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A Royal Adventure: Swim, Bike, Run!

Update: Since I originally posted this Declan put up a great short film about his day which can be viewed here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rX2AmcFT92Y&list=LL

If there is one thing I like to highlight on this website more than any other, it is that the Royal Canal is an amazing amenity for all to use. I am hardly the first to highlight this. The Royal Canal Amenity Group has been working hard since 1974 to restore the canal as a working navigation, a goal successfully achieved in 2010. Waterways Ireland and Athletics Ireland are working hand in hand to promote the vast distance of towpaths on Ireland’s inland navigations as the perfect place for getting active, not only to improve physical health but also mental health.

As I type this Frank Greally, former editor of Irish Runner and the Irish Junior 10,000m Junior Record holder since 1970 is currently undertaking his Gratitude Walk from Ballyhaunis to the Coombe Hospital via the Royal Canal. The National Famine Museum has established the National Famine Way along the route of the canal to highlight the plight of the 1490 emigrants that walked the canal banks to Dublin before being shipped off to Canada.

National Famine Way Shoe Memorial at the 45th Lock

Now Leixlip man Declan Kenny has added his name to the list of those doing something different to highlight the importance of the Royal Canal as a place to enjoy, travel, inspire and even to a point, endure. Do yourself a favour, put on a brew and sit down to enjoy his account of the day here.

With the dark cloud of Covid hanging overhead, Declan, a runner and triathlete among other things had been training for the Gaelforce West adventure race. Sadly with Gaelforce cancelled Declan looked for another way to channel his energy and make use of his training, and so it was, he decided he would make a triathlon event for himself along the Royal Canal.

He couldn’t ask for a more perfect venue, a basin of water some 146km long, a Greenway where cycling has become the perfect escape for many this year and a decent multi-terrain path to challenge even the most seasoned runner. Starting in Richmond Harbour where the Royal meets the Shannon, Declan decided he was going to swim the 2.7km distance to Begnagh Bridge, before transitioning onto his bike for the 117km cycle to Maynooth Harbour and then covering the last 27km to the Liffey by foot.

So with an idea in his head, Declan went about forming a plan and in mid-August I received a message asking if I had any tips for running the canal. Before long conversation struck up and I quickly realised I was dealing with an individual of a similar breed as myself. I doubt many will argue that it takes a certain level of crazy to tackle the Royal Canal in one day, it takes that level of crazy with interest to take on and more importantly finish the Connemara 100, a feat Declan completed in 2019.

Finding out that he was only one town over from me was the added bonus and so I made my brain available for picking, answering every relevant question he asked and pumping him with superfluous stories about the Royal Canal and my own experiences as well.

Not long after Declan had assembled his crew, Saturday the 12th of September 2020 was the date set for the adventure. He would aim to start swimming close to sunrise and to finish at the Liffey before sunset, well before sunset as it happens.

Most of my guide posts for the Royal Canal have been composed over the Spring and Summer of 2020 during the Covid restrictions meaning that while I had the text content for the posts, sometimes restrictions meant I didn’t have the photo content I like to include, especially for the more westerly sections of the canal. This was the perfect opportunity to pack the bike, drive out, take some photos and also join Declan for a few stretches as he cycled east. So as he was jumping into the water at Richmond Harbour at 7:15 am, I was leaving Mosstown Harbour giving me what I reckoned was about 90 minutes to get my photos between Keenagh and the 45th Lock before joining him for the spin back as far as my car when he transitioned onto the bike.

Sunrise over Mosstown Harbour

I didn’t hold back as I cycled into a brisk headwind west, stopping at several points where I needed to grab a quick snap and at about 8:10 I reached Begnagh Bridge where I passed Austin who was crewing for the day sitting in his car, the bike ready on the back. This surprised me for a minute as I had expected to see him out walking along the bank as Declan was swimming. I carried on past the car as I still needed to get several more pictures up to the 45th Lock. As I rounded the corner only a short distance from the bridge I got my next surprise, there was Declan in the water, powering along like Michael Phelps, well ahead of where I expected him to be and alongside him was Austin’s son James paddling in a canoe. Well that explained the roof rack on Austin’s car and why he was there instead.

