I swam 3.8km, cycled 180km & ran 42.2km…and managed to smile at the end of it – by Mark Deely

How I swam 3.8 km, cycled the Ring of Kerry 180 km and ran a 42.2 km Marathon to finish the Killarney Hardman Triathlon and was able to just about smile at the end – by Mark Deely

I took part in the Hardman in Killarney on Saturday 28th of August 2021 in the baking heat and it was far and away the toughest event I have ever taken part in. I took part in this event 4 years ago and that time I went in a little naive but still finished in a reasonable time and I was delighted with myself. I have been doing triathlons and a variety of other similar events for nearly 15 years and I have experienced a lot, but this was on another level. Truly I stared into the abyss and the belly of defeat, but I came out the other side. That probably sounds a bit over dramatic but, in a way, it is true. But then if it was that easy then everyone would be doing them.  And they simply don’t. As I mentioned to Ross Bennett on a previous podcast I’m a reasonably fit and healthy 53-year-old and it is a long time since I was anywhere near a podium in a race. I’m lucky that my body and my mind allowed me to do this event and finish it.  On the day a lot of people who were ahead of me simply didn’t finish. And that is hard after such a massive investment in training, talking about it with others and coping with the disappointment. Physically it is an exhausting day but the mental energy to finish is huge.  Throughout the day, even before the swim I had to deal with the dark thoughts.  For me the dark thoughts are those that are knocking on the back of your head telling me to stop.

The swim started at 6.30 in one of the Lakes of Killarney and consisted of 2 laps around buoys of 1.9 km.  In my head I was looking at the buoys and dividing the swim into smaller chunks.  If I think about the distance too much, then panic can set in. I am not a fast or efficient swimmer.  My stroke is unorthodox, but it gets me through the distances. During the swim I had to tell myself that I would be swimming for a long time and that I would be near the end of the pack.  At times I allowed myself to drift into a meditative state, making my way through the water. I came to the end of the swim and my balance was gone and it took a while to exit the water.

Job done. It was going to be a breeze now because I love cycling and running. I didn’t really believe that, but I tried repeating it over and over again. Met my wife Dorothy and daughter Siun and my exact words were, “Fuck, that was hard”. We had a quick chat and I changed into my cycling gear and started eating food. Food, the great big mystery of long distance triathlon.  In theory you should be doing a dry run with your nutrition when you train. I didn’t do this as much as I should have. My nutrition on the bike was to consist of brown bread sandwiches with pastrami, spinach and perri perri sauce, energy bars and gels, mixed nuts and bananas, washed down with lots of water. It was a battle to constantly feed through the bike because I wasn’t going to be able to take on solid foods while running. I had prepared lunch boxes full of little bags of my food at 4 different locations on the bike course and I had preloaded my cycling jersey with food too. I have cycled the Ring of Kerry many different times over the years and it is breathtaking in places as an iconic tourist route.  The roads were very busy, and the road surface was bad in many parts throughout the day and frankly my bum got sore. Soon after leaving Killarney I was faced with Moll’s Gap, the most difficult part of the cycle. When cycling uphill I prefer a constant gradient because I get into a rhythm. Moll’s Gap from this side is anything but. It is a series of ups and downs but rising all the time with a few stray mountainy sheep scattered across the road at times. Sometimes I even thought they were speaking to me. I felt I made progress to get to the top, first food stops and then it was a beautiful downhill cycle to Kenmare. It was the first time all day that I felt like Primoz Roglic on the bike. After Kenmare it is reasonably flat until Sneem, a second food stop, and I spent my time doing a lot of mental maths working out how long the cycle was going to take me. My speedometer on the bike was fixed on my average and my current speeds and with a certain amount of skills in maths I usually spend a lot of time doing the calculations. Continued cycling, muscles starting to hurt, top of my back, hands sore from resting on the handlebars for so long, trying to eat food, etc. Lots more of this, more hills, some bad drivers, food stops, stuffing myself. Getting through, looking at road signs seeing the distance to Waterville, Caherciveen, Glenbeigh and Kilorglin coming down slowly but surely. By this stage the haziness had led to a strong sun and heat.  Throughout the cycle I had an internal battle because it was tough and got tougher as it got hotter.  I had my phone on me so if I wanted to quit I could make a call and I could go home, have a bath and relax and the pain would go. Thankfully I didn’t make that call. Water, more water and more again.  The prearranged stops were very welcome. I invoked the practices of the professional cyclists by pouring water over my head to cool down. The last part was from Killorglin to Killarney and it is boring and flat.  I was thinking ahead to the run.  More about that later. The Ring of Kerry is a loop and there will always be wind.  A simple fact.  In my mind for the last part my body was crying out in pain at times and I truly believed I was facing into a gale force wind. In retrospect I think it was reasonably calm and I eventually arrived in Killarney to a huge crowd of onlookers full of support. At my age I won’t ever be running onto the hallowed turf of Croke Park to the sounds of a crowd so that was my little moment and there would be many more before I made it through to the end.

