I competed in the 2200km Race Around Ireland in September 2013. Only one woman had ever finished RAI. I tried… I got to 1900km before succumbing to severe sleep deprivation.
Race Around Ireland 2013 – Race Report
Written by Phil Magnus (the Wattmeister) – Crew Mechanic
Photos available here.
The race starts at Trim Castle by the banks of the River Boyne, notable in our time for being used as the backdrop to the film Braveheart. In front of the riders lay 2190 kilometres anticlockwise around the coast of Ireland, to be completed within 132 hours, or expressed another way, exactly 5 and a half days. This equates to a daily ride of 398 km and 182 metres.
The field of contenders for solo honours was comprised of twelve intrepid ultracyclists, but barring accidents the result was a foregone conclusion as Christoph Strasser, the uberchampion of this niche sport was on the start roster. He has won RAAM twice and in June 2013 was the first man to ride the 4900 km race in under eight days, over 600 km per day. That’s Southend to Lands End on a daily basis.
Our girl Shu Pillinger, was the only female entrant, and indeed, only one woman has ever completed the event since its inauguration in 2009. Shu’s team of six included her boyfriend Dave, crew chief Nadya, Zoe, Ele, Geoff and me. We had been recruited via various methods for our different skills. A highly trained unit in the making, we had met each other on just the one occasion for a practice run.
Zoe was the nutritionist, Ele the physio, Geoff and I were responsible for all things mechanical and also seeing who could eat the most in competition with Dave. Nadya’s job as crew chief was to keep us well drilled and on the ball.
The event regulations decreed that all the riders had to be followed at a distance of approximately 15 metres by a follow vehicle, which, due to some of the narrow roads on route, was not allowed to be a camper van. Our vehicle of choice for this task was Shu’s much-loved Land Rover which had been suitably equipped with reflective tape and a yellow flashing light. It also only had two doors which was later to cause much mirth and some discomfort.
Our other vehicle was my trusty compact Fiat camper van, which is very suitable for a couple, but was rather stretched on occasion to accommodate four or five adults at one time. It was also professionally adorned with Shu’s race number, 111, and various reflective signs.
The follow vehicle, equipped with a tracking device, and rider were required to phone in at each of the designated Time Stations on route, of which there were twenty in total. The Stations tended to be Topaz 24 hour fuel stops and their welcome presence grew on all of us as the event progressed.
Shu’s start time was 15.27 on Sunday September 15th, which meant that her finish time was 03.27 on Saturday 21st September. The magnificent race organisers, Alan and Emmet, had arranged for the main road to be closed and a start ramp was constructed to send the participants on their way. Each rider departed after a brief interview, and their follow car would speed around the ramp and take the required position.
The weather was bright but rather breezy and quite chilly, but was forecast to deteriorate over the following 48 hours.
TRIM to BALLYMASCANLAN TS1 82 km
Shu’s turn to be interviewed came and she answered her questions with great poise and mental agility…no sign of nerves, and was then sent on her way via mainly quiet roads to Navan, bypassing Drogheda and Dundalk before her first stop at Ballymascanlan
At this first Time Station, which was reached in daylight after approximately 80 km, there was a tangible air of excitement as other back up vehicles were awaiting their riders. When Shu hit the control, we swapped GPSs, fit fully charged Exposure Strada lights, fed, watered and sent her briskly on her way.
It was cold.
BALLYMASCANLON to MOIRA TS2 70 km
Soon after the TS, Shu encountered her first serious climb of 4 km near Carlingford, evocatively named ‘Long Woman’s Grave’, before crossing over into Northern Ireland at Warrenpoint.
By this time Ele, Zoe and I, in the secondary support vehicle, or the mobile distribution centre, were on our way to a point about 40 km in front of Shu, a town called Banbridge. We parked up and used the splendid communal park gym facilities to do press-ups, pull-ups, pull downs and other such malarkey.
