Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Weakest Link

You're only as strong as your weakest link. That was the overriding lesson I took away from Connemara 2011. While my cardiovascular system worked well and was never challenged on Sunday my muscular skeletal system was not up to the task on the day - the engine was working fine but one of the motive parts was not (Didn't show up on the pre-race NCT). I remember thinking, going up the hill out of Leenane heading for mile 27, that if I could somehow run on my left leg only, which was in perfect working order I'd be in a happy place. I know........ an idiotic thought, but if there is ever a time for such thoughts it was then when some warped lateral thinking was called for after all other possibilities were exhausted.
The Beginning
The journey began in Cork on Saturday afternoon when I met up with John D and we both travelled to Galway to register and pick up Paul en-route to the Hostel in Oughterard, where Denis had booked a 5 bed room for himself (now out due to injury), myself, John, Paul and Norman, who was doing the half. On booking in to the hostel, the 3 of us headed out for a recce of the course before hitting the shops in Oughterard for supplies. Our fuelling strategies varied considerably with Paul preferring the tried and tested nutrient rich food supplement for the elderly "Ensure" which he bought over the counter in a Chemist and John opting for the other end of the food spectrum, farleys rusks preferring them to Liga which tend to stick to the top of his mouth - following extensive trials conducted over numerous weekends around the roads of Cork. Both John and Paul's other fuel choices were more in keeping with conventional wisdom - gels and high 5 carb drinks. John did have a bit of a panic in the first shop we went into when the limited baby food range contained Liga only, with not a Farleys rusk in sight. Luckily the shop down the road had a more extensive range and John returned triumphant with his box of Farleys.
We returned to the hostel, where we met up with Norman, Maura (who was running the Ultra) and Donnacha (who was running the half) and cooked up a bit pot of pasta.
To while away the time I had brought the 2011 census form with me and while strictly speaking it was to be filled out on Sunday evening I thought i'd get a head start. I had to think twice when it came to the following question on health "do you have any of the following long-lasting conditions or difficulties (c) a difficulty with basic physical activities such as walking, climbing stairs....". Well if I was filling it out on Sunday evening as directed this was a distinct possibility, but hopefully it would not be long-lasting.
Bed at 11, sharing a room with Paul, John and Norman. When we had been discussing sleeping the night before a race earlier we all concluded that it would be difficult to sleep interrupted, except for Paul who said "I have no problem with sleeping, i'll be snoring away in a few minutes" and in fairness he was true to his word - within a minute of the lights going out it came
you get the picture (if you can depict it in better words - suggestions please) .
Thankfully Paul turned over after about an hour and the room fell silent. Somehow I feel Paul will be in a single room next time out.
We rose shortly after 6 and after a feed of porridge and coffee John, Paul, Maura and I headed for the bus in Oughterard. The bus was delayed which meant that we minimised the amount of time spent milling around Peacocks Hotel with the smell of nervous tension and deep heat hanging in the air. Knowing the drill I dropped my 2 drop bags in the bins. Powdered perpeteum/endurolyte mix in the 22 mile bin (I didn't trust myself to pop the endurolyte pills late in the race) and a bottle of coke in the 29 mile bin. I mixed my first 3 hour perpeteum drink and was ready to go.
Onto the bus for the short ride to the start where all the guys and some of the gals scoured the adjacent landscape to find an appropriate place to pee. Had there been any onlookers it would have been a strange sight to behold - hoards of people alighting from busses in the middle of nowhere for a mass participation urination. I met up with Ilgaz who had travelled all the way from Istanbul to run his first ultra in Connemara and we wished each other well.
The First Half
Soon we were on the start line for the most effortless race start - no pushing and shoving here - as we eased into a comfortable stroll. With a lead pack of 5 or 6 forming at the head of a string of runners stretching out in front of us we headed down the road to the 1 mile mark at Maum Cross and the start of the 38 mile loop around the Maamturk Mountains.
"C'mon guys" shouted Seb Locteau as we passed "only one lap to go" as we turned right onto the main road to Clifden. John, Paul and I pass the 2 mile mark in 16:04, mile 3 in 24:05 and mile 4 in 32 minutes - even 8 minute miles. While my plan involved going out a bit faster (7:40 pace) I was happy to err on the slow side, plenty of time to speed up later. I still planned on getting close to 1:40 for the half and even if I didn't I could make up any deficit over the 2nd 13 miles.
As far as we could make out there were 3 women in front of us with the two leaders in Athenry AC singlets, whom I assumed to be Valerie Glavin and Ruthann Sheehan having read about their amazing achievement in the Helsinki 24-hour race - Valerie set a new Irish record of 135.34 miles.
We caught up with John Hallahan of rival Cork Club Leevale AC and chatted for a while. John and Paul both ran the Wicklow way ultra two weeks previously. John (Desmond) takes a tumble over a cats eye around mile 4 but recovers relatively intact with a grazed knee (don't know how much damage there was to the ego). A few 100 yards later he diverts into a field for a toilet break and then there were 3. When John catches up with us half a mile later he uses his new found pace to forge ahead and within a minute he is 100 yards ahead.
John and Paul resume their discussion on Wicklow as I begin to drift ahead in search of some sub-8 minute miles. But I don't get too far as we regroup and catch up with female no. 3, who is none other than mountaineer Hannah Shiels who commented to the race director on finishing the ultra last year that it was harder than climbing Mount Everest. We chat for a while until Hannah asks what pace we are doing and decides that 8 minute miles is too fast for her.
I begin to pull ahead of John and Paul again, using both sides of the road to follow the racing line. I hit the lap button on the Garmin at mile 7, which gives me 23:15 for the preceding 3 miles (7:45 average). I catch up with Ruthann Sheehan, who is now running on her own and congratulate her on her achievement in Helsinki. Turns out she is originally from West Cork not too far from where I grew up. Paul catches up with me on a steep downhill section having decided to up the pace as he was feeling very comfortable, so we both run together taking it easy on the rises and striding out on the downhills. Miles 8 and 9 come faster than expected in 7:15 and 7:00 but feel comfortable. Just after mile 10 (7:39) we take a sharp right turn off the main road heading north for Lough Inagh and the marathon start point. The road twists and turns, up an down through the barren landscape as we plough on. Miles 11 and 12 pass in 15:09 (7:35 average) and with 1:32:21 on the clock we can see the tail end of the marathon start in the distance snaking along the shores of Lough Inagh. We come up behind another ultra runner before the half marathon mark and give him the honours of crossing the line first - 1:40:57.
