Monday, 12 April 2010

“Yerra they’re doing their best”

Warning this is a long post (Ultra long). If you have done a few long post readings on Thomas's Blog, preferably back to back you may get through this in one sitting.
When in the registration queue for Connemara on Saturday someone asked was there “any ultras, ultras come this way” so Denis John and I followed her to a desk, where the girl behind it said “at last, real runners” to which one of us replied “yerra they’re doing their best” in deference to the half and full marathon runners in the room. This from 3 lads who never before ran an ultra. Apparently the girl behind the desk was last year’s winner. After registration we headed to the Hostel in Oughterard (about 10 miles from the start), bought provisions in the local store and drove the ultra route in beautiful evening sunshine. The route is essentially a clockwise journey around the Maamturk mountains in Connemara, about 38 miles long with the ultra starting a mile upstream of the finish at Maam Cross (i.e. mile 1 and 39 of the course), the full marathon 13.1 miles down the road (on the shore of Lough Inagh – spectacular setting) starting 90 minutes later and the half a further 13.1 miles on (at Leenaun ) starting 3 hours after the ultra with all finishing at Maam Cross, the only visible landmark in the rugged landscape being the tower of Peacocks Hotel (which you could see for the last 2 miles before the finish). The hills didn’t look that bad from the car, nothing that we couldn't handle. Apart from the undulating terrain there were 3 main hills, one after mile 19 (short enough), the second after mile 26 out of Leenaun (steep and longer) and the “hell of the west” at mile 36, not so steep but goes on for over a mile and a half. With the course sussed we retired to the hostel for a feed of pasta and cream rice and were in bed before 11. I was well hydrated which was evidenced by frequent trips to the loo during the night (I set the record on that score). We rose just before six and by six-thirty the kitchen was a hive of activity as we mixed our magic potions and packaged them for the Ultra drops (we were allowed place items at three water stations along the course). Denis was using black nappy sacks for easy identification and to deter predators, with labels attached and an schedule of contents (he’s so organised he put myself and John to shame). He even made allowances for us and brought extra of everything – must bring him along for my next marathon. I was lucky enough to find pink dog poop bags in Abina’s car (which I had borrowed for the trip) – there’d be no problem identifying them out on the course. My drops consisted of two bottles of High 5 (4:1 Carb/Protein Mix) and a bottle of Coke. I also threw a few jellybeans into each “lucky bag”. With numbers pinned on, drop bags ready and a bellyful of porridge we headed for the 7:30 bus pickup, which took us the 10 miles to Maam Cross. We met up with Thomas and Eagles Annemarie Holland, Paul Tierney and Laura Buckley. Laura was crewing for boyfriend Paul and by association crewing for us all. The race briefing was brief – essentially keep turning right at every road junction. We were also introduced to a few celebrities – last years winner, the course record holder, a girl from the north who climbed Everest (she assured us that the Ultra was a far tougher challenge), last years marathon winner from Italy, a friend of his who was 7th in the European (or world, I can’t remember) 100k championships with a time of 6:20 or 30 something, and Mick Rice, a local ultra legend. I dropped my doggy bags in the Mile 19, 26 and 32-drop bins and headed for the bus to the start a mile up the road. Even at that time in the morning it was warm with clear skies. 203 poor souls had registered for the ultra (the results would show that 160 finished – perhaps some never made it to the start) and after a few minutes for photos and chatting we were lined up behind the timing mat (powered by a generator). John was in the elite pen with Denis, Thomas and I in the 2nd row. With a small bit of fanfare we were off down the road towards Peacocks with a great sense of adventure hoping that we would be in reasonable shape the next time we trotted along this patch of asphalt or even hoping that we would make it in one piece. Apart from the initial burst of speed (7:30 pace) we relaxed into a gentle run – certainly the most relaxed start to any race i’ve experienced. My plan was to split the distance into 12 parts separated by the 11 water stations at miles 5, 10, 13, 16, 19, 22, 26, 29, 32, 35 & 37 where I would walk for a minute and take on water, gels, salt caps, jellybeans & drop drinks at my leisure. The idea being to momentarily break the cyclical running motion that leads to muscle fatigue. We