Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Nine Years On

It might have pretty much bankrupted me, but apparently my spending spree for the twins’ birthday got me a nomination for the Best Dad Ever award. You could learn lesson on naked materialism from the younger generation, it seems. But now is not the time for moralising sermons.

A better lesson could come from my good lady wife, who once more surpassed herself in the birthday cake stakes. This one wasn’t just amazing to look at, it also tasted fabulously. Since I have long re-gained my temporarily lost pre-Connemara weight, I did not have to worry about added pounds. I’m a fat slob as it is.

With the next half marathon just around the corner I thought it would make sense to get some tempo miles under the belt. I had canned the initially planned session over the weekend due to sore quads, but when I woke on Tuesday they seemed perfectly fine so decided to go ahead. As it turned out, running at easy effort was perfectly fine but as soon as the pace dropped below 7:00 the pain returned. I pressed on stubbornly and repeated 5 miles at tempo effort. The first two were with the blustery wind and slightly downhill, the next two against the wind and slightly uphill and the final one more or less sheltered but with another slight downhill. The paces reflected the conditions at 6:19, 6:05, 6:35, 6:39 and 6:16. I must have totally spaced out on the last two because I didn’t check the Garmin as I approached the end of the mile and carried on, both times running well over 1.1 miles before re-joining the conscious world and realising my mistake. But the real eye-rising moment didn’t come until afterwards when I checked the numbers from the Garmin, back home. The effort had been comfortably hard but do-able, but it turns out the heart rates were through the roof. They were so high that I initially thought they were the max HRs per interval rather than the average, but that was not the case: 161, 170, 175, 176, 173. They should all be in the high 160s, really. Assuming the numbers are correct, I’m a bit at a loss how I could push myself to such high heart rates without even noticing. On the other hand, I’m absolutely delighted with the pace figures. I have never run mile repeats at even close to that pace (6:23 average) in previous years. Ultra training seems to really agree with me. Or maybe it’s just the reduced mileage.

As mentioned, the quads did plenty of complaining during the mile repeats, but obviously did not slow me down. To give them a rest I decided to go swimming today. I really didn’t feel comfortable in the pool and felt like my swim training is going backwards, but somehow I manage to increase the number of laps each time I get into that pool, for the same amount of time (45-50 minutes), so maybe I’m making progress after all. But I was glad to get out of the water eventually and I did forgo a planned cycle during lunchtime to give the quads some extra rest.

I did notice one big difference in my attitude to running and cycling/swimming. When running I more or less refuse to do even a single step without my Garmin or a similar device that I can feed into the computer afterwards. On the bike and in the pool I’m perfectly happy to simply get on with it, figure out the distance afterwards and not worry about it for another second.

We’re off to Dublin tomorrow evening. The kids are very excited about the prospect of seeing their new baby cousin. Actually, so am I.
27 Apr
8.1 miles, 55:49, 6:53 pace, HR 163
5xmile @ 6:19, 6:05, 6:35, 6:39, 6:16
28 Apr
50 minutes swimming

Monday, April 26, 2010

Worn Out

Three days of Trabolgan have left me more exhausted than the Connemara Ultra a fortnight ago. Constantly running after 4 pesky kids turns out to be the equivalent of a long distance run; maybe I should have worn my Garmin during the day. The kids did climbing, zip wire, go-karts, trampoline, archery and probably a few other things I forgot to mention, in addition to plenty of time on playgrounds and 2 hours in the swimming pool every day. The pool was big with a massive water slide and a wave generator, but the one thing you could not really do was actual swimming. It was too crowded and even though Niamh and me shared the roles we still had to constantly keep our eyes on two children each. Shea especially demands constant attention, he keeps getting drawn to the deep end like a moth to the light and I had to drag him out of there on more than one occasion every single day. Triathlon training this was not.

I did some running as well, but certainly less than anticipated. On Saturday I headed out for what was supposed to be a fairly short run at easy pace but I got lost, the hills were unreal and somehow I managed to speed up with each mile. Towards the end, when I had finally managed to figure out the way home, I wondered why I was breathing so hard only to find that I was doing 7:15 pace uphill against a strong headwind. That’s not quite easy pace, then.

