Friday, 8 July 2016

Wild Atlantic Way Audax Ireland ride report (17-24 June 2016) - The extended edition!

After 4 months of preparation I was finally on the start line of the Wild Atlantic Way Audax ride (WAWA). The longest ever Audax ride hosted in Britain. 2,100KM lie between me and Londonderry along the longest coastal road in the world. 56 intrepid riders were taking on this challenge made up of 54 cyclists and 2 on ElliptiGO's ~ myself and Andy. There were no other 'special bikes' present which was interesting. Did they know something we didn't?....

All my training was done. Had I done enough? Probably not... Actually definitely not, but that didn't phase me, and nor did I believe it reduced my chances of success. I firmly believed that success in this ride would come down to mental aptitude and a steely resolve to keep GOing when things got tough. You can 'train' this aspect of mental toughness up to a point but its only in the ride itself when you really find out what you have to give.

This ride was all about finding out if I had what it takes to complete the distance on an ElliptiGO within the allocated time of 7 days and 7 hours (175hrs). Physically I thought it was probably possible but there are many factors outside on one's control in a ride of this length that would come into play.

All I was focused on now was what lie ahead and to take it one day at a time. It was far too longer a distance to comprehend riding in one go. Just one day at a time at 300KM per day was the plan. Look no further ahead than this and in the words of the legendary ultra runner Lizzy Hawker 'Stay in the moment'. This would be my inspiration to enjoy each day and each hour no matter what is thrown at me and to GO with it and have faith that it will happen.

The journey over to Ireland was relaxed. Phil Whitehurst and I timed the ferry crossing perfectly from Holyhead and settled with a pint of Guinness to watch the England Wales game. We didn't get to the b&b in Kinsale though until gone 11pm and alarms were set for 4am. Not ideal for what lay ahead and I didn't sleep brilliantly.

Myself, Andy and Phil enjoying breakfast at the start
The morning of the ride was relaxed but also with a sense of nervous excitement in the air. Andy looked very tense and I think just wanted to get started. It was great to finally get started. Andy and I took our positions and somehow found ourselves on the second row in an F1 grid like pattern. The WAWA drone operated by event photographer J Collins Productions hovered above us capturing this unique event in a unique way.

 Day 1 ~ 325km – Kinsale to Kenmare
After a 3... 2... 1... count down by the very likeable Eamon Nealon, we were soon on our way riding alongside the Kinsale harbourside. It was a beautiful setting with the early morning sun shining keenly down on us. One mile down the road and the positions were set. I was at the back setting the 'ElliptiGO pace' that would be needed to be sustained over 7 days. It wasn't a sprint, it wasn't even middle or long distance, possibly not even Ultra. Perhaps this distance needed a new name! WAWAULTRA!!! :-D

WAWA start
Andy hung back and we rejoined each other after the early excitement. We were soon in the Irish countryside which wound around the many bays of Southern Ireland. The weather on Day 1 was brilliant. It would be the only day of the entire ride when it didn't rain! At 325km this would be the longest day distance wise but we would have later finishes during the next week.
Stopped for lunch on Day 1
Day 1 highlights for me was a big climb up from sea level straight up the mountainside followed by a fantastic jaw dropping descent as captured on my handlebar cam. Hitting speeds over 60KPH it was a real thrill. Late at night we also found ourselves on a massive climb up Healy Pass which was a proper mountain climb switch back after switch back after switch back. It was hard but it was truly unique ~ this is WAWA!

Eamon at the secret control near Healy Pass
We started Day 1 at 6am and got into the sleep control at 3am. 21 hours in total ~ 19 hours of which was spent riding. The ElliptiGO is comparably slower to a road cycle so our only way to complete the daily distance in the required time limit was to minimise our stopping time. Whilst the cyclists could afford to stop more often and for longer enjoying a leisurely lunch, F1 style pitstops was our only choice.

I enjoyed a lovely chicken curry prepared by the amazing volunteers and was ready for bed. Andy and I agreed to take a 2 hour sleep and after sausage and egg for breakfast we were out the door at 6am to a crisp bright morning.

Day 2  ~ 310km – Kenmare to Ballyheigue
By mid-morning the clouds were starting to look a bit threatening. And then the rain started just after second breakfast. Yes I sound like a Hobbit with all this breakfast and 2nd breakfast talk!! But regular refuelling was absolutely essential on route. And there is nothing better than a Full Irish Breakfast to set you up for a days riding.

