A Friday night in Belfast and three busy mums are preparing for the weekend. The usual bustle of wrapping presents for weekend birthday parties is accompanied by the frantic packing for a scouting weekend. As well as this the ladies are putting together their own bags: cleats, cycling helmets, bananas and figs rolls, and Ibuprofen.
Fionnula Mann, Christine Nagle and Maura Corey have been pounding pavements together for six years. They have all run marathons and taken part in running competitions.
However, 10 weeks ago when Fionnula’s husband Simon suggested they try a different sort of challenge, the ladies hung up their trainers and climbed on their bikes to train for the Co-operation Ireland Belfast to Dublin Maracycle. The maracycle was a two-day event last Saturday and Sunday with more than 1,000 cyclists pedalling from Belfast to Dublin and returning along the same route the next day.
The trail took in Moira, Banbridge and Drogheda and finished at Dublin City University. In total the cyclists covered a distance of 216 miles, a mammoth challenge for the trio as none of them had any cycling experience.
Saturday, June 26
8am — We set off from Queen’s PEC in Belfast. It was a slow start as cyclists were waved off in groups of 100 to avoid crashes. The whole event was very well organised.
10am — Arrived at Banbridge for refuelling after 27.5 miles. The weather was warm but cloudy — thunder has been forecast but it didn't happen. There were more women at this race as a lot of cycling clubs were taking part. We had cups of tea with bananas and fig rolls.
12.20pm — 60 miles done as we arrived at Castlebellingham and the legs started to get sore. We stopped for lunch of Ibuprofen washed down by a sandwich and coffee. Very hot weather and I needed to have my tyres pumped up by a fellow competitor.
5pm — Finished at the Dublin City University campus. There was a delay at the university as we had to wait for a police escort to take us into the city.
We’re tired but glad that we finished. The last 20 miles of the route were utterly brutal as it was very hilly which meant it was simply exhausting. We managed to average a speed of 15 miles an hour which is exactly what we wanted to do so we finished the course in seven hours. We’re all dreading tomorrow but at least the hill part is at the beginning next time instead of the end.
There is dinner laid on at the hotel but we’re heading into town after a long hot shower for some pasta and a glass of wine before we do it all over again tomorrow.
Sunday, June 27
8am — There was a smaller number of people on the second day because some were only doing one way and others dropped out. We were given the same police escort to Dublin Airport then we were away.
9.30am — We had an early stop at Lisnea after 14 miles. It was just before the hills so we refuelled on fig rolls and Jammie Dodgers. The weather was nice again and we had a tailwind this time which helped.
12.30pm — We stopped for lunch at 40 miles but it was at the top of a hill so you had to work to get your food.
3.30pm — The last bit was really the worst for me but arriving at Banbridge meant the finishing line was nearly in sight.
5pm — Finish at Queen’s PEC. The same timings as the day before.
We’re all so proud of ourselves and feel a tremendous sense of achievement — we felt it even after the first day. I’m quite surprised I managed to do it and now that it's all over I think I would prefer to do that than run a marathon. We took ourselves for a cocktail on Stephen’s Green on Saturday night and kept going over what we had done. The second day was the hardest — psychologically — before we got going. I just kept thinking about those hills but I think because I was prepared for them the second time round they were easier.
Many people were pushing their bikes up the hills but we didn’t and we stuck to our average of 15 miles an hour.
I have to say I thought the whole event was very well organised and marshalled brilliantly by both the PSNI and the Garda. The roads were one of the things I was concerned about before the Maracycle. We were looked after very well though.
I found the camaraderie of the whole event was brilliant. We pulled over to get a drink of water at one stage and three of the motorbike escorts asked us if we were ok. The atmosphere of the whole event was fabulous — it was all about the taking part and not the end result. I still can't believe we did it.
Fionnula Mann (44) is a speech and language therapist. She lives in Belfast with her husband Simon and their three daughters. She says:
I've been a runner for years and I've trained for three marathons. I wasn't able to compete in two of them because of injury but I ran the Prague marathon in four hours and 10 minutes.