Declan powering towards Begnagh Bridge with James following

James, who had meant to be taking part in the Liffey Descent that morning, had, like many of us fell victim to events being cancelled by Covid restrictions and as such was now available to crew. Seeing Declan so close to his transition caused me to do some quick thinking. I had a few photos I wanted to get a few hundred meters up at the Bord Na Moná Railway Lifting Bridge and the 45th Lock, but more importantly this was Declan’s day, I couldn’t afford to delay his progress waiting around for me. So it was either pull out my best Sam Bennett impression, sprint up to take the photos and hope I made it back in time or turn on my wheels now. I took my chance, inspired by Declan’s already impressive speed in the water and headed flat out for the 45th Lock.

45th Lock looking towards Cloondara

I got my photos and got back to Begnagh Bridge just in time to see Declan get out of the water. He managed to cover his swim leg around 1 hour and 5 minutes, a fair bit quicker than the estimates he gave me. All looked well as he got out of the water, it certainly didn’t seem to phase him, albeit Austin mentioning he did let out a few interesting sounds on getting into the water at the start.

Coming out of the water at Begnagh Bridge

The lads lifted the canoe out of the water as Declan ditched the wet suit and got his gear ready for the cycle. Water bottles, runners and bag all donned, go-pro ready, we set off across the road and onto the Greenway heading east. I heard mention during transition that Austin and James were thinking of heading to McDonald’s in Longford on their way to their next meeting point in Ballinea just west of Mullingar. I don’t know if they followed up on it but it planted a seed in my mind for later.

We had just set off at a good pace and were probably just over 1km in when we realised the go-pro was left on the roof of the car. I had my phone in an accessible pocket so was able to ring Austin quickly to confirm they had it and hadn’t accidentally drove off without it (something I’ve done myself with a phone) as so we proceeded east.

It didn’t take us long to fly up the levels passing Killashee, the Longford Branch, the Lyneen Bridges and on towards where my car was parked outside Keenagh at Mosstown Harbour, the first 11.5k covered in half an hour, a reasonable warm up. When we got to Mosstown I directed Declan across Island Bridge to the other side of the canal which he would stay on until I met him again 18.5km on at Webb Bridge in Abbeyshrule.

I now had my own little race on, to make sure I got to Abbeyshrule and ready before Declan. The cycle along the canal between Keenagh and Abbeyshrule is a lovely stretch that meanders through the countryside and runs close to the River Inny as it approaches Abbeyshrule. The road however heads south to Lanesborough before heading east through Ballymahon finally turning north again back to the canal, all the while still managing to cross the canal twice in the process.

Of course when I arrived at the car park at Mosstown Harbour as the sun was rising, the total population of area was myself and a heron spying me suspiciously while it fished for its breakfast. Now however a local cycling club was leading its ride out along the Greenway (good on them) from the harbour car park where of course my car was buried in the corner behind all the support vehicles. Now I’m a walker, a runner, a cyclist and a driver so life has thought me that I should be patient and attentive to all. Of course the reality is that as I transitioned from cyclists in the midst of other cyclists, stowed my wheels and sat in the drivers seat, the impatience also set in and I wanted to get moving. Thankfully I kept my smile as the group headed off and the support vehicles made way. I emerged out onto the boggy roads, Scooter turned up loud and made my way to my next starting point.

By the time I reached Abbeyshrule it was starting to turn into a cracking day. I parked across from the Rustic Inn where I myself had stopped for my main meal the day I ran in the opposite direction. The staff were out hanging bunting and I later found out that both the local minor and senior women’s football teams were playing in their respective county finals over the weekend. I had made it with enough time that I was able to head out west as far as the 39th Lock before meeting Declan coming towards me.

We sailed up past Webb Bridge and down onto the recently completed Greenway section on the north bank and proceeded up past Scally’s Bridge. It cannot be denied that I have a story or at least an opinion about every bridge, lock and lock house along the canal and that’s what my website is for so I wasn’t going to be pulling up the man on a mission to point out every curiosity we past but nonetheless the impressive Whitworth Aqueduct was one place I couldn’t resist to point out. Declan humoured me as he took on some fuel and stopped to read an information sign I pointed out to him before the aqueduct before I proceed to point out the same information engraved by the masons who built the aqueduct at the middle of the crossing.

The engraving on Whitworth Aqueduct detailing the construction of the Royal Canal extension from Coolnahay to Cloondara

I doubt that Declan was aware that some of my friends refer to me as the Family Guy character Buzz Killington who can take the good humour out of any situation by spinning a yarn about a bridge.