We knew to expect rain along the way, this was the west coast of Ireland after all. We perhaps hadn't expected it to come quite so soon or to remain steady and constant for much of the day. It wasn't cold however so the dilemma for me was what to wear so as not to overheat. Because of the warmth a rain jacket soon had you sweating so I opted instead to just keep on what I was wearing, a long sleeve base layer, cycle jersey and add a wind proof gillet. That did the job nicely. You could then quickly dry off as and when the rain decided to eventually stop.

Day 2 was a long day on paper and on the road. Discussion between Andy and I would always turn to what time we thought we would arrive at the sleep control based on our average pace. At this point our average pace was good at 18KPH moving speed. My calculated target moving pace for the whole event was 17KPH. I worked this out months ago in planning for this ride to ascertain if it could even be completed on an ElliptiGO. My conclusion was that it could be but the average couldn't drop much below 17KPH otherwise we would have to stop and sleep ALOT less to make up the distance and lack of speed. Right now we were doing fine, but as the days wore on it indeed became clear that the average moving pace was dropping resulting in less time to sleep than I had ever planned for.

Still time for a selfie
The last 100km on Day 2 was really tough. Andy and I were already both suffering from sleep deprivation despite it being so early in the event. We rolled into the Ballyheigue sleep control at 4am ~ a 22 hour day with 20 hours moving time. I don't think either of us expected that and it was a far longer and tougher day than we had ever imagined. And to top things off having dried out from the rain we had had for most of the day and evening with an hour of riding to go we got an absolute lashing of rain soaking us to the bone again which was hard to take.

Arriving at the sleep control was a mighty relief. A very warm friendly greeting from the volunteers always cheered me up, plus hot food, and cup of tea and a warm sleeping bag to crash was a great ending to a very long day. Day 3 was a shorter day and included a short 20 minutes ferry crossing at Tarbet. With this in mind despite our late finish on Day 2 Andy and I decided we could afford to 'sleep in' and aimed to leave the control at 8am. It seemed a sensible decision at the time especially considering the sleep deprivation we both experienced in the last 100km of Day 2. We needed sleep.

Day 3 ~ 265km – Ballyheigue to Oranmore
We departed at 8am and headed over to Tarbet to catch the ferry which was 56KM from the control. The ferry left every 30 minutes so regular enough not to have to worry about getting a certain one. Despite the rain which continued we made good time and had some spare time to grab some food from a shop. In such trying conditions the mere thought of a warm shop for a 10 minute rest bite from the elements and some food was a real pick me up.

Andy and I making steady progress into the wind and rain
I'd changed into fresh clothes at the last sleep control including my sealskinz water proof socks. I had hoped they would be the perfect answer to the heavy downpours we were getting but they were utterly useless. Water would still get into the sock but couldn't escape leaving my feet permanently standing in water. Not good! The ferry had a heated waiting room so I took the opportunity to change my socks, dump the sealskinz in the nearest bin and return to a normal pair which would at least let the water out!! On a more positive note regarding footwear by new Altra shoes that I had bought just before the event and were untested were proving to be excellent. A wide toe box ensured no rubbing or discomfort whatsoever. Love them!

The ferry trip was short lived and we departed with 10 or so other cyclists who had also got this ferry into the continuing rain. The late start was a mixed blessing. We needed the sleep so I don't regret leaving later but what was meant to be a short day turned into anything but that. The conditions were the toughest yet including some really strong head and side winds which slowed our progress significantly. It took us 10 hours to cover the first 100km and it was already 6pm with still 160km to ride that night. It was clear that our plans for an early finish were not going to happen and we would once again be riding deep into the night and the early hours of the morning.

Mizen Head - Day 1 (remembering the sun and blue skies that were a distant memory)
Weather aside the terrain and scenery on Day 3 continued to be absolutely spectacular. I wouldn't say that we started taking it foregranted but such was the effort that we were putting into the ride and battling the conditions that much of our focus was purely on maintaining forward progress. That became the sole goal and everything else became a little blurred around the edges. Day 3 was however a real turning point in my ride for very different reasons that would impact massively on the rest of the week. What was at first just one broken spoke that went 'ping' late in the afternoon led to a series of further broken spokes all to my rear 20" wheel. And over the course of the next 3 days I was on the receiving end of over 15 broken spokes. I don't even know the exact number! Of course at this point it was just 1 and I didn't think too much of it.
Count the missing spokes!
I completed Day 3 at 3:30am in the morning and pushed really hard for the final few hours just to stay awake and finish as soon as I could. Andy came in at 4am but I was already in bed. The plan for riding ahead of Andy was to find a volunteer at the control who had the knowhow to remove the spoke and adjust the tension of the other spokes so that the wheel ran 'true'. Even with just one break because many other spokes were loose this led to quite a kink in the wheel. And unfortunately there wasn't anyone that could help me so I just went to bed straight away without dinner and hoped to sort it out in the morning.

