The day before the race we had a briefing in Clifden, with 21 ultra runners in the room, but only 2 of those had done the race before, me and one other guy. Apparently, even the majority of ultra runners are content to put themselves through that kind of torture just once. My training had been interrupted, to say the least, by a nasty bout of pneumonia that had me grounded for almost the entire January, and of course still hampered my training all through February. I had doubts if I would even make it to the start line, but I felt great all through March, and got more optimistic by the day. Unfortunately, my stomach had given me troubles for the last 2 or 3 weeks, but I didn't know if that would be a problem come race day. I guessed I would find out soon enough.
I started the day in less than ideal fashion. The bus from Clifden to the start was supposed to leave at 8am, and I was on it at 7:57. Exactly at that moment I realised that I had forgotten my “Ultra Runner” tag. You were supposed to wear your number at the front and the tag on your back, so that everyone would be able to spot you. I should have left it at that, but I panicked, ran all the way back to our house, frantically searched by belongings and raced back to the bus. That meant at least half a mile at near-sprint pace, an hour before I was supposed to run 39 miles! Not only was this stupid in the extreme, it was also completely pointless. The bus didn't actually leave until 8:20 (I could have walked!), and at least half of the ultra runners didn't wear their tag.
We cut it rather fine, we got off the bus at 8:58 to join the 100 other runners who were already at the start, looking frozen. A guy called Peter celebrated his birthday today, so, on the urging of Ray, the race director, we gave a loud and cheery rendition of “Happy Birthday”, and I could only mutter “what a way to spend your birthday” when the start signal came, pretty much to everyone's surprise.
A group of 5 runners steamed off at the front, the rest of us were content with a rather more measured pace. I very quickly settled into 8-minute-per-mile pace (12 km/h, 7.5 mph), and at the first corner counted the runners ahead of me; I was around 30th place. After some of the inevitable early jostling for position had abated I found myself behind a runner in shorts and t-shirt, which made me cold just by looking at him. In contrast, I wore 2 layers at the top, a singlet and a thin long-sleeved shirt, and long running tights at my legs, because I felt it was absolutely freezing. I followed that guy for about 5 miles, until about 8 runners went past in quick succession, and a look at my Garmin GPS told me that we had slowed down a little bit, which made me increase the effort slightly, and I followed at the heels of the group in front. I collected my first bottle at the mile 5 aid station, a mixture of rice milk and slim fast, which should provide both carbohydrates and protein, and which had worked very well last year. It tasted nice, I drained it rather quickly, but afterwards my stomach felt uncomfortably full, and I felt I had made the mixture too strong. It also made me slightly thirsty, but I had to wait until the next aid station at mile 10 before I could get some water.
The weather was changeable, to say the least. The sun was shining most of the time, but a strong wind from the North, out right, provided plenty of cooling, and at the first 10 miles provided at least 4 quick rain showers. Classic Connemara weather! Later on it also started hail stoning several times, very lightly most times, but twice we got quite some beaning. Unfortunately, after 10 miles we turned right, and for the next 10 miles we would have to fight against that very wind. The pace immediately dropped, even if the effort stayed constant, to about 8:20 mins/mile, and when I checked the Garmin a few miles later, it was down to 8:45! It wasn't just me who had to fight against the elements, of course, we were all affected by it, and in fact I started overtaking quite a few runners. At mile 6, someone had shouted out the positions of each runner as we went past, and according to him I was 31st. If that was right, and if I counted correctly each time I overtook someone or was overtaken myself, I was 26th by the time we passed the Full Marathon start sign, 13.1 miles into the race, and with 1:46 on the clock, 2 minutes slower than last year.
I had an ambitious time goal, 5:15, which would have been good enough for 10th place last year, but by now it was already apparent that I would have to lower my sights. The wind was bad enough, but since mile 10 my right legs was giving me troubles. At each step it felt like it was in danger of buckling underneath my weight, and it only seemed my momentum that still carried me forward. It was still an awful long way until the finish, and definitely too early to get into trouble. I was a bit scared, because I did not know what was wrong. I had visions of my quads detaching themselves from the bone, and me hitting the road screaming in agony. I had no real choice but to carry on and hope for the best, and when my left leg started the same spiel at mile 16, I finally realised that this was simply fatigue setting in. On one hand, this was good to know, on the other hand this seemed way too far away from the finish to start tiring already. I started to suspect that I was in for a difficult few hours.
