WORDS & PHOTOS | Laurence Kilpatrick
EDITED BY | Nick Archer
In mid July 2022, Laurence Kilpatrick was one of over 200 riders to attempt the Pan Celtic Race: an unsupported ultra endurance race around the perimeter of Ireland, starting and finishing in Wales. Here he recounts a night more than halfway through the race, where - to his deep cost - he started taking the heat wave for granted.
Intentional detours in a race that is more than 25% longer than Lands End to John of Groats are, shall we say, worthy of a raised eyebrow. But such was my level of satisfaction at the end of day 5 in the Pan Celtic Race that I had permitted just this. To drink in what I considered the finest view of the Cliffs of Moher, the re-route required me to lift my bike over some shoutey get-off-my-land signage and along some deep, swirling troughs of pearly gravel. With the dust still settling behind me, the perspective afforded over these gull-swamped monoliths of God’s Vienetta was worth the extra 15 minutes.
I continued on my way with the cadence of a rider who is luxuriating in their own achievement and considers anything additional a bonus. I felt like the land and I were intertwined bed-fellows, amorously spooning in a mossy nook. Never mind the steel-framed pegasus I was mounted on, the carbon-soled shoes I was pressing into my carbon pedals, the nylon and lycra skin I had stretched all over its fleshy predecessor, or the mountains of single-use plastic I had hoarded, ripped apart, and then binned in the quest for carbohydrates, electrolytes, glycogen and protein - I was, as the soft-headed proclaim, bathing in nature, breast-stroking my way through God’s Kingdom, scarcely leaving a
Being just past the solstice, the evenings were elephantine. Darkness made its first demurs close to midnight, and I began, having said goodbye to a few bright and alluring hamlets, to scour the UNESCO horizons around me for a night’s rest.
There were undeniable notes of smugness in the air around my being. I pitied those urban fools I had left behind in the grey smog of civilisation: reliant on their walls and roofs and air conditioning and memory foam - jumping day after day onto the grey omnibus to consume their grey sludge.
When I pulled my head out of my own behind for long enough, I seemed to have glided into the Flintstones back garden. Like a miniature green Hampi, this colossal strip of coastal land felt like a jurassic dumping ground - perhaps a giant’s leftovers as she walked carelessly along the cliffs, scattering pebbles from a holey pocket. Surely this was the place I’d lay my organic head this evening. I acknowledged that short of being reborn as a shrub or local rabbit, my fresh and throbbing fetishisation of all things nature would be just about sated by the distant waves lapping me to sleep and a local seal licking my face for the rise and shine in a few hours.
This nirvana was not entirely deserted. In addition to the lazy road that threaded a meandering path through it, a smattering of tents glowed like Chinese lanterns and campfires flirted with flickers. Important note: the people were in tents. “Ah, tents,” I thought to myself. “Yet more dronish automatons who are yet to reach their equilibrium with the earth. Soon they will learn.”
Like the expiry of a fixed term, my hubris was due to be returned with crippling and abrupt levels of interest - an excruciating moment of comeuppance that would lay bare all of my most objectionable qualities like hideous shadowgraphs against the beauty of that Irish paradise.
“Don’t worry, I know best,” I thought to myself as I hike-a-biked away from the sliver of tarmac and towards a giant wall of stone. Between the two, a lolloping field of bubbling moss and stray boulders opened itself like nature’s sleeping bag.
Why the arrogance from this ultra first timer? Why the vicious, excoriating cocktail of laziness, stubbornness and downright complacency? Let’s find out.
The day began with a brief look in the mirror after 4 hours of unconsciousness where my face was tessellating with the bare carpeted floor of Checkpoint 2 - a hostel rammed to the rafters with festering cyclists in the hubbub of central Dingle, West Ireland. Honestly, no one weirder looking has ever walked the planet. Like a piece of juiced up supermarket bacon ready to shed half its liquid mass in the frying pan, the flesh of my face seemed to be making a break for it, taking my features with it.