7:45 for mile 13 and 7:42 average for the first half marathon - right where I wanted to be and still feeling good.
The Second Half
A few 100 yards in front is Valerie Glavin, the gap remaining the same over the next few miles, which pass at a good pace - 7:26 and 7:29 for miles 14.1 & 15.1, at which point we catch up with the back of the marathon field. At every water station we share a 500ml bottle which saves energy and time (& water). The next two miles are primarily downhill and pass in 7:18 and 7:oo, maybe a bit faster than planned but still reasonably comfortable. We catch up and chat with Valerie for a few 100 yards, who tells us that she is in 2nd place, with the first Female a few minutes ahead. By now we are well into the marathon field and it feels like we are flying compared to those around us, who are on 12 or 13 minute miles. The words of encouragement from them is a great boost (The ultra runners were given "ultra runner" bibs for pinning on their backs) and partly explains the increase in pace.
Coming towards the 19.1 mile mark I feel my right calf beginning to tighten up forcing me to ease back on the pace to prevent it from cramping. Paul began to pull slowly away from me as he kept pace. I had no choice but to let him go, but what concerned me more was the hill coming up after the right turn onto the Clifden to Leenane Road. I ran on and rounded the corner at the bottom of the hill and to my surprise the expected pain of stretching out the calf when running uphill did not materialise and so I could maintain my altered pace without feeling pain. I lapped mile 20.1 in 7:03 - obviously the marker was in the wrong place which was confirmed when the next "mile" came in 8:27 (The Garmin recorded 0.9 and 1.11 for these 2 laps) - still good going (7:45 average). While the tightness in my right calf remained I could still run comfortably and gave thanks for this as I crested the hill passing the "Stop and Pray" sign outside the local Church.
I was now behind the leading Female and over the space of the next mile I gradually passed her. I stopped and walked at the 22 mile water station to pick up my dry perpeteum mix and a bottle of water, taking time to mix the water and powder thoroughly, not a bit concerned about losing time to those around me. Soon enough I was back running passing mile 22.1 in 8:27 (including walking break). I overtook all those who had passed me, including the leading Female and was feeling good. Ahead of me lay the 2 mile descent to the shores of Killary Fjord, where I expected to pick up the pace and recover some of the time lost to Paul.
It started off well with the mile to 23.1 passing in 7:29. However shortly afterwards as the slope got steeper and I began to lengthen my stride the pain came on in my calf with each footfall and I had to slow down to avoid doing damage and as my pace fell those around me began to move forward and those I had passed were now passing me. I stopped shortly after the leading Female passed me out - I was close to 9 minute pace at this stage, which was very frustrating given that I should have been breezing down the hill at 7 minute pace and heading for my 3:20 marathon split. I lapped mile 24.1 at 10:05 as I walked past the marker. Valerie Glavin came by and offered me salt for my cramps but by that stage I had already horsed down a bucket full of Endurolyte capsules, which had probably delayed the onset on cramps since the first twinge had come on at mile 19. I told her to keep going as she was only a minute behind the leader.
After walking for a while more I decided to test my calf by breaking into a slow jog for a minute at a time and while it was painful, it was bearable and sure enough one minute went to two and on to three as I managed to hang on to the back of a few marathoners. I was now on the flat 2 closing miles of the marathon and continued on with this shuffle through the 25.1 mile mark (9:09). I stopped briefly to apply Biofreeze to my calf (I had forgotten that Denis had given me 2 sachets last week) which provided some relief. The 26.1 mile marker came in 8:46 - 3:25:00 on the Garmin and within a minute I passed over the marathon timing mat (I think it was displaying 3:25:46).
The Third Half
For the second year in a row I had reached the end of the marathon in Leenaun in a knackered state, contemplating a hilly painful slow 2-hour 13.1 miles ahead against my pre-race expectation of feeling relatively intact with 3:20 behind me and a 1:55 allowance to get under 5:15 for the half. Christ I was even contemplating 1:50 and a sub 5:10 finish. Pre-race visualisations are great for motivation but my only motivation now was that, as I wasn't crippled ,I could not quit and I was still going to salvage a PB out of the day. And so I plodded onwards up the hill out of Leenaun. I could see Valerie Glavin walking up the hill in front of me with a race marshall walking beside her. As I came alongside she told me her hammys were gone (still not fully recovered from Helsinki) but she managed to resume running so we decided to pace each other in an effort to keep the momentum going for as long as we could. U2 were blasting out over an PA system near the top of the hill with guys wearing oversize heads resembling the band members strutting their stuff, which was a very welcome diversion from the pain.
Mile 27.1 came in 9:29. I was hoping the pace would go below 9 minute miles once the hill was crested. On passing the half marathon 1 mile mark (Mile 27.2) down the road I decided to start timing my miles from these markers instead as they were closer to the finish, if that makes sense (it did at the time). The road levelled out and on we plodded, with the combined responsibility of pacing each other keeping us both going. Mile 28.2 came in 9:32, still no improvement. The next mile was better at 8:33 which included me stopping to pick up my bottle of coke at the 29 mile drop table. I ran with it for a few yards so as no to lose contact with Valerie and it exploded all over the place when i opened it up - I hadn't let it go flat beforehand as the fizz doesn't bother me. After the initial shower it went down well and fuelled me over the next few miles.
Valerie must have been suffering more than me as she asked whether or not we would make in under 6 hours if we maintained the pace. I looked at my watch and saw 3:54:xx, giving us 1:35 to cover the remaining 10 miles if we wanted to get under 5:30, which gave us a 5 minute cushion if we maintained an average 9 minute mile pace (1:30 for 10 miles). My head was certainly clear, pity about my legs. On we plodded over the undulating course churning out steady if somewhat slow miles - 9:12 - 8:25 - 9:31 - 9:22 to mile 33.2. The wind had picked up a little and was driving from the side carrying with it a little light rain.

