Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Mile Failte 1200K, Ireland - What does "MF" really stand for?

Wow, what an experience! Since I started this blog a few years ago, when I was working towards the Shenandoah 1200K, and then a few entries this year after signing up for the Mile Failte 1200k in Ireland less than 2 months ago, I might as well finish the story. I successfully completed the ride, and learned so much along the way & had so many experiences, that it is likely hard for me to recall everything just a few days after the ride, while still in “recovery mode”. I guess a big part of what “newer” Rando’s continue to learn, is “what not to do”, & although I seem to be minimizing my mistakes, I continue to make them. In hindsight, I wish that I had flown into Ireland a day earlier, instead of arriving on the day before, as I don’t think that helped with my sleep patterns on Day 1. Although I may be able to ride my bike fairly well, I am a terrible mechanic, and one of my greatest concerns was immediately alleviated at the starting hotel in Midleton, Ireland, when my friend Bill Fischer walked out of the front door as I was stepping out of the taxi, and very nicely began assembling my bike. Bill & Gavin Biebuyck, had told me about this ride a few months ago, and given my friendship & comfort level in having done several longer brevets with them, they were the key factor in my willingness to “have another go”. Bill & Gavin were also friendly with Chip Adams, Matt Farrell & Melinda Lyon’s, other Americans, some of whom I had met briefly during other brevets, that would form our core group throughout the entire ride.
Day 1 was a 356k loop from Midleton towards the west & Waterford. A total of 95 riders started the brevet, and we departed from a local parking lot. Everyone was in good spirits, and eager to go. As with most brevets, it did not take too long for the pack to start separating. Other than knowing that the plan was for Bill, Gavin, Matt & Chip to ride together, I was open to riding with anyone, and one of the things that really attracted me to coming over to Ireland, aside from my heritage, was an opportunity to meet and ride with Rando’s from many other countries. Although I did speak with several different riders during the first hour or so, soon thereafter, we rarely saw most of the rest of the riders. After 30K, we got our first of many glimpses of the coast as we entered into the very scenic town of Youghal, which we would return through later at night. As with the entire trip, we had great weather on Day 1, likely mid 70’s with sun & clouds. Most of the day we rode through quite farm country, and a lot of rolling hills. I think one of the thoughts I had about Day 1 was, “nothing too bad”, no serpentine required on any of the climbs, but that would change. After an 8:00 A.M. start, which was changed from 6:00 A.M initially to accommodate a Ferry schedule on Day 2, we arrived at the final control c. 1:15. With a plan to depart the hotel at 6:00 A.M. the next morning, which would give us plenty of time for the 15k ride into Fota to make the first Ferry of the day at 7:00. Of course this left plenty of time to sleep & I was given a hotel room with a roommate who had not yet arrived. Perhaps knowing that I was likely to be woken up when that person arrived was the primary factor, but I spent those 4 hours lying in bed, wide awake, not a great way to start Day 2, No sleep!

Day 1, Midleton, at the start

Day 2, was a 350k trek mostly along the southern coast up into Killarney. After our morning ferry crossing, we had a short hour ride into the coastal fishing village of Kinsale, which I had visited for several days while studying in London, during college. Again, we had nice weather, no real winds, and no climbs that I felt were too taxing. Once again, our small group arrived into the final control & Hostel in Killarney at midnight, and I was very confident in getting several hours of sleep. As we were signing in, there was a big screen TV showing the U.S. v Portugal World Cup soccer match, which I was very interested in watching, especially as the U.S. scored to tie the match at 1-1 as my card was being signed, but my desire to get a shower & be the first to bed, took priority over everything else. Another mistake that I made at this point, was not taking advantage of the food that was available to us at the hostel. We were fed at the “Secret Control” which was 30K from the finish, and in fact, the final 30K was relatively flat, and I didn’t seem hungry or really see the need to eat again so soon? So, I certainly have heard stories about the snoring, smells, etc., about staying in a hostel at PBP, in particular, but as I was late to sign up & my group were all staying here, I know that my thought process was, “how bad could it be”? Our hostel itself was fine, and I was put in a smaller room with 3 of my own group members, but… of them snored so loudly, all night, from the minute he hit the bunk, that being a light sleeper that I am, no matter how tired I was, I did not manage 1 minute of sleep again, on night 2. I had purposely put 2 sleeping pills in my top tube bag that I had intended to take on the bike before arriving at the hostel, but not only did I forget to do that, I forgot to bring them into the hostel. Although I did get dressed to go out to my bike to get them at 2:30, taking 2 sleeping pills was no help before the 4:15 alarms started going off for our 5:00 departure. I grabbed a few bananas before we left, but had serious doubts about the day ahead & if I would see this place again later at night, given 2 nights of no sleep, and the very hazy & groggy state that I left in.

