Last Position: When all that remains is having fun and not giving up!
Written By Gene Cahill.
Ask the average non-elite sportsperson who enters a race what their priorities or targets are for race day, and most will be hoping for a personal best, a ‘good’ time (defined by their own standards) and some will just want to finish. Most however will also want the target to not be ‘that guy’ or ‘that girl’ – you know, that person who finishes last in a race. The one person everyone who finishes ahead of ‘that person’ is glad that they themselves are not! Well a few months ago, I was ‘that guy’. Yes I finished in that position I had always dreaded. Last!
The Great Island Kayak Race (GIKR) takes place every December/January around the Island of Cobh at the mouth of Cork Harbour – it is a 26km expedition-style race and being in the middle of winter, it is usually quite cold! And windy! And often wet! It has been running since 2007 and is organised by Niall Ó Crualaoich with help from his family and friends who provide refreshments, photography services, car collections for those who drop out during the race etc. Many of the competitors on race day are relatively local (live in Cork or surrounding areas) but some kayakers travel from all over the country to attend it.
Once the race starts, kayakers are generally on their own and are expected to fend for themselves. There are no support boats. If you get in trouble, you are expected to look after yourself, make your way to shore, ring an emergency number provided and wait for assistance. I had only entered my first GIKR the year previously and finished in a time of 3hrs, 23 minutes. Not a competitive racing paddler by any means – I have a 14ft Perception Carolina sea kayak after all – I was delighted with a mid-table finish. My goal of completing the course and not being last had been accomplished! So when the 2015 race details were announced for 20th December 2015, I decided to go again. I had done the race before, and besides, what’s the worst that could happen? Finishing last? Good god no!
Unfortunately, the winter of 2015 wasn’t that kind to sea kayakers in Ireland. A series of successive storms began in November that would continue into January and February and conspire to keep many of us off the water. To say my kayaking mileage between October and December was low, was an understatement. I think I had been out twice in that period and it was limited to kayaking in the sheltered confines of Sandycove Island, near Kinsale and focused more on rock hopping and practicing rescue techniques. With a few days to go to the start date, the weather began to deteriorate again and the race was postponed until 3rd of January. Fine by me! I could hopefully get in some mileage over the Christmas period. It didn’t happen!
As the day approached, the weather wasn’t exactly predictable and a number of kayakers were expressing doubts about travelling to Cork with the possibility of the race being cancelled at the last moment. With me living in Cork, that didn’t pose a problem and I was looking forward to finally getting some paddling miles under my belt! Niall was brilliant in keeping people updated with regular weather reports but with such unpredictability in the weather at the time, it was proving difficult to state with certainty that the race would go ahead. In the few days before, it was announced that due to weather concerns, an alternative but shorter 14km route would now be on the agenda. Coupled with weather warnings about ice on some roads and flooding on other roads, it put off a number of people from travelling down. On the morning of 3rd January, I navigated around some flooded roads and arrived at Marlogue Pier about 8.15. There were very few people there at the time but the weather seemed to have improved from the previous day’s wind and rain and the sea conditions weren’t as bad as had been forecast. As one or two more paddlers arrived, there was even talk about the original 26km course being reinstated but this would be decided in a conference once all competitors were present. I was happy to do the 26km and hoped that it would go ahead. It would be a good slog, get the blood pumping and provide for the burning off of a few too many calories added to my frame over the Christmas holidays!
