Sunday, 27 July 2014

In the Grove

I'm sitting on a canvas chair in the porch of a 4-man tent, pitched on the grass in-field of the Mary Peters Track in south Belfast at 6:30 on a beautiful sunny Friday evening. In fifteen minutes time I will be starting a race that will take 12 hours to complete and it suddenly dawns on me that in my haste to get everything together over the last few days I forgot to draft a race plan of any description. What pace will I go out at, how long will I be able to maintain it, when should I ease back, when will I have no choice but to ease back, should I walk at all, when will I eat/drink (at least I had sorted the what). I pull out the pen that came with the race goody bag and start scribbling a few splits/paces on the number pinned to my shorts  and get frustrated when the pen slides over the glossy surface without leaving a make - "fuck it", I put the pen away and lie back enjoying the last few minutes of the evening sun, "I have plenty of time to sort it after the race starts. Sure what else will I be doing for the next 12 hours". For the first time since arriving shortly after four with Ani, Saran, their cousin Robert and his Dad Rob (the driver) my mind is calm. Everything is done - time to switch off the mental and turn on the physical.
The gang, who have all gone off for something to eat, are only there for the craic (with some mild arm twisting from me - this is the first day of a short camping trip) as opposed to providing physical support to me. I don't really need it and it's not mandatory for the 12 hour race. My nutrition (chocolate/banana milk, a few salty spuds, carb drink, salt caps, nuts/figs/dark chocolate, soup, coffee & tea brack) is laid out in a plastic container on a table in lane 5 (the 12 hour and 24 hr relay runners are confined to lanes 3 & 4 , with the solo 24 hr runners in lanes 1 & 2). There is a timing mat at the end of the home straight with a large screen that will display your name and lap number every time you cross the mat (this proves invaluable)

We are called to the start line by race director Ed Smith and without much fanfare we are sent on our way - just shy of 50 doing the 24 hour, 4 relay teams and 10 or 11 doing the 12 hour. I had heard that one guy had taken the option of starting the 12 hour at 6:45 a.m. on the Saturday morning and finishing with the 24 hour group. I had briefly considered this option but thought that the benefit of a relatively cooler nigh-time temperature would just about offset the effect of running through the night. After all I had run through the Wicklow mountains during the night without any noticeable ill effects.
My early pace is pedestrian relative to the front runners of the 24 hour race and Ger Copeland running the 12 hour, who laps me after 2 laps - I had heard before the start that he was aiming for the 90 mile mark, which would be well beyond my capability and I was certainly not going to test myself by keeping pace with him, my strategy being to run at a comfortable aerobic pace for as long as my legs would comply. However the fastest guy on the track by far is Paul Martelletti, who is over from London to race 100k in order to qualify for the world championship (qualifying time is 7:18 for the GB Team)

Early Days

After 9 or 10 laps I get into my stride and start reeling in some of the 24 hour runners including Thomas. My plan was to use him as a general guide  to my target as he was targeting the International B Standard of 220km, which more than likely meant somewhere around 120 to 125 km for the first 12 hours. With my glasses left in the food container I have to squint to see the lap numbers on the  screen adjacent to the timing mat, not that it was necessary to see my progress so early in the race.

The laps continue with Ger Copeland putting in a great performance and lapping me quite frequently. After 2 hours the 24 hour relay runners change over and Ray Lanigan, running for team Donadea AC, greets me as he passes by. As I had eaten quite well over the 48 hours leading into the race (subconscious fuelling) I only took on water (and a Salt Cap) every 20 or 30 minutes deciding to refrain from taking on any calories until I have completed my first marathon (102 laps = 42.3 km), which I do in 3:35. A lap later I take on about half a bottle of banana milk as I walk a lap for the first time in the race. I have no problem resuming running and decide to break the rest of the race into 2 more marathons, deciding to take another walking break half way into my second marathon (153 laps) and more frequently thereafter.

Four hours into the race we are instructed to change direction after we cross the timing mat, Ray Lanigan wishes me luck as he finishes his first of 3 x 2 hour relay runs, saying that he will be back in 6 hours, which will coincide with the last 2 hours of my race. With Ger Copeland way out in front I think I am in second place, having lapped last years winner, Aidan Blake, a few times. With two thirds of the race remaining it is very early days and I try not to think about having to run for another 8 hours.

