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.


  1. Awesome, awesome, AWESOME! Thomas, you rock! Great report, great race, great effort. I'm so happy for you!

    I know that feeling of mindlessness, the inability to figure out the simplest stuff and the pain. I know that you are one tough runner to pull off a 39 mile race. Absolutely wonderful!

  2. Kudos! Congrats! High five if you can lift your arms that high! What a great race report (I've been checking all day) and at 1:30 in the morning too.

    You must be exhausted, happy, sore, tired, hungry? Have you been able to wipe your smile off your face yet? Way to go Thomas!

  3. Fantastic job on your first ultra. It sounds insanely long and your report describes it well. You entered hell and came out strong.

  4. Ahhh, I've been waiting for this for days! Congratulations Thomas, this is quite an achievement and something to be proud of. You've come such a long way in the last year, and it's been a pleasure to read about it.

  5. Excellent race report, you brought back so many memories, well done. But, most importantly, CONGRATULATIONS, that is a tremendous result to have achieved. Given the profile of the course and your timing, I think you raced bang on. Enjoy your recovery and some well deserved rest & relaxation!

  6. Looks like all your training paid off for this race. It's kind of scary the first time you go past the marathon distance. You always wonder how your body is going to respond. I wish I could have been there to hand you some S-Caps for those cramps. I don't know if you have ever tried them but I was the king of cramps until I discovered them. They are a buffered Electrolyte. Now I sometimes get little tweaks but as soon as I feel a problem I pop an S-Cap. Check the web-site at www.succeedscaps.com. I try to take a cap at the start of the race and then one more each hour. I don't drink any sports drinks, as they tend to upset my stomach.

    The rice milk and slim fast formula is interesting. I use a similar commercial product called Perpetuem by Hammer Gel Products. It provides complex carbos and protein. This product is very similar to Ensure but Perpetuem is not a dairy product like Ensure.

    What's next Mr. Ultra Runner? You need to find yourself a true trail run.

  7. Excellent Job, Thomas! All the training and persistence paid off. Congratulations and I hope you are taking some time to rest and recuperate for awhile. You deserve it.

  8. Fantastic race Thomas and what an incredible pace. I can just imagine how fast you'll run your next marathon now that you can breeze through 26.2 miles in 3:35. I really enjoyed you race report.

    I'm in complete awe.

  9. I was impressed with your running BEFORE your ran the ultra - congratulations on a great race Mr. Ultra.

  10. Congratulations Thomas, awesome job!!!

  11. nice job on completing an ultra! that's awesome. Congrats!

  12. WOW! Thomas I am soooo impressed!
    You are even more of an animal than I previously thought you were..
    Amazing, really amazing. I too am so happy for you!!
    Your family must be so very proud, we certainly are :)
    Fantastic race report !

  13. Thomas, I loved it, loved it!!! I've got to repeat my favorite parts:

    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.
    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.
    (iPod) 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.
    "Outstanding effort” says someone I can’t even see.

    Thomas, that was TRULY an OUTSTANDING effort. Great race, even as they get, FAST, and man, welcome to the CLUB!!!

    I have a tear in my eye:)

  14. Amazing, Thomas. You should be so proud of your efforts...excellent report, too. You SO deserve a rest now!!

  15. brilliant, thomas, bloody brilliant.

    wonderfully told and even better executed. now you need to come out and do the 50 miler that jessica puts on next year...

    *wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more, say no more*

  16. Speechless! Brilliant stuff and great report. Well done.


  17. Excellent report and a race well run.

    When I lived in Japan as a young child there was a television show called Ultraman. He was a superhero of sorts. Your recounting of spectators and their shouts of encouragement ("Come on ultra!") brought this to mind. A heroic endevour indeed. Well done!

    Next stop, sub-3:00 marathon.

  18. Way to go, Thomas! Great race and great report. You've come a very long way.

  19. Congrats on such a strong run! It's such an amazing achievement. Rest up...

  20. Fantasic effort Thomas, well done. You're a legend to pull off a result like that in your first Ultra.

  21. You've really made huge strides in your running over the past year. This is another fantastic result! Congratulations, Thomas. Rest well!

  22. I am very impressed. You might have slowed at the end, but it was less than I would expect for all of the wind and hills and fatigue. Congratulations!

  23. Thomas:

    First of all - CONGRATULATIONS ON AN AWESOME ULTRA. Second: This was one of the best race reports I've read. I felt like I was right there with you. I was laughing when I read the part about the guy in the ambulance. Again, congrats on an awesome job and a great race report!

  24. Just want to agree with everyone else, well done and great report! I know what you mean about the numbers and your brain being fried. The first 13 you know where you are, the second 13 you lose count and keep trying to work it out and the last 13 you just don't care anymore cos you're goingg home!

  25. Well done! Congratulations Thomas. That's an achievement to be proud of.

  26. Dude, the Who's Who in the running blog world paid tribute here!

    Very inspiring read! Now I want to do something similar one day in my life.

    Big OMEDETO from Japan to you Thomas!

  27. Wow, what a great race report! And race! Welcome to the club!!!

  28. That was the best report I've ever read, EVER! Congrats!!! You are amazing! I was reading along thinking, "God, this guy can do math at that effort, after so many miles??" and then, heh, not so much! You really captured it all for us, Mr. Ultra. :)


  29. This was certainly a great day, race, effort experience, incredible, Thomas.
    You just drove me with your words to those hard minutes and to contample how you overcomed them, amazing!
    Beautiful way you became in an ultra.

  30. Boy, you are my hero. Your eights turned into nines on an ultra run. Ahem. What a stud. On my lowly 26.2 miles recently I stopped passing people at MP 16 but my eights were dropping to elevens. What's your secret?
    You're right though, we're all effin ijits when we line up (whad you say?) but we remember it afterwards fondy. Great job.

  31. That's an amazing race! Congrats on your running! (runnershigh.wordpress.com)

  32. Never.Ever.Read about Ultra! This one worth reading, will read again oneday. This Post left me sitting in the Chair absolutely speechless and (in Russian we say) "my hair were standing on end" (ask Olga) it means I was truly in shock! FAN-Tastic! Congratulations!!!

    I'll tell you what. If many years later, when we're all grey you decide to publish a book of running memories based on your posts, do not edit a lot. And remember - you've got a reader. It wouldn't be a BestSeller but surely a lot of people would Buy it. I myself will buy it, for any Outrageous (but reasonable) Price. Thomas - Autograph Please!

  33. Congrats Thomas. That was a gutsy race. You did magnificant down the stretch and pulled it off. Wonderful job!

  34. An incredible story! You're a talented runner and writer! I was glued to the screen... anticipating every mile marker with you! Congratulations. What an accomplishment!