These were the words of advice from Denis Looney at the track last Tuesday for the Portumna 50k this morning - and he was spot on. There's something about running 10 x 5k loops in a forest park that takes the marathon+ feel from the race. Was it the loops, the lack of mile markers (there were km ones alright) or the fact that my Garmin died after 7k. There were none of the Marathon mind games that you usually encounter when racing 26.2 - "13.1 - only half way there" - "16 miles, 10 to go" - "Mile 20 - the real halfway" - "Mile 24 - will this ever f#c*ing end". Maybe there's something about counting down 10 laps that tricks the mind into believing that things won't be that bad and "it'll be all over before you know it". It might be a bit different if you're counting down 400 laps of the tartan track in Bangor next month to get your head around 100 miles (actually 402.3 laps in lane 1).
Four of us travelled up to Portumna last night with Myself and John having travelled the road last year and Neil (who kindly provided the transport) and Charlie being the ultra virgins. Although Charlie had covered ultra distances in training. He's that type of guy - HARD. We met up with clubmate Jo Fearon who was covering the 100k. Jo had a Texan in tow, Gabby, who was in Cork for 2 weeks teaching "cheerleading" - I kid you not. Fierce popular apparently "Go Rebels Go". She was running her first marathon, with her longest run to-date being 25k - ouch!
We all dined at a local hostelry before retiring to the B&B for the night - but not before we got the low down from Gabby on life in Texas - guns, coons (as in racoons), snakes (As well as rattlers they have a non-poisonous "Chicken Snake" - and we worry about foxes), fire ants, guns, scopions, deer hunting, guns, running in the heat, cheerleading moms, guns - did I mention guns - apparently you can have a kiddies birthday party at a shooting range - and we worry about sending our kids to Monkey Maze!
John, Charlie and I shared a room and slept reasonably well before the alarm went at 6. We rose quietly, dined on ambrosia cream rice and coffee. Charlie had instant porridge (for the first and last time). Turns out the carb content of the cream rice was quite low as, surprisingly, the rice content was listed as 9%. The rest was milk and gunk. Still it went down well, unlike the higher carb porridge.
We got to the start line over half and hour before the start, scheduled for 8 a.m., two hours after the 100k start. The usual suspects were there.
Barbie Frankie and Ken were down from Dublin ( The urban version of Podge and Rodge), Tom and the Sixmilebridge brigade (fresh from his "never again" Cork marathon), Pat O'Keeffe on marathon No. 72, Paul back for another 100k, Eamon Dargan camping out for the short race ;-). I met up with Ray Lanigan before the start, a solid 4:50 in the the Connemara 39.3 mile ultra and a 47 mile 6-hour race in the UK had him in very good shape, targeting sub-3 hour marathon pace for the full 31 miles - close enough to 3:30. Also lining out was last years winner, Mike "Curley" Cunningham (3:44) and Course Record Holder Mick Rice (3:24:40). There are about 71 running the 50k, 86 in the marathon and about 27 already out on the course nearly 2 hours into the 100k.
About 10 minutes before the start I turned on my Garmin and the battery low symbol came on (Very sloppy preparation). I managed to use Ken's in-car charger to get 5 minutes charge into it and with 2 hours on the 100k clock we started on the first of our 5k loops. John, with a sub-4 hour target ran alongside me covering the first km in about 4:47 (My plan was to start around 4:50 and ease up towards 4:30 over the first few miles. There are about 6 in front of us, including the leading lady and last years winner, Deirdre Finn (3:58).
With water stations at the Start/finish area and at the 2.5km turnaround there is no problem with hydration. My nutrition strategy is fairly simple - a pocketful of gels (5 in all). We cover the first 5k lap in a few seconds over 23 minutes (3:50 pace) - just where I want to be. My aim was to cut down to 22:30 laps (4:30/km or 7:15/mile) and hang onto to them for as long as possible and if I feel good after 25km, push the pace towards 22:00 (4:24/km or 7:05/mile) - unlikely perhaps, but you'd never know. The out and back section to the 2.5km mark is perfect for seeing how far in front/behind other runners are.
We are joined by Seamus at the start of the 2nd lap, 2 weeks after his 3:05 in the Cork Marathon. His target @ sub 4-hours is similar to Johns. Deirdre Finn and another runner are running side by side about 200 yards ahead with the 4 front runners out of sight - Ray chasing down the lead trio of Shane Whitty, Mick Rice and Mike Cunningham. My Garmin dies completely at the 7 km mark. I'm not too bothered. In fact I feel free of the constraint of clock watching and happy to be paced by Seamus, for the moment, and to check my 5km splits at the start/finish clock. John drops back a little during the second lap which comes in about 22:30 - on target.
