How or where do I start to try explain the madness of Race Around Ireland and one of the greatest weeks of my life. Eight time solo finisher of RAI and seven time RAAM finisher Valerio Zamboni claims it’s mile for mile the toughest bike race on earth such are the constant drags, brutal roads and horrible weather.
I have literally been floating since the finish line, possibly due to not being able to feel my feet but still!
Some folk reckoned I wouldn’t be able for the race and some even stated I shouldn’t be attempting it. I haven’t ‘earned’ it yet as I had never raced solo before. I guess a 2man RAI in 2015 with the third fastest time that still stands was a fluke and becoming the first Irish 2man to finish Race Across America 2017 was a bigger fluke. My wife, family, friends and crew believed in me with absolute certainty, I was still trying to convince myself.
Before I left for the start line I rang John Ginty the sports psychologist. He had saved my race and head a couple of weeks previous so I don’t know why I was ringing him except out of courtesy. He is amazing to listen to down the phone, Christ he’d have Boris believe he can still pull this Brexit bollox off with a quick call. He reassured me I was ready, he told me there’ll be good thoughts in green writing and bad thoughts in red writing that will pop up all week. “Only fucking green writing Graham, do you hear me. Only fuckin GREEN”!! I was ready to run through a wall!
The start came about very fast, the lads assured me I was ready so off I went to find Lauren and the babies. Safe to say there was no other solos with a 2 year old and a 2 month old and they weren’t changing nappies before the start! I’ll get my thanks in for Lauren now as I know she’s reading this saying “the gobshite still hasn’t mentioned me or his kids”!! Joke!! She has been incredible, I genuinely don’t think she gave out once about all the training, she made sure the babies were fine and allowed me to do what was needed, I had every excuse to withdraw from the race but her support and more importantly her belief I could do it was the real reason I performed beyond what I ever thought possible.
Off the ramp I rolled with Coach Bernards big head in my ear. “Watch the heart rate Graham, do as he says. It’s a long week, don’t blow it now”. I felt brilliant for the whole day. 5pm to 5pm and covered 560km. Once we left Malin we stopped into my parents for a bite to eat and then faced into a two day headwind and lashing rain. It was a long day trying to get out of the North, I now know how the diesel launderers felt trying to make an impossible quick escape! Made it out and into Sligo, through to Leitrim with its endless rolling hills, horrible weather all night through Mayo and torrential rain in Galway. Bressie(no not that Midlands spoofer) but Ciaran Breslin had drove from Navan to Galway just to cheer me on and drove back home. Amazing gesture and just when i needed it most. Lauren and the babies were waiting in Oranmore to say hello so I put the foot down.
Clare, around Spanish Point and the cliffs of Moher was beyond brutal and where a couple of the solos had the sense to quit! Got to Limerick and with a block headwind nearly breaking me the sign said ‘Tralee 94km’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, those few hours bursting myself and getting nowhere were torture.
I kept telling myself to get to Kerry and the mountains await, I love climbing. As soon as I got to Kerry the sun came up and I came to life. So much so that I only went a won the Ciaran Smith award for King of the Mountains for the toughest section of the race! At the start of it, 3rd place was 40km ahead of me,by the end he was only 2km ahead and I chased him down and into 3rd just before Sneem. I didn’t even know I was on that section(I didn’t know what fuckin year it was), I stopped to upload a post to social media, I gave Lauren a quick call and we stopped and had a sandwich and coffee before ringing in the time station so we really put the foot down on the section and I am truly honoured to win that award. As Andy Reilly said “just put a mountain in front of him and he’s happy”.
Leaving Kenmare and heading for the labyrinth that is Cork I started to feel a bit of pressure build in the back of the neck, I said to myself ‘I wonder if that’s what Sher‘……and the neck was gone. The dreaded Shermers neck. All the muscles in the back of the neck fail and your chin is stuck to your chest. Cycling is difficult when you can’t see where you’re going! Trying to lift my head was impossible. It was like Vanessa Feltz was sat on it eating a curry cheese chips!!
