No pain, no gain but great fun

Conor O'Riordan by-line picHe’s had a full week to recover but now that he has, reporter Conor O’Riordan is itching to get back on the course to tackle whatever obstacles the fun-filled Killarney Toughathlon can throw at him. He was among the 700 competitors that lined up at the start line of the teak-tough event at Killarney Racecourse which provided a real test of strength, stamina and endurance

FUN runs and mini marathons have a long been a favourite fixture on Killarney’s summer calendar but, in recent years, more extreme incarnations have began to grow in popularity.

Not too dissimilar from the Iron Man competitions, the Toughathlon is an event with a difference. The latest event was held in Killarney Racecourse and I didn’t just go along to soak up the atmosphere. Oh no. I got down and dirty myself to see if I was tough enough.

This assignment was granted to me weeks ago and I was allowed choose whether I would tackle the 5km route or the 10km option. A rush of blood to the head and perhaps an overestimation of how much training I would be able to do in three weeks, meant I plumped for the latter.

It only really fully registered that I was going to be running 10km with a whole bunch of pesky obstacles in the way two nights before the actual event. I think I was in denial before that.

Clean cut: Conor at the start line
Clean cut: Conor at the start line

I felt a pang of dread and a surge of oh-no-I’ve-really-messed-up, akin to the feeling one experiences when they haven’t studied for a test that’s on the following morning.

When I arrived at the racecourse I felt surprisingly spry and optimistic. I observed my fellow toughathletes and noticed that they weren’t the burly behemoths I had pictured. No, it was a real mix.

Sure there were a few fellas who wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Geordie Shore but the majority of people seemed rather, well, normal. Registration was surprisingly swift and so I had 40 minutes to kill before my race began.

I was in the first wave. I sat and waited my fate patiently and with not a worry in the world. I felt liberated. Like a man at the gallows whose accepted his fate, I was at peace. But this was quickly disturbed by the MC informing us over the loud-speaker that there was 15 minutes to the first wave and that we could stretch and jog in the warm-up area.

And so we gathered in the small ring of land that is usually reserved for showcasing the horses before a race and ran around aimlessly like chickens on a free range farm. As the blood flowed, the nerves slowed and I felt a lot more optimistic about the race. An instructor appeared and she began to guide us through a few stretches which was very welcome as, to be honest, nobody really knew what to do before she showed up.

We were beckoned over to the starting gate as the clock edged towards 11 and we were informed that we were to start the race in a very novel fashion. Given it had been polluting everyone’s Facebook newsfeeds for a solid week beforehand, the organisers thought it would be a great idea if we had to do an ice bucket challenge before beginning the race. So, after the countdown and the wailing of the klaxon, 50 disparate but well-prepared bodies sprinted to a long row of buckets, doused themselves in icy water, vaulted a column of hay bales – some more dexterously than others – and the race had began.

The ice bucket challenge was actually strangely refreshing and, thanks to my years of living on a farm, conquering the hay bales was a breeze. What followed was anything but, however.

The first couple of obstacles were easily navigable, probably to ease us into it. A steep hill here, an uneven surface there. I kept at the head of the pack but tried to keep some distance between myself and the outright leader as I wanted to watch him navigate the obstacles before me to ensure I knew what I was doing.

Then came the hard bits. Wading through chest-deep streams with nothing but a thin rope to guide you; 10-feet high barriers that had to be scaled in one jump and trench after trench of mucky water. What I found most difficult, however, were the obstacles where we were required to run a certain distance with deceivingly heavy sandbags draped across our backs. That was just cruel. It’s hard to express with mere words the pressure that puts on your calf muscles in particular.

Since I was on my own I began to pull away from the following pack. Much of the runners were competing as part as teams and, as Cliff in Cheers put it, a herd of buffalo can only move so fast as the slowest buffalo.

Dirty work: How Conor looked at the finish
Dirty work: How Conor looked at the finish

The obstacles further on in the course became more elaborate and more difficult to overcome. One contraption that particularly stood out was a giant monkey bar railing which linked two sides of a stream. That one saw a lot of casualties.

As I neared the end of the route and the obstacles I found I was returning to near the racecourse parade ring. Since there was nobody around me I had no idea whether I was finished or whether there was an extra part for the people who were doing the 10km. There was. We had to do the entire course again.

My eternal optimism had led me to believe I was nearing the completion of the 10km when, in actual fact, I had just finished 5km. I may have uttered a few expletives to myself.

But, amazingly, the second time around was somehow easier than the first. As I crossed the starting line again I felt like I was passing Go in Monopoly and had collected €200. I was rejuvenated. I knew what lay ahead.

My arrival back at the starting line coincided with another wave beginning their run. As I passed by the clean-clothed, fresh-faced rookies, I felt like a hardened veteran returning from Vietnam. One of them even struck up a conversation with me when they noticed my bedraggled appearance. “Tough?” he enquired tersely. “Yeah”, I replied even more tersely.

What made the second time around the course easier was knowing where and when to conserve energy. I found that it wasn’t the obstacles that sapped the most energy from me but the running in between them. When I went around the second time I knew which ones I could take handy enough to give myself a break and which ones required my full dedication.

I cramped up towards the end of second lap but that pain felt like achievement to me. It was the sign of a good day’s work. The grand finale of the event was pretty amazing and depleted any excess energy I may have had stored away.

First you had to vault a series of hay bales, then you had navigate three massive ramps. The first couple were easily negotiable as one had steps on it and the other had a rope to aid you. The last one, however, was a big, steep monster with nothing but whatever you left in your calf muscles to bring you to the top. I imagined I was back playing on the Coca-Cola slide in Rocky Rabbits again and I sprinted as fast as I possibly could. The MC and the crowd began to roar and the people who had already completed the ramp helped me up once I had a good grip of the edge. I was finished.

The Toughathlon was a truly amazing experience and I ain’t just saying that. It was very well organised, very well sign-posted, very well-staffed. There were water stations dotted along the course so you were always well hydrated and the dressing rooms and storage facilities were great. The piece de resistance was of course the route itself. It was a dizzying blend of natural elements and unnatural obstacles. It was a lot of things but it was never boring and I loved it.

Would I do it again? Certainly. And I think that is the best praise I can give it because if someone is willing to wade through 10km of muck, mud and soggy water again you know it must be pretty fun.