Feeling guilty because I’d slept until 5 am, and then smug because I’d headed back out at 10pm the night before to complete a 50km loop of the Dingle peninsula that I imagined many riders were now forcing down for breakfast, I was sloshing my vintage duo of ultra race emotions around my floor-flecked gob.
Handily, the organisers had gifted us the path of least resistance to begin the day with: also known as a swirlingly loose 2 kilometre section of 6% gravel to connect us with a 400 hundred metre pass. For a while I assumed that the squishy livers of merged eye bag and cheek that had started renting the space between my mouth and eyebrow were obscuring my view of a normal road. They weren’t. This was just the road.
Ascent navigated, the not-inconsiderable 282 kilometres remaining in the day were a cake walk. Scarcely 700 metres of elevation per 100km and squintingly beautiful skies. Throw in a ferry, some sand dune meanders, roads that motors forgot, plentiful sustenance of intense calorific value, and a gradual return to facial bone structure, and you’ve got yourself a cub scout’s wet dream. The parcours took in the most bare-faced routing detours of all, hugging the north side of the Shannon estuary until returning you to pretty much the same spot - only 100 kilometres more knackered.
I saw no one for hours. The so-called “short” route had taken a 90 degree turn earlier that day, cutting potential road mate numbers in half and leaving only those with less than very little on the agendas of their life out on the road.
The rattling section of my time trial bars had, in a huff, been discarded into a village bin, so it was left to me, huddled onto the two pads, arms locked together out front, to settle into a pace probably too punishing to sustain. Fuelled and sustained by the kind of boyish whooping happiness I had dreamed this race would provide, I discovered a seam of power, bore into it with relish, and felt the slow pinch of lactic burn bleeding darkly into my pasty quads. Like a wrapped missile I hammered myself out to Kilbaha and back, receiving some rare encouragement from a trio of twenty something girls boozing thirstily amidst a mausoleum of Prosecco bottle corpses in their absurdly well-situated front garden. With scarcely time or signal enough to even have a brief sit down and a call with a girlfriend (by this point utterly bored of the whole shebang), it was a day where the road continually whispered to me, promising easy kilometres and caressing me with strokes of ease.
I became a liberal treat-giver during the race; a excessively benevolent benfactor. My own personal Santa. Don’t send a letter, don’t even bother being good, just open the trap and stuff in whatever sweet, or treat or pint or intoxicating bone that takes your fancy. On this day, my treat for completing almost 300 kilometres was a late evening bowl of seafood chowder, 4 slices of soda bread, a bowl of chips and a large icy glass of Soave. Having licked the bowls and plate clean,I stared out over the bay - in-between bites of individually wrapped butter pats - and thought of very little except the fading light and the lurking requirement of whatever bed the floor could muster.
And so it was that I found myself unpacking in Flintstones town.
I had started the race caring little for time; instead taking swims and sinking pints wherever and whenever I saw fit. Now even bedding down felt like a time trial. I was a constant disappointment to myself. Unpacking, much like gravity, took care of itself, but pushing Pandora’s stuff back into Pandora’s unyielding box - that seemed to get smaller and smaller every time - left my exhausted digits looking like agricultural implements trying to force my cats back into the herd.
I closed my eyes atop my puffed up roll mat, itself atop a bed of moss, supported on both sides by smooth-faced rocks and - still wanting to shield myself from the headlights of the very occasional passing car - huddled behind a colossal boulder.
Your eyes close with recumbent delight when they are this starved of true rest, but sleep often remains irritatingly out of reach - like a man with numb hands unable to grip a life-saving rope. The coursing adrenaline from the first night hadn’t left so much as a cerebral contrail, and yet still consciousness refused to take the hints and leave the party at anything more than a feeble limp.
The difficulty of this collapse into night’s gaping void made my scramble back up the dissolving sides all the more stuttering. The gatekeepers of my eyes - ideologically and politically polarised from the numbskull geezers running the legs and pulmonary system - dragged me kicking and screaming up this sheer face of somnambulance and into the persistent and undeniable mizzle drifting from the black celtic sky.
Facing the reality of this situation was more terrifying than the immediate face-dousing I was receiving.
