Saturday, 31 May 2014

In pursuit of the little yellow man


"Don't worry, there's 29 running it altogether, so I won't be alone"

"That's what worries me, there's only 29 people in the whole country who think this is normal"

It is 10 to midnight on Friday night and I am standing in the car park of Marley Park next to the board denoting the start/end of the Wicklow Way, talking to my wife on the phone, which is enclosed in a zip-lock bag to protect if for the rain that has been steadily falling for the evening. I had just been dropped off by Rob, my brother in law, who said on arrival
 "You have 20 minutes to change your mind - i'll even drive you to Clonegal tomorrow to pick up your car".

I had resisted the temptation to accept and am now standing with 28 other seasoned nutters, race organisers and assorted support crews.
After registering and handing over my drop bags I take respite in Mark Melia's car chatting away the time before the start with Mark and my cousin Liam, while their support crew, Mark's brother Frank and friend Rob stood out in the rain. The car is packed to the gills with every conceivable thing they could need, all packed away in bags and ice coolers. I had to be more selective in what I included in my drop bags, which I based on what worked for me in Connemara - almonds/pecans/dried figs & dark chocolate (85%) for snacking, salty spuds/cold chicken noodle soup (in plastic bottles, very appetising looking) and Banana/Chocolate milk for the middle half of the race, while leaving the sugary carb laden foods until closer to the end - tea brack/coke - the dried figs were a new addition. I also had my EFS Carb drink that I used in Connemara, which I had in powder form for collection and reconstitution at each drop location. This nutrition plan worked quite well, with the exception of the EFS carb drink, which I found difficult to stomach (I only used 2 of the 5 portions) - so the least carb laden nutrition I have used in any endurance race.

Leg 1 Marley Park to Crone Wood (0 - 22 km, Cut-off 0300hrs)
Following a race briefing by Jeff Fitzsimons, Race Director, on the stroke of midnight we are sent on our way through the winding footpaths of Marley Park, under the M50 and up the first of many hills towards Kilmashogue Forrest, falling in step with Liam, Mark and a few others towards the back of the field. The higher we get the poorer the visibility as the beams from our head torches bounce off the thickening fog and the our vaporised breath. However I lose contact on the technical trail along the ridge between Fairy Castle and Tribadden as my eyesight in the rain and ability to negotiate the rocky terrain isn't the best. Caution is certainly the name of the game at this stage. I am joined by two other runners on the descent towards the Glencullen Road, one of whom is Donogh McGrath (No relation, although my youngest brothers name is Donogh). We eventually join up with Liam and Mark on the climb up to Prince Williams Seat, but 4 of us stray off course (Mark, Liam, Tim Chapman and I) having to double back after realising the error of our ways after 5 or 6 minutes (about 1.2 miles of a detour), making our way through the back of the field. On the descent down through Curtlestown Wood I open up my stride and am on my own, around the flank of Knockree and down to the bank of the Glencree River, taking it very slowly on the steep muddy trail. I can see a string of headlamps behind me bobbing through the darkness as they slowly gain and we arrive at the Crone Wood car park with about 2:50 on the clock - just 10 minutes under the cut-off - well down on where I expected to be. I grab my drop bag (nuts/figs) and am on my way up through Crone Wood, after Richard checks that I am good to go.

Leg 2 Crone Wood  to Glendalough (22 - 50 km, Cut-off 0800hrs)

The cut-off times get more generous as the race progresses partly to allow for increasing fatigue. On the walk up through Crone Wood I am joined by Bertie Harte, Mark and Liam, with Bertie's superior head torch far outshining the rest and a godsend on the climb up through the rivers of water flowing down from Djouce (like full beams versus parking lights) - one or two hairy moments scrambling along the technical rocky trail around the shoulder of Djouce ankle deep in freezing water with Bertie's guiding light like the north star. Eventually we make it onto the boardwalk as the first light of dawn begins to seep through the enveloping cloud. As the light improves we switch off our head torches as we make our way down onto the Sally Gap Road, where Mark and Liam are met by their support crew and stop for a few refreshments. I decline the offer of food, but do drop off my head torches for safe keeping and head off with Bertie up the fire road around the shoulder of Ballinafunshoge heading for Oldbridge. We more or less stick together (with the exception of a toilet break diversion) all the way to Glendalough chatting away, passing 2 guys en-route, with one of them catching up with us before arriving at Glendalough. Bertie decides to change out of some of his wet gear and offers me a replacement base layer but I decline as my philosophy is that if nothing is causing discomfort don't change it - worked well in Connemara last year.

