Thursday, 22 August 2013

That's Class

I've been to Connemara 4 times in my life, all of which involved running (ultras). In fact I reckon that I have covered more miles on foot in Connemara than in a car.

The Plan
While my primary motivation was to experience the physical and mental challenge that "running" 100 miles would bring (an adventurous journey into the unknown) I had to set myself a target so as to keep focused. My A-target was Sub-18 hours as I thought it would be nice to complete the distance within the calendar day (6 a.m. to Midnight). In addition my crew had only signed up for the Saturday. Sunday was double time. Based on previous years results I though that my current form put me among those capable of coming in around 18 to 20 hours - although predicting 100 mile finishing times is a fools game. With 100 miles, predicting that you'll finish at all is even risky.
My B, C and D targets were sub-20, 24 and 30 hours respectively, with 30 hours being the cut-off time.
To break down my 18 hour plan into bite size chunks I first divided the distance in half using the "50 Mile Factor" taken from the Umstead 100 training/racing plan. The "50 Mile Factor" for Umstead is 1.30 - representing the time for the second 50 miles divided by the time for the first 50 miles for the average finisher. Allowing 30 minutes for unexpected stops (popping blisters, changing gear, relieving muscle cramps etc.) my plan consisted of 17:30 "moving time" split between 7:36 for the first 50 miles (9:08 pace) and 9:54 for the second 50 miles (11:52 pace) - overall pace of 10:30. I further split each 50 mile segment into 10 x 5 mile sections with a gradual fade in pace from start (8:42) to end (13:46). In reality the plan was, at best, a means of assessing my progress rather than dictating my pace. As it turned out the plan was not referred to during the race at all. Good to have in the back pocket though.
Setting a time goal is all well and good but as I was not going to be running all the way I needed a strategy for walking. I resisted the option of running and walking for set durations and opted for a run/walk by feel strategy based on keeping everything aerobic (below my 138 MAF heart rate), which would require walking most of the uphills (feeding time).
After water, the core component of my fuelling strategy was EFS (Electrolyte Fuel System), which I initially came across on this site and purchased from this UK distributor (not available in Ireland yet). It only arrived on the Thursday morning (less than 2 days before race start) so I had no time to check it out - serious rookie mistake, I know - the first time I drank it was 1 hour into the race. It was very palatable (I had the Lemon-Lime version) with none of that sickly sweet taste of other energy drinks/gels and the mix was such that it was easily digested and the nutrients rapidly absorbed through the lining of my gut. The rest of my fuel consisted of anything I could possibly get a hankering for -
Nuts (almonds, pecans and peanuts),
Fruit & Veg (salted potatoes, bananas & raisins),
Supplements/meal replacement (gels, ensure & electrolyte powder),
Cheap carbs (tea brack, salt crackers, Dark Chocolate (85%), bread, banana & walnut cake, raspberry and coconut cake, rice cakes, bakewell tarts, biscuits)
Other "Drinks" (Coffee, Coke, Banana Milk)
Others (Minestrone Soup, peanut butter, jam)
I did not take the foods with a strikethrough on the day - I may have left a lot of food out of the list above. Contrary to what my crew thought the smoked mackerel and spring onions were never intended for taking during the race.
My basic gear consisted of a pair of Asics Gel Tarthers (more suited to 5k and 10k races perhaps), a loose Waterford winter league running top thrown into my Waterford Marathon Pacer's goodie bag, a loose pair of shorts which formed part of the pacers kit for the Limerick Marathon, a reflective running bib with a zipped pocket to the front (handy for carrying the nuts and chocolate) and a pair of cotton socks. This is what I felt most comfortable in, but I also had a large supply of backup gear that I could change into during the race if needed.
I covered each of my toes in Elastoplast to minimise nail damage, chafing, blister formation etc. (better and cheaper than getting my toenails surgically removed). Ideally I would have bought a pair of toe socks like injinji. Two borrowed head torches and back up batteries would do for dawn/dusk/night?.
My crew consisted of clubmates John (Bike) and Denis (Mother ship). We travelled up the evening before in convoy (you'd never know when a spare car would come in handy) and almost ran out of fuel between Oughterard and Clifden (It may be useful to know that fuel is available in Recess, as the race briefing even missed it).
On reaching Clifden and with 3 minutes to go to race briefing I decided to pick up a few more last minute provisions, with Denis coming into the store and nearly pulling me from the checkout before I got to the till "we can get this stuff later" he said, "if needs be i'll come back for it" - this guy doesn't like being late, every minute counts (and this was the day before the race!) - in one action he validated his selection as commander in chief of the mission.
The race briefing was....brief. In fairness the rules, route, checkpoints, phone numbers and list of mandatory items were clearly set out in the race booklet. There were 12 starters in all, 11 men and Aoife. Looking at the two winners trophies all I could think was "Lucky Bitch" (excuse my French). I did think "Wouldn't it be great if I could bring the other one home with me" but thought that the odds of that happening were quite slim. After all quite a few of the others had form:-
  • Maciej (Magic) Sawicki, was running his 5th Connemara 100, and was aiming for sub-17 hours, having narrowly missed it last year.
  • Graeme Colhoun had come second to the legendary Mick Rice two years running and went under 16 hours in his first attempt.
  • Thomas Bubendorfer, who stormed to a 200k+ 2nd place finish at the Belfast 24 hour last year, 2nd only to John O'Regan, who represents Ireland on the international stage.