I didn’t panic (“green thoughts Graham“), I just spoke to the lads in the radio and said “Tell Brendan I have Shermers neck”…….”Shumers wha?”……”Shermers Neck!!”…….”how do ya spell it”…….”Just fuckin ring Brendan!!“. And off the lads set to try sort it. Over the next couple of hours we tried several different contraptions , all the while I was cycling with one hand on the bars and the other rested under my chin holding my head up. Eventually they came up with something that was painful to wear but allowed me to become the first ever finisher with Shermers neck. That was the crews Ciaran Smith award. Never been done before but my lads sorted it. They were absolutely fucking flawless.
I lost around 10hrs because of the neck and hands, I was told i was faster than 2nd place on every section from Kerry home but we kept having to stop to adjust the headgear and I had lost about 80% of the use in my hands at this stage. I had to climb on the Bianchi because I could only use it’s gears but had to descend on the Colnago because I could only use it’s brakes. Due to hours of trying to look up the road through my eyebrows I essentially went crosseyed for the last two days. I had double vision. I was riding close to the edge of the road to let the oncoming cars overtake the other car. Only there was no other car……..the lads would say to pull in on the hard shoulder to adjust the dislocated head ‘re-attacher and I’d swing into the big wide hard shoulder only to be told it’s a single yellow line and I can’t stop there. They assured me the vision would come back. The uncertainty in their voices was clear for all to hear!
Cork seemed never ending, I think we were nearly a full day in the place. All I wanted to do was get to Waterford City, I had friends waiting for me and Davys brother Neil from The Arch Coffee shop had opened just for us with the finest cup of coffee you can find. I could have cried! I thought it was very generous of them to stay open a bit late for us, having no idea it was 1 am! This race truly brings out the best in people. I have rode Waterford home a couple of times training for RAAM so to finally be on a familiar route was brilliant, or so I thought……
Hallucinations were in full flow at this stage. There were hands flopping out onto the edge of the road reaching for me. I knew i was only imagining it but I was still making sure I was nowhere near them! Then it was like being inside a Pixar/Disney factory, the figures, animals, shapes and colours i was seeing in the trees and ditches was mind blowing. I’ve never done drugs but I might just start so i can have those hallucinations again……or I could just do RAAM solo!?!? There was post race hallucinations but I’m keeping them to myself!
The last night through Waterford/Wexford was the hardest night. Bernard had told me he wanted me to bury myself that night on the bike, pull well clear of 4th place so we could enjoy the last day on the road home. By the time the sun came up we pulled from two hours ahead to five hours ahead. Bernard and Davy were high fiving me, saying it was the greatest, most powerful night shift they’ve ever seen and I don’t remember a fucking bit of it. I was fast asleep on the bike for that whole night. People don’t believe me when I say I sleep while cycling but I do. That whole night there was two strips of light either side of my eyes and any time I edged close to one of them the brain would wake me up a bit so i could straighten the bike and then I would be back asleep in total darkness save for the two strips of light. When things got really bad and I drift off into a proper R.E.M sleep on the bike the lads would see my legs stop peddling and they would beep the horn or crackle the radio in my ear to wake me up. I don’t remember much else of that night except the sun was up and we were heading for home. We battled on through to Wicklow, looking forward to all the big climbs. The sun hadn’t helped though, i fell asleep going up Slieve Maan and the Shay Elliot!! We got over the Sally Gap with only one climb left around Kilteel. A hundred odd kilometers from home and i wasn’t sure if I had the energy to get there. I started to panic inside a bit as i could feel it slipping away from me. I couldn’t stay awake, I had no use of my hands and my eyes and neck were gone. Coming up to Kilteel I was convinced I was in the Phoenix Park, there was a long stone wall similar to the park. I was trying to find a gateway to the Castleknock gates so I could get on the Navan rd. I kept stopping or radioing back to the lads saying “there’s a gate, there’s a way out to the Dublin Rd“. “Graham what are you on about, just keep cycling until we tell you to turn, we don’t need to find the Dublin Rd”. I was honestly holding on to the race by a thread. I had essentially lost power in my shoulders/chest. Whenever i tried to take a drink or eat on the bike i didn’t have the power to hold myself up with one arm and it kept buckling from under me. “Nearly there Graham, green thoughts, steer with you chin if you have to!”
