First of all, apologies for the insanely long report. I had a lot to say.
I trained a lot for this marathon, more than ever before, and with 10 days to go I was very optimistic I was going to do really well. Unfortunately, disaster struck in form of a cold that I most likely picked up from Shea. I was feeling rather low for several days, and kind of recovered by Thursday – just 3 days before the marathon.
We (that’s me, Niamh and the kids) drove up to Galway on Friday evening. The drive took much longer than expected (the roads are crap – and busy) and didn’t get to our B&B until 10 pm, and then had a hard time putting the kids to sleep. I tried to take it easy on Saturday, and it worked out ok, but taking it easy has a rather relative meaning when you’re looking after 3 children all under the age of 5.
I got up early on Sunday, got ready and left for the bus. The transfer to Maam Cross (the hub of the marathon) was smooth, but as soon as I got off there and was looking forward to some breakfast, an announcement came that everyone participating in the Full marathon had to proceed to the busses and take a bus to the starting line. There are 3 different races, an ultra-marathon of 39.3 miles that goes in a big loop, a full marathon, where you are dropped off 13.1 miles into the ultra course, and a half, obviously starting another 13.1 miles later. The start time for the marathon isn’t exact, the field leaves as soon as the top ultra guys have passed. The same goes for the half, the start for that is as soon as the elite marathoners pass that point.
Well, the leading ultra guy soon passes our way (running 6:10 per mile average!!!) and off we go. I had been rather cold at the start line, and was deliberating what to wear. Eventually I settle on shorts and a t-shirt with a wind/rain jacket on top.
Half a mile into the race I know that this was not my day. I still feel the effects of the cold, I feel a bit light-headed and rather unsteady on my feet. Any ideas of doing 8:20 miles immediately go out of the window and I run in what is closer to recovery pace, about 8:50 to begin with. I keep that going until the first water stop, about 3 miles in, where I think about bailing out. If this were a training day, I would definitely bail, but it isn’t and I decide to plod on. I get a shock when I look at my heart rate monitor. Despite running so slowly, my heart rate is all the way up at 175. I cannot possibly run a marathon like this and decide to abandon any idea of running the course and start walking until the heart rate is back around a more bearable 155 before running again. This keeps happening a few times over the first 10 miles. I think of Rob, and how he once said an ultra is always run in the mind. I’m not running an ultra but decide to follow the advice – just put your mind to it, ignore the time, just keep going until the end. The course is gradually making its way past Connemara National Park, of which we don’t see much because of the very low clouds. I feel very hot under my jacket and curse myself for not running in a t-shirt. The course steadily climbs uphill, and from mile 7 to 8 it’s a much steeper climb (well, not that steep). At mile 10 we suddenly descend rather abruptly into what is Ireland’s only fjord. I start to feel a bit better at that point, and manage to run several miles without stopping, I also start overtaking people from this point on – until mile 10 I felt like running at the very back of the pack (though looking back a few times I see plenty of people behind me).
We pass the half way mark in a village called Leenane (my time so far is about 2:05 – by far the slowest I’ve ever passed the half way mark), and the course immediately begins a rather brutal climb of about one mile and a half, gaining over 70 meters of elevation in the process. This is where my training comes in handy. While just about everyone around me is walking, I manage to run the entire climb. At one stage, about half way through the climb, a painful spasm shoots through my left hamstring. I just about manage to avoid a cramp, and continue running. I fact, I speed up a little, to use the muscles in a different way (Bob Glover recommends that in his book). The other problem is the wind. From here on, for all the 12 miles until the finish we are running into a rather strong head wind. There is no cover anywhere, and all we can do is battle against it. From the highest point then the course gradually falls a few meters over the next few miles, and then there are rolling hills until mile 22 – but more of that later. I feel much better at this point. It feels like I had to suffer the first 10 miles by running that cold out of my system. Once I reached a certain point, the proper running could finally begin. I constantly overtake other runners. It’s not that I’m speeding up – I just manage to keep my pace constant while everyone around me is slowing down. The only people overtaking me along that stretch are about 5 or 6 ultra runners – that’s 2 women and a few guys, all of whom are going to finish in the top 10. I’m feeling good at that stage; it is by far the best stretch of the course for me. I have a few short conversations with a few runners as I pass them. “How’s it going?” “This is the life, eh” (this one nearly makes me laugh). I get a few compliments on how relaxed I’m looking, while everyone else seems dead on their feet. I don’t feel overly relaxed – the quads and calves are gradually getting heavier and heavier, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I am doing really well until mile 22. If this were a normal marathon, I could try and match my time from Dublin 18 months ago, and make it my second best finish, but unfortunately, this is not a normal marathon. At mile 22, I reach the point everyone has been dreading all along. Welcome to the Hell of the West.
The Hell is a continuous climb of 1.8 miles. It is not particularly steep, and if it were at mile 1, everyone would say it’s tough but manageable. It’s not at mile 1 though. It’s after the 22-mile point. What makes it worse is that EVERYONE is walking it. I start running it, but looking up I hardly make any headway to the walkers in front of me. It’s soul-destroying work, and eventually, after what seems like running forever, I start walking too. I run/walk up the hill, still overtaking plenty of other people (that now also include the slow coaches from the half). After what seems an eternity, I finally reach the summit. It even provides a very nice view, though neither me nor anyone around me is in any way inclined to enjoy the moment – the climb took too much out of everyone. It’s also freezing cold. I estimate that on that Hell climb alone I lost about 7 minutes compared to what I would have run on a flat course. The next mile is downhill, but of course my quads are shot to bits at that stage and I can hardly pick up my knees – I don’t think I gain much time compared to what I would have done on the flat. Once we reach the valley it’s another mile of winding road towards the finish – it’s around the 25-mile marker that I get overtaken by the only two marathon runners since mile 10. Those guys have plenty of pace left – I wonder why they didn’t run faster on the first 25 miles. Never mind, I plod on and even have a little bit of a kick left in me for the last 0.2 miles after the 26 marker.
I reach the finishing line in 4:11:45. It’s nowhere near my personal best, and nowhere near what I know I can do, but on the day it was the best effort I could possibly do. I still had the effects of my illness in me, and it just wasn’t my day. But I know I am (relatively) strong. I ran the second half only two minutes slower than the first, despite the fact that it’s a much more demanding part of the course. I must have overtaken 100 people on the last 16 miles, and only got passed by 2 (plus the top ultra ones). I’m convinced that on a flat course I would have broken the 4-hour mark, despite the slow first 10 miles. I’m not disappointed, I feel rather pleased with the effort and the fact that I kept going despite feeling slightly ill. I always regarded this marathon not just as a race on its own, but as a further step in my development as a runner. If my HR monitor was correct, then my average heart rate was 167 – 88% of my max – that’s insane, and I don’t know if I can trust this reading. But even if it’s not correct, with the course and my after-effects, I rate this effort higher than the 3:55 I ran last October.
I’ll rest for at least one week – anyone who sees me on the road for the next 7 days had my permission to shoot me. I might even rest for another week after that. Then the preparations for Dublin 2006 start. No rest for the wicked, and Dublin doesn’t have the Hell.