....and these were just the guys I knew about! One of the other competitors had completed Badwater and the Thames Ring 250. Badwater!!! FFS.

After loading up the car we retired to the B&B in Letterfrack for the night, dining on meat balls and spuds (Which I had prepared earlier). The "triple room" consisted of a spacious double bed and 2 bunk beds for the crew ;-)

After about 2 hours of real sleep, we were up before 5 having our first breakfast of coffee and toast, followed by our second breakfast of coffee and croissants at the Station House Hotel in Clifden before heading up through the early morning dawn to the start, posing briefly for the "press" to take a few photos.
I'm the one checking out Thomas's crossed fingers
 Without much fanfare the countdown commenced and we were off - the slowest start to any race I ever started. As my plan was to warmup by walking the first mile+, I took up the rear behind Thomas, who was trotting slowly behind the peleton.

To Checkpoint #1 (Mile 28)
The first mile was a lap of the town before heading north up the hill on the road to Letterfrack. Mile 1 in 12:08. Where the road levelled out I began to run, still keeping my heart rate pretty low, gradually building it up. Slowly I began to reel in the back of the field as my running pace was relatively fast. Still mile 2 came in at a relatively pedestrian 10:44. My pace picked up quite a bit on the downhills with Mile 3 coming in at 7:36! I wasn't too concerned as the effort/HR was easy. For the first hour I only took water on board with Denis and John spacing themselves about 100 yards apart, with one handing me the bottle and the other taking it from me. My first solid food is a Rennie at about mile 5 (heartburn after the big breakfast). When I pass Thomas he quips " I thought you wouldn't catch me until mile 60 or 70". I doubted that I would be catching anyone at Mile 60, unless they were stopped.

There is a good long downhill stretch between miles 5 and 9, which sees me pass most of the field. Passing Maciej, I ask him has he any advice, "yeah" he says "slow down". Sound advice and I certainly planned on slowing down (as per the plan), just not yet. I pass the three front runners for the first time at about Mile 7. A quick diversion into the woods for a toilet break at about Mile 8 doesn't lose me the lead. Coming into Letterfrack (Mile 9) I walk to take my drink and am passed by two guys (Graeme Colhoun and Sammy Kilpartick). I exchange places with these 2 for the next 10 miles as the route take us to Tully Cross and along the north Connemara coast to Lettergesh.

From Mile 17.5 the hills disappear for a while as we turn inland along the shores of Lough Muck and Lough Fee (spectacular tranquil scenery). While Graeme's, Sammy's and Thomas's crews pass me from time to time to set up mobile feeding stations, I do not see them. Approaching the N59 Junction, John joins me on the bike until Checkpoint 1 at Lough Inagh Lodge. We are now on the 38 mile loop that forms the April Connemara ultra course (39.3 miles), running close to one and a half times in reverse from Mile 21.5 to 71.5 (50 miles). We pass the first marathon mark in about 3:56 - just approaching 10 a.m. (I was adding 1% to the Garmin distance to allow for error).

The views through the Inagh valley are blocked by the low cloud and light rain, but this doesn't bother me as much as John, who is not pushing as hard as me and therefore is more inclined to "take in" the surroundings and feel the rain. While the first 20 miles were relatively uneventful for John and Denis, they were both having to work harder now - with John on the bike Denis had to do all the food prep, including the tea and sandwiches for their "breakfast". John was gasping for the cuppa as we approached Lough Inagh Lodge, so as they made my presence known to Angela, they retired for a bite to eat and left me go on my merry way, with the intention of catching up with me well before we hit the main Galway/Clifden road at Mile 33.

While I didn't know it at the time I was 7 minutes ahead of Sammy and Graeme at Checkpoint #1, who were a further 3 minutes ahead of Thomas.

To Checkpoint #2 (Mile 55)
I get my phone from Denis to ring Abina and assure her that I am still alive and take the opportunity to record a short video as a reminder of how I feel 30 miles in. I take a few more videos periodically throughout the day but only one more survived intact.

