Day 31, Mizen to Malin the Long Way Round

Most people who pedal from Mizen Head (in the south) to Malin Head (in the north) in Ireland do so by a rather straightforward and direct route. As you know, I took a slightly longer approach. I am so delighted to have had the opportunity to share the sights and sounds of my fantastic trip with you all. Thank you to everyone who tagged along!

It seems like it was ages ago that I was at the Aille River Hostel in Doolin, County Clare, fighting with a shower that was programmed to emit warm(ish) water for only ten seconds at a time. I would press the button, scrub the chain grease off my shins as fast as I could while I counted to nine and then straighten up to hit the button again, hoping to keep the stream flowing so I wouldn’t have to stand there and freeze.

One thousand miles along the west coast of Ireland by bicycle is at once miraculous and a little bit disappointing. I really wanted to complete the full fifteen hundred. That was the whole point when I started. I’m not coming down on myself for taking it easy after being hit by a car—I promise I’m not that bullheaded—but I do feel a bit shorted. Not just by the accident but by the daily struggle.

I really underestimated the triple whammy of exhaustion I was in for. Physical exhaustion from riding so many miles with so much elevation gain. Mental exhaustion from being in a foreign country. (No matter how similar you may think Ireland is to the United States, I assure you it is a foreign country.) Plus emotional exhaustion from tackling so much of it on my own.

I wasn’t tired when I got hit though. In fact, just the opposite. I was excited because Noel and I were simultaneously heading for Donegal from different directions. We planned to meet up again because he wanted to do recon work for Wild Atlantic Cycling (which will soon be offering tours of the entire Wild Atlantic Way—send inquiries HERE!) and he hadn’t seen a lot of the northwest corner yet. I, of course, was more than happy for the company. On Day 22 from Ballina to Sligo, in the worst downpours I’d experienced yet, I kept reminding myself with a laugh and a smile, “This is it! This is my last solo ride! I’m not gonna be alone anymore!”

And then—WHAMMO KABLAMMO—I’m sprawled on my back squirming like an insect, unable to get up, unable to say my name, fifty miles shy of Donegal.

It all leaves me wondering on my last day, drinking my last cup of tea at a Costa Café in downtown Belfast… What was the actual point of this journey? When we take a journey we expect an outcome, a shift inside ourselves. What did we see? Who did we meet? What did we learn? What will we miss and furthermore what did we miss about home? Are we happy to be heading back?

I will miss the scones. I will not miss the plumbing. I will miss my partner in mileage, the near constant flush of fresh air on my face and the local pubs cranking out traditional Irish music. I will not miss the hotels with twin size beds and no top sheets (seriously people, just you and a duvet cover on a bed made for a child). Obviously I will miss the sheep and the cows most of all. Though I can’t wait to get back to my dogs and my car and tortilla chips. I will miss the quiet nights in the country and the kindness of the wonderful innkeepers who fed me and washed my smelly cycling clothes. Not surprisingly, I suppose I will also miss being regularly disconnected from the Internet. It was a pain in the ass anytime it happened but I know how good it was for me.

All of those memories and experiences tell a great story but they don’t answer the underlying question. What was the point?

Really when it comes down to it I can’t help but think that the lesson, the real takeaway for me is this: I learned how to get picked up at the hospital by someone who traveled fifty miles to get to me even though I said I was OK, which I wasn’t. And furthermore I learned to believe that he was much more worried than he was put out by the trouble of it.

Instead of insisting I was fine, I stopped pushing when I was in pain and took shortcuts away from the coast even though I knew I was ruining the excursion for the person who came to help me. In essence I let myself be broken and vulnerable with another human being.

Help is hard but trust is harder. And the audacity of believing that it’s OK if I’m not always at my best? Zoinks! This is big for me. Really big.

After Malin Head and Muff, Noel gave me a tour (by car) of the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland. First we ate Morelli’s famous ice cream in Portstewart. Then we continued on to explore the vast beauty of Giant’s Causeway.

And then for the last few days of my trip I walked slowly around Belfast and let everything I accomplished, all the miles and experiences, really start to sink in.

Thank you for everything Noel. I miss riding with you already. Thank you Paul Kennedy. Thank you Wild Atlantic Cycling. Thank you Wild Atlantic Way. Thank you innkeepers, paramedics, musicians, sheep farmers and more. Thank you to every single person I met, even the feckin’ eejit who hit me.

