Seven months ago, the team over at Quest Adventure Series invited me to take part in their newest event, Quest Wales (you can read about that one here). I was apprehensive at the time as a large chunk of the race was based on cycling – something I’ve never been particularly good at, especially when it’s going up and down Snowdonian mountains.
By the end of 55km of trail running, cycling and kayaking across Wales I loved it, but it was hard. Not helped by the fact it pretty much rained for the whole thing. It was a nice change from just running though, made significantly better by the amazing landscapes in one of my favourite parts of the UK.
In October the team invited me to take part in another one of their events, this time heading to the pinnacle of the Quest Adventure Series: Quest Killarney in Ireland.
Not only would I get to visit a place I’d always wanted to see (it’s the location of Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil), but I’d get the chance to try out an even tougher race – 83km through the Kerry mountains. Based on the fact I found the last one fairly tough, there was a chance I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
The Adventure Series
If you’ve never taken part in a Quest event before the format can be slightly confusing. Each of the five locations, four of them in Ireland, are comprised of running, cycling and kayaking. The breakdown of those elements varies based on the location, meaning each of the events is different. Where one might start and end with a trail run, another might opt for cycling.
There’s also a selection of race options, with distances starting from 27km and going all the way up to 83km. How those routes vary is not just to do with distance, but the local geography of that race.
The 83km option that I chose was broken down into seven stages, the order of those are in this handy race sheet:
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En route to Killarney for one hell of a race with @questadventureseries. Not sure about all this mountain cycling though AND a 7am start time. . . . . #questadventure #ireland #killarneynationalpark #cycling #kayaking #running #trailrunning #adventure #outdoors #wales #race #fitbess #lake #mountains #killarney
I hadn’t done a great deal of research before the race, so the various stages were a complete surprise to me during the event. The other surprise was how long some of the sections were – if I’m being completely honest I don’t think I was mentally prepared to cycle 36.5km through Irish mountain passes. The Wales event was broken down into smaller cycling distances and I hadn’t really imagined this one would be any different.
The base of the Killarney race is a fairly enormous hotel complex called the Gleneagle which acts as a central point for everything from bike rental and race pack collection, to the after-party and post-race drinking. If you stay there the start line for the race is just outside the front door. Which, although I had to get up a 6.30 for the Expert wave, is a very convenient way to start a tough event. Trust me, I recently had to get up at 3.30am for the New York Marathon.
Before I run through the details of the event, here’s my Strava route across the whole course for reference:
Starting at 7am, the first 14k of the Expert route was more of an intro that a taxing ride. Beginning with a slow, very busy, cycle through the town, the roads led out into the massive Killarney National park. From here we jumped off our bikes and started the first running section.
When we left it was completely dark, so heading up the 400m of climb, as the sun rose across the mountains instantly generated a level of positivity across the field. As that first run was also a loop leading up and back down the mountain, it also meant we could see the level of the athletes taking part – and some of those were fast. Groups of front runners leaped down the mountainside like it was a road decline.
I, on the other hand, took it a bit slower. I had absolutely no idea how hard it was going to be later on and didn’t want to spend a few hours panting as I struggled to get up another hill (although there was a hope in the back of my mind that this was going to be the toughest run of the day).
The downhill section of that first run was probably my favourite part of the event. A lovely decline that weaved around the mountain and took us back to the bikes.
From there it got a little bit tougher. Firstly because I’m not particularly adept at uphill cycling and secondly because it was a ruddy long way. This 36.5k section of the race took us up and down the various roads that pass throughout the National Park as it snakes around the central lake. Yes, I’ve done harder in the Swiss Alps, but there were a fair few tricky climbs that saw a conga line of cyclists stood up as they slowly moved upwards.
The beauty of this section, as well as the scenery as you reach the peak of each climb, is the fact that the last few km is an incredibly enjoyable downhill slope that goes on for ages. You can just sit back and enjoy the ride – if you can avoid the temptation to speed up even more. Not me – I’ll take the enjoyable downhills when I can.
The next section, after a short run, was the kayaking. When I’d done this at the Quest Wales event earlier in the year the bad weather had meant they needed to cut the route significantly shorter. Turns out that 1km on a kayak is actually quite tough, not only for the arms but also just to keep going in a straight line.
I jumped into a kayak with another chap, a man that had a far better knowledge of nautical ways than me, and we set off around the circular course. To be honest, if it wasn’t for him I’d probably have been on there a lot longer than I was, either that or I’d have fallen in. It’s a nice addition to the race though, which makes it a lot more than just a mountain duathlon. It’s a welcome break if you’ve been sat on a bike for an hour or so.
From there, things started to get a bit more real. In my head, I’d talked myself into the idea that the last half marathon would be a flat race around the town so that the spectators could cheer us on. What actually ensued was an undulating series of trails leading through the park woodland, something that was actually my second most enjoyable part of the event.
It’s at this point that the Expert wave splits off from every other wave and things become very quiet. That wooded trail goes on for a few miles before spewing you out at the base of Mangerton mountain, an 839m beast that looks as daunting as it sounds.
Luckily we only had to do 700m of the mountain, but that was more than enough as the rocky climb, combined with some very boggy mud meant for one of the toughest half marathons I’ve ever done. Add to that the fact that the temperature dropped massively as we climbed, and it was a little bit more than I’d planned for. Unlike the first mountain run, the downhill was no easy jaunt as those rocks were even trickier to tackle from above.
From there it was back through the woodland before jumping back on the bike for a welcome easy 5k back to the finish line where there were beers, a free meal and a hell of a lot of people getting ready for a big night.
How tough is it?
Obviously, if you’re at the front of the pack sprinting your way up mountains and powering up steep cycling inclines, an 83k mountain race is tough. However, the vast majority taking part in the Expert wave weren’t doing it to win.
Instead, the strategy seemed more like maintaining a slow and consistent pace throughout. If you’re doing it that way, it’s actually a lot easier than it sounds and the landscapes, twinned with the fact there’s a lot of downhills, make it an achievable distance for the more recreational athlete.
For any newbies to this sort of racing, I’d probably suggest taking on one of the shorter distances, as 7 hours tackling the mountains can be pretty tiring.
Having done the Wales event earlier in the year, and knowing that the Killarney one is Quest’s flagship race, I was pretty excited. Especially because I got to do it in the Irish mountains.
The scale, in comparison to Wales (at the time I did it), is enormous, and the route around the national park is a phenomenal location to do a race. So much so that you almost don’t mind when it gets tough because it’s such a nice place to be (I might not have said this at the time).
Add to that the local support around the town and the after-party and you can see why the Quest series is so popular in Ireland. If you already live there and you’re into adventure racing, I’m guessing you know it only too well. If you’re from the UK and you’re looking for a new challenge that’s actually pretty easy to get to from a number of airports. It’s well worth a look as well as being an awesome excuse to see a beautiful part of Ireland.
To take part in the October 2020 Quest Killarney Event head to the website here. It costs between €77.50 and €84.50 which includes a medal, a rather impressive cycling top, food and photos. You can also check out the other events currently hosted by Quest, including the slightly closer Quest Wales.
Want more info? Take a look at the handy video here.