“Someone’s got their windscreen wipers on”
“It’s just a moist atmosphere - damp air at worst”
“This must be what dew feels like.”
“I’m actually a bit hot. Perhaps it’s my sweat evaporating’”
“It must be raining in my dream.”
“Better get back to sleep to check.”
Round and round went the rhetoric in my conspiracy spouting skull.
Sleep was only ever waking snatches of inattention to the truth. Variations on the above whirled round my noggin dialogues until concurrently, what was unmistakably my toe got dipped into what was unmistakably a large, roll-mat hosted puddle, my hand damned a rivulet, and my cheek baptised itself in the ford forming around the inflated pillow’s perimeter.
The sheer magnanimity required to admit defeat and strip off what was now a sodden sleeping bag doesn’t come at all easy. I thought nothing of the thousand odd kilometres I had so far ticked off: the journey required to repack my soaking house and then - as there was no other option - continue riding until I found a roof of some description - be that animal, vegetable or mineral - was infinitely more daunting. Not to mention that I would now be getting back into a wet sleeping bag, in wet clothes, with wet feet, in a comprehensively wet world.
I was engaged in those dramatic, almost tectonic shivers that, despite their intense unpleasantness, almost scratch upon actual pleasure, close as they are to a rub from a pneumatic drill. My phone was wet and not working. My powerbank had taken a bath and was flickering in a Titanicky “I’ll never let go” type fashion i.e. mid let go. My Wahoo was more Boohoo, with scarcely enough lithium sloshing around in it for me to track my meagre progress. Keeping the backlight on was absolutely out of the question. Handily there was only one road, no turns, and zero chance of happening on more of a nowheresville than the one I had already registered to vote in.
Any improvements to my packing nous were sinking alongside the powerbank’s functionality.
The cold stumps of bone and flesh previously identifying as my hands bashed the sad mush of possessions into my cylindrical dry bag so ineffectively that the cylinder now looked like some monstrously distended blue Swiss roll that had endured a muted explosion at one end. My gear levers were pretty well blocked by this tumescent Saveloy and braking with the left claw was an exercise in faith you’d hardly build a church to. (I haven’t even mentioned the nerve palsy affecting my left hand that rendered it excellent for spreading muck or stroking wildlife, but less useful at anything dextrously useful.)
To improve morale in the camp I brought breakfast forward to right fucking now. Mealtimes and food had long since shed their sheen of flavoured alchemy: a time for the meeting of minds, the breaking down of barriers, the understanding of others, quiet contemplation of serenity and contentment, yada yada yada. Sometimes I emptied cans of sardines into crisp bags and saved my spoon by tipping the resulting mush into my gullet. When I was feeling more ceremonial I would nip the top off an avocado, squeeze it into myself like pop eye and wash it down with a glass of Coke and Skittles. Watch out glycogen levels. But this particular banquet which featured the necking of 400 grams of cold, wet baked beans in the pitch and silent black was particularly nauseating and sad.
My saddle bag waggled out the back of me like the truncated tail of a war-scarred newt. Scarcely able to perform a final scan of my boggy alfresco bedroom with my phone torch, I lurched off into the night, unable to withhold an envious glance at the now hidden smattering of tented families enjoying a sealed and sheltered 8 hours of sleep. The night radiated a deep nothing. Not even the waves were audible. The faint buzz of fine rain settling on tarmac and gorse provided the only soundtrack, until my free hub started its reliable wail and my lights and I became the breachers of the peace.
My stinginess with my torch - that extended to even pitch black conditions - plus my intense and extraordinary fatigue, made judging whether the road was going up or downhill a confusing kaleidoscope of sensation. Like being drunk and trapped living in a spirit level. During daylight these rural Irish roads had a habit of presenting gaping holes in their surfaces. Out of sight out of mind. As my legs began to slow I could see that I was going uphill. And yet I had the odd sensation of barely having to pedal. Either I had obtained a new dimension of slowness, or the gods had recognised my plight and gifted me the blessing of a tailwind. Oh beneficent smiter. The rain occasionally relented and gave way to what I could only call an absence of anything.
