Sunday, April 29, 2007

Relax? Don’t do it.

Where to begin? Well, firstly, the race is not until next Sunday. Does “Sunday week” have a different meaning on the other side of the Big Pond? Over here it means “Sunday in one week”. Therefore I still have seven day to get ready (and faster).

Secondly, the house is still standing after Friday’s invasion. The barbarian hordes come through, ate the kitchen dry, and left with very little damage. A garden light is broken, and I think that’s all of it. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and the twins truly had a day to remember. Despite all this, Niamh has decided that next year they both can invite a finite number of friends, maybe 6 each. I’ll bet you she’s forgotten by then, though.

We had a big bouncy castle in the garden, and of course I had to test it with Shea (ahem). Let’s call it plyometric exercise. I was knackered after two minutes on it. I don’t know how the kids managed to bounce for the whole afternoon.

This is a running blog, you say? Oh yes, I might have forgotten temporarily. I did another tempo run on Friday, with very heavy legs initially. I did question the wisdom of playing an hour of soccer on the evening before a tempo effort, but somehow felt very good once the faster section started. I managed to surprise myself with 4 miles in 27:20 (6:50 pace), despite not pushing all out. Like on Tuesday I still felt good after 4 miles, but opted to slow down for the cool down anyway.

Saturday called for a slower recovery effort. After all I’m supposed to be tapering now. 5 miles in over 42 minutes were all I had time for, because we had to drive to Millstreet for a “Disney on Ice” show. It’s a birthday present for the twins, especially for Lola. They loved it, even though we had told them they could not have any of the overpriced merchandise. They just enjoyed the ice dancing. Lola was really funny. When she saw Minnie Mouse, she said "That’s just a person dressed up". But when the princesses came on, she commented “so that’s what Princess Jasmine looks like in real life.”

Remember last Sunday’s tempo effort? I wasn’t too pleased with the result. After 5 miles of tempo I felt like lying on the side of the road. Today I repeated the exercise, and was much happier about it. I’d still like to be faster, of course, but I did three tempo runs this week, each one faster than the previous one. The sequence more or less continued (same pace, but on a hillier course), and I felt much better after 5 fast miles than seven days ago, despite running a bit faster (lower heart rate though). The times for the 2.5 mile segments were 17:44 and 16:56 (6:53 and 6:46 pace respectively), giving me a total of 34:10 (6:50 pace) for the entire tempo section. My improvement this week has been quite remarkable. I don’t quite know if it’s because the tempo efforts are getting my body used to the higher effort, or if I’m just shaking off the last effects of the ultra, but I’m pleased all the same.

I still can’t rest, after the birthday party on Friday and the Disney show yesterday we have to go to Killarney where Lola is taking part in a ballet performance (two actually), and we’re making it a family day with picnic and all. I’m sure I’ll get some rest, somewhere and somehow. I just don’t know quite when yet.

27 Apr: 8 miles, 59:27, 7:25 pace, avg. HR 154, with 4 miles in 27:20 (6:50 pace)
28 Apr: 5 miles, 42:12, 8:26 pace, avg. HR 146
29 Apr: 9 miles, 1:05:40, 7:17 pace, avg. HR 160, with 5 miles in 34:10 (6:50 pace)

Weekly Mileage: 56 miles

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Watch that Foot

After Tuesday’s tempo run it was time for another long(-ish) effort on Wednesday. In fact, this was my last long run before the race, because, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I intend to have some taper for this race. I originally intended to do 15 miles, but then changed my mind, because I’m pretty sure that a lack of endurance will not be my problem during a half-marathon. So I cut it down to 13, mainly because it meant another 15 minutes of sleep.

The legs just took off, and I went along for the ride. My mp3 player got fried during Monday’s rain (it did that before and recovered eventually), and I've rejoined the silent masses, at least temporarily. I felt surprisingly good, Tuesday’s tempo effort didn’t seem to have much effect on the legs. The turnaround point is on top of a big hill, so the second half was always bound to be faster than the first one, but I still didn’t expect to cover the 6.5 return miles in about 49 minutes (7:32 pace). Wow! I wasn’t even trying to push the pace. The whole run took a few seconds over 1:41, which is pretty much the time I ran for the race last year, and that was my PR back then. Sure, the workout was a bit shorter than 13.1 miles, but it certainly bodes well for Sunday week.

There had to be a drawback to such a run, and it came with less than 2 miles to spare. All of a sudden my right foot started acting up again. It was a different pain than last time, all of a sudden my toes started to feel sort of numb, which brought back all kinds of worries about a neuroma. I didn’t get the sharp pain with every toe-off, just a weird sensation in my foot. And it was while wearing my favourite Asics Nimbus, so it’s definitely not just the Nike 360’s who are to blame. I’m a little bit worried about this, but not really for the race. If I get a pain with 2 miles to go I can always grind my teeth together and push through it. Even if it slows me down, it won’t cost too much.