33 Miles in - at a guess (pacing an Irish record holder)
Valerie was looking for other runners to pace her, calling out as she passed a marathon guy walking
"are you alright?" ,
to which the response was
"I'm ok".
"c'mon so"
she'd say
"you can pace me".
I don't think she got any volunteers apart from a Woman who did offer her encouragement to chase down the leading lady and ran with us for a spell. Valerie was asking me whether or not I could see her ahead, but by this stage my glasses had fogged up in the rain and I had to put them in my running belt. I could see why she was on the look out for a replacement. Two ultra guys passed us along this section, looking very fresh and running at a pace that looked impossibly fast to me.
Somewhere around mile 34 Valerie began to flag. I'd look behind and she'd be within 5 or 10 yards of me. Next time I looked I could not see her - my myopic vision was no help. It was good while it lasted but all good things must come to an end.
I was now waiting for the final right hand turn that would take me to the foot of the "Hell of the West" for the final push towards home. I though it would never come. Mile 34.2 came in 8:37 and at last the village of Maum was in sight and the right turn to the 35.2 (HM mile 9) mark - 8:29.
All that was left was the long 2 mile drag up to the highest point on the course - a 350 foot climb, which on paper doesn't sound bad but after 35 miles and 4 hours and 45 minutes of running was as welcome as getting your toe nails pulled off (falling off is a different matter, which is a badge of honour among ultra runners i'm told) . I resigned myself to 20 minutes of putting the head down and slogging through the discomfort, resisting the urge to seek out the summit as it would only wreck my head - my resistance wasn't great and every so often I'd look up and curse under my breadth that the summit was getting no nearer. I was passed by another ultra runner halfway up, but I could offer no resistance.
Eventually I reached the summit and the 37.2 mile mark (9:27 and 10:01 for the previous 2 miles - not far off my 20 minute allowance) and was so fatigued that I did not take advantage of the next downhill mile to knock a few more seconds out of my PB, content to cover it in 8:52. It was only when I was well into the last mile that the fear on not making it home under 5:25 spurred me on to increase my pace. Passing mile 39.2 in 8:21 (5:23:46 on the Garmin) - pushing the last 0.1 mile down the finishing chute passing under the clock in 5:24:31, delighted to be finished and while my legs were well and truly spent the rest of me was reasonably intact.
The End
We regrouped in Peacocks Hotel, for soup and sandwiches before heading back to the hostel for a shower and the long drive back to Cork, dropping Paul back to Galway for his lift home and stopping in Charleville for the obligatory greasy burger and chips, the perfect antidote to the sugar laden diet of the previous 24 hours.
Post Race Pain
My right calf - to be expected
The big toe of my left foot, when confined by my "tight" work shoes on Monday. It was black after the race (3 out of 10 are now black) and it's 50/50 as to whether i'll lose it or not - saves on the pedicure bills.
Slight twinge in my left quad.
Other that that no issues, haven't seen a blister in 3 years.