Day 4 ~ 306km Oranmore to Currane /Achill
Day 4 was a tough day (again). WAWA just doesn't do recovery days. It started leaving the control 1.5hrs after Andy who I told to go on ahead whilst I tried to sort out the spokes with a spoke tensioner. I had some advice given to me by different riders as to how I should tension the spokes around the 1 broken spoke. The most concerning thing was the fact that they all seemed so loose. In fact at least half dozen spokes had no tension at all and could just be turned by hand. I was annoyed by this as this wheel was brand new and just recently rebuilt by a shop in London with brand new rim and spokes supplied by ElliptiGO. Clearly the shop had done a shocking job with the build and threatened to put my ride in some doubt. At this point though I wasn't too concerned and thought after tightening the spokes that I would be able to continue unhindered and without any further drama. How wrong was I!

With concerning regularity another spoke would just break without warning. I worked out that this mostly happened on the ascents when more force was being applied through the rear hub. And all the spokes that broke initially were all on the drive side. All I could do was continue and I didn't let it effect my outlook on the ride. Each time a spoke broke I would jump off and tape the broken spoken to another using electrical tape and push on forward.

Day 2 - Photo as proof of passage to the Lighthouse control
The highlight on Day 4 during the day time was riding with fellow WAWA rider Paul Sexton. It was nice to have company and not feel quite so isolated and alone. Paul also had his fair share of drama early on having sheered off his rear derailier and was down to just 3 gears. I still had 11 so maybe things weren't so bad. We eventually made it to Clifden after a long circular tour around many lakes and bays that always seemed to take us further away from our intended destination. This was something you got use to on WAWA. You would see a road sign showing the distance for the town next on the route sheet but the route was never direct. So what showed as 30km away on the road signs could easily be double that distance. This was going to be another extremely long day and night.

Paul and I in the pub at Clifden ~ he was hilarious company on-route
Clifden was 1060km into the ride and we had to complete 1200km before Day 4 was done. Paul and I went in search of food and opted for a warm busy pub with some atmosphere. The burger and chips there were awesome which we enjoyed whilst listening to two local Irish lads performing live. It was nice to feel normal but we couldn't outstay our welcome. It was getting cold outside so we layered up. Paul didn't have any front lights for his bike. Quite how he got this far without lights was a mystery. Andy and I first came by Paul in the middle of the night on day 2. We found him descending a hill in complete darkness using the moon as he's only light source. Crazy man!

I lent him my head light at Clifden and he went off to buy some extra batteries. I started back on the route and fully expected Paul to catch me in the first mile or two but he never did. I'm certain this wasn't because of my speed because I didn't have any. He must have gone a different way I thought or perhaps he was just as battered as me and couldn't muster any speed either. It was a long long long night alone battling extreme sleep deprivation and fatigue. And the spokes continued to break. It rained and rained but the rain had long stopped becoming any sort of issue on this ride. You just expected it to rain and enjoyed it when it didn't.

During this next section I felt like I was stuck in a bowl in the mountains that I just couldn't escape from. I can't recall much else apart from the continuing hallucinations that kept me kind of amused but I was actually starting to think that it was a reality as I slipped in and out of the real world and some dream state as I floated along on the ElliptiGO. At this point I thought that I would still be able to make the control stop at Corraun for around 6am if I pushed through the night. However I was getting extremely sleeping and shortly after the photo control in Louisburgh I pulled up by the side of the road. I found a patch of grass and decided to sleep for an hour here. It was already light by now. I had with me my emergency foil bivey sack which was brilliant. It was huge ~ taller than me. So after rolling it out I stood up in it bringing it completely over my head.  I curled up on the grass so I was completely covered and protected from the elements and was nice and warm. I used my dry bag with spare kit in as a pillow and soon dropped off to sleep.

