IT WAS SIX years ago that Duncan McKenzie first hopped onto a bike and set off on a 15 kilometre cycle to work that left him gasping for breath on arrival.
This September, the Scot will start working the pedals as he takes part in the 2,150-kilometre Race Around Ireland.
Taking time off from his day job at Kraft Foods (formerly Cadburys), McKenzie will hope to complete the gruelling endurance event in five and a half days.
Getting across the finish line, in Navan, is a feat that has alluded more than 60% of the race participants since 2010.
Perhaps that is the ‘genuine and heartfelt’ reason most people that hear of McKenzie’s fund-raising challenge for the Irish Hospice Foundation ask ‘Why?’
There are many possible answers, explains McKenzie, but none seem entirely honest or adequate.
He describes his cycling ability as ‘amateur’ and points out that his non-svelte physique means it will be a monumental success if he can finish the race.
McKenzie has lived in Ireland for eight years, ever since he was ‘reeled in by a lovely Irish lass’, so the scenery around the country’s coastline was not the major factor in signing up for the cycle. He added:
The race is non-stop day and night meaning half the time the only thing I will see is 30 yards of tarmac and, after day one of five and a half, I may forget my own name due to sleep deprivation.
The weather in September is unreliable even by Irish standards, in the last 2 years the race has been held in storm force winds and rain. In 2011 every outdoor event in the UK and Ireland planned for that week was cancelled except this event.
McKenzie is self-deprecating when it comes to his abilities as a cyclist but he was part of eight-men teams to capture group prizes at the 2010 and 2011 stagings of the event.
The team, Sunflower Pedal Power, also raised €16,600 for the IHF last year and McKenzie hopes to surpass that total this year.
Duncan McKenzie (far right) with his teammates in 2011.
McKenzie, his teammates and race crew, and the other competitors will sit on their bikes for over 20 hours a day for the best part of a week.
He explains that the sense of independence, fresh air and achieving a hypnotic focus are massive factors in his decision to sign up for another year but the ‘why factor’ goes deeper still.
The support crew
Just how does someone, whether it is an individual or a team member, set about planning for such an endurance event? McKenzie said:
To devise sleep and nutritional strategies, to put in place a strong support crew and the correct long term training plan to achieve the goal is engaging and rewarding.
In the same vein, trying to think of new and innovative ways to deal with sleep deprivation, physical recovery during the short periods of downtime and pain management for the host of chronic fatigue injuries that will accrue is fascinating and brings you face to face with the limits of the body.
Fig Rolls, coffee and a camper van: The 2011 support crew of the Sunflower Pedal Power team.
Nerve injuries, McKenzie adds, are likely in contact points such as hands, feet and rear, but training, and correct bike set-up and saddle selection can mitigate this.
There is also the threat of being struck down by Shermer’s Neck – an affliction specific to ultra-cycling, where the cyclist loses the ability to hold their head upright and can no longer look at the road ahead.
“In the event that a cyclist does suffer an attack of Shermer’s neck it is common to see them use a medical neck brace to keep the head at the correct angle to see the road,” says McKenzie.
Mind over body
Cyclist Joe Barr is a huge source of inspiration for McKenzie.
Barr won the RAI in 2009 and rode the second half of the race with a broken foot after being run over by one of his own support vehicles in the middle of the night.
He said, “Ultra cycling is an act of defiance in the face of physical limitations, an assertion of the power of the enduring mind over the transient physical body.”
McKenzie points out that the race demographic does seem to be a lot of men aged between 30 and 50. He remarked:
The looming inevitability of our own demise is a significant factor in middle-aged men wearing brightly coloured lycra, often neon, and racing over vast distances to confirm they are still very much alive.”
The good cause
The Irish Hospice Foundation is a national charity which promotes the hospice philosophy and is dedicated to ensuring equity of service at end of life. Part of this work includes supporting the voluntary hospice movement.
McKenzie believes the work the hospice movement does with people at end of life and their families is ‘surprisingly similar in structure to the team required to get an ultra cyclist around the country’. He said:
In place of a gruelling race with difficult conditions there is the exponentially greater challenge of negotiating a dignified path through the final months and weeks of life whilst battling chronic pain and harrowing emotional issues.
“The team of professionals delivering hospice care provide the strategies and tools for pain management and the emotional support and understanding that enable families and patients to reconcile the terrible tragedy of terminal disease with an appreciation of how precious our time together is.”
McKenzie and his team have raised money through collections and static cycles.
McKenzie adds, “The depth of appreciation for the work done by the hospice movement is apparent at every fundraising session we organise.
“The number of people who contribute and the amount they donate speaks huge volumes for the work that is done and the genuine gratitude and recognition people feel for it.”
* You can find out more about the event by checking out www.racearoundireland.com and the Irish Hospice Foundation’s Facebook page or by following @irishhospiceFR on Twitter.