By TS 2 it was dark, wet, blowing a hooley and very cold. The procedure began to evolve reasonably efficiently. Nadya would check that all the necessary stuff was taken care of, and keep a sharp eye on stoppage time. Ele and Zoe would massage and feed Shu in the camper van, Dave would offer his valuable moral support, and after any mechanical adjustments, Geoff and I would stand outside in the very fresh air.
MOIRA to LOCHGUILE TS3 85 km
By TS 3 at Lochguile at 155 km, most people would have been tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle, listening to the rain and wind tearing through the countryside. Not Shusanah, she was aquaplaning through narrow lanes, cold air ripping through her layered clothing system before reaching the sanctuary of the local Community Centre, where Niall, one of many wonderful volunteers, made us all a cup of tea whilst Shu changed from wet to dry kit.
By chance, Niall knew some of the Irish riders with whom I had shared the road on the GranFondo Stelvio Santini, but that is another story for another time.
Now we had a slight problem. As her gear became waterlogged, we had to store it and somehow get it dry in the confined space of the van. The Eberspacher heater was a big help, but if these conditions had continued, she would soon run out of suitable clothing.
LOCHGUILE to COLRAINE TS4 60 km
On and on she pedalled, through deserted narrow country lanes, within touching distance of the Giant’s Causeway, to a sleep destination at TS4 (unusually a Texaco) at Colraine, with a Macdonalds handily adjacent. The advance group had an uncomfortable kip in the van before Shu rocked up. Then we switched places, squeezing into the Land Rover while she nodded off in the camper van before a welcome Mcmuffin feast at 7am on the dot.
Still cold, damp and with a rising Northerly wind.
COLRAINE to MALIN HEAD TS5 101 km
The next stage was entitled ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Our team now had no illusion as to the magnitude of the task before us and Shusanah. We were well into it.
Londonderry’s situation on the banks of the River Foyle is a glorious sight to behold, why is there so much hatred there? However, Shu was now cycling into a ferocious headwind which increased in strength as she approached Malin Head. A brief stop at Quigley’s Point for five precious minutes of shuteye help our girl to mount up and tackle the remaining kilometres.
Choppy waves corrugated the water’s surface in the sheltered bays and inlets, and giant angry breakers pummeled the rocky shore on the seaward side. The last stretch saw Shu winch her way up some short but precipitous climbs before reaching TS 5 at Malin Head. The wind was so strong that it easily held me upright as I leaned into it. The camper van was a most welcome place of refuge, but we were all struck with wonder by the angry glory of Mother Nature.
MALIN HEAD to LIFFORD TS6 101KMS
After such an enormous and grueling effort, Shu was then confronted with an extremely rolling road back to Malin. The wind had exacted a cruel tithe on Shu’s strength, but she ploughed on relentlessly to face battle with one of Ireland’s toughest climbs at Mamore Gap. The approach to the climb is via a winding coastal road of rare beauty, before lurching up for 2 km at an average of 12%. Mere statistics do not paint a true picture. There were several steep ramps of up to 28% interspersed with some flatter sections. The wind at the summit nearly had the doors off the Land Rover. But the girl climbed every damned centimetre!
The terrain immediately after Mamore was not flat, but finally a forgiving stretch into Lifford allowed Shu to pick up a bit of speed. Amazingly, at this point she was only a couple of hours down on her schedule and with a slight tailwind she rallied in tremendous fashion.
LIFFORD to SLIGO TS7 119 km
Late afternoon tumbled into evening and then dark night. This was a long stage and our girl was suffering badly with a sore backside. She vainly asked for more shorts. I offered to go ‘commando’ and let her use my padded underpants over her outer tights. This suggestion caused much hilarity, and together with an Ibuprufen seemed to take her mind off the problem. Although only having three days use, the underpants were in pristine condition.
But this is an endurance event, a tough one in good conditions, and Shu marched on into the darkness , defying the squally showers and the pain in her backside. Boa Island, Belleek, Garrison, Manorhamilton and the 5 km climb of Saddle Hill had to be passed through during the night on the way to Sligo TS7, situated at a Topaz 24hour garage.
