If you want to do your first iron distance race on a fast flat course in the sunshine, Hardman Killarney is not the race for you. But if you like training and racing in Ireland, and prefer the rugged beauty of the Lost Sheep Kemare to free rolling Ironman 70.3 Dublin, Hardman Killarney is the perfect race. It's also the long distance Irish National Championships this year.
The weather the day before the race was atrocious. Gale force wind and rain. Lough Leane was whipped up with white breaking waves, and looked unsafe for boats, nevermind swimmers. The race briefing assured us the wind was to change from south to west, so the lake would be sheltered by the mountains. They changed the swim course from 2 laps to 3 smaller laps to keep it closer to shore. We also heard that over 100 people had signed up for the race, but over 20 had dropped out due to the weather.
I went to bed frustrated, knowing that the howling wind and rain outside would mean a slower time, but was still determined to complete my first iron distance race. I drove to the start in the morning expecting the swim to be cancelled and to do a duathlon instead, but was amazed to see the white water had gone. It was still choppy with strong winds, but it looked swimable, from the shore at least.
3.8k swim - Lough Leane
The swim start was delayed by 30mins. We didn't know at the time, but the water safety boat had pulled out due to the conditions, and another boat was found at the last minute. After the wait, I was surprised by the start, and took a while to get going. As soon as we got away from the shore, the waves started to hit from the right, getting stronger the further we went. I found it hard to catch my breath and had to tread water until the heart slowed down. Eventually I got going, but quickly realized that getting a good time was no longer the issue, simply surviving this swim was the goal. I looked around and all the strong swimmers were gone, and anyone near me was struggling too.
After rounding the first buoy the strong current was at our backs and we were whipped along with waves crashing over our heads all the long way to the second buoy. Good that we had some power behind us, but difficult to control, and easy to get dragged off course. After the second buoy, the waves came crashing in from the left. This was the most exposed section in the middle of the lake. The only way to battle through it was to breathe to the right all the way back to the start. Not breathing on both sides meant getting dragged off course again. But survival was the only goal. I knew if I got through one lap, I could do two more.
On the upside, the water temperature was a lot warmer than the sea. So I didn't get cold as time went on, which was just as well because my time was very slow at 1:43. I got out of the water disappointed (had done 1:27 in Glendalough last year on a lot less training). But I survived it, and was still in the race. A marshal said there were 25 swimmers (out of 70+ starters) still in the water, which surprised me. I heard later that 9 swimmers had to be pulled out of the water into the boat.
I took 10 mins to get changed in the warm heavy rain. I felt OK, a lot fresher than I thought I would after that swim.
180k bike – Ring of Kerry
The bike course was the Ring of Kerry in reverse, so once out of Killarney, it was straight into Moll's Gap climb. This was reasonably sheltered, and I didn't find it too hard. But when I got to the top, the full force of the wind and rain kicked in. The 10k descent to Kenmare was very exposed and trecherous. Tri bars were not an option as I was tossed around like a rag doll by the cross winds.
At one point, I got blown accross the white line on a slippery S-bend, but thankfully there were no cars. So I hung on to the drops as best I could all the way down to Kenmare. The long roll from Kenmare to Sneem was straight into the wind and rain. There were a few sheltered spots but it was difficult to pick up speed. There were a couple of climbs, but nothing too hard by Wicklow standards.
The toughest section on the bike was the climb up Coomakista before Waterville. This was very exposed along the coast and directly into the gale force head wind. I nearly got knocked off by a crazy French woman in a camper van, who rolled down the window shouting “Goo on, 'ard man!”. I think she meant well, but I muttered some expletives as she buzzed me by a couple of inches. There were some bemused tourists at the viewing point watching us being blown backwards, probably wondering why are these guys out on bikes in these conditions. I told myself I was like an inch worm crawling around the bike course, slow but determined to finish.
The descent into Waterville was slippery with some very strong cross winds. But I managed to cling on. I made the mistake of stopping for a few minutes at the feed station to eat a sandwich and chat to other riders. When I started again I couldn't feel my fingers or toes. It took an hour before the blood began to flow again. I was wearing three layers and shoe covers in August, obviously just enough in the rain, so long as you kept moving.
There were more strong cross winds and a couple of climbs near Kells. But the road flattened out, and eventually we had a gale force tail wind behind us. The stretch from Kilorglin back to Killarney was a fast sprint home, even though I was starting to feel a little tired. The overall bike time including stops was very slow at 7:43, but I was delighted to be still in the race and back to T2 an hour ahead of the broom wagon.
I sat down in the changing tent, and felt tired. 10 mins later I started to run a marathon. It felt great to be off the bike, unencumbered by equipment, just using your legs to run free.
42.2k run - Killarney National Park
The run was the surprise package. The rain finally stopped and the course was mostly sheltered by hills and trees. It was a beautiful undulating 3 lap course running past red deer, jarveys, Ross Castle, and the lake. I stopped at each water station to enjoy the coke and chat to the marshals. I was going to finish and was enjoying every moment.
Before the race, I had no idea how I could run a marathon after a 3.8k swim and 180k bike, but the run turned out to the easiest part of the day. My time was slow at 4:59, but I enjoyed every minute, with no cramps, no pain, and no blisters. This was the reward for the hardship earlier. It's not a flat course, with more elevation than the Dublin marathon, but the hills are more rolling and more evenly distributed, so it didn't feel as hard. The banter with other runners also helped a lot.
On the second lap, running as fast as I could, it took me what seemed like ages to overtake a man walking his dog. I was clearly doing the “ironman shuffle” all the way home.
I finished in the dark with a time of 14:46. I didn't care about the time. I had done it. Almost 30% of starters were DNF, so finishing that course in that weather was an achievement in itself. I had followed a “Just Finish” training plan (max 10hr/wk), to see if I could do an ironman, and you only get back what you put in.
The icing on the cake was 3rd place overall in my age group (46-50) in the Long Distance Irish National Championships. This was clearly a case of a tortoise beating a few hares in tough conditions. Sometimes just finishing is enough
The following user(s) said Thank You: Darren_S, michaelp
Wow Steve, that sounds like a seriously torturous day. Having needed a new set of underwear after driving Moll's Gap in similar conditions last year, I can only imagine how tough cycling it could have been. You should be extremely proud of that!! I hope you're enjoying some well-deserved R&R!