Since that run had been much faster than originally intended I decided to take it easy again today, with 8 miles at a slower pace, plus I added a few strides to the second half. After a few rainy days the weather has turned very nice again and I ran in glorious sunshine. That should bode well for tomorrow – it’s the twins’ birthday, and with about 30 kids invited the bouncy castle and the climbing frame in the garden will be vital. I hope the house will still stand by the time the festivities have ended.

25 Apr: 13 miles, 1:41:17, 7:46 pace, avg. HR 154
25 Apr: 8 miles, 1:04:05, 8:00 pace, avg. HR 150, including 8x100 strides

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


We’ve had some very nice weather over the last few weeks, which is very unusual for this part of the world in April, to say the least. Of course everyone agrees that we deserve a nice spell after the lousy winter, and that it probably means we’ll have a lousy summer, too. Anyway, all good things come to an end, and yesterday was when the nice weather ended, at least for now.

I had planned 10 miles and accordingly set the alarm for 6 o’clock, but when all I could hear was wind and the rain outside I did something I haven’t done in a long, long time: I reset the alarm and went back to bed. I did get up 40 minutes later for a 5-mile run, and somehow the weather didn’t seem as bad then. It was still windy and rainy, but it was definitely manageable. My legs felt very stiff, not surprisingly after Sunday’s tempo run. I tried to run as easy and relaxed as I could. Niamh was still asleep when I got back home, and after breakfast I told her how I had gone back to bed because of the weather. She started praising me for finally showing some sense, but when I told her that I actually had been running, just a bit shorter, she could only roll her eyes. I guess it means it’ll take some more time to develop some sense for me.

Today’s conditions were much more agreeable; the wind was still there but the rain was absent, and I went out for another tempo run. Not as fast as Sunday, I tried to do what I think Lydiard would call a ½ effort in contrast to Sunday’s ¾ effort. The legs still felt stiff during the 2 warm-up miles, but felt amazingly fresh once I started the tempo section. It was quite remarkable, by keeping the effort just a tiny bit lower than on Sunday, with heart rates in the lower-to-mid 160s (Sunday’s were in the high 160s/low 170s, and up to 180 on a steep climb), it felt so much easier! I felt better the longer it went on and I guess I could have pushed for more than the 4 miles, but decided not to overdo it and backed off. I was surprised when I calculated my pace, despite seemingly putting in a lot less effort I was just a handful of second slower than on Sunday.

I feel a lot better about this effort than I did two days ago. As Mike correctly guessed, I’m shooting for 1:30 (how did you know that? Are my training paces so easy to read?), and after Sunday’s run I really did not think I would be able to do it. Today I’m a lot more optimistic. The legs seem to come round to that pace very quickly, and I still have some time to get them up to speed. I’m quite sure I’ll be in 1:30 shape on a flat course, but unfortunately the half is rather hilly. I’m not sure how much that will cost me.

23 Apr: 5 miles, 41:56, 8:23 pace, avg. HR 146
24 Apr: 8 miles, 1:10:12, 7:39 pace, avg. HR 156, including 4 miles in 27:44 (6:56 pace)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Tempo Limits

First things first, I did indeed run the 12.5 mile Kerry Way loop on Friday morning, and to my relief my right foot held up just fine. The thought of a neuroma was just paranoia on my part, and I guess the ones amongst you who commented that it was just bruising were probably right. The run went pretty well for the most part, but there is a long climb, starting at mile 5 and going for, I guess, three miles, climbing over 250 meters (800 feet) in the process. That was seriously hard work, and I kept thinking, “This used to be easier”. However, once the worst of the climb was behind me I really started to enjoy myself; running up there with the view across Caragh Lake and towards the mountains is just magical. I even brought the camera to capture some of the magic, but it was a dreary, cloudy day and the lighting conditions weren’t right. Besides, I got such a good rhythm going that I felt loath to stop for a photo.

Niamh had to go off early on Saturday morning, and I decided to take a rest day. I didn’t fancy getting up early on the weekend, and running in the evening doesn’t appeal to me any more. However, I woke at 6:20, and I was still awake at 6:30, 6:40 and 6:50, and then I got fed up with tossing and turning, and went for a short run after all. I tell you, there’s a part of my subconscious that really doesn’t want me to rest. I kept it easy enough, because I didn’t want it to interfere with Sunday’s planned tempo run.