I imagine that this would have been a beautiful ride in daylight, but Shu was now entering a new phase of her ride, where the demons of pain, hunger, weariness and ambition had to be conquered so that she might find the strength and willpower to carry on.
SLIGO to CASTLEBAR TS8 118 km
The stage from Sligo to Castlebar TS8 is shrouded in mystery. Our delegation was directed to take some sleep and negotiate a direct route to the TS. Meanwhile, Shu and her minders had to deal with a couple of nasty climbs and the scenic route to Castlebar. We slept too long and nearly cocked up the rendezvous, but finally made it to the appointed grid directions with a few minutes to spare. It was raining, and had been for some hours.
A well-stocked Centra mini-supermarket formed part of the complex, and the staff were most helpful in allowing us to take hot water in order to make a quick porridge breakfast for Shusanah.
By this time, our girl had nearly exhausted all her dry clothing options, and the camper van stimulated one’s olfactory sensors in a unique way. A trip to the dry cleaners or laundrette was of vital importance, but of course there was a time consideration to be taken into account, and the small problem of locating a suitable business.
After hefting about 10kgs of sweaty, waterlogged cycling clothing up Thomson Hill, I came across Mr. Bee’s 100% Green Dry cleaners. I explained the cycling challenge, the logistical challenge and the challenge of life in general (although of course this was not ‘real life’). The lady in charge listened sympathetically to my outpouring and could not have been more helpful. Within two hours, most of Shu’s clobber was clean and dry, and we were able to continue on to TS 9 at Clifden, Co. Galway. Thank you so much for the assistance and for the kindness you showed us.
CASTLEBAR to CLIFDEN TS9 110 km
The route to Clifden, necessitated us following much of Shu’s prescribed path. The scenery was majestic, despite the incessant drizzle and gloomy canvas of a leaden sky. The ribbon of gunmetal tarmac (N59) which took us to the half-way point at Leenaun bucked and weaved all the while, and spat us out into a most charming fjord-like setting called Killary harbour. By this time both Zoe and Ele conceded that I had not been solely responsible for the hitherto unsavoury aroma of the van. The clean laundry had freshened things up a little, and we awaited the arrival of Shu and the Land Rover in pleasant harmony. This was a mid-stage stop designed to allow Shu a little break in another trek to the TS.
From wild and picturesque Leenaun, the N59 followed the devastatingly beautiful coastline road and windswept moors and valleys to the town of Clifden, TS9. The centre of town was choc-a bloc with bars, hotels, pubs and eateries. Loads of parking spaces and wide streets to accommodate the influx of hungry and thirsty people, I suppose. We had passed Shu and the rest of the team on the way in, and Zoe prepared a nutritious meal for all. Her speciality was tuna and cracked pepper wrap with a dash of lemon. Shu, being a veggie, had to have something different involving peanut butter and jam.
We needed to find a place for Shusanah to have a shower. Nothing personal, but cleanliness in the nether regions combined with warm water helps to rejuvenate the capillaries which had endured three days of unyielding pressure. Step up Foyles Hotel, Clifden. Once again, they embodied the spirit of Irish hospitality, and for a small charge they allowed Shu to use a room with a shower. Thus, having regained her mojo and flower-like aroma she was ready to conquer the moonlit road to Oranmore near Galway. The rest of us continued to wallow in a state of uncleanliness.
I liked Clifden.
CLIFDEN to ORANMORE TS10 97 km
I have never seen the view from the N59 which winds from Clifden to Galway during daylight hours, but I doubt that it surpasses the dreamy, milky light and silhouetted hills which were reflected on the surface of Ballynahinch Lake as we drifted by.
After ever so slightly losing the way on exiting Clifden, we in the campervan spied Shu and the Land Rover rejoining the route way ahead in the distance. Soon, after dodging roaming sheep, we passed our cyclist and yelled shouts of encouragement. Later on, she told us that she thought we were a bunch of drunkards hurling abuse!
