Saturday, 30 March 2013

Two Birds, One Stone... and a priceless Mug

My sister rang me last Monday week to ask would Ani and Saran come up for a week over the Easter holidays to stay with their Cousin Robert, who had been down with us for a week during mid-term. I jumped at the offer and said I'd be up that Friday night. "Great" she said, "Orla (my other sister) will be up with Adrian" (her husband) and my nephew Shane and his partner and niece Aoife and her partner. So there was a right party going on by the time I arrived at 8:30 with the wine and beer flowing till about 1:30 the following morning. I was up again at about 7:30 for a quick cup of coffee with Rob, my brother-in-law, before heading back to Cork. But I had a little detour to take first!

15 minutes after leaving at 8:10 I was in Glencullen in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, standing in the overflow car park of Johnnie Foxes signing up in the frigid morning air for membership of IMRA (€10) and their flagship race of the year "The Wiclow Way Ultra"(€15). For another €5 I could have got a bus to the turnaround at Ballinastoe for the 16 mile Wicklow Way Trail Race, but no half measures for me today.

I met up with Richard, my cousin Liam and Clubmates Paul and Killian. While the temperature was a bearable 1C the wind chill brought it well below freezing, which was enough to keep me waiting in the car until as close as possible to the start time. My gear consisted of compression tights over compression shorts and socks – more for the cold than anything else. I wore a long sleeve compression top underneath a long sleeve cycling top making use of the back pockets for storage. I wore a lightweight cycling rain jacket on top. I also carried a small backpack with a (proper regulation) rainjacket and a bottle of water. My nutrition consisted of 3 gels, a granola bar and a bag of raisins and almonds. I also had a bottle of coke, which I place in Paul’s drop bag at the halfway mark. My footwear was probably the most unsuited to off road running – a lightweight pair of Asics Gel Hyperspeeds, this would be their 8th marathon. My only other shoes were my new Gel Tarthers – lighter again. I had an old pair of off road shoes that I once wore back in 2010 on a trail run but they caused some calf issues when running on paved roads so were unreliable. I would have to risk slip sliding all over the place on the smooth soles of the Asics.

About 50 had opted for the early 8:30 start with about another 80 starting at 9:30, sheltering in the lea of Johnnie Foxes during the race briefing…….”don’t run alone from Crone Wood or you may get lost”….suited me fine as I didn’t even know where Crone Wood was. My plan was to run in a group to the turnaround to familiarise myself with the course and see how I felt then. I had a half notion of getting under six hours, based on Liam and Richard’s 6:04 result last year.
  When the start was signalled a minute or two after 9:30 I was delighted to get going as I was shivering waiting around. The first mile or so was along the main road west out of Glencullen before a left turn and the drop down to the bridge crossing the Glencullen River, with Richard, Liam and I running relaxed near the back of the pack. The next 2 miles consist of a climb up onto the flank of Prince William’s Seat with the fire road gradually giving way to a single file track through the snow where the pace slows as my concentration becomes more focused on where my next step is going to be, hopping over water channels and trying to avoid the soft snow at the side of the track - except when passing out slower runners, which required significantly more energy, trudging uphill through snow not knowing how deep it was and what surface lay underneath.

Eventually the path levelled out and began to drop until it ended in a steep descent through a boulder field, which proved to be my achilles heel as my feet began to slip out from under me on the slippery boulders forcing me to slow down as those behind me, including Liam and Richard, moved ahead with relative ease. The field ended in a steep fire road descent over the next half mile to the car park at Curtlestown, over which I managed to reel in Liam and Richard.

The next km is along a surfaced road after which we turn left along a fire road on the lower slopes of Knockree before descending along a slippery mud path which has me on the flat of my back a couple of times, my backback taking the brunt of my fall – back to gingerly making my way down the path as I get overtaken by those with a bit more downhill running skill and better footwear. We eventually make our way to the bottom of the descent and are running along the banks of the Glencree River which would ordinarily make for easy running along its grassy banks, but is just a mud path that forces me to run on higher ground through rough grass and ferns, that at least provides some traction for my shoes. We cross the river on a footbridge and make our way uphill to the road leading to the Crone Wood Car Park and the ¼ point aid station, where I take a few jelly babies and water, emptying most of the contents of my water bottle onto the ground as there’s no point in carrying too much fluids. All three of us make our way up the fire road through Crone Wood, running at an easy pace and walking the steeper sections, even stopping at Powerscourt Waterfall to take a few photographs. This is a relatively easy section as the footing is good and there’s no sign of snow.