The run was to consist of 10 laps of 4.2 km in the National Park. Now I love that park. Aside from being a DSS sponsored triathlete (Thanks Ciarán!), I have a real job and part of it is teaching Outdoor Education, so I have spent a lot of time in the park and I absolutely love it. On the day itself I had just about enough of it and never want to see it again. I changed into running gear because I had it planned that way. On shorter distances I wear a tri suit underneath my wetsuit and use that for both bike and run but for this I did it differently. I met Dorothy, Siun and my brother John who had travelled over from New Ross, Co. Wexford to support me. Emotion hit me when I saw them but had a few quicks words and then we were off. Afterwards I was told I looked very cranky, but I did kind of have an excuse. John ran the first lap with me.  He asked me how I was, and I think I told him that I didn’t know how I was going to finish. My mistake was concentrating on the overall distance.  I needed to do the first lap and then simply just do another 9. Ouch. At the start of the run the sun was beating down but there was a certain amount of shade.  I looked at the other athletes and I couldn’t believe how many of them were walking on that flat shaded area. I knew this was not a day for chasing a time but was more about finishing. John told me not to talk and to find a rhythm. I did but about 1 km in we approached a long hill in the open space with no shade.  When I took part 4 years ago we had 3 laps of 14km so had to deal with this hill and I did by running each time.  This time I simply couldn’t run up the hill in that heat.  I walked and so did all the people who looked like real triathletes. After the hill I ran and got to the end of the lap and John left me. He went off to watch the end of the Kerry Tyrone match and had a few pints too.  His running on the day was not over. He had been a huge help. My triathlon club had a tent at the start and it was laden down with all types of food and drink appropriate for the day and they offered huge support too. Counting down the laps was very tough, knowing that each was taking a long time and the heat was going to remain for a very long time. We had been told that there was to be a cutoff point of 15 hours and because I was walking up the hill on each lap I wasn’t sure if I would make it. As the day wore on there was less and less runners because they were either quitting or finishing ahead of me. It was becoming disheartening thinking about my ability to finish, the cut off time and whether my body was going to be able to finish or not. Dorothy and Siun were there for the start of each lap and were encouraging and supportive. The tri club continued to offer water, gels and half way through, salt tablets. On lap 6 I got a cramp. Back to the tent and Leanne (Tralee Tri Club) used a kind of a gun massager on my calves and this helped. The support from the crowd and other athletes was amazing and the laps wound down. By this stage I was completely saturated from water that I poured over my head and sweat. I was slowly but surely grinding it out getting my way through. Now I was eating salted pretzels washed down with water. Onto lap 8 and John rejoined me.  He had a few pints on him but wanted to run with me. Thanks John. At this time, I was told that I would be outside the cut off time and I was pretty pissed off.  John told me that I was still going to finish regardless of whether it was to be an official finish or not.  It helped. Lap 9 and I had a head torch on and I ran quite well, walked less of the hill and came back to start the last lap. By that stage I had heard Alan (Organizer of the Hardman) tell somebody else who was behind me that he would allow us all to finish officially.  Phew. Dorothy, Siun and John ran the last lap with me. Getting there, closer and closer.  I was sore all over and had lots of mini injuries that I could have used as an excuse to drop out.  Nothing was going to stop me now however.  I ran well, walked up the hill in the dark and my head torch illuminated the eyes of the famous deer in the Park.  They must have been wondering what I was doing. On the flat and running the last kilometer I got very excited. Emotion kicks in along with massive adrenaline.  I picked up speed, told the others to stay behind me as I used my inner Usain Bolt as I sprinted towards the lights, the finish line as the MC called out my name and club mates and supporters cheered me over the line.