“Could I sleep outdoors now? Is that field my new bed?” The sodden floor didn’t seem to enter my addled thought process. If ever I started to entertain this notion, a puncturing patter of resurgent rain would settle in the percussive surfaces of foliage. I struggled through thirty minutes of riding until a heavenly doorway at the end of a pub building appeared. Not enough to bed down in but more than enough to dry my phone, charge some bits, hang up my sleeping bag, and slump against a dry wall. At this moment, it felt like unfathomable luxury.
When I resurfaced from what you could generously call an eyelid break, light was entering the world. With day came sight, and with sight came the not-so-welcome return of my hijacked brain, whose only thought and purpose was interpreting every visual stimuli as the hallmark of a lightly disguised bed. In addition to shrubs and trees and hedgerows and innumerable spots so inhospitable that foxes are probably fly tipping them, I recall - while partially blinded by the site of a roof - stopping at a 5x5 foot stone walled hut that contained a bubbling source of fresh water frothing amidst some colossal slabs.
Is this the answer to my prayers?
Sure, it’s soaking wet and one corner is literally a jacuzzi for frogs, but other than that I’m struggling to fill the cons column.
Reluctantly I rolled on. Not too wet or cold by this point. Just good old fashioned exhaustion. The rain stopped so I pulled over into a bog standard field. Rinse, quite literally, and repeat. I hadn’t bothered with the sleeping bag, preferring to just collapse onto the roll mat fully clothed and hope for the best. That old familiar rustle of mizzle on grass. Off I shuffled again.
My next port of call was a thatched house, set back from the road, with most of its ceiling caved in. Agreed, it’s unlikely anyone will be in there reading the morning paper, but it’s almost like I was playing film scout for potential TV murder scenes. A huge tree towered over the house, casting an even danker aspect on the dwelling than the day was affording. My stares into the windows revealed signs of abandoned life: clothes, plates, upturned chairs - creepy, sure, but not lethal.
I picked a spot under the tree - very much away from the house - and out came the roll matt again. Fate’s cruel hand couldn’t even bless me with 60 seconds of respite. Within moments I heard the cataclysmic and silence obliterating KA-DOOOOOOOSH of what sounded like the launching of a firework, just without the subsequent BOOM.
I sat up like it had been launched up my small intestine, and thought, “Surely not. What in God’s name is someone doing shooting guns or letting off Roman candles at 5am on a Wednesday in rural Ireland? I must be imagining this.”
Down I settled, nuzzling my cheeks into damp nylon, and then KA-DOOOOOOOSH it went again. Okay, fine - hallucination inducing levels of exhaustion or not, me no es going to be able to dormir when there is someone letting off a bazooka behind this house. I got my stinking yellow keister off their property before they pumped my guts full of lead.
It was full daylight by now. God only knows what my face looked like. Maybe it hadn’t even been drip fed enough sleep to settle into the full melted-candle effect. Having not seen anyone - least of all the enthusiastic owner of the bazooka - for hours, I was delighted and saddened to find my long lost associate Sam on a reasonably busy road, slumped under a bush on a miserable bit of asphalt. I didn’t need to check on his well-being: this was clearly the abode-hunting behaviour of a vagrant equally as sleep-demented as me. I tried to show a respectable amount of regret upon hearing exactly the same thing had happened to him but misery famously loves company. It was unbecoming how buoyed I was by news of his hideous evening. “Wow that sounds positively AWFUL! Chin up mate! Cheers to that. Have a sardine.”
A few minutes down the road my search came to an abrupt halt. A gargantuan white building that only the Irish would consider a fitting tribute to their lord and saviour rose up above the bushes on my left and added yet another page to the Irish Lonely Planet ecclesiastical rough-sleeping accommodation. With the doors locked shut, I scuttled round the back and found that a thick canopy of trees had perfectly protected a section of tarmac from the rain. Out came the roll mat and down I went, sleeping bag hanging in tree like a bag of carefully discarded dog poo. The full daylight had no impact whatsoever: face down and out I went for 90 minutes of utterly heavenly repose.
If you would like to hear more about Laurences adventures in the PCR and beyond, head over to his blog: