Friday, 20 June 2014

European Marathon Championships, Ballyhoura, Ireland. 15th June 2014.

A video from the Elite race:

What a weekend, what a race!

I had been looking forward to riding in Ireland for quite a while but it somehow wasn’t getting through to me that it was European Championships, with European, Olympic and World Champions and all the splendour and significance of such events. Also, my health has not been bicycle-compatible over the last few months (loads of blood tests done and medication changed so I’m planning to have great results soon! ;) ) and it’s hard to get overly excited when you know you won’t perform great. I just hoped to do it below the 5:00 hrs mark.

However, it all changed the moment we landed in Ballyhoura, breathed in the clear Irish air, saw dozens of familiar faces, smelled the adrenaline hanging in the air… It felt big. In fact, the first moment I felt it was “big” was when I translated “European Championships” (no thrill whatsoever) to Polish “Mistrzostwa Europy” (the heart starts pounding, the legs start shaking). I couldn’t believe it – we’re going to race in Mistrzostwa Europy??!! Now, that’s HUGE!

(photo by: Paul Barry IMBRC)
(photo by: Paul Barry IMBRC)

With Sean, Anna, Crispin and Ben we stayed at the BallyhouraForest Homes and on Saturday morning cycled to the start line to cheer Sean and Crispin who were racing in Experts and Vets, respectively. When they were panting and sweating, I spent the day chilling out and catching up with all the Irish friends, who made me feel like I came back home. The atmosphere was festive, with all the big names cycling around, local people taking interest in the event, asking loads of questions and seeming to get into all the racing/spectating buzz and everybody generally being excited. To put a cherry on the top of the cake, Sean finished 3rd in Experts (with two other Seans on the podium) and Crispin won Vets – how is that for a weekend of biking? ;)
Start of the Saturday's race and Sean is leading! (photo by: Adrian van der Lee)

A big dinner out with Sean’s parents, more relaxing, some sight-seeing driving around, not-too-early night ad it’s Sunday, the Elite race!

Gosh, those people look fast even when they sit, the air around them is different, you can say who is pro even if you know nothing about the big scene MTB. Crispin and Sean, with their Staff Passes and a badge on the car looked super-pro too and they provided us with an excellent service! ;)
The men set off at 100am leaving a big cloud of dust behind them and myself, Anna and 18 other fast-looking tanned women (I come to think that tan makes you faster) lined up for the 11:45 start. Sean’s parents were there too, waving a big Polish flag – how often do you race with your flags out there just for you? :)

And off we go! The girls shot up the hill and with Anna we decided to take up a very responsible position at the back to ensure nobody is lost.
Up the hill, then down the singletrack (yey, can I ride it again?), then up a road… and a Seefin climb. A small gear, a smaller gear, a bike on the back and we’re climbing to the cheers of encouragement from the spectators. The temperature was rising quickly and we didn’t get the advantage of the Saturday’s overcast (we were working on that tan to make us faster ;) ) Soon we lost view of the girls in front and it became a bit lonely but at least the two of us were riding together, Anna stretching the elastics on the climbs and me catching up with her on the descents. All was going quite well and I was enjoying the trails a lot until somewhere between feed zones 2 and 3 I realised that I had drunk everything from the bottle and it was getting still hotter. Garmin showed 27 degrees and 10km to the next feed station. I knew I was in trouble, and ironically I had been telling Sean’s father about such a situation the night before and how important it was not to let it happen. Well, not much you can do in the middle of the mountain, next time just cycle faster so you cover the distance between the feed zones quicker. More climbing waited in front of us and once I got my bottle I made sure not to lose a single drop out of it, I could see Anna in front of me but she had managed to open a big gap, I still hoped I could catch her however. Climb, climb, climb… And finally down to the paddock, where Sean was waiting with a bottle and Haribo jellies and spectators were shouting loud!
Leaving the paddock for the third time, last 15km left (photo by: Paul Barry IMBRC)
Just as the guys said the day before, the last part of the course after leaving the paddock was very hard  - I’m not sure whether it was a physical hardness (an uphill rocky singetrack and quite a bit of climbing) or mental (I’ve just been to the paddock, why do I have to go out again?). Probably both. My legs felt like cotton and I didn’t care about catching Anna any longer. I slowly climbed up the hills, had some chat with a marshal (cheers Martin!) and finally reached the last 5km of the fast twisty trails. And there I got my wings back. Off the saddle, sprinting from the endless corners, hitting berms high, turning and twisting, jumping off the rocks and pushing the pedals hard to make the bike go as fast as it can. I was really happy with myself that after riding for 70km and being already tired, I could ride the trail fast and clear. I eventually landed on the fireroad, 100m before the finish line with a huge grin on my face hoping that somebody would say “we’ve changed the rules, you need to do that singetrack three times more now before you can finish”. Gosh, it felt gooood!
And I did it in 4 hrs 48 min, target met! 75km covered and 1925m climbed.

Then a shower, packing, a drive to the airport, flight, more driving and finally in bed on the other side of the puddle at 2am. And sitting at my desk at work the next morning, I could still feel the sun rays on my skin, I could still taste dust between my teeth, I could still hear Irish accent in my ears… I was too excited to even feel tired. With London humming behind the window, I was still on the trails of Ballyhoura…
Maybe we should buy a sheep farm somewhere in Irish mountains and spend the rest of our days biking around?

The event turned out to be a huge success with positive reviews all over the internet, both from weekend warriors who came there to ride for fun and from full-time professionals who were fighting for the European Champion title.
The course was very though, the terrain was rough and you had to stay focused for the entire time, without a single spot to relax. The course was marked flawlessly, with all the corners marked well in advance (I loved the red triangular flags showing what direction the course was going to go), with distance markers and marshals at the feed zones waiting with bottles in hands so you didn’t even need to slow down. And the trails… They deserve a whole separate blog, they cannot be praised enough, Ireland has the best trails in the world.
The organisation was spotless – big THANK YOU to Niall Davis from and to all his little helpers for putting on such a spectacle! You showed that there’s no job too big for you and that the little green island can facilitate events of a huge calibre.
Thank you to IMBRC Paul Barry for providing entertainment at the start/finish line and taking photos.
And thank you to all the Polish and Irish friends there – to every single one of you – for shouting encouragement, and being a part of it all, and for just being so wonderful, full of positive energy and infecting with the will to live even if you don’t know that you do that. You guys are the best in the world.

(We raced in Mistrzostwa Europy w Maratonie MTB, holy moly!!!) :D

And there's a good review from Red Bull here.

Elite Women getting ready - spot Sean's parents with the Polish flag! (photo by: Paul Barry IMBRC)
Climbing up Seefin (photo by: Darragh Malloney)
Finish! (photo by: Paul Barry IMBRC)
Happy bunch: Darragh, Anna, me, Crispin & Sean (photo by: Darragh Malloney)

Some lovely view over the Irish land:
(photo by: Adrian van der Lee)
(photo by: Adrian van der Lee)
(photo from here)

Photos of Elites by Adrian van der Lee:


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