Once the preserve of only
elite athletes, adventure racing has become one of the fastest-growing
sports on Earth. Technically a team event that
includes an element of navigation, the term adventure racing has now grown to describe
any race using two or more disciplines, such as running, biking or kayaking. A
related sport – endurance racing – uses just one discipline.
Either type of
race takes competitors through terrain so challenging, simply crossing the
finishing line is considered a victory. That has made Ireland, with its large
tracts of sparsely populated moorland, rugged mountains and windswept valleys, a
perfect setting for many of these challenging, unusual sports.
Ireland’s first adventure
West, is a 67km challenge that includes mountain running, cycling and
kayaking around Ireland's only fjord, Killary Harbour. Started in 2006 with
just 130 competitors, it now attracts up to 3,000 athletes to its annual competition every August.
The wild geography and topography around Killary, with its gorse-covered
mountains, sweeping valleys and white sand beaches, presents both stark beauty
and physical challenges. "Adventure racing gives you a goal and a focus, and
the opportunity to experience a very rugged part of the world – but under safe,
controlled conditions," said Gaelforce organiser Ciara Young.
Like the area
around Killary Harbour, much of Ireland's west coast is untouched; generations
of emigration and harsh weather have left it practically pristine. If you fancy seeing the region on foot, the 200km Kerry Way Ultra crosses prehistoric
roads, famine graves, abandoned villages, hilltop burial chambers and ancient
standing stones. This incredibly tough cross-country course, which takes place
every September, has a cut-off time of 40 hours; the 2013 winner crossed the
finish line in just over 27 hours.
“Rather than altitude gain or temperature, it's the terrain that is
the difficulty here," explained Jens Waechter, a German ultra-runner who
lives in Ireland and placed second in the 2013 race. "The route covers
everything from road running to cross-country fell running, with sections right
through undeveloped bog. This doesn't really exist in any other ultras. They
all go along maintained trails."
Along the way, the run offers magnificent views of Ireland's highest
peaks – the 1,000m-high McGillycuddy Reeks – and some of the country’s most
iconic seascapes and lonely glens. By night, when runners cover the isolated
Iveragh Peninsula, the views are equally stunning. Recently designated a Dark
Sky Reserve for its
lack of light pollution and the exceptional quality of its night sky, Iveragh is
one of only seven such reserves in the world and the first in the northern
hemisphere to get gold-tier status, the highest possible grading issued by the
International Dark-Sky Association.
Although the Kerry Way
Ultra is only in its second year, the
event is already attracting international attention. Just 15 competitors
started the race last year, only three of whom managed to finish. With five
months until registration closes, the 2014 race already has 25 athletes signed
At the other end of the
country, in northwest Donegal, an event known simply as
was held for the first time in early March 2014. Billed as Ireland's toughest multi-sports race, it challenged its 54 competitors to cover 260km of kayaking, cycling and mountain road
and trail running within 24 hours. Set in a barrenly beautiful area that sees
relatively few visitors, the route took in the gorgeous beaches at the town of Downies, the remote cliffs of Bloody Foreland and
the beautiful Glenveagh National Park.
Bill Wells, an experienced
Canadian adventure racer, won The Race with a time of 15 hours 22 minutes – but
he said it was one of the toughest solo races he had done, thanks to the hills,
wind – and eventual rain, hail and snow. Of the 54 competitors, 38 managed to
cross the finish line.
takes a huge commitment to compete in an event such as The Race, it’s a unique
way to explore
Ireland's magnificent landscape. "It's a great way
to see the world," said Wells. "You see places you'd never go to
otherwise. I'm sure there were many locals there who have never been up Muckish
[Mountain] or seen some of the crazy waterfalls we encountered along the
If an endurance
race is too much to take on, the Irish
Triathlon website lists many races that can be done in teams, as relays or with
more manageable distances. All offer routes across starkly beautiful countryside, instant friendships – and, of course, life-long bragging rights. After all, there are few
finer places than Ireland to beat your body into submission.