John and Denis join me before we turn left for Recess and Maam Cross forming a slow convoy of runner, bike and car for 9 miles along the busiest road of the day. The most comfortable place to run is along a water filled groove at the edge of the pavement - there's no avoiding the wet, but this is not an issue for me. I get my first niggle around mile 34 with a rising ache in my left hip, a weakness attributed to adaptation from my walk training. However after walking for a minute or two the ache subsides when I resume running. We eventually reach Maam Cross (Mile 42), with the monthly fair in full swing, the smell of burgers and chips filling all my senses.

Over the next mile or two, as I approach the "Hell of the West", I lose John and Denis as they stop for a breather and reload the bike into the car. As I stop and walk the last km towards the summit (it's not that bad in reverse) John and Denis catch up and I refuel. Seb and Iain (roving race official and photographer) stop in their convertible beamer for a quick chat to see how I am doing. Ok so far. I reach the top (Mile 44.5) and Denis and John drive ahead to Maam Bridge at the base of the hill, over 2 miles away.

As I run down the hill cyclists come against me, a few at first and then in larger groups - part of the 125k "Great Spin Out West" charity cycle. We exchange words of encouragement as we pass. Over the next 10 miles into Lenane I meet cyclists coming against me. The downhill running is only marginally faster and while my quads are in good condition I cannot take full advantage of the hill - Mile 46 in 8:00 is the best I can do. From Maam Bridge to Lenane (47 to 55) I begin to get a bit more irksome, but only when the crew are not around (and for that very reason). The gap between fuelling points is getting a bit long for my liking - more to do with the comfort of having the support on hand than from any lack of fuel.

I get a mug of Minestrone Soup shortly after mile 48 and it hit the spot. Denis told me afterward that it took quite a bit of preparation in setting up the "soup station" - locating a suitable uphill section, making up the soup, spotting my arrival and arranging the delivery and retrieval of the mug - all for 20 seconds of seamless fuelling on the go. Allowing for 1% error I pass halfway (Garmin mile 50.5) with 7:35 on the clock. I do a quick mental calculation using the 1.3 "50 Mile Factor" and reckon I am on target for a 16:45/16:50 finish. It turns out that the 1.3 factor would have given me a 17:27 finish - and I was full sure that my calculation was correct (the error of my ways was converting 135 minutes into 1 hour 35 minutes as opposed to 2 hours 15 minutes).

At about Mile 51 Sammy's crew (or trio of young female supporters) pass me and pull into a layby ahead. I'm certain they are just an advance party checking out how far ahead I am. But while they face towards the road they do not turn back but wait for me to pass and ask how I am doing - "not too bad" I reply "past half way and on the home stretch" , not showing any sign of weakness, in case it encourages the chasing group to close the gap.  I don't hear them pull away and wonder is it just a ploy to give me the impression that Sammy is gaining on me. Maybe it was my head going into overdrive.

The road eventually drops towards Lenane and Checkpoint #2, where I can pick up the pace a little - Mile 55 coming in 8:45 (the best I can do for a continuous downhill). Approaching Checkpoint #2 Seb and Iain pull up in their convertible and tell me that Thomas is in second place, 3 miles out, with another group not too far behind him. I can't believe that I am that far ahead. Denis has to clear a path through a crowd of tourists alighting from a bus and then dashes across the road to seek out Niall and log my arrival.

To Checkpoint #3 (Mile 67)
John joins me on the bike again and stays with me for the rest of the race. I had been looking forward to a walking break at Lenane but John "suggested" that I continue my run until I reach the hill, where Denis would be waiting with whatever food I wanted. There was a steady headwind heading west and while I was a bit annoyed that I had to go a bit further before I could walk I didn't have any physical issue with running - the saying that you "run the second 50 miles with your head" was beginning to ring through. As the road steepened slightly I began to "query" John a bit more on Denis's whereabouts - "Why didn't he stop there - it's a perfectly good place to park up and we're on a hill". As the race went on my definition of a hill was beginning to diverge from that of my crew. Fair play to John though, he listened to my complaints and ignored them if he could get away with it ;)

 I walked the last km of the hill and took on more fuel, including a salty spud. I rang Abina from Mile 58 (It was now 3 in the afternoon) to confirm I was still alive and that I would ring again in the evening. I chatted with John about my lead and the importance of proper fuelling and pacing for the rest of the race if I was to maintain it. John wasn't as enthusiastic as me, because he knew we were still a long way out and I suspected that he did not like me walking too much - thinking that I was throwing minutes away. I, on the other hand, put my relatively good form down to the fact that I had walked periodically from the very start.

Shortly after resuming running I felt a slight twinge in my left calf (as if it was about to cramp up) and stopped and walked immediately while John rang ahead to Denis for Biofreeze and salt tablets. All this talk of finishing time/position, over 40 miles out was quickly put to the back of my mind as a muscle cramp/spasm would quickly stop me in my tracks. I walked for a few minutes to where the car is parked and John quickly applies bio freeze to both calves and I take a salt tablet. I resumed running and there was no sign of any trauma in my calf.