Somewhere in the wilderness
I had set my watch alarm for 1.5hrs later but think I woke up before it sounded. I felt an almighty sense of relief that I could sleep in this situation and thus I wasn't bound by the distances between the sleep controls. This meant that going forward in the next days ahead I could, if required, sleep as necessary and not ride on when I was very likely to fall asleep on the bike. I felt pretty good after the sleep and started on my way to Corraun which was 60km away.

It was a long stretch on some main roads. I desperately looked for breakfast in the next town but it was still early and everything was closed. Petrol stations are your bet on these rides. And I was hugely pleased when I came across one which was open. I had a large cappuccino and three pastries. I also managed to send some messages to friends and family to let them know of my progress.

It had stopped raining too and it was a nice morning. By this point I had counted 8 broken spokes all on the rear wheel. It's a miracle I was still able to ride at all. I got news through from friends who were in contact with Eamon race director that he was able to track down some new spokes for me. So I just had to make it to Corraun. The cut off time at Corraun was 10:35am and looking at the time I was going to be very close to that time when I eventually rolled up. I estimated that the spokes had already costed me 3hrs in lost time.

After fighting against a head wind on loop island I finally made it to Corraun 1207km into the ride. I was so relieved. It had been a long night of riding and seeing all the volunteers once again was so nice. It was crunch time for the ElliptiGO. A cycle mechanic from the volunteer team was there waiting for me with new spokes in hand. There was some doubt whether they were the correct length. Luckily they were. Eamon was able to source 7 new spokes. It turned out that I had 9 breaks. So he replaced 7 and left two out.

Day 5 ~ 300km – Currane /Achill to Ballina
Time to refuel for Day 5. A volunteer made me two rounds of sausage sandwiches. Amazing!!! And after a cup of tea I felt on a high. On a ride like this the highs need to be celebrated to keep the spirits high, and I was surrounded by people that really wanted me to succeed which really spurred me on. I didn't have much time to hang around though. The cut off had only just passed for this control and it was almost 11am but because of the mechanicals I was of course allowed to continued and there was no question of not being able to.

The ElliptiGO was fixed and getting back on it felt like a new bike. What I didn't know was quite what a tough day of riding I had ahead of me. Yep again in true WAWA style it gets tougher not easier and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The first stage of Day 5 consisted of a 77km figure of eight loop. The wind on this very exposed peninsular was unbelievable. It reduced my pace to an absolute crawl but all I could do was battle on. The highlight of this section was seeing others riders on the route. I actually rode the loops in the reverse order which didn't matter or effect the distance ridden. It also meant that I passed riders who were hours ahead of me and already on the return to the Corraun control. A few riders made navigational errors in this section as the loops were a little confusing, and added additional miles. Definitely not something I could afford to do.

It was a really tough day and my morale was dropping. The lack of sleep I got last night further effecting my pace. It took around 3 hours to complete the first loop. As I descended the hill and made my approach towards the turn off for the second loop I spotted Andy's ElliptiGO parked in a petrol forecourt! I wasn't expecting that as I thought he was hours ahead on me. I had left Andy at 6am on Day 4 as I tinkered with my spokes and told him to ride ahead. A lot had happened since then. Andy had it tough too and he told me he was out! I couldn't quite believe it. I thought I was the one in trouble and didn't conceive that Andy would be calling it a day. The big climbs had taken their toll and Andy's ITB band was causing him a lot of trouble. Hearing Andy was out made me seriously consider by position in the ride as well. Mentally I was hanging on to a thread and knew I had another 2.5 days of the most testing riding I would experience. But I was slipping into the mindset of looking too far ahead rather than just focusing on the now.

I promised myself that I would never stop knowing that I could go on. So after a coffee and ice cream I bid Andy farewell and headed for the second southern loop. The mountainous coastal landscape on this loop was breathtaking and I did enjoy taking it all in. There were still some big climbs and the wind was still there. I hadn't completely got over the idea of quitting though and told myself I would just make it back to the Corruan control and see how I fared against the cutoff which I thoroughly expected to be behind.

The long lonely road
I eventually made it back to Corruan some 7 hours after setting off. That's an average speed of just over 10KPH which illustrated just how tough this section was. Upon making it back to the control the Hall was still open and I wandered in but it was empty. Not a soul in sight. They had packed up and were probably already setting up at the next station awaiting the lead cyclists who were 100s KM ahead of me. I had no choice to make. I could only go on. Stopping was not an option no matter how much I wanted this all to end.

