Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Runners Ego

If you can run you can walk, right? That was my attitude starting out on Saturday's Sneem JFK 50 Mile Challenge. While I had little walking done in preparation for the event I had completed 33 miles of running and walking last Sunday and, while the running became a challenge the walking went like a dream. In hindsight that's because I had really only walked 7 miles and those miles were split into 5 x 1.4 miles approx and while some of the walking may have been on tired legs they were tired "running legs" which, I found out yesterday, is totally different than tired "walking legs".

I was confident that I would be able to complete the challenge without too much difficulty, after all I had run 62 miles before. But it's not really about the distance but more the time spent on your feet and the fact that my walking gait is different from my running gait, which my body is well conditioned to.

I stayed the night before in Sneem in my neighbour Ian's house. Ian would be driving down in the morning and joining me in the morning at Moll's Gap (about Mile 18) as he had injured himself in training and felt that 32 miles would be more manageable. I got to bed about midnight with the alarm set for 4. I found it difficult to sleep due to the heat and when I opened the window the midges came in and ate me alive. I eventually nodded off at 2 and was up again 2 hours later. A quick bowl of porridge, load the backpack with provisions and on with the gear - long sleeve compression top (packed a short sleeved top for when the day got hotter), shorts over compression shorts, Asics Gel Hyperspeeds (would the lack of cushion come back to haunt me?) and I was ready to go.

It was a short stroll to the start line where I waited around with about 160 others for the walk to get underway at 5a.m.  I was glad to get moving as the midges were out again in the cool air of the early dawn. We were led out of town on the main Kenmare Road with a lead car wafting music from speakers on the roof. Within the first mile we had settled into our comfortable walking paces. Two guys had gone well out in front following the music, followed by two of the 20 strong army contingent that showed up at the start line. I was about 10 back following in the wake of three local guys, who appeared well used to walking the roads of Kerry.

The first 5 miles passed in about 1:10 (14 minute miles), ahead of my 1:15 target, and on course for a 12 hour finish - but early days yet and what about stopping for a break? and Ian's pace, when I hooked up with him at mile 18 - after all the main purpose was to complete the challenge and not aim for a specific time. We had been off the main road from about mile 2.5 and were now heading uphill onto the road to Molls Gap, passing the 10 mile mark in about 2:15 (I don't know how accurate each 5 mile mile marker was). A couple passed me at this point, walking at a much faster pace than I, my runners ego bruised (I heard later that they were a husband and wife who came home first last year). At around mile 12 I got a text from Ian saying that his daughter was ill and he would be unable to make it down. I rang him and he sounded very disappointed, but family naturally comes first. I briefly thought about my decision not to bring a iPod and how would I pass the next 9 or 10 hours of solitary confinement on the road.

Mile 13 - In the wake of the three Amigos

The sun was well up at this stage but it was not too warm yet. A short while later I was slightly alarmed to notice that my hands were so swollen that I was unable to clench my fists fully (a bit of green paint and they could have doubled as Shreck's hands). Half an mile up the road I consulted an event ambulance crew who suggested that I might be dehydrated, but I knew that I wasn't. The only other advice I was offered was to elevate my hands periodically to allow the fluid to drain from them and as I wasn't experiencing any discomfort I continued on my way with the crew promising to check in on me later. The three guys in front had increased the gap from about 1:30 to three minutes as we made our way up to Molls Gap - along the first mile and a half of the Killarney Maxi Marathon route (run in July).
Mile 18 - Approaching Molls Gap

At Molls gap I refilled my water bottle, passing the two army guys who had stopped for a break and headed down the Road towards Kenmare, with the three guys in front whittled down to two (1 guy must have stopped for a break). I was still feeling good at this stage, passing the 20 mile mark at about 9:45 a.m. (about 4:37 in) with the two army guys following me down the hill slowly gaining on me with the other guy who had stopped at Molls gap gaining on all of us.

All three pass me as we turn right before Kenmare with the army guys asking me was I alright. It only dawned on me after they passed that they probably had seen me linking my hands over my head to reduce the swelling and giving the impression that I was suffering.

