Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A Monster Race

I was still 40 miles from Dublin on my way towards Inverness when it hit me: what I’m doing is utterly insane by most people’s standards. Spending a lot of money and travelling a long distance in order to run 26 miles in a foreign place is a weird thing to do. However, at that stage I was committed to the task, and pressed on.

I made awfully sure that I would not oversleep on Sunday: I set the alarm on my watch, on my mobile phone and on the alarm clock that was part of the room. In the end I didn’t need any of those, I was wide awake an hour early. After a hearty breakfast I went to Queen’s Park stadium to catch a bus to the start line. Once there I got changed, and had a slight mishap: as I tried to take off my running tights, balancing on one leg, I fell over in rather comical fashion. The guy beside me laughed out loud. “You didn’t see that”. “No, but I heard it.” I didn’t mind the loss of dignity, but somehow I had managed to injure my back in the fall, and it hurt quite a bit. I tried stretching it out for a while, but it didn’t make much of a difference. Eventually we assembled near the start line, me around the “3hrs” sign. I heard another runner in a yellow singlet say to his friends that he’d aim for 3:10 to 3:15, and I thought I could do worse than stick with him – he looked like he knew what he was doing.

The start was signalled by a group of bag pipers walking towards the start line, and to the tunes of “Scotland the Brave” we set off on our journey. I forgot all about my bad back and joined the other 2000 runners.

The start is on high ground east of Loch Ness, a mile away from the tiny village of Whitebridge. The first 8 miles of the course are downhill, but the course profile I had studied before the race is misleading. There are plenty of ups and downs along the way, and the biggest drops in elevation come from 3 very steep sections of road – so steep that it’s nearly impossible to run relaxed, and certainly not as good for a fast time as you might imagine from simply looking at the elevation drop.

My plan was to run the first mile in 7:30 and the next 25 in 7:15. Immediately after the start I was blocked by scores of slower runners in front, and I felt like jogging for the first 5 minutes. I did crank up the effort slightly once the roads cleared a bit, but expected a slow start. Imagine my surprise when the watch said 7:23! And then a look at my heart rate monitor nearly made me freeze in panic, because the display said 175 or 176. Good God, much too high! However, I still felt like jogging, and kept going at the same effort. Then mile 2 came into view, 6:44! That’s my half-marathon race pace! I felt rather conflicted at that point. Both my watch and my HRM told me I was going too fast, but my legs still only felt like jogging along nicely. I knew this could blow up spectacularly later on, but I decided to stick with the perceived effort rather than follow whatever the gadgets said. In that fashion mile 3 in 6:47 didn’t come as a big surprise. I have to admit to being worried at that stage. I knew about the hill waiting for us at mile 18, and had visions of me slowly walking up the entire way in death-march mode, but I kept going anyway. The next mile sported a nasty hill where I felt a lot worse than on the previous sections, and a few runners ran past me, only to fall behind again at the next downhill. By now the aforementioned runner in the yellow singlet had become a very familiar sight. He kept overtaking me at the climbs, I regained my place at the downhills, and on average we were running side-by-side. After a few miles we did acknowledge each others presence and started chatting. I didn’t know his name then, but looked it up in the results later on where I found out that he’s called John, has a running blog himself and is a very experienced ultra runner. I guess I had chosen the perfect running partner. We passed miles 4 to 8 in 7:25, 7:14, 6:54, 7:13 and 6:55, which alternated between being on pace and going a little bit too fast, but this was more a reflection of the undulating terrain than an uneven effort. By mile 6 we passed through the village of Foyers with plenty of spectators, and each time we passed someone they shouted out “well done, John”, though that was not directed towards my running buddy but to another John a few steps behind us who had his name displayed across his chest in 2-inch high letters. This did get on my nerves I have to admit. “Never mind bloody John, you could clap for me as well”! (I didn’t say it out loud though). Next mile split 7:08. Shortly afterwards I dropped behind, and both Johns as well as about 5 more runners (including a girl) went past me. I originally thought I was still running on pace and everyone else must have accelerated, but a mile split of 7:29 told a different story. Up to here I had felt like jogging along, but now my pace was sagging and I made the conscious decision of increasing the effort to get back on pace. I was still worried about the hill, and the heart rate was still the wrong side of 170, but I was chasing my target time and decided that it was worth taking risks. However, the next few miles turned into one big low point. Mile 11 was still respectable at 7:17, but the effort was getting to me, and miles 12 and 13 passed by in 7:21 and 7:28. This was the worst part of the race by far. I entertained thoughts of stopping, and really wanted to do anything else but running yet another 13 miles. John and the girl from mile 9 (called Mhairi, but again I didn’t know that at the time) had joined up by now, I could see them running together for a few miles, half a minute ahead of me. I had taken a gel at mile 12, and either it was the effect of the gel or the inspiring views of Loch Ness or maybe my training paying off, but I started to feel better again. One particular runner had drawn to me by now who was extremely noisy, he kept coughing every 2 seconds, accompanied by spitting, rasping breathing and other not entirely pleasant sounds. Accelerating just to get away from him was worth the extra effort alone, but I actually felt good all of a sudden and started going faster without any real increase in effort. The next 3 miles were encouraging at 7:09, 7:19 and 7:21, but what was more important than the slightly improved splits was my vastly improved mood, I enjoyed running again, simply felt good and stopped worrying about that hill, which was by now getting rather close. We reached the end of Loch Ness and entered Dores, where some more spectators had gathered to give much-needed encouragement. But guess what they said when I passed? “Well done John!” Not again! I had just overtaken the “other John” again, the one with the big letters, and once again he sucked the spectators’ attention away from me. He drew up with me a minute or two later, and in a half-sarcastic mood I greeted him with a “Hello John”. Actually, he turned out to be very nice and friendly; he knew the course and gave me a rather detailed description of the miles ahead. Eventually he dropped back, or maybe I accelerated again, because all of a sudden I started overtaking runners by the bucket load. The road started rising as soon as we left Dores, but gently at first. I asked a guy beside me if that was “The Hill” already, but he put me right. That was just the start, and it would get a lot steeper very soon. Not what I wanted to hear, but I thanked him anyway, before pulling away again.