It was now gone 6pm and I still had 220KM to ride to get to the next control at Ballina. The distances now between controls was so much to take in that it barely seemed conceivable that I could still do this. But all I kept telling myself is that all I could do was to keep going. The rest of those kilometers on Day 5 and indeed into Day 6 are a bit of a blur. If I were to attempt to describe how it unfolded it would be scarcely accurate as I was now riding purely on instinct. In a way this kind of helped to pass the time as I become less aware of the task at hand, the time of day and what I needed to do in terms of tactics or pace. I was now a passenger on my own journey.

Sleep deprivation was really getting to me now and a long out and back section to Blacksod Lighthouse in the early hours of the morning was tough and probably my lowest point yet. The Lighthouse was a photo control point. I had to take a photo of the plaque at the foot of the lighthouse as proof of passage. However such was my mental state and the hallucinations which were now a regular part of my ride that I was seeing plaques everywhere along the road. I even stopped at one and rode up to it to take a photo but it was just a wall. This continued as I kept stopping unable to concentrate for very long. I eventually made it to the Lighthouse and got the shot.

Shot captured by Phil on my way out to Blacksod Lighthouse (it says it all really!)
On the return leg I was so tired that I knew it was time to get some sleep for the second night in my foil bivey bag. I settled on a grass patch well off the road in front of a commercial building and set my alarm for a 45 minute sleep. It was always a relief to stop and despite the short sleep it helped massively.

Despite the fix to the rear wheel earlier that day this didn't stop the old spokes from continuing to break. The new ones were fine but I had broken at least another 5 spokes during the day but there was nothing that could be done about it so it was just a matter of hoping the wheel would hold out to the finish.

I eventually made it to Ballina at 1500KM where surprisingly there were still cyclists there which I was not expecting. I made it within the cut off time too. A miracle! This was of course because the cut offs factored in sleep time and I was scarcely getting any. I ate, and I showered ~ cold water only :-( and got into fresh gear or was it old stuff.  I can't actually remember.

Day 6 ~ 296km – Ballina to Lackenagh
Day 6 was going to be another long day. I remember very little of what happened. It rained. It was still windy. My spokes were still breaking. And the hallucinations were better than ever. By God's grace I got through what was an unbelievably tough day of riding. I should point out that physically I was absolutely fine. Despite the total distance covered my legs were fine and my feet were comfortable. It was just mentally tough which manifested itself through a growing doubt of what I was doing, why I was doing it and when would it end. I was now on auto-pilot not in control of much that happened.

In this state my game plan now was to try and ride with any cyclists that I could to avoid riding alone and feeling quite so alone and vulnerable. The company really helped me get through these tough times on the GO. Some notable people that helped me along the way were Richard Guthrie, Birgit Zimmermann, and Paul Sexton. Thanks for your company. You don't know how much you helped me. There were probably others too so excuse me for not including everyone. But you know who you are.

I was now approaching the business end of the ride. Being on Day 6 seemed so close to the finish yet the actual distance to go still seemed insurmountable. The night of Day 6 was the most confused I've ever been in an event. My hallucinations were now in full flow and it was becoming increasing difficult to grasp what I was supposed to be doing. Even following the pink line on my Garmin and making forward progress was a real struggle. It felt like I was stopping every mile to gather my thoughts and remember that I just had to keep going. I was in the company of other riders and was convinced I wasn't alone even though I was. At one point I couldn't go on and had arranged for the wife of an ElliptiGO buddy to come and fetch me. She was going to come with my wife and my two children too. I was waiting for them by the side of the road. But they didn't arrive so I would ride a little further up the road before stopping again and waiting. In the end I came to my senses and realised that it wasn't real. No one was coming to rescue me and all I could do was to continue.

I got through the town of Killybegs at 3am in the morning (photo control). This was at 1710KM. 90KM from the next control that marked the end of Day 6. The climbs continued. I couldn't go on much further and I had to sleep. As I was accustomed to by now it was out with the foil bivey bag and I climbed inside. I opted to stop at the top of a long climb in front of some houses. I knew I couldn't stop for long as I was up against the time limit. Funnily it was only when I stopped to sleep that I had complete clarity as to what my goal was. I never over slept and I was always very efficient. Completely covered, I would also ensure I brought my backpack inside with me too in case it rained and I used my dry bag as my pillow which when riding was attached to the front of my ElliptiGO. It was a great set up that worked really well. I set my digital watch alarm for 45 minutes sleep. It would sound before I knew it and I'd pack it up. This time around it took a little longer to reorientate myself and set off. But there was a problem. I didn't know what direction to go in despite remembering that I climbed the hill to get here I continued in the same direction but was really unsure so turned around and went all the way back to the bottom of the hill only to turn around and come all the way back up. It was very frustrating riding in circles up and down the same hill. This continued for what felt like ages but eventually through pure good fortune I managed to work it out. Having looked at my track on Strava post-race it appears that there was in fact no turn off the road. I just went back and forth on the same road adding around 3-4 extra miles.