Heading for Mile 25 - Chasing the Army Guys

Fatigue and muscle discomfort were setting in as I approached the 25 mile mark with 5:47 on the clock and the hottest part of the day yet to come. The second half was certainly going to be as much a mental battle as a physical one. The only motivation I had was the challenge of finishing - I wasn't chasing a PB, it didn't feel like a race as I was not running and my walking was obviously not as economical as those with more specific walking training. I did break into a gentle trot once in a while as I accidentally discovered when crossing the road quickly to get out of the way of a car that the discomfort in my legs completely disappeared - I couldn't believe it. It felt very similar to the relief you instantly feel when you raise your ass from the saddle of a bike after a few hours of cycling - Heaven!

The support was excellent - the water/aid stations were primarily mobile with volunteers driving back and forth through the well strung out field (I could see no one behind me for at least half a mile) asking were we alright and what we needed and while their provisions were limited to water (essential), lucozade, fruit (bananas and oranges) and glucose (chocolate and hard boiled sweets) I didn't need or want anything else.

Shortly after mile 26 we turn right onto the main Kenmare to Sneem Road for about 2 miles of straight level walking where I can see about 5 walkers strung out in front of me. Through Templenoe and past the Ring of Kerry Golf Club and we eventually turn right onto a quieter road for more or less 3 miles of climbing. Shortly before mile 30 I pass the two army guys who have taken a break on a grass bank in the shade of a tree - very tempting. 
Mile 29 - Heading uphill again with Kenmare Bay behind me.

Onwards and upwards and eventually the road begins to descend again. I stop for a small break to take in some food, rest the legs and apply Vaseline to a couple of strategic spots - the weather is so warm the Vaseline has liquefied - lovely! The two army guys pass by and bid me good day. I'm back on my feet after a few minutes and continue downhill. The going begins to feel a bit easier after a while as if my Central Governor has reset the current pain level to zero - all part of the adaptation process. Mile 35 comes as we turn right at Blackwater tavern with about 8:20 on the clock - only 15 miles to go, although when I convert it to 3:40 to 4 hours it doesn't sound so good. We're now heading north and turn left onto the Road from Molls Gap to Sneem (Mile 12 and Mile 36).

I pass a guy who was complaining of stomach cramps as we head down the road and take another left turn heading south again along a quite narrow road alongside the Blackwater River. The two army guys are about 2 minutes ahead. The guy (Oliver) catches back up with me having taken an orange which appears to have alleviated his cramps and he is back on form and we walk together at his slightly faster pace - pleasantly surprised that I can maintain the increased pace without too much difficulty. We arrive at mile 40 hot on the heels of the army guys as we turn right onto the Kenmare to Sneem Road with about 9:31 on the clock. At our renewed pace we should be able to make it home in under 12 hours (1:14 for each of the two 5 mile segments).

We make good progress along the main road passing the army guys who have taken another rest stop to change their socks - we both conclude that it would be counter productive to look under our socks. Oliver said that runners generally found long walking events stressful on the feet as the gait is different - he took his running buddy on some of his 25 mile training walks and his hands used to swell up like mine and he would sometimes have to jog just to keep up. My main discomfort apart from the fatigue was pinching at my heels - probably due to the fact that walking is more of a heel striking activity.

Mile 44 - Sychronised Walking
After a while Oliver's stomach begins to cramp up again and I give him an orange from my backpack which gives him some relief. We walk on and are pleasantly surprised when one of the support cars pulls alongside us and hands us ice-creams through the window - manna from heaven. Eventually we reach the turnoff for Tahilla National School at about mile 44. We refill our water bottles and stop for a quick coffee at the School. I am a little conscious of time as we resume walking and push ahead, chasing down the 45 mile marker, the last 5 miles and my sub-12 hour time. Oliver falls behind as his stomach cramps return. We're now on a steady uphill section (repeat of miles 6 and 7) and i'm certain the 45 mile marker has blown over as I should have reached it at this stage. However it comes into view with  about 10:49 on the clock - I have about 1:10 to get under 12 hours 14 minute miles - tight but possible.