Leg 3 Glendalough to Iron Bridge (50 - 78 km, Cut-off 1200hrs)

My stop in Glendalough is just long enough to pick up my drop bag (banana milk, a salty spud and a few homemade chocolate covered almond/coconut balls). We were told on arrival that there were 14 ahead of us - although some of them could still have been at Glendalough when I left, as there was quite a bit of activity with a few cars in the car park. The Garmin read 6:30 as I walked out of the aid station tucking into my food stash. One of the guys who came in with me passed by at a trot heading towards the upper lake ( In hindsight I think it was Gareth Little as his story ties in with mine). He eventually came back to me as I resumed running and kept a steady pace up the fire road towards Mullacor. I had planned to walk the steeper section towards the top but managed to break it up with a minute on/off  of running/walking as the low cloud prevented me from seeing too far ahead, breaking the climb into bite size chunks.

The top eventually comes within an hour of leaving Glendalough as I make my way along a short section of boardwalk and onto the open moor above the Glenmalure valley. Descending towards the woodland proves tricky as I begin slip sliding all over the place on the wet grassy surface and in one place pulling my right leg back under me which temporarily weakens a few of the knee ligaments, making the descent down the rock staircase to the fire road a bit of a side shuffle to prevent further stressing the leg and to avoid slipping on the greasy slabs.

Route Up Around Mullacor (North to South)

Once I am onto the fire road though my legs come back into their own and I am able to resume a steady downhill run towards Glenmalure, stopping once to pull out the map to make sure I was still on course. As I dropped down the valley I spot another runner in front and come alongside Fergal Connolly as we both make our way onto the road passing the Glenmalure Lodge, where I refill my water bottle from a support crew car, before turning left at the halfway point into another section of forestry for the climb up Slieve Maan. The time is 8:10. Fergal tells me that there are 7 in front of us.

At the forest entrance Jeff and Rob, Race Directors, are dishing out rasher sandwiches and coffee at an impromptu aid station - the smell of rashers frying on the pan is intoxicating - they are obviously acutely in tune with the cravings of an ultra runner. I decline the bread and coffee and take a rasher from the pan and follow Fergal up the fire road.

Our steady walk takes us past another runner who says that he is beginning to struggle - hopefully he'll get a second wind as it's still a long way from home. I walk at a brisk pace with Fergal for most of the climb but gradually pull ahead as I decide that the gradient is runnable and the energy levels are good. Soon I am on the descent and watching out for the left turn along the boardwalk towards the main road at Drumgoff Gap, which I missed in the recce run. I spot it easily this time and step onto the boardwalk and before I know it my feet are whipped out from under me as the traction on the nail studded sleepers is non-existent and I land heavily on the hard surface on the outside of my left leg.

I instantly feel a sharp pain along the entire length of my leg from the hip to the knee (IT Band area)
and when I get up initial attempts at walking are painful and slow. I start cursing and swearing to myself as it is touch and go as to whether or not I will be able to continue. But all I can do is to push on as best I can and see if there is an improvement - lets get as far as Iron Bridge and see how I feel then - maybe i'll get some assistance there (deepheat or something)

Each footfall sends a jolt of pain up the outside of my left leg and my pace slows in response to the truncated stride length I am forced to use to limit the discomfort. Running downhill is particularly painful. I continue on in the hope that the discomfort will subside over time, vigorously rubbing/kneading the muscle along the outside of my leg in the hope that it will promote more blood flow to speed up the repair process.

I manage the climb up and over Carrickashane but cannot take full advantage of the downhill along the fireroad - the steeper the section the more painful the foot strike. I use the opportunity to ring Abina to assure her I am doing ok, but my touch screen phone doesn't respond to touch - feck this new technology - give me the old nokia with the big buttons and 3 weeks battery life any day.

I eventually make my way into Iron Bridge aid station with my tales of woe and get plenty of sympathy, which unfortunately does nothing for the pain. I ask to use someones phone to ring "my next of kin" and after they realise I am not joking they dial the number but there is no coverage. I take some comfort from devouring the contents of my drop bag - cold chicken noodle soup and another salty spud, before sliding up the road with my gammy leg. Time is just before 9:50.

Arriving at Ironbridge - 78k

Leg 3 Iron Bridge to Dying Cow (78 - 105 km, Cut-off 1630hrs)

This leg proves to be deceptively long, as I somehow though, without referring to the map, that there was only one off road section in it. Also I had not seen any runners in front of me since leaving Fergal, despite being able to see up to half a mile in front of me at times. On the walk up through the woods after Ballyteige Bridge I manage to get through to Abina on the phone and tell her that I am doing well and should be finished around half past four, already resigned to the fact that a sub-16 hour finish may not be possible.