However, as the rest of the paddlers began to arrive, it coincided with a sudden waning of my enthusiasm for the full 26km race distance. I couldn’t help but notice both the calibre of kayakers – seriously experienced and in many ways elite kayakers – and the calibre of their kayaks: sleek, fast and designed for racing. My 14-foot Perception remained on the roof of my car; it’s shape and size in stark contrast to the racing boats now arriving. I recognised the father and son team of Vlod and Bodhan, regulars at kayaking races and perfectly equipped with their Rockpool Tarans. Jon Hynes, who the previous summer had kayaked around Ireland, arrived with his Taran. Lawrence Buckley who had won the Ocean to City Race on previous occasions. I recognised two or three other’s from last year’s GIKR – I didn’t know their names but they were racers, and all had been fighting for victory or podium places last year. Chris McDaid from the North Mayo Sea Kayakers who was becoming a regular at many race events, had travelled down the country to race, as had Matt McGrath from Laois Kayak and Canoe Club. Two other familiar faces appeared – Sandra Bickerdyke and Eddie Doody. Both in sea kayaks not designed for racing albeit with an extra 2 feet or so longer than my own. Ok so I wouldn’t be the only non-racer there. And besides, there was talk of 2 course distances: the original 26km for those who wanted the challenge and the shorter alternative route for anyone concerned about making it around the Island before the wind and sea conditions changed for the worst! As registration closed, it appeared that the number of competitors was small. Only 14 had braved the elements – this was a far cry from the 40 at the previous year’s race. The unpredictable weather and flooded roads had resulted in a much smaller turnout. It was also plainly obvious that I was by far the weakest and less experienced paddler of those present. As we were briefed, the option was floated that anyone who wanted to do the shorter distance could do so. The racers, all 11 of them decided to go long! Myself, Sandra and Eddie looked at each other and shrugged, nobody really wanting to commit openly to suggesting going short. In any event, race organiser Niall told us we could decide en route to do the short course and turn back at a specific marker.
As we made our way to the water, it was slowly beginning to dawn on me that I would more than likely be last. My two main ‘competitors’ (and I use that in the loosest sense of the word) were Sandra and Eddie. Both of whom had longer boats and had been paddling longer than I had. Sandra had been working as a kayaking guide with Gozo Adventures in the Mediterranean for most of the year and had well over 1000km clocked up in 2015. Although her arrival in Ireland in October and the subsequent storms, limited Sandra’s time paddling over the winter, I knew that any aspirations I had of finishing ahead of any of those two were slim to none! I also had never entered the race, any race, with a view to actually racing anybody, other than myself. But still, in the spirit of the whole thing, you did feel that there was racing to be done!
The start was everything I expected and worse! The racers took off and I mean took off! I remember vividly my first 500 metres being a session of huffing and puffing as I tried to get into the swing of things and develop a routine, as I quickly abandoned any thoughts of actually racing that day. Eddie had moved quickly ahead and I again found myself paddling alongside Sandra in an almost identical repeat of last year’s race. If I could just last the entire distance alongside Sandra, I’d be happy. Sandra expressed concern about her lack of paddling fitness and mileage since returning to Ireland. I knew exactly what she meant but I also knew her superior paddling skills and mileage over the year, would be a valuable resource that she could call on. For me, I had no such resources but I was determined to stay within reach! After about 2km, I felt a growing pain in my wrist that I put down to lack of exercise. There was no way I was saying anything about it as I didn’t want any excuses for the result I knew was imminent! As the marker for the halfway mark of the shorter race course came into view, still a few kilometres away, I had a brief moment of hope that I might see Eddie – who was a good bit ahead of me – reach the marker and turn around. I even thought to myself of how the results would look at the end. I might make it back before some of the racers had even finished and seeing my name in 3rd place albeit on the shorter course wouldn’t be bad for the confidence! My hopes were dashed however as Eddie paddled on. As we got closer to the turnaround point, I grew more and more convinced that I should turn around. The pain in my wrist didn’t seem to be going away. If anything it was getting worse and I now knew in no uncertain terms that I would be finishing last, and probably last by a sizeable margin. The inland section of this part of the course was also the most difficult part in many ways – with little tidal movement in the water, and the water being relatively shallow in parts, it was a real slog. Sandra and I joked a little but it seemed to me that Sandra was willing to keep going and do the full race distance. Decision time for me! Do I turn around and do the shorter course? Gene Cahill – 1st! That would be a first for the books, and for about 15 minutes, it was such an appealing option. I don’t think Sandra realised how close I came to turning around as we approached the marker by the Oyster beds. But then my pride, or something resembling pride kicked in. That would be quitting; taking the easy option; For me, having set out from home that morning, hoping we would get to do the full 26km option, it would mean failing. And while I had no aspirations of ever winning, I had no intention of failing.