Denis's next stop is at the "Stop and Pray" Church in the middle of nowhere - our second time passing it . Finding some time on his hands he goes in and lights 3 candles and when he come out he spots "three birds in a car" not quite the prayer he made - turns out they were Sammy's crew. 

Mile 64 - (Photo Courtesy of Iain Shaw)
I'm still in pretty good shape, although my best "running" pace is 9:30 to 10:00 miles. Having neglected to apply any vaseline or nipple plasters before the race, John has to provide them on the run as a few things are beginning to rub. I ask for another Minestrone soup and the bucket of water and sponge to be ready at Inagh Lodge when I am passing, as I feel I could do with cooling down. On arrival Denis is heading inside to announce my arrival and John hurriedly prepares the bucket and sponge, pouring some of the bottled mineral water in - does the job nicely although I have to run on without my cup of soup - i'm sure i'll get it down the road. Angela has to run out of the hotel to spot me running down the road.

To Checkpoint #4 (Mile 82)
I'm 2 miles beyond Checkpoint #3 before my crew catch up with me and I get my soup as I walk for a few minutes. After finishing the soup John hands me the recharging unit for the Garmin, which consists of a Duracell phone recharger connected to the Garmin cradle (305). In practice I was able to use the garmin strap to hold the watch and cradle combination onto my wrist and secure the charging unit and short cable on my arm using a bandana - but after nearly 70 miles of running/walking my hand eye coordination was slightly lacking. so after a few failed attempts I ran with the whole recharging assembly in my left hand for the next hour and a half. Word filters through that Thomas is still about 30 minutes behind at Checkpoint #3, but suffering, with Maciej hot on his heels. Denis reports later that he saw Thomas and that he appears to be shuffling along but is quite lucid as he recognised Denis and greeted him. This is enough to let me know that Thomas is quite strong and that the shuffle is not a sign of fatigue but his trademark ultra gait. I rang Abina at around the 70 mile mark, to check-in and she asked me was I in the lead - I just said that I'd talk to her later as it was a bit premature to say anything.

 It's not long before I am leaving the Connemara Ultra route behind me and heading west along the N59 towards the turnoff for Roundstone - 71.5 miles done. When passing this junction for the first time in the morning (with just under 5 hours on the Garmin) I had mentally added on 6 hours for the 38 mile loop, giving me an 11 hour target for this point. With the Garmin at 11:10, I wasn't too far off.

The next few miles along the main Clifden Road are a nightmare for John and Denis as traffic is quite heavy, but I feel safe in their shadow and get shouts of "bravo" from a passing Italian camper van. Eventually we are turning south on the road to Roundstone and for some reason I think we are on the home straight - nearly 74 miles done! - Just a marathon left - 5 hours ought to do it - surely I can do that. The road to Roundstone is much longer than I expect and drags on for what seems like an eternity. 12 hour in and I have about 76 miles on the clock - 4 miles ahead of the winner of the Belfast 12 hour last month, I always thought that race was not as hotly contested as the 24-hour.

John's recollection of his pre-race route drive-through on Google Street View is a bit out as he sends Denis forward to wait at a causeway about a mile ahead. Turns out that the causeway is a bridge about a mile or two miles further along - luckily Denis stops well in advance. Despite my rising irritation I manage to run most of this section.

Approaching the top of a hill and still 2.5 miles outside Roundstone, I stop for a pee at the side of the road and John tells me that a car is coming, obviously retaining more propriety that I - "I don't give a f*#k" was my quick response, as Seb and Iain pull alongside me in the now familiar convertible, with Seb commenting - "good to see that your keeping hydrated". Thankfully Iain left the camera in its case. Seb tells me that Thomas is about 3 miles back and is about to be overtaken by Maciej - where have I heard that before?

At last I am rounding a bend and can see Roundstone in the distance across the bay. I set myself the target of running until I hit the checkpoint in the centre of the village, already looking forward to my order of strong sugary coffee and tea brack, that I had placed with Denis 10 miles out. Mick Rice and Valerie Glavin (ultra running legends in their own right) appear at the side of the road cheering me on as the long and winding road eventually takes me into Roundstone. Denis had travelled ahead and informed anyone outside the pubs and cafes that would listen of who I was and what I was doing and the cheers I got as I made my way along the main street was fantastic. It might have only lasted 50 yards, but to hear total strangers calling out my name and cheering me on gave me a great lift - inspirational crewing from Denis.

The coffee and brack tasted great as I made my way up the hill to the final checkpoint, where I was joined on my walk by Mick Rice, who offered me advice on the last 15 miles into Clifden and commented on how close the race was this year with only a few mile between the top 3 or 4. This surprised me a little as usually a 3 mile lead in any race is a reasonably good indication that the win is in the bag - then again anything could happen over the closing 18 miles. As I finished my coffee Mick carried my cup back to my crew and I resumed my slow run - a true gentlemen.