all ran together for the first mile to Maam Cross, where we got cheers from a few spectators as we turned west along the road to Clifden. There was also a race commentator speaking over a pa system – he’d be hard pressed to keep a captive audience for the following 4 hours. By mile 1.5 John was off in front leaving Thomas and myself chatting for a few miles. We were joined by Gary (of Boards AC & 2:55 Barcelona marathon fame) for a mile before he too forged ahead. The rest of the Eagles having started a bit more conservatively were behind with Laura cycling up and down the field offering encouragement and taking photos. Soon I was on my own with Thomas a few yards behind. He overtook me as I walked through the 5-mile water station (Gel 1). We exchanged places like this for the next 8 miles or so. I got talking to a guy from Belgium who was also doing his first Ultra - he also exchanged places with me a few times. These walking breaks were making me very antisocial. I’d be talking away with someone and before they knew what was happening I was gone from their field of vision, only to reappear again a mile down the road. I passed through the 5-mile mark in 39:49 and 10 miles in 1:18:45, feeling good and slightly under my 8-minute target “opening” pace. I missed the next water station as it came at mile 12 as opposed to 13, as I was across the road and past it before I knew what it was. We were now running north on the second side of the Ultra rectangle. In the distance I could see the buses that had dropped the marathon runners to their start. I crossed the 13.1-mile timing mat in 1:43:13, just over 13 minutes after the marathon runners had crossed it. I asked one of the marshals was I too late for the marathon. Laura passed on the bike shortly after and threw me a water bottle, which made up for the one I missed at mile 12. As I stopped and walked for Gel No. 3 Thomas went past and bid me good day for the 4th time. By the time I resumed running the distance between us was longer than normal and the gap got bigger as time went on. Either Thomas was finished his warm-up and getting into race pace or he was tired of having to greet me every time we exchanged places, but I never saw him again, even after the race. I was feeling good over the first few miles into the second half marathon and was surprised to hit the back of the marathon field shortly after the 15-mile mark (1:58:42 – still sub 8 minute pace). Then I came over the crest of a rise and the vista before me was a sight to behold - a long line of walkers/runners strewn out before me as far as the eye could see. It reminded me of the retreat to Dunkirk, as I could see the sea in the distance – an ambulance or two helped complete the picture. It felt a bit surreal weaving my way past two or three at a time first and then a constant stream as my pace was so different to those around me. After a while they became part of the landscape that I was passing through as I developed an eye for spotting fellow ultras that stood out by their relative speed compared to this moving landscape. I pulled alongside one guy and we chatted for a minute before I moved ahead. He passed me out as I stopped to pick up my first drop at the mile 19 water station – my first High 5 drink. This station was a bit busier as we were now competing with marathoners at the feeding trough. The High 5 went down well but was a bit frothy and a tad sweet for my palate. Before the 20-mile mark we turned east towards Killary Harbour and the first real hill. I felt reasonably strong going up the hill and passed the ultra runner that had passed me at mile 19. I came across 74 year old Kay O’Regan, recognisable from her distinctive Slaney Olympic top, who was running her 96th marathon (Dublin will be her 100th) and wished her well - thanks to Westley for the link.
At the top of the hill the road levelled out - well undulated out and the first real feelings of fatigue began to set in. Now I had to concentrate to keep pace - still passing marathon runners but not an ultra in sight (unless they were hiding in the "landscape"). I had missed the 20 mile split but crossed the 21.1 mile mark in 2:46:25 (1:35 below 8 minute pace). The mile markers now doubled as marathon mile markers - hence the 0.1. If you think this was confusing to a fatigued brain, once we were into the half marathon course with a further 13 miles of comatosis these signs were followed by half marathon mile markers 0.1 miles down the road. So I would see a big sign saying "Mile 16/Ultra 29.1" to be followed down the road by a "Mile 3" yellow sign for the half marathon. This is not a criticism just a reflection of how small things can mess with your head when exhaustion is setting in.
