Greysteel man Ciaran O’Hara was in relaxed mood yesterday after completing a mammoth cycling challenge in England at the weekend.
Well known by cycling enthusiasts, Leith Hill, in Surrey, is one of the highest points in the south of England, at 993 ft. In raising money for the Foyle Hospice, Derry man Ciaran didn’t just decide to cycle up and down the hill once, but instead a whopping 78 times – making the distance covered on his bike on Saturday the equivalent to a climb of Everest.
It isn’t the first time Ciaran has undertaken a challenge known as ‘Everesting’ having previously mastered an Olympic route at Box Hill.
Having only moved to London in June last year, Ciaran has also built up a strong network of support as a member of the Tri London group of triathletes. Known as the ‘Irish General’ in his role as cycle co-ordinator, the Greysteel man helps motivate those who attend weekly training sessions at London’s Regents Park.
However on Saturday past, it was their turn to motivate him as he undertook the major challenge.
“The support was great,” Ciaran told the Journal yesterday. “Some people were there before I got there in the morning.” Ciaran began the cycle at 6am on Saturday morning and completed the challenge at 10pm on Saturday taking only two main breaks during the course.
“I only took up cycling two years ago, but sport has always been a big part of my life at home growing up with Gaelic and now here,” he said.
Ciaran’s decision to raise money for the Foyle Hospice was based on his family’s experience with the local organisation. Last week, his grandmother Annie Feeney, who had experienced care in the hospice, passed away. Ciaran’s uncle Michael Feeney had also been cared for in the hospice. He died in 1998.
Ciaran’s club friends at Tri London have nothing but admiration for the Derry man and were there to support him every step of the way on Saturday.
Fellow cyclist Jon Tunney said: “A triathlon club has some pretty fit people involved, but even by our standards what Ciaran was doing was pretty amazing. We call him the Irish General because of the way he orders people around in the bike sessions, but you can tell how popular he is by the fact that some club members set off at 1am to be waiting for him on the start line.”
To donate visit https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/everestingboxhill
Many, many, many thanks to the messages of support pre-race, they were much appreciated! They really do help and makes me glad I joined such a great club. Without the support/advice/tips/encouragement available I don’t think I would have signed up to a full distance, and the knowledge base which can be drawn from everyone really is one of the greatest resources. The race was an absolute delight especially the swim and I couldn’t have wished for a better ironman distance experience.
Swim: 1h02min (4th non pro out of water)
T1 : ~5min
Total 11h 15min 13 sec
1st in age group (out of 22), 16/~318 overall male excluding pros.
Long report (It’s long as I’ve had a long flight to write it)
Bit of an unusual race to pick for my first long distance experience but there were good reasons behind it. My dad had already signed up to do the full and I figured it would be a once in a lifetime experience to do it at the same time. Racing is so much more fun when doing it with friends and/or family and having seen pictures of the course from the prior year I figured this would be perfect. In the lead up to the event, training had gone relatively well, especially the swimming which is something I really worked on this year. I’d managed to put a lot of time in on the turbo trainer (unfortunately more than I would have wished with what seemed like a long wet winter), but a running injury meant I hadn’t been able to log as many km (being European I don’t do miles :) ) so the run was going to be a big unknown for me.
I flew out early and arrived at the race venue on Wednesday morning which gave me 3 days to acclimatize and recover from the jet lag. As soon as I arrived it felt hot and humid and I was a bit worried that that would be my downfall. I went for a quick jog and was soaking after 10 min, not a good sign especially with forecasts calling for hot sunny conditions with some wind. I foolishly at the time wished for a breeze…famous last words.
The swim venue was basically a large natural reservoir measuring about 1km long, with clear turquoise waters and was about 2m deep, essentially a massive pool, which would involve two laps. I had a quick dip on Thursday and I just remembered being stunned by how awesome it was. That combined with seeing some of the pros doing some media at the lake (Macca, Belinda Granger and a few others) and it suddenly clicked this was real and was soon all about to begin. Later that day at the race briefing it was announced it would be a wetsuit swim (the water was 23.5 deg, but apparently the rule used was 24 deg), also found out I would be heading off in wave 1 based on my predicted swim time wearing a nice pink hat. They also had a ‘PFD’ wave starting last – which stood for personal flotation device…..if you wanted to, you could do the swim course with a floaty and as the announcers said when a few people gave some quizzical looks ‘don’t worry, they are not going to be competing for age group prizes’. Triathlon is still relatively new in Asia and the swim is generally the weakest leg so there was a big emphasis on safety and giving people the chance to finish…it was quite nice seeing a big emphasis being placed on enjoying the experience as its easy to get carried away with the competitive side of things.
