The tough but stunning Killarney Adventure Race


In its third season, the Killarney Adventure Race (KAR) has grown from a few hundred entrants to this year’s 1,200 racers; no doubt boosted by new sponsorship from the mighty Helly Hansen.

Team OAG had advice from top-notch adventure racing team “For Goodness Shakes!” a few weeks before and were looking forward to its first ‘AR’ event.

We’d entered the 57km race: more gutsy than the 25km ‘fun run’, but 10 mountainous kilometres short of the 67km monster. No point showing off.

The use of the word “adventure” in the KAR title is actually a bit contentious for the Adventure Race purists. Strictly speaking, this is a multi-sport race; testing competitors over a series of linked stages of mountain running, cycling and kayaking. True AR involves navigation and deciding on which checkpoints to do, as well as competing as a team.

But there’s no denying that there’s a growing appetite for adventurous, gruelling and muddy events – whatever you call them. As Tash, Dean and I lined up on the start line, looking up at our first mountain top checkpoint, we realised KAR was going to a big step up from Tough Mudder.

Besides, looking at our hire bikes with their solid frames, full mudguards, kick stands and pannier racking; we were going to have our own adventure hauling ourselves over the mountain passes.

 Stage 1 – 7.5km Strickeen Mountain run

“I see the tourist board has been out with the smoke machine this morning”, a wry local observes. Below in the valley, a dense bank of cloud leaves only the highest ground visible, but the sun’s getting stronger and above us the skies are clear. That’s got to be good news.

As the start time approaches, we do that half-hearted warm up thing you do to contain nervous energy. The safety brief is followed by the mandatory kit check; basic first aid kit  – check; space blanket- check; hat and gloves – check. It’s all wedged in with hydration bag, gels and nut bars into the smallest possible rucksack.

We’re off. Too fast, obviously. After only a few hundred metres of road, we head up a long zigzagging path to the top. Running uphill. What a delight.

Admittedly no one is flying up this hill. It’s boggy, rocky and steep. Pretty soon I rationalise that this is a long old race and walking fast won’t lose me that much time. Weak.

Team OAG is strung out over a hundred metres on the path up. False crests mean we can’t yet see the summit, and morale is further dented by the wave that started ahead of us coming back down the hill quipping; “you’ve a fair way to go yet lads, but keep going!” This is going to be a mental game.

At the summit checkpoint we ‘dib’ our electronic timing tags into a machine and head back the way we’ve come.

This is more like it. My knobbly-soled Innov8 trail shoes feel relatively secure on the uneven and slippery terrain and I open my stride and peg down the hill.

I’m not sure I could have stopped if I’d had to, but I make it down to the bike transition area in half the time it took to get up Strickeen Mountain.

Stage 2 – 35km cycle

Team OAG refuels with electrolyte drinks and chew bars before pedalling off in formation up towards the distant Gap of Donloe.

The bike stage has two big climbs to get over. We’d only clocked one of them thanks to some slack map reading in advance. We head straight into the first climb, and after a mile or two of hairpins, the gap is in sight. Dean’s struggling with his gears and all sorts of grinding noises are coming from him and the bike.

None of us have cleated cycling shoes which means we can’t pull upwards on the pedal stroke. Worse, the bikes’ geometry means we can’t pedal out of the saddle on the steeper sections.

That’s enough bike excuses, but dreams of victory, or even a passable time, finally melt away as we end up pushing our bikes the last hundred metres to the gap.

On the plus side, the solidly built bikes are great on the downhill, tracking straight and true, with the thicker tyres more secure on the loose grit than the road bikes.

The second climb up towards Molls Gap is longer, more gruelling and, frankly, best forgotten about. A steady stream of later wave athletes cruises past us on carbon road bikes, their trail shoes strapped onto their packs.

As we pass alongside lakes and through ancient forests of Sessile Oak and Yew, side lit by the low autumn sun, there’s no denying that the great weather and landscape have us tanking along the road in good spirits, despite the fact that we’re in a race and looking where you’re going is always a good idea.

We drop down towards Muckcross Lake and the kayak stage, already aware that it’s been shortened to just a five hundred metres, instead of 1.5km.

Stage 3 – 500m kayak on Muckcross Lake

Apparently, the early starting elite competitors headed out onto the lake but couldn’t see the marker buoys in the mist. And when they had found them, they couldn’t see the shore to head back to.

A chance for us to catch up perhaps? Not likely, the transition area is chocker as we ride in. So much so that we use our handy kick stands to park the bikes.

After a 500 metre run to the shore, Tash and I grab a double kayak, closely followed by Dean in a single. We get into a paddling rhythm of sorts, making for the turnaround point just a few hundred metres off shore.

It’s all over in seven minutes and we’re back onshore with soggy behinds and heading into the last run stage.

Stage 4 – 8.5km run, Torc Mountain

The path to the foot of the mountain is a well-travelled tourist route. So much so that they’ve built rough stone steps up the steep sections to preserve the path.

That’s fine if you’ve left the car park below for an hour’s stroll before a cream tea in Killarney, but for me it’s the most painful little section of the race as my stride is coerced into making high regular steps, instead of my reasonably efficient little shuffling gait on the hillside..

The climb up Torc Mountain seems endless and we’re channelled onto railway sleepers that are laid lengthways in pairs as a path up the side of the mountain.

It leaves no room for passing and as runners are coming down, an apologetic dance ensues as we try to squeeze past without falling off into the boggy ground below. Tash takes a tumble but luckily it’s into reasonably dry grass.

After so long on the trail, we can’t get over how friendly everyone still is to each other.

It’s as though it’s the most normal thing in the world to be flogging up some mountainside in October, in various Lycra combinations, greeting everyone you pass with a hearty “Are ya awright lads? How yer doin’?”

Even the man who passes us with; “ I’m not going to lie, you’ve a fair way to go yet lads” has a twinkle in his eye as he said it.

At the summit checkpoint of Torc, we’re blown away by the view. It stretches for miles across Lough Leane and Killarney to the north, Upper Lake to the west and the vast Mangerton Mountain to the southeast.

Mangerton is the where the 67km racers were headed. Good decision on our part then.

We barrel down the mountain, lifted by the thought that we’re nearly done. It’s just a short bike ride into the finish at Muckcross House.

Stage 5 – the 4km ride home

Our bikes are easier to find now that most people have gone. Admittedly, many of them were doing the 25km race, which joined ours here, but we’re not fussed, either way. We’ve stayed as a team in an event not ideally suited to teams, unless you’re doing it as a relay.

As we speed along a main road and turn in through the entrance of the Muckcross estate, we’re marshalled into another bike park, so we can run in the final 50 metres.

A small crowd are cheering and clapping us in and as we get our medals and voucher for free chips we have to admit that it’s been a hell of an experience; an adventure even.

Our time of 5 hours 39 minutes placed us between 224th (Tash) and 227th (me) out of 323 in the 57km race. Despite crossing the line together, someone called Michael snuck into our queue for the final timing check.

What next?

Team OAG will ride again but we’re not sure what it will be. There’s talk of finding a

true adventure race to try, although Tash has reservations about camping, and Dean has heavy London Irish Rugby Club commitments over the winter.

Suggestions below please.

Words and Photos: Will Robson