Saturday, September 12, 2009

Structural Failure

Marathons are beasts. Let’s be very clear about this from the beginning. You can spend ages preparing for one, making sure you have your nutrition and hydration sorted out, know the pace and effort you can sustain over the distance, and you can train hundreds of miles to get your body conditioned. But on the day, over the course of over 26 miles, some things will invariably pop up that you can’t control (like the weather) or that you seem to have overlooked. Sometimes you are just one tiny detail away from a horror story. While this one could have been worse, it didn’t exactly go to plan.

After sleeping surprisingly well I had my ritual pre-marathon breakfast of porridge, and we left Caragh Lake almost exactly on time. This was the first time I have been able to drive to a marathon start directly from home, and I appreciated the luxury. We arrived in Dingle about 40 minutes before the start, parked the car and went to the start area. I kissed Niamh and the kids good bye and entered the starting pen with about 5 minutes to spare. Perfect.

Normally, people cheat on this. They start at the 3-hour mark if they are 4-hour runners, and so on. However, I stood there at the 3-hour sign almost completely on my own. Almost everyone seemed to gather behind the 3:30 marker, and I was there with maybe 5 superfast looking guys. While I’m not entirely useless at running, the front line is not my area, and I felt rather self-conscious. But since I was in the right place according to the pace marker, I didn’t move either. It had the advantage that I managed to talk to John O’Regan. We had exchanged messages hoping to bump into each other, and had a few minutes of chat before the start. John had originally planned to run the marathon, but downgraded to the half, and accordingly took off like a rocket from the word go. I wasn’t even remotely tempted to stay with him.

I was determined not to start at a suicidal pace, but plenty of others did. A whole mass of people was streaming past me over the first half mile, possibly up to 50 runners. Obviously the better half-marathoners would be able to run a faster pace, but I guessed that a number of marathoners were asking for trouble here. It was difficult not to get sucked into it, and when I checked the Garmin at one stage I was doing 6:20. I slowed down immediately and all-in-all I didn’t do too badly, with a first mile of 6:51, almost exactly 3 hours pace. It was a tad faster than I had intended to start, but not a complete disaster either. I also started overtaking runners at that point. Just what were some people thinking at the start?

It depends on your viewpoint, but most people in Kerry would have described today’s weather as stunning. The sun was shining and there was not one cloud in the sky. Of course, if you are running a marathon, your view on what constitutes perfect weather is a bit different, and to be running on one of the hottest days of the year wasn’t going to be easy. We were in for an interesting day.

The first few miles went very, very well. I was running along at a very easy effort, I felt like jogging along and was completely relaxed and happy. The heart rate was always around 167, at the upper end of what I can hold for a marathon, but not off the scale. Shortly before the 3-mile mark I caught up with a ponytail that looked very familiar. It was Johnny Donnelly, the former(?) drummer of the Irish pop band Saw Doctors, who is on a mission to run 60 marathons in 4 years for charity. He was gracious enough to chat with me for a bit, even though I’m sure he’s getting fed up at times with total strangers trying to talk to him when he’s running a marathon. Anyway, I was soon away again, overtaking at least a dozen more runners over the next few miles.

I started following the race line, trying to run all corners at the inside of the road rather than running in the middle of the road as I normally do. The road was quite cambered, and I wasn’t entirely sure if this was a very good idea, but I sure ran a shorter course than some people out there. It also helped me to stay mentally alert all the time.

The course was very undulating, one little hill immediately gave way to the next one, and you never had the opportunity to settle into a constant rhythm. Shortly after the 7-mile mark I started talking to a runner who recognised me from the Ballydavid race 2 months prior. We talked for a while, about the race and the weather and a guy we both knew (Ireland, and Kerry especially, is small enough for that to happen a lot), and half a mile later he told me to move ahead. A look at the Garmin told me that indeed I had slowed down quite a bit over that stretch. On the plus side, my heart rate had dropped, and over the next few miles it was always at 165 when I checked, even though I was still doing roughly the same pace.

The sunny weather brought home just why we were running here: the scenery was absolutely stunning, and I was able to enjoy it. At one stage I actually told the runners around me “lads, look at the view!!!”. We could see the Blasket Islands ahead of us, the Iveragh peninsula to our left, with even the Skelligs in clear view. This was breathtaking!

