Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mayo Mud, Blood and Football

I hale from northern Minnesota, where it is currently thirty below zero Fahrenheit.  I enjoy skiing, adore cross-country ice skating and will snowmobile until my thumb throbs from holding down the accelerator.  I’ve gone ice fishing at midnight on the middle of a glassy lake, been pulled for miles on my sled behind a four-wheeler and golfed through numerous blizzards (thanks dad).  But I have to admit that I have never shivered so consistently in all my life as the past two days in County Mayo, Ireland.  Even now, as I write in front of a roaring peat fire, I feel tense muscles readying for another assault.

What do people do in Ireland for fun during one of the coldest days of the spring?  How about a five mile run through raging rivers, waist deep mud and soapy water?  Sound crazy?  That’s exactly what these past two days have been: crazy, dirty, Irish fun.

Darcee Roeschlein, whose blog can be found at http://finaldestinationireland.blogspot.ie/ , signed herself and ten other students up for the Mayo Mud Run before my bags were packed to leave Minnesota.  All spring I’ve listened to them talk about the run, what they’re going to wear and where they can buy shoes that will probably never see the light of day again.  Ready to watch (yes, watch) my friends embark on this fully Irish experience, I volunteered to play the part of their photographer.  At ten thirty Saturday morning, we filled Pat’s bus and set out for Moygownagh.  We rode for several hours up the western coastline of County Mayo, vibrant blue sky loosing beams of glistening sunlight over the Atlantic.  We followed narrow roads through moss draped forests, sheep flecked hills and rugged, weather beaten mountains before arriving at the little town of Moygownagh.  To my surprise, almost two-hundred competitors were already milling about the starting line, registering for the race and sharing laughs.  While my group found their numbers, I talked with the directors and volunteers.  They were spectacularly friendly and helpful, showing me the best place to photograph the start of the race and encouraging me to point out the Americans when they came in.  While waiting for the race, I found a few of the more…colorful characters.

At one o’clock, the music stopped and the race began.  A tasseled line bearing Mayo’s red and green was lifted and two-hundred runners sprinted toward the road, rounding the corner of the street and heading for the forests of County Mayo.  I can’t say that I was entirely sorry for not entering the race as I wrapped my scarf tightly around my neck and began my wait.  I spent the next forty-three minutes talking with Pat, our bus driver, and staying warm near the kitchens, listening to the stories from previous years.  When I heard the first runner returning, I hurried to the finish line.  The tall, muscular Irishman was soaked to the bone and splattered with mud, his bleeding knees and ripped shoes writing volumes on the nature of an Irish mud race.  The next three men to finish were in no better shape, although since they were the first to return, they did get to soak in the massive, black tub filled with freshly heated water.

The racers began to trickle in.  I waited, camera in hand, scanning each of the returning faces in search of my classmates.  The announcer asked me as each new racer finished if he or she was an American, and I continued to shake my head, wondering after twenty minutes passed if they were alright.  A volunteer laughed when I asked him if it was usual for the race to take longer than an hour, answering, “I’ll bet they’ve never seen anything like this in the States!”

Half an hour later the wind picked up, the sky darkened and many of the onlookers abandoned their positions for the warmth of the building.  The announcer asked one of the helpers to bring me a cup of tea, which I stuffed inside my jacket and held there until my shivering began to slosh the liquid over the cup’s edge.  I felt worse and worse for the soggy racers as they returned, only to be blasted by cold water from the power sprayers before they were allowed to jog inside for their soup and tea.  At an hour and eleven into the race, the first student sprinted across the finish line, his face smeared with mud and his red cap askew.  When I asked him how the race was, it took a couple of tries before I could make out his answer through the chattering teeth.

Nearly an hour later, the last American jogged over the finish line.  By that time I had abandoned all hope of keeping the video camera still, deciding that they would probably understand the shivering.  Despite the cold, after the racers had a hot meal and a change of clothes, energy began to pour back into the group.  From what I was told, the Mayo mud run was fantastic—full of wild obstacles and, of course, lakes of good, old fashioned, Irish mud.  Every face, weary or not, bore a massive smile and well deserved pride.  As for me, I came to two conclusions. The first was that Darcee had a wonderful idea and that students should partake in the Mayo Mud Run every year.  The second was that I had never been so cold in all my life.

Silly of me to think so, really, now that I know what the next day would hold.

I had never heard of Gaelic football before coming to Ireland.  Is it soccer?  Is it like American football?  So my curiosity supplied a good deal of my excitement when I learned that Owen, our coach driver, had managed to find twenty-four tickets for the Mayo versus Donegal game in Castlebar.  The morning after the mud run, I hopped out of bed, grabbed a shower and was on the bus at 8:15 with a smile on my face.  Of the twenty-one students, eleven slept very soundly during the drive there and while my muscles still hurt from shivering, I really had nothing to complain about in comparison with the brave mud runners.  I had, however, learned my lesson.  I wore several layers and packed a blanket for the stadium.

As it turned out, we ended up seeing two games. The first was a hurling match; yet another game I had never heard of.  It is something like a cross between soccer and cricket.  All I could think of through most it was how much it would hurt to be hit with one of the bats the players dauntlessly wielded, the wood cracking whenever it came in contact with the ball…or another player.  The match lasted for two hours, the first half of which we were the only people in the stadium.  For a while, I thought that perhaps the weather had chased off the rest of Mayo’s fans.  I had, once again, underestimated the Irish chill.  Wind whipped down the field, bearing tiny flakes of snow and whirling shreds of plastic.  While we were mostly protected from the gusts, the temperature continued to drop throughout the game and by the end of the two hour hurling match, I was hunkered beneath my thin blanket, shivering twice as badly as the day before and staring in a kind of frozen wonder as the three thousand stadium seats were packed full of cheering, Mayo, Gaelic football fans.  The game was just beginning.

Despite my icy eyeballs and beet red nose, I instantly was absorbed by this rough, fast paced game.  The players wore rugby style jerseys, no padding or helmets, and played with what looked like a soccer ball.  They ran the length of the massive field as easily as I would jog down a city block, cutting around one another and speeding toward the goals in packs of colorful, darting warriors.  Gaelic football is more active than American football, more physical than soccer and tempers run just as high as in a Minnesota hockey game.  There is never a dull moment…especially not if you give in to your bursting bladder partway through the first half and have to crawl over the rows of enthusiastic, Irish football fans in search of a bathroom.  When I made it back to my seat, I found that my blanket was ice cold and it was with a heavy heart that I once again slid into the frozen chair and began to shiver.

In the end, frozen or not, the game was fantastic.  Mayo beat Donegal by a goal and the red and green colors were blazing through the screaming fans by the end of the second half.  I got to meet and have a picture with Ireland’s Prime Minister (although my leg muscles cramped during the shot and I’m afraid to find out if I fell down before or after the picture was taken) and even though my teeth chattered for the duration of our supper, I’m thrilled to have had the experience.

But man oh man, does this peat fire ever feel good.


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