I had to fight a second problem as well. At mile 13 I had collected my second bottle. This one contained chocolate milk rather than slim fast, because I was worried about getting sick of the taste if I drank too much of the same mixture. The chocolate milk tasted fantastic, and again I gulped it all down very quickly. Unfortunately, this made me queasy, and over the next few miles I was fighting off wave after wave of nausea. Every half mile or so I was about to throw up, but just about managed to hold it in. I wasn't even sure fighting the nausea was a good idea, I had read that in ultra running the body usually knows what's good for it, and if you're feeling sick it's better to get rid of the content. However, my mindset was set on relentless forward motion, and the very idea of stopping for half a minute was unthinkable. By the time I reached mile 18 or 19, the stomach had settled again, and I felt better. I knew that the next bottle was waiting for me at mile 26, slim-fast again, and I was actually dreading it, I didn't want to feel as bad again.
The road until then had been slightly undulating, but we're talking about Connemara here, so let's say it was as flat as it gets in that part of the country. Mile 20 brings the first real climb, and I felt surprisingly good. By now I had caught up with the slower marathon runners, and I went past a steady stream of slower runners, including 2 or 3 ultra runners. But I did notice one major difference to last year. Back then I had a quick word with everyone I passed, even if it just was a simple “hello”. This time I was too tired to say anything, I only responded if someone else said something first, and eventually I was too exhausted even for that, and turned entirely antisocial. I was fully aware of the difference to last year's race, and it was not a good sign. The other problem was that we still seemed to run against the wind, even though the course had turned another 90 degrees. I think the geographic setting has something to do with it, the valley seems to provide a funnel effect, because last year showed the same phenomenon. It is at the top of the 20-mile climb that the road passes a church with a big sign saying “Stop and Pray”, and believe me, stopping and praying seemed a very tempting alternative to running at that point. However, I ventured on. A mile or two later we pass the race director's favourite sight, you turn a corner and a very pretty stone bridge appears. Unfortunately I was in no mood to enjoy the view. I was getting wiped out. At least I was past the half way point by now.
What comes up has to come down, and the road drops rather steeply into Killary Harbour. You might think that running downhill is easier, but take into account my aching quads. This was not easy. I could not lift my knees. I was in agony. In fact, I hurt so much that I started voicing my pain with each breath. I must have made a truly pathetic figure of a runner, slowly shuffling down the road, moaning loudly. I also lost my place to 2 or 3 more ultra runners, which annoyed me.
The ultra mentality is a funny one. You're on the road for so long, and you will endure so much discomfort in the process that it's purely a contest between you and the course. Other runners should not come into it. Cover the distance at the best of your ability, and the result will follow. Running over 39 miles is an achievement in itself. However, this is still a race. Each time I passed an ultra runner it gave me a lift, each time I was passed it felt like a knock.
We eventually came into Leenaun, the 26 mile mark, and I passed the (imaginary) marathon distance line in 3 hours and 43 minutes, 8 minutes slower than last year. Despite all the problems I've had, this was still the 4th fastest time I have ever run over 26.2 miles. At the aid station I grabbed my third and last bottle, and someone offered me a couple of mini Mars bars. I probably shouldn't. The will sit in my stomach. They are sticky. They might make me sick – and they look delicious, so I grab them. Only then do I realised that now I have my bottle in one hand and the chocolate in the other and I can't carry any water. I have to pass, and the chocolate is the best I've ever tasted in my life. And the slim fast seems to agree with my stomach.
The climb out of Leenaun is well known to Connemara veterans. It's the steepest part of the course, and the worst of the torture lasts for 1.5 miles, but even after the worst of the climb is over the road keeps going uphill for another mile. Somehow this is all I need. My quads are shot, but the rest of me is still in good shape and I run past runner after runner, and I'm sure that must have included some ultra runners as well. Today I love the uphills, it's the only part where I don't feel like screaming in pain. But then we reach the top, 28.5 miles into the race, and that is where my hope of at least matching last year's time comes to an end. I get slower and slower with each mile, even though the effort remains the same, and it's not for lack of trying. But you can't run if your quads are unable to lift the knees. All I can do is shuffle, with the soles of my shoes a millimetre above the road surface. My leg turnover is very quick, and my stride length is shortened dramatically, and it's getting worse. I can see the disaster unfolding, and by mile 30 I'm reduced to 11 minutes per mile, which is the slowest I have ever run in my life.
I hope you're not reading this during your lunch time, because things are getting worse. I need a toilet. Badly. Then, oh sweet miracle, I spot a portapotty straight ahead of me. Oh thank you! I'm heading straight for it, and I'm 2 meters away when the female runner ahead of me stops, and enters. “Noooooo” is what I say out loud (I really do), but the words forming in my head are others, ruing the lack of bladder control in the fairer sex, or to the same effect but phrased a tad differently, but luckily I manage to keep them to myself. I could have waited for a minute, my race is long gone anyway. But I've got the wrong mindset, waiting in front of the toilet is out of question and I run on, disgruntled.