I’d been looking forward to the swim for a while which is not something I expected to say 12 months ago. I remember when I joined the swim rota and I was happy to do a 2min 100m sprint and watched in awe at the guys in the fast lane. Through consistently swimming at least 3-4 x per week I’d managed to get quite comfortable in the water and therefor positioned myself front and centre and the start next to a few guys who looked like good swimmers. After about 500m the field had thinned out significantly and I managed to find a pair of feet to draft on, I recognised him as Jens a German guy I met the day before…we all know Germans do well on the big day / tournament finals so I thought this was a pretty good place to be and we shared some of the work load up to about 1.5km when I jumped on another swimmer swimming past at a slightly faster rate – turned out he was doing it as part of a relay. Had to let him go for the final back stretch as he started to kick and accelerate and I wanted to try and stay as relaxed as possible and not go into the ‘red zone’. … Overall the swim went well and was really comfortable although swallowed some water and felt a little bloated towards the end. As I got out I saw my mum next to the first set of stairs on the way out of the water and heard her say I was 4th, gave her a high 5 and heard the announcer say my name which was pretty cool, less cool was the long run to T1 and throwing up as I ran in….I kept running and hoped it was just a case of adjusting to being on land and not a case of stomach issues.
Got changed (no messing around in transition) and picked my bike noting a full rack of bikes which was awesome to see. As I headed out on the course I got over taken by Jens and another guy who headed off like a spear, I was conscious it was going to be a long day and my heart rate was sky rocketing….oh crap I thought, it needs to be about 140-145 and I couldn’t get it below 160 despite not really pushing hard on the bike. Looked behind me and it felt eerily quiet on the course so backed off somewhat, stopped stressing about looking at my HRM and tried to go by feel and focused on eating and drinking based on what I had trained on.
The bike section was beautiful, a two lap course on a coastal motorway but it was a lot tougher than I expected. Although there were no major hills it was continuously undulating so I was constantly changing gears and found it hard to find a rhythm. The real kicker was the wind, the forecast was for a headwind out and tailwind back….initially on the way out there was no wind but then it picked up except in the opposite direction…i.e. a headwind on the way back. Psychologically that was probably one of the hardest moments of the race. I guess I should have noted something when I saw the pros on the way back as I was approaching the turnaround and wondered why they didn’t appear to be going that fast! Don’t worry I told myself, everyone is in the same boat and by the end of the first lap I caught up 2 of the guys that stormed off in the beginning and think I had been passed about 4 times in total. Was managing to get through my gels and energy drinks as planned but I did start to feel a little nauseous about 130km in. On the second lap unfortunately my chain also fell off and when I tried putting it on realized it had also become stuck…in a training ride it had taken me 20min to fix so I was a little worried, luckily managed to fix it within about 3 min – pfew panic over. Over the last 45km slowed down quite a bit, the head wind was picking up and wanted to try and save the legs as much as possible for the run.
As I came into transition I remember thinking, what a relief to get off the bike. I think the biggest relief was simply having some company on the course from the guys doing the half distance, Id been alone for most of the bike and quite frankly was getting a little tired of my own voice…the combination of being tired and the heat resulted in me coming up with strange hypothetical scenarios that made me question my sanity on occasions.
As I got in, I counted 7 bikes in transition (discounting the pros) so things were still looking good. The run course consisted of a 6km small loop before joining a 2 lap course through a series of parks and the old part of the town. I had no idea what I would be able to run, I’d only ever done one marathon before (3.56 in Paris 3 years ago) but was now in much better overall shape and based on a number of half marathons and training runs thought a 3h 20 stand alone marathon was realistic…knowing this was a whole different kettle of fish I hoped to do about 4h but figured I would start off slow, walk the aid stations and see how I felt after 15km. Heart and lungs felt fine but legs were pretty tired, and suddenly after 3km Pang! – had a massive cramp spasm in my inner right thigh and couldn’t move. I’d adopted the stuck in the mud position and stood there like a statue in the middle of nowhere… For a moment I was worried that was it, I even calculated the odds of how long it would take to hobble the remaining 38km. After a few mins managed to start running and focussed on good technique and it slowly passed. After that the first hour went by pretty quickly and I kept telling myself just make it to the next aid station.