I passed an Eagle marathon runner and wished him well (forgot to asked his name in the fatigue induced trance I was in). And then we were in the long descent towards Killary Harbour where my pace picked up to sub 7:30 pace. Coming into the 22-Mile water station I stopped to take on board gel no. 5 and discard my High 5 bottle. An Ultra Woman also stopped in front of me (turns out she was the leading lady - at that stage) and I resume running before her, crossing the 22.1 mile mark in 2:55:22 (8 minute pace would give me 2:56 to mile 22 - later I would equate the 0.1 miles to 1 minute in time as my capacity for dealing with fractions was long gone.)
I continued on from mile 22.1, knowing that the next water station was 4 miles away (as opposed to the 3 miles I had been used to). I could hear a droning noise in the distance and eventually matched it to a jet ski in the harbour below - taking a brief moment to distract myself from the mounting internal struggle. Before the 24 mile mark my discomfort was increased significantly by a side stitch with almost forced me to stop and walk. First I leaned into the stitch to no avail and then altered my stride which brought momentary relief only for the pain to return a few seconds later. I continued like this along the road into Leenaun hoping that I could last until my next walking break at mile 26. I must have looked a bit strange to the marathon runners around me as I was now running at their pace leaning over to one side followed by exaggerated bounding like someone going off the deep end.
Finally I made it to the 26 mile water station and my second drop bottle - coke. This was by far the most refreshing drink of the whole day - it must have been the caffeine as I was already loaded with sugar but I nearly felt normal again. I resumed running just before the 26.2 mile timing mat, crossing it in something like 3:29:29 (My 26.1 mile mark split was 3:28:39). South out of Leenaun and onto the final side of the rectangle for the 13.1 mile trek south to Maam Cross. There was a good buzz from the crowd of spectators outside the pubs and shops of Leenaun before the harsh reality of the second hill of the day hit. My only saving grace was the bottle of coke in my hand, waiting for each mile marker before rewarding myself with a sup of it's sweet nectar - motivation is the only power that will get you through this stage of the race.
At Leenaun I had set a realistic goal of 5:30 overall giving myself 2 hours for the last hilly half marathon and allowing for the developing fatigue - 9 minute pace average (no fractions). Once I reached the top of the hill the road continued up and down before dropping gradually. The motivation of stopping and walking every three miles kept me going although the 3 mile segments felt more challenging as the miles unfolded. Through mile 29 water station and Gel No. 6. My pace now was 9:30 going uphill and 8:30 for everything else. Mile 30.1 in 4:04:14 - I was 3 to 4 minutes over the 4 hour 30 mile 8 minute pace - still just on target losing 1 minute per mile since mile 26.
Onto mile-32 water station, which came early at mile 31.5. Couldn't see the ultra drop table so I took a cup of lucozade sport and asked a woman where the ultra drop table was - she directed me to a table 50 yards back the road (i hadn't seen it) so I ran back to the table (during my walking break!) but couldn't find my distinctive pink doggy bag. I was confused for a while as I walked back down the road telling the woman as I passed her that my drop wasn't there (Denis told me later that his drop wasn't there either and he remembers seeing a plastic bin at the station with Mile 29 written on it). I was so confused that it didn't enter my head to take a gel instead (I even had a High 5 sachet in my belt that I could have mixed with water). I resumed running after leaving the water station and hit the lowest point in my race as shortly afterwards I could feel cramps coming in both calves and eventually had no option but to stop and walk to avoid a strain. 7 miles from the finish - I might as well have been light years away, i'd never get home in 5:30 now. It could take me hours to walk 7 miles - even those walking around me were passing me out. I stopped and applied my sachet of bio freeze to both calves and used my enforced walk to take on Gel No. 7. I resumed running with 4:39 on the clock with the initial goal of running for a minute to 4:40 and when that worked the 5 minutes to 4:45. I remember at some stage passing a runner sitting at the side of the road receiving oxygen from an ambulance crew "lucky bastard" was all I could think - I nearly wished I was as bad as him so that I could get some attention.
