Monday, March 27, 2006

A Cold Day in Hell

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.


  1. Oh my goodness Thomas. I kept reading, expecting you to say you had stopped. And I wouldn't have been surprised. What an ordeal. What an effort you gave to pull out that time. You *must* rest now.You should be very proud of your race!

  2. Thomas, you are an IronMan! I don't know how you kept going. You must have a very strong will. Congratulations on overcoming! Yes, now you must rest!

  3. I thought the same thing as Susie! I think your time is awesome. Take plenty of time for recovery! Well done Thomas.

  4. Thomas,I cheated and skipped ahead to read the end 1st. You ran an awesome race despite your lingering illness. Rest up, dust off and back into it at your higher fitness with better results to come down the road.

  5. Way to dig in and power through, Thomas! Not too shabby considering your recent illness. Nicely done.

  6. Thomas - that's great! Way to push through the illness and work it out. You should be very proud.

  7. Congrats Thomas. That is an awesome time when you take into consideration everything that was working against you.

    Rest up, get completely better and then turn your attentions to Dublin! When is that?

    When you have time, please can you look at the comment Trish left on my blog? I'm not sure if you have any advice for her...?

  8. Well done, sick and dying and still finishing in 4:11, way to hang in there! Good weather is coming and I know you're going to smoke Dublin!

  9. Great report Thomas! Way to stick it out and put in a great effort. That course sounds like a brutal marathon course, but a nice ultra. It is interesting the way they combine the three races. Enjoy the rest.

  10. Great race! Way to hang in there and tough it out!

  11. CONGRATS!! Nice way to stick with it even though you felt bad at the beginning. and 4:11! that's really a great job considering all the hills and wind and you still being sick. congrats again and enjoy some rest!

  12. "...but on the day it was the best effort I could possibly do."

    Then you should not have any complaints, Thomas.

    Great job!

  13. Well done Thomas!!!!
    When you felt like throwing in the towel, you didn't. You gutted it out and went on to have a great time considering all you had going against you.
    You should be very proud of yourself, I know we are!

  14. Thomas
    I know connemara pretty well and know some of those hills like the back of my hand - the one out of Leenane is pretty tough I know. I can empathize with you, but I've only done those hills on a bicycle so instead I reamin in AWE of your acheivement. Like Susie, I kept expecting to read that you bailed - but you didn't.
    Good on ya...take some time, put the feet up and tell you war stories for deserve it.

    Well done, congratulations - you beat the connemara hills!!!

  15. Well done, great job despite the ordeal. Now rest well.

  16. I also cheated - I looked at the side bar to see the time:) Your report is a great description of what you went through, and the whole experience reminded me my January race (flu, HR, strong second half and overtaking people), and most importantly - you feeel good about yourself! That WAS the best effort for the day, time really doesn't matter. You are the only one who knows if you gave it your all, and if you think so - that's that. Great run! Really, really great.

  17. Oh Thomas, what a great marathon you ran! I could almost feel the wind in your report, I learned a lot from it.
    It looks more like the terrible hell-hill was the one who stole your 4 hours break, that certainly you'd had reach, if you weren't sick.
    Hope that feeling of accomplishment stays with you for a long time, you deserve it!!

  18. Why you think your HR was so high, were you feeling that way?

    Could it be the excitement of the day or the illness?

    Or maybe one more trick of this devices...

  19. Thomas,

    What a painful read! I kept cringing as you described each mile - then the hills! Gotta hand it to you, you sure are tough. That heart rate is amazingly high. I wonder what was happening? Good job.

  20. You gave your absolute best to the race that was placed before you...a race that many others would have dnf'd if they were in your shoes.

    You stayed smooth and strong!

    Well done!

  21. Great run Thomas. The terrain and waether sounds brutal. Glad to see that you flush the cold out of your system during the run.

  22. hi - congrats on finishing. I have run 5 or 6 marathons since becoming a is HARD. There is no way to understate the extra demands that parenting puts on your body. Just the germs that are constantly being brought in with your kids, and if that wasn't enough, the utter lack of rest to fight them off. (the germs, not the kids)

    It is not the most satisfying way to finish....I could have written that post myself about my 2005 marathon. Trying for 3:50, got the scrappiest, ugliest, 4:00 in history. I also have said the words, "it's the best effort I could possibly do today". But as time goes on, hopefully you will become friends with your finish, and really learn to appreciate yourself for being there on the starting line.

    Life gets easier as the kids get older. there will be a time you can indulge yourself in rest, recovery, massages, sleep (check dictionary for definition) , all of those components that help you achieve your goals. For now I'd say you're doing pretty decent. you're in the game and you're not too shabby.

    And when you're ready to really focus on nurturing your own talent instead of the kids, you will have all of this race experience in the bank, getting to the line under adverse conditions. You will be able to make a big withdrawl someday.

    Oh, not to mention setting a fantastic example for your kids in every way, with balanced priorities. Congrats again from NYC!

  23. WOW THOMAS - considering you were ready to quit at mile 3 - that is an extremely impressive finishing time. Add to that the tough course and conditions, and you should be proud of your finishing time. Congrats.

  24. You know the effort was there and that's all you have control over, right?

    Great job Thomas! I certainly know your dissappointment (I've been there) but you really rocked on a difficult day with extra challenges thrown in the mix.

    Right on Bro!

  25. not much more that i can say that hasn't already been said :), but yes, great job and great effort-and great attitude as well. go get 'em in your next one :)

    (i'll make sure to tell the illness and weather gods to grant you a free pass for your next marathon :) )

  26. Way to go Thomas, I am glad that you stuck it out. Those days where we "survive" give brilliant contrast to the race where it all comes together! I am sure it is not far in your future. You are an inspiration to all of us Diaper Changers!

    Curt Malam