Solo Run

Sunday, 27 July 2014

In the Grove

I'm sitting on a canvas chair in the porch of a 4-man tent, pitched on the grass in-field of the Mary Peters Track in south Belfast at 6:30 on a beautiful sunny Friday evening. In fifteen minutes time I will be starting a race that will take 12 hours to complete and it suddenly dawns on me that in my haste to get everything together over the last few days I forgot to draft a race plan of any description. What pace will I go out at, how long will I be able to maintain it, when should I ease back, when will I have no choice but to ease back, should I walk at all, when will I eat/drink (at least I had sorted the what). I pull out the pen that came with the race goody bag and start scribbling a few splits/paces on the number pinned to my shorts  and get frustrated when the pen slides over the glossy surface without leaving a make - "fuck it", I put the pen away and lie back enjoying the last few minutes of the evening sun, "I have plenty of time to sort it after the race starts. Sure what else will I be doing for the next 12 hours". For the first time since arriving shortly after four with Ani, Saran, their cousin Robert and his Dad Rob (the driver) my mind is calm. Everything is done - time to switch off the mental and turn on the physical.
 
The gang, who have all gone off for something to eat, are only there for the craic (with some mild arm twisting from me - this is the first day of a short camping trip) as opposed to providing physical support to me. I don't really need it and it's not mandatory for the 12 hour race. My nutrition (chocolate/banana milk, a few salty spuds, carb drink, salt caps, nuts/figs/dark chocolate, soup, coffee & tea brack) is laid out in a plastic container on a table in lane 5 (the 12 hour and 24 hr relay runners are confined to lanes 3 & 4 , with the solo 24 hr runners in lanes 1 & 2). There is a timing mat at the end of the home straight with a large screen that will display your name and lap number every time you cross the mat (this proves invaluable)


We are called to the start line by race director Ed Smith and without much fanfare we are sent on our way - just shy of 50 doing the 24 hour, 4 relay teams and 10 or 11 doing the 12 hour. I had heard that one guy had taken the option of starting the 12 hour at 6:45 a.m. on the Saturday morning and finishing with the 24 hour group. I had briefly considered this option but thought that the benefit of a relatively cooler nigh-time temperature would just about offset the effect of running through the night. After all I had run through the Wicklow mountains during the night without any noticeable ill effects.
 
My early pace is pedestrian relative to the front runners of the 24 hour race and Ger Copeland running the 12 hour, who laps me after 2 laps - I had heard before the start that he was aiming for the 90 mile mark, which would be well beyond my capability and I was certainly not going to test myself by keeping pace with him, my strategy being to run at a comfortable aerobic pace for as long as my legs would comply. However the fastest guy on the track by far is Paul Martelletti, who is over from London to race 100k in order to qualify for the world championship (qualifying time is 7:18 for the GB Team)




Early Days

After 9 or 10 laps I get into my stride and start reeling in some of the 24 hour runners including Thomas. My plan was to use him as a general guide  to my target as he was targeting the International B Standard of 220km, which more than likely meant somewhere around 120 to 125 km for the first 12 hours. With my glasses left in the food container I have to squint to see the lap numbers on the  screen adjacent to the timing mat, not that it was necessary to see my progress so early in the race.

The laps continue with Ger Copeland putting in a great performance and lapping me quite frequently. After 2 hours the 24 hour relay runners change over and Ray Lanigan, running for team Donadea AC, greets me as he passes by. As I had eaten quite well over the 48 hours leading into the race (subconscious fuelling) I only took on water (and a Salt Cap) every 20 or 30 minutes deciding to refrain from taking on any calories until I have completed my first marathon (102 laps = 42.3 km), which I do in 3:35. A lap later I take on about half a bottle of banana milk as I walk a lap for the first time in the race. I have no problem resuming running and decide to break the rest of the race into 2 more marathons, deciding to take another walking break half way into my second marathon (153 laps) and more frequently thereafter.

Four hours into the race we are instructed to change direction after we cross the timing mat, Ray Lanigan wishes me luck as he finishes his first of 3 x 2 hour relay runs, saying that he will be back in 6 hours, which will coincide with the last 2 hours of my race. With Ger Copeland way out in front I think I am in second place, having lapped last years winner, Aidan Blake, a few times. With two thirds of the race remaining it is very early days and I try not to think about having to run for another 8 hours.

Shortly after 11 the organisers turn off the music that is playing out over the loudspeakers around the track and all I can hear is the beep....beep...beep as runners cross the timing mats at the start/finish area. The music had been a bit of a welcome distraction and I don't look forward to listening to my footfalls and the constant beeping of the timing mats for the next 6 to 8 hours so I ask Ani, who is practising her long jump with Saran and Robert along the back straight  (another distraction) for a loan of her Ipod shuffle - a few laps later she hands it to me already playing (so no fiddling required) and while her music choice might be different than mine it proves to be a life saver over the next couple of hours as an antidote to running in the early morning darkness - not too dissimilar to nightclubbing, but with less effort.

After 153 laps (marathon and a half) I walk a lap  for the second time and take on some of my EFS carb drink. The last half marathon has taken me about 2 hours, which disappoints me as I had been expecting to run the second marathon in under 4 hours. In order to mentally break down the next marathon and a half into manageable chunks (little rewards) I decide to refuel after every 5k (12 laps approx) alternating between water/S-Cap and chocolate/banana milk or carb drink. I decide that I do not need to take on any solid food at all. I rely on Ray Lanigan, who was double jobbing as race support between his relay stints, to replenish my water bottles from the stock on the race organisers table in the in-field.

I have covered between 166 and 167 laps after six hours which I equate to being about on target for the 306 laps required for a 3 marathon finish or 310, which I equate to an 80 mile finish. I notice that Ger is lapping me less often now and when he does I follow him to the timing mat to check how far ahead he is - 22 laps!!! (my 168 to his 190), that's over five and a half miles - He never moves too far ahead and after a lap or two I pass him out and while I am approaching a scheduled walking refuelling break I decide to run on for a few laps as I do not want to show any sign of weakness. When I do stop and walk for a lap I notice that Ger does not pass and when I ask Frank McDermot a few laps later where Ger is he tells me that he has pulled out  of the race due to injury - and there I was thinking that he had blown up after going out too fast. Ger's misfortune had suddenly catapulted me into the lead and I began to get all emotional - don't know where it came from but unexpected highs and lows are part and parcel of ultra running.