Today is exactly three weeks after the ultra and two weeks before the half, and since I really wanted to get the legs used to running at a faster pace, it was high time to do so. I haven’t done too many tempo runs through my ultra training; the long run double-headers didn’t leave much room for faster running. Of course I haven’t got much time before the half to get my legs used to the desired pace, and I guess I won’t be at my very best. I’ll still try to do as well as I can. Anyway, the day didn’t start too well; I woke with a sore throat and a chesty cough. That’s supposed to be a sign that I should run at all, but after taking some medicine and hanging around for two hours I convinced myself that I was well enough to run. I used the first two miles to gradually up the pace, and the following 2.5 miles out and then back again constituted the main part of the run. The warm up miles took just under 15 minutes (~ 7:30 pace) and the 5 mile tempo effort took 34:22 (17:38 and 16:44 respectively), which equates to a pace of 6:52 (7:03 and 6:41 for the two halves). To be honest I’m slightly disappointed with that. The headwind on the outward stretch had been pretty strong, so much so that I kept thinking that I should have opted for mile repeats on the more sheltered Ard-na-Sidhe road instead. But I kept going, and obviously the return leg was wind-assisted. I had planned to decide at mile 7 if I fancied two more miles at tempo pace or if I would slow down to a cool-down effort instead, but I was seriously hanging on at that point and two more miles of torture didn’t seem palatable. The calves had been singing the ode to pain for quite some time and by that point the quads had joined the choir, and I just had to slow down. The final two miles went by in a comparatively pedestrian 15:52, giving me a combined time of 1:05:12 for the entire 9 miles; not my best by any means, but all I had in me today.

I’ll have to decide if I can add one or two more tempo efforts before the race. It’s a balance between getting the sustainable pace up (or the aerobic threshold, even though that’s physiologically incorrect) and being well rested for the race itself. I usually don’t taper for anything less that a marathon, but since this will be my last race of the “season” I don’t have an incentive of training all the way through.

20 Apr: 12.5 miles, 1:41:18, 8:06 pace
21 Apr: 6 miles, 50:12, 8:22 pace, avg. HR 147
22 Apr: 9 miles, 1:05:12, 7:14 pace, avg. HR 166, with 5 miles in 34:22 (6:52 pace)

Weekly mileage: 57.5 miles

Thursday, April 19, 2007


A few days ago, maybe Sunday or Monday, just as I was finishing my run I stepped on a stone outside our driveway and felt a very sharp pain in my right foot. Because I was just 20 seconds away from the end I didn’t think much of it, especially since the pain went away as soon as I stopped running.

I ran 10 miles on Wednesday, and all went very well, until 2.5 miles from the end. All of a sudden the pain in my foot was back, and I was in absolute agony. With each toe-off a sharp pain would shoot through my foot. I tried to adjust my stride, and to run mostly on the right instep, but that’s not really a good idea if you want to avoid follow-on injuries. I eventually got back home, and again the pain disappeared the second I stopped running. Walking was absolutely fine; it was only running that caused the problem. I did what most runners would do nowadays and googled the assorted wisdom of the Internet. From the symptoms I found the closest match would be Morton’s Neuroma, which I certainly can’t rule out. It could be caused by the shoes, I was wearing Nike 360’s for that 10-miler, and the toe-box in those is definitely tighter than in my beloved Asics Nimbus. But I have covered over 700 miles in two identical pairs of 360’s without troubles, and would be surprised if all of a sudden I’m struck with such an injury.

Actually there was a second problem with that run, namely my heart rate was much higher than expected. Sure, I ran at a decent clip, but at one stage I happened to glimpse the number in my HR monitor and was shocked to see it at nearly 160; the effort felt like 10 beats less. Each time I doubt my HR monitor I eventually come round to the idea that the reading was most likely correct, so I assumed that my heart rate was indeed pretty high, even though it didn’t feel like that.

The strange thing is that the run itself went very well. I covered the return leg in 37:42, which equates to 7:32 pace, despite being in agony for the second half of it, and without really pushing the pace.

The combination of yesterday’s problems caused me to opt for a short and slow recovery run today (yes, I know, I could have rested completely), in a different pair of shoes and at easy, easy, easy effort all the way. It worked, the heart rate was pretty low and the foot was absolutely fine, and now I’m unsure on how to proceed. I was planning a 12.5 miler on the Kerry Way tomorrow, which I most likely will still attempt, but if the foot problem strikes at the farthest point from home I’ll have to hobble for a very long way. On the other hand the softer surface of that dirt road should help me avoid any problems. At least that’s what I’m banking on.

18 Apr: 10 miles, 1:16:49, 7:40 pace, avg. HR 156
19 Apr: 6 miles, 52:16, 8:42 pace, avg. HR 144

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


The heavy legs that I had feared on Sunday arrived a day later. As soon as I headed out for Monday’s run, I felt like dragging a concrete weight behind me. Despite looking carefully I couldn’t find it, and just had to drag on. The second problem was that I generally didn’t feel too well. I had woken up with a sore throat and a general feeling of feebleness. The run went by, but the fatigue carried on through the day. I thought I had the beginnings of a cold, and it wasn’t until later on the evening that I realised that it’s the first of my two annual bouts of hay fever. I get that twice every year, once in April, and a second, worse, one in July. The timing is right, and the symptoms match. There isn’t much I can do about it; the only anti-histamine tablets that seem to have an effect are also making me drowsy, and that’s not an option during the day. Falling asleep in the office wouldn’t make a good impression, and doing the same on the commute doesn’t even bear thinking about.

