It’s 9 am, 1 April 2007. I’m standing in the middle of nowhere, together with about 100 other
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.