The next hour or so through Straffan and Kildare was the longest hour of my life. But as we were nearing Kilcock we started to see some familiar faces on the sides of the roads and the legs were back. There was a few from the 8man team from Trim in Kilcock to greet me. From Kilcock, through Summerhill and Dangan will live with me for the rest of my days. The crowds and support was just incredible. Dozens of cars leapfrogging us the whole way to the finish, all the kids in Dangan and Louise Hayes with the Japanese Flag!!!!!! I was full blown Japanese at that stage but it was totally worth it for that homecoming! Into Trim and down to the finish line and I couldn’t tell you how many people were there. It was just incredible and I’ll be forever grateful to you all for coming out and cheering us home.
I’ll never be able to explain just how difficult the race is. It’ll get a couple of chapters in the book though! It stripped me of everything I thought i knew about myself. Some people understand what i managed to achieve. Racing, competing and beating full time athletes while I work two jobs with two young babies and trying to finish off a house build. There was never enough hours in the day. Some understand and some just have no clue. Overheard during race week was ” that Graham fella is doing fairly shite, he’s going to be more than a day behind the 8man teams, whats the point like”. That was said in front of two of my patients…….I shit you not…….imagine even thinking that, never mind saying it out loud. Some people understood what we achieved and some people are just thick as mince!
I won’t doubt myself again though, there isn’t a race on earth that scares me now although that in itself is terrifying! I didn’t think anything could be worse than 2man RAAM with the extreme heat and fuck ups that happened but yep, RAI solo was way worse but i absolutely loved it and still managed a few smiles everyday. When the crew weren’t around to see me though, I’ll be honest, I broke down to myself several times. Not out of fear of not finishing as that was never going to happen but just through the sheer pain the body was in from head to toe.
Anyway……there’ll be nothing left for the book so enough waffle.
If you’re serious about racing and getting the best out of yourself you could do far worse than contact Our Lord and Saviour Bernard Smyth from Ultimate Conditioning in Trim, he got me into the greatest shape of my life. There is nothing he doesn’t know when it comes to pushing the body to its limits and having his authoritarian approach to nutrition and fueling during the race is essential, even if I hate him during the races!
I’ve asked Andy Reilly to do one of his famous race blogs from a crew perspective. I told him to make it warts and all. Except maybe the part about the first night when he was standing there in the rubber gloves and my father in law Brendan with two bottles of Celtic Pure water wanting to hose down the salt from my posterior!!! “I’m still able to wipe myself lads, ye are grand…..for now”!!
But that’s just a marker of the crew that came with me. I told him to put in all the giving out I did. He said I didn’t give out once on the race, I jumped out of the van every time I was woken up, I was a joy to crew for apparently. I asked Brendan and he said the same. That I did no moaning or giving out and that RAAM Graham and Solo Graham were chalk and cheese. I must have been doing all the name calling and giving out in my head!
The legendary crew……Crew chief Brendan can put his hand to anything, can function on no sleep and his love and enthusiasm of Ultra Cycling and seeing me suffer knows no bounds. Andy being a top endurance athlete himself keeps everything running smoothly and without knowing it himself but even just a slight nod of approval from him during the tough times was enough to get me up any mountain. Emmet is my General, nothing to do with him being a Nordy but he has been with me through all the Ultra races starting back in 2015. Genius mind and I couldn’t do these races without him. Davy is the voice of calm and reason. He had to leave halfway through as his daughter was having her first day of school, he saw her through the door and rushed back to meet up and crew again. His commitment and want to help me was incredible. Rob, this was his first time crewing. He’s a top class ultra runner himself. His attitude and innocent Trim boy sense of humour is infectious. Being able to look back at him in the car and know what he has overcome to be the man he is now made my efforts and problems look minuscule.
There was no quitting from any of us that week, wasn’t even a mention of it when Shermers kicked in. They were simply flawless. I have to do some bribing now to get them all to RAAM with me as I wouldn’t feel safe or confident trying it without each of them.
Race Around Ireland, 3rd place solo in 122hrs with 3hrs sleep in my first ever solo race.
Ciaran Smith Award for the fastest rider over the toughest King of the Mountains section.
52000 calories burned
83 bottles of Ensure 🤢
200+ servings of Tailwind
3o mars bars
Greatest week of my life!
Can I finish Race Across America?
If you own or know of any companies who might be interested in getting involved to get us across America and raise funds for our chosen charity please give me a shout!
It will be interesting if nothing else!!