I did pay for that with rather sore quads for the rest of the day and the fact that I was on my feet constantly did not help either. Accordingly I opted for 6 much easier miles on Sunday, running towards Whitegate on the only flat piece of road I could find (it still had one nasty hill in there). Whitegate would have a lovely view over Cork harbour if only that would not include a power station on the right and a gas terminal on the left.

Unfortunately, the short run did not sort out my quads, and I reluctantly shelved the planned tempo effort. On Monday I ran even less, but included a set of 10x10 second hill sprints. When I got to the grass hill inside the holiday village ground it turned out to be a lot less steep than I had remembered it from the day before; carrying Maia up the hill must have increased the gradient, and now it appeared a lot flatter. But it had the right length, one sprint took exactly 10 seconds, and I did a big semicircle on each descent, marking a huge D into the dewy grass.

It was only late into the weekend that it dawned on me that Connemara had only been 14 days ago, and the main reason why my quads feel like they have run an Ultra a fortnight ago is that they have done exactly that. Maybe running a half marathon a week from now isn’t such a great idea, but I’ll do it anyway. The best way to learn from my mistakes is to make them in the first place.

And big congratulations go to Rick, who ran a fantastic PR of 2:47 in London at the age of 49(!!!!), giving hope to geezers all around the world, including myself, and to John MacLaughlin at the same race. 18 months ago we shared a few miles in Dublin, both hoping to break 3 hours and both missing out. After a few more attempts John finished yesterday’s London Marathon in 2hrs 59mins 38secs. Well done mate, and that’s the only time I’ve ever knowingly called a ManU supporter my mate, so you better feel honoured.
24 Apr
10+ miles, 1:14:48, 7:24 pace, HR 159
25 Apr
6.25 miles, 49:25, 7:54 pace, HR 142
26 Apr
4.2 miles, 34:58, 8:18 pace, HR ?? (forgot HR strap)

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Small Setback

I’m partially upset at them moment – only at my stomach, and only because it caught a bug; the rest of me is reasonably ok. It started on Tuesday night, when first Cian spent some time hanging out over the toilet bowl, and then Maia started screaming after throwing up in the very early hours of Wednesday, which left me with the task of cleaning baby/toddler and bed on my own because Niamh either pretended to sleep or actually managed to sleep through the racket. It may have been the latter, because she sounded amazed when I told her the night’s events. Then again, she is a trained actress.

Anyway, I felt perfectly ok on Wednesday morning, but after the fairly hard bike ride on Tuesday opted for a swim session rather than a run, to give the quads that are still in the rebuilding process after being torn to shreds in Connemara some time off. Having said that, as sore as the legs had felt straight after the ride, they seemed perfectly ok the next day. I do remember reading that cyclist can train hard day after day, very much opposed tor runners, and my extremely limited experience seems to carry that out.

However, come Wednesday evening and both Niamh and me were feeling absolutely awful. The kids seemed to have recovered and it was very much our turn now. One dreadful night later it was a rather easy decision to forgo the morning run, even for me. I don’t think I would have made it out of our driveway without collapsing. Unfortunately we had to drive the twins to Tralee for a piano assessment at the Kerry School of Music, and I used the time to sneak to the shopping centre and spend a fortune on their birthday presents. I really did not feel like it, but it was our only opportunity. The birthdays are on Tuesday and we’re going away over the weekend. That task knocked me out sufficiently to head back to bed for an hour over lunch, and Niamh drove me into work for the afternoon – I had not even suggested cycling.

Just like the kids, we both recovered quickly and today things are much better. I felt brave (read foolish) enough to head out for an easy 5 mile run, and while I didn’t feel too good I kept a close eye on the HR and that was fine at all times. I did sweat buckets though, and it was not a warm morning. However, I’m confident that particular episode is pretty much behind us; unless the twins, who haven’t been affected so far, have to go through it as well, in which case our weekend trip away to Trabolgan might be less fun than anticipated. Having said that, my stomach is still not back to normal and anything fancier than toast causes a new wave of discomfort and nausea any time I try to eat.