Post Race Thoughts
1) Had my calf held up could I have run with Paul to a 5:10 finish - maybe not. I could have suffered more on the hills. Paul's motivation over the last half was that he had not realised that he had passed John (while he was on a toilet break) before the marathon mark and was chasing him down to the end. Paul did a 3:20 and John a 3:21 marathon.
2) I would have likely caught up with John and ran with him to the finish - 5:18
3) I was very confortable passing the leading Lady at mile 22 and she finished in 5:20 - so my 5:15 target was certainly achieveable.
4) How can I race long if my muscular skeletal system is not up to the task.
5) Portumna Marathon?, 50k? or 100k?
6) Pacing 3:30 in Limerick in 3 weeks, should be ok.
The results have me in 17th place out of 171 finishers, which squeezes me into the top 10%, not a bad days work.


  1. Hi Grellan,first of all sorry to all about the snoring!Secondly i honestly believe you would have been with me or ahead had your calf held any way on ward to the 100k perhaps??? Paul the snore-er.

  2. Nice report Grellan. Well done on the time again; your experience certainly saw you complete, and in a good time. I hope to do this race some day not to far in the future. Did the marathon in '09 and thought it a great event. Did you find the compression socks of any benefit to suppressing the worst excesses of the cramps?

  3. Paul, No problem it's all part of the experience, which I wouldn't change - except for the cramps. 100k? If I can't get around a 63k course I suppose I "can't get around" a 100k course.

    Thanks Westley, hard to to say about the compression socks but i'd say that there was some relief, relatively speaking.

  4. Congratulations on finishing a monster of a race, well done! I've raced a few ultras, but always on trails. I can't even IMAGINE what it would feel like having run that far on the road.

    Great read, racing that far gives you more than enough time to have a few things go through your head.

    Rest easy, well deserved.

  5. Cool race report Grellan.
    Bad luck on the cramps - looks like you really dug in deep..great PB all things considered.


  6. I can relate to the snoring mates problem!

    Reading between the lines there's some frustration there with the third half? especially. I'll give you a 5:12 if that helps.

    Not sure what to do re the mechanical not being there except run lots of long hilly trails in training. And if it's harder than climbing Everest, don't invite me!

  7. Grellan,

    I think the last line of you post - finishing 17th out of 171 - should be your lasting thought. I know only too well the panic and pain of a plan set down over months of training disintegrate during a race and the anger that you've been let down by one of your proven systems (engine, fuel or drive train)is hard to get out of your mind.

    Your achievement in spite of the cramp is even more amazing.

    Well done. I know I couldn't do it at your pace.

  8. Well 10% speaks for itself.
    I remember you pacing us in the 3.30 group in the Cork City Marathon 2010. I know you're pacing in Limerick again; will you be doing Cork too?

  9. "How can I race long if my muscular skeletal system is not up to the task?" you ask...

    You could go back to the start and build a better Grellan. Like the elite women do here. A five year plan begins with them hiking/walking in the moutains in summer and ends with 150 mile weeks at pace. Their progression is so slow and gradual that by the time they have finished their muscular skeletal systems can handle that kind of mileage without breaking down and that kind of mileage produces World class athletes and times.

    You're still a young man Grellan, it is one option.

  10. AG (Caninemarathoner) you did well in Dublin following your 3:27 in Cork last year. I've volunteered for pacing both Limerick and Cork but have nothing definite yet.

  11. Finally got round to reading your report after being cut off from the internet for a while. 5:15 would certainly have been achievable, considering your very respectable time with a knackered leg.

    Better luck next time.

    Oh, and you're not too old for a sub-3 marathon. (is that better?)