Wednesday 25 April 2018

Ireland’s adventure tourism a Force to be reckoned with

With spectacular, rugged and unspoiled landscapes Ireland is the perfect location to host adventure races and right now the sport is booming. However it hasn’t happened over night, Killary Gaelforce West which takes place on the 15th of August is already in its 10th year.

If your idea of a good time involves running along deserted beaches at first light, through pristine bog land, scrambling up the scree laden slopes of some of Ireland’s most iconic peaks, descending at full pelt and then cranking out the kilometres on your road bike until your legs are burning and every muscle in your body aches, then adventure racing is for you.

Kayaking on the Gaelforce North adventure race
Kayaking on the Gaelforce North adventure race

Adventure racing tests your limits, but in truth, you’re only really racing against yourself. The vast majority of participants are merely aiming to cross the finish line, albeit in their best time possible, but there’s only a very select group of athletes who can think about winning.

Gaelforce North, which takes place in the Glenveagh National Park in Donegal, scales the heights of Errigal (751 metres), takes you cycling road and off road through Coillte forest tracks and finishes off with a beach run along the sand dunes at Bunbeg to the finish line. It’s a challenging distance (64km for the full race) but with some dedicated training, even for the somewhat fit, it can be finished.  Although be prepared to feel some serious aches and pains in the days following.

So why do it? Shane Young of the Killary Adventure Company is the organiser of both Gaelforce West and North. “It’s an incredible way to experience a landscape from a perspective that you would never otherwise have”, he tells me. “It’s a lot better than going to a gym and staring at a screen and the training requires that you get out there in the outdoors and train over varied terrain, so if you set yourself a goal of a GaelForce event, you’ll definitely spend more time in the outdoors”.

The event has grown steadily over the years with the first Gaelforce West attracting 150 participants, in three years that number was up to 800 and today they facilitate as many as 3,300 participants. It’s quite a journey that started a decade ago when Shane’s father, owner of the Killary Adventure had seen adventure races abroad but saw nothing like them in Ireland. He decided to set up the Gaelforce West event. He hadn’t come to the idea out of the blue, he had been seeking adventure already, even sailing across the Atlantic with his wife on their honeymoon on a 20 ft boat. Bringing the spirit to adventure home to Ireland was a natural thing to do. Their son Shane and his sister are involved in the organisation of the event, the baton has been passed.

Participating in his first Gaelforce North on the 27 of June was our own Campaign Manager Mitchell O’Gorman. With three Gaelforce Wests under his belt Mitchell is something of a veteran. “I suppose there were a few motivations when I first started these adventure races. Tourism was the first one, I’d never really seen Killary Harbour or Croagh Patrick and Gaelforce West gave me the opportunity to experience the spectacular scenery in a completely new way. The landscapes are stunning,” he says.

“Then there’s the training involved. You don’t have to kill yourself training, but you do have to do a good level. It keeps you fit. Almost anyone can do a Gaelforce event, your level of fitness will decide what time you finish in. This year I completed the race in 5 hours 9 minutes, which is a decent time. We were taking our time at it though, enjoying the scenery. If you really go for it you can miss what’s going on around you. This year the winner of Gael Force North descended Mount Errigal in 9 minutes, that’s incredible, there’s no time to take in any scenery at all. He must have been basically hurling himself down the side of the mountain,” says Mitchell.

Cycling Gaelforce North with Muckish in the background
Cycling Gaelforce North with Muckish in the background

“The other element is that it’s a very social thing to do. I do the race with a bunch of friends every year, we train together. You meet plenty of people along the way during the race and make new friends. People are always helping each other. This year there was a participant who came down off Errigal to collect his bike for the road race. A spectator, a total stranger, who had noticed his tyre had exploded had taken the wheel off and replaced the tyre and tube. We met a woman who told us a story of how on a previous event her bike chain had snapped. A competitor stopped and fixed it for her. The kind of person who carries chain links on a race with them would be a serious competitor, you’d imagine, so for him to basically add half an hour to his time just to help a stranger gives you an idea of the kind of community feeling there is in an event like this.”

While there are bigger, better known events in the UK and on the Continent, Ireland is gaining a reputation for these type of events. Every year more and more foreigners come especially to compete in the Gaelforce events. Young last year welcomed a team of American adventure journalists and bloggers to Irish shores to take part and promote it across the ocean.

There are many other events for all levels of participants all over the country such as the Wicklow Adventure Race series and the Dingle Adventure Races. As well as less demanding, but still challenging, events such as Hell & Back and Tough Mudder.

So what if you’re intrigued by the idea of running an adventure race in Ireland, but you’re not sure if your fitness levels are adequate and it looks like too high a mountain to climb? “Don’t worry,” says Mitchell. “Just sign up, if you’re reasonably fit you can do it. Most of the races offer a choice of distances, so you can start with the ‘sprint’ distance. That will give you an idea of what it takes for the next time. And then once you do one, you’ll be hooked, it’s totally addictive”.

Mitchell O'Gorman, from Waterford, completed Gaelforce North in 5 hours 9 minutes.
Mitchell O'Gorman, from Waterford, completed Gaelforce North in 5 hours 9 minutes.

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