However, I felt better today. While the hay fever symptoms are still there the heavy legs have gone and I managed 8 miles at a decent pace with 8x100 strides in-between. I’m quite pleased with the way my pace is developing again, even though the heart rate is still a few beats high. I’m almost half-way between the ultra and the half-marathon in Bantry, and I have high hopes for another PR. I did run that race last year, 5 weeks after running 26 miles in Connemara, and I felt just about recovered by the time I stood at the start line. This time I’m running it 5 weeks after running 39 miles in Connemara, and I’m actually hoping for a quicker recovery. We will see.

16 Apr: 6 miles, 49:08, 8:11 pace, avg. HR 148
17 Apr: 8 miles, 1:02:11, 7:46 pace, avg. HR 152, including 8x100 strides

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Faster? Longer? Both!

After all those easy 5-mile recovery runs I couldn’t resist temptation any longer and upped the pace over the last few days. This isn’t with an eye to the half-marathon that is just 3 weeks away, I just got bored with easy running and wanted to feel a higher effort level in my legs.

I gradually increased the pace on Friday, but it still felt easy enough. In fact I was surprised to come home in less than 40 minutes. Truth to be told it might have been a tad shorter than 5 miles, but not by much. And then I certainly increased the pace (and effort) on Saturday. It was still only 5 miles, but noticeably faster. I was surprised how heavy the calved felt after 3 miles, especially on any incline, no matter how small. Having said that, I ran the second half of that run in 18:41(7:28 pace), and while it wasn’t quite a tempo run it was a lot faster than anything I’ve run in several weeks. I started to feel better towards the end, which gives me hope for the coming weeks.

Today I ventured out for double-digit mileage for the first time since the ultra. Of course I haven’t completely recovered yet, but I feel fine, and today’s run went very smoothly. After running the faster effort on Saturday coupled with 5 strenuous hours of gardening I expected it to be tough, but within half a mile the legs felt great and took off. I kept the effort in check, but a strong headwind made the outward section pretty hard work. I expected some assistance on the home leg, but somehow the wind managed to come pretty much from the front no matter which way I turned. At least the big black cloud that I had spied early on didn’t manage to catch up with me. The run seemed to get easier the longer it went on, and I was almost disappointed when I got home. I really enjoyed myself out there on the road. That must be a good sign. After all the training I did for the ultra I still can’t wait to get out again, each and every day.

Weekly mileage: 47 miles

13 Apr: 5 miles, 39:34, 7:54 pace, avg. HR 149
14 Apr: 5 miles, 38:24, 7:40 pace, avg. HR 156
15 Apr: 10 miles, 1:18:21. 7:50 pace, avg. HR 149

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Back to Life, Back to Reality

The long weekend is over, and I’m back in the work routine. The congratulations for the successful ultra have died down, people have stopped asking me how it went, and even the charity money has been collected in full. I guess it’s time to move on.

I originally planned to have a rest day at some stage this week. However, I never felt tired, and I just kept running every morning. Maybe I’m just addicted to running.

The pace for my runs keeps dropping to roughly the same level it was before the ultra. The last two runs were all at easy effort, and sure enough, they were at 8:00 pace. The one thing that’s not dropping is the heart rate, and it’s especially high on any climbs. It’s a daily reminder to take it easy, and even though I might feel recovered, there is still some repair work going on in my body.

Yesterday was my last run in Valentia, and I did the usual loop through the centre of the island. I ran it counter-clockwise, so that the last 2.5 miles would be flat to give me some room for strides. I managed 7 before I got close to home, and after the fourth one my left calf developed a twinge. It went away soon enough, but I think my left calf is the one muscle that needs the most recovery. It was the sorest one the day after the race.

Today I was back at Caragh Lake, and ran 8 miles alongside the lake. The scenery is just as beautiful as ever. In fact, it reminded me of Connemara. The eight miles flew by, and I still felt fresh towards the end. At mile 3 I got the same twinge in my left calf as yesterday, and again it went away after a few minutes. I’ll keep an eye on it, but I’m pretty sure it will go away all by itself.

I adjusted my chair in the office in the hope that a different seating position might have a positive effect on my hip. It’s too early to tell if it made any difference.

A new gym has opened in Killorglin, and my employer will pay half the fee for the first 3 months. I guess I’ll give that one a go. There are two other gyms, one is crap and the other one is for women only (discrimination!), which rather limits my choice. The new one looks nice though.

11 Apr: 5.7 miles, 45:43, 8:01 pace, avg. HR 152, including 7x100 strides
12 Apr: 8 miles, 1:02:48, 7:51 pace, avg. HR 152

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Like a Fish Out Of Water

If you ever wondered what I look like after running 39 miles, here’s your chance to find out. I used the broadband connection at work to dig through some more photos (beats working, believe me) and came up with a few hits, including that sequence from less than half a mile before the line. Why they positioned a photographer so close to the end yet have no shots of the actual finish line is beyond me.