Shortly after 11 the organisers turn off the music that is playing out over the loudspeakers around the track and all I can hear is the beep....beep...beep as runners cross the timing mats at the start/finish area. The music had been a bit of a welcome distraction and I don't look forward to listening to my footfalls and the constant beeping of the timing mats for the next 6 to 8 hours so I ask Ani, who is practising her long jump with Saran and Robert along the back straight  (another distraction) for a loan of her Ipod shuffle - a few laps later she hands it to me already playing (so no fiddling required) and while her music choice might be different than mine it proves to be a life saver over the next couple of hours as an antidote to running in the early morning darkness - not too dissimilar to nightclubbing, but with less effort.

After 153 laps (marathon and a half) I walk a lap  for the second time and take on some of my EFS carb drink. The last half marathon has taken me about 2 hours, which disappoints me as I had been expecting to run the second marathon in under 4 hours. In order to mentally break down the next marathon and a half into manageable chunks (little rewards) I decide to refuel after every 5k (12 laps approx) alternating between water/S-Cap and chocolate/banana milk or carb drink. I decide that I do not need to take on any solid food at all. I rely on Ray Lanigan, who was double jobbing as race support between his relay stints, to replenish my water bottles from the stock on the race organisers table in the in-field.

I have covered between 166 and 167 laps after six hours which I equate to being about on target for the 306 laps required for a 3 marathon finish or 310, which I equate to an 80 mile finish. I notice that Ger is lapping me less often now and when he does I follow him to the timing mat to check how far ahead he is - 22 laps!!! (my 168 to his 190), that's over five and a half miles - He never moves too far ahead and after a lap or two I pass him out and while I am approaching a scheduled walking refuelling break I decide to run on for a few laps as I do not want to show any sign of weakness. When I do stop and walk for a lap I notice that Ger does not pass and when I ask Frank McDermot a few laps later where Ger is he tells me that he has pulled out  of the race due to injury - and there I was thinking that he had blown up after going out too fast. Ger's misfortune had suddenly catapulted me into the lead and I began to get all emotional - don't know where it came from but unexpected highs and lows are part and parcel of ultra running.

Just before the 7 hour mark Paul Martelletti, who has been churning out fast laps (passing his first marathon in 2:54), weaving in and out between the 24 hour runners, finishes his 100k (6:57 and change) easily meeting the qualifying standard. At 7:27 I have completed 204 laps, finishing my second marathon in 3:52, which gives me a relatively comfortable 4:30 to complete my last marathon. I deserve a break for doing so well but defer my walking break for a few laps, all the time making mental bargains with myself to keep me motivated - it's so tempting to ease back and take a break for no apparent reason other than you deserve it for working so hard.

I am woken out of my ultra trance when Aidan Blake passes me for the first time in the race shortly before the 8 hour mark. This shakes me up a little and although I am 12 laps ahead (3 miles), that is no cushion as all he has to do is lap me 3 time an hour to win the race and obviously he is getting stronger as the race progresses. Time to dig a little deeper. I decide to track Aidan for a few laps as we change direction for the last time and while I had scheduled a lap walking break I found no difficulty in maintaining a run. I was pleasantly surprised that I was still able to comfortably maintain a high aerobic heart rate (actually well into the 140's at times) after 8 hours of running and close to 90 km in my legs. Historically in ultras I found that after 60 or 70 km my heart rate reduced as I am unable to recruit enough muscles in my legs to maintain pace.

My next target is a sub-9 hour 100k (PB is 9:16), which I think I will achieve easily but I don't cover the necessary 242 laps (100.35km) until 8:58. Just over 3 hours to go - can I maintain 10km/hr for a 130km finish. I leave the track for the only time during the race shortly after the 9 hour mark to go for a pee. For the last few hours I had been maintaining a delicate balance between water intake and loss through sweating to avoid having to take a whizz. My next reward is a cup of coffee and tea brack, which I defer for as long as possible - i'm good with delayed gratification - ultra running is all about making bargains with yourself. As I am walking around the track with cup in hand in the early morning dawn, Aidan passes me, so I push the remaining brack into my mouth and track him around to the start/finish mat to check my lead, having to detour close to the TV screen to make sure of the lap numbers - still 12 laps clear - I can afford to pour myself a second cup of coffee. When I resume running he is half a lap ahead and I maintain the gap for a few laps and he gradually comes back to me over the next 30 minutes - our paces are very similar. I do not relax though as he does not appear to be taking any breaks.