Moments late we were back on the peddles and across the county line into Westmeath and the wild open plains of Ballynacarrow Bog. Even on a good day the wind can whip you around on this exposed area above the bog. It wasn’t long before we were climbing up the 38th, 37th and 36th Locks and came to the village of Ballynacargy.

This picturesque little village would mark my turning point back, a mere 8.6km from Abbeyshrule, but already this morning Declan had covered 42km and was well on his way. He had another direct run as far as Ballinea, 12.5km on where Austin and his son had a sandwich waiting. Again my mind wondering had they managed to make it to McDonald’s in Longford. I wished Declan well, saying I would catch him again in Maynooth when he transitioned to his run and spun on my wheel to get back to Abbeyshrule, taking the last of the photos I needed as I went.

The 36th Lock, cottage and bridge as I returned back to the car

I am first and foremost a runner. Buying a bike was originally a flight of fancy subsidised by the cycle to work scheme. For the majority of its life it has sat in my garage, unloved with a lawn mover and half inflated kayak for company. However this summer, with a persistent niggle (probably a stress fracture) in my lower legs, the bike has become a closer companion. Initially I was using it to “keep up my cardio” but the reality is I am really getting to enjoy my time on the bike and as I headed back west I was lamenting I wasn’t pushing on further east with Declan, enjoying the day as I was.

I made it back to the car with a definite plan in my mind! Supermacs. If the lads had their McDonald’s I was going to have my Supermacs, with curry chips. The is a Supermacs in Ballinalack just west of Mullingar and I’d be there in 20 minutes. Perfect. My mouth was watering at the thought of a Mightymac and cool refreshing diet coke as I drove past Edgeworthstown, having done feic all to earn it while Declan was making do with a sandwich for all his efforts. I pulled into the forecourt to see the garage is building a large extension. No bother, good to see that it is busy. Park up, a scan of the watch. It’s nearly 12, surely they’ll be open by now and if not I have plenty of time to wait til 12 and still make it back to Maynooth. I walk in and there was the sucker punch to my salivating taste buds. Open at 2pm. Sigh. So like any normal Irish person before 12pm on a Saturday morning, I settled with a breakfast roll, 2 sausages, 2 rashers, 2 eggs, a bit of butter and red sauce and went outside to eat it at a socially distanced picnic bench. Normally the food of the gods, all I had was the taste of disappointment. Back in the car, I headed for home.

Coming through Mullingar I realised I hadn’t lost much time with my diversion for food. There was a good chance I might actually catch Declan at Mary Lynch’s pub and see how he was getting on. I pulled off the M4 and parked up by the access to the Blueway (the paddlers version of a Greenway). I thought I’d have plenty of time to read a few tweets, catch up on some news, play some Boom Beach… but no, I was only parked two minutes and here come two bikes flying towards me. Just over 4 and a half hours in, the first of which was in the water and he was already half way done. James had hopped on his bike at Ballinea and joined Declan for the 40km as far as Furey’s in Moyvalley. They both flew up past me in good spirits before dropping back down under the M4 over-pass towards the Killucan flight of Locks. Sure it’s all down hill to Dublin from there. With that I was back in the car and heading for home in Maynooth.

I made it home a little after 1, unpacked the bike, got out of the bib shorts and prepped some running gear. Sure I’d see how far I could manage, I hadn’t run in at least 6 weeks but when you see an inspirational endurance enthusiast going you can’t help but want to join in. My plan was to make it as far as Leixlip where I knew Declan had more crew ready to join him for his run into town. If I could make it to a train station a few stops further in, sure that was a bonus.

At the pace Declan was moving all morning I reckoned he could be in Maynooth as early as 2:15 so with the warm weather that was, my wife and I headed down to the harbour to relax with the swans while we waited for him. Of course what good is a day if something doesn’t go a little askew, you always need a story to tell and so it was 2:45 when Declan arrived to Maynooth. The story? Well you’ll need to read his blog to find out that.

Austin and James had stopped in Furey’s for lunch, a point I am only now realising that I’m slightly jealous of, they certainly had the good food options on the day. They then made the journey to Maynooth to collect the bike as Declan transitioned to the run. At 14:50, with 120km done, I joined in again for the 27k run to the Sea Lock at the Liffey.