Sending love and light from my last day in Belfast ❤

Niahm Varian-Barry and Gerry O’Beirne at O’Sullivan’s Courthouse Pub, Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland

 

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Day 26, A Thousand Miles. Done.

Buncrana → Muff via Malin Head

Mileage:   74.9 miles                                                      Elevation gain:   4,232′

TOTAL MILEAGE:   1,004.1 MILES          TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN:   48,177′


This morning started with some washed out roads from the recent flooding. It turns out the rain from Tuesday (a.k.a. Accident Day) was the worst this part of the country has seen in 100 years.

Then we climbed the Gap of Mamore, which looks like this:

I cried at the top because I was too scared to ride down the other side. I got flustered, fell off my bike and banged up my knee. For a little while I walked my bike down the far side, until Noel wiped away my tears and said, “I really think you can do this.” And then <<POOF>> all of a sudden, just like that, I could.

There was a bunch of this:

And a lot of that:

Then we climbed to the official Mizen-Malin finish line.

I laughed and I cried (again). I also ate the most well deserved brownie of my life. But we weren’t done just yet. So for a while we cycled through a bunch of this:

And a lot of that:

Until finally, at long last, we got to Muff and the official END of the Wild Atlantic Way.

So many emotions to process through tonight. Thanks to everyone for the incredible love and support. And THANK YOU a million times over to the one and only NOEL BOYCE!! ❤ ❤ ❤

Sending love and light from the end of the Wild Atlantic Way! ❤

Day 25, This Is Why We Rally

Lettermacaward → Buncrana through Glenveagh National Park (Straight shot away from the coast)

Mileage:   53.1 miles                                                       Elevation gain:   1,864′

Total mileage so far:  929.2 miles        Total elevation gain so far:   43,945′


All the rain paid off in massive waterfalls throughout Glenveagh National Park.

On the far side of the park the sun came out.

And we took the ferry over Lough Swilly from Rathmullan to Buncrana.

Now I’m settling in with a lovely view from my B&B window.

A perfect day. Can you believe I only have 80 more miles to go? Because of short cuts after the accident and a few issues early on, I won’t finish as many miles as I hoped, but I’ll still break 1,000. Quite a fair distance!

I’m set to hit Malin Head mid-day tomorrow and should finish in Muff before dinner.

Sending love and light from Buncrana. So close! ❤

Days 23 & 24, Back in the Saddle, Part Deux: Bruised But Not Broken

Donegal Town → Lettermacaward (Straight shot away from the coast)

Mileage:   37.4 miles                                                         Elevation gain: 1,499’

Total mileage so far:   876.1 miles        Total elevation gain so far:   42,081’


When my best friend Ericka was fighting for her life through the pure evil that is breast cancer people would always say to me, “Oh she’s lucky. It could be so much worse.”

Lucky.

Eight rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, a double mastectomy at 38 years old, breast augmentation surgery, more medications and side effects than we could list, early onset menopause, five years of hormone therapy and, most recently, complete ovary removal—you know, so she could stop the monthly Lupron shots in her ass.

So lucky.

I hated the sentiment so much I wrote an entire book about it. (Coming soon! Click here for more details 🙂)

And yet…

Now she’s on the flip side with a new perspective on life. Now she is a survivor. Now she is stronger, happier, more vibrant with a glint in her eye and an energy in her heart that was missing B.B.C. (Before Breast Cancer).

I do not for one second mean to compare my minor accident with her experience, but I learned a lot from being close to her throughout that time. The lessons are helping me with all the people who are again saying, “Wow you’re so lucky! The accident could have been so much worse!”

Because they’re right to say that. It really could have been so much worse. I could be paralyzed. I could be brain dead. I could be all sorts of horrible things, but I’m not. My helmet did its job (Thank you Specialized!) and my back took a beating. I’m in pain, sure, but I’m also perfectly fine.

Recovery Day felt worse than Accident Day. Whiplash set in. My throat swelled as if I was coming down with the flu. I had random organ pain radiating from my kidneys and my liver. My right eye started turning yellow from jaundice and my tailbone screamed at me every time I took a step. But today is not Recovery Day. Today is the day after Recovery Day.

My other best friend Joanna’s brother is a professional skydiver. Many years ago she told me that when he first started training one of his friends died in a skydiving accident. All of his trainers told him he had to go back up and jump immediately. They gave him no time to stew about it. The very next day he was on a plane and then he was out of it, falling to the ground with nothing but a parachute on his back.