Powerscourt Waterfall - Look at Me

That’s all about to change though as we reach the top of the climb and scramble down a rocky slippery descent with the snowy slopes of Djouce facing us across the Dargle river. The initial climb up Djouce is a walk up rocky steps where the route is well defined. However this gives way to a snowy wasteland where the only route I know is to follow those in front of me as I splay my feet sideways to avoid slipping down the slope (a bit like cross-county skiing, without the skis). Where I can I run along the rocky bed of small streams of meltwater sacrificing cold wet feet for good traction. As we make our way around the flank of Djouce the path is single file along the contour where I continuously lose my footing as the undulating surface which is hidden beneath the snow and I am either plunging through knee deep pools of freezing meltwater or slipping down the slope to the left and then overcompensating by leaning into the slope and having to steady myself with my right hand –which explains the muscle soreness afterwards in my right fingers and arm. My feet have gone completely numb and may not thaw until the race is over. Progress is slow but relentless as I concentrate on the feet of the runner in front of me.

The videos below are  borrowed from Brian Ankers, taken on the slopes of Djouce and along the boardwalk.

Eventually we make our way onto the boardwalk, an 18” wide raised timber walkway above the surrounding boggy landscape – except this time the snow is level with the walkway and in some places covering it so it is difficult to follow a route and keep my feet on that 18” wide corridor. I just follow the feet of the girl in front of me – one impatient runner jumps onto the snow and trudges his way past. With visibility reduced to 20m in places I’m content to ride the train of single file runners. The boardwalk get slippery as we begin to descend along a series of steps and I have to slow down. By now the front runners are coming back against us as are the leaders of the trail race, and the path gets increasingly congested with runners coming against us. Eventually we are descending the fire road to the turnaround at Ballinastoe Car Park, the snow gradually disappearing the more we descend.

We reach the turnaround a few seconds past the 3-hour mark, a little disappointing but not bad considering the conditions. I retrieve my bottle of coke, have a few raisins and almonds and chat with Liam for a few minutes. A few of the 8:30 starters are waiting for a lift back to Johnnie Foxes, including Eamon, one of my fellow pacers from Tralee the week before - not willing to face the challenge of Djouce for a second time – who could blame them – this is not your typical ultra and these 100 marathon guys, probably had another marathon to run in the morning.

As we are about to head back up the hill Richard comes in, so we wait for him to get fuelled up before heading off. I notice that the upper mesh of my left shoe has come away from the sole between my big toe and arch and hope that the shoe stays intact for the return leg. Thankfully my feet have thawed out and feel ok. The Garmin shows 3:10 as we head off, still reasonably confident that a sub-6 is possible if I keep the head down but not too concerned if I didn’t – after all this is not an A race – not even a race really – more of a pilgrimage – Irelands version of the Camino, only more Spartan.

As we walk up the road I break into a trot so as to keep my arms swinging which increases the blood flow to my freezing fingers, encased in saturated gloves. I assume Liam and Richard will catch up, but do not see them until the finish. The return leg not as difficult as I know what’s in front of me. Trotting along the boardwalk I pass one or two runners but a guy in an orange jacket keeps on my tail which keeps me on my toes around the flank of Djouce, smiling to myself as I slip and slide all over the place through pools of meltwater on my knees and arse, greeting Dave Bradys of Raheny Shamrocks on his 273rd marathon (I think that’s what he said) still with Mr Orange on my tail. He eventually passes me out as the descent to the Dargle River gets more technical but I catch up on the short climb up to head of the trail down through Crone Wood and pass him and a few more out as I open up my stride on the more familiar footing of the gravel road descent to the ¾ aid station at the Crone Wood car Park, stopping for a slice of mars bar and a gel that another runner had left on the table, too lazy to retrieve a gel from my back pack – I only took it because it was offered – my energy level were quite good.