I thought of a friend of mine, who I had sometimes paddled with. A guy, with superior paddling skills to me, who when he heard I was entering the race, told me he couldn’t be bothered. The weather wasn’t good and he wanted to enjoy the morning in bed. He knew he wouldn’t be able to win or be anywhere close to the winner. He would probably finish last so what was the point? The very word ‘race’ totally turned him off he had told me. Everything he said could apply to me too. It would have been better to stay in bed. There was no point in starting this race knowing I had no chance of winning, more precisely knowing I was going to finish last. So why? These were the thoughts going through my head as we paddled past the marker signalling the turn back point for the shorter course. Sandra and I joked that this was it, we couldn’t turn back now. There would be no placed finish for me on a shorter course! It would be 14th position on the long course. In my head, and plain to see for anyone who looked at the results, it would be last position. I would be ‘that guy’!
Almost immediately I felt the pressure lift. So what? I was out exercising, doing what I love – kayaking – on a cold winter’s day, when many were still in bed or wouldn’t leave the house for the day. I was paddling alongside a good friend who I’ve shared many kayaking miles with. And I realised that I was having fun. And let’s face it: having fun in a race for a non-racer like me is good enough! I knew a few other paddlers at the race, having met them at previous races like the Ocean to City race or the previous year’s GIKR. I had always been struck by the camaraderie that existed among kayakers in Ireland. I was sharing a time and space on the water with people who enjoyed kayaking as much as I did. I wasn’t racing because for me it was never about the ‘race’. It was just doing it; completing the course; competing against the elements and also against myself; defeating the negative thoughts inside my head that told me to turn back, that there was no point. For me, that was like quitting. And I hate quitting. I knew my three kids would be waiting for me at the finish line. Do I set them the example of quitting when things got tough or seemed pointless? This was kayaking and I might not be a competitive kayaker but I love kayaking, and that morning as we approached Belvelly Bridge (not quite yet at the halfway point), I was in my element.
Jostling for position with Sandra as we headed for the arches under Belvelly bridge; engaging banter as she tried to cut me off (the pictures prove it!) and exchanging greetings with the race stewards above the bridge shouting encouragement, telling us we’re almost there! Yeah right! My mood was in stark contrast to the first few kilometres. My wrist was still sore but I had gotten used to it and it hadn’t gotten any worse. Number maybe, but not sorer! I would later learn I had torn the tendons in it, but at the time I considered it pain directly related to my lack of fitness. Knowing I was going to finish last, I needed a target: beating last year’s time seemed a reasonable enough goal and I was happy to aim for that.
As we paddled out from the shelter of the island of Cobh and into the shipping lane, the wind picked up and sea conditions got a little rougher, albeit not too rough. Before the race started, we had been told to get around as fast as we could before the weather was predicted to change for the worst! With a strong wind blowing, and keeping an eye on my time, it suddenly struck me that I probably wouldn’t beat my time from last year. Just great! Last position and not even beating last year’s time! My friend’s comment again floated around my head – ‘What was the point?’ Well the point at that stage was to finish. I was well past the halfway line and it was easier to finish! And besides, despite the cold wind on my hands, the swell hitting beam-side, my aching muscles and the odd negative thought, I was actually enjoying myself as I do every time I go out in my kayak.