Just before the 7 hour mark Paul Martelletti, who has been churning out fast laps (passing his first marathon in 2:54), weaving in and out between the 24 hour runners, finishes his 100k (2:57 and change) easily meeting the qualifying standard. At 7:27 I have completed 204 laps, finishing my second marathon in 3:52, which gives me a relatively comfortable 4:30 to complete my last marathon. I deserve a break for doing so well but defer my walking break for a few laps, all the time making mental bargains with myself to keep me motivated - it's so tempting to ease back and take a break for no apparent reason other than you deserve it for working so hard.

I am woken out of my ultra trance when Aidan Blake passes me for the first time in the race shortly before the 8 hour mark. This shakes me up a little and although I am 12 laps ahead (3 miles), that is no cushion as all he has to do is lap me 3 time an hour to win the race and obviously he is getting stronger as the race progresses. Time to dig a little deeper. I decide to track Aidan for a few laps as we change direction for the last time and while I had scheduled a lap walking break I found no difficulty in maintaining a run. I was pleasantly surprised that I was still able to comfortably maintain a high aerobic heart rate (actually well into the 140's at times) after 8 hours of running and close to 90 km in my legs. Historically in ultras I found that after 60 or 70 km my heart rate reduced as I am unable to recruit enough muscles in my legs to maintain pace.

My next target is a sub-9 hour 100k (PB is 9:16), which I think I will achieve easily but I don't cover the necessary 242 laps (100.35km) until 8:58. Just over 3 hours to go - can I maintain 10km/hr for a 130km finish. I leave the track for the only time during the race shortly after the 9 hour mark to go for a pee. For the last few hours I had been maintaining a delicate balance between water intake and loss through sweating to avoid having to take a whizz. My next reward is a cup of coffee and tea brack, which I defer for as long as possible - i'm good with delayed gratification - ultra running is all about making bargains with yourself. As I am walking around the track with cup in hand in the early morning dawn, Aidan passes me, so I push the remaining brack into my mouth and track him around to the start/finish mat to check my lead, having to detour close to the TV screen to make sure of the lap numbers - still 12 laps clear - I can afford to pour myself a second cup of coffee. When I resume running he is half a lap ahead and I maintain the gap for a few laps and he gradually comes back to me over the next 30 minutes - our paces are very similar. I do not relax though as he does not appear to be taking any breaks.



Last Hour - Glasses on to check the scores on the doors

With 70 minutes to go the shuffle packs up, having served me well for the last 5 or 6 hours. Once I hit the 290 lap mark I start counting down the last 20 laps to my 310 target, getting encouragement from Don Hannon (winner of the Wicklow Way Race), who had to pull out of the 24 hour due to an on-going metatarsal injury. I retrieve my glasses from the nutrition box to keep an eye on the lap numbers, covering 306 laps in 11:37, giving me my third marathon in 4:10 - only 4 laps to go to my 310 lap target. With 15 minute to go I take Don up on his offer of a red bull, which goes down well as it has come straight from a cooler but I can't tell if it gives me a kick or not. I pass the 310 lap target with over 10 minutes to go and plough on as I reckon I need to cover 313.5 laps to get over the 130k mark. As the last few minutes tick away one of the 12 hour guys goes flying past me trying to eek out a few more metres before the finish, I pass the mat for the final time covering 315 laps, pick up the flask of minestrone soup from my food stash and walk for the last few seconds before we are asked to stop, knowing that i'll have to wait until Ed measures the part lap I have completed and using the time to take on some sustenance, chatting away to the 24 hour guys passing, getting congratulations from Thomas. Mark Melia and John O'Regan as they pass, with Anto Lee stopping to join me for a cup of soup. I also get a "well done" from Barry Thornton as he goes flying by on the start of his 12 hour journey, the only person separating me from the winners trophy  - he's looking very strong and has me worried. Surely I looked that strong during my first lap - lets see what he is like in 8 hours time. Ed measure my part lap as 134 m, which gives me an overall distance of 130.76 Km (81.25 miles)

I return to the tent, elevate my legs for 20 minutes, which works wonders, take a shower and lie down for a hour or so while Rob takes the kids away for breakfast. I spend the rest of the morning hanging around with the kids, keeping on my feet and occasionally checking to see how Barry is doing - he covers his first marathon (102 laps) in 3:28, 7 minute ahead of me - still early days.

We head off in the afternoon to visit the Titanic Quarter and get something to eat, returning to the track around 4, still too close to call, I reckon I have a virtual lead of 2 or 3 laps but Barry is running well and if he maintain his pace could beat me by about 2 or 3 laps. We busy ourselves packing away the tent and retreat to the stands for a while as a light rain falls. I am too nervous to relax, I return to the track side to offer encouragement to the 24 hour runners, who must be going through the world of pain, with quite a few passing the 100 mile mark. With about an hour and a half left, Barry stops and walks and does not resume running but continues to walk for the remainder of the race. This is surprising as he had been running quite strongly and consistently up until then,although I am inwardly relieved as my win and £100 meet record bonus is secure.

I am at the trackside to witness Thomas achieve his 220km International B Standard shortly after 23 hours. He looks absolutely shattered but breaks into a smile as he crosses the line and continues on to finish in 4th place overall, behind Irish Internationals John O'Regan and Eddie Gallen, who finish joint second having run the last 10 or 20 laps together, behind the winner Jan Uzik, another Cork man, originally from Slovakia.

Looking back, running for 12 hours around a track was not as tough or monotonous as I had expected it to be and of all my long ultras (100k and up) it felt the least difficult and to-date (1 week later) my recovery has been the quickest it has ever been (not a sign of the customary gout) - maybe i'm getting used to them or maybe, for the first time, I did not enter the longest race on offer - is it time to step up to the 24 hour challenge?
 