Last Hour - Glasses on to check the scores on the doors

With 70 minutes to go the shuffle packs up, having served me well for the last 5 or 6 hours. Once I hit the 290 lap mark I start counting down the last 20 laps to my 310 target, getting encouragement from Don Hannon (winner of the Wicklow Way Race), who had to pull out of the 24 hour due to an on-going metatarsal injury. I retrieve my glasses from the nutrition box to keep an eye on the lap numbers, covering 306 laps in 11:37, giving me my third marathon in 4:10 - only 4 laps to go to my 310 lap target. With 15 minute to go I take Don up on his offer of a red bull, which goes down well as it has come straight from a cooler but I can't tell if it gives me a kick or not. I pass the 310 lap target with over 10 minutes to go and plough on as I reckon I need to cover 313.5 laps to get over the 130k mark. As the last few minutes tick away one of the 12 hour guys goes flying past me trying to eek out a few more metres before the finish, I pass the mat for the final time covering 315 laps, pick up the flask of minestrone soup from my food stash and walk for the last few seconds before we are asked to stop, knowing that i'll have to wait until Ed measures the part lap I have completed and using the time to take on some sustenance, chatting away to the 24 hour guys passing, getting congratulations from Thomas. Mark Melia and John O'Regan as they pass, with Anto Lee stopping to join me for a cup of soup. I also get a "well done" from Barry Thornton as he goes flying by on the start of his 12 hour journey, the only person separating me from the winners trophy  - he's looking very strong and has me worried. Surely I looked that strong during my first lap - lets see what he is like in 8 hours time. Ed measure my part lap as 134 m, which gives me an overall distance of 130.76 Km (81.25 miles)

I return to the tent, elevate my legs for 20 minutes, which works wonders, take a shower and lie down for a hour or so while Rob takes the kids away for breakfast. I spend the rest of the morning hanging around with the kids, keeping on my feet and occasionally checking to see how Barry is doing - he covers his first marathon (102 laps) in 3:28, 7 minute ahead of me - still early days.

We head off in the afternoon to visit the Titanic Quarter and get something to eat, returning to the track around 4, still too close to call, I reckon I have a virtual lead of 2 or 3 laps but Barry is running well and if he maintain his pace could beat me by about 2 or 3 laps. We busy ourselves packing away the tent and retreat to the stands for a while as a light rain falls. I am too nervous to relax, I return to the track side to offer encouragement to the 24 hour runners, who must be going through the world of pain, with quite a few passing the 100 mile mark. With about an hour and a half left, Barry stops and walks and does not resume running but continues to walk for the remainder of the race. This is surprising as he had been running quite strongly and consistently up until then,although I am inwardly relieved as my win and £100 meet record bonus is secure.

I am at the trackside to witness Thomas achieve his 220km International B Standard shortly after 23 hours. He looks absolutely shattered but breaks into a smile as he crosses the line and continues on to finish in 4th place overall, behind Irish Internationals John O'Regan and Eddie Gallen, who finish joint second having run the last 10 or 20 laps together, behind the winner Jan Uzik, another Cork man, originally from Slovakia.

Looking back, running for 12 hours around a track was not as tough or monotonous as I had expected it to be and of all my long ultras (100k and up) it felt the least difficult and to-date (1 week later) my recovery has been the quickest it has ever been (not a sign of the customary gout) - maybe i'm getting used to them or maybe, for the first time, I did not enter the longest race on offer - is it time to step up to the 24 hour challenge?

12 hours of running and 12 hours of waiting

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Catching Up and Moving Forward

My recovery from the Wicklow Way was hampered by the injury I received on the outside of my left leg. My resting Hr the day after the race was 57, coming down to the 40's during the following week and gradually coming back down to 38/39 in the last few weeks, where it was before the race. I had planned on continuing with the ultra training by running the Portumna 100k, with a view to going for the 24 hour in Belfast tomorrow, but the slow recovery scuppered that plan. While I had missed the deadline for entry (first 50) I got onto the waiting list (7th in line), but when the offer of a place came a few weeks ago I declined and opted instead to go for the shorter 12 hour race and see how I fare.
I have no great expectations going into the race as my training has been very much up and down over the last few months and nothing like the structured approach to my Marathon PBs and Connemara 100 last year. I certainly feel like it's the least prepared I am for an ultra. I am over 5 kg heavier than I was at my peak last year - so no pressure then - but while my body knows that, try telling it to my head when I toe the line tomorrow evening. It should be good fun all the same, watching the 24 hours race unfold from the relative conform of the "short race".

Half my problem is that I am content to just enjoy my training runs at the moment, still basking in the glory of last years achievements, which continued into this year when I received the ultimate honour from my peers in Eagle AC at the club awards night in March. Surely I can get a bit more mileage out of this before I have to start thinking about new goals.