Some shots from Day 2, taking pictures from the bike, not my strength

Day 3, is really where the fun, challenges & incredible scenery kicks in, a 365K loop back to Killarney which took us into The Ring of Kerry, then ultimately out to Dingle & around Slea Head Drive. I started Day 3 out in immediate trouble, as I felt bonked right out of the gate. Soon after leaving the control, we were climbing in a National Park, very stark, which reminded me of being in The Pyrenees, with plenty of rock & sheep, as we rode through the early morning dew. I asked my friends to give me 5 minutes as we started our early climbing to take down a few bars & GU to help get me going. My only thought at this point was praying that when we got to our first control town, Christians Mace, at 51K that someplace would be open for me to get some serious food. As we rode into town around 7:30, I could not see anything open, yet alone anyone even awake. Thankfully, Gavin had gone ahead of us, which he would often do during the ride, but generally later at night so that he could start drinking a few beers, no harm there, and he did find the one place that was just opening, a small cafĂ©, and the smile on my face when I heard those words would have been worth a picture. The proprietors were certainly not expecting to accommodate about 10 cyclists during the next 30 minutes, but they could see that we were all about to spend some real money in loading up for the miles ahead. The food that I was able to get down at the first control saved my ride, but I struggled with feeling sick for almost the entire afternoon, and spent most of the time at the next 2-3 controls lying down on the pavement, trying to get as much rest as possible. Dingle….we passed a lot of signs & it seemed like it took forever for us to finally get to Dingle, after getting through The Ring early in the morning. Days 3 & 4 would also now be considered a Heat Wave in Ireland, as temperatures were in the mid 80’s those last 2 days, with full sun & rare cloud cover. We arrived into the seaside, touristy town of Dingle around 4:30, and made the wise decision to stop at a local pub for a full meal & a bit of rest. We were met there by several of the Volunteers, who I must say now for the first time, were a Major part of making this ride a success, they were all so helpful & cheerful at the finishing controls & the Secret Controls, each day. The 40K loop out around Sleigh Head, was incredibly scenic, but also very challenging on the way back into Dingle, with the winds blowing into us. After a quick stop to refuel & pick up some supplies before leaving Dingle, we were almost immediately climbing An Conair, or The Conor Pass. While finishing setting up my bike in Midleton upon arrival, a friendly older gentleman named Padraig began speaking with me & asking a few questions. It turns out that he was an experienced cyclist who could no longer ride after a recent hip replacement. He asked to look at my brevet cards, and told me that he thought the ride was “fair more or less” but that the one bit that I need to remember was “The Connor Pass”. Although I actually didn’t remember the exact name or town, I knew at some point, we would have a steep climb on Day 3. It turns out that this mountain is the highest mountain pass in Ireland, and it took us about an hour to climb to the top, thankfully, still with plenty of daylight. Given that I have been fortunate to have been on 4 other cycling trips in Europe, but not brevets, I can’t actually say that this was the toughest climb that I needed to tackle, but it was up there, and I certainly had never attempted something like this with as many miles in my legs & no sleep for days. It turns out though, that the climb seemed easier than the decent, especially the first part of the descent, which I thought was extremely technical, on rough roads, with barely enough room for one car to get through. Thankfully, the several cars that were coming up the other side, were very courteous, and stopped their cars to let the cyclists through. I know that I really felt very sorry & concerned for our colleagues that would be doing this climb & descent in the dark, which I felt would be unsafe, let alone unnecessary. Early in the evening, most of our group seemed to feel that we were on pace to return to the hostel by 12-1, but I never really felt that would be the case, and as a series of climbs continued into the evening, especially as we went through another sort of park as we drew close to midnight, when the temperature began to drop, I was eager to arrive at the days “Secret Control” which we were all told would be 30K from the finish. When we arrived, I asked a few of the volunteers to please be honest with me in realistically telling us what the last 30K would really be like, as I really felt close to cracking. In so many words, I was told that it was going to be very difficult, and I was actually shown a text message from a rider ahead of us who had just arrived at the hostel, and I won’t repeat the language, but that sealed my decision. Deciding to rest at this control was one of the best decisions I finally made during a long brevet. I was provided with a small mat, and although I didn’t have a blanket, just having an opportunity to rest a few hours, and even perhaps an hour of sleep, was incredibly helpful. When I went up to the stage area, there was one other rider having a rest, but I counted as many as 12 people during the night, probably more, which I don’t think that the volunteers were expecting. I did hear some more talk during the night from the volunteers about the difficulty of that last section, and reports that were coming back, so I made sure that I did not get up until 4:30 when it began to get light. That final section was ridiculously hard in the light, and I was curious to hear from my friends how they fared. I arrived to the hostel by 7:15, as we had agreed hours ago when we separated, that we wanted to depart for the final day by 8:00, I soon learned that it had taken my friends almost 3.5 hours, and several of them had toppled over on the steep, bumpy climbs in the pitch black. All agreed that I had made the right decision, and I know that they were surprised that I made it back well before our departure time. After a quick shower & change & a great hot breakfast prepared by a local chef, we departed for the final day.