The race continued to go well, I was at about 7:05 pace or thereabouts, which would give me a 3:05 finish time should I hold it until the end, very close to my existing marathon personal best, but let’s not get carried away. I still felt great. Around the 10-mile point the quads started showing the first signs of fatigue, but that’s what’s to be expected. I was still feeling very good.

After a few more climbs we passed through the village of Dunquin where the half marathon would end. The road suddenly became a lot quieter. I could only see 2 runners ahead of me, 3 maybe on some stretches, but we were all very far apart. I had no idea what position I had in the field, but obviously it was pretty far towards the front. I reckoned I was doing very well.

I had taken my first gel at the 9-mile point and was wondering when I should take a second one. When I got closer to the 15-mile water station I decided not to take one now because I really did not feel like swallowing it, and following my gut instincts (literally) is usually a good idea. However, one volunteer had a bottle of energy drink in his hand, which looked rather appealing. Up to here we had only been offered water. But after one sip I realised in horror that the stuff was carbonised! It so nearly came back up again, and it sprayed out of the bottle all over my hand. Lovely. I still drank the contents though. It was hot and I was thirsty, and I managed to hold it in. Two miles later, as I was approaching the village of Ballyferriter, I saw that my spit was bright orange from that drink. What on earth was that stuff? I decided to keep to water for the rest of the race.

One other thing had happened at mile 15, the runner in front of me entered a portaloo, and I gained one place in the field. Hurray! I gained a second one just after passing through Ballyferriter, when the runner in front of me started walking. Later on, as we were nearing mile 20, the runner from mile 15 re-took his place. He passed me going at some ferocious pace that I could not possible match. On the other hand, I re-gained a place shortly later; I think someone had hit the wall and slowed down markedly. So, I was still two places to the good from the halfway point.

Looking at the chart now I can see that I started losing it around the 19-mile mark. Up to then the pace had pretty much followed the frequent ups and downs of the course, but from here on I started slowing slightly. Having said that, it was not apparent to me at the time. I kept marvelling how well I was feeling, and I was pretty sure I had never felt so fresh at the 20-mile point in a marathon. The contrast to my last marathon, Boston, was particularly striking. Back then I had been in agony since mile 15 and was hanging on for dear life, today I still had plenty in the tank and even though the legs were tired, it was nothing I could not handle.

However, whenever I looked up I could see the mountain looming ahead. It reminded me very much of Connemara’s “Hell off the West”, and I was in no illusion about the task ahead. This was going to be tough, and just before the 21-mile water station I took my second gel, want it or not. I reckoned I needed a bit of energy.

Up to now we had been following the spectacular Slea Head Drive, but at mile 21 we took a right turn into a very small country road. It even had a grass strip in the middle. That wasn’t a problem. The fact that it led straight up the mountain was, though. And by straight I mean straight. No bends, no hairpin corner (switchbacks in America), just straight up. As a result, it was steep. The elevation chart on the web site was wrong. This one had a gradient of over 13 percent at one point, just after passing the 22-mile sign. When we reached the Dingle road it became a bit more reasonable, but there was still almost a mile of climbing left. It was at that point that I overtook the runner from mile 15 again, this time for good because he was walking up the hill, and he didn’t look like he was going to run anytime soon. “This is fun, eh” I quipped as I passed. “Pure Magic” he responded in the same spirit.

Fun aside, I was getting into trouble. Both legs started cramping, but it wasn’t too bad. Just one spasm every now and then, and with the top of the hill approaching rapidly, I felt I would be able to make it. I did. Just after the 23-mile marker, the worst was over. Or so I thought.

Before the race I had said that ideally I would have a pair of working quads left for the final 3 downhill miles. I was thrilled to find them in perfect working order and proceeded to speed up. I fully intended to make up time lost on the climb, and the pace dropped to 6:45 once more. After going through one sweeping bend the road was complete straight for over 2 miles. We could almost see the end ahead of us! But it was also a bit steeper than was good for me, as I found out when my calves started cramping again, and this time it hurt. And by that I mean it hurt.


That’s roughly what I sounded like when my entire right leg went into spasm. Still, it went away and I continued on, but I knew this wasn’t the end of it. The next one came exactly at the 24-mile marker, and this time I was in full view of a group of spectators. “Aaaahhh!!!”. I had to walk a few steps to get the legs back under control, and I let the worried looking people know that I was ok. I was more embarrassed than hurt. But if I thought that was bad, I had no idea what was in store. People of a nervous disposition might want to skip the next paragraph.