To the south, the glittering lights of a distant town spread along the shore line suggested that we might be gazing across the Atlantic towards New York City. In our altered state of consciousness this seemed conceivable. It certainly was a most beautiful stretch of road, for once with little wind and no rain.
The Texaco 24hr TS 10 in Oranmore was a disappointment as only access to fuel was 24 hour. There was no café or mini-supermarket to which we had become accustomed. In our position as advance party, we had to find a quiet place for Shu to sleep when she arrived in the town. This was brilliantly achieved by Ele and Nadya whilst I was fast asleep in the back of the van.
Food and drink was prepared for our athlete. The bed was folded out and we each assumed our roles in preparation for her arrival. After not too long a wait, Shu rolled up and was fed, watered, massaged and tucked up for a couple of hours sleep, snuggled up to sundry helpers. Geoff and I addressed our expertise to fettling the bike and then kipped in the Land Rover for a bit.
ORANMORE to SPANISH POINT TS11 102 km
All too soon the process was reversed and she was back on the bike headed for the next TS at Spanish Point, on the coast of County Clare some 101kms distant. I can no longer remember the team situation any more, but I think Dave, Zoe and I followed Shu in the Land Rover. As the darkness lifted and daylight once again spread over the landscape, we headed towards a couple of stiff climbs at the Cliffs of Moher just before dropping down to the traditional-looking seaside town of Lehinch.
I have a strong recollection of wanting to be at the next TS, which was situated in the Armada Hotel. It sounded promising. And so it was. We had been given a room to enjoy. This meant a shower after three of four days off from normal domestic routine. The campervan was parked in a sunny spot, and all Shu’s damp clothes were drying merrily in the breeze. The view down to the beach suggested great surfing conditions, and all these things helped to lift one’s spirits after a few days of confinement.
SPANISH POINT to LIMERICK CITY TS12 93 km
We swapped teams and vehicles. I seem to recall that Zoe, Dave and I drove directly to Limerick, while Geoff, Nadya and Ele followed Shu. My attentions were focused on replacing a blown front headlight bulb, and the Centra/Topaz Time Station had the necessary bulb in stock. It also provided us with a decent meal, and the chance to stock up with some vital shopping.
Unfortunately, my tools were in the Land Rover, so I could only get so far with the bulb replacement. However, Holger, one of the volunteer motor cycle marshals, appeared and lent me his tools and moral support which were enough to complete the job.
The motorcycle marshals are recruited from a European Motorcycle club whose members give their time and services to assist specifically on this type of event. Holger probably sensed that I was tired and disorganised, but he waited patiently while I got on with the repair.
Rider and crew arrived and we effected quite a snappy turnaround. I seem to remember that spirits were good all round.
The weather was pleasant, sunny and warm!
LIMERICK to KILLARNEY TS13 142 km
After the testing conditions up north, the organisers had allowed all the contestants an extra 12 hours in which to finish. Shusanah now needed to return to Navan by 3.30p.m on Saturday 21st September. This next stage was crucial. It was a very long ride with a tough climb placed about 25 km form the finish.
The demands of such an intense race are both physical and mental. There is no real substitute for sleep and lack of sleep increases these demands exponentially after a few days.
Shusanah was suffering, she needed more rest. The first half of this passage was OK for her, but as darkness fell and her senses dulled, she struggled to stay awake. The ride into Tralee became a crawl with lots of stops for minor problems which were lack of sleep induced. Her average speed dipped alarmingly and the final straw was not even the wickedly steep climb of Sliabh Mish, but the ensuing descent, where goblins and monsters jumped out of the hedgerows in her path, and her downhill speed was reduced to slower than walking pace.
Dave made a good decision to park the Land Rover in a quiet field and put Shu to bed. The campervan retraced from Killarney and we all huddled down for a welcome sleep followed by an early morning assessment of the state of play.
