AROUND about 5am on Friday, Gerard Callaghan cycled into Navan, Co Meath, and crossed the finish line in the Race Around Ireland.
He had been in the saddle, almost continuously, for 45 hours, some 600-odd kilmetres from the Ring of Kerry around the south-east and northwards to complete the 2,134km circuit.
Main photo caption: Mickey Russell gives his teammate on the Race Around Ireland, Gerard Callaghan, a quick rub-down during their eventful few days in the saddle
Forty-one-year-old Callaghan and his teammate for the event, Micky Russell, have been friends since childhood.
Callaghan still has a newspaper clipping from 1988 at home in Letterkenny with them racing in their teens with Tír Chonaill Wheelers – the name they used for last week’s event.
The Race Around Ireland can be undertaken as a solo run, or in two, four or eight-man teams. Callaghan and Russell were part of the two-man event that rolled out of Trim, Co Meath, on Sunday afternoon some 109 hours and 22 minutes beforehand.
“The plan was to take it on a relay basis from station to station,” Callaghan says. “That’s four hours at a time while the other man rests and eats. We went down then to two hours apiece. You might think you will have bother getting sleep in two hours but trust me, we managed it.”
The support van was provided by Callaghan’s father Jim, Wesley Moore, Mick McGarry and his partner Anne-Marie. Help had been given earlier in the week from John G McDaid from Glenswilly.
The route took the participants north to Antrim and then west, popping into Donegal on Monday before making their way south.
By the time Callaghan and Russell got the to the Ring of Kerry on Tuesday, an already daunting task looked even tougher. Russell has a history of Achilles’ trouble. And they flared up again. Both of them.
“There’s not much you can do without your Achilles and Mickey was in serious pain,” Callaghan said. “But we never thought once of not finishing. It might’ve been at the back of both our minds. But we didn’t talk about it. We still haven’t!
“I just told Mickey to rest as long as he could and I would cycle as long as I could. At that stage, the odds were stacked against us to be honest. I knew that I wouldn’t be back on this cycle so just thought ‘let’s go’. That was it – no fall-out, no debate.”
Russell would ride through the pain barrier; pitching in to relieve Callaghan – to eat – when he could.
But by Clonmel, Co Tipperary, it was down to one man.
“Mickey’s unreal,” Callaghan says of his teammate; the pair of whom were sponsored by LK Bikes. “It was inspiring to be along with him. At one stage his Achilles were so bad he heard a crack. I told him there was no point in wreaking himself over a cycling event but his attitude made me ever more determined we would do this. He never once said ‘no.’
“I pretty much took it then from Clonmel onto Navan. I actually started to enjoy it. I had posted a Facebook message to explain how we were going and the support there was astonishing.
“At one stage beforehand in Cork, I could see a car up at the top of a hill as I approached it and there was a women there with children. It was Sylvia Robinson from Letterkenny, who had some out to support us.”
Callaghan was in the saddle, by and large, from Tuesday evening till Friday morning. Having twice completed ‘The Race’ – Ireland’s only 24-hour endurance event, which covers 240km whether running, cycling, kayaking and mountain climbing in Donegal in early March, he knew about the long nights.
“There were doubts creeping in around Waterford,” he adds. “I got a message from Sean McFadden at one stage – he had completed the event with Team Donegal Oil. I was in the back of the van reading this message and it was poignant. Heartfelt. I was trying to hold it together. There was still over 200 miles to go home.
“Arthur McMahon, who was with Sean and had completed the event on Wednesday night, was reading messages of support to me. They were, literally, coming from all over the world. We had to do this”
Although his heart kept beating and his mind stayed strong, it was a bleak couple of days.
Turning north towards Navan meant a nighttime trek through the Wicklow mountains with only the dimly lit lights of the support van – and a few encouraging voices – for company. It was damp and slow.
“It felt like Everset,” Callaghan adds. “I didn’t know there were mountains so steep in Ireland. But the spirits were still high. The idea at the start of this for me and Mickey was to get around the course and to use or strength and determination to do so. Things weren’t going as we had planned but we still had that strength and determination.”
Mickey Russell and Gerard Callaghan at the finish line of the Race Around Ireland at Navan, Co Meath, on Friday morning
After his last proper night’s sleep, at home in Letterkenny the previous Saturday, Callaghan had calculated he would be home in time to get his three boys – Jamie (11), Rory (9) and Aaron (7) – from school on Friday evening.
By the time he got to Navan, that probably wasn’t going to happen but there was a surprise in store as his wife Jackie, mother Kay and three boys were waiting for him at the finish-line having left Letterkenny at midnight with a friend, Brian McFadden, to see their husband, son and father home.
“I got to see them one way or the other,” Callaghan says from home after his first night of proper sleep in the best part of the week.
“It was a brilliant few days but I was glad to get home. My phone and everything, well I’m not sure where it is. It’s probably lying in the support van so I must get my hands on it to see how Micky is. He’s some man. At least now we can say that’s the Race Around Ireland ticked off the list.
“When we were given the medal for completing the event we were told by the event organisers that they were reward for what we’d done. It certainly was that!”