Former Irish rugby international's 72 hour nonstop Basque cycling challenge

Former Irish rugby international's 72 hour nonstop Basque cycling challenge
Former Irish rugby international Heather O'Brien stays standing as her teammates take a break on the Basque Adventure Race.

THE three-foot by two-foot wooden staircase landing was met with a sigh of relief.

Finally, we had found the perfect spot, it would make the ideal bed, never had a church been met with such enthusiasm as this motley crew of four.

Our team captain was discussing the most equal division of the available space, looking out for the team as always.

As the smallest member of the team had already eyed the split-level landing halfway up the bell tower staircase.

Team chef and porter had gone for upright lean against the wall sleeping position leaving captain and navigator to top and tall it.

I curled, hamster-like, pulling my buff over my face and my jacket hood as low as possible lest my skin should come in contact the thick layer of dust beneath.

Nonetheless, this was the most welcome resting spot I had seen in some time.

Adventure racing can be broadly split into two categories.

The first is a marked route involving cycling, usually on the road, trail or hill running and kayaking.

These are often called multi-sport races with individual athletes racing against one another.

They are usually a few hours in length, gaining popularity recently with Dingle Adventure race and the Quest series to name but a few.

Classic adventure racing, sometimes called expedition racing, so called as teams of four race by navigating to map coordinates with races up to five days in length.

Teams must include both male and females to compete. The cycling is on mountain bikes over all sorts of terrain, with a mix of trial running and kayaking, and usually some special tasks thrown in.

These special tasks can be assault courses, high ropes, abseiling, even puzzles, whatever the race organisers can manage to get into the course.

Some races have even included horseback or camelback sections, with other requiring competitors to travel by rollerblades.

The origins of classic adventure racing is often debated, some claim it was a way for army personnel to maintain their navigation skills, others claim it evolved from orienteering racing.

This unusual sport gained somewhat of a cult following with the Emmy award winning recording of the Eco Challenge race in 1995.

It was this film that lured half my teammates to the Basque 72-hour non-stop adventure race.

Former Irish rugby international Heather O'Brien enjoyed the Basque Adventure Race.
Former Irish rugby international Heather O'Brien enjoyed the Basque Adventure Race.

So, while the rest of the flight were contemplating the Guggenheim museum and pintxos we were studying the race logistics.

The race started on foot, a hike with the elevation gain the equivalent of three times up and down Carrauntoohill, quads shaky at the thought.

We had received rough guidelines of each of the sections but would not receive the maps or co-ordinates until a few hours prior to the start.

Those are a frantic few hours, marking and plotting each map, knowing that any error may mean a few hours lost, and what may seem straight forward now may be nigh on impossible once sleep deprived.

Races include transition areas (TA) which are mandatory points teams ust check in at.

This is where teams have access to their kit boxes and the next mode of transport, be it bike, kayak or yak!

TAs often had strict cut off times with hefty penalties, so race planning was crucial. Bonus points (BP) were dotted all along the route, teams often having to weigh up the odds of navigating to a BP or missing a cut off.

This first hike section took 17 hours, had water access at just 2 points meaning that you must be self-sufficient.

Normally, the first night of a multi race would be free of the dreaded sleep monster mirages or drop in team spirits but the terrain was unrelenting and energy zapping.

Thankfully, Team Chef regaled us with the best of his rousing GAA pre match team talk to echo through the limestone to the distant Pyrenees. With spirits buoyed until the next TA1.

Onto the bikes, mountain biking in limestone regions means technical descents, with every ascent reminding you of the previous days long hike.

While the Ballyhoura trails had the legs ready but my nerves were shot. TA2 presented a special task of ‘Via Ferrata’, a phrase derived from Latin meaning iron way, is a route marked out by metal rails and rungs embedded into the mountain, a way to tackle otherwise impassable cliffs and ledges.

The fading light a blessing so as not to see the sharp descent and cliff edge. The second night on these events really take their toll. Darkness means sleep and it is difficult to shake those feelings off.

We bunkered down for an hour’s rest, access to our kit boxes meant we had we had sleeping bags as we snuggled up on the concrete path, trying to tuck close to the building to prevent the wind.

Sleeping inside this building was not allowed under race rules, such luxuries would be considered cheating.

A watch alarm calls you to the next task, since phones or any device with GPS capabilities were strictly forbidden.

A paddle board normally evokes a sense of childish fun, a feeling of walking on water. Now 36 hours into the race the standing in a mini squat position was met with a constant shake, I decided to kneel.

Team captain soldiered on with standing. His subsequent dumping into the water, despite our intense exhaustion, was met with the appropriate level of childish ridicule.

Kneeling on a stand-up paddle board makes for very slow progress, this heightened when team navigator in his brain fried state was attempting to paddle his board back to front, this should have been our first clue that he needed more rest!

Seeing boars running across the water should have been the second.

The first of the sleep monsters, I kept having to remind myself that they could not, in fact, run across water.

The Picasso impressions I saw on the rocks on the next hiking section were a confusing but not entirely unwelcome site.

It was on this section we came across our little church, a bell tower the perfect resting spot.

More in this section

Sponsored Content