“You’ve done this before,” our guide Enda says, obviously surprised to see that I’ve caught up so quickly.
I feel a sense of pride, though I know I probably shouldn’t. The water is smooth, the group is slow, and I’ve got enough muscle memory to remember how to use a paddle, even if it’s been five or ten years. The kayaking guides of outfitter Irish Adventures are simply accustomed to pure beginners. But this is exhilarating, the feeling of floating on the water, so like flying. I realize that my satisfaction in the activity is not all that different from what I’ve felt for bike racing—a sport that has been my passion for the past five or six years and part-career through the 2015 season—or the idea of travel as a whole: it reflects my deep-seated need to always be moving, to be hurtling forward in whatever arbitrary direction, and not only that, but to do something that other people can’t or won’t…and, of course, to do it better. There’s perhaps something wrong with me, in that competition is at the heart of nearly everything, especially if I think I have reason to be good at it. A big motivator is my rather combative streak of feminism: a quest to raise expectations that always seem to be set too low.
Enda points out historical structures along the cliffs. We explore narrow sea caves, where starfish cling to rocks in the dim green light. One of our group falls out of the boat in the rolling waves near the mouth of the harbor but manages to pull himself back in without too much trouble (we’re wearing wetsuits). We look for Fungie, a friendly solo dolphin who’s frequented the area since 1984 and has become a regular tourist attraction, but he fails to make an appearance. Dingle’s intensely green, sloping hills and the cold, clear salt water are very different from Austin’s end-of-summer brown and boiling heat, and I find myself falling in love with Ireland and this unique slice of County Kerry for its beauty and its ancient history and its opportunity for adventure and, yes, even its inexplicably eccentric, people-loving porpoises.
Dingle Adventure Race—what was it, when was it, how many people participated, and if they got many international competitors. He’d smiled and asked me if it was something I was considering. I answered with an immediate, rather guilty, “No.” It was August, and it had only been about a month since I’d hung up my bike helmet, body and mind burned to a cinder after one pro season. I wanted a sane life. I wanted to be a good mom and a better writer and a normal person who didn’t train for nine hours on the weekends. And yet…
The Dingle Adventure Race seemed awfully inviting. DAR is a bike, hike/mountain run, road run, and kayak—the annual adventure race takes place on June 11 in 2016, with three course options of a Full, Sport, and Mini. For the Full, the road cycling portion is 25K (elevation gain 480 meters), followed by the hike/mountain run of 10K (elevation gain 950 meters) and a 10.5K road run, and ending with a 2K paddle by kayak and a 0.75K sprint on land to the finish line. It’s not one of those race courses that repeats a dozen circles on top of itself but is actually one very large loop of the peninsula, and the two shorter courses take a significantly different route, those going directly west versus north. Another big plus, at least for a sink-like-a-stone person like me, is the fact that it’s a multisport race without a swim leg.
A kayaking guide on a trip later in the week at inland salt lake Lough Hyne would tell me that in the past most Irish people didn’t learn how to swim, even the fishermen; it was thought better in the cold water to just get it over with and drown quickly. I have to say that after taking a very brief dip in Lough Hyne, which was my first full-body ice bath, I can appreciate their logic. That said, the elderly Irish lady who got in the water the same time as me, saying it was warmer than she expected, outlasted me by a factor of about 10,000, smiling all the while, so I’m not certain how truthful the guide’s the-Irish-don’t-swim myth was.
In 2015, the male winner of the DAR full course finished in 2 hours 43 minutes with the next two competitors roughly one minute and two minutes behind, and the female winner finished in 3 hours 40 minutes with a six-minute lead.
Given the club names, the DAR results list appears to be overwhelmingly Irish, and to be honest, I’m not sure if I’m sharing a closely guarded national secret. Dingle itself, however, is a tourist magnet for both Irish and international visitors—the population is roughly 2,000, but the town has 50-something pubs, and the Dingle Peninsula is referred to as “the jewel in the crown of the Wild Atlantic Way.” At the beginning of my eight-day trip with Vagabond Tours, we used our accommodations in Dingle (Emlagh House) as a jumping-off point for stand-up paddle boarding in Castlegregory, golf, historical sites like Gallarus and Kilmalkedar, the dramatic seaside cliffs of Slea Head, some incredible hiking and beach lounging near Annascaul, and a distillery tour. I had a lovely eggplant entrée at restaurant An Canteen. I also enjoyed the fact that Dingle is a true Gaeltacht region, or enclave of Gaelic speakers. Never mind that I can’t parse a single syllable out of it, it’s enchanting to hear.
Dingle is a good place for endurance training, as well. I had no bike to try the road routes, but I went for a run along a bluff trail that bordered the harbor. There’s something about running along the water, especially a cold-water ocean like Ireland’s with all its rocks and innate moodiness, that I love. I ran there late one evening and then again first thing the next morning. I stopped by the 19-century tower near the harbor’s entrance, peering around and inside. I walked cautiously through a pasture heavily populated with cows that didn’t seem to want to budge from the path, asking them in an exceedingly peaceable tone to please not chase me off the cliffs because, honest to God, I was a 15-or-so-year veteran vegetarian. Though I was imagining the terrible irony of any incident and the Irish newspaper headlines that would result (“Daft Texan Trampled by Cattle”), I successfully managed to get past them to reach the red-and-white lighthouse and the bend of the trail, where I ran a short way along the open sea. Seagulls swooped around me, and I noted that even they seemed to have a different sound, an Irish accent of sorts. As clumsy and exhausting as it was after several years of strictly cycling, running there felt like an expression of pure joy.
I’d come to Ireland on a trip with Vagabond Tours to write an article for lifestyle magazine Prime Living, which will be published in the 2016 March/April issue. These sporadic press trips are the best part of my professional life, a top-shelf reward for otherwise being a semi-starving artist back home. Though technically work, the experiences bring out the best in me. I think that in traveling and going to see things, we’re really going to visit a part of ourselves that we only let out to play an odd week or two during the year; we are free to be indulgent observers, seekers of unscripted adventure, to be completely and unabashedly at play.
For me, an unintended consequence of these exotic excursions is often a swing back in the “wrong” direction. In late 2014, surrounded by the myriad bikes of Copenhagen and a few weeks later the beautiful trails and roads of Monterey, California, that November I’d put all my chips back onto the table and joined a domestic pro road cycling team for the next year, breaking the firm promise to myself that I was done with competition. Now I have this new unsettling set of ideas from my experience in Ireland, the tantalizing prospect of adventure racing, or maybe pure kayaking, or maybe multisport again, or maybe mountain biking, or maybe…you see what I mean.
I’m no longer ruling out the Dingle Adventure Race as a possibility, some day. I do very much want to return to Dingle, if only just to wander through it again. I may even have promised as much to those cows when I was bargaining for my life—tourist dollars, you know. And besides, I still have to meet Fungie.