The family is still in Valentia, and I’m commuting the 30 miles each way for today and tomorrow before coming back to Caragh Lake. It meant getting up reasonably early this morning, but not outrageously so. The runs are still short enough to be over quickly, allowing me to sleep until 6:30.

I ran slightly longer on Monday, and on a much hillier route than any other training run from the last few weeks. I have been cautious with hills recently because my hip is still feeling funny. It’s not really hurting, but something isn’t quite right. Also, the exact location of the discomfort seems to be shifting slightly every time I try to locate it. What’s certain is that sitting for hours in a chair seems to be the worst. I managed to run 39 miles without any real reaction, but give me 5 hours of sitting in the office chair and I’m shifting my weight every 30 seconds due to some pain that refuses to go away. Has anyone got an idea what it could be?

My pace is picking up gradually without me even trying. The 8 miles from Monday had be hanging on towards the last 2 miles, showing that I’ve still got some recovering to do. I’m still taking it easy, but I hope to be able to get some mileage done this week, and maybe a tempo run or two next week, to remind the legs what a faster pace feels like.

8 Apr: 5.7 miles, 46:10, 8:05 pace, avg. HR 151
9 Apr: 7.8 miles, 1:01:14, 7:51 pace, avg. HR 156
10 Apr: 5.7 miles, 46:45, 8:12 pace, avg. HR 151

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Bounce Bounce Bounce

I can’t believe how well I’m feeling. Just six days after running 39.3 miles my quads seem absolutely fine, and there is just a little residue of soreness in my left calf. Apart from that I feel like I could run another marathon at short notice. I guess being well prepared pays off, big time. Keep that in mind for any running adventures you’re planning.

I’m back on the road regularly now, but all my runs are recovery runs, and no longer than 5 miles. I feel fine, but even so, it’s not even a week after my ultra, and there’s nothing to be gained from being too adventurous. I did basically the same run today and yesterday, my trusty 5-mile loop to Ard-na-Sidhe. My mind keeps going back to Connemara, and the legs do their own thing. They know that route so well they don’t need any input from the brain.

My feet are in sensational shape. No blisters, no black toenails, nothing; they’re pristine. I should frame those Asics Nimbus; they’re worth their weight in Gold. Instead I’ll most likely chuck them away like all their predecessors once their mileage is up.

The company that took the photos in Connemara are absolutely useless. Hardly any photos on ultra runners are available from their search, none came up for my bib number of course, and there are no finishing line pictures at all. How crap is that? It’s like they don’t want to make any business. Anyway, I used to work as a web developer for several years and still know a few things, so I managed to dig in manually, and came up with three photos of myself. None look particularly flattering (and in one I’m heel striking badly), but looking good is not the point of long distance running, is it?

We’re off to Valentia Island over the Easter weekend. The weather is stunning, not a cloud in the sky and it’s predicted to stay like that for several days. It makes up for the ruined Paddy’s Day celebrations I guess.

6 Apr: 5 miles, 43:02, 8:36 pace, avg. HR 149
7 Apr: 5 miles, 43:04, 8:36 pace, avg. HR 148

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Utterly Random Thoughts

I usually do a bit of analysing after each race, to see what went well and what didn't, but I can't think of much to say about Sunday's race, not least because I haven't got anything to compare it to. So spare me while I just type whatever comes into my mind.

I'm generally a slow starter but strong finisher, so I usually pass plenty of runners in the later stages of a race. I expected this to happen again, but no such luck. I overtook the last ultra runner around mile 14. Since we carry our numbers on the front, it's quite easy not to notice that you're passing a rival from your own race, unless you look at the colour of the number pinned to their front as you go past. However, as far as I know I didn't pass anyone in the last 25 miles, but was passed by 3 runners myself. Two I mentioned in my race report. The third one was no other than Aisling Coppinger, the winner of last year's women's race (she came second this time), and she went past me like a rocket at mile 35. Aisling, your pace was unworldly, and I profoundly apologize for completely forgetting about you in my original report.

I got quieter and quieter as the race went on. I had a sentence for every marathon runner I passed early on, and I had a bit of a chat with the ultra runner that went past me on mile 27. Later on I only had the energy for a 'hi' or something like that, and from mile 30 on even that was too much.

Unsurprisingly I felt like death on Monday, but recovered amazingly quickly. On Monday I winced in pain as I inadvertently stepped into a pothole that wasn't more than 1cm/half an inch deep. On Tuesday I was able to walk down a staircase without too much trouble. I did toy with the idea of going out for a run on Wednesday, but decided against it; I was still too stiff.