These days we would call that Exposure Therapy. The basic premise is if something you know you want to do causes you any kind of fear for any reason, then you have to immediately go do it. You can’t put it off. You can’t think about it. You just do it.

I ache today. I feel twenty years older than I am. But worse than that, I’m afraid to get back on my bike in the rain and I’m afraid to ride on a busy road. Two days ago I learned that it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing—fluorescent yellow, fluorescent green and fluorescent pink w/ flashing white and red lights, for the record—or if I’m riding on a bike path with the right of way—I was—I can still get mowed down by a car and sent to the hospital.

Quite honestly the experience was a bit traumatizing. On a stretcher in the emergency room, soaking wet with my teeth chattering, it became abundantly clear how wrong I was when I said that sitting on a cement wall eating yogurt in the middle of nowhere between Belmullet and Ballina was the loneliest place in the world. Being there by myself was a choice I made. But the hospital? Nobody goes to the hospital alone.

I’ve been having trouble dealing with this fear. I’ve been short-tempered, nervous. I’ve seriously wanted to just quit and freakin’ go home already. Last night the rain actually made me cry. Even so, deep down I know I need to rally because here’s the thing: Fear is a liar. And anything in life worth doing is gonna be at least a little bit scary.

This morning I’m well rested. My eye has turned back to white and my throat feels normal again. My mild concussion seems milder. Shooting pains have downgraded to strong dull aches. I’ve plied myself with ibuprofen and anti-inflammatories, and I am getting on my bike.

I’m not being stupid about it though. I have a secret weapon to help me do the crazy scary thing I need to do. Someone who has been in this position and understands first hand exactly what I’m facing. That’s right, Noel’s back.

He came to the hospital in Sligo to help me, got me fifty miles to Donegal to rest and recover, and is riding my last three routes with me. Let’s all take a minute to give a hand and a shout out to Noel Boyce, shall we? I couldn’t even try this without him.

We’ve decided to take it easy with a short direct route away from the coast. For the first two hours I flinch every time a car passes. As we pedal through beautiful countryside in a driving rain, Noel says hi to the sheep for me because I’m wincing too much to do it myself. “Be easy on her,” he says to them. “She’s had a rough couple days.”

It’s a slow wet grind. Difficult but necessary and he’s right there next to me the whole time.

Once we get to our B&B I feel a lot better. The physical pain remains but the fear is shrinking back into the darkness where it belongs.

The sun peaks through the clouds.

I stop to talk to a goat.

And when I look up I see the beauty all around us.

Bruised but not broken, sending love and light from Lettermacaward ❤

 

 

Day 22, They Even Bring You Tea in the Hospital

Ballina → Sligo

Mileage:   49.6 miles                                                        Elevation gain:  1,739′

Total mileage so far:  838.7 miles        Total elevation gain so far:   40,582′


It’s no secret that the Irish love tea and I am completely with them on that. I’ve easily had 45 cups so far this month. Tea is everywhere you go at all hours, day or night. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been politely asked, “Would you care for a wee cup of tea?” And I’ve emphatically answered Yes! every time.

So I wasn’t tremendously surprised when a nurse served me tea at the Sligo University Hospital this afternoon. This was, of course, after I’d been cut off by a driver, somersaulted over my handlebars, cleared the car and landed squarely on my tailbone, back and neck. And I have to say, the tea helped a lot.

As the driver was cutting me off, I remember thinking What is she doing? Oh my god why is she doing that?? as I desperately squeezed on my brakes. But the flood-like rain and the weight behind me from my packs made it impossible to stop. I skidded into the back left side of the car and immediately went airborne.

I don’t remember flying through the air but I do remember landing with a thud. For a while I was lying on the ground unable to speak. In my head I was yelling to myself Get up! Answer these people. Come on, you know your name! But I couldn’t respond. I was like an upside down cockroach with my arms and legs flailing in the air trying to figure out how to roll over.

When the ambulance arrived I just kept repeating myself. “I can’t go to the hospital, I have to get to Donegal.” Donegal being another fifty miles away. Left to my own devices I’m sure I would have gotten back on my bike, ridden a few hundred yards and blacked out. Thank goodness the paramedics didn’t let me make that decision. They calmed me down and I got to take my first ambulance ride. Yay vacation!

The police, paramedics, nurses and doctors who helped me were phenomenal. I am very sore but not broken. Diagnosis: bruised tailbone and a mild concussion, my second in less than a year. (Remind me to tell you about the time a hammer fell on my head and I couldn’t form a sentence for three days!)