Enjoying a Cuppa on the walk up towards Checkpoint #4

The Last 18 Miles
John had warned me about the hill out of Roundstone, the last real hill of the day. I thought he had mentioned that it was 1 km long so I mentally set aside 6 minutes of running to get me over it (9:40 pace - still too fast). 10 minutes later I was still climbing but I wasn't too troubled as I was in a reasonably good state, with the coffee haven given me a good boost (the first mile out of Roundstone was sub 10 minute pace). I stopped and walked when John caught up with me on the bike and the hill continued to climb up and over the headland, eventually giving way to a gradual descent.

Denis was eagerly waiting for word from Roundstone on how far behind number 2 was. John relayed a conversation he had with Mick Rice in Roundstone about how Maciej normally rallies during the closing 10 miles of the race, by loading up on red bull. This had me worried for a bit until I heard from Denis that Thomas was still in second place and 30 minutes behind with no sign of Maciej. Not that Thomas was any less of a threat. I mentally relax for a bit and took the time to ring Abina. "You're in the lead" she informed me.

I send a text to a friend who I thought was checking my progress through Abina.

"86 miles, 30 minutes clear at 82" I texted.

He responded "I know, following on Facebook. You have had 30 mins all day. Paces even enough so just keep head and you finish in front"

Christ he appeared to be more well informed of my progress than I was. I record my last video blog here before John gets a bit impatient and urges me to stop wasting time and start running again.


Those last 14 miles consisted of 11 miles to Clifden and 3 x 1 mile loops of the town. While I am tantalising close, every mile of progress feels agonisingly slow. I wait until 10 miles to go, while I am passing through Ballyconnely,  to start taking coke, my secret weapon - the intention being to alternate it with the EFS carb drink every 2 miles. In hindsight 2 mile intervals were too long and the effect of the coke wore off well before I was due to refuel. John was gently pushing me for a sub 16:30 finish and I was becoming slightly more irritable as I didn't really care about time and was just pushing for the win. My heart rate was in the 112 to 117 range and my pace pushing over 11 minute miles. I knew that I needed to keep under 11 minute miles to have any chance of getting under 16:30 (based on having to run 101 Garmin miles - allowing 1% error) and for no apparent reason (other that John's gentle nudging) I decided that a sub 16:30 was a desirable target afterall and for the next mile I made a conscious effort to up the pace as my heart rate moved into the 120's and my pace dropped into the 10:20s. In this manner I managed to bang out 3 sub 11 minute miles. I was pleasantly surprised relieved to spot a "Clifden 3km" road sign, when I had estimated that I was still 3 miles out.
There was a gentle rise on the Road into Clifden which slows me down immediately to a 12 minute mile shuffle, surprised at how quickly my energy levels dropped. I ask John how long it is to the start of my 3 lap countdown - "5 maybe 10 minutes at most" he says. The rise up to the town is very slow although I am comforted by the street lights as they herald the end of my journey - all will be over soon. Denis parks up and waits until I have done one lap of the town to check if anyone is close behind me. I pass the finishing line for the first of 4 times getting high fives and cheers for Ray, Seb and co. (my vision isn't the best) - The finishing clock is all zeros as it is not set up yet. John makes sure I follow a path around the town that doesn't put me in the path of oncoming traffic - eventually we pass Denis, who confirms that the mile behind me is all clear. I shuffle on passing the finishing line again, with 15:56 on the clock. 2 miles to go, with just under 98 miles on the Garmin (sub 16:30 assured) John mentions something about a sub 16:20, but I dismiss him, energy levels are getting very low - John directs me onto a footpath to avoid a car coming from a junction and my mind goes a bit awry as I get disoriented coming off the path again, almost stopping completely, I feel so empty - I ask John for a swig of coke as my thinking is a bit fuzzy - the sugar hit does enough to fire up the control centre and return me to some sort of lucidity, although the engine is still running on fumes. I eventually pass the finish line for the pen-ultimate time to great cheers and while I am fully motivated I can only manage a slow death march. With half a lap to go I hear car horns honking, which I assume heralds Thomas's arrival in town. At last I am shuffling up the last rise, turning the last corner and on the home straight punching the air in delight, the clock showing 16:21:59 with John urging me to make one last dash for a sub 16:22. Home at last, I can stop now - I lean on the barrier and am unsteady on my feet but feel elated. Denis and John are on hand to wrap me in a foil blanket, give me my pre-ordered protein drink and stop me from falling over as I conduct a finish line interview with a woman who purports to be from the Guardian (on-line sports blog) I initially assume the Clifden Guardian but she tells me it's the London version.
I am back at the car receiving post race TLC as Thomas passes on his last lap, looking very comfortable having taken 10 minutes out of my lead over the last 18 miles. I suspect that most of those were lost during the last 3 mile shuffle around Clifden, which took nearly 40 minutes to complete (over 13 minute miles). Perhaps if I walked more during the last 14 miles and took on a bit more fuel I may have had a better finish, but not necessarily a better overall time.

