with me originally, with Gary afterwards. This all meant that it was Killian 1st, me 2nd, Seb and Mark in 3rd & 4th (not sure which order) and Gary and Barry 9 minutes behind in 5th and 6th. They would have to run well to rescue anything from the race. Luke wasn’t far behind the two lads getting into the kayak but was struggling a little after having his exams recently.

Kayak: as usual this section was all about me just limiting my losses. I have only ever kayaked in races (9 times in total) and I am learning all the time. The water was a little choppy but not enough to worry about. I saw Killian for the first time in a long time here. He was on his way to the first buoy so I knew the gap wasn’t unassailable. I made sure not to overdo it in the kayak as I didn’t want to be drained for the tough run coming up straight after. By the end, Killian had put another 30 seconds into me and the lead was heading out closer to the 2 minute mark. He was certainly giving it his all and making a great race out of it. Seb had just about caught me up exiting the kayak but he would soon have stomach problems of his own to deal with and would lose a lot of time. As I exited the kayak Gary and Barry were just arriving. It was now looking like a two horse race on the final climb.

18.8km Mountain Run: with this sort of a mountain run placed close to the end of the race, it was always likely that the winner would be decided here. Killian had a 2 minute advantage but I was feeling pretty good so confidence was high. I was breathing better and felt I had enough energy gels down me to last to the end. My confidence took a bit of a battering when a marshal called out a time gap of 3 to 4 minutes to me on the run up Torc. Thankfully this was just a mistake and the next marshal told me the gap had actually come down to just over 1 minute. Going up the steps at Torc my hamstrings were constantly on the brink of cramping. I was reduced to walking but that didn’t alleviate the pain much. Thankfully at the top of the steps it leveled out and I got straight back into my running again.

When I reached the steep part of the climb I could just about see Killian up ahead. This gave me a boost as I had something to aim for. I wasn’t sure of the best way up the mountain as it was my first time doing the route and at times I found it hard to see the flags ahead as the sun was shining in my eyes. Little by little the gap came down. The steeper it got the quicker the gap came down. Half way up the steep part I caught and passed Killian. He didn’t seem to be moving overly well so I thought immediately that I had the race won. However, this was wishful thinking on my behalf. I pushed on hard up the mountain looking to have the win sealed by the top. I had put 4 minutes into Killian on the steep part and had a lead of at least 3 minutes. Surely I had it won. On the way down all I heard from fellow competitors was, nobody near you, you have it. I definitely let this get to my head and lost a bit of focus going down hill. I still felt I was going well but it was only when I heard steps coming fast behind me that I realised what fast really was. Killian had caught me and passed me. I couldn’t believe it. It was like Lazarus returning from the dead.

The race was well and truly on now and like an idiot I decided to try to follow Killian down the mountain. The one problem being, I don’t have his descending skills and 30 seconds later I face plant and crack my knee off a rock and nearly twist my ankle. I was panicking now. From the high of thinking that I had it won to the low of being past again and the gap widening. Luckily for me we were virtually at the end of the steep part at this stage and the road surface improved a lot thereafter. I regained my composure and just said to myself, “you are feeling good, you are back on a surface where you can actually run, go for it”. I upped the pace, caught Killian quickly and put in the hardest 5 minutes of trail / forest running I could. I wanted to break Killian’s resistance before we got to the descent of the stairs as I was fearing his speed there and also fearing another cramp. On the stairs the inevitable cramp came and this time much worse than before. I walked down the stairs, straightened out the leg and managed to get running again. Thankfully the leg cleared up on the flatter ground and I was off running hard again. Where Killian was at this stage I did not know, but I knew I had to get out of transition before he got there and jumped on my wheel.

5.5km Cycle: there was no sign of Killian as I exited on the bike. I still pushed it all the way to the line, fearing that once again Killian would appear out of nowhere and pass me. Thankfully he didn’t and as I racked my bike for the final time in 2019 I could enjoy my short run to the finish line. That sure was a tough battle. It takes a lot of bravery to go for the win from the gun and Killian has to be respected for that. This all or nothing strategy almost paid off. Killian came across the line 6 minutes later. I am not sure what happened that such a gap appeared, maybe it was cramp, maybe an injury flared up, maybe it was the knock, who knows. Barry crossed just 2 minutes later having made up a huge amount of ground on the final run and bike (what could have been!). Mark Pinfield had a super race and came in in 4th place, with the brother, Seb and Luke in 5th, 6th and 7th. The brother had an off day today but it’s understandable given how easy we are training now and how much we are eating.

With that victory I wrapped up the overall win in the National Series. 5 wins out of 5 in my first real year in the sport. Add to that the 3 wins out of 3 and the overall title in the Gaelforce Series and I must say I am pleased with how the year has gone. There is still much to improve on if we are to once again target adventure racing in 2020. Knowing the courses that little bit better will help and there are some races we didn’t get a chance to do. Let’s just see how the winter hibernation goes. We have really enjoyed this new experience and met loads of great competitors and organisers; as always in top level sport you are going to upset a few people too (if judging by the lack of handshakes after races are finished). Best of luck to everyone at the last two National Series events of the year. We will be at home in front of the fire with the feet up thinking about ye with a little bit of jealousy.

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