The weather for the race was incredible. Connemara is well known for its wind and rain, but we saw hardly a cloud on Sunday. They can run that race for another 100 years and might never again have as gorgeous a day as we had. The temperature was around 15C/60F, which isn't a lot really, but it sure felt hot to a runner who hasn't run in more than 7C/45F over the winter. I even got a slight sunburn on my shoulders, but compared to the pain in my quads it wasn't noticeable. In fact I didn't realise it until Niamh pointed it out to me the next day.

We drove the course from mile 10 to the finish on Monday, still in the same weather. That's when we took the photos. As we passed mile 10, Lola asked me to show her where the finish was. At mile 11 she shouted, "Daddy, you forgot to show me the finish!" She didn't quite believe me when I said that the race had been even longer than that. By the time we reached Maam's Cross she had long lost interest, but she did acknowledge that I had indeed run a very long race.

Will I do it again? Probably. Will I do it again next year? I haven't decided yet. I have one or two other ideas, and I will have to decide which one is the most appealing. No, don't ask yet. It's a secret.

I finally went out for a run today, Thursday. It was only 4 miles, and very, very slow ones at that. I felt ok yesterday, but running is still stiff and awkward. I can't remember the last time I ran as little as 4 miles, and therefore nearly missed my turnaround point. Running longer than that wouldn't have been the smartest thing today. The heart rate could have been worse, but it was over 10 beats higher than it would have been for such a slow run before Sunday's race.

I definitely want to run the half-marathon in Bantry, 5 weeks after the ultra. But first I must recover fully, and I can't tell yet how much time I will have left to train properly. I want to do well there and lower my PR if possible, but I will see how quickly I can bounce back first.

--- update ---

I checked my watch the next morning and realised that Thursday's run had only taken 37:15 rather 38:15. That brings the HR more into the expected range, though it is still elevated.

5 Apr: 4 miles, 37:15, 9:18 pace, avg. HR 144

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Hell Hath No Mercy

Disclaimer: I apologise for the delay. The Internet café in Clifden was closed yesterday, and we spent all day today travelling back to Kerry. Now it’s nearly one o’clock in the morning, and I haven’t got the energy to proofread what I’ve just typed, but I figured I shouldn’t let you wait any longer. And I hope you’ve got time - this is long.

It’s 9 am, 1 April 2007. I’m standing in the middle of nowhere, together with about 100 other feckin’ eejits highly trained athletes. The longest race of my life is about to commence, and I’m ready. Before we know it, the claxon sounds, and off we go. If you’re used to shorter races then you’re in for a surprise, because apart from the 3 or 4 top runners, everyone else is starting at jogging pace. We pass Maam Cross one mile later, where the finishing line will be many hours later. I immediately settle into a rhythm that seems reasonable, easy enough to be sustainable, but fast enough to feel comfortable. The first mile markers are out of place. According to them, I ran the first mile in 9:20, the second one in 8:00 and the third one in 7:30 – I don’t think so. But, on average, they should be about right, because I fall into 8:00 pace, and I’ll be stuck in that gear for a long time to come. At the briefing the day before the race director recommended running in small groups, and I attach myself to two guys running at my pace. We spend the first 6 mile closely bunched together, until one of them takes a break on the side of the road, and all of a sudden I’m running on my own. To be honest, that suits me just fine. I want to run my own race, at the pace that feels best for me, rather than adapt my running to suit someone else’s needs. I pass the first water station, at mile 5 in 40:37, 8:08 pace, just about perfect.

I’ve been told that it’s best to mentally split such a long race into smaller junks. For this one, two obvious splits come into mind, namely three equals chunks of 13.1 miles (start/marathon start/half marathon start/finish) or the 4 parts of the road. The loop forms a misshapen rectangle, 10 miles on the southern side, 9 miles on the west, 7 miles on the north and 13 miles on the east, back to the start. However way you split it, it’s a bloody long way to run. (We drive the course the next day, and it takes us about an hour). At mile 10, I pick up my secret ingredient. We were allowed to drop up to 5 items into any of the service stations along the course. I only have two things to deposit, but it took me a long time to decide where to put them. I eventually went against my original plan to drop them at the regular intervals of 13 and 26 miles and put them at miles 10 and 22, because I thought it would be better to ingest some carbohydrates early on. Anyway, my secret weapon is rice milk, with an added scoop of slim fast powder. The taste is revolting, but it contains carbohydrates to sustain the running effort and a bit of protein to help with the digestion – at least that’s my theory. Unfortunately I’m too greedy and take too big a gulp – half of it ends up going the wrong way, and I spend the next 3 miles coughing up that tincture, drop by drop. I do learn my lesson, and just take little sips from then on, which find the way down to my stomach, and, hopefully, into my bloodstream.

At mile 11 I clearly see someone on the side of the road, relieving himself in full view of every one else. Then I look again. What the? Am I hallucinating? There’s nobody here, just a traffic sign. To be fair, it’s probably more down to me being shortsighted than my brain misfiring. Still, it’s weird.