I push on up the hill with each of the last 5 miles marked - mile 46 comes in 15:20 - this is impossible, i'm pushing as hard as I can - maybe when I turn right onto the Molls Gap to Sneem Road for the descent into Sneem I can make up some time. However the road continues to rise after the left turn with mile 47 coming in about 15:40 and any notion of a sub-12 is gone. By the time I reach the top of the descent into Sneem the effort of the previous miles appears to have taken it toll and I just have enough energy to keep moving forward at the same pace. My mouth is dry, indicating dehydration, but I have taken on about 500ml since leaving Tahilla NS. Maybe the heat is finally taking its toll. The last two miles are tough going - Mile 49 with 11:51 on the clock. I pass a steward who says I have about a km to go and I am led into town by a support vehicle with the horn blowing and the American and Irish flags waving at the finish line - 12:08. Finished at last.

I lay on the grass in the shade of a tree keeping my legs elevated to get the blood flowing from the legs for about 10 minutes. I removed my shoes and socks to survey the damage - not too bad, a blister behind each heel, consistent with plenty of heel striking, the one on the right the size of half a golf ball - at least it was not on the sole of my foot. Oliver came in shortly afterwards, blaming the stomach cramps for his slowdown over the last five miles. "Maybe if we had met earlier we could have got under 12 hours" he said - Maybe next year eh!

After getting a leg massage I headed back to the house for a shower, having to lie down for half an hour to recharge my batteries. I returned back to the finish line with a dinner of burger and chips in hand, to cheer on a few more finishers before heading for home. There were still walkers out on the route between the 40 and 44 mile marks as I drove by. With 15 hours already on the clock, these walkers had up to another 4 hours to go before they could stop and rest. Going at a slower pace does not necessarily mean an easier time - certainly not over long distances.

While my legs were stiff and achy for a few days my first run this evening went very well with no aches or pains at all, consistent with the fact that the muscles recruited for running were not seriously stressed on Saturday. I did notice however the todays easy run felt tougher than normal indicating that my aerobic system was stressed and is still recovering.

Wed 22nd May - 7.5 miles in 56:26 (7:31pace @ 130HR - with 5 x 1 mile @ 7:00 pace - Interval run)

Thur 24th May - 5.25 miles in 40:03 (7:38 pace @ No HRM - Easy run)

Sat 26th May - 50 miles in 12:08 (14:33 pace - Sneem JFK 50 - Long walk)

Tue 29th May - 5.25 miles in 39:50 (7:35 pace @ No HRM)


  1. Not yet John. Keeping a watchful eye out for it though.

  2. That really is a long time on your feet. It would have made excellent training for me for Bangor I'm sure, but I would have had to carry the two boys on my back.

    I still don't get why they categorically disallow running and jogging.

    You certainly picked some nice weather for it. It would have been a completely different story had it been raining for 12 hours!

    1. Very good Bangor training for sure Thomas.

  3. I wonder if events like this would be good preparation for the really long ultra events.... not just in terms of conditioning for the walking stages one would inevitably take but also for the mental toughness training etc that you can only get from a long session... without actually clobbering your legs for further running.

    either way, sounds like an 'interesting' experience.

    1. Good point on the long ultra mental conditioning Paul. I hadn't thought about that. While my legs are not trashed my aerobic system appears to have taken a bit of a bashing.

  4. I am so disappointed you didn't photograph the hands. I read the whole thing looking for photographs of your giant shrek hands!

    Well done.

    1. Yeah! I could have only photographed one hand but didn't even think of that. Next time!

  5. Fair play!! How are the blisters? Your lucky you got them on your heels. I'm currently nursing one on the balls of my right foot - can barely walk !!

    1. I lanced the blisters before going to work on Monday so that I could put on my shoes ;-) Blisters underneath are far worse - from the John Buckley 5k???

  6. That's one long day out! Great scenery and weather going by the photos. So jogging is outlawed but what about race-walking? I good method might be to alternate miles of proprer race-walking and easy walking. Just thinking aloud there - I can race-walk at 6 to 7 minute ks and normal walking is about 9 minute ks.

    1. I just about managed to average your normal walking pace (9:03). Maybe you should take up ultra walking. Sydney to Melborne could be your optimum distance and not those 3k/5k's you're currently chasing ;-)

  7. Sounds like a tough one Grellan good mental prep for the longer stuff alright Id say it, going off the photos it looked pretty nice. Well done