WAWA clearly taking its toll
The new day had dawned and with it more drama in my unfolding adventure. After a big climb and descent another spoke broke. I stopped at the bottom of the hill to tape up the spoke and when I set off it was immediately obvious that this was it for the ElliptiGO. The rear wheel was now so bent that it was completely unridable. Game over? I certainly thought so. I was in a small village with just a cluster of houses and some commercial buildings but not a single person around. The occasional car or 4x4 would go past but I didn't really know what to say if I flagged them down. I had no reception on my phone so couldn't phone Eamon. I knocked on some doors but no answer from anyone. So I walked along the road as it started to rain again and came across a primary school. It was 8:30 on a Thursday morning and there was life inside. I parked up by busted ElliptiGO and walked into the school. Two children greeted me and fetched their teacher. She was a little surprised to hear of my story and the distances I had ridden but thankfully was happy for me to use their phone to call Eamon. But Eamon wasn't picking up so I could only leave a voicemail. So I called a taxi to drive me to the next control which was 40 miles away. One of the children, no older than 10, had a taxi number on her mobile. I called and explained that I had a large bike and needed a lift to Lackenagh. He seemed OK to do it but I didn't really get a sense of how long it would take for him to get to me or the cost.

I was invited into the school staffroom and made a cup of tea. They really looked after me. And then Eamon called the school phone back. This call changed everything and thus the final chapter in my adventure was being rewritten. The plan ~ to contact a local bike shop and get a road bike brought out to me and swap it over for the ElliptiGO which they would try and fix. Let me be clear on this.... I have never ridden a proper road bike in my life. I have two ElliptiGO's, a Dahon foldie and a Giant mountain bike. But there was no doubt as to what I had to so. This was my WAWA. I always felt that something would happen on this ride, and I was fully ready for the unexpected. Funnily enough even before I started this ride I promised myself that I would make the end no matter what EVEN if that meant not finishing on the bike I started it on. I had almost predicted it.

I had a bit of a wait for the guys to get the bike out to me. The time off the bike was actually very welcomed as I chilled out with the brilliant kids, used the bathroom to freshen up, drink tea and interact with people in a way I hadn't done for 6 days. It was great. I had been removed from my state of conscious unconsciousness and been placed back in the real world. It was a real blessing in disguise and I truly believe that this was the way it was meant to be. I was feeling pretty good and had a confidence that things would work out. My Christian faith has helped me a great deal in tackling this ride both in the build-up and during the ride itself. God was right there alongside me which gave me the confidence and inspiration to continue no matter how bad things got.

The guys rocked up with a van and trailer and the next chapter began. They unloaded a Cube road bike and rolled up my poorly ElliptiGO onto the trailer. I didn't know it then but this would be the last time I would see my ElliptiGO as they couldn’t fix it. In fact as I write this two weeks later my ElliptiGO is still at the bike shop!

Riding a road bike was a completely new experience for me. Could I even ride this thing up the road for 100 yards, let alone for the final 350KM to Londonderry! It just felt odd. It goes without saying that the very compact hunched position on the drop handlebars of a road bike couldn't be any more different to the upright standing position of the ElliptiGO. They also brought me some cleated shoes that click into the pedals. I tried them on but they were one size to small and I didn't want to take the risk anyway. I've seen experienced cyclists fall because of cleated pedals and I simply wasn't going to risk it given my complete inexperience on a road bike. So I stuck with my very comfortable Altra running shoes, and prepared a small holdall bag that went over each shoulder with only the bare essentials ~ rain jacket, tracker, money etc. So I was going from my ElliptiGO laden with all my spare gear, tools, and handlebar cam and preparing to ride the next one and a half days with little more than what I was wearing on a bike I've never ridden. I've never been more ready in all my life! Up the WAWA.