At mile 12 I catch up with another runner. As soon as I draw level he accelerates. The last thing I want to do is getting sucked into some private race between the two of us with 27 miles still to go, and I let him go. Half a mile later, still running at the same pace, I draw level again, and this time he lets me go. I pass the marathon start, 13.1 miles into my race, at 1:43 (7:52 pace). It’s a two minutes faster than planned, but I feel good, the pace so far was relaxed and easy and I wouldn’t change a bit. I even find the time to look around me. The scenery is stunning, with the Maumturk mountains to my right and the Connemara National Park to my left, and there is not a cloud in sight. The temperature is about 15 degrees, hotter than what I’m used to, but a slight headwind ensures I’m feeling cool enough. I’m wearing a flimsy singlet, perfect for these conditions, though I’m a bit worried about getting sunburnt, several hours in the sun will do that to you. At the 14-mile mark I pass another runner, and from then on I’m on my own. I do some calculations in my head. The marathon started 90 minutes after our race, which means I crossed the marathon start line 13 minutes behind them. I’m running 8:00 pace, and if the slowest marathon runners are doing 10:00 pace, I’ll catch up with them in – oh dear, 7 miles to go. It’s not quite as lonely as that, there are a few walkers on the course, the first ones of which I overtake within less than 2 miles. I do notice that my brain is getting affected though. At the 16-mile mark I try to figure out how far I have left to go, and try as you might, I can’t work it out. 39 minus 16 makes what? 13? 19? 15? No, can’t be, cause I’m not at the halfway point yet. The way I finally figure it out is that: 16 miles, that means I’m 3 miles into the marathon, and 26 minus 3 is 23. That’s it! Well done. And it only took about 5 minutes.

I get a bit confused at the 19-mile pit stop, because it’s half a mile late (or early? I can’t remember). As with all the other stations I refuse all offers of fig roles, biscuits, bananas or whatever else they’ve got available and just take water. One minute later I start cursing myself; Thomas you idiot, you forgot to pick up your second bottle. Turning around is not really an option, and I spend the next 10 minutes trying to convince myself that it was a stupid mixture anyway, it wouldn’t really to anything for me, and it doesn’t matter a bit. I’m just about to accept that idea when I finally realise that my second drop-off bottle is still waiting for me ahead at mile 22. Doh! My cognitive abilities are dropping like a stone.

Mile 19 also sees the first real climb of the day. Up to now the course has been relatively flat, with just a small few hills on the way. I guess you could call it undulating, because flat roads don’t really exist in that part of the country. Last year I suffered badly on this hill, even though I only did the marathon, and was only 6 miles along the road. Today I feel like flying. My previous estimation of taking about 7 miles to catch up with the marathon runners isn’t too far out, it’s here that the trickle of runners turns into a steady stream. I do get a few compliments from those that realise that I’m running the ultra, and the help you get from that is great. Let’s not kid ourselves – the ego plays a big part, and to be told that you’re doing something amazing is one big boost. Mile 20 sees me in 2:40:44, 8:02 average pace, and all the miles around here are within seconds of 8:00 pace; I’m running like a clockwork. From what I remember from last year, that climb I mentioned should be followed by a drop towards Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only fjord, and another spectacular piece of scenery. What I can’t remember are the 3 miles at the top of a plain, and with the most brutal headwind I’ve encountered so far. I guess the valley in front of us works like a funnel, and we get the result of that straight into our faces. The road keeps winding along, and when the promised descent finally comes along I’m still struggling with the wind. I had expected this bit to be relaxing, especially in preparation of what is about to come, but no such luck. At least I manage to pick up my second bottle on the way at mile 22, just as planned. The sugary concoction feels rather heavy in my stomach though. I can only take tiny sips at a time, and it takes me about 7 or 8 miles to finally finish it. I do think it helps though. In addition to that I keep taking one bottle of water at each station, and alternate between taking sips of that with my own private mixture.