About 8 miles to go with 4:40 on the clock – should still be on for a sub-6 hour finish. My other marker was that I had about an hour to run after passing the marathon mark – based on Liams run last year. Progress was slow along the bank of the Glencree River and up through the muddy path towards Knockree, which I walked. I was lucky to come across one or two other runners at critical junctions as I could have strayed off course. Passing 26.22 miles with 5:13 on the Garmin I knew that the sub-6 was gone. Running around the side of Knockree I stop and walk with Frank McDermot for a few minutes before setting off again heading for the Curtlestown Car Park and the last climb of the day back up toward Prince William Seat. I walk most of the hill stopping twice to take a few photos and eat my granola bar and swig back the last bit of coke. 
Looking Back

Flank of Prince Williams Seat

When I resume running I pass a few of the trail runners on the descent and as the trail descends towards the Glenmullen River with about 2 miles to go I notice, when passing through a kissing gate, that a guy I had passed at Curtlestown is chasing me down and I revert to racing mode, but only slightly increasing the pace to see if the challenge is real or accidental. At the next kissing gate he is only 10 yards behind, so I open up the pace a little more and at the back of my mind am confident that if I continue to run the uphill section after crossing the Glenmullen River, I will keep him behind me as he was walking an uphill when I had originally passed him. I don’t look back (sign of weakness) as I plough on up the hill passing 3 or 4 walkers resisting the urge to stop and walk – can’t let up now until the finish line – this is the most stressful part of the whole run, but the asics come into the own and don’t let me down. The road levels out and I pass two guys from Newry during the last half mile and I eventually see the top of the goal posts at Glenmullen GAA Club – where the race finishes - one last push – around the corner and the finish line is in front of me and I can stop – 6:12:18 on the Garmin. Delighted to have finished my first off-road ultra on a tough day.

Liam came in about 6:30 with Richard a few minutes later. By the time they crossed the line I was shivering and we still had a half mile walk back to the car park at Johnnie Foxes, where we changed and refuelled in the pub which was packed with Paddy’s Weekend revellers bussed up for the Guinness and Traditional Irish Music, an “authentic” taste of Ireland - the Guinness was very tempting but unfortunately I had a 2 ½ hour drive back to Cork in front of me.

My shoes just about made it back in one piece - I just might squeeze another marathon out of them.

The results have me finishing in 49th Place out of 112 finishers with 21 DNF. My time of 6:13:40 was based on time elapsed since 9:30, eventhough we did not start until 9:31+, which explains the slight discrepancy with the Garmin. Perhaps if I hadn’d stopped for the photo shoots and at the half way mark (10 minutes) I could have scraped under the 6 hour mark – but it wasn’t a day for a was all about the Mug.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Beautiful Day

I broke my week long fast this morning. Or should I clarify - my week of intermittent fasting. Sat at the breakfast table in the Brandon Hotel (Tralee) nursing my black sugarless coffee, watching John, my fellow 3:30 pacer, scoff down a plate of scrambled eggs and toast after a bowl of rice crispies was enough to sent me scurrying to the buffet for a plate of ham, egg and sausage -mmmm! After all I had a responsible job and needed proper fuelling.

I had already suffered at the hands of Tom (head pacer)  the night before over a pint, warning me that I better not collapse on the course from malnutrition or bonk and come in a few seconds over 3:30 (that's a mortal sin apparently, punishable by 4 penalty points and regulation to the second division - the graveyard of "standby" pacers - only right too if you ask me - fair play Tom, it pays to have high standards in sport ;-)

It was the perfect morning for running, just above freezing but getting warmer as the sun rose revealing clear blue skies with the snow capped Mount Brandon clearly visible off to the west at the end of the Dingle Peninsula - this was going to be a great day for Tralee. The town had changed a lot since I worked here 20 years ago, learning to dive off the Magherees, long before I took an interest in running. My memory of the course, or what I knew of it (patchy as it turned out), being that from the perspective of looking over a steering wheel - relatively flat with a few undulations. I had heard there were a few hills, but coming off the Clon B2B's , I wasn't worried.

There was a good buzz at the start line, next to the Aquadome, with about 600 lined up for the marathon start at 9 and at least the same for the half marathon start, 20 minutes later. Irish International ultrarunner, Keith Whyte was the sole 3 hour pacer, with John and I at 3:30, Denis (whom I travelled down with the night before) and Tom at 4:00, Eamon at 4:30 and Pat & ?? taking up the rear at 5 hours (a nice tidy crew - the A-Team). Denis, John and I had manned the Pacer stand at the expo for 20 minutes the night before, with the only enquiry coming from fellow Pacer Eamon asking where he could get some food and a pint.

I met clubmates Annemarie (going for her second sub 3) and her sister Colette (running the half) and wished them well, along with Thomas (also going for his second sub 3). After the wheelchair start (Gerry Forde) and a group of local charity runners the main field was off, through the streets of Tralee, to great cheers from onlookers.