Early in the third lap we are joined by a guy from Lithuania introducing himself as "Amber" and complaining about a week spent drinking and working 12 hour shifts. All three of us pass Deirdre's running companion, who has fallen off the pace, before "Amber" moves ahead, mistaking the 11km mark for 11 miles. Seamus and I remain in joint 7th and 8th spot. At the 12.5km turnaround I take my first bottle of water. Seamus keeps a steady 7:20 mile pace, which I am happy to stick with. Before the end of the third lap we both catch Deirdre and I take my first gel. Lap 3 comes in another 22:30 (approx - I'll have to check the results when they come out.)
During lap 4 I gradually pull ahead of Deirdre and Seamus, maintaining what I feel is a steady comfortable pace - everything feeling fine with no niggles. The varying surfaces of paved road, gravel path and woodland walk offer respite from the normal monotony of a single running surface. 6th place, with no sign of Amber, But I feel he is running a little too fast and will come back to me before the race is over. I finish lap 4 in about 1:30:3x, a minute and a half up on 3:50. If I could bring that cushion to 5 minutes a 3:45 result may be possible. At this stage I am lapping the back of the 50K field and obviously passing the 100k runners. Jo, who is using the 100k as an entry into the Western States 100, was looking good, with over 3 hours on her legs.
I maintain a constant pace and feel reasonably strong with Lap 5 (the half-way point) coming in 1:52:xx - doubling to 3:44:xx "Could a sub 3:45 be possible". The gap back to Deirdre and Seamus has grown to over a minute and John, who complained of a tightening hamstring in lap 3, is still maintaining a steady pace behind them. I take my second gel halfway through lap 6. Coming in to complete the lap (30k in 2:14:xx) I hit the back of the marathon field, which started 2 hours into the 50k (4 hours into the 100k). The course becomes a bit more congested but still passable but it is now more difficult to spot other 50k runners on the out and back section, having to look at the numbers more closely to identify them (Blue strip for 50k, Yellow for the mara and green for the 100k) and when I spot someone with a blue strip a few 100 yards behind me I don't know whether they are gaining on me or whether I've just lapped them, (people look different from behind) relying on relative pace to make a educated guess - still enough to instill a little panic once a while.
Somewhere during lap 6 or 7 I pass "Amber" and move into 5th place. The front runners are well ahead and I know this is the best I can do, but obviously not the worst. My pace remains close to 22:30 per 5km for laps 7 and 8, although the effort is getting noticeably harder Lap 8 (40km) comes in 2:59:16, allowing 2 x 22:50 minute 5ks to get under 3:45. A tough ask as my legs are feeling heavy and fatigue is rapidly setting in. During the first km of lap 9 I feel relatively strong but the feeling doesn't last too long. Still I push on and take my 3rd and last gel at the turnaround (Marathon in approx 3:09:xx). My running now feels heavy and dead and the slightest incline and headwind tend to push negative thoughts into my head. I had been worried about being lapped by the front runners but was sufficiently ahead of Curley to ensure that was not going to happen (Mick Rice was about 75 seconds behind with about 3k to go). In the absence of a watch I feel my pace has slackened and need to dig deep to keep my leg turnover.
Lap 9 (45km) comes in about 3:22:30 still on a reasonable pace and while I am encouraged by the fact that I am on the last 5k it's much more difficult to keep my mind on the pace. I pass one or two marathon runners, trying to ignore the mind games that come with comparing my pace to those around me. The last lap is all about keeping the forward momentum and not losing too much time. I know my pace has dropped but I try to ignore the pain and the urge to ease up. I can rest once I cross the finish line. The last 2 km is all about counting down the time using my cadence as a counter (90 steps per minute). This helps to distract me from the discomfort and eventually I can see the finish through the trees and while I can hear footsteps behind me coming into the finish I know it is a marathon runner and let him pass. The clock is in sight just after turning to 5:46 (3:46 for the 50k) and 10 second later I am finished and shaking hands with Race Director Seb Locteau. Another marathon runner coming through behind me complains that it's not fair, presumably because he has a few more laps to endure, being only 1:46 into his race.
A lie down with my legs elevated for 10 minutes to gravity assist the repair process followed by some gentle physio gets my legs back to reasonable shape. John comes in a few seconds under his 4 hour target, having exchanged places with Deirdre Finn over the last lap, with Seamus not far behind. I think there may have been another guy under 4 hours, but I'm not sure.
Mike Cunningham managed to hold off Mick Rice to take first spot in 3:27:xx with Shane Whitty 3rd (I think they are all M45 Runners) and Ray Lanigan not far behind him in 3:34 (Correction 3:32). To come in 5th behind these guys (both Mike and Mick have 2:46/45 marathon PB's, Rays PB of 2:57 is soft) is not a bad result.
Both Neil and Charlie, were very happy with their first ultra outing, promising on the return journey, to return next year. The best tribute anyone could make to the unique event that is the Portumna Marathon, 50k and 100k - relatively small friendly crowd, excellent support and great setting. Hats off to Seb Locteau and his team. Unfortunately Jo had to pull out of the 100k after 11 laps (55k) as her legs were giving her trouble and she did not want to risk a 2 to 3 month layoff by pushing on. Plenty of time to qualify for WS100.