We finally enter Leenaun (also spelled Leenane on one sign), where the half-marathon had started 35 minutes earlier. It’s here that I pass the 26.2 miles marker, in 3:35. Even if I collapse here and then, at the very least I have managed to produce a very respectable marathon time, and all in a relaxed and easy fashion. However, if you’ve ever studied the topography of the Connemara Ultra, you know that the real fun is about to begin. It starts with the steepest climb of the day, up a hill called the Devil’s Mother for about 1.5 miles, and believe me, it’s a challenge. For the first time in hours I see an ultra runner. Unfortunately he’s passing me rather than the other way round. However, I resist the temptation of getting into a race. The next 13 miles are going to be hard enough. I had originally planned to walk up that hill in order to preserve energy for the miles ahead. However, I fear that if I walk even one single step I will be unable to start running again. So I run, step after step after step. My left calf muscle starts going into spasms. I think I’m about to cramp, but a very subtle change in my stride wards off the danger. I don’t even know what I’m doing, it’s just a tiny change in my running pattern, but it does the trick. I finally crest the hill only to feel really good all of a sudden. I run the next mile in 8:00, which is amazing, considering I’ve covered 29 miles already. Unfortunately I’m not able to sustain that, and the next mile takes 8:58 if the mile markers are accurate. They probably are, and my pace starts dropping to 9:00 pace and further. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m stuck in one gear; I can’t go faster, and I can’t go slower, the legs are disconnected from my mind and just keep turning over and over and over. To my surprise the ultra runner that passed me a few miles earlier comes into sight again. Inch by inch I’m getting closer, and by mile 32 or 33 I’m right behind him, but I don’t go past. At that point the wheels start falling off, and I’m merely fighting against myself. Other runners don’t come into the equation. The road keeps going up and down, and at each ascent I’m close to cramping, and each time I manage to somehow avert that by changing my stride with the same miniscule alteration. Just before the 35-mile marker we turn right for the last time and enter the home stretch. However, I’m not rejoicing. I’m just dreading what’s ahead.

The Hell of the West is the most notorious stretch of road amongst Irish runners. No matter if you do the half, full or ultra marathon, the last 4 miles are going to hurt. It’s almost two miles of steady climbing. It’s not as steep as the climb out of Leenaun, but it’s higher (90 meter elevation), it’s later in the course, and, worst of all, you can see every single blasted meter ahead of you, with a long line of struggling, stumbling, hurting runners, walkers and ex-runners who are now walkers in your sight. And guess what. I’m in pain. Lifting the feet hurts. Pulling them in front of the body hurts. Setting them down back on the road hurts. And it climbs and climbs and climbs. And the calves scream and scream and scream. Against all odds I make it to the half-way point of the Hell, but then it hits. I can feel it coming. It’s deep down inside my calf muscles, and with each step it’s growing. I’m just about to experience the worst cramp of my entire life when I finally relent. I’ve covered 36 miles, running each and every step along the way, but that’s where it ends. I walk. It feels strange. Stiff. I probably look ridiculous. But the cramp goes away. I don’t know how long I’m walking for. Probably a minute. Then I dare again. Run. One more step. It’s ok, the calves are holding up. I run a bit faster. Still good. I manage maybe half a mile that way, then the cramps hit again and I’m reduced to walking once more. Shorter this time, maybe half a minute. Or maybe it’s longer and my timing is off. Whatever, I run again. The worst is behind me, the climb is not as steep anymore, and I can manage.

There’s an ambulance ahead of me. Someone is on a stretcher with several medical professionals around him. Oh no, please God, not again. Last year a young man died on exactly that spot. But the ambulance crew look relaxed, they even laugh. I guess he’s not too bad then. They load him into the ambulance as I pass the scene, and a minute later it goes past me again. I’m glad to feel ok myself, but I have to admit there is a tiny bit inside me that’s jealous of the guy inside – I have to run on my own and the lucky bastard is getting a lift back home. My music player has stopped; it has played every single song that was stored. Originally I had planned to use this opportunity to switch to pure Iron Maiden at that point, to blast me home. However that would require me to take the mp3 player, turn off the shuffle mode, select the album folder, find the correct album and select it for playing. I can’t even think about doing that. Just pressing the play button to restart a song, any song, is a challenging task for my brain. I’ve dropped down several notches of the evolutionary ladder during the last few hours.

After cresting the Hell, the road drops for one mile, and then there’s just one mile of flat, winding road left. One more ultra runner goes past me, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m ever so slightly annoyed about getting passed so close to the end, but I don’t really care. I’m racing myself today, not anyone else. In marked contrast to last year there are plenty of spectators on that stretch of road. And that’s good. “Come on, ultra!” “Fantastic effort, ultra!” “Nearly there, ultra!”. Apparently I’ve got a new name. But once again, the shouts help, a lot. With half a mile to go I somehow find some little bit of energy deep inside me, and speed up. It’s probably pathetically slow, but I feel like I’m flying. There’s the line ahead of me, and then I’m done. “5 hours 40 minutes and 33 second. Outstanding effort” says someone I can’t even see. I’m in a haze, someone puts a medal around my neck, and someone else puts a finisher shirt into my hands. For a few minutes I stumble around, unable to comprehend what I’ve just done.

I’ve conquered the ultra, the longest road race in Ireland.

Final note: my times for each 13.1 mile section were 1:43 (the Good), 1:52 (the Bad) and 2:05 (the Ugly). Before you condemn my pacing strategy keep in mind that each section is significantly hillier than the previous one.

Very final note: I’ve come 20th, out of 86 finishers. I don’t know how many people started, and if any of those dropped out of the race. I’m more than happy with both my time and my placement. I had only hoped to finish. Since crossing the line I've got the same question again and again from countless people. “Will you do it again?” The answer is always the same. Ask me again in a few days time.