Sport

Long-haul fright

Adventure racing pushes the mind and body to punishing extremes. Tarquin Cooper encounters sleep monsters and a moonbow as he and his team-mates try not to cry.

April 29 2010
Tarquin Cooper

For the past hour I’ve been hallucinating through lack of sleep, seeing strange figures and faces in the trees and trails. It is just gone midnight and I’m staggering into the mountains on my second night without sleep, fighting in vain the involuntary jerks of a head that is desperate to nod off.

Since starting this race 40 hours ago, I’ve been rescued by a lifeboat in stormy seas, biked 100km through the night and am halfway into a 60km trek over untracked mountains. I’ve stopped asking myself why I am doing this.

There comes a point when all logic ceases and the truth is, I no longer care – but for some reason, I just carry on. And then a bright shard of light catches my eye. It is like a laser beam that stretches up into the sky. Gradually, I notice the others are talking about it too – so long to click, it must be real. It is the rare occurrence of a lunar rainbow. Suddenly, it no longer matters that there is no sense to this slog. While the world sleeps, I feel so alive, in the mountains in the middle of the night, in thrall to a moonbow. We carry on in silence, guided by the colourless beam arching into the moonlit sky.

For a sport that looks as though it was devised by the Marquis de Sade, adventure racing has proved surprisingly popular. Twenty years ago, these “suffer fests”, as the Americans named them, didn’t exist. Now there can be dozens a month. What distinguishes them from triathlons and marathons is that they’re not just a test of fitness. Athletes must look after themselves in hostile environments, often for days on end, with very little sleep.

Credit for starting the sport lies with the Frenchman Gérard Fusil, who wanted to create a race for adventurers that mimicked the trials of ocean racing and the Paris Dakar rally. The result, in 1989, was the Raid Gauloises, a week-long race held in wild and remote destinations such as Oman, Costa Rica and Tibet. Six years later the commercially savvy Briton Mark Burnett helped turn adventure racing into the global phenomenon that it is today. In 1995 he launched the 300-plus-mile Eco-Challenge. He then sold the TV rights worldwide and launched a reality TV empire that created Survivor and The Apprentice.

Both the Raid and Eco-Challenge have fizzled out but the appetite for punishing, extreme races shows no sign of dimming. In their place is the AR (Adventure Racing) World Series, an umbrella of independent races that qualify their status through series director Geoff Hunt, who pioneered adventure racing in New Zealand. He is here to oversee the first Irish race, the Turas, a 550km test of mind, body and spirit over the mountains and seas of south-west Ireland. I have also come, but as a competitor.

I meet Hunt on the second day while wrapped in a blanket and cradling a cup of tea. “So what happened then, mate?” “We couldn’t get back in the kayak. Then Tim started going down with hypothermia.” A former racer himself, he chuckles and pats me on the back.

Tim McDowell, 31, an amateur athlete, is one of my team-mates. The others are Russell Ladkin, 42, an instrument engineer for the British Antarctic Survey and Maria Leijerstam, 30, a business improvement director at Siemens. We are separated when Tim and I are rescued after capsizing 30km into a kayak stage.

Huge rollers are coming in from all sides. We pitch and roll, surf down waves and watch with sickening dread as huge walls of sea bear down on us. For Tim, a last-minute replacement with almost no sea-kayaking experience, it’s an uncomfortable baptism. In front, I battle to steer us through, shouting encouraging and soothing words to keep panic at bay. But after five hours we are tired, a wave catches us off guard and we are in. Tim’s a superb cyclist and runner and has less than 10 per cent body fat. Unfortunately, that’s no good at all in the Irish Sea.

“He’s turning blue,” Maria shouted before signalling to the lifeboat. Tim and I are manhandled on board and ferried back to the start line where Tim thaws out under a warm shower. It is a bitter disappointment. On our second day, we’re effectively out of the race.

But the adventure has only just begun. As soon as we’re reunited with Maria and Russell, we’re off on foot for a 10km-to-12km orienteering challenge in the mountains. It takes four hours. Then it’s a quick transition onto bikes for a 100km ride along back-country lanes. We set off around 11pm and arrive just over 12 hours later at the checkpoint, a smart hotel on the shores of Gougane Barra lake. Drenched and exhausted, we are welcomed with open arms by the manageress. Nothing in the rulebook forbids us from taking advantage of the hospitality; it’s up to us whether we push on or avail ourselves of the facilities.

“Would you like some lunch? A double room?” In less than five minutes, I’m lying in a bed under fresh cotton sheets. Is this Shangri-La? For Maria, the shock of civilisation is almost too much and a sympathetic waitress lends a shoulder to cry on. We set the alarm for one hour. Getting up is hideous and I struggle to find the enthusiasm for the next stage, a 60km mountain marathon.

In the lobby we bump into assistant race director John Healy. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Due to the terrible conditions up there, we’re almost certainly going to reduce the course.” I see Maria’s eyes light up. “You’ll only be up there now for about 12 hours,” he adds. For a moment, I think Maria’s going to cry again. In fact, so might I.

Hour after hour we trudge through the wet. Although we have a beacon that transmits our position to organisers, navigational satellite devices are banned so we rely on map and compass. I mark distance by counting steps (60 per 100m). This seems to keep my mind occupied. Around midnight, we nap for 20 minutes but I feel worse afterwards, seeing things in the trees until the moonbow – and a strongly caffeinated gel of questionable content – snaps me out of it.

We climb up to 640m and the wind hits us hard. I spot Tim without gloves, shivering. He’s in a drunk-like state and indifferent. He confesses he ran out of food and water a while ago. Within minutes we have the emergency shelter up and Maria takes his hands under her arms to warm them. The minutes pass, Tim falls asleep. Despite the serious situation it’s still a race and compassion only goes so far. After only a few more minutes Tim is woken up and we’re on our way again to a summit checkpoint at 682m. The marshall is waiting for us, having been alerted by a friend from New Zealand following our tracker on the internet. Here it is confirmed that we are too slow for the full course and, along with 10 other teams, are put onto a shorter route to the finish.

Descending the mountain, our spirits are low and the so-called “sleep monsters” – the hallucinations induced by sleep deprivation – return. Maria has to drag me away from jabbing a rock with my walking pole – I’m convinced it’s a safety deposit box.

We rest up during the day and at 8pm the race restarts with a 35km bike ride. Overnight we paddle 19km in Canadian (open) canoes. At dawn we climb, hand over hand, up 50m ropes, a Nietzschean struggle. At the top we pass an elite team, one of whom has blackened lips. I’m curious. He sticks out his tongue to reveal that he’s sucking coffee beans.

The final stage is just 27km on foot – only 17 miles. But there is a catch: it’s along a precipitous mountain ridge, includes an ascent of Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrantuohill, 1,038m, and we don’t have any water. We all gamble on finding a stream but there’s nothing, only a dank pool of dirty water we find mid-afternoon. Twelve hours in, we’re still six miles from the finish. At one point, we average a little over a mile an hour. Communication is fractious as homing pigeons kick in. Navigation errors are made. Maria confides she’s having an out-of-body experience. At 7pm we’re off the ropes for the final two miles. Tim, with renewed energy, tries to get us into a run but on blistered and bruised feet the gravel path feels like broken glass. We cross the finish line with a race time of 87 hours and 45 minutes, and collapse. In four days, we’ve had six hours’ sleep.

The Turas is the Gaelic word for journey. “It’s a physical, spiritual and metaphysical journey through the elements – a find-yourself kind of thing,” organiser Brendan O’Brien tells me at the race party.

Earth, wind and water we ticked at the time. I’m guessing the fire must be the warm glow I’ve been feeling ever since.