The first off road section is relatively short and I am soon on a reasonably long section of road to Moyne, the majority of which is a gradual downhill run. The pain in my left leg becomes less noticeable, perhaps because the fatigue elsewhere in my legs. I'm soon turning right fording a small river and heading uphill cross country where I take an easy walking pace as running uphill is proving painful and too much like hard work. The day is heating up a little now and the layers that were considered so necessary at the start of the race are beginning to raise a bit more sweat. Rounding the side of Garryvoe Hill I spot two people about half a mile ahead entering Mangan's Wood - more than likely fellow runners. I don't see them again over the next 4 km taking me through Mangan's Wood (scooping water from pools with my cap to cool my head) and Coolafunshogue Lane (with all those gates to open and close) eventually leading to the Tinahealy Road. Still no sign of life or any support crews. I jog along the road towards Tinahealy before taking a sharp right up a narrow minor road past Ashfield House. I look back down the valley to the bridge I crossed 10 minutes previously and see a few support crew vehicles pull in and park up - too late for me to replenish my water bottles.

It is just past 12:30 and I am heading off road again along the Muskeagh Boreen, an old road that never got upgraded following the invention of the car and now used as a cattle path around the lower slopes of Muskeagh Hill. I am conscious of keeping ahead of the relay runners, who started at 7 a.m. and finish in Shillelagh, a few km beyond the Dying Cow Pub. With a record of 7 hours plus, all I have to do is to get to the Dying Cow before 1400hrs. Off in the distance I spot the two other runners I had seen previously and as I come off the Boreen and drop towards the road I come alongside Donna McLoughlin and her sister Caroline, who is supporting her. Donna is aiming to break the women's record, which she tells me is 17:20 and I say she should be well on target as I had been aiming for sub 16 hours and while I won't make I won't be too far off. "Will you get under 17 hours" she asks. "Sure" I respond, resisting the urge to say i'll be under 16:30. Donna remarks that she is in much better shape than last year - her head is in the right place but her body is protesting a little. We share the last few drops of water from my bottle and I head off on the 2km+ final road section of the leg to the Dying Cow aid station, managing to jog most of it as it is downhill or flat.

I am very glad to see the Dying Cow as my water bottles are empty and I am a bit overdressed for the warm weather. It takes me a while to take off my reflective bib, rain jacket, top and base layer - back on the (short sleeved) top - off again - i'll use the dry long sleeved top in my backpack - I pull it out and it is saturated - so it is back on with my slightly less saturated short sleeved top. I give my wet gear to Bertie's support guy (sorry didn't get your name) for collection later in Clonegal. I also notice fellow runner Tim Chapman who is helping out at the aid station after having had to drop out of the race (the true spirit of IMRA)

In the meantime a guy sitting on a canvas chair introduces himself as fellow competitor, John Cronin. My clubmate Killian had asked me to look out for his buddy John, when he knew I was running the race and here he was 105km in, relaxing on a chair as if he was on vacation. He says he is at a bit of a low point so after picking up my drop bag (Chocolate milk, a slice of tea brack and a few more almond/coconut energy balls) we walk up the hill out of Dying Cow, joined by another guy who introduces himself as Torben - and there I was thinking everyone at the aid station was a volunteer - runners were coming out of the woodwork. Donna arrives at Dying Cow in great spirits, just as we are leaving.

Leg 4 Dying Cow to Raheenakit (105 - 114 km, Cut-off 1830hrs)


This leg is relatively short and entirely on road. In hindsight I would have preferred if the last aid station had been a further 4 to 6km along the route. I walk up the road from Dying Cow chatting away to John & Torben and drinking my chocolate milk. It is just gone 13:20. As the road begins to level out I suggest that we jog on - make hay while the sun shines sort of thing. Both John and Torben respond much better than I and they pull slightly ahead as we descend to Kilquiggan Cross. John never gets too far ahead and I manage to pull level with him after a while but Torben is out of sight. I suspect he is going for 4th place (there are 3 ahead of us). I haven't the energy to even think about chasing him down and settle into a steady pace with John, looking forward to the next uphill so that I can walk and take on a the rest of my chocolate milk and tea brack, which comes just after crossing the main Tullow/Shillelagh Road. The next few miles are relatively comfortable, chatting away about all things running, as we take our time and walk at the slightest incline - any excuse.  Soon we are climbing "Conorary Hill", a short steep section of road leading to the entrance to Raheenakit Forrest, with Jeff manning the last aid station before the finish.