Most of Team USA, Melinda, Chip, Matt & Gavin, pausing by the sea on the never ending trek to Dingle...

All of us, yes, we were very tempted to go down to the beach for a swim, one person, did...

Just me, the picture looks better than I felt all day

Day 4, was a shorter route, 160K back to Midleton, although for me, I guess closer to a 200K. We left with a new rider to our group, Birgit Zimmermann from Germany, who had roomed with Melinda at the hostel before the ride. Good portions of morning were spent on nice rolling hills, and we were making good time towards our finish. A real fun part of our final day was at Control # 3, in the small town of Glenville, 100K into our ride, where we stopped at the local pub, Kades Kounty. Three fellow Rando’s were already seated at a table having lunch, but were the only people in the pub. Our group felt we were more in need of beer, and we all proceeded to order some Murphy’s Stout.. I ended up having a few laughs with the bar tender & proprietor, and we really had a lot of fun. I had mentioned that perhaps they could have used some American football memorabilia in the sports themed bar, and I was immediately handed a fantastic local Irish rugby flag, with the expectation that I will send something back to Kades Kounty, which I will be doing this weekend. This is the type of warm Irish hospitality that I have experienced on other trips back to the old country, and will remain a highlight of the trip for me.

Kades Kounty, enjoying a well deserved jar, and a bit of Craic

Over the next 30K into our final control en route to the finish, we actually ended up riding with as many as 15 riders, many of whom we kept flip-flopping with throughout the ride, but never really having a chance to speak with or ride together with for too long.. This was really a lot of fun, and made that next section go by much faster, largely because we were more or less starting a pace line, and reverting back to alpha tendencies…..As soon as we made it into the town of Tallow, I could sense that perhaps some of the group wanted to keep going after a quick picture to prove that we were there, but I knew that I needed some food, and perhaps, I should have had some food back in Glenville, as good as the Murphy’s was….We still left Tallow with a good 10 riders or so, and before I knew it, and somewhat unexpectedly, one of my group members took off, and everyone started to disappear very quickly. Matt Farrell stayed with me those final 30K’s, which had 2 significant climbs, and I was very thankful to have had Matt with me, as I was certainly in no danger of not getting safely back to Midleton, but I was also certainly on my last reserves, my left Achilles had now been on fire for the last 1 ½ days, amongst many other aches & pains. Upon coming down out of the mountains & seeing the town of Midleton, I was certainly close to being overcome with emotion, which I soon would be after arriving at the hotel. When we arrived at the hotel, there were several of the volunteers and townsfolk there to greet us & cheering, which felt great, along with Bill & Gavin & Melinda, who had finished minutes before us. There was a nice ceremony inside the hotel, during which we all received a medal upon signing our cards.
So, how to conclude? Of course it goes without saying that I am very thankful & happy to have been able to complete my first 1200K. The Mile Failte 1200 was very scenic & very challenging. It seemed almost consensus amongst the riders, many of whom have done many 1200’s all over the place, that this was the hardest that they had done, so I guess I have that going for me? During our welcoming meeting, it was explained to us that “Mile Failte” in Gaelic meant “A Thousand Welcomes” and although I was the only member of my group to finally express out loud that what I thought MF really stood for was “Mother ^%$#$%#%”, I doubt that I was the only one who had that thought on Day #3? I had a wonderful experience riding with Bill, Gavin, Matt, Chip & Melinda, we all worked well together, helped one another, and the hours passed easily, and I was able to draw upon their experience & took comfort that they had all been able to complete 1200K’s before. I would gladly ride with any of them again. I have gained tremendous respect for those Rando’s that make the time & commitment to ride 1200k’s, especially those that do several per year, which I cannot even fathom. Clearly, it takes a special type of person to be able to finish one of these events, and I am glad that I can now say that I am one of them. The next time that I get dropped on my weekend group rides, which I will take a few weeks to resume down at the N.J. shore, I am going to have that confident smirk, full well knowing that none of them can do what we do, enjoy the 2 hour sprint! I honestly don’t know if I will attempt another 1200? I know how this goes, the months go by, a new season comes, and one thing leads to another. So, it is hard to say. For now, I am satisfied in having achieved a goal in a year when I had no intention of attempting a 600K, let alone a 1200K. I know one thing, if I ever attempt another, I am going to need to figure out how to get some sleep, and I will certainly opt for a single room, if offered. Thankfully, we did not have a lot of wind on this brevet, but there were enough “to blow me home again”. Enjoy the summer.

Getting ready to leave our final Control, Tallow, 30k to go!

After the finish, what joy, relief & emotion!

Mile Failte 1200K

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