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Racing Ireland's Amazing 'Gaelforce North'

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The ground shook at the starting line. Hundreds of racers lined up, their movement and nervous weight sending waves of energy through the spongy earth underfoot. “Line up at the front if you think you can win,” a race director shouted at the shifting crowd.

And so the Gaelforce North Adventure Race began, a tremor of bodies and boggy ground under a low Irish sky. The route shot north, down a hill to the edge of a lough, the first landmark on a 64-kilometer course that would reveal a cross section of the Emerald Isle.

I’d come to Ireland to test gear and see the country’s rugged and remote western coast. The race, an annual endurance challenge hosted by Killary Adventure Company, promised a look at the region through the lens of a run/paddle/bike competition with a stout local crowd.

I batted at midges, tiny mosquito-like pests, and pushed a pace to keep up with the lead pack. Mist rose ahead off hills. Brooks tumbled through low trees.

We soon reached the grounds of a castle within Glenveagh National Park. Stone gates and a manicured garden were beautiful but seen as just a blur as I ran.

At a fork in the trail I headed uphill. The course included six sections with checkpoints and transitions in between.

A 15-kilometer run, the first leg of the race, ended at a kayak put-in. We paddled a sprint course around buoys on a park lake.

My bike, a loaner cyclocross rig from the race staff, sat ready once I got off the water. I was trailing the leaders now by a few minutes, soon pedaling hard to try and catch up.

The next stage was the mountain. At several hundred meters above the rolling land, Mount Errigal is an iconic Irish peak. The Gaelforce course led riders to its base, where we parked the bikes and trudged toward the top.

I paused on the summit to look around. The world dropped away, gray talus and scree, then endless green in all directions below.

Heading downhill, the ground was once again bouncy. Thick peat makes every step squishy and padded, absorbing the shock on tired knees.

Now three hours into the course I got back on the bike. The leaders were far ahead, but my shot at a solid finish looked possible as long as I could stay on pace.

On a rocky final trail, coming down a hill, a flat tire derailed my plan. I limped the bike as the air pressure faded then fixed the tire as rider after rider whizzed by.

The race finished at the ocean. In the end my time was 4 hours, 3 minutes, enough to net 29th place out of hundreds who came to tackle the course.

I was content on the beach among a pumped-up crowd. The sun was breaking through the clouds. Waves rolled in past rocks offshore, crashing on a beach of golden Irish sand.

—Stephen Regenold is editor of GearJunkie and an athlete on Team GearJunkie/WEDALI.

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