Tomorrow is a rest day and then I get to make yet another big decision on whether to finish this trek or not. I can’t help but wonder whether this accident is karmically tied to yesterday’s solar eclipse or yesterday’s blog post. One thing I can tell you for sure: I’ll never complain about Irish faucets again!

Sending love and light from my recovery bed ❤

Day 21, Ballinaaaa and the Fucking Faucets from Hell

Rest day in Ballina

Mileage:   0 miles                                                                    Elevation gain:   0′

Total mileage so far:  789.1 miles          Total elevation gain so far:  38,843′


My pronunciation of Ballina has been corrected three times. The name is to be spoken whimsically, perhaps while wearing a tropical sundress and gazing wistfully past a sheer curtain that blows in the gentle breeze of an open picture window overlooking swaying palm trees that dot a beach down by the ocean.

The first part, Bali, like the island that makes up part of Indonesia. The accent saved for the long drawn out Naaaa at the end, melancholically prolonged with three or four A’s the way my mother holds the notes of a Bonnie Raitt tune for extra beats when singing along to the radio.

But Bali-Náaaa is a town that doesn’t really fit its paradisiacal name. It’s actually one of the most suburban areas I’ve been to. Comfortably sprawled with everything one would need, but not much to do for a tourist. It lies in stark contrast to the no-man’s land I was in for most of yesterday and, unsurprisingly, I learn from my innkeepers and others that no one ever enters town the way I did.

“Oh no, we would drive from Sligo in the east or maybe come in from the south. It’s really empty out where you were,” they tell me over breakfast.

Yah-huh. It sure was.

Ballina sits on the River Moy and is the salmon capital of Ireland. Settlements in this area date back to 1375 and the town itself was established in 1723. Notable architecture includes the 15th-century Moyne Abbey and St. Muredach’s Cathedral, pictured above, which sits between the Upper and Lower Bridges across the Moy. I want to visit the Belleek Woods but it has been pouring, like full on down pouring, all day nonstop. Nonetheless I do take a stroll through town before heading back to my B&B to warm up with a shower.

Which brings me to my second point.

I have done the best I possibly can to quietly adjust to the oddities of the Irish way of life. I’ve eaten my soggy vegetables. I’ve grown accustomed to riding on the wrong—I mean left—side of the road. I’ve adopted the strange phrases of this foreign land like I’ll take tea at half seven and Can you tell me which way to the toilets?

I apologized for my entire country when one innkeeper mentioned, “Everything in America is perfect except the people aren’t very nice.”

I even stayed polite when another innkeeper said, “Oh it’s no big deal that you’re cycling the entire Wild Atlantic Way. I know a girl who kayaked it!” I smiled and said, “WOW!” when I really wanted to shout, “Well fuck you very much Margaret!”

But there is one area that I cannot for the life of me get used to and I will no longer stay quiet about: the plumbing. I want to climb the highest mountain and scream from the top of my lungs, “WHAT THE FUCK IRELAND?! IT’S 2017, NOT 1954!!!”

To that end, I give you Exhibit A:

Here we have a prime example of almost every faucet I have come across in my 21 days in this country. Perhaps the first faucet ever designed by man, it gives you two options: scalding hot to the left or freezing cold to the right. There is no in between, no moderate, no single faucet system that melds these two disparate temperatures together into a cozy and inviting flow of warm.

And can you see how much space there is between them? Seriously!

It’s not like you can easily mix the two together. No, no. It’s either Burn the Baby or Freeze Your Tatas Off.

I’ve gotten into the habit of turning both sides on, cupping my hands to fill them with cold water and then whisking them over to the hot side in an attempt to come away with something mildly satisfying. It doesn’t really work but it’s better than the third degree burns I’ll get from using just the hot side.

And how about this little nugget:

First of all, can you even tell me what it is? OK, you figured out that it’s a shower because of my little shampoo and conditioner bottles sitting on top. Good job. Now why don’t you go ahead and fancy a guess on how to use this thing? Go ahead, tell me to turn the power nob on the right and then adjust the temperature with the nob on the left. Simple enough, right?

WRONG!

You can turn those damn nobs all you want, ain’t nothing gonna happen until you back yourself out of the bathroom closet—and yes every bathroom I’ve been to in Ireland has been the size of a closet—then flip the big red switch on the wall by the door because that shower is electric and you need to give it power before turning on the power.