12 hours of running and 12 hours of waiting

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Catching Up and Moving Forward

My recovery from the Wicklow Way was hampered by the injury I received on the outside of my left leg. My resting Hr the day after the race was 57, coming down to the 40's during the following week and gradually coming back down to 38/39 in the last few weeks, where it was before the race. I had planned on continuing with the ultra training by running the Portumna 100k, with a view to going for the 24 hour in Belfast tomorrow, but the slow recovery scuppered that plan. While I had missed the deadline for entry (first 50) I got onto the waiting list (7th in line), but when the offer of a place came a few weeks ago I declined and opted instead to go for the shorter 12 hour race and see how I fare.
 
 
I have no great expectations going into the race as my training has been very much up and down over the last few months and nothing like the structured approach to my Marathon PBs and Connemara 100 last year. I certainly feel like it's the least prepared I am for an ultra. I am over 5 kg heavier than I was at my peak last year - so no pressure then - but while my body knows that, try telling it to my head when I toe the line tomorrow evening. It should be good fun all the same, watching the 24 hours race unfold from the relative conform of the "short race".


Half my problem is that I am content to just enjoy my training runs at the moment, still basking in the glory of last years achievements, which continued into this year when I received the ultimate honour from my peers in Eagle AC at the club awards night in March. Surely I can get a bit more mileage out of this before I have to start thinking about new goals.

 

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Home To Rome

No this is not another Ultra I have signed up for but is nevertheless a long distance event that fellow Eagle AC club mate, Charlie Byrd (not the TV guy), is commencing this week - 2,000 kms or thereabouts. Charlie along with fellow cyclist Fergal Quinlan will set out on their bikes from their homes in Cork and join up with about 23 other cyclists as they converge on Rosslare, next Saturday evening for the overnight ferry to France and back on the bike for a short spin to Rome. Charlie's not just doing this for the good of his health, although he is prone to setting himself some daunting challenges for no other reason than "Why Not?" - a man after my own heart.
 
 
Charlie is fundraising for local Cancer charities ARC Cancer Support and Marymount Hospice, which provide much needed support to cancer patients and their families at a very stressful time in their lives. Charlie will be using his own resources to travel to and from Rome (I suspect the trip home will be via a more comfortable mode of transport)  so all money raised will go directly to the charities. So if  you would like to support Charlie in his fund raising endeavours please visit Fergal's fund raising page here and donate a few bob. You can follow their progress on the event facebook page here. All the best Charlie!


Charlie (No. 44) in Action in Portumna 50k 2013 with other Eagle stalwart Denis Looney (No. 31)

Monday, 2 June 2014

Recovered

A pint of G for Marty & Me  - after a good days graft at Cork City Marathon

Saturday, 31 May 2014

In pursuit of the little yellow man

 
 

"Don't worry, there's 29 running it altogether, so I won't be alone"

"That's what worries me, there's only 29 people in the whole country who think this is normal"


It is 10 to midnight on Friday night and I am standing in the car park of Marley Park next to the board denoting the start/end of the Wicklow Way, talking to my wife on the phone, which is enclosed in a zip-lock bag to protect if for the rain that has been steadily falling for the evening. I had just been dropped off by Rob, my brother in law, who said on arrival
 
 "You have 20 minutes to change your mind - i'll even drive you to Clonegal tomorrow to pick up your car".

I had resisted the temptation to accept and am now standing with 28 other seasoned nutters, race organisers and assorted support crews.
 
After registering and handing over my drop bags I take respite in Mark Melia's car chatting away the time before the start with Mark and my cousin Liam, while their support crew, Mark's brother Frank and friend Rob stood out in the rain. The car is packed to the gills with every conceivable thing they could need, all packed away in bags and ice coolers. I had to be more selective in what I included in my drop bags, which I based on what worked for me in Connemara - almonds/pecans/dried figs & dark chocolate (85%) for snacking, salty spuds/cold chicken noodle soup (in plastic bottles, very appetising looking) and Banana/Chocolate milk for the middle half of the race, while leaving the sugary carb laden foods until closer to the end - tea brack/coke - the dried figs were a new addition. I also had my EFS Carb drink that I used in Connemara, which I had in powder form for collection and reconstitution at each drop location. This nutrition plan worked quite well, with the exception of the EFS carb drink, which I found difficult to stomach (I only used 2 of the 5 portions) - so the least carb laden nutrition I have used in any endurance race.
 



Leg 1 Marley Park to Crone Wood (0 - 22 km, Cut-off 0300hrs)
 
Following a race briefing by Jeff Fitzsimons, Race Director, on the stroke of midnight we are sent on our way through the winding footpaths of Marley Park, under the M50 and up the first of many hills towards Kilmashogue Forrest, falling in step with Liam, Mark and a few others towards the back of the field. The higher we get the poorer the visibility as the beams from our head torches bounce off the thickening fog and the our vaporised breath. However I lose contact on the technical trail along the ridge between Fairy Castle and Tribadden as my eyesight in the rain and ability to negotiate the rocky terrain isn't the best. Caution is certainly the name of the game at this stage. I am joined by two other runners on the descent towards the Glencullen Road, one of whom is Donogh McGrath (No relation, although my youngest brothers name is Donogh). We eventually join up with Liam and Mark on the climb up to Prince Williams Seat, but 4 of us stray off course (Mark, Liam, Tim Chapman and I) having to double back after realising the error of our ways after 5 or 6 minutes (about 1.2 miles of a detour), making our way through the back of the field. On the descent down through Curtlestown Wood I open up my stride and am on my own, around the flank of Knockree and down to the bank of the Glencree River, taking it very slowly on the steep muddy trail. I can see a string of headlamps behind me bobbing through the darkness as they slowly gain and we arrive at the Crone Wood car park with about 2:50 on the clock - just 10 minutes under the cut-off - well down on where I expected to be. I grab my drop bag (nuts/figs) and am on my way up through Crone Wood, after Richard checks that I am good to go.