Id shifted my target to 4h30min and managed to keep running up until 18km at which point I ‘speed walked’ 1km and then employed a 2.5km run 500m walk strategy. Every step I took felt like someone was taking a baseball bat and hitting it against my quads. I remember thinking if it would be ok if I was caught by a photographer crying on the run at which point I also came across 2 of the female pros who were struggling – I guess everyone feels pain. A bit later I came across a cute girl who was running about the same speed as me so thought I would try and keep up with her, got to give yourself these little victories to focus on :) . The last 10km are somewhat of a blur but got through it and managed to speed up the last 3km. As I approached the finish I could hear the announcer calling my name and I saw my Mum cheering at the finish… I must have been grinning like a Cheshire cat and grabbed the banner over my head – For a few moments I think I was a bit of an emotional wreck feeling pain, joy, excitement and relief it was over.
One of the cool things about the challenge races is that you get to cross the finish with family and friends alongside, I knew my Dad was about 1h15m behind so waited for him with my mum and when we saw my dad approach we ran down the finish chute together to massive cheers. We later found out we both won our respective age categories which was an added bonus. The awards ceremony was pretty cool and the professional athletes were all really down to earth as well and it was nice to see them hobbling around too the next day. Got a nice shot in with Macca too. Its off to Rhodos now, cycle relay leg, which should be great fun and then its time to make more time for beer and partying.
I know it wasn’t the most competitive of fields but a win is a win and generally really pleased with the way things went. It was a complete step into the unknown for me so when people asked what time I was going for I genuinely didn’t know but thought sub 12 was realistic and if things went well maybe sub 11. I know I hadn’t done enough running too justify that and probably pushed the bike a little too hard in hindsight but overall I’m pleased with how things went and that I didn’t completely blow up on the run. And at least I know that if I do another one I know I need to focus on bike endurance and more running volume.
Attached a few pics in case anyone is interested.
PS: Some other great little things I did not expect to see were:
– stereo strapped to the back of one guy’s bottle cage under his seat belting out Chinese rock
– Full aero TT bike and disk wheel but putting all the jells in a plastic bag tied to the front
– One guy wearing a full white piece lycra outfit and holding an umbrella during the run to avoid sunburn
– doing the swim in floaties
– Some guys stopping during the bike section to take a selfie
In December I had the fortunate opportunity to try and scale the jewel of the Andes, Argentina’s Mt. Aconcagua, the tallest peak outside of the Himalayas (6,962m). Not strictly triathlon but a fantastic experience made possible in part by my base fitness from years of triathlon training. I know the passions and athletic endeavors of our club members know few bounds, so maybe my tale will inspire a few more to “head for the hills”, or at least enjoy my journey vicariously.
I climbed Kilimanjaro 2 years ago. 5,895m; 5 ½ days up and 1 ½ days down. No problem with the altitude or the exertion, Aconcagua was the next step. And a rather large one, as I was about to find out.
Still not a technical climb, South America’s highest peak does present its own challenges. It is nearly 1,100m higher, and those meters mean a lot at that altitude. It does not jut up from a surrounding low-altitude plain like Kili, but is nestled in a huge mountain chain, and so necessitates a 2-3 day trek just to reach base camp at 4,200m. And it is COLD! This was expedition-style mountaineering, requiring setting up intermediary camps every 5-600m up the mountain, and taking nearly 3 weeks in total. And necessitating special cold-weather gear.
Funny things happen at altitude, and I was learning on the fly. You have very vivid and elaborate dreams – this was freaky but also very entertaining. Your body doesn’t heal very well, so chapped hands and minor cuts just linger on. Appetite is supressed, so while I felt hungry at mealtimes I would be satisfied after just 4 or 500 calories [I lost 8 kg in 16 days of climbing, almost 10% of my body weight]. Base metabolism, on the other hand, increases by as much as 50% due to increased breathing and heart rate, so while we would only march about 3-4km per day (over 4-5 hrs) we would burn lots of calories. The body’s extremities – hands, feet, and in my case my nose – receive less blood flow, so it is necessary to don insulated boots (heavy!), serious mitts and face protection, especially on summit day. And for the most part, you spend most non-daylight hours in your sleeping bag, trying to stay warm and grumbling to your tent-mate about how Hawaii is a FAR better holiday destination.
The mountain has been fortunately kept nearly pristine (unlike Kili) due to the concerted efforts of the Argentine government. Which means all waste comes down from the mountain. Including human waste. I’ll spare you the scatological details, but mountaineers have developed some ingenious technological solutions. Though I was still happy with my loss of appetite [what goes in has to come out…]
We were 11 climbers in the group, with 3 guides. The lead guide, Victor, a 63-year-old Scotsman and passionate rock climber now living in Chamonix, has summited Everest 7 times and is a small, sinewy guy with great prudence, unbelievable mountaineering aptitude, and near zero ego. He has great tales to tell, has a keen intellect and a Zen-like approach to the mountain, I came to respect him more and more during the climb. The two local guides have 30 combined Aconcagua summits to their name, great rapport with the muleteers and the base-camp personnel (really helps ease our trip), and are once strong and rational. No worries that we will be well cared for, and any and all eventualities will be handles with expertise and aplomb.