Torben is about to leave as we arrive, so he is not that far ahead. I stop and pick up my last drop bag (more tea brack and a bottle of coke). My body feels like a dry sponge soaking up the sugary coke into every pore. Jeff wishes us well saying that there are only 11km to go. With about 14:40 on the clock I think surely we'll make the 11km before 16:00. We are well into the last section before we realise that it was closer to 11 miles than 11 km.

Leg 5 Raheenakit to Clonegal (114 - 131 km, Cut-off 2100hrs)

We take our time walking through Raheenakit Forrest feeling a bit sorry for Torben, who we figure must be running scared thinking we are hot on his heels. To be quite honest at this stage we are only interested in finishing and as long as it is under 17 hours we will be quite happy. John had been second last year in 16:01 and he won't be in a position to better that today - not after the "damp" start. Eventually we are back on roads, winding our way around Moylisha Hill to the last forest entrance and the long and winding trail up around Urelands Hill, which appears to go on forever, particularly at the pace we are going at. Eventually we arrive at the forest exit, where we are greeted by a race Marshall, who tells us it is only 5km to Clonegal.. We're on the home straight now, although conscious of the fact that we are unwilling/unlikely to run the entire way, we break it up into a series of run/walk sections which helps divert our attention from the pain and suffering our bodies are experiencing. The finish is tantalisingly close when we can see the church steeple through the trees in the distance, still perhaps a mile off. We break into a jog and manage to hold it together for the closing half mile, passing the "Welcome to Clonegal" sign (never before did I feel so welcome), seeing the last junction ahead with a few supporters cheering us on - around to the left and keep going until we both come to rest against the board denoting the start/finish of the Wicklow Way - 16:51 is the time.
We can stop now  - the relentless forward motion that has driven us all day can be switched off and  what little energy we have left can be used to make ourselves more comfortable (change into dry gear) and refuel (the chipper was less than 50 yards from the finish). This process takes an age as everything I do is in slow motion and I waste a lot of time walking aimlessly around forgetting what I am supposed to be doing. The mind has been working hard for 17 hours and has not only missed it's scheduled breaks but also has been deprived of it's overnight shutdown - it's "me" time now and the body can wait. 
Torben had nothing to fear as he was 20 minutes ahead of us at the finish. Donna came in 10 minutes behind us (17:01) to break the womens record (17:23) by over 20 minutes - fantastic achievement, with Fergal hot on her heels a minute later. Within the next few hours the remainder of the field comes in, including Bertie, Mark and Liam and their respective crews.
John and I finished in Joint 5th, out of 19 Official Finishers.

Finish Line Celebration (L-R) Mark, ???, Liam & Myself
Thanks to
  • Race Directors Jeff & Rob - without their vision and energy, there would be no Wicklow Way Race and I know that many feet will trod the same path that I have trodden in the years to come as this race will only gain in stature and prominence and I will be proud to be able to say that I ran the Wicklow Way Solo in 2014.
  • Race Marshals Adrian, Aoibheann, Richard & Tim and friends - giving up your day to offer support and refreshments to the weary travellers along the by-roads of Wicklow.
  • Support Crews who offered me the same support they were providing to their runners - Frank, Rob and Bertie's guy in particular. 

The Aftermath

I expected my left leg to be sore the following day and it was. But by far the biggest pain came from my right shin - I could not walk on it and had to hobble around all day - totally unexpected as it was not sore during the race but now was so painful. Later in the day Abina gave me some anti-inflammatory pain killers and the pain subsided but I was still limping around the place for a few days and felt a bit under the weather (flu type symptoms) which was probably to be expected given the ordeal I had put my body through - and i'm no spring chicken anymore. I'll probably lose both of my big toenails as my shortened downhill stride tended to push them against the front on my shoes. In an ideal world I would have changed into bigger shoes halfway through the race (or cut away the toe box) to accommodate my expanding feet. My feet are still a bit swollen.

The other main side effect was that I felt a little tired wrecked all week, which I suppose is to be expected. The 6 week coffee depletion followed by a 2 hour coffee loading before the race made sure that I did not fall asleep on the job. John Cronin had mentioned to me that he had felt himself "nodding off" during some of our walk breaks over the closing stages of the race "as you would do from time to time on the couch while watching TV". Another guy I passed before Glendalough (5 a.m.) recalled that he felt fine but that he was very tired/sleepy, which you would expect at that time in the morning particularly if you have ever worked a night shift.  So lessons learnt from this race are "don't fall unless you've got something soft to land on and don't fall asleep especially if you have something soft to land on"
To be fair to Abina she said nothing all week, not even an "I told you so" although she did mention in passing this evening, "you're not doing that again, putting your body through all that".........I couldn't argue with her, it was a reasonable statement that made perfect sense..........but I could feel my mind begin to wander a little and the sound of her voice begin to fade. I'd want to get my hearing checked, this ultra running must be affecting it.

