On July 25th, 2021 I completed the Wild Mayo Ultra 650km cycling event. In this blog, I take a look back on my preparation leading up to the event and my experiences during it. The event itself is the brainchild of Padraig Marrey and Bryan Hyland. Both are no strangers to mega challenges. Padraig has completed many endurance challenges himself and did support for one of my support team, John Gilleran last year in the Donegal 555. I suspect he came away thinking that Mayo could offer up an even bigger challenge and that they have created.
I do like a challenge and when I heard rumors of an ultra event coming to Mayo I became interested. Back in March, when level 5 Covid lockdown was reduced to 3 and Mayo opened up for me, I did a self-supporting cycle tour around the perimeter of Mayo in 3 days. This was an almost identical route as the ultra and so I had a lot of local knowledge as they say.
The closest I had come to cycling the distances involved in the ultra was a club Mizen to Malin cycle challenge 2018 where we completed the 592km course in 23hr 23min. The picture to the right shows all club members and support staff who participated in the challenge, a fantastic achievement in its own right.
That was a much different challenge from a solo ultra but what it did prove to me is that I could cycle through the night and I learned a lot about food and break management.
I finally signed up for the event once had decided upon a support team. A good team will make or break your challenge in an event like this. John Gilleran who had completed the Donegal 555 the previous year was joined by a long-term friend Alan Hunt who helped with my club Mizen to Malin challenge a few years previously.
Training & Preparation
I started to train and build up miles in my legs from Feb 2021 onwards. My plan was to focus on matching every 100km cycled with 1000m of climbing over the course of a few months. That is what the Ultra course is made up of, 650km and over 6000m of climbing. Mixing in some racing and club spins I made sure to keep up the hard miles with plenty of solo spins.
By the day of the ultra, I had accumulated 7287km of cycling in 2021 with 68,741m of climbing. For me, I felt I was in a good place, with plenty of miles in the legs and lots of knowledge about the course. The images below are a bit hard to see but they show both distance and elevation progress in 2021, I just built it up week by week. The sudden spike in April was my 3-day bike tour.
In the weeks leading up to the event, I tried to eat more wholesome food and less junk. Between being very busy at work and a young family, life went on and I just had to work my preparation around this. On the cycling side, I eased off the miles 2 weeks before the event.
As you can see I did not follow any detailed training plan or go crazy with any nutrition stuff. For me, it was getting plenty of quality miles in the legs and not doing anything crazy in the weeks leading up to the event.
Two weeks before the event I had a Zoom call with my team to go over plans. We came up with a spreadsheet of everything we thought we would need. Items marked red are necessary, others are optional. I left it up to the support team how they would handle their own feeding and how they would share the driving. The image to the right shows the car setup, an automatic car with a rear bike carrier. A roof-mounted carrier would have been better but this is all I had.
Once I received the final route plan I went through it in detail working out where there would be good spots to stop. My plan was to average around 27kph and factor in a stop maybe every two hours. Stops would be around 5-10 mins. My plan was also just to complete the event and not get caught up in racing. Completing the event would give me something to build on. Racing and potentially blowing up and pulling out would give me nothing to learn from.
Padraig made me smile at the pre-event briefing. His competitive nature coming out with talk of time trialing and completing it around the 24hr mark. While it sounded tempting to change plans and go faster, I decided to stick to what I wanted to do. Another humorous element was getting presented with a very nice finishers mug before actually finishing. I thought this was an interesting motivator and I felt I had to complete the event now that I was in possession of a finishers mug.
What I could not plan for was the weather on the day. A few days prior to the event the weather forecast was suggesting temps of around 22C which was reasonable but on the day we had to deal with 27C+. Not ideal, but everyone had to suffer the same. The only change we made to plans was to make sure I was drinking loads and John managed this by keeping a log of fluids taken on during the event.
Completing the challenge
Once I rolled off the start ramp I cruised through the first hour averaging over 31kph. Flat roads and tailwinds were the main factors. My plan was to keep HR between 130 and 140 with a couple of spikes on the nastier parts of the climbs. John made sure that I was drinking one 750ml bottle every hour which had one electrolyte tab added.
The first 90km of the route was one of the hardest segments with 3 of the 6 hardest climbs. Getting through this without any issues was important to me. By the time I got to Tourmakeady, I was okay but starting to get really hot and certain foods were getting harder to eat. I had packed some pasta but when I tried to eat it I would immediately lose my appetite. The support crew got me an ice cream which went down well and I tackled Lally’s mountain straight after.