Leg 2 Crone Wood  to Glendalough (22 - 50 km, Cut-off 0800hrs)

The cut-off times get more generous as the race progresses partly to allow for increasing fatigue. On the walk up through Crone Wood I am joined by Bertie Harte, Mark and Liam, with Bertie's superior head torch far outshining the rest and a godsend on the climb up through the rivers of water flowing down from Djouce (like full beams versus parking lights) - one or two hairy moments scrambling along the technical rocky trail around the shoulder of Djouce ankle deep in freezing water with Bertie's guiding light like the north star. Eventually we make it onto the boardwalk as the first light of dawn begins to seep through the enveloping cloud. As the light improves we switch off our head torches as we make our way down onto the Sally Gap Road, where Mark and Liam are met by their support crew and stop for a few refreshments. I decline the offer of food, but do drop off my head torches for safe keeping and head off with Bertie up the fire road around the shoulder of Ballinafunshoge heading for Oldbridge. We more or less stick together (with the exception of a toilet break diversion) all the way to Glendalough chatting away, passing 2 guys en-route, with one of them catching up with us before arriving at Glendalough. Bertie decides to change out of some of his wet gear and offers me a replacement base layer but I decline as my philosophy is that if nothing is causing discomfort don't change it - worked well in Connemara last year.


Leg 3 Glendalough to Iron Bridge (50 - 78 km, Cut-off 1200hrs)

My stop in Glendalough is just long enough to pick up my drop bag (banana milk, a salty spud and a few homemade chocolate covered almond/coconut balls). We were told on arrival that there were 14 ahead of us - although some of them could still have been at Glendalough when I left, as there was quite a bit of activity with a few cars in the car park. The Garmin read 6:30 as I walked out of the aid station tucking into my food stash. One of the guys who came in with me passed by at a trot heading towards the upper lake ( In hindsight I think it was Gareth Little as his story ties in with mine). He eventually came back to me as I resumed running and kept a steady pace up the fire road towards Mullacor. I had planned to walk the steeper section towards the top but managed to break it up with a minute on/off  of running/walking as the low cloud prevented me from seeing too far ahead, breaking the climb into bite size chunks.

The top eventually comes within an hour of leaving Glendalough as I make my way along a short section of boardwalk and onto the open moor above the Glenmalure valley. Descending towards the woodland proves tricky as I begin slip sliding all over the place on the wet grassy surface and in one place pulling my right leg back under me which temporarily weakens a few of the knee ligaments, making the descent down the rock staircase to the fire road a bit of a side shuffle to prevent further stressing the leg and to avoid slipping on the greasy slabs.

Route Up Around Mullacor (North to South)

Once I am onto the fire road though my legs come back into their own and I am able to resume a steady downhill run towards Glenmalure, stopping once to pull out the map to make sure I was still on course. As I dropped down the valley I spot another runner in front and come alongside Fergal Connolly as we both make our way onto the road passing the Glenmalure Lodge, where I refill my water bottle from a support crew car, before turning left at the halfway point into another section of forestry for the climb up Slieve Maan. The time is 8:10. Fergal tells me that there are 7 in front of us.


At the forest entrance Jeff and Rob, Race Directors, are dishing out rasher sandwiches and coffee at an impromptu aid station - the smell of rashers frying on the pan is intoxicating - they are obviously acutely in tune with the cravings of an ultra runner. I decline the bread and coffee and take a rasher from the pan and follow Fergal up the fire road.

Our steady walk takes us past another runner who says that he is beginning to struggle - hopefully he'll get a second wind as it's still a long way from home. I walk at a brisk pace with Fergal for most of the climb but gradually pull ahead as I decide that the gradient is runnable and the energy levels are good. Soon I am on the descent and watching out for the left turn along the boardwalk towards the main road at Drumgoff Gap, which I missed in the recce run. I spot it easily this time and step onto the boardwalk and before I know it my feet are whipped out from under me as the traction on the nail studded sleepers is non-existent and I land heavily on the hard surface on the outside of my left leg.

I instantly feel a sharp pain along the entire length of my leg from the hip to the knee (IT Band area)
and when I get up initial attempts at walking are painful and slow. I start cursing and swearing to myself as it is touch and go as to whether or not I will be able to continue. But all I can do is to push on as best I can and see if there is an improvement - lets get as far as Iron Bridge and see how I feel then - maybe i'll get some assistance there (deepheat or something)

Each footfall sends a jolt of pain up the outside of my left leg and my pace slows in response to the truncated stride length I am forced to use to limit the discomfort. Running downhill is particularly painful. I continue on in the hope that the discomfort will subside over time, vigorously rubbing/kneading the muscle along the outside of my leg in the hope that it will promote more blood flow to speed up the repair process.

I manage the climb up and over Carrickashane but cannot take full advantage of the downhill along the fireroad - the steeper the section the more painful the foot strike. I use the opportunity to ring Abina to assure her I am doing ok, but my touch screen phone doesn't respond to touch - feck this new technology - give me the old nokia with the big buttons and 3 weeks battery life any day.

I eventually make my way into Iron Bridge aid station with my tales of woe and get plenty of sympathy, which unfortunately does nothing for the pain. I ask to use someones phone to ring "my next of kin" and after they realise I am not joking they dial the number but there is no coverage. I take some comfort from devouring the contents of my drop bag - cold chicken noodle soup and another salty spud, before sliding up the road with my gammy leg. Time is just before 9:50.

Arriving at Ironbridge - 78k


Leg 3 Iron Bridge to Dying Cow (78 - 105 km, Cut-off 1630hrs)

This leg proves to be deceptively long, as I somehow though, without referring to the map, that there was only one off road section in it. Also I had not seen any runners in front of me since leaving Fergal, despite being able to see up to half a mile in front of me at times. On the walk up through the woods after Ballyteige Bridge I manage to get through to Abina on the phone and tell her that I am doing well and should be finished around half past four, already resigned to the fact that a sub-16 hour finish may not be possible.

The first off road section is relatively short and I am soon on a reasonably long section of road to Moyne, the majority of which is a gradual downhill run. The pain in my left leg becomes less noticeable, perhaps because the fatigue elsewhere in my legs. I'm soon turning right fording a small river and heading uphill cross country where I take an easy walking pace as running uphill is proving painful and too much like hard work. The day is heating up a little now and the layers that were considered so necessary at the start of the race are beginning to raise a bit more sweat. Rounding the side of Garryvoe Hill I spot two people about half a mile ahead entering Mangan's Wood - more than likely fellow runners. I don't see them again over the next 4 km taking me through Mangan's Wood (scooping water from pools with my cap to cool my head) and Coolafunshogue Lane (with all those gates to open and close) eventually leading to the Tinahealy Road. Still no sign of life or any support crews. I jog along the road towards Tinahealy before taking a sharp right up a narrow minor road past Ashfield House. I look back down the valley to the bridge I crossed 10 minutes previously and see a few support crew vehicles pull in and park up - too late for me to replenish my water bottles.

It is just past 12:30 and I am heading off road again along the Muskeagh Boreen, an old road that never got upgraded following the invention of the car and now used as a cattle path around the lower slopes of Muskeagh Hill. I am conscious of keeping ahead of the relay runners, who started at 7 a.m. and finish in Shillelagh, a few km beyond the Dying Cow Pub. With a record of 7 hours plus, all I have to do is to get to the Dying Cow before 1400hrs. Off in the distance I spot the two other runners I had seen previously and as I come off the Boreen and drop towards the road I come alongside Donna McLoughlin and her sister Caroline, who is supporting her. Donna is aiming to break the women's record, which she tells me is 17:20 and I say she should be well on target as I had been aiming for sub 16 hours and while I won't make I won't be too far off. "Will you get under 17 hours" she asks. "Sure" I respond, resisting the urge to say i'll be under 16:30. Donna remarks that she is in much better shape than last year - her head is in the right place but her body is protesting a little. We share the last few drops of water from my bottle and I head off on the 2km+ final road section of the leg to the Dying Cow aid station, managing to jog most of it as it is downhill or flat.

I am very glad to see the Dying Cow as my water bottles are empty and I am a bit overdressed for the warm weather. It takes me a while to take off my reflective bib, rain jacket, top and base layer - back on the (short sleeved) top - off again - i'll use the dry long sleeved top in my backpack - I pull it out and it is saturated - so it is back on with my slightly less saturated short sleeved top. I give my wet gear to Bertie's support guy (sorry didn't get your name) for collection later in Clonegal. I also notice fellow runner Tim Chapman who is helping out at the aid station after having had to drop out of the race (the true spirit of IMRA)

In the meantime a guy sitting on a canvas chair introduces himself as fellow competitor, John Cronin. My clubmate Killian had asked me to look out for his buddy John, when he knew I was running the race and here he was 105km in, relaxing on a chair as if he was on vacation. He says he is at a bit of a low point so after picking up my drop bag (Chocolate milk, a slice of tea brack and a few more almond/coconut energy balls) we walk up the hill out of Dying Cow, joined by another guy who introduces himself as Torben - and there I was thinking everyone at the aid station was a volunteer - runners were coming out of the woodwork. Donna arrives at Dying Cow in great spirits, just as we are leaving.



Leg 4 Dying Cow to Raheenakit (105 - 114 km, Cut-off 1830hrs)

 


This leg is relatively short and entirely on road. In hindsight I would have preferred if the last aid station had been a further 4 to 6km along the route. I walk up the road from Dying Cow chatting away to John & Torben and drinking my chocolate milk. It is just gone 13:20. As the road begins to level out I suggest that we jog on - make hay while the sun shines sort of thing. Both John and Torben respond much better than I and they pull slightly ahead as we descend to Kilquiggan Cross. John never gets too far ahead and I manage to pull level with him after a while but Torben is out of sight. I suspect he is going for 4th place (there are 3 ahead of us). I haven't the energy to even think about chasing him down and settle into a steady pace with John, looking forward to the next uphill so that I can walk and take on a the rest of my chocolate milk and tea brack, which comes just after crossing the main Tullow/Shillelagh Road. The next few miles are relatively comfortable, chatting away about all things running, as we take our time and walk at the slightest incline - any excuse.  Soon we are climbing "Conorary Hill", a short steep section of road leading to the entrance to Raheenakit Forrest, with Jeff manning the last aid station before the finish.

Torben is about to leave as we arrive, so he is not that far ahead. I stop and pick up my last drop bag (more tea brack and a bottle of coke). My body feels like a dry sponge soaking up the sugary coke into every pore. Jeff wishes us well saying that there are only 11km to go. With about 14:40 on the clock I think surely we'll make the 11km before 16:00. We are well into the last section before we realise that it was closer to 11 miles than 11 km.

 
Leg 5 Raheenakit to Clonegal (114 - 131 km, Cut-off 2100hrs)

We take our time walking through Raheenakit Forrest feeling a bit sorry for Torben, who we figure must be running scared thinking we are hot on his heels. To be quite honest at this stage we are only interested in finishing and as long as it is under 17 hours we will be quite happy. John had been second last year in 16:01 and he won't be in a position to better that today - not after the "damp" start. Eventually we are back on roads, winding our way around Moylisha Hill to the last forest entrance and the long and winding trail up around Urelands Hill, which appears to go on forever, particularly at the pace we are going at. Eventually we arrive at the forest exit, where we are greeted by a race Marshall, who tells us it is only 5km to Clonegal.. We're on the home straight now, although conscious of the fact that we are unwilling/unlikely to run the entire way, we break it up into a series of run/walk sections which helps divert our attention from the pain and suffering our bodies are experiencing. The finish is tantalisingly close when we can see the church steeple through the trees in the distance, still perhaps a mile off. We break into a jog and manage to hold it together for the closing half mile, passing the "Welcome to Clonegal" sign (never before did I feel so welcome), seeing the last junction ahead with a few supporters cheering us on - around to the left and keep going until we both come to rest against the board denoting the start/finish of the Wicklow Way - 16:51 is the time.
 
We can stop now  - the relentless forward motion that has driven us all day can be switched off and  what little energy we have left can be used to make ourselves more comfortable (change into dry gear) and refuel (the chipper was less than 50 yards from the finish). This process takes an age as everything I do is in slow motion and I waste a lot of time walking aimlessly around forgetting what I am supposed to be doing. The mind has been working hard for 17 hours and has not only missed it's scheduled breaks but also has been deprived of it's overnight shutdown - it's "me" time now and the body can wait. 
 
Torben had nothing to fear as he was 20 minutes ahead of us at the finish. Donna came in 10 minutes behind us (17:01) to break the womens record (17:23) by over 20 minutes - fantastic achievement, with Fergal hot on her heels a minute later. Within the next few hours the remainder of the field comes in, including Bertie, Mark and Liam and their respective crews.
 
John and I finished in Joint 5th, out of 19 Official Finishers.


Finish Line Celebration (L-R) Mark, ???, Liam & Myself
 
Thanks to
 
  • Race Directors Jeff & Rob - without their vision and energy, there would be no Wicklow Way Race and I know that many feet will trod the same path that I have trodden in the years to come as this race will only gain in stature and prominence and I will be proud to be able to say that I ran the Wicklow Way Solo in 2014.
  • Race Marshals Adrian, Aoibheann, Richard & Tim and friends - giving up your day to offer support and refreshments to the weary travellers along the by-roads of Wicklow.
  • Support Crews who offered me the same support they were providing to their runners - Frank, Rob and Bertie's guy in particular. 


The Aftermath

I expected my left leg to be sore the following day and it was. But by far the biggest pain came from my right shin - I could not walk on it and had to hobble around all day - totally unexpected as it was not sore during the race but now was so painful. Later in the day Abina gave me some anti-inflammatory pain killers and the pain subsided but I was still limping around the place for a few days and felt a bit under the weather (flu type symptoms) which was probably to be expected given the ordeal I had put my body through - and i'm no spring chicken anymore. I'll probably lose both of my big toenails as my shortened downhill stride tended to push them against the front on my shoes. In an ideal world I would have changed into bigger shoes halfway through the race (or cut away the toe box) to accommodate my expanding feet. My feet are still a bit swollen.

The other main side effect was that I felt a little tired wrecked all week, which I suppose is to be expected. The 6 week coffee depletion followed by a 2 hour coffee loading before the race made sure that I did not fall asleep on the job. John Cronin had mentioned to me that he had felt himself "nodding off" during some of our walk breaks over the closing stages of the race "as you would do from time to time on the couch while watching TV". Another guy I passed before Glendalough (5 a.m.) recalled that he felt fine but that he was very tired/sleepy, which you would expect at that time in the morning particularly if you have ever worked a night shift.  So lessons learnt from this race are "don't fall unless you've got something soft to land on and don't fall asleep especially if you have something soft to land on"
 
 
To be fair to Abina she said nothing all week, not even an "I told you so" although she did mention in passing this evening, "you're not doing that again, putting your body through all that".........I couldn't argue with her, it was a reasonable statement that made perfect sense..........but I could feel my mind begin to wander a little and the sound of her voice begin to fade. I'd want to get my hearing checked, this ultra running must be affecting it.
 

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Focus

For the first 10 weeks of the year I was Mr. consistency - averaging 70 miles a week which included a marathon distance run at the weekend around a club 40 minute tempo run. On these days i'd run into town, warmup with my clubmates, run a 40 minute out and back tempo @ 6:30 to 6:45 pace and then run home, making sure I covered at least 26.2 miles. Some of these were a bit of a slogfest but I adapted and they became easi(er) over time. So while I wasn't as prolific at running/pacing organised marathons as I was last year (I still haven't run one this year) I managed to accumulate the same training benefit from my front door.


All this training culminated in the Wicklow Way Ultra on 22nd March, my 11th marathon distance run of the year. The plan after Wicklow was to repeat last years marathon training programme for Portumna, for which last years M40 win entitled me to a free entry this year. The purpose of the early season tempo runs was to accustom me to the harder efforts of the mile and 2 mile repeats @ 6:15/20 pace that the programme would demand. However within a week and a half of Wicklow I was sporting a mild strain in my left calf, probably due to a combination of maintaining my weekend marathon streak and getting lost coming down from Galty Mór on a evening run and having to run a bit longer than planned to get back to the car. As speedwork was out of the question the strain prevented me from starting my marathon training programme and it was back to easy aerobic running. Even this was putting strain on my calf and I had to ease back for a few days.
 
With the possibility of a serious attempt at Portumna fading the longer my injury prevailed my sights began to shift back towards the endurance side of the spectrum (i.e. all day events). I had two potential targets -
 
(i) if my injury prevailed I would aim for the Sneem 50 Mile Walk on 24th May. To hedge my bets I introduced a few walk only sessions into my weekly training culminating in a 20 mile 4 hour walk on roads - and you though long runs were monotonous!!!
 
(ii) if I recovered reasonably quickly I would aim for the Wicklow Way Solo Race, also on 24th May. This race had been on the back of my mind since my cousin Liam mentioned it to me earlier in the year, the only issue being how could I fit it into my marathon training and be sufficiently recovered to give Portumna a good old rattle. The answer was that I couldn't, it was either one or the other and now with Potumna out of the picture, the Wicklow Way was left standing uncontested.
 
The only concerns I had were that the I had only ever run about 24km of the primarily off-road 131km route and the first 4 or 5 hours of the race would be in the dark (it starts at midnight).
 
I dealt with the first concern by doing a recce of the entire route over 3 separate runs spaced out over a few weeks, the first as part of a Sunday group run from Marley Park to Glenmalure (km 2 - 65) on 27th April and the remaining two on my own - Glenmalure to Moyne (Km 65 - 91) and Moyne to Clonegal (Km 91 - 131) over the following weeks (a great way to use up excess annual leave). The second concern was glossed over with a 5 mile midnight run on Friday/Saturday, with 3 of those miles through Ballincollig Regional Park wearing my budget Aldi headtorch. It did the job, and spooked a few birds from their slumber in the process. I also picked up a spare head torch yesterday in a Euro saver shop for €1.50 (sans batteries) - and it's brighter than the €8 Aldi version. The days of spending money on "quality" torches  ended when the €50 Cateye torch I bought for my bike gave up the ghost within a few months of purchase (and less than 15 hours of work on the clock) - it couldn't handle the wet (i.e. outdoor use!!!)
 
So....... with a week to go it is option (ii) that I have gone for (Sneem was ever only going to be a fall back - but I will keep up the walk training) and now it's time to do a bit of planning.
 
Support
While the race will be supported (drop bag/aid station locations have not been identified yet as it depends on the number of volunteers) I will not have the luxury of having 24/7 attention like I did on Connemara last year so I will have to carry some provisions in a backpack.
 
Time
I haven't a clue. The cut-off is 21 hours. The combined time of the recce runs is a little over 16 hours, but I was fully refreshed at the start of each segment. To give me some basis for aiming for 16 hours I compared my recent Wicklow Way Ultra time of 4:58 to that of Clubmate Paul Tierney (4:18) and applied the ratio (1.155) to Paul's 2011 record breaking run on the Wicklow Way of 13:39. This gave me a time of 15:46, so sub-16 hours is possible. Then again Paul had full support in his 2011 attempt and I on the other hand will not be drafting in any additional assistance next weekend. So we'll see.........
 
Getting There
The current plan is to drive to Clonegal on Friday. Walk the 4 km to Kildavin to get the evening bus to Dublin. Get my brother in law to collect me from the bus station and drop me to Marley Park, with a few hours rest in between, run from Marley Park to Clonegal and drive home. I'm even tired thinking about it. 
 
 

Sunday, 23 March 2014

A Mugs Game



Shortly after 8:30 on Saturday morning I arrived at Glencullen, in the foothills of the Dublin mountains, to sign up for the Wicklow Way Ultra, organised by the Irish Mountain Running Association. The race, starting at 9:30, was an out and back route, primarily along the Wicklow Way, from Glencullen to Ballinastoe, with the half (Wicklow Way Trail Race) starting in Ballinastoe at 12:00.
 
I was hoping that my journey to the finish would be less arduous than my journey to the start, having very nearly missed registration, which is limited to online this year (last year I just showed up and registered on the day) and having to stop off at the Asics shop in Kildare Village on the way up the evening before to buy shorts, after twigging that I had forgot to pack any.
 
An advance party had headed off at 8:30 for those that were concerned with making the course cut-off times. Last year I completed the course in 6 hrs 12 minutes in very harsh conditions. This year I was hoping to do considerably better - a sub 5:30 should be on the cards, given good conditions. Before the race even started I got my first and only injury of the day, catching my right leg in a bramble while taking a toilet break, While the scratch was minor enough it did bleed enough that a quick wipe from my hand wasn't enough to stem the flow - i'd just have to leave it run down my leg and let it clot in its own time. While conditions were cold they were not as bad as last year and the latest reports were that there was little evidence of snow. My fuelling was very simple this year. I had packed a 250ml bottle of the EFS Carb Drink I had used for the Connemara 100 last year and had 2 zip-lock bags of the powder to add to water picked up along the route. I did not avail of the option of drop bags at Crone Wood (Mile 8 & 24) and Ballinastoe (Mile 16)
 
About 100 of us in all headed off without much fanfare after the 9:30 "ready steady go!". My pace/effort was relatively easy for the first few miles along paved roads, crossing the Glencullen River for the gradual climb up to Prince Williams Seat. I chatted to one or two along the way but as I was not running with anyone I knew I kept to my own pace (Clubmate Paul Tierney was running but he normally is winner or runner up). With the sun shining and the wind at our back the hats, gloves and coats come off. The effort up to the top of the first climb is relatively easy, however the start of the descent to Curtlestown Wood is rocky and steep and my technical descending abilities are crap compared those around me and I am left for dust - until the trail emerges onto a fire road and I can open up my stride and do a bit of catching up. Back on to paved roads for a while before we take a left along a forest road around the flank of Knockree and turn right down another steep trail where I am passed in rapid succession by more experienced mountain runners, chatting away as if there was noting to it.
 
We descend down to the Glencree River (the lowest point on the course @ about 500 feet), following its grassy banks before crossing it and rising again along a forest road initially and then on a paved road to the car park at the entrance to Crone Wood and the 8 mile water station. Those that had passed me earlier are walking, taking on food and gels. I take a cup of water and run on up the forest road.
 
The time is 1:12:30 and distance 8.43 miles. I have reached the quarter point of the race in less than 75 minutes, which sets me thinking that I am just about on sub 5-hour pace - if only I could get to the turnaround at Ballinastoe before 2hr 30min and get started on the return leg before the 200 runners commence the trail race. With a 1,750 foot climb to the flank of Djouce in front of me it's a bit early to be setting goals. My energy is still good as I climb steadily through Crone Wood with the views across north county Wicklow towards the Irish Sea spectacular in the morning sunshine. Passing Powerscourt Waterfall we descend briefly to cross the Dargle River before making the final assault on Djouce (still another 1,000 feet to climb). Progress is steady and I gradually gain on a group in front, joining them as we scramble along the track around the side of Djouce and onto the Boardwalk (about 2 foot wide timber sleepers) that takes us around the side of Djouce and on to White Hill. The wind from the South West is so strong that it blows me off the boardwalk onto the surrounding bog. Running on it is very difficult and I spent most of this section running alongside the boardwalk.
 
Descending from Djouce - Mile 14ish
The initial steep descent towards Ballinastoe sees the more experienced runners passing me. Eventually we are on the forest road leading to the turnaround with the front runners coming against us. I greet Paul Tierney as he passes by a minute or two behind the leader. I start counting those coming against me to gauge my position but stop after 10 or 12 as I cannot distinguish between those that started with me and those that headed out an hour early - they all seemed to be struggling up the hill.
 
The time is approaching 12 noon and whether or not I make the turnaround before the start of the trail race is touch and go. Not far to go - up ahead I see a photographer with his back to me ready to take a shot of something happening around the next bend - I round the bend and 200 runners are coming against me up the road - the trail race has started - they just about make room for me as they stream by. As the last runners pass by I hit the Ballinastoe checkpoint, where my number is taken and the marshall asks if I want my bloody leg dressed. I decline the offer and as I have no drop bag I do not join the other runners who have recently arrived but turn around and walk back up the road taking the
carb drink from my backpack and downing it in one before resuming a slow trot at the back of the field of trail runners with one other ultra runner for company.
 
The time at the turnaround is 2:30:46 - still on 5 hour pace, particularly as the return leg is nearly half a mile shorter (finish near Glencullen GAA Club as opposed to the start at Johnny Foxes Pub) - but will I have the same energy in a hour or two. As it is the climb back up to the Boardwalk is a steady slog, as I make my way through the back of the trail race field, eventually passing the ultra runner in front of me. From here on trail and ultra runners will be indistinguishable from one another.
 
Up on the boardwalk it gets a little congested and for a while I am content to run in single file with the fresh legs of the trail runners in front of me pulling me up the steeper sections of the hill. Once we are off the board walk and on the descent from Djouce my legs are rejuvenated and I can open up my stride a little, always careful with my footing on the mixed terrain. Across the Dargle River and up the short steep climb to the top of the long descent down through Crone Wood where I can really pick up the pace on the forest road, eventually joining a group of runners from Northern Ireland just as the heavens open and we are hit by hailstones. The Crone Wood checkpoint is the next milestone - 8 miles from home - I really need to be hitting it a few minutes before 3:45 to give me a bit of a cushion for a sub 5 hour finish.
 
The watch reads 3:43:52 as I stop and take a glass of water and 3 jelly babies at the Crone Wood Car Park - no time to make up my carb drink and I think I have enough in the tank to get me home, with the jelly baby top-up.
 
"ok a one minute cushion on 3:45......plus it only took me 1:12:30 on the outbound leg, which gives me another cushion of two minutes..........plus the return leg is shorter than the outbound leg so the aggregate cushion should be enough to get me to the finish in under five hours"
 
What I didn't know at the time was that the return leg was a net uphill compared to the net downhill outbound leg - ignorance is bliss. My energy levels are good as I descend to the banks of the Glencree River, running along its bank, passing a few trail runners and perhaps 1 ultra runner (I thought I had spotted him earlier) who is running noticeably slower.
 
The real test is about to come - the last obstacle - the long climb from the valley floor up and over Prince Williams Seat (1,250 feet of climbing). Once I am over that I am on the home journey and I know my quads will be strong enough to take the downhill pounding of the last descent, so the job is to keep a sustainable relentless effort, walking the steep sections but at a strong pace/effort. There is a string of runners in front of me whom I gradually reel in - the trail runners are now feeling the effort. My pace is purely set in accordance with perceived effort - I rarely look at the watch and never at my Heart Rate - this is a race and not a training run.
 

Mile 26ish - Behind Brendan Murphy of Le Cheile AC
 
There's a mobile water station at the entrance to Curtlestown Wood but I keep going. If I can keep running for the length of the forest road i'll walk the final steep section up onto the flank of Prince Williams Seat. There is a group of four or five 100 yards ahead, all of them trotting up the hill chatting away to one another. I keep a steady pace behind them and they gradually get closer - one of the guys is wearing a pair of vibrams. A few times when I get to within 5 yards I revert to steady walking for 100 yards and resume a slow shuffle to pull them back in. I don't know whether they are ultra or trail runners but it doesn't concern me too much as my goal is time related and  they come in very handy for pulling me up the hill, as at times the effort is beginning to feel like a struggle . I eventually join them as they reel in a few more who join the group.
 
At the top of the forest road we all revert to walking up the steep trail, with one of the guys shouting encouragement to the group saying that that was the first time he had run that entire section and urging everyone to stick together at a steady fast walk. I track him up the trail, with the group spreading out behind - the continuous uphill run having taken it's toll on a few of them.  The rocky trail eventually gives way to a more gentle ascent along a coarse sand track that takes us over the crest of the hill and I gradually pick up the pace as the track levels out and then descends, gradually at first and then more steeply as the coarse sand track gives way to a more unpleasant rocky forest road.
 
I can smell the finish line, which is still a few miles away. While I have no issue with pushing a steady hard pace I do not look at my watch as I don't want to put myself under undue pressure, particularly as this is not a measured course and therefore I don't know how far I have left to run. I reach the bottom of the descent, crossing the Glencullen River, passing a steady trickle of trail runners (I assume) as I tackle the last climb of the day up onto the road leading to Glencullen, sticking to a good steady pace, surprised at how little fatigue I feel (relatively speaking).
 
There is one guy ahead who is keeping a steady distance in front of me while everyone else around me is running at a slower pace. I keep the effort steady until I can see the goal posts of the Glencullen GAA pitch in the distance and decide to sneak a look at the watch - 4:57:15 or thereabouts. This is enough to spur me on as I immediately pick up the pace, not wanting to throw away a sub-5 hour finish, keeping a strong effort as I round the last bend and race towards the finish line halving the gap to the guy in front - crossing the line in 4:58:20 (Official time 4:58:30) congratulating the guy in front of me. He turns and asks me what time I did as his watch had malfunctioned. when I tell him he looks a bit perplexed at first until I realise that he had run the Trail race and I confirm that it was just under 2:30. I swap my number for a mug and jog the half mile back to the car, delighted with my sub-5 hour finish, not knowing how I did relative to the rest of the field and for the moment not caring, surprised that, while the whole run took a lot out of me I can't say that I struggled hugely.
 
While I though my time would get me a top 20 finish the results place me 9th out of 121 finishers and 2nd M40. I never though I'd get a top 10 finish so I'm delighted with that. Maybe if I could get a few lessons in technical downhill running I could improve ;-). With Paul Tierney taking second spot that's two Eagles in the top 10 - not a bad day for the club.