We settled into a steady pace with a good crew of runners, including clubmate Ann, heading out towards Ardfert with road undulating, but generally up for the first four miles. Great support at Ardfert (Mile 6) as we turn left along quiter country roads towards Barrow. The locals in the group were warning everyone about the short steep hill around the 10 mile mark and the long drag at Mile 21 as the worst of the hills. We pick up the pace a little on the downhills to make up for the slower uphills. Mile 9.5 to 11.5 is an out and back, where we spot Thomas, working hard on his own ploughing a lonely furrow, well ahead of the Keith's 3-hour group (including Annemarie), which pass a minute or two later. We slow the pace for the quarter mile steep hill at Mile 10 - certainly a challenging climb as the 50 second cushion is whittled down to 5 seconds by the time we hit the 11 mile mark on the return leg, passing Tom's and Denis's 4 hour group heading out. C'mon the 3:30's - still a good crew with us.

We now turn south passing the halfway mark with a 20 second cushion and heading for Fenit, a few ups and downs challenging us along the way. The next out and back from Mile 14 to 16, takes us through Fenit and out to the end of the pier with music and fantastic crowd support to keep everyone motivated. After the turn, we notice Ann has fallen off the pace a little. The cushion turns to a 37 second deficit as we pass the 16 mile mark - it must be in the wrong place as our pace over the last few miles has been around the required 8 minute mile mark. We can't take any chances though - what if the earlier markers had been wrong and out cushion was never there - unlikely perhaps but we up the pace to the 7:30's over the next  downhill mile, passing the 17 mile mark with a 10 second deficit. The next mile is the shortest as our 7:4x pace takes us to the 18 mile mark with a miraculous 90 second cushion - back on track.

The road in from Fenit, through Kilfenora and Spa is busy with traffic, but marshalls ensure there are no issues and most motorists slow down and offer support as we pass. There's still a good group of 8 to 10 runners with us as we pass the 20 miles mark and turn right heading south through the Kerries with the 90 second cushion still intact. We lose some of this on the long rise between mile 21 and 22 as we enter Tralee. A right turn takes us west away from the town towards Lohercannon and Blennerville with the cushion now down to 50 seconds. Most of the group we had been pacing are about 100 yards ahead with us picking up one or two in their wake, including Mike, who is suffering - aren't we all at this stage in a marathon. It seems to take forever to reach the end of the road before we're heading back east along the canal path towards Tralee.

For the last two miles we have a group of 4 or 5 running along the tow-path and pick up one or two more (Russel from Maidstone Harriers and Nick, running for Cork Simon who had been with us from the start and had gone ahead at mile 22), offering encouragement to keep with us over the last 10 minutes - no time to quit now, so close to the finish - Mile 25 passes with a 45 second cushion. Soon we are off the path and heading through the streets of Tralee. Mike who had miraculously hung on over the last 3 miles has gone ahead . We pass Mile 26, turning left past the Brandon as the crowd support thickens (great turnout), shouting back to "Maidstone" (Russel) and "Cork Simon" (Nick) who have fallen off the pace, using the cushion to slow down so that they can bridge the gap to us - left into the town park for the last 200 yards, great finishing chute, turning to encourage two final runners to cross the line in front of us, with about 15 seconds left on the clock before the 3:30 bell rings.

You couldn't have asked for a better day to run in the inaugural Tralee Marathon - beautiful cool sunshine, scenic course, excellent crowd support all along the route, with plenty of water stations and attentive marshalls and a great finishing experience in the town park to cap it all off. Well worth it.

Well done to Thomas and Annemarie on their second sub-3 hour marathons and 1st place finishes (M40 & Female), great acheivement to you both. As for me, i'm very happy with my 3:29:44  95th place finish, which should keep the pacing gaffer happy, for the moment. I'm sure he'll acknowledge it in due course ;-)

I've spent the rest of the day pigging out and am feeling pretty bloated so it's time to come off the glucose high and return to the slow fat-burning monastic diet tomorrow. It was good while it lasted.

Have a great Paddy's Weekend.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Stuck in Gear

My 4th MAFF Test at the track this evening hasn't demonstrated any improvement in my aerobic base over the last 6 weeks, which is disappointing. The only (slight) improvement has been in the drift in pace from Mile 1 to 5.