Shu was brutally honest about her prospects of finishing and also about how she was dealing with night time riding. An emotional hour passed discussing the pro and cons of the ride. Finally she made the brave decision to continue as far as possible.
Despite the twelve hour time extension, finishing in time was now in the balance. In fact I will go as far as to say she had little chance when we headed to Killarney.
KILLARNEY to SNEEM TS14 127 km
Dear reader, what happened next was quite inspiring. Faced with the toughest stage of the whole ride, incorporating six major climbs on the Ring of Kerry, our girl battled back with all the guts and courage that she could muster. After a little re-arranging of the kit in the vehicles, and for now backed by a team of four in the Land Rover, she rallied, and how! Dunloe Gap, Moll’s Gap to name just two of the climbs she put to bed.
By the time Zoe and I met up with them at the long drag out of Waterville, Shu had a better than mathematical chance of finishing in time. Messages were beginning to come in from Twitter and Facebook followers, and even people on the roadside began to come along and give their support.
Nevertheless, she was still very tired, but the weather conditions had improved, and we as a team were determined not to waste any of her precious minutes. She hit her deadline at the lovely Sneem Hotel with the Yamaha baby grand piano in the main bar area.
SNEEM to MIZEN HEAD TS15 120 km
It was about 5pm, the sun was shining, the wind had dropped to a whisper. We ate superb fish and chips on the lawn outside the Sneem Hotel. Probably a ‘no-no’ in England, but nobody bothered us in Western Ireland. Shu received some physio treatment from Ele and a nutritional boost from Zoe. She had to maintain an average of 18.75 km per hour on and off the bike to beat the cut off time. This equated to approximately 790 km in the 42.5 hours remaining.
One fair climb, the Caha Pass, 4 km long, plus a rolling road stood between her and Ireland’s most Southwesterly point at Mizen Head. She had received the kind offer of a refreshment/shower stop from the sister and sister-in-law of a RAAM contestant who lived in the village of Goleen on the Mizen Head peninsular. We headed in that direction. After the drama of early morning, Shusanah was back on track. We had to be strict with the amount of time allowed off the bike without compromising her safety. I seem to recall that as we passed through Bantry, she was doing well.
A long and undulating ride under another bright moonlit sky began to sap her energy, but she made the rendezvous in Goleen in good time. I can’t remember everybody’s names, but a woman connected to Meurig James, solo male Raam 2013 finisher, drove over to meet up and offer her support to Shu and the team. [Ed: thanks Kate and Sarah Jane!]. It was a fantastic gesture and galvanized the ‘Pillinger’ over the lumpy terrain to Mizen Head.
MIZEN HEAD to KINSALE TS16 118 km
Bathed in magical moonlight, the whole team were smitten by the ethereal atmosphere of the Point. But we had to stick to our new schedule. Rider and Land Rover set off, while the camper van was cleaned up a little. After fifteen minutes or so, Shu’s lights and those of the LR could be seen shimmering away to the South as she cracked on towards the town of Schull.
A sleep stop had been planned for Schull, and so we in the campervan located a garage forecourt to park up and await the others. Once again Shu was looked after and we all put our heads down for a couple of hours rest. The idea was for Shu to leave at around 4 a.m and press on to Actons Hotel TS16, Kinsale. This worked out very well indeed. She was quite refreshed and ready to go on time.
There still remained about 650 km in 35.5 hours, requiring 18.3 km per hour to finish. It was not an impossible task if she could safely stave off sleep and keep the legs turning. In any case, it was a remarkable effort to still be in the hunt considering the situation 24 hours ago.
The early morning ride and drive along the banks of the River Arigideen estuary was good for the soul. Calmed by the still river waters and aided by the flat terrain, progress was good. Shu made Kinsale at 8 a.m. 560 km to go in 31.5 hours, 17.77 km per hour.
It was my birthday.
The staff at Actons hotel were bewildered but very helpful. There was not enough time to make good use of the facilities, but the support was there for all of us.