If you look at the pace graph you see two spikes at the downhill part. The first is the walking incident I just mentioned. The other one happened half a mile later. I had not learned my lesson and continued to press the pace, though I wasn’t able to go particularly fast any more. But I pressed as hard as I could. And then, without warning, both of my calves went into the most violent cramp I have ever experienced, and both of them at exactly the same moment. That pain was absolutely excruciating, but what was worse was the fact that my legs simply buckled beneath me and I fell backwards to the ground. I managed to catch myself with my hands, ripping a piece of skin off my right hand in the process, but I didn’t even notice that at the time. I was writhing in the middle of the road, screaming in agony at the top of my voice. I don’t know how long I was like this, but it was definitely for several seconds. Then, by some miracle, I managed to put one leg underneath my body, and when I put some pressure on it the cramp in it subsided. I then managed to repeat the process with the other one, and managed to get back upright. I could see the runner ahead of me, maybe a quarter mile further on, looking behind. He must have heard me screaming. I waved to signal that I was okay, and both of us proceeded towards the end.

Lying on the road I had definitely thought that my race would end there and then, but now, back on my feet, I was pretty sure that I would be able to run the last 1.5 miles towards the end as long as I took it easier. It also helped that the road gradually levelled out, and the flatter it became the more comfortable running was. I jogged towards the finish line at about 8:00 pace, and did not have to deal with any more spasms.

When turning the last corner I could see the finish line straight ahead. The MC welcomed me by number and name – I was quite surprised that he was able to pronounce it, most people don’t even try. I milked the occasion for all I could. Cruising into the finish, smiling, waving towards the spectators and doing the aeroplane as I crossed the line (what a t*sser). I heard Niamh shout my name and walked over to give her a kiss, all to the running commentary of the MC. It was only then that I realised that it was our next-door neighbour! That would explain why he knew me, and he proceeded to give the audience my full biography, and almost coaxed me into an interview there and then, which didn’t really happen because I was too exhausted to speak. But he did tell me (and everyone else) that I had come 12th, which sounded very impressive. Even the kids were impressed, and that doesn’t happen very often. The time was rather modest at 3:12:44. There’s no telling how much that hill had cost me, but 5 minutes would be at my lower estimate.

As I’ve said, when running a marathon, a lot of things can potentially go wrong. I was well prepared, I think I ran a fairly smart race (I gained 3 places in the second half, even with all my troubles), and my nutrition was spot on. I still had plenty of energy left, and I didn’t even feel very tired. But the calve muscles completely gave out on me today, which caught me entirely by surprise. I thought that as long as my quads would hold up I would be okay, but that was not the case, obviously. I’m not sure what I could have done differently, but I won’t spend time thinking about it right now. I’m too sore for that.
12 Sep
Inaugural Dingle Marathon: 3:12:44, 7:21 pace, HR 165
12th place (out of 314)


  1. Thomas. Congrats - great run. Sounds like that run into the finish was tough .... I hope your calfs will recover quickly - imagine if that had happened in Boston with thousands of onlookers!!
    Not an easy day for running 26+ miles. It's amazing that today and the day of the Cork City were two of the hottest days this year.. the weather gods obviously don't like marathon runners!! I wish you a well deserved rest and a quick recovery.

  2. Really enjoyed your report Thomas. Those calf cramps certainly sounded excruciating. Glad to hear that you managed to get over them. 12th out of 300+ runners is fantastic, certainly a performance worthy of a rubbish marathon runner.

    The guy who came 2 places in front of you used to work with me and is a sub-60 min 10 miler - so you were in good company. Rest well.

  3. Wonderfully done. The calf seizures that hit you I had at Boston in April. I've put them down to dehydration tho I thought I was intaking enough water at the time. The constant headwind there made the cool temperatures deceiving as far as moisture loss. Not your same conditions with Dingle, but maybe the same root problem.

  4. Well done, Thomas. A great race and a great report. In view of the weather I wonder if a salt tablet (or an isotonic drink) would have helped, though I have never tried either myself despite running in a somewhat hotter climate in my youth.

  5. Ouch ouch, that hurts from way over here! The body can speak loudly at times can't it? Very well done, now enjoy the beer and ice cream!