But don’t bother turning on the power after you’ve given it power because the only nob that’s going to make water come out of that shower head is the TEMPERATURE GAUGE!

As far as adjusting the actual temperature goes, I have no idea. I’ve taken two showers in there—one hot, one cold—and still not figured it out.

#ScaldingYetFreezingInIreland
#ThisCountryNeedsAHomeDepot!
#CanWeGetThePropertyBrothersUpInHere?
#MaybeTomorrowI’llTellYouAboutTheToilets!

Sending love and light to all the eclipse watchers back home ❤

Days 19 & 20, Bye Bye Belmullet

Achill Island → Belmullet → Ballina

Mileage:  120.5 miles                                                      Elevation gain:  4,660’

Total mileage so far:  789.1 miles         Total elevation gain so far:  38,843’


Yesterday I left Achill Island around 9:00 AM and suffered all the way to Belmullet, which lies somewhere in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Belmullet is like small town U.S.A. where people have nothing better to do than race Greyhounds, set off fireworks and do donuts in the middle of the street.

There was a group of men, maybe five or six, working on mopeds at the B&B I stayed at. One of them, tall and handsome, smiled at me when I walked in with a grocery bag full of dinner snacks—cheese sticks, bread roll, a pint of blueberries. I thought he was an American, but when I made a joke about how many of them there were they all kind of grunted in confusion and looked away. It turned out they were German and none of them spoke English, but I was proud of myself for at least attempting to make conversation.

It’s quite possible that Belmullet is actually beautiful but I have no idea. I paid it no attention whatsoever. I ate my snacks and went to bed early, feeling cranky and depressed.

This morning I don’t feel any better. Though the fog is thick and the rain spritz starts early, I can’t wait to get out of here. The Germans are in the driveway suiting up in the most outrageously overdressed way. Standing next to them I fling my leg over my bicycle. My calves are bare, my thin jersey the only layer under my even thinner rain shell. I don’t wear insulated gloves like them or sunglasses. I don’t wear shoe covers. I am exposed.

I pull out ahead of them, quietly grumbling, “Pussies,” under my breath. A quarter mile down the road they each pass me with a wave and at the corner they turn south where as I continue north.

The streets are empty. There is no one out. Not a single house has a light on inside or a car in the driveway. It’s Sunday but the church parking lots are empty. Where has everyone gone?

It’s a dark and dreary day and for the first time I’m cold. For a few miles I cycle in and out of tiny forests before being spit out into a void.

The landscape is different up here. Vast swaths of emptiness stretch as far as my eyes can see. Out here there is nothing, no side streets, no houses. I think to myself, all of this has to mean something. All this loneliness, all this drudgery, these miles after miles after miles on my own.

My first turn is in Barnatra. I stop at the intersection with a gas station and a recycling center, both closed due it being Sunday, and sit down on a cement wall across the street. I lean my bike up against my knees and pull out the custardy yogurt granola dried fruit concoction I bought at the store. I can’t help thinking this is as lonely as it could possibly get and that’s when it comes to me.

Tony Robbins talks about how nothing in our lives changes until the change becomes a must. We can have as many “shoulds” as we want. We should lose weight. We should get a new job. But until those things turn into “musts” nothing new will happen. We get what we tolerate. It’s up to us to raise our own standards.

Up to this point, which means for close to a decade, being single for me has been OK. For years it was necessary and then it morphed into something I tolerate. Letting someone in, having a boyfriend <GASP!>, is something I should do, something everyone tells me I should do. Avoiding the prospect has been the must, embracing it the should.

The road through Kilcommon is eerily quiet. It’s not until I get to Belderrig, fifteen miles farther, that I see a few more houses. I come back out to the coast road and this is where the route turns truly wild. The cliffs are high, the terrain rugged, the wind and the waves constant and fierce.

I usually don’t post pictures that are not mine, but I think this aerial is important to really show you what I’m talking about. (Just imagine it without the sun 🙂 )

There are stories from down south around Dingle about how European explorers who assumed the world was flat considered the southwest coast of Ireland the end of the world. But it’s up north at the Céide Fields, the oldest known stone-walled fields in the world dating back 6,000 years, in County Mayo, where I feel like I’ve reached the edge.