We took off at a strong pace, something I was a little cautious of because I didn’t want to be setting a pace that might cause Declan to blow up (ha!) but also because I hadn’t run in several weeks myself. Conversation was easy though and both of us seemed comfortable. It took us just over the half hour to arrive at Louisa Bridge where we were expecting Des to join us. Des has paced the Dublin Marathon several times and is an experienced distance runner, the ideal person you want at your side in the last section of a long day. Like to my surprise earlier, Declan was moving quicker than Des was expecting too and so we got to take a 5 minute break at Louisa Bridge as Des darted down from home to join us.

I did have enough sense to bring two gels with me for fuel but I think I even confused Declan by the fact I was wearing a camelbak and yet brought no water. Sure I wasn’t expecting to go far. We passed the boathouse of the Royal Canal Amenity Group where several Heritage Boats including 4E, 92E and 118B were tied up and I took a gel. Banter was easier between three as we ran some of the more grassy trails into Clonsilla and not long after down into the Deep Sinking itself.

Earlier in the day we saw a pleasure craft passing us in the opposite direction and I lamented that despite my best intentions I still hadn’t booked a trip with local skipper Jenny Wren of Royal Canal Boat Trips to see the canal at a relaxed pace on the water.

Jenny and her barge passing swans with cygnets near Maynooth

Sure as eggs are eggs, as we crossed over Keenan Bridge near Porterstown there was Jenny’s boat below us in the Deep Sinking making her way to Castleknock with guests on board. We took the opportunity to take a short walk break and I took my last gel before we steamed on ahead, the true canal life is never in a hurry.

We emerged at Castleknock and we only had the smooth 10k left to the finish. My quads were getting loud and annoying at this stage but given that it was my shins that I was expecting to fail I wasn’t going to stop for a train now, especially when Declan had come so much further.

We ran on into Ashtown and under Hamilton Bridge, Des now taking on to point out the local landmarks. Sadly I was starting to struggle. Simply put, I didn’t have enough fuel. Maybe if I had a Supermacs and not a breakfast roll I would have been more comfortable, maybe if I had been sensible and had brought some fluids I would have been better off. As much I could moan internally I certainly wasn’t going to voice it in current company. I found it comfortable for a while to take a walk break and then make a run to catch up. I did this several times. Alas as we passed under the mighty Croke Park the body said enough. It was time to let the boys push on.

Des glanced back at me as we reached the new linear park at Newcomen Bridge and I waved on that all was ok. This was Declan’s day and that sub 11 was looming large. I could only smile as the two extended their distance away from me. A pleasure in knowing someone else who now knew the joy of completing the distance in one go.

As I passed the Luke Kelly statue I made one last effort to run but the body said no. I bumped elbows with the boys as they walked back past me in triumph after finishing, but I wasn’t going to stop til I made it to the Liffey.

Bikes and canoe deposited, James dropped off, Austin graciously came into town to collect us and was only 200m from the finish ready to bring us home.

Declan after completing his epic Royal Adventure

I may not have had water but I did have my hip flask. Declan took a swig in celebration of his finish, before I drank the rest to take the edge off what the legs were feeling. We didn’t waste time and soon we were back in Leixlip.

It was another fantastic day out on the Royal Canal for me in the company of great like minded people. I am very thankful to have been part of the day and hope Declan remembers it with the same level of fondness as I do my own adventure. It certainly shows that it is a viable event for those who want to do it, it doesn’t matter your skill set, be you focused on a single discipline or have a love for several, the Royal Canal is accessible for all.

A toast to the man who made a Triathlon of the Royal Canal

Declan’s account of the day, A Right Royal Triathlon is well worth the read on his website unironedman.com

By royalcanalrunner

Ultra Distance Runner and Royal Canal Enthusiast.

One reply on “A Royal Adventure: Swim, Bike, Run!”

Well it seems only right that I would be the first to like the blog post 😉

I have no truck with any of that, except the bit where I was allegedly ‘powering along like Michael Phelps’. No. Can’t be havin’ that! Though it is said that a pilot’s motto is ‘make the number of landings equal the number of take-offs’, and I apply that to swimming, and on that score, once I was out of the canal, I was happy enough.

It was a pleasure to have you alongside for much of the journey. You were hugely generous with your time and knowledge, and perhaps one day I can return the favour in some fashion. Thanks doesn’t cover it.

Keep on truckin’!

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