Things started to look a wee bit better when I asked two girls in high viz vests had they "deep heat" for my calves, they hadn't any but one of them came running after me and said "I've these aspirin patches that will do the same job" so I stopped, dropped my compression socks and she slapped one onto each calf before I pulled them back up. Maybe it was a placebo effect but I began to feel better and was able to run reasonably comfortably again and the landscape of runners/walkers around me began to move backwards once again. On checking my splits the 12:03 Mile 33 was the only mile that suffered significantly. I was back on track for the moment but was sure 5:30 was now out of reach.
Before Mile 35 we turned right off the main road heading for the final push up and over the hell of the west. There was a good crowd of spectators cheering and shouting "C'mon Ultra" as I passed which gave me renewed motivation. I passed a group of three girls coming into the 35-mile water station, one of whom said something like "I wish I were as man" as I passed. I responded with "You wouldn't like to have my pain" which drew a few laughs from those listening. I needed some social contact to keep me sane.
Mile 35.1 in 4:52:32. I had under 37.5 minutes to run 4.1 miles. 9 minute pace for 4 miles is 36 minutes with a minute for the 0.1 - christ it is still possible but with the "hell of the west" still in front of me I thought it was an outside chance at best. Believe it or not I still stopped and walked at the water station to take on my last gel and collect two water bottles. No one was going to stop me from having my scheduled breaks not even me. I managed to get back running after a strictly enforced minutes walk and set out following the steady stream of runners up along the winding road that went on forever to the low ridge that would see the road fall down to the finish. Mile 36.1 had been in 9:44 (including walking break) - 5:02:16. Top of the hill still way off. I ploughed on tracking a half marathon runner up through the throngs of walkers until he stopped dead in front of me and began to walk. I was on my own.
Mile 37.1 in 9:09 - 5:11:26 passing 37.1 mile marker. 18.5 minutes for 2.1 miles - my head said that I needed 19 minutes - 18 for the 2 miles and 1 for the last 0.1. If I push it I might make up the extra 30 seconds. Hold on you langer the distance is 39.3 miles so it's 2.2 miles to the finish so I need 20 minutes, i'm fucked i'm not going to make it. Fuck that I'll just have to push harder I didn't run all the way up that hill to finish in 5:31:xx. So I push on down the hill, the tower of the Peacock Hotel looking unreasonably far away. Christ that's looks more than two miles, i''ll never make that. I look at the Garmin pace - 8:00, I push harder and look again still 8:00 - stuck in one gear. Through Mile 38.1 - 5:19:35. 1.2 miles to go, I need 11 minutes - 9 for the mile and 2 for the 0.2. I push through the fatigue, landing on the outside edge of my feet to suppress the onset on cramps weaving in and out between runners in front finally I see the 39.1 mile marker and while I press the lap button (5:27:45) I do not look at the Garmin as my gaze focuses on the corner ahead and the sight of the finish banner in the distance. Nothing can stop me now I'm going to make it, payback at last, this is going to be so worth it. I power down the finishing chute high fiving the kids along the way - "C'mon Ultra", the fatigue has lifted completely I raise my hands and fist the air YES! YES! YES! completely euphoric, crossing over the line in 5:29:25. The harder the pain the sweeter the victory.
Truth be told 5:30 is a notional time and it's the act of completing it and doing so feeling strong and in control is what made my day.
A few final thoughts - I took on about 4 litres of fluids during the race and about 1 litre after and didn't need to pee until 2 hours after I finished. I never felt dehydrated though and wearing a cap over a head band that was constantly drenched in water kept me cool. I did get a distinctive farmers sunburn though, with the image on my singlet tatooed to my upper body for the next few weeks. I took s-Caps but dropped them when taking my second one at mile 20. If I had kept them I may have delayed the onset of cramps. At mile 32 I seriously questioned my sanity as to why I would enter such a race and that I'd never do it again. Now, while I won't say never again, the amount of training required for an ultra and a desire to go back to some faster shorter races will keep ultras off my 2010 calendar. My legs feel surprisingly good afterwards and I can walk foward down a stairs. There is some DOMs setting in this evening though.
One of the canteen ladies at work today said to me "I hear you ran a 39 mile race yesterday, did you do it for charity or for fun?" - which set everyone around in convulsions of laughter "well I suppose faced with that multiple choice it would have to be for fun" I replied.