I was running until 10 weeks ago when my husband suggested I take part in the Belfast to Dublin maracycle. I brought it up with the other girls who I train with and we decided to have a go.
We're doing it for a number of different reasons. It was frustrating to not be able to take part in those two marathons and I think you want to challenge yourself as you get older.
Cycling is very different from running in a number of ways. For a start it takes a long time with a lot more effort to get results. A 45-minute run is a good way to expend a lot of energy but you need to be on a bike for a couple of hours to achieve the same results. You need more fuel too. We've been trying to eat balanced diets of carbohydrates and protein. Lots of porridge, bananas and fig rolls.
Cycling is also a lot more dangerous than running. When you run you tend to go down lanes or footpaths.
When you cycle on roads you're at the mercy of the traffic. The highway code says that drivers should treat cyclists as if they were a small car but that doesn't happen. Motorists don't give cyclists respect and it is risky.
You go much further on the bike and we've seen some beautiful countryside around Belfast that none of us knew was there. We don't get injured as easily either — although you can take a tumble off your bike every now and again.
It has been tough, though, because the training takes up more time. Each week I've been doing one long ride of about 60 miles and then two or three smaller ones. When your kids are asking you not to go out again that can be difficult!
We did the North Down Coastal race a couple of weeks ago, which was 60 miles. It was good but it was harder than I thought it would be. There was a noticeable lack of women at it. Maybe 10% of those taking part were female.
For me this will be a personal challenge — I’m a bit nervous about the whole thing!
Maura Corey (43) is a pharmacist. She lives in Belfast with her |husband Brian and their son and three daughters. She says:
I got talked into this by Fionnula Mann. I tried really hard not to do it — I even ignored her texts but she got me in the end. I think it was actually the challenge itself that persuaded me.
I had a bike — my husband bought it for me because he’s a cyclist too and has even done the maracycle a couple of times. I hadn’t really used it very much though. It was literally a case of the three of us getting on the bikes 10 weeks ago.
I found the training very difficult. I didn’t appreciate that starting to do a different kind of exercise would take so much out of me. I thought my legs would be stronger because of all the running — I managed to do the Paris marathon in just under four hours.
The other two had done a little bit of cycling before so it wasn’t quite as hard on them and I admit I did feel like giving up sometimes. I’m also the only one who works full-time so it hasn’t been as easy for me to find time to train.
Time has been the biggest issue because we need to do one big cycle every week. I think my youngest daughter will be glad when I don't have to train any more.
I’m fine now though — I got over all that. We did the North Down Coastal Challenge of 60 miles a couple of weeks ago and I thoroughly enjoyed it — particularly the first half although the roads got a bit busy in the second half.
We really got glorious weather though. There were 700 cyclists altogether so we got some really good support.
The camaraderie was great and we realised that doing this is much more about the competing than the actual competition. I’m not any fitter now — you get a sore rear end and sore thighs through cycling.
Finishing the maracycle will give a real sense of achievement.
Christine Nagle (45) is a housewife who lives in Belfast with her husband Michael and their five children. She says:
We are all runners. I ran the Paris marathon in three hours 59 minutes and then I injured my knee so I couldn't run as much as I had.
It was Fionnula who suggested we do the maracycle — we're all training partners anyway. I jumped at the chance because I liked the idea of the challenge and I thought that cycling might be a bit easier for me after injury. Either that or it's some kind of mid-life crisis!
The training has been tough because it is really time-consuming. Like every kind of training you have good days and bad days too. When the weather has been nice it's been great but I would much rather run in the rain than cycle in it.
The traffic and reduced viability on the roads can make it very difficult. It's taken a bit of getting used to but it has been fun. We've all fallen over at some point but luckily no-one's been injured. We were taking a break at one point and I bent down to answer the phone and just kept going. I like training with the girls and we've seen parts of Belfast I didn't even know existed.
I think the thing I’m least looking forward to is getting on the bike again the next day — it’s one thing to cycle 100 miles but it’s another thing to do it all over again the day after. I am looking forward to the craic though and the company.
I used to be a runner but now I think I’m both a runner and a cyclist.