Sunday, 18 May 2014


For the first 10 weeks of the year I was Mr. consistency - averaging 70 miles a week which included a marathon distance run at the weekend around a club 40 minute tempo run. On these days i'd run into town, warmup with my clubmates, run a 40 minute out and back tempo @ 6:30 to 6:45 pace and then run home, making sure I covered at least 26.2 miles. Some of these were a bit of a slogfest but I adapted and they became easi(er) over time. So while I wasn't as prolific at running/pacing organised marathons as I was last year (I still haven't run one this year) I managed to accumulate the same training benefit from my front door.

All this training culminated in the Wicklow Way Ultra on 22nd March, my 11th marathon distance run of the year. The plan after Wicklow was to repeat last years marathon training programme for Portumna, for which last years M40 win entitled me to a free entry this year. The purpose of the early season tempo runs was to accustom me to the harder efforts of the mile and 2 mile repeats @ 6:15/20 pace that the programme would demand. However within a week and a half of Wicklow I was sporting a mild strain in my left calf, probably due to a combination of maintaining my weekend marathon streak and getting lost coming down from Galty Mór on a evening run and having to run a bit longer than planned to get back to the car. As speedwork was out of the question the strain prevented me from starting my marathon training programme and it was back to easy aerobic running. Even this was putting strain on my calf and I had to ease back for a few days.
With the possibility of a serious attempt at Portumna fading the longer my injury prevailed my sights began to shift back towards the endurance side of the spectrum (i.e. all day events). I had two potential targets -
(i) if my injury prevailed I would aim for the Sneem 50 Mile Walk on 24th May. To hedge my bets I introduced a few walk only sessions into my weekly training culminating in a 20 mile 4 hour walk on roads - and you though long runs were monotonous!!!
(ii) if I recovered reasonably quickly I would aim for the Wicklow Way Solo Race, also on 24th May. This race had been on the back of my mind since my cousin Liam mentioned it to me earlier in the year, the only issue being how could I fit it into my marathon training and be sufficiently recovered to give Portumna a good old rattle. The answer was that I couldn't, it was either one or the other and now with Potumna out of the picture, the Wicklow Way was left standing uncontested.
The only concerns I had were that the I had only ever run about 24km of the primarily off-road 131km route and the first 4 or 5 hours of the race would be in the dark (it starts at midnight).
I dealt with the first concern by doing a recce of the entire route over 3 separate runs spaced out over a few weeks, the first as part of a Sunday group run from Marley Park to Glenmalure (km 2 - 65) on 27th April and the remaining two on my own - Glenmalure to Moyne (Km 65 - 91) and Moyne to Clonegal (Km 91 - 131) over the following weeks (a great way to use up excess annual leave). The second concern was glossed over with a 5 mile midnight run on Friday/Saturday, with 3 of those miles through Ballincollig Regional Park wearing my budget Aldi headtorch. It did the job, and spooked a few birds from their slumber in the process. I also picked up a spare head torch yesterday in a Euro saver shop for €1.50 (sans batteries) - and it's brighter than the €8 Aldi version. The days of spending money on "quality" torches  ended when the €50 Cateye torch I bought for my bike gave up the ghost within a few months of purchase (and less than 15 hours of work on the clock) - it couldn't handle the wet (i.e. outdoor use!!!)
So....... with a week to go it is option (ii) that I have gone for (Sneem was ever only going to be a fall back - but I will keep up the walk training) and now it's time to do a bit of planning.
While the race will be supported (drop bag/aid station locations have not been identified yet as it depends on the number of volunteers) I will not have the luxury of having 24/7 attention like I did on Connemara last year so I will have to carry some provisions in a backpack.
I haven't a clue. The cut-off is 21 hours. The combined time of the recce runs is a little over 16 hours, but I was fully refreshed at the start of each segment. To give me some basis for aiming for 16 hours I compared my recent Wicklow Way Ultra time of 4:58 to that of Clubmate Paul Tierney (4:18) and applied the ratio (1.155) to Paul's 2011 record breaking run on the Wicklow Way of 13:39. This gave me a time of 15:46, so sub-16 hours is possible. Then again Paul had full support in his 2011 attempt and I on the other hand will not be drafting in any additional assistance next weekend. So we'll see.........
Getting There
The current plan is to drive to Clonegal on Friday. Walk the 4 km to Kildavin to get the evening bus to Dublin. Get my brother in law to collect me from the bus station and drop me to Marley Park, with a few hours rest in between, run from Marley Park to Clonegal and drive home. I'm even tired thinking about it.