I own a huge debt of gratitude to Denis and John for looking after me so well for the entire day, putting up with my rising irritability and making sure I remained in the right place mentally. They are as much winners as I am. 
Despite my best intentions of hanging around at the finish line and perhaps enjoying a pint in the local pub while cheering on those coming in to finish my crew thought it better to return to the B&B to recover, shower and have a bite to eat, which was the best decision as I wasn't fit to do much. However as Denis and John had no problem falling asleep after a long day on the road I didn't sleep a wink as my legs began the long process of repair, with my heart pumping away to provide the necessary oxygen and remove waste products and my head spinning, reliving the day in full detail as I could now afford to pause and reflect on every twist and turn of the hundred miles I had just run, listening to the light rain fall outside the open window, knowing that there were runners still out on the wet dark roads of Connemara, their journey not yet complete - respect.
One of my reasons for signing up for Connemara was to see how far I could push myself, would I descend into a deep abyss, would it break me or would I be able to rise above it. I don't think I ever reached a stage where I touched darkness, except perhaps for my slight wobble at Mile 98, but that was relatively mild in the grand scheme of things. Physically I have been in much worse states at the end of a race - my first sub-3 hour marathon in 2011 and after a 5k race back in 2008 come to mind.
Unfortunately, I have had to face a much deeper abyss over the last week. One that will take a long time to climb out of. 5 short weeks ago I visited my younger sister Cliona in hospital a day or two after she was diagnosed with Cancer. I told her about the upcoming race in Connemara and she said how she'd love to go down as she had previously planned on spending a week or two in Letterfrack with her husband and 14 year old son, but had never got around to it. During the race my family had been following my progress on Facebook and telling Cliona how I was doing. When I had finished she was told that I had won, to which she replied "That's Class". That was one of her last lucid moments. She died 5 days later. The strength and dignity she showed over the last few weeks of her life as she organised her affairs and said goodbye to her Husband and Son will stay with me for as long as I live and no Connemara will ever come close to breaking me the way I am now broken. But I will survive and every year when Connemara 100 comes around i'll be reminded of strength and bravery in the face of adversity for more that one reason.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Connemara 100 - View from the Chuck Wagon

You know you have a good crew when they agree to write up your race report for you. I will write up my own thoughts and perspective on the Connemara 100 in due course but I thought it would be interesting to see how the race unfolded from the eyes of the "Chuck Wagon"

Written by Denis Looney

Edited by John Desmond

Based on a true story

View from the chuck wagon.