The real climb started right behind the next bend. It’s the biggest obstacle along the marathon course, and the climb is well over two miles long. I wondered why nobody calls it The Monster, we’re at Loch Ness after all, but maybe that would be too obvious and unoriginal. Having said all that, it’s not half as bad as the “Hell of the West” in Connemara, and it’s not as bad as the hills I run week in, week out in Kerry. I must have passed at least a dozen runners, and the mile splits of 7:37 and 7:23 are pretty decent, taking the terrain into account. By mile 19 I had drawn level with John again (the one in the yellow shirt), we exchanged a few words, and then I was off again. The 19 mile marker, pretty much at the top of the hill, turned up ridiculously early in 6:47, but I knew immediately that that couldn’t be right, which was confirmed 50 seconds later when I passed a painted 19 marker on the road, because 7:37 is much more realistic for an uphill mile. The next mile split confirmed that even more, if you counted from the original marker it was 8:18, but my “corrected” time of 7:28 is a lot more believable. By now I had spotted that girl from mile 9, Mhairi, again, and, disgustingly chauvinistic male that I am decided to give chase. I checked the watch when she passed a signpost and timed myself to be 40 seconds behind her. The hunting instincts brought the next mile in 7:16 (and within 28 seconds of Mhairi), despite featuring another hill, not long but rather steep. I might have overdone things there, because that’s where the first signs of the oncoming train crash started appearing. There had been an awful lot of downhill miles along the way, and the quads let me know in no uncertain terms that they’d had enough. I found it increasingly difficult to lift the knees, and despite the next mile being downhill again it was no faster than 7:38, and I started to tip into the “agony” side of things. Just after the 22-mile marker there’s the “Welcome to Inverness” road sign. The night before I had tried to engage in positive thinking and imagined myself running past said sign and putting in 4 strong miles until the finish. Unfortunately, turning those thoughts into reality was a lot harder. I did try to increase the effort, but the times don’t really reflect that. What did surprise me was the amount of overtaking that went on over those final miles. Normally you’d expect the field to be very much settled at that point, but that was not the case. I wasn’t the fastest guy around by any means, a fair number of runners went past me, but I think I overtook about twice that number myself. I had a bit of fun with a group of spectators, when they started to cheer as I passed I blew them a kiss. “That’s the first one who offered to kiss me!!”, and I got a few extra cheers. Anyway, the miles here went by in 7:35 (ugh) and 7:19 (very respectable, not sure where that came from). Alas, here’s where the train hit the buffers. The course runs along one side of the river Ness, and you can see your faster peers going the other way on the opposite bank. They’re nearly there, the lucky bastards! Just as I got onto the bridge, my right calf started cramping. Just for a split second, and I had just enough time to cry out in pain, then it was gone again. I crossed the bridge, and now we were running back the other way, watching our slower peers on the other side where we had just come from. All of a sudden Mhairi was straight ahead of me. I had long forgotten about giving chase to her, but there she was; she had slowed down dramatically, didn’t look happy at all, and I felt bad for her as I passed her (she eventually finished 50 seconds behind me). Twice more my calf started cramping, just for one spasm, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to run much further. I was hurting badly by now, and mile 25 was the slowest by far at 7:50, with the next mile in 7:49 not much better. The course is cruel at that point, you can already see the stadium, but you have to loop around the entire complex and enter it from the other side. Just before the 26 mile marker it hit me again, and if anyone was nearby they would have heard me shouting out something like “ha-ha-ha-ha-haaaaooooouuuuu”, until the iron grip on my calf started loosening again. Thankfully by now the end was in sight – literally. I was actually disappointed when I saw the finishing clock, the timer was already at 3:10 and that had been my dream target. There was nothing I could do about it, I entered the stadium, the announcer said “Number 1771, that’s Thomas (pause) Bubbybobo, from (pause) Kyle (pause) orgayn (pause), and he’s come all the way from Austria!!!” The last bit wasn’t strictly true, but the crowd seemed to like it, gave a big cheer, which I milked for all I could, and then I crossed the line and was done.

