Monday, October 26, 2009

The One Too Far

I was already going through a number of possible titles for today's race report at mile 15, which is never a good sign. The actual names that went through my head weren't exactly uplifting either,like “Some days you have it, today I did not” or “Falling to Pieces”, but I think I chose the most descriptive one.

The day started well, I got up just before 6 without troubling the alarm, made some breakfast for me and Shea, placed the boy in front of the screen in order to enable the rest of the family to sleep some more and left the house in good time. I had plenty of time to deposit my bag and casually walked towards the front, sub-3:30 starting pen. I met Grellan, his neighbour Pat and a few of his club mates, and just after 9 o'clock, almost on time, we were off.

I initially lost sight of Grellan in the crowds but found him again, jokingly accusing him of overtaking me on the sly, to which he replied that he had been focusing on the wrong orange singlet. The plan was to take it fairly easy over the first few miles and then drop the pace down to 7:00 and see where that gets us. The first mile was a bit slower than planned at 7:30, thanks to a good bit of congestion, but I wasn't bothered. We pushed the pace a little bit more over the next mile, but Pat started following another runner at sub-7:00 pace. I thought he was getting a bit over-excited, but Grellan soon started to pick up the pace as well, and by the 3-mile mark I had already decided to let them go and run my own race. I knew by then that I was in for a difficult morning, and hoped that I would not see any of them again for the rest of the race – for their own sake.

The legs, while not in bad condition, lacked every bit of spring, and I ran along at about 7:20 pace. What was astonishing me was the high heart rate of over 170. I know from experience that I'm heading for trouble if the HR is so high early on, but I was already running at what amounts to snail pace when racing a marathon, and I simply could not believe that 7:20 would be too slow. I knew this could blow up, but since I was treating this marathon as an experiment rather than an A-race, I was willing to see what would happen.

I was loaded up with gels; 6 on my belt, 2 more in my shorts, and I knew that there would be 2 gel stations later on. I had never taken more than 3 gels in a marathon (or even 2?), and this was yet another experiment. The water stations were all roughly at 3 mile intervals, and before each one I would take one gel, and also take half a tablet of Nuun for electrolytes to be dissolved in the water. It required a lot of fumbling at each station. The belt was also rather heavy early on. I have always shaken my head at people who run a marathon laden like a mule and now I was one of them!

Shortly after the 6 mile point I was feeling really good. Maybe the second gel had just kicked in and put me into overdrive. The next 2 miles were downhill, and I'm always quick on the downhills. I simply took off. I haven't got the analysis software here in Dublin and can't check my mile splits, but I must have gone as fast as 6:30 at times. By 6 miles, my average pace had been 7:23. By the time the course bottomed out 2 miles later the average was down to 7:15. I knew perfectly well that this could set off a disaster later on. I was willing to take the risk and see what would happen.

At that stage I placed myself onto the shoulder of a runner in a blue vest with a seriously cool dreadlocks haircut (other might disagree on that assessment, but here at mile 9 it looked cool). More important was his strong pace, but it seemed perfectly manageable. Basically he seemed the perfect pacer, and I unashamedly hitched a lift.

I usually hate the bit between miles 11 and 13. The Crumlin road rises slowly but steadily, and on each previous occasion I had to battle a nasty headwind. The wind was quiet today, and I was running along at a good pace. The average pace was still stuck at 7:15, which would give me a 3:11 finish if it could be sustained. However, that was the pace on the Garmin, and as always the official miles were several seconds longer. I passed the halfway mat in about 1:36:30, on course for a 3:13 finish.

By then I knew that I was most likely headed for trouble. The legs, especially the left hamstrings, were sending clear signals of fatigue. I also could not really stomach any more gels. By mile 12 I had taken an energy drink rather than a gel, but discarded the bottle after only a few sips, feeling a bit guilty about the waste. I thought I might be able to force another gel or two down my throat, but at that stage I already felt clear signs that adding more carbs to my stomach wasn't the answer. It wasn't going to take the fatigue out of my legs. I still kept following my pacer. Actually, for a stretch of maybe half a mile I took the lead and let him draft off me. Then he passed me again and I hung on for a bit longer.

Somewhere around there I saw a female runner sitting at the sidewalk, looking utterly exhausted. When I passed I saw that she didn't have a number on her bib but a name, Mackintosh. Obviously, one of the elites had an even worse day than me.

I took one gel from a volunteer at the 15 mile aid station (actually closer to 16), and as soon as I swallowed it my legs stopped cooperating. I'm not blaming the gel, but I think the mere fact that I took my mind off the simple act of running for a moment disrupted the system. Suddenly I was wading knee deep through molasses, and I simply could not keep the pace. I passed the 16 mile marker, thinking that I was in for 10 difficult, painful and slow miles. I was not looking forward to any of them.