I had thought the next 200km or so would be straightforward. No climbs, just familiar rolling roads in east Mayo. Instead, it was nightmare stuff. Lots of heat and melted roads. Just before we arrived in Ballyhaunis, Annagh Wheeler’s club-mate Sean Murphy met us with supplies of ice. We pulled in and got cooled down with lots of icy water. My HR was struggling to get above 120 at this point, it may have been an in-built pace regulating system to prevent overheating. I don’t want to put people off, this was very unusual weather and may never be seen at this event again.
I started getting reports that I was gaining on Rachel Nolan who was ahead of me and Paul Caldwell who was leading the event. I let the information go in one ear and go out the other. Some of you may think this lack of competitiveness is strange but again I was sticking to my plan, finish the event and build on it. That was really the last I heard about them bar meeting Paul returning from Blacksod when I got to Belmullet.
Temperatures reduced significantly around 9 PM as we got near Ballina, a massive relief. My ability to eat all sorts of food did not return. What I discovered was bananas were a constant safe bet, a reliable snack I could eat at any time. At the food stops, I could rely on yogurts and smoothies. John had sent me some smoothie recipes in advance of the event but I got lazy and found some nice pre-made ones in the local supermarket.
At around 2:30 AM in the morning when I got to Blacksod I had a huge hunger and I ate lots of fruit, yogurts, and smoothies. I tried to get going again but felt I had zero energy. John suggested I have a gel and it had an immediate effect, instant energy, if your stomach can take them, a collection of gels is a useful resource on these events.
During the night I just got on with it. No real number watching, just kept peddling, looking around at anything interesting to avoid bringing on any thoughts of sleep. One of the highlights of any 24hr+ event is the new dawn, I find this a magical time and really lifts the mood. For this event, we had a truly beautiful dawn with lovely light and a light covering of fog at times. I did have a cramp in one leg halfway up the short climb into Mulranny. I had to come to an immediate stop and John sorted me out. I think it was a case of not taking on enough fluids during the night and not keeping up with his doses of dioralyte.
Achill Island brought the most challenging sector. While only about 79km, it includes around 1500m of climbing. Minaun is the main feature which is a 350m climb over 2km. I changed bikes for Minaun and used my gravel bike with its 42×42 gearing. Changing bikes was a bit of overkill, Minaun is very achievable on a road bike but I wanted to keep stress levels to a minimum. The descent is also challenging and so the disc brakes on the bikes were just a better setup.
Completing Minaun left 100km to go but there was no time to relax. I remember watching a video about Connor Dunne taking on the Donegal 555 and he pulled out with 100km to go. I think it’s a case of near but yet so far if you are suffering. There was still Keem bay and the cycle back to Westport.
The final 30k offered a sting in the tail (for me anyway). Because I dilly-dallied a bit in Achill with my breaks I ended up in Newport with temperatures rising again and onto a beautiful sector called the furnace. Lots of little hills and corners which meant it was hard to carry speed. Even though it was beautiful I was cursing it. Got through it and onto the main road to Westport and the finish line. It was lovely to see my family there. Bryan grabbed me for an interview which was then followed by the podium presentation. I was actually in pretty decent shape when I got to the finish, a combination of the joy of finishing and not pushing too hard near the end.
One of the really fun elements of this challenge was the way my family could dot watch. Tracking services were provided by Primal Tracking and it meant my wife and kids could keep an eye on my progress online. It also meant I got to meet them at various points along the route which was a huge boost for me.
My own stats were 657km in 29 hours 37 mins, j. I missed a few turns so I probably did an extra 3-4km. Lessons there too if you are aiming for quick times.
Would I do something like this again: Absolutely. Not anytime soon but you get a lifetime of memories from a fantastic challenge.
Would I recommend the Wild Mayo Ultra: A big yes. It is a decent financial outlay but you get what you pay for. This was a very well-run event and I am not saying that just because I know the organizers.
What were my main learnings:
- A road bike with TT bars is optimal. At times I wished I had this setup.
- Don’t underestimate the value of fruit and stuff based on fruit like smoothies. When stressed your body goes back to basics.
- Have a plan and stick with it.
First up a real big thanks to my support team. Chemist, nutritionist, motivator John Gilleran, and Driver Alan Hunt, a man who just never lets you down.
Well done to other participants who completed the 300 and 650 ultra. Well done in challenging conditions. Congratulations to the overall winner in the 650, Paul Caldwell, and congrats also to runner-up Rachel Nolan.
Thanks to event organizers for putting together an amazing event. No complaints here, if only you could have turned down the oven in the sky a few notches.
Finally, thanks to my wife Martina and daughters Katie, Aoife & Sarah for the never-ending support and praise.
In this video, I cover my basic plan for the event and also includes various footage from around the course