Official chip time:
Average HR:
Average pace per mile:
First half:
Second half:
Pounds lost:


  1. Wonderful report - very well written - on a race well run!

    It read like a love story where the guy gets the girl in the end. Though I doubt that she would have read it that way.

  2. Great job Thomas. Nicely executed race.

  3. Well done! your mile times are quite consistent and you held the general pace to the end - a reflection of your thorough preparation. Enjoy the well earned rest

  4. Nice recap...maybe some day I'll have a fast race report like that. Haha! I too had cramping issues with my r-calf, a first for me, very frustrating.

  5. Hi Thomas
    Congratulations! We must have been standing close to each other at the start. Reading your post was like running the marathon again. I had the same feeling about the sight of stadium at the end, and I also thought the marking was a bit erratic. I will keep checking your blog in the future. Good luck with your next one!

  6. Great report Thomas. Certainly shows that downhills are just as tough as uphills and require their own specific training.

    Congratulations again on a fantastic PR.

  7. Super job on the race and a report worth waiting for! It's a great feeling to be 'jogging' like that at the beginning and to still be passing folks right to the end. Your hard training paid off in spades. Congrats!

  8. Well done, Thomas. So so so close to 3:10. So close I could taste it in your words. I wish I could have been there to cheer you on or flatten the hill some or anything to give you a few seconds here or there.

    A wonderful PR and a wonderful report. Your awesome preparation paid off. You deserve all congratulations.

  9. Chasing women and kissing fans... Seems you've been taking notes from Love2Run Canada.

    Good job and great report.

  10. Really enjoyed reading the report! I remember that guy who made the strange noises and the John who everyone cheered for. (I pretended it was for me!!).

    Look forward to following your progress.

    (the one in the yellow vest)

  11. Congrats on your race; I had a feeling going into this you would PR. That vision of sub-3:10 is now so close you can probably taste it.

  12. Nice race Thomas, & good report too. You'll get that 3.10 soon.

  13. Thomas

    I have been reading your blog for nearly 18 months. Well done on a fantastic effort and I really enjoyed the detail you put into your race report.

    I ran the Melbourne Marathon on the 7th of October as well and there is no way I could remember all the highlights you do.

    Funnily enough my experience was very similar to yours. I suffered cramps in the calf for the last 7kms and had to slow considerably. When the MCG came into view there was still 2kms to go and it was frustrating running around the outside. It was worth it though to finish at such a marvelous venue.

    Given your performance I think you should change the diary name to a well and truly ex Rubbish Marathon Runner

    Can't wait to see what your next target and race are.


  14. Thanks Thomas. Enjoyed that. At least they didn't say you were all the way from Australia!

    4 minutes is not too bad a fade - without the cramping it might have been one or two. The great thing is that 3:12 gives you the springboard to aim at a 2-something marathon.

    Recover well :)

  15. BQ?!?!?

    Way to go Thomas! You trained hard and you deserve it.

    Now, about those cramps. Do you take anything like s-caps? Do you drink during the race? And, tell me, did you see Nessie?

  16. Well done! Great race report, too. What a wonderful feeling, to BQ! I hope to see you at the starting line next year (I hope to BQ in the Carlsbad marathon in January). There, I've said it.

  17. Thomas,
    I knew what BQ was - that's what I was congratulating you about! I think it's awesome that you did it and I hope you get to come on over to run it.

  18. great report. Everytime I read one of your reports it's like a different sport than what I experience toward the back of the pack. Keep up the great running. Do you plan to do Boston?

  19. Thomas, every time reading you reports feel like this is a unique marathon book provided for free. Congratulations with this race!!! (personally your last October Dublin is a Great sample for me; i agree with your comments, thanks)

  20. Hi Thomas, Congrats on a great race, well done. Seems like all the training is paying dividends and thats reflected in a great time.


  21. Thomas,
    Congratulations! What a great PR. I'm so inspired by your dedication and the work you put into this.

    Maybe it does sound a little crazy, traveling so far, paying to run 26 miles, but we all need a little bit of crazy.

  22. Congratulations Thomas, that was really close to your goal time, and a great PR! I look forward to reading about you sub-3:00 next year ;-)

  23. wow...what a race. i'm really impressed, thomas. look at the huge gains as a result of your hard training. it's awesome when it pays off!

    congratulations! let us know if you plan to run boston in 2008 or 2009!

  24. Thomas, as usual i'm so far behind. What a gripping and funny race report! Amazingly written, and not a bad run too!

    I'll see you (from the sidelines) in Boston!

    And next time put your name on your singlet!

  25. Total newbie entering this for my first race in 2013! Had already read a report where 'John' featured. Sadly your mile times will probably be my kilometre times. A great report and am out of breath now ;)