ROWAN McMahon takes great pleasure in stretching athletes to breaking point with the most difficult endurance challenges you’re likely to find on the island of Ireland, writes Graeme Cousins.
Next weekend the Portadown man will be testing the mental and physical capabilities of runners and cyclists with two mammoth 100K cross country races through the wilds of Fermanagh.
Rowan and his business partner Ian Cumming run 26 Extreme, an event organisation company based in Church Street in the town.
The company has been organising a number of ultra marathons since its formation in 2009 including the Mourne Way Marathon, Causeway Coast Marathon and the Lakeland Warrior event which takes place in Fermanagh next weekend (August 25 and 26).
Rowan (37), a former pupil of St John The Baptist Primary School and St Patrick’s Grammar School, Armagh, said, “People think ultra runners and adventure racers are mad, but unless you’ve been involved you’ll not get it. There’s something very liberating about enduring a physical and mental challenge set against a backdrop of amazing scenery.”
He continued, “At 26 Extreme we put on ultra marathon style challenges for endurance runners and cyclists as well as other races suited to different abilities.
“An ultra marathon isn’t like the marathons you see on TV. We’re not here to hold their hand through the race.
“Whilst there are many participants who still race a marathon hard in order to break the elusive three-hour barrier, many marathons have become a little like a fancy dress parade. The people who take part in ultra races want to get away from that and push themselves further than the normal 26.2 miles.
“I suppose in years gone past people looked at a marathon and saw it as difficult because that’s all there was, but now these events are cropping up to really test people.
“Marathons have been downgraded. An awful lot of people are looking to get away from running on roads through towns, past people and traffic. At an event like Lakeland Warrior in Fermanagh they mightn’t see any signs of life for six or seven hours.”
Three running events will take place as part of Lakeland Warrior on Saturday, August 25: a 27K race, a 50K race plus the showpiece event – the 100K race.
Rowan, who is a partner in McMahon & Co accountancy firm as well as running 26 Extreme, explained, “The 100K race was the first one ever of its nature in Northern Ireland. Up to last year there was no 100K single loop running race of this nature.
“The race in Fermanagh is through proper wilderness. This isn’t like the marathons where there’s people standing to cheer you on and give you cups of water. You’re pretty much on your own in the endless wilderness, so it requires a lot mental toughness as well as endurance.”
On Sunday, August 26 the emphasis at Lakeland Warrior switches to mountain bikes with 64K and 100K races.
As well as Lakeland Warrior, 26 Extreme put on two endurance events in Counties Down and Antrim.
Rowan said, “Causeway Coast Ultra Marathon is a 65K coastal experience right along a cliff with nothing separating you from death. It’s the most scenic marathon in the UK. The Mourne Way Ultra Marathon is an 85K off-road experience. Competitors run 85K of the most difficult terrain in Northern Ireland and the race attracts a substantial international entry. At 100K, Lakeland Warrior is the next step up.”
Rowan, who is married to Annemarie with three children - Jenna, 7, Lucas, 5, and Sam, 2.
In the past he has competed in several endurance events across Europe including the Transalp Challenge, an eight-day 600K mountain bike race from Germany to Italy which takes in 22,000 metres of climbing as it winds its way across the Alps, and the Swiss Alpine Ultra Marathon, one of the biggest off-road ultra marathons in Europe, which he competed in as a part of a team of four in 2010.
Adventure racing combines the disciplines of running, cycling, kayaking and orienteering and many events take place over a number of days with sleep being an optional luxury.
Rowan competed as part of a team of four at the Portugal XPD Adventure Race in 2008, a five-day race over a distance of 800K.
“We’d trained for a year for that,” he said. “We’d got through two days without sleeping. The problem with sleep deprivation is whenever you’re racing everyone has their quiet points in the middle of the night and you start to suffer from hallucinations and the dreaded sleep monsters come out to annoy your already tired mind.
“The more obvious problem with sleep deprivation is extreme tiredness. One of the girls had a bad fall on the third day, so in the end the race didn’t go according to plan.”
26 Extreme was formed in 2009 with their first event being the Mourne Way Marathon. When you include the different races they put on within each of their events they have around 40 competitions a year.
Rowan concluded, “Endurance sports are on the increase. Ultra runners or cyclists looking to progress often move into multi-discipline events like triathlons and adventure races. We have the perfect resources for these events both in Northern and Southern Ireland and this is borne out by the ever increasing number of people taking in this type of event.”
“People continue to set themselves new challenges. Our aim at 26 Extreme is to provide them with a safe and competitive means of fulfilling those challenges.”