What I was looking forward was seeing Niamh at the 17.5 mile point. She used to await me at the 21 mile point, closest to her parents' home, but that left her unable to see me at the finish. This year we changed tactics. She took the Luas (Dublin tram) to Milltown to see me at the course, and then hopped back onto it to head into town. However, I could not see her there. Since I was a bit slower than anticipated I worried if she had given up waiting, thinking that she had missed me. But a mile later I saw her dancing and waving at the road side. I took off my belt and gave it to her, since it wasn't doing me much good. I still had 2 gels in my short pockets and another gel would be provided later on, and I definitely would not be taking any more than that. I was glad to be rid of the extra weight.

Somewhere between miles 16 and 17 I felt a tap on my shoulder, and a runner started taking to me. He said he was a great fan of my blog and enjoyed reading it. Flattered as I was, I didn't feel I deserved any praise today, having just slowed down to about 7:45 pace. But as I tried to send him on his way (he was looking good, a lot better than me) he invited me to keep up. I did so, very surprised to see the legs responding. At the very least the conversation was taking my mind off the ever growing fatigue and bringing me closer to the finish. But since his wife might read this blog as well I had to promise not to reveal any of the conversation. What's said on the course stays on the course! Actually, it was all very pleasant and entirely civilised. Alas, after pushing through the pain barrier for two miles I lost contact and dropped back.

Very shortly afterwards I saw an orange singlet ahead of me that looked suspiciously like the one I was wearing. Could it be my club mate Anthony? Even at my modest pace I caught up much sooner than expected, and it was indeed him. We shook hands, but he was really struggling at that point and even though we tried running together for a bit, he soon fell behind. Still, unlike me he was destined for a PR, unless he started crawling.

Not soon afterwards I was struggling badly myself. The last big climb, up to Fosters Avenue, had killed my chances of a sub-3 marathon last year, and today it wasn't a barrel of fun either. That's when I thought back to last year's Connemara Ultra. I had been struggling badly from mile 30 on, much more so than today, but a toilet break after 35 miles revived me so much that I stormed the last 4 miles to the finish. Trying to replicate the revival, I started walking. I wasn't too tired to keep running yet, I merely hoped that a walk break would give me a boost to get me over this low. It didn't start very well, as soon as I stopped running my legs went into spasms, but luckily didn't cramp. I kept a reasonable pace, the Garmin seemed to indicate 13-minute miles, which was not that much slower than the running I had been doing before that. However, the revitalising effect I was waiting for never materialised. My mind started drifting off into dreamland, and eventually I was jerked back into reality when Anthony passed by and told me to hitch a ride. Together we climbed up the hill, then he fell back again. We both kept having lows that stopped us from keeping pace with the other.

I spotted an insect at my shoulder and tried to flick it off. As I turned my head, my neck went into spasms! Has anyone ever had a cramp in a more bizarre body part during a marathon? My legs were behaving in that respect, and after a few painful seconds my neck was ok again. What was that all about?

A friend, Fionnuala, awaited me at mile 21. It's always good to have someone cheering for you, and I really appreciated her taking an early lunch break to support me on the course. I indicated that things were not going too well, but she kept her cheery composure. Thanks, Fionnuala.

5 miles to go and by now I was submerged in a sea of pain. It did cross my mind that I had nothing to gain from that marathon. I was obviously headed for my slowest time in years and God knows what damage I was doing to my legs. It was pure boneheaded stubbornness that kept me going. I do not want to have a DNF to my name, not in a marathon. I might have been tempted to start crying in pain, but I wasn't going to stop and I was going to finish that blasted race. The pain was going to last for another 45 minutes or so. The DNF would stand for life.

Anthony passed me again, and this time it was me who was unable to keep up, despite being urged on, and despite trying pretty damn hard. I was unable to lift my knees any longer, and just stumbled towards the end. As we were passing the UCD flyover, everyone else hopped over the curb. I took a slight detour (actually, I was the one staying on course I think) because the curb seemed a formidable obstacle and hurdling it might have sent me flying.

Tempted as I was, I didn't fall back into a walk. The last one had failed to revive me, and I didn't think another one would succeed at that either. Instead I slouched towards the finish, painfully slow, not even managing 9:00 pace at times. This was bad!

The mile from 23 to 24 was definitely the worst, and by quite some margin. It may have taken close to 10 minutes, but it felt a lot longer. When the 24 mile marker finally came into view I felt like it had been half an hour since the last one, and I was not looking forward to 2 more of the same. Things were so bad at that point that a final time of above 3:30 seemed on the cards. In that case I would have started in the wrong pen, which would have truly embarrassed me.