Some time ago we were discussing the Connemara 100 and I told Grellan, when he decided to do it, I’d crew for him.  So that’s how I ended up witnessing his stunning performance up close and mostly from the comfort of the support vehicle. Grellan, John Desmond  and I started to put a support plan together the previous Sunday (seriously) during a club run.  John and I left the race plan to Grellan.
On the Friday evening after the race briefing in Clifden, Grellan walked us through his energy drinks and food supplies.  True to his word Grellan had loaded up with every conceivable food that he may need/want on the day.  In fact we made 2 visits (before and after the race briefing) to the Clifden branch of an unnamed German discount supermarket to stock up on more of his possible desires.  (I’m still not sure about the mackerel fillets or spring onions but he was the boss).  Grellan had taken out most of the seats from his people carrier and all supplies were arranged in boxes/coolers/bags where we could easily get at them.  And once we got Grellan on the road, we could quickly get our secret weapon (John’s mountain bike) in and out.
At race HQ on Saturday morning I finalised realised a boyhood dream and hooked up the 2 flashing orange lights to the support vehicle.  And I kept them flashing for the next 16 hours 22 minutes and 8 seconds.  
The plan was for Grellan to walk up the steep bits and we’d supply food at that stage.  He did not plan to stop and eat and we’d supply drinks as he needed them.  We would deploy the bike when we hit the N59 (mile 20ish) through the Inagh Valley and through Maam Cross, giving John Des a break until Leenane.
The first 20 miles from Clifden through Letterfrack, and onto the N59 was pretty easy for the crew.  We’d stop every 2 miles to supply drinks and get instructions for what Grellan wanted to eat at the next walking section.  John Des had driven the course on Google street view and he also had enough Ordnance Survey maps for a military invasion of West Galway.  So we knew where to park and wait.  At this stage we didn’t need to be cycling/driving behind Grellan as the roads were quiet and the runners were close together.
Once we hit the N59 at mile 20 John cycled behind Grellan to give more visibility and I leapfrogged them every 4 miles in the support vehicle.  I’d get instructions from John/Grellan as to what to have at the next stop and hand it over at that stage.  Think of a mobile McDonalds drive thru with a far greater (and more bizarre-turkey slices Grellan??) menu.  In fairness to Grellan he thought of his crew as well.  John and I had our tea and hang sandwiches at regular intervals, plus some mini muffins from the aforementioned unnamed German discount supermarket.  There was an on course rumour at one stage that Grellans impressive pace was partly down to his concern that his crew would eat through his supplies if he didn’t get home under 17 hours.  That’s absolutely not true; we would have left the mackerel fillets, spring onions and carbonated water.  
There are 4 intermediate checkpoints on the Connemara 100, Inagh Lodge, Leenane, Inagh Lodge (again) and Roundstone.  At each one the runner has a book that he needs to have updated by Race officials with the time he/she passes that checkpoint.  At checkpoint 1 I hung around to get the gaps back to the next place runner, (there was no Eurosport cover like in the Tour de France).  From then on as the gap between Grellan and the rest of the field widened, I had to leapfrog to feed , then go back to other places as mobile coverage up there is very poor.  Later in the race we could rely on the race officials to update us by mobile.  No unfair advantage here, as those behind us would know at the checkpoint what Grellans time was and how far ahead he was.  While Grellan kept his 30 minute lead from checkpoint 2, we all knew that could evaporate quickly, even with just 10 miles to go.  Sometimes while I was packing the wagon, one of the other runners support cars would pull up behind me and I’d be nervously think Grellan was being caught.
As the only one of the 3 of us not engaging in any serious physical activity, (John you’d want to get out more on that bike) as well as head of catering and supplies, I also became chief photographer, and head of crowd control.  Especially through Leenane where the passengers of 2 full tour buses were gathered on the footpath and we had to run ahead of Grellan to clear a path.  I was in charge of weather forecasting and media relations (my mobile was on fire once we got reception) but a big thanks to Eagle AC Lady Captain Elaine Guinane for keeping FB updated and giving a central point of reference for all those interested.  Thanks also to Niall who was able to give on course updates via FB.
I also became chief spiritologist.  Coming up out of Leenane (mile 60) Grellans calves started cramping.  In a move that I believe the McLaren F1 team will seek to replicate next year, John D applied Bio freeze to Grellans legs with staggering proficiency.  It was only rivalled by the cutting and application of some nipple protecting band aids in the Inagh valley 10 miles later.   John and I were still a bit worried about our man.  So as “Stop and Pray” church was the next support point after feeding the athlete, I did just that and lit a few candles.  It seems even God was on our side and the cramps disappeared along with the mid morning mists.
John played a stormer on the bike, giving protection on the road.  As we got further into the race and the gaps between the leapfrogging got shorter.  He’d come to me as Grellan passed to order the supplies and carry them off in his rucksack so he could “stand and hand” up ahead.  He also controlled the mix of sugar and salt that Grellan was getting in order to avoid stomach problems which have hampered participants in the past.  John kept Grellans mind distracted as they chatted about the terrain, views and other non race things.  On several occasions’ I could hear Grellan or John laughing about something or other (maybe me) before I could see them around a bend on the road.
Once we got past the last check point at Roundstone (great buzz off the crowd there) Grellan had under 18 miles to go.  As we got further from the check point we were relieved that there was no call to say those behind us had gained any time.  The gap was still 30 minutes.  Then it started to get dark and the little convoy formed up.  Grellan leading the way, like Cyclops with a head torch, (thanks Viv and Colin).  John D on the bike like a Christmas tree with the red and green flashing lights and me at the back with more flashing yellow lights than the earthmovers on the South Link Road over the past year.
I didn’t tell Grellan till after the race, but I got a call from the race officials at our mile 91 to ask where we were, as they wanted to make sure the finish was set up by the time Grellan made Clifden.  All he had to do was not walk!!
We hit the town and I parked up on the first lap to see if anyone was on his tail.  By the time runner and bike had done 1 lap with 2 full laps (2 miles) to go we knew he had at least a full 1 mile lead.
I got the recovery drink, foil blanket and change of costume (first one) and went to the finish line which Grellan had to pass twice more.  His last lap of the town seemed to take an age and it did, but he finally rounded the last corner. He had done it...16:22:08, awesome.  John Des being the ever demanding taskmaster was encouraging Grellan to push and break 16:22, but I think that was just a ploy to get him over the line.
Across the line, John D holds him up, Niall O’Crualaoich checks him out medically.  We give him the recovery drink and wrap him up.  Then Grellan starts being interviewed by a lady who said she worked for the Guardian.  His answers and comments were humorous, relevant, coherent and complementary.   Not like someone who had just completed a 100 mile race, so he was in good shape.  We got him back to the wagon as we wanted him to get his legs elevated and keep him warm.  This proved highly effective as he was in great form when we got back to our lodgings for a late night feast of (you’ve guessed it) tea, hang sandwiches and the last of those mini muffins.