We spend 2 days at Camp 1 (ca. 4800m) and 3 climbers are felled by the altitude and can’t quite recover (vomiting, insomnia, appetite loss, and in general feeling like sh*t). They re-descend to base camp and then back to town, where we re-join them after the climb [one is a 60-year-old neurosurgeon from Perth who has lots of climbing experience, he has educated us enormously on the physical adaptations one’s body makes at altitude, which he has researched and personally experienced extensively; a shame it didn’t work for him this time]. The weather forecast for the summit is for 100+ kph winds for the whole following week, not doable, but fortunately we are not due there until after.
Here’s the rub: sometimes you spend 2 weeks and umpteen dollars travelling and climbing and acclimatizing and waiting, and then the summit window just doesn’t open, so you go home empty-handed. We hope this won’t be our fate. This was basically what happened on Everest during the fateful 1996 climbing season. Very poor summit potential that year, many people tried anyway, too many didn’t make it back home. “Summiting is optional, getting back down is mandatory.” [Ed Viesturs] Tattooed in my psyche.
We continue to slowly advance up the mountain and monitor the weather forecasts, and a good summit window opens, but it is short. We need to climb 600m to Camp 3 in one go, then drive for the summit the next day, with no further acclimatization. The summit day is always the toughest one; the last 1,000 or so meters are done in one go, with return, often a 12+ hr. day. It’s just not worth spending the extra time and resources setting up an additional camp. It’s all about that day.
Summit Day. I have slept well, am feeling strong, no headache. We leave camp at 5am, it is dark and very cold, we creep up the mountain with the flickering of about 20 other small head torches above and below us. Then the light-headedness sets in. It’s like being drunk or high, wading through mental molasses. We break after about 350m of climbing to put on our crampons. 1/3 of the way there, but the hardest is yet to come. The gradient reaches 30% at times, the scree (lose rock in a talus slope) unforgiving as we slide back a step for every 2 forward, we welcome patches of snow as they provide better purchase. We make a few detours, occasionally back-track to find the best path, it all seems like wasted time and energy. The slope extends for far too long, to the end of my vision, no use thinking about how long it will take at our snail’s pace, with the thin air and uncertain footing. Just slog on.
We break again 2/3 of the way up. After 20 min. a couple of slower climbers reach us. We set off as they arrive, and they ultimately decide to abandon the summit and return to Camp 3 after a 45 min. rest. They are just moving too slowly and are too tired.
I am stumbling, falling occasionally. The guides and my fellow climbers are getting a bit worried. I continue my extreme effort to keep it all together, am fed some altitude meds, ditch my pack (along with 2 others in our group) and we soldier on.
At 2pm, 6 of us + 2 guides realize there is no more up: we have reached the summit! The view is unfortunately non-existent, as clouds surround the mountain (but our proximate visibility is good), the sense of exhilaration is nonetheless palpable. Hugs all around, pictures galore, we rest and take it all in for about 20 min. before heading back down. For Victor, this is his 7th summit – he has now scaled the highest peak on every continent. I’m in the company of giants.
Yet the excitement isn’t over yet. 1/2 an hour into the descent I suddenly hear, “Ray! Rock!”, and turn to see a car tyre-sized boulder careening down the hill towards me, 20m above. I impulsively if foolishly step to the side without looking, and execute what my friends would later describe as a spectacular back somersault with half gator, landing 2 seconds later on my bum, completely unharmed and facing down the mountain. The rock bounds past, missing all of us but grazing the leg of one of our guides and opening a large gash in his trousers. It’s a poignant reminder that on the mountain you must never let your guard down.
The 2 ½ days it takes to get back out the road – covering about 40km and descending over 4,000m – are hard, but pass without further incident. The goal has been achieved and there is never any question of making it down. The blisters will heal, the muscles will recuperate. The memories will endure.
And my mountaineering “career” is over. Everest is 1,800m higher, the expedition lasts about 2 ½ months. I have zero interest, and likely insufficient aptitude, given my ordeal above 6,000m. No regrets.
Hope I didn’t bore you, and do get in touch if you are interested in taking on Aconcagua yourself.