Despite the slow pace, the heart rate was still around 165. I cannot explain this!

At that point I thought I spotted Pat ahead, Grellan's neighbour. I really did not wish a bad race on anyone, even less so on an acquaintance, but I felt happy to see a familiar face (or back, in that case). I upped the pace, trying to suppress the new wave of pain from my legs. When I finally caught up, it wasn't Pat at all, but a Dutch runner who happened to wear the same t-shirt and who had a similar build and haircut. Instead of falling in line with a friend I continued on, and since I was already doing a better pace I kept at it. It hurt like hell, but it would bring me to the finish in less time. While I didn't really care about the final time any more, the thought of this torture being over sooner rather than later was highly appealing.

The crowds became really thick at that point. They even started encroaching onto the course, leaving just a narrow channel for the runners, barely wide enough for two runner running side-by-side, making overtaking a bit tricky at times. I don't remember the crowds being so much in your face in previous years, but the support did help. Since I was now running faster again than most around me, I didn't have to feel like hiding any more.

With about a mile to go I spotted Anthony again. Because of the congestion it seemed to take a tad longer than necessary to catch up, but eventually we were running side-by-side again. We gave each other a hug (a very manly one, of course) while keeping pace, but he soon fell behind again, and I started the afterburners, smelling the finish ahead. I did question why I was running all out. The few seconds gained were hardly telling, and the pain had multiplied, but I managed to suppress those voices and just pushed the effort with all I had. Funny, 2 miles ago I was slouching at 10-minute pace, and all of a sudden I was doing sub-7 for the first time. It was too late, but I could see the finish line.

I was so focused on the line that I plotted out the entire rest of the universe. My world consisted of nothing but the ever-shrinking stretch of road that separated me from the end to this torture, and so I somehow neither heard nor saw Niamh who was apparently screaming my name so loudly that the people around her laughed, assuring her that I must have heard her. Alas, I only saw the finish, and as soon as I was across in 3:24:55 according to my own watch I could finally stop running. To my disappointment the pain didn't stop with the race, though.

I really should have waited for Anthony who surely was only a short while behind, but all I could think of was getting the hell out of here. That's the one thing I'm sorry about today. As quickly as my thrashed legs would take me I went through the medal and goody bag area and headed for the exit where Niamh was waiting. She graciously forgave me for blanking her 10 minutes earlier.

This was my slowest marathon in years, but it was an interesting learning experience. I now know that racing 2 marathons 6 weeks apart is not on the cards. Running at a slower pace is ok, but my 3:12 in Dingle was worth at least 3:05 in Dublin in my estimation, and a repeat of the same effort in so short a time was not possible. I also found that loading up on carbohydrate gels and electrolyte tablets will not solve my cramping problems – while my legs did not actually cramp I could tell they were on the verge, and only the slow pace saved me from the iron grip. Another lesson was that walking is not a cure for dead legs – damn, I had high hopes for that. And a high heart rate at the start is a harbinger of doom, no matter the actual pace. Next time I'll take heed. Finally, I now also know for sure that I'm a stubborn idiot, but that is not an entirely new insight.

Grellan did very well indeed, finishing under 3:09 apparently (I haven't seen any results yet and have to go by what he told me) and Pat was merely a minute behind. What a fantastic achievement lads, I'm well and truly chuffed for you. As for me, I'm in more pain that after any other marathon I can remember. While memory tends to be unreliable on that count, I know that I tend to be in better shape usually. And this time I told Niamh that I was definitely not going to run Dublin again next year. I know I had said that 12 months ago as well, but this time I meant it. Niamh's prompt reply was to suggest doing New York instead. Hang on! Since when is she an expert on marathon dates? Something's going on here!

26 Oct
Dublin City Marathon, 3:24:54 (unofficial), 1067th
  7:49 pace (7:45 on Garmin), avg. HR 167


  1. Quite a race report! It really does sound like all of your problems revolved around not having enough recovery time between marathons. But like you said, you never know how things will work out until you try. Recover well!

  2. I guess all you can do is take the learning from this race and use it when planning the next. i know 3:26 is a disappointing time for you, but it's still a bloody good effort 6 weeks after dingle. have a good recovery thomas

  3. that was riveting! sorry you had such a rough time, but the rough times make for the best stories, don't they? i don't know how you manage such pain!

    nyc? maybe niamh is thinking of running it...

  4. Great account of the race. Although not as you had hoped, you still have much to be proud of. H1N1 be damned ... lots of hugs and handshakes out there!

  5. Apologies for passing you in the opening mile. I was trying to catch you and my eyesight isn't the best without my glasses - and there was a sea of blasted orange singlets.

