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Dublin: 17 °C Saturday 26 May, 2018
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123 hours, 2200 kilometres (and 4 hours’ sleep): a gruelling tale from the Race Around Ireland

Meath’s Ciaran O’Reilly finished third in this year’s Race Around Ireland, an ultra-marathon cycling event.

With a little help from my friends: O'Reilly and his support crew in Killarney this week.
With a little help from my friends: O'Reilly and his support crew in Killarney this week.
Image: Ciaran O'Reilly via Facebook

AS THE EVENING sun came down over Navan, Ciaran O’Reilly pushed on the pedals one last time and dragged his tired body over the finish line.

If he still had the presence of mind to check his time after almost 2200 kilometres of non-stop cycling, the clock read: 123 hours and 24 minutes.

Welcome to the world of ultra-marathon bike racing.

Last Sunday 11 solo riders and nine teams from eight different countries gathered in Trim for the start of the Race Around Ireland, billed as “one of the most gruelling bike races in the world.”

The 1350-mile endurance event was won this year in a new record time by Austria’s Christoph Strasser, two-time winner of the world’s most famous ultra-cycling event, the Race Across America. Another professional, Germany’s Bernhard Steinberger, was the second man across the line.

And then came O’Reilly, a 43-year-old from Ardcath, County Meath who owns and works in his own tyre shop.

Cycling is a hobby, or at least it was until he discovered the Race Around Ireland three years ago. O’Reilly went to see the riders off at the start line and, hooked by it, he found that he kept going back over the course of the week to check the blinking dots of the online trackers.

The seed was firmly planted. He had done much shorter marathon cycles in the past and last year he decided to give it a shot for himself.

“Ciaran is extremely quiet,” his wife Sue says. “He doesn’t like drawing attention to himself and he thought he could go off and do this without telling any of the lads he cycles with.

He thought he could just go off and cycle around Ireland by himself.

He was nearing the halfway mark of the 2012 race — approximately 1000 kilometres in — when he had to stop.

When he sat down in February and decided to try again, O’Reilly knew it had to be different. He met with nutrionists, studied up on the best training techniques and race tactics, and enlisted the help of a proper support crew including team-mates from the Well Oiled Wheelers cycling club.

For six months he built up the miles in his legs, heading off on a Sunday morning, often testing himself on the race’s tough finishing stretch in the Wicklow mountains.

Sometimes training demanded that he go a bit further afield.

“He went out one Saturday evening at six o’clock and cycled to Galway and back in one sitting and came home on the Sunday evening,” Sue says.

“On his own, with no support vehicle behind him, in the dark. 500km just like that.”

It might sound ridiculous but that’s the kind of preparation it takes just to make it from start to finish. When O’Reilly crossed the line on Friday evening, he became just the sixth Irishman to finish the race. In the early hours of Saturday morning another Irishman, Donncha Cuttriss, made his own little piece of history as the first competitor to finish three times.

At the head of the field Strasser might have chewed up any semblance of competition and spat it back out but when you’ve battled for five days through the wind and rain, with inflamed Achilles’ tendons and little more than four hours’ sleep in total, the time on the clock at the finish line is only a minor detail.

“Ciaran went this year to finish it,” Sue says. “That’s all he wanted.

The jersey that he got last year is in a drawer at home. He would not put it on his back because he was a DNF [Did Not Finish]. He went there just to finish it.

I knew by him. There was no way he was going to rest until he completed this race.

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Niall Kelly

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