Kate's Ireland Ride
“I want to cycle from Bristol to Morocco” I emailed my cardiologist at the Bristol Heart Institute. I asked for her blessing and assumed naively that I would get it. Her short reply came quickly ‘I suspect you will do it anyway, but this is classed as an endurance sport and I’m not sure a great idea for your heart…”. It wasn’t the response that I had wanted or expected. Cycling has been something I have grown to love. I regularly commute by bike and have done some smaller four and five day tours. I have devoured books about people cycling the world, watched videos of intrepid travellers pedalling through dirt tracks in Mongolia and trudging up never ending hills in the Andes. My own touring dream developed slowly. In this dreaming I choose not to think about my heart condition as a limiting factor. What I knew for sure was that I wanted to complete a long solo ride and raise money for the Somerville Foundation.
I was born with Tetralogy of Fallot. A condition that causes, among other things, narrowing of the pulmonary valve and a hole between the ventricles. Until my operation I was a blue baby and my ability to run and play was hugely reduced. My parents remember me huffing and puffing up the stairs and passing out in my food. After the operation I grew exponentially and, other than some restrictions, I exercised without issue. Now as a 40 year old, I am mainly fit and well, but there are some ongoing issues. My pulmonary valve leaks, I have some rhythm issues when my heart rate is raised and the right side of my heart is enlarged. I will need open heart surgery again in the future to replace my pulmonary valve and may need a pacemaker.
After the initial disappointment I booked an appointment to see a cardiologist who is a specialist in exercise. I came armed with a list of questions, a recording device and my partner. The cardiologist, although cautious, was more positive about my ability to do a ride. Exercise, he told me, was vital for the health of my heart, but doing too much could be detrimental. He suggested that I increase my weekly levels of physical activity and also arranged for an exercise tolerance test in clinic. He wanted to understand the risks and impact that a ride like this would have on my heart. He also suggested a shorter ride than Bristol to Morocco to test the waters. I joined the gym, bought a heart monitor and kept records of what I was doing.
Based on these discussions, and subsequent tests, my dream of a ride from the most Southerly to most Northerly points of Ireland was born. I began to plot my route with my heart condition and my cardiologist’s advice in mind. I decided to do 40 miles a day with 2 days rest per week. At these levels it would take me over 3 weeks to complete. For some perspective on the relative gentleness of my planning, the fastest time recorded to do this route is a staggering 19 hours! However, most people do it in about a week. Four months later I returned to the heart clinic and my cardiologist gave me the green light, whilst being clear about the potential risks.
On June 11th 2016 I set out for Ireland. The journey to the start of my ride at Mizen Head took me over 36 hours and included several trains, a ferry, a bus and an 11 mile cycle ride. During this time I experienced waves of fear and doubt about my ability to finish and I wondered about the challenges I would meet. Finally, standing at Mizen Head with the trip stretching out ahead of me, I felt a surge of excitement and freedom. I was on my way.
The ride was an incredible experience. Ireland is beautiful. I rode mainly on quiet country roads and passed by dark brooding mountains, turquoise blue seas, jagged coastline and empty peaty moorland. The Irish people were incredibly welcoming and friendly. Even the car drivers and farmers in their huge tractors waved and beeped as they passed me by.
I rode up through counties Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal. One of the highlights of my trip was the Connemara coastline, with its white sandy beaches, and inlets like crooked fingers that run between towns and roads. Donegal was wild and empty. Here the Derryveagh mountains took me on winding, hilly roads. I slowly pedalled past tiny hamlets containing white wash walled houses with bright red doors, past Mount Errigal with its scaly pinky grey quartzite rock, and out onto moorland vast and remote. I drank tea and ate hearty Irish breakfasts in small towns with brightly painted shop fronts and a surplus supply of pubs. I stayed in hostels with eccentric owners and views out to sea, where there were rumours of dolphin and basking shark sightings. I met friendly locals who asked about my ride, the referendum and told me stories about their lives and the local area. I passed curious cows and mournful donkeys. I pedalled through rain and hail and dried out under a gentle sun and a warm breeze. I marvelled at piles of cut peat drying and ready for peoples fires. My careful route planning took me on quiet roads where possible, occasionally up incredibly steep hills, down pitted and flooded tracks and where necessary fast and scary roads.
After cycling 40 miles I was often weary at the end of the day. On my days off I would spend most of my time eating and resting, rather than the sightseeing I had envisioned. For most of the trip my heart condition didn’t affect me significantly. I think this was mainly because I had planned the ride carefully to take account of my limitations. However, I had to be careful not to let my heart rate go above 140bpm or I can go into 2:1 block. This basically means that my heart starts missing beats. I try and prevent this by using a heart rate monitor and using low gears when tackling hills so that I can pedal slowly. On my ride there were several significant hills where I could not keep my heart rate low, so I had to stop cycling, get off and push. When pushing my bicycle raised my heart rate again to just below 140bpm, I stopped altogether to let it reduce, before repeating the process. On these big hills, getting to the top was very slow. During the last few days of the ride, 2:1 block began happening at lower heart rates and this made even small hills harder to manage.
Arriving in Malin Head, the most Northerly point of Ireland, was a surreal experience. I could see the tower that marks the tip of the headland from a distance long before I actually arrived. There was a steep hill, that fittingly I had to push my bike all the way up. At the top I took pictures and didn’t know what to do with myself, until slowly the excitement of what I had achieved filtered through.
The entire journey took me 23 days, consisting of 18 cycling days and 5 rest days. I rode 704 miles, climbed 13350 metres, travelled at a maximum speed of a 35.1 mph and reached a maximum elevation of 314 metres. I stayed in 7 hostels, 6 campsites, 2 B&Bs, 2 Air B&Bs, 1 Warm Showers host and with one surrogate grandma. I took 8 trains, 6 ferries and one bus. I had one puncture and two minor roadside repairs. To date I have raised a little over £1195 for the Somerville Foundation.
Raising money for the Somerville Foundation was an important part of this trip. The charity has been instrumental in helping me understand my condition and put me touch with a fantastic community of other GUCHs. It was great to be able to give something back. For myself, I learnt a huge amount. Mainly about how to look after myself and what I am capable of achieving. I think the success of my ride rests with the fact that I put my heart condition at the centre of it. I rode not to battle or overcome my heart condition but to work within my capabilities. Accepting my limitations and doing this ride in a safe way allowed me to realise my cycle touring dream.
To read more about my trip please see my blog at https://katesirelandride.wordpress.com/
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