It’s here that my GPS goes haywire, unable to locate my position and inexplicably adding 30 extra miles to my ride that I never actually rode. It’s here, in the middle of Bumfuck Nowheresville, on the northwestern coast of Ireland with nothing but ocean in front of me and freaky-deaky woo woo shit behind me, that something crucial becomes clear.

I can see now that at the end of this trip my should will change into a must. I can see this journey as the physical manifestation of how much my heart has been breaking, and for how long. The way I feel right now—completely alone at the edge of the world—is how my heart has felt for nine years and counting.

It’s a good thing, really. Please don’t flock to the comments section to send heartfelt messages of sympathy. I can take it. In fact, this is what I needed. I had to get here in order to understand what I’ve been doing to myself.

After the Céide Fields I sit up higher in my saddle. The rain spritz continues but the winds die down a little. My eyes are open. I see the beauty again. I smile uncontrollably. I stop suffering and remember how lucky I am to be here.

Nine miles later I take a left at Downpatrick Head. A narrow twisting road leads me through cow pastures to a parking lot where I lean my bike against a fence and change into my sneakers. I walk up a hill and cross an open field with a few signposts warning about the cliff edge. And then almost as if it rose up to greet me I see the 350 million-year-old, 150’ high Dun Briste Sea Stack.

I walk right to the edge without any fear of falling and my worries disappear. It’s as if something internal permanently shifts. We don’t get what we want. We get what we have to have.

Walking down the hill back to my bike it’s Rihanna and Calvin Harris in my head.

Baby… this is what you came for…

The rest of the ride into Ballina is sublime.

Sending love and light ❤

Days 17 & 18, Achill Island

Westport → Achill Island

Mileage:   59.2 miles                                                      Elevation gain:   3,265’

Total mileage so far:  668.6 miles         Total elevation gain so far:  34,183’


It’s been a wonderful few days for my sheep obsession. First I took the Great Western Greenway, what we would call a Rail Trail in the U.S., from Westport to Achill Island.

Then I settled in at the Pure Magic Lodge.

And today I tackled a super steep climb to take in Keem Bay.

I particularly like this guy who simply does not give one flying fuck about anything.

And these two lovebirds casually balanced on the edge of a 600′ cliff with a sheer drop straight into the ocean like it ain’t no thang.

I got lucky and stayed dry but a storm was brewing offshore the whole time. Here’s the view at Keel Beach in town.

Day 16, Back in the Saddle

Galway → Westport through the Maam Valley

Mileage:   78.9 miles                                                       Elevation gain:  3,695’

Total mileage so far:  609.4 miles         Total elevation gain so far:  30,918’


Today I’m saying goodbye to Galway and hello to a 14 member tour group halfway through their Mizen-to-Malin trek. This is what Paul and Noel do together with Paul’s company Wild Atlantic Cycling. The tour is a 7-day, 575 mile straight shot from the southernmost tip of Ireland, Mizen Head, to the northernmost, Malin Head. The riders are from Ireland, the U.K. and the U.S. with varying levels of ability.

It’s a day without panniers for me thanks to the Support + Gear (SAG) vehicle and I’m so excited I can barely stand it. It promises to rain but I don’t care. I’ll take a downpour over saddlebags any day.

Usually Noel drives SAG for these trips but today Paul will take the car and Noel will cycle with the group. He’s pumping up my tires, tightening everything that can be tightened, and running back and forth to make sure everyone in the tour group has what they need.

Paul takes one look at my saddle, Saddle #2 that I picked up in Bantry. “Yah that’ll give you blisters on your ass,” he quips.

“Yep,” I agree with a knowing nod. Granted it’s an improvement over Saddle #1 but it’s still not right.

He pulls a spare from their trailer—Saddle #3—a beautifully unpadded skinny little thing that looks exactly like my road bike seat at home. This will most definitely spell THE END to my saddle sores. He says I can rent it for ten quid a day. I love Paul because almost every single thing he says is a joke and he laughs all the time.

The drizzle starts as we set out. Our first twenty miles run along Galway Bay. Noel is in front of me to set the pace but he can’t provide any shelter from the wind gusting at us from the bay to our left. For the first hour he constantly checks back for me and skips a few pedal strokes anytime I need to catch up. I appreciate that he’s staying with me because there are quite a few strong riders in this group who are eager to see what he can do. They’ve been Googling him to see his race records and are blown away by his results.

“One year I won nine races,” Noel had said to me over drinks in Kenmare two weeks ago. This was only a few years after he started cycling in his mid-40’s. I followed up with the tale of my last place women’s finish at the Syracuse Half Iron Man. It’s safe to say Noel and I participate in races for very different reasons.