Ever since about mile 20, each time an ultra runner passed me, I felt tempted to rip the ultra runner tag identifying me as a race rival off my back. It must feel like a magnet to anyone else in the same race. I know, because that's what the tags I can spot are to me. But the longer the race goes on the more comforting it is. Many marathon runners give plenty of compliments when they see it, and it provided a lift. Shortly before mile 33 I overtake 2 ladies, and we have a little chat. I don't know why I can talk to those two, I didn't have the energy to open my mouth for anyone else. They spot my ultra runner tag and wish me luck. Luck doesn't really come into it in long distance running, you tend to make or break yourself. And this is not my day. Things are getting worse, I can tell, because now the marathon runners that I managed to overtake are going past me again, and it includes the two ladies from half a mile earlier. One of them seems to notice how incredibly bad I'm feeling and tries to talk things up. “It's only 6 miles to the finish, and for you that should be nothing”. “6 miles are a lot on those legs, I'm afraid”. Then they are gone, disappearing in the distance.
For the last hour or two I have clung to an ultra mantra. “It never always gets worse." Eventually you are going to be feeling as bad as you can and then the pain and discomfort will level off. For what I can tell, it's true. I've been in agony for quite some time now, and it has levelled off. I'm merely still in the same agony.
At mile 35, Hell awaits. Or, less cryptically, the “Hell of the West”, two miles of climbing, the signature piece of the Connemara races. It's not as steep as the climb out of Leenaun, but if you've ever tried running up a hill with 35 miles under the belt you will know that it doesn't have to be steep to hurt. However, the Gods must have decided that I have suffered enough and give me a break. Another portapotty appears on the horizon, and when I'm 3 meters away from me the door opens, someone steps out, and 2 second later I'm in. I don't know how long I'm in there, 1 minute or 2? I leave, and walk for 3 steps. Oh, how wonderful it feels to walk, very tempting. Then I run again. One step, two steps, hmm. This feels ok. More running, uphill already. It's a miracle, I can run again! This is truly amazing. I'm still in pain, of course, but I can lift the knees, and I'm flying up the course. I'm going past runner after runner, though most of them are actually walking at that stage. Halfway up the hill I'm passing the two ladies from mile 33 again. They recognise me, shout encouragement, and seem to be amazed by the way I have recovered. So am I! Last year I twice cramped on that bit, this time I'm flying and in no time at all I'm at the top. I look up, and I can see the finish, but it's still 2 miles away, some considerable distance. I'm worried about the downhill, but it feels ok. I spot an ultra runner ahead of me, he's going pretty fast himself, but it's all the incentive I need. Over the downhill mile I slowly get closer, the last mile and a bit is flat and that's where I put the hammer down. I check my mile splits afterwards, and this is by far the fastest mile of my race, 7:29. When overtaking a race rival it's always best to go as fast as you can, to discourage a response, and that's exactly what I'm doing. When I'm past him I increase the effort even more, to make sure he'll stay behind me (which he does, by 46 seconds). I pass the last marathon mile marker and go all out for the last 0.2 miles. According to my GPS toy, I'm running 5:55 pace at the finish, which I could not even do at the and of a 10 mile race 4 weeks ago. I get plenty of applause, I hear things like “Wow”, “what a finish”, “come on, ultra”, and then the agony is over and I can finally relax.
My time is 5:50:11, 10 minutes slower than last year, and a whopping 35 minutes slower than my lofty goal. I had some decent 10 miles at the beginning, and some truly exceptional 4 miles at the end. It's just a pity about the 25 miles in the middle.
I'm not entirely sure what went wrong, but I have a few theories. A 27.5 miles training run 3 weeks ago was probably a mistake, as was the running to-and-from the bus in the morning (what was I doing there!!!). Missing a month of training due to pneumonia must have had some effect as well. Maybe I wore the wrong shoes, I wore lightweight runners, and they were already pretty much worn out (they went straight into the bin afterwards, not that I blamed them).
My mindset was wrong. 90 seconds of break was all I needed to relax the quads, and then I could run again. Had I done that at mile 25, or even 30, things might have gone very differently. I still have the marathon runner mentality, always push as hard as you can, but ultras are different.
You learn from your mistakes, and this was a massive learning experience, much more so than last year. By mile 34 I swore to myself that I would never do anything like that again. Never. Ever. By mile 36 I swore to myself to come back and put into practise what I had learned today. I already have different plans for 2009, but mark my words. I'll be back.