Alan put the medal around my neck and believing I had won something like an Olympic gold I launched into a speech where I thanked all concerned. I was thrilled and couldn’t believe I had finished. So many times, I could have stopped if I gave way to the dark thoughts. I didn’t, and it is a satisfaction that will always remain with me. Aside from my medal I was handed a cold can of lager. Obviously, this goes against the standard advice but then I’m not a great listener. Chatting and talking was brilliant but a variety of pains kicked in and I started to get cold. Back to Ludwig, my trusty old camper van and I couldn’t lift my legs to get up the steps. Dinner and a few drinks and a lot of laughter. Disjointed sleep and up the next day. Felt fresh aside from a few smaller injuries. Saw lots of online support from family and friends and the inner satisfaction grew. Within 3 days the soreness was gone, and I was already planning for my next event, whatever that might be. The advice is to take a break and listen to your body. In the 10 days since I went for a swim, a cycle and a few walks. Now I am ready to pick it up a bit and get into proper training.

So, what went well? I finished. I had done a lot of S&C this year, so my body was very strong. A lot of my training for the bike and run was uphill and this really helped. I know I walked on the run but very few ran that part in the heat. My nutrition worked out quite well. It is always a balancing act with eating so much on the bike, then managing it on the run and not getting too sick to continue, especially in the heat. I played a clever game because when I was doing my calculations on the bike and the run I grinded them both out very consistently and managed to finish and be coherent and physically ok. Support makes a difference and I availed of it a lot. Mentally I am very strong and dealt with all the dark thoughts.  I could have stopped but I didn’t.  6 days prior I went to the lake to swim some of the course with club mates.  I threw a wobbler and couldn’t go out far in the lake.  Others talked me around and I did some swimming.  I’ll never fully understand what really happened, but I left not knowing whether I would turn up on the day itself.  2 days later I came back and had no difficulties, so I knew I would be turning up on the Saturday to start. I don’t fully know how I built up the resilience required to finish at my age. When I was playing team sports I felt that 400 metres was a long-distance run. Something has clearly changed. A psychologist would be able to tease out some of reasons why I have this resilience. Obviously, things like looking back to what my parents, parents-in-law and family have been through have always inspired me.  In the last while I have lost my Father and my Father in law, 2 strong healthy men thanks to the same cruel disease and this spurs me on. Taking part in these long-distance triathlons and is obviously physical and mental. Happily, I am strong in both. What didn’t go so well? I finished, so nothing. Of course, some things didn’t go so well but in the grand scheme of things, they went well. What would I have different? I finished, so nothing. Again, there are lots I would do different.  My training was quite good even if I didn’t follow a plan as much as I wanted. Life gets in the way. I wasn’t really supposed to be doing this event. Wexford triathlon club were hosting an Olympic distance, 1.5km swim, 40 km flat bike, 10 km flat run (that sounds so easy now) in early July but it got cancelled due to Covid. More entries for the Hardman became available so I entered. It is funny the little turns that life takes. Where do I go from here? I will continue to swim, bike and run because that it is what I do.  Whether I do another long-distance triathlon, I’m not sure.  Watch this space…

Final thoughts- After taking part in an event I always write about it because I want to be brought back to the reality of what I took part in. Shorter distance triathlons are within reach of most people who can swim a little. All that is required is a little training allied to a certain level of fitness. Moving up to the half (1.9k swim, 90 k bike and 21.1km run) it requires smarter training allied to fitness again. Finally moving up to the distance of the full requires even more training. You would need to be spending on average at least 10 hours a week of smart training and probably following a plan. There are many variables involved in the ability of anybody to complete or doing a great time. I think most people could do this. I am certainly not a superman and would never willingly hurt myself so if I can do it, then most people can do this.

Ps… I’m told that when I crossed the finish line I announced that I was selling my bike, wetsuit, runners, turbo trainer, goggles et. Upon mature reflection I would like to say that I’ve changed my mind.


Twitter: @MarkDeely


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