The Cube!! I certainly couldn't lift an ElliptiGO like that!
We agreed that they would follow me for 1 or 2 miles to ensure I was OK. I was and soon I was left to my thoughts once again. The first few miles were nice and flat and it was immediately obvious just how much faster a road bike is compared to the ElliptiGO. Now we all know they are faster but until you have experienced both you can never fully appreciate just how different the effort to output ratio is. I was clocking 25KPH without even trying. My average speed on the ElliptiGO was 16KPH. I WAS FLYING!!! And having fun again!!! I had 50KM still to ride to complete Day 6 and get to the sleep control at Lackenagh. But clearly I would not be sleeping. It was around 10am when I left and if I could keep up the 25KPH average speed I would arrive there at midday. The cut off time was 11:55am!! The terrain was undulating but also including some big descents. I had no idea of how the bike would handle around the tight twisting hairpin bends so took it really easy. The brakes were biting well so this gave me some confidence.

I got into the rhythm of riding the Cube quite quickly and to be honest it just made for a nice change. Of course I was only in the first few hours of the ride and was contemplating having to ride through the entire night without stopping to make Londonderry by 1pm the next day. I was comfortable now but I was also aware that due to the fact I was only wearing normal running tights (no padding!) that things were probably going to get a lot tougher.

The maths was simple. I had 350KM to ride in the remaining 27 hours. It seemed more than doable so I wasn't stressed and just got on with the job in hand. And then the heavens opened. It was an almighty downpour that perhaps lasted for 30 minutes but I've never ridden in rain like it. The bike handled it well and I just kept pushing hard enjoying the raw speed this thing could produce. I was in my element and looking forward to seeing Eamon and the gang at Lackenagh. The guys were waiting for me and I greeted Eamon with a huge grin. This guy had saved my ride! I couldn't hang around though. The volunteers were expecting me and had prepared a parcel of food just for me. I scoffed down some pasta, apple pie and a cup of tea. Both my drop bags from the ride were also at this control. I didn't have any fresh clothes so chose the least smelly to change back into. This included my insulated long sleeve base layer which had served me well, and some fresh socks. My shoes were soaked through from the downpour but still extremely comfortable. I was set. 1800KM down and 310KM to go.  I was absolutely knackered, not physically in terms of my legs but just though general fatigue and lack of sleep.

Day 7 ~ 311km – Lackenagh to Londonderry
So far I had managed to get just 8 hours of sleep. 8 hours sleep since last Friday, and it was now Thursday afternoon! At the time I wasn't really thinking about it in this way. This was just my reality and I was in the moment. I estimate my moving time to be at least 20% more than anyone else on the ride too. And now I was just one day away from finishing what I genuinely believe to be the hardest thing I will ever do.

But it was not over. We were all told, almost gleefully by Eamon before the event, that the WAWA has a sting in the tail. Day 7 had some big climbs ahead and I had no idea what they would be like on the Cube. It only had two front gears and perhaps 10 on the sprocket. So it appeared to lack a 'granny gear' for the really steep stuff. Oh well we would just have to see.

As I was riding along one thing then suddenly occurred to me looking at my bike setup... Lights! It had some but the front light looked totally inadequate for any kind of night riding. It was one of those small LED lights, the kind you can pick up in the Aldi Cycling special. Great to be seen by others but utterly useless to see anything yourself. The batteries were also on the way out so I stopped at a local Asda. Luckily after the shop assistant had a good look in their stock cupboard she found some CR2032 batteries. That was the best I could hope for. I looked on route for any cycle shops or shops that would sell bike lights but there were none. Oh and my tracker was dead. This was far more troubling in many ways than the light as it meant my friends and family couldn't track me anymore and may presume I was out the race. I didn’t like that and so for the rest of the day I was going into every garage and shop I saw to see if they sold one of those external portable battery banks. You know the type that you can charge your mobile phone with. But no luck. So no one knew where I was. I was utterly alone.

As the night drew in I found myself heading back into my conscious unconscious state and conjuring up scenarios in my mind which I believed to be true. On a series of long and steep climbs I lost all sense of what I was supposed to be doing. I would reach the top of a big climb and be convinced that I had to ride back to the bottom to meet up with Eamon who had organised some kind of elimination hill climbing contest. It was mad. I certainly hope Eamon doesn't read this blog as he might actually take this idea seriously and add it into the WAWA2020 edition!!!

I stood there stationary at the top of the hill wondering what to do. I really didn’t want to let Eamon down and was convinced there was something else going on. Crazy. I decided though the best thing would be just to continue rather than go back down the hill and hoped Eamon wouldn't get mad with me for ducking out of his contest. Don't ask me where I get this stuff from!!!