  1. Ecellent race report Grellan! Again, congratulations that was a fine effort I really can't imagine running that far.

    Glad the body held up under the pressure. It might reward you with a sub three if you give it a "easy" 42K race.

    Tell us how your feeling on the 5th day after.

  2. Really good racing just 4 weeks after your marathon, AWESOME!

  3. Great report Grellan. A gutsy performance, especially between miles 32 and 35. You kept your head well when things got very tough.
    BTW, where do you get the biofreeze sachets? I can only find the large tubes in Boots.

  4. Scott, Day 2 - feeling good, can still walk fowards downstairs without .

    Cheers Rick - five week out, not four.

    Westley, I had a large tube as well but kept it for after the race (too big for the belt). Denis gave me a sachet left over from Dublin, I think. If I find a source for them i'll let you know.

  5. I was waiting for that report - especially the bits that have me in it.

    I have noticed a few similarities and a few differences - I too dropped an s-cap (twice!) but still ate it. I have the same farmer's tan. And come to think of it, I can't remember when I started peeing again despite the fact that I drank like a fish, Christ, where did all that water disappear to?

    I never really tried to figure out how much time was left, just reading the pace numbers on the Garmin was a challenge.

    Considering your experience in Barcelona, that was a smashing race! Congratulations on reaching your time target!

  6. Well done Gellan.. Pretty tough stuff man... Would love to take a leaf out of your book. Congrats

  7. It was nice meeting you during the race Grellan, and congrats on your first (of many, I'm sure) ultra outings. I'm a little undecided at the moment as to whether or not I'll go again, but it's a little too soon for such talk. Enjoy the rest!

  8. Congratulations Grellan.

    An excellent race and a superb report.

    I don't think you can fully appreciate what it feels like to run for over 5hrs unless you've done it.

    I think you would 'enjoy' an off road ultra more as there are natural walking breaks as you climb up the hills.

    We have plenty in Scotland so if you ever fancy one let me know and you can stay with us!

  9. Grellan,

    I identify with your thoughts about the guy getting oxygen. I had a similar feeling in Rotterdam when I saw a guy collapsed at 40KM. Little did I realise I only had 2.2km to go before I'd get my reward!

    Well done,


  10. Great report and well done. A great achievement.
    I must look into aspirin patches. Sounds like they did the trick for you.
    I was around Galway Sunday and came across a couple of people with ultra t-shirts on and I have to say I did think I would love to give it a shot. Maybe next year.
    Well done again.
    Have you any plans in regards to NORMAL marathons this year. Is the 3 hour just around the corner for you?

  11. You picked it Grellan. I've been practising with back-to-back long readings on Thomas's blog so I'm calloused to the pain of an ultra report ;)

    Enjoyed that. Massive effort to calculate you might break 5:30 and then do it. Bit of a shame about the missed bag and s-caps, but in any case, sounds like you had a great day. And now I know if I run a 63k ultra I won't have to climb Everest!