  6. Well done on coming 12th. It sounds like that hill certainly beat up on your legs somewhat.

  7. Congrats Thomas - good reading. 12th place certainly sounds good. Marathons can be mean. More salt in the pre-race meal might help next time. There's also something called cramp stop - an oral spray. I brought some for next year's 6' - apparently it's great for emergencies.

    I think you need to do yourself a favour and find some flatter marathon courses for the sub-3.

  8. Excellent report Thomas. That hill sounds much worse than the 'Hell of the west'. Thirteen per cent gradient is just uncalled for and I am not surprised your calves were not happy. Enjoy the rest. I reckon the guy in front got as much of a fright as you when he heard the screams.

  9. Know wonder your kids are 'proud' thata a fantastic result!

  10. Great race report Thomas, there's one hell of a sting in the tail of that marathon course, great time and 12th overall is great going.well done!!

  11. congratulations, thomas. your training has been going so well and you must be so strong that i wouldn't rule out trying again soon (5-7 weeks)? if i may, i'll share what has worked for me:
    - salt tablets, 1 per hour, esp. in hot weather;
    - drinking electrolytes, hopefully ones you're familiar with from training;
    - eat more gels, and start eating them earlier;
    - pick a flatter course and better weather. perhaps a bigger marathon (more competition) would help as well.
    hope your recovery goes well!

  12. Thomas, Excellent result and I can put hand on heart and say that if I was running the full I would have been in your wake. The half was tough but looking at the course profile it's obvious that the 2nd half was tougher. To top it off it must have been one of the hottest days of the year and more a day for a walk on Inch Beach than a run around Slea Head.


  13. Mike told me your story this morning. I couldn't believe it! To have your calfs cramp up like that is horrible. What a good time / place even with the episode. Great job Thomas!

  14. what a shocker, congrats on your course PR! awesome perseverance and dedication--you are an inspiration!!

  15. Hard fought Thomas, but after looking at the profile I think you did well; that last hill is a killer. Given the tough mountain race I had feared worse, but you surprised me... I'm happy for you.

    When you have a moment, send me your mailing address, I have something for you.

    Rest well, it is deserved!

  16. Congratulations Thomas, fantastic placing despite the calf cramps! Enjoy your rest.

  17. Great report and congrats on the great race!

    I wish I was able to be there - sounds like the weather was very similar to our half marathon weather this weekend.

    Dingle is definitely on my to-do list for marathons - that hill at the end sounds like it is plenty of challenge for anyone.

  18. well done thomas. i guess once the dust settles and you have had time to ponder this, you'll actually take a lot of positives and learning into future races.. finishing 12th is a fabulous achievement... you deserve it

  19. If it had happened in boston, i think you would have been swept up by the first aid people before you knew what hit you! Good lord, that was rough to read--i bet it was rougher to experience though.

    but huge congratulations on 12th place! And the kids being impressed--now that's a feat!

    Well done, you are really inspirational!

  20. Congrations, very good report.

  21. congratulations Thomas, great job as always you're an inspiration.

  22. Dang, very nice time. Serious congrats!

  23. Well done and thanks for the report. I loved reading it. I could nearly feel your pain.
    This might be of interest to you. I suffer myself from cramps when running marathons. After the 22 mile mark my hamstrings just give up and 2 years ago I started bringing Biofreeze trial packets with me. Qty 2 usually does the trick and during my marathon when I cramp these help. Smaller then a energy gel and almost all chemists have them now.
    Anyway thanks for the report. Really enjoyed reading it.


  24. i know that cramping all too well. good on you for getting back on your feet and still turning in a respectable time! you're a tough competitor, thomas!

  25. Great report Thomas, thanks and very well done. Funny I've never considered the Dingle Peninsula coastal road hilly - but there again you never do in a car.

    I may have a little go at the Half next year - I'd never be able to run beyond Kruger's pub in Dunuin without going in anyway.

    Well done again.

  26. Another Great & Tough race Thomas. Congratulations! ( for some unclear reasons Blogger & LJ were banned in KAZ recently, but now I can read your motivating stories which make me think I shall be ready for smth similar too, very soon).
    P.S. Thanks for the Amazon link
    P.P.S. Waiting, waiting for your Dublin. Your Dublin 06 rep was the first marathon report I ever read, and that was one of the most inspirational thing for me to try Full Race. Good Luck there!