KINSALE to YOUGHAL TS17 103 km
We believed and Shu believed that finishing was a possibility, where once upon a hundred years ago it seemed like she could not.
There was plenty of navigating and lots of poky climbs to negotiate in the next part on route to Cork City. I confess that tiredness caused me to misdirect Dave who was driving the campervan and we made an unnecessary detour before Cork, but we were still ahead of Shu at the Co-op Building Supplies depot at Curraheen where Shu was to receive a nutritional boost from Zoe.
While we were awaiting her approach, a few bystanders who had been following the Race’s progress on radio and internet came over to wish us well. It was a heart- warming experience. From Curraheen, our paths diverged. Dave, Zoe and myself went in search of medical supplies and Diesel, while Shu tackled the fearsome 25% Patrick’s Hill in Cork City. She smashed it by all accounts. Several people were applauding her at the top. Meanwhile, Dave bought me a birthday lunch, KFC Zinger. Thanks Dave, I loved it.
After Cork, the route levelled out and Shusanah made fairly good passage to Youghal. The grand Walter Raleigh Hotel were not really aware of the RACE, but willingly allowed us to use their facilities to clean up and charge necessary items from the electric points. I took advantage of the comfortable furniture in the foyer to have a really deep powernap.
On her arrival, Shu had about 25 hours in which 460 km, an average of 18.4 km per hour. It was still a feasible task, although the coming night would be crucial.
YOUGHAL to WATERFORD TS18 119 km
The road to Waterford leads to the beautiful Suir valley via a large climb over the Knockmealdown Mountains , reminiscent of the English Cotswolds. At times, Dave exited the LR to run alongside the tiring cyclist up the steepest slopes, offering his girlfriend unyielding support. The view from the top was exquisite and Shu must have been thankful for the long run downhill to Clonmel and then Sean Kelly’s home town of Carrick on Suir.
However, by this time, she was desperately fatigued. The muscles in her eyelids were tired, she needed frequent breaks. We tried a visualisation exercise to stimulate her, e.g she was catching Christoph Strasser, and was being caught by Valerio Zamboni. Overcome by emotion and exhaustion, she just could not respond. We whisked her into the Land Rover for a nap. Ten minutes and one Ibuprofen later later, she was smashing her way to Waterford in the gathering gloom at an average of 27 km/h. A reserve switch of deep resolve had been triggered in her mind. The change was phenomenal. She barnstormed her way into Waterford. Her face on dismounting the bike at the TS told another story. She had literally buried herself with the effort. I saw exhaustion and emptiness in her features. Although the next section seemed to be one of the most benign of the whole race, she needed to take advantage of it.
Could a brief rest and refuel bring her back to life?
WATERFORD to WEXFORD TS19 97 km
Once again, she climbed back onto her bike, Tamara. There was still about 340 km to go with 16.5 hours left in which to do it, around 20.6 km per hour. Only a high average speed on this leg could put the target back within reach.
Alas, it was not to be. She struggled to stay awake, averaging about 20 km/h when it needed to be around 26 km/h. It started to drizzle, the hallucinations returned to haunt her. The following vehicle contacted us in the camper van and we put the worn out Shu to sleep for a few hours. Race HQ was contacted and informed that Shu had been withdrawn for her own safety.
We drove back to the B&B in Navan. Shu slept, I slept, the rest of the team cleaned my van, bless them. We all visited race HQ and Shu was presented with an award for the best female performance.
We witnessed the Danish rider Christian Krause arrived just before the cut off time after writing off his bike in an accident and finishing the race on a borrowed steed.
It is difficult to articulate the intensity of emotions generated by such a profoundly testing undertaking. I can only say that Shusanah did not fail. We bonded as a team. The good energy that sprang from the whole enterprise eclipsed the detail of whether she completed the course or not.
My thanks go to the whole team and also the organisers and volunteers who have the courage and vision to stage an event of this order with such friendly grace and charm.