My thoughts
On the day
One thing that struck me in the leap frogging was the amount of distance Grellan was covering each time he passed me and I stayed in position preparing drinks/food.  Or how fast he’d be up to me when I’d drive 1 mile ahead.  He was relentless, a demanding team principal……. .  Not stopping to eat or change costume helped him maintain his lead.  The second thing was that while we knew from the race strategy that certain sections of the main roads would be busy by the time we hit them, I had no idea what time of day it actually was.  I was all focussed on my stopwatch and the car Odometer, (pre historic Garmin).  We only started thinking of the time of day as light started to fade and we had to get bike and runner lit up.
On the preparations
Bring everything you can think of and then some.  You really never know and surprisingly there’s no supermarkets or sports shops on the route.  
On the people
Know who you’re crewing for and know who’s crewing for you.  The 3 of us started Ultra running in Connemara in 2010, (Grellan is the extremist) and we know each other well.
We’ve been on a lot of running adventures and it stood to us on the day.  Grellan may edit this piece out, but when he started his (last) 3 mile loop of the town with a 1 mile lead, I was so proud of (and relieved for) him that I actually became a bit teary eyed.  Ray O’Connor (RD) said something about him being a legend, but I prefer how our fellow Eagle AC Clubmates were referring to him all day, “the Beast” because he devours any challenge you put in front of him.  If you’ve seen the picture of him passing the finishing clock with his arms outstretched, I’m the guy with the big grin on the left hand side of that photo.  Thanks for having me on board Grellan!!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

A Pain In The Ass

Having to run/walk/crawl 38 miles longer than I have ever gone before, i'm just a tad nervous about not having followed a structured 100 mile training programme or in the absence of such a thing not having followed the general training advice of those that have gone before. My longest training run has been 26.2 miles and I'm putting everything on the fact that I have run a few of them over the last few months (6 since 1st June). No back to back 4/5 hour runs that I did for the Portumna 100k in 2011, no training with my planned nutrition for the day, indeed no clear nutrition plan other than  to load up with every conceivable food that I may need/want on the day.
The only thought I have given to my race plan is the fact that i'll need to incorporate some form of walking into the day, following the general advice of "walk well before you have to". While those at the pointy end of things might get away without having to walk during a 100 miler I don't want to test whether or not I am one of those as it will prove very painful and counter productive if I find out at mile 60,70 or 80 that I am not. With this in mind I have done some walk specific training over the last month, but not nearly enough to build up the walking base that I would like. Training the body to walk efficiently at a reasonable pace is very similar to training the body to run efficiently  and just because I can run at a certain level does not mean that I can walk at the same level, the aerobic base may be there, but the muscular base is lagging slightly. Don't get me wrong, most people can walk for a very long time, but to do so at anything resembling a reasonably consistent and steady pace requires specific training. I initially introduced walking into my warmup/cooldown for a few of my runs and then did a few walk only sessions, resisting the urge to break into a trot, which doubled as "patience" training (also required for Saturday). At the back of my mind was a walking pace of 12 minute miles (5 miles per hour), which I initially struggled to achieve for 1 mile, requiring constant vigilance as my mind tended to wander.
While my walking pace improved over the month, culminating in a 10 mile walk at 11:33 pace last Saturday, it is highly unlikely that I will achieve anything near this pace during the race as the effort in terms of heart rate was similar to running at about 9:00 pace ( the whole point of walking is to give the body a bit of a rest) and most of my walking will be on the uphill sections. A 14 mile run/walk the previous weekend, included 3 x 1.85 miles, walking the uphills @ 12:30 pace and running the downhills @ 6:03 pace giving the double training benefit of uphill walking and strengthening the quads on the downhill sections (the quads appear to be the first muscle group to suffer during long ultras - all things being equal at the start). In terms of adaptation, I found that my glutes/hamstrings in particular felt achy after the walking sessions so I am hopeful that I have managed to mobilise/awaken a few additional muscle fibres that I can rely on at the weekend. After all it is likely that my musclular/skeletal system will be the weakest link in my endurance chain - it certainly was the case during the Portumna 100k 2 years ago, where after about 65k (40 miles) my natural pace slowed, matched by a similar reduction in heart rate, suggesting that it was a reduction in the number of muscle fibres that I could recruit that led to my drop in pace. Lets hope that I have mobilised/drafted more recruits into my army of muscle fibres for this weekend's battle and that my battle plan is effective and followed through. Time will tell.