It was now getting dark and it was evident that despite the new batteries in the front light I was pretty much riding blind. Cars could see me so I wasn't in danger from that aspect but I couldn't see the road surface or spot any pot holes. I prayed hard and continued moving forward. The rain started again as I rode into the long dark night heading for Letterkenny. This was the next control point at 1950KM and I reached it after midnight. Nothing was open as I rode around the streets looking for somewhere to stop and get a rest bite from the awful weather. I'd made up my mind at this point ~ I refused to go on until it started to get light again as I felt the risk was too great. So I had 3 hours to hang out in this barren town. But then I spotted a hotel and pulled up at the entrance. It was a 4* hotel ~ the Mount Errigal Hotel so I didn't rate my chances of them letting me in, in my state but this was my only throw of the dice. They were so nice to me. I explained my situation and they were happy for me to stay in the main lounge area which was so plush. The chap even brought in my bike. Birgit Zimmermann also had the same idea and was already here. I ordered a hot chocolate and biscuits, hung up my wet jacket and curled up in a lovely comfy chair. I looked around taking it all in and can’t tell you just how relieved I felt, and almost emotional. I was out of the rain, I was safe, warm, and enjoyed an amazing 2hr sleep. From memory my alarm was set for 2:45am.

Mount Errigal Hotel - my safe-haven 
The ride from the hotel quickly took me onto the N13 dual carriageway. I had just 150KM to go now and the next 30KM flew by. It was still dark but the lighting on the road was sufficient and there was no traffic at all. The route would take us to Malin Head at 2050KM as we hit some big climbs including Mamore Gap which was mega steep. Once at Malin Head this completed the end to end route from the Southernmost tip of Ireland to the most Northern. By this point my ride was all about finishing but I wasn't too concerned about the cut off. I was more concerned about the increasing uncomfortableness of my bum and hands! There is no doubt that this is the biggest negative aspect of road biking especially for a novice like me. And with no padded shorts all I could do was to constantly shift around on the bike changing my position to try and lessen the pain. As I got closer and closer to Londonderry I allowed myself for the first time to acknowledge that I would finish WAWA. After everything I had been through in the last 7 days the feeling was one of relief, amazement, joy, and satisfaction. Finishing this ride was certainly not a given and there were significant challenges along the way but my faith was a huge benefit to how I approached this ride and one word sums it all up ~ BELIEF.

It was a long drag into Londonderry and the heavens opened once again but nothing mattered now. I was reaching civilisation and back in the urban sprawl. It was strangely reassuring and comforting to be back in a built up area and out of the wilderness of the Wild Atlantic Way, which marked the completion of a quite amazing journey. One which pushed me to, and arguably beyond my limits. It was all consuming and on many of those dark lonely nights I questioned whether the WAWA would ever release me from her clutches. It’s hard to put into words where this ride took me, but hey at 8,000 words and counting I think I should stop there. Oh hang on I haven’t reached the end…

I crossed the finish line on Peace Bridge after 174 hours and 56 minutes just 4 minutes inside the official 175 hour cut off. Eamon, Seamus and the whole WAWA gang were there to greet me. I had survived the WAWA!! Up the WAWA!!

Post-ride I was presented with a trophy on Peace Bridge. They had even set up a podium! The trophy was STUNNING! Eamon had gone to the trouble to get a bespoke version of the trophy designed with an ElliptiGO rider in the centre. I gazed in amazement and wonder at this quite awesome hunk of metal. It was priceless and meant the absolute world to me. And this ladies and gentleman was my WAWA.

The Podium!

The Bling!

Because you're worth it!

Still want MORE!!?? Then check out my video of my WAWA ride. 

If you enjoyed reading my blog and would like to support my fundraising for this ride please visit I have raised over £3,500 so far for my Church.

Huge thanks also to all the sponsors and supporters that made this Audax possible:

Audax Ireland

Failte Ireland

GMiT (Galway Mayo institute Technology)

Ballina Engineering Works (who made the amazing trophies!)

Primal livetracking

And of course COPE CYCLES in Dungloe whom without I would not have finished the WAWA!!!

Link to Strava ride data

Post-race Pizza party!!!!


  1. Truely remarkable ride. Great write up. So proud of you.

  2. Wow, what an amazing account of an amazing journey. I can't believe you just squeaked in within the cutoff after all that trauma. That special trophy is awesome too. What an honour. Hats off to the organisers for creating the 'special'.

  3. Utterly amazing. Way to go Stu! Congratulations!!