    That was a very tough run Thomas - you certainly are stubborn - but that's why you ace most of your races so don't despair. I left Dublin out last year for the very same reason (peevious 2 races were memorable for the wrong reason) but came back this year for redemption.

    Rest well and enjoy the week in Dublin - hope it dosn't involve too much walking!

    All the best.


  6. well done for keeping going!! Sounds like a tough race. Dingle was still in your legs and I'm sure it's tough (impossible) to maintain a marathon peak for 6+ weeks.

    So what's your conclusion on the gels experiment??

    Enjoy the recovery and hopefully see you on the roads around Cork really soon!!

  7. Great report Thomas. I felt every mile as I read it.

    We've all had days like yours today and they really test your character and yours came through with shining colours.

    Just like my recent Hardmoors race I'm glad you stuck it out and finished.

    You have all the qualities to do really well in ultras!


  8. Wow, Thomas! What a report. Stay stubborn!!

  9. Terrific report Thomas,

    meeting the fan of your blog and having the neck spasms from the insect particularly amused me.

    Sounds tough but makes for fine reading. Your conclusion is on the money too. Those marathons so close together are can indeed make for some drama on the day.

    Maybe a longer preparation will improve your time but the report will not be as interesting, I'm sure ;)

  10. The easy thing to do would have been to quit, but you didn't! Hats off for a real "character" run because these are the types of efforts that will get you to your desired goal. Good job!

  11. Way to tough it out, my friend. They can't all be good races, unfortunately. Running would get boring if they did. That being said, I hope you can take some positives away from this race, primarily winning the mental battle. That combined with wanting another race that matches what you're really capable of can serve you well down the road. Rest up champ, revenge will be yours. I think we all know that.

  12. Good report Thomas, and a very familiar one - brings back painful memories for me.

    I'm betting the conversation with your #1 fan went something like "How do you get permission from your wife to commit so much time to marathon training?" And you say "Well, the secret is this..."

    Anyway, some good lessons learned from that one. New York would be a great marathon - and an excellent shopping holiday for your wife while you're over there!

  13. great report...esp as I am doing my first marathon on sunday..(5 days to go)...hmmm..your time sounds really fast to me...

  14. Great report Thomas, and still a good time for being an experimental race. I hope you find a solution to your cramping issues.

    Start saving your money, Niamh wants to go shopping in NY...

  15. Yes you had a great race at Dingle and it was bound to take a lot out of you, anyway glad to see you made it through!

  16. Thomas, great gutsy run! The experience, while unpleasant, will benefit you later. I took on more gels than before also, but I am unsure of their benefit. However, they did not cause any upset.

  17. Take a well earned rest. Saw your picture on racingpix365.. just enter your bib no.

  18. I think the result can be best explained simply by looking at the home page of your blog, where the marathon history is listed. You've been good about scheduling just a Spring and a Autumn marathon every year...until this year, when you stacked two back to back. Doesn't take a rocket scientist...great effort to achieve a great time considering your elevated heart rate, fatigue, residue of illness, family obligations, overtraining, etc. etc. Be proud...

  19. It's always good to experiment and figure things out. Have you tried s-caps yet? I can't remember. I like Nuun, but it seemed like I had to drink a lot to get the benefits. And I couldn't agree more on the gel. I know Eric goes through a lot in a race - I'm not sure how! I plan to experiment a bit with this weekend's race, hope it goes better than your experiment did. I also think you would find that if you ran races closer together more frequently, your body would adapt and it would get easier. I know too many racers who do, and who PR - and they are fast runners like you, not slow runners like me.

  20. Great effort given everything and a marvelous report. So many elements do have to work well for everything to come together on any given day. Dublin may not be Dingle but I ran Dublin last year and Chicago this month and Chicago was 5 minutes faster and felt much easier. Looking to New York next year, too, since one can qualify on time.
    Anyway, thanks for the ongoing updates. We all enjoy them.

  21. great report Thomas, sorry things did not go as well as expected, you made great efforts. Just rest assured that I would gladly take your worst race day over one of my best :) I don't think Niamh idea for NYC is too far off.

  22. I echo what most other people have said, great report. Sorry to learn about your race, but regardless of the time it looks like you can take away a few lessons.

    Okay, rest, don't rush it. You'll be fine, and faster.


  23. Its good to hear you are giving up marathon running for a while as you were really living up to your name. This year was your chance to break 3 hours and you failed miserably despite some great training and some good pbs at shorter distances. The way you are able to showboat at the end of your marathons suggests that you are incapable of hurting where it counts - from 13miles onwards-. My advice for marathons (having broken 2-40 a few times) would be to jettison the garmin, cycle shorts and especially the gels( all my best marathons came on taking nothing more than the water provided) Good luck with the ultras, I expect you have your eye on the one planned for Dingle and I can you you do very well in races like that.