Paul put it the most succinctly. “We all hate him,” he said on our way to dinner last night. “I can’t help it if I’m an athlete,” Noel sighed.

Today though, Noel is a coach. He’s pulling me, silently egging me on to go just a little bit faster than I can. The wind doesn’t let up and for a while it gets so hilly my legs and my lungs can’t take it. And yet somehow they magically do. The unspoken rule of the day is that Noel will slow down so long as I speed up.

Finally we make a right turn away from the coast and the countryside opens up to reveal a desert-like scene. Despite the rain I fully expect to come upon prairie dogs and tumbleweed. The landscape is empty for miles, save for the Maamturk Mountains in the distance. The road is long and curvy, snaking its way across the plains at a very slight decline. The wind kicks back up and blows the rain sideways in sheets, seemingly changing directions with every turn. It is pelting my eyeballs like ice chips as we pick up intense amounts of speed, leaning into corners, gently pumping brakes so as not to skid. I get up to 35 MPH, holding my tuck as best I can. I am terrified and grinning like a donkey. It’s quite a lovely combination.

Caffeinated after a quick tea break I’m able to keep up with the leaders, all strong middle-aged skinny white dudes. Cycling definitely attracts a specific type. Again my legs and lungs can’t take it, yet again they somehow do.

At our lunch break we all change out of our soaking wet kits, wringing water from our socks into puddles on the floor of the pub we’ve stopped at by Killary Fjord. Warm and dry, we plow through soup and sandwiches before heading back out to be re-drenched for our last 26 miles.

Now we are riding through the Maam Valley without a house in sight. Sheep line each side of the road and the lush green spreads as far as we can see.

At the beginning of the final big climb Noel says he’ll see me at the top. Climbing big hills on a bike seems to be one of his favorite things to do in life and he’s off with a whoop like a happy little kid. He rides to the top, turns around, comes back down and meets me a third of the way up to climb it again.

“Who knew you were such a good climber?” he jokes.

“I can do anything without panniers!” I cry.

We crest the top with the group and head down into an enchanting mist.

As we come down from the pass and inch closer to Westport Noel gets sentimental. “This could be our last ride together,” he says.

“Don’t say that!” I protest. “It’s just for now.”

We’re quiet the rest of the way. I stay strong so I can ride next to him even though my knees are aching and I’m so tired I can barely stay upright.

In Westport, after 79 miles of cycling at a 17 MPH average (the fastest I’ve managed so far), I head to my B&B blissfully exhausted for a shower. Meanwhile Paul and Noel head out to Croagh Patrick for an extra 27 mile spin before dinner.

I’m nervous again when we say goodnight out in front of Matt Molloy’s pub. I know I’ll be fine on my own but I just feel like I do so much better with my safety net in place.

Sending love & light from Westport ❤

P.S.
As of today I’ve climbed the equivalent elevation of Mount Everest!

Day 15, Reunited (and it feels so good)

Rest day in Galway

Mileage:   0 miles                                                                    Elevation gain:  0′

Total mileage so far:  530.5 miles         Total elevation gain so far:   27,223′


Tonight over dinner at Magnetti’s, Noel called me a cheeky cow. I had just said he’d be dead in ten years so it was a fair comeback.

I don’t know which one of us was happier to see the other when he pulled up at the Victoria Hotel off Eyre Square this afternoon. Peaches & Herb crooned in my head as I strolled up to the truck and started helping him unload the gear.

Did I ever fully explain that Noel and I had never met before the day he picked me up at the Cork Airport? And yet we caught up over coffee and tea like BFF’s who hadn’t seen each other in months. He’s kept up on my blog but I re-enacted all the details for him anyway. Later we met up with Paul and we all headed to the Latin Quarter for Italian food and live music.

Since I started this trek Noel’s been making fun of me (and I him, obviously) and Paul’s been following up with supportive emails telling me I’m doing such a great job and to never give up or listen to anything Noel says. Paul naturally takes on the supportive dad role to Noel’s toss-‘em-in-the-lake-and-they’ll-learn-how-to-swim uncle character.

Now we’re at The Quay’s enjoying a fantastic traditional Irish band called Rianu. I could listen to them all night just like I could write a thousand more words, but I’ve got to get a good night’s rest in. Tomorrow we ride to Westport, about 80 miles or so, and I can’t wait.