I would later learn from another competitor, Lawrence Buckley how the race at the front progressed. Lawrence summed it up perfectly: “At the start, the first four racers took off and I spent the next 2 and a half hours chasing them!” The pace was hectic and the competition frantic. As they rounded the northeast tip of the island and into the sheltered section of the course, the leading pack of four – Ciaran Cooke, Don Healy and Tim O’Brien in sea kayaks and David Pringle in a racing ski – picked a careful line through the mudflats. Only a few boat lengths separated the four leaders as they passed under Belvelly Bridge, at around the 10km mark. Lawrence was in 5th position, three minutes behind at the halfway point. As the racers rounded White’s Point and the less sheltered waters of the harbour, the sea kayakers’ experience in the slight chop enabled them to eke out a slight lead. With Ciaran Cooke applying the pressure and dictating the pace, the top three matched each other stroke for stroke, breath by breath, and the race could have been won by any of them on their day. With 5km to go, Ciaran’s fitness began to tell and the group began to split: Ciaran in first, closely followed by Tim Healy. Ciaran crossed the finishing line first in a time of 2.15.43, followed only a few boat lengths behind by Tim. Don came in less than a minute behind the lead duo, with David finishing five minutes later. Lawrence crossed the line in fifth, 8 minutes off the leading time. The winner and podium competitors were presented with a beautifully carved wooden map of Cobh Island and the harbour area, specially made for this event by Alice Dooley.
While the celebrations began and presentations were being made to the winner, I was busy paddling along the waterfront of Cobh, oblivious to anything other than my own movement on the seas. Urging both my boat and my muscles to work harder, I ploughed on, as fast as I could, trying to keep alongside Sandra but racing nobody! As we approached the waterfront of Cobh, Sandra and I grabbed a quick snack from our deck bags and refuelled briefly before the paddling resumed again in earnest.
I was still managing to paddle alongside Sandra as we headed into the final 5km but if last year was anything to go on, I was expecting Sandra’s superior skills and experience to come into play in these rougher conditions and slowly begin to pull away. My expectations were soon realised. It didn’t matter – not really. I knew now that I was going to finish and that was good enough for me.
Rounding the eastern side of Cobh we headed into sheltered waters once more. The distant masts of sailboats in Marlogue harbour were a welcome sight and gave an added boost knowing the end was near and in sight. Sandra was only just in front and the fact I was last was now an irrelevance. I was welcomed home as usual by my wife and three girls, standing on the pier cheering me on. There were still a number of competitors about, most having changed into warm and dry clothes and enjoying a warm cup of tea or coffee and some biscuits, kindly served up to us by race organiser Niall Ó Crualaoich, his wife Jo and their kids. As I half-climbed, half-fell out of the boat, arms and shoulders sore and wrist numb, Niall was down to offer congratulations on finishing and with welcome offers of refreshments! My finishing time was 3hrs 30 minutes – about 6 minutes slower than my time from the previous year but were I to take an objective look, I think I ‘raced’ better this year. After all, the previous year I finished 23rd (joint 23rd at that!) while this year I finished 14th! That’s an improvement isn’t it?
Later that evening, I was at home and over dinner my 3 girls were asking me about the race.
“So where did you finish again Dad?”
“I was 14th”
“How many people were in the race?”
My eight year old twins, Beatrice & Mollie had the sense to stay quiet but I could see Dorothy, my five year old, thinking.
“So that means you came last?”
“Yeah it does.”
“So you came last?” Don’t sound so shocked girl!
“Yeah, but I finished the race and enjoyed myself.”
And so bring on next year’s GIKR! And finishing last again? Perhaps but I will be at the start line next year and I will enjoy myself! Because as I once read “finishing last certainly trumps ‘did not finish’ and always beats ‘did not start’.”
The Great Island Race could not take place without the organisational skills and commitment of Niall Ó Crualaoich, with the support of his family.
Thanks to this year’s sponsors Outside Magazine and Icon Thermals. Full race results, pictures and race details are available on the GIKR facebook page: www.facebook.com/GreatIslandKayakRace.