It could be due to the cold weather, particularly as my HR monitor was showing 173 during my warmup and was a bit erratic even after it settled down, during the first mile - but even if I discount the higher heart rate for this mile my average heartbeats per km would reduce to 623 - still well short of where it should I want it to be.

It could be due to my recent diet changes (see previous post), although I did have a light meal 2 hours beforehand and did not notice an lack of energy during the session.

I'm not too worried yet as I have another month before commencing race specific training, so i'll give it another go in a few weeks.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Lab Rat

Experiment #1

Last Tuesday morning I headed down to Waterford to offer my body to science. I was taking part  in a study to analyse the impact of running in "minimalist" shoes as opposed to "traditional" running shoes on VO2 Max, Oyxgen consumption etc - all part of a final year project for one of the students doing a Sports Science Degree.

First my shoes were weighed – My old pair of Gel Hyperspeeds weighed in at 225g each compared to the 142g for the Vibram Seeyas. Then I was weighed at 84,500g or about 13st 4lbs in old money – no wonder I’m finding it difficult to move around these days. On the plus side my height at 184 cm (6’) had not changed since I last checked.

Next I was fitted with a heart rate monitor and headgear supporting breathing apparatus so that the oxygen and carbon dioxide in my breadth could be measured. A nose clip ensured that all my air was passing through the one orifice. My performance was also recorded on video (side on only) to monitor changes in my gait between both sets of footwear.

Each “Sub-Maximal” test consisted of 3 minutes warmup at 7 km/hr followed by 3 minutes at 10km/hr and the final 3 minutes at 12 km/hr separated by about 10 minutes of rest in between. The switch between paces was instantaneous, which was a bit disconcerting. So all reasonably comfortable, with no running to exhaustion. Apparently you can determine VO2 Max without the traditional treadmill test to destruction.

Once the results of the "experiment" have been complied, collated and interpreted they will be e-mailed to me (about 2 weeks). I'm not expecting anything revolutionary but i'd be interested to see if any nuggets of wisdom come my way.

Experiment #2
On Thursday Ani, my 13 year old Daughter, was conducting an experiment of her own by taking part in a school organised 24-hour Lenten fast for TrĂ³caire (Charity). In order to support her I decided to also forgo the luxury of eating for 24 hours and while she could have the odd cup of soup (only right for a growing girl - 13 is a bit young for fasting if truth be told) I confined myself to water or tea from Wednesday night until Friday morning. With my ample stores of fuel I should have no problem in supplying the necessary energy to survive one day without filling the tank. 

It's not the first time I have fasted and having seen a TV programme on the long term health benefits of intermittent fasting last year it got me interested in how regular fasting might impact on running, particularly as recovery from hard sessions is all about refuelling within the 30 minute window after stopping, to aid muscle repair. Then again running in a fasted (glycogen depleted) state in training should increase my efficiency in metabolising fat as a fuel source leading to more efficient fuel burning when racing in a glycogen rich state. There's plenty of articles out there in the googlesphere on the pro's and con's of intermittent fasting - how it only leads to muscle wastage - yet it's very popular with bodybuilders apparently - how it regulates insulin levels, high levels of which suppress fat breakdown in fat cells and inhibit the release of fat into the bloodstream to supply energy to the body. There's only one way to find out.....................

As it is a traditional time for sacrifice in Ireland - I am already off wheat, sugar and processed foods for lent (what's left you may well ask) - I decided to have a go at a bit more deprivation (motivated somewhat by my less than ideal racing weight - I have obviously compensated for the lack of wheat and sugar) and conduct and experiment of one by trying out the very simple "Fast-5 Diet" which involves limiting eating to a 5-hour window every day (5 to 10 p.m.) and fasting for the remaining 19 hours. There are no rules about what or how much you eat but obviously the healthier the better. Sounds simple, but the transition is likely to be "interesting". I'm 3-days in and while the temptation to binge was there for the first day or two to store food for the following day (and there's nothing wrong with it), it has abated somewhat as sleeping on a full belly is not the most comfortable. I may just have to bring my 5-hour window forward an hour or 2 - although the recommendation is to commence the fasting period with an overnight sleep. It doesn't seem that crazy when you consider that we all generally fast for 12 hours every day without noticing it (and I've never woken in the middle of the night feeling hungry) I've certainly learnt that short-term hunger is not in the least bit physical and gets no worse as the day progresses - but it's early days. Let's see how it goes.

The man who deliberates fully before taking one step will spend his entire life on one leg.