And of course I was only joking when I asked Niamh if it’s ok to pack 3 pairs of runners. Like she pointed out, who on Earth would even contemplate taking three pairs of running shoes on a 3-day break? Who indeed! I’ll just run my planned tempo run in normal runners then. Just like I had planned all along. Obviously.

21 Apr
50 minutes swimming, 29 km cycling
22 Apr
0. Bad. Ugh.
23 Apr
5 miles, 40:15, 8:03 pace, HR 144

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Easing Back

Training was curtailed over the weekend by the fact that I had 2 children to mind. Unlike Saturday there was no time for myself on Sunday and it ended up with a total of 0 as far as sporting activities were concerned. However, minding only 2 kids is a complete doddle. I don’t know what some people are complaining about. I also didn’t realise that I would be assessed for my parenting skills afterwards, apparently I got 9/10 with special praise for the cooking but deductions for not giving them a bath or shower. Ah well.

Anyway, after a one-week absence I was back on the road on Monday. I had no idea how this would go and ran 5 easy miles on the Ard-na-Sidhe road, as I have done on countless previous occasions. I was a bit surprised to see the pace below 8:00, but the HR was slightly elevated which was always going to be the case. I added a mile this morning, which went even faster even though the effort was still rather easy. One thing I noticed was the relatively cold temperatures early in the morning, it was between 3-4C (37-39F) degrees. Since I have done virtually all my training runs in those conditions, I am even more surprised that the 20C (68F) in Connemara didn’t really bother me. I know that isn’t exactly hot, but it was considerably warmer than anything I was accustomed to.

The weather is still rather nice and I used the opportunity to add some extra miles on the bike. Yesterday I went the long way home, more than doubling the distance, and today I took the bike out for a spin during lunchtime. I got slightly lost and took almost an hour to get back, arriving at my desk 10 minutes late. Oops. But the 18 miles were worth it. I just wished the roads were not is such a bad shape. A few spots were in absolutely appalling condition and took the fun out of riding. Halfway through the ride it struck me that I neither knew where I was nor had any kit with me in case of a puncture. It would have been the most pathetic phone call of my life: “Niahm, I did a cycle at lunchtime and my bike broke down and I don’t know where I am. Help!” Luckily, nothing happened and I was spared the embarrassment.

It struck me that the Wexford Half is only 3 weeks after the Ultra and yet I had no hesitation signing up. I already feel recovered, there is no noticeable leftover in my legs and I feel ready to rack up the training already. Instead, I’ll play it conservatively and take it easy for a bit longer. Some extra cycling and swimming will be on the cards, partially for cross training purposes but also because I do have a triathlon in less than 5 weeks. Eek! During training for Connemara I managed to focus purely on that, but now I have come to realise that the time when I have to swim in open water is getting rather close. I now understand why some first-time triathletes were rather freaked out by the prospect. Only too well, in fact.
19 Apr
5 miles, 39:16, 7:51 pace, HR 147
plus 35 km cycling
20 Apr
6.1 miles, 46:09, 7:33 pace, HR 148
plus 43 km cycling

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Long Road To Recovery

My good lady wife lost a bet today. She is in Dublin at the moment, so it fell to me to drive the twins to Cork today. Niamh was sure that I would use the time to go running while they attended their classes. She was wrong, I went swimming instead. I remained in the pool for over 90 minutes, which turned out to be my longest swim session to date, by a considerable margin. I was surprised that I didn’t seem to get tired. Sure, I didn’t exactly kill myself, but I have never managed to swim for so long without feeling tired. It looks like the running fitness has transferred to my swimming as well.

Since I’m still not running, I still can post a few things about the race. I never posted my mile splits, and I might as well do that. The Garmin’s splits together with the elevation change per mile are as follows:

1 8:11 –7
2 7:59 –6
3 7:56 +3
4 7:55 +32
5 8:02 +16
6 8:00 –21
7 7:48 –30
8 7:50 –2
9 7:33 –6
10 7:21 –51
11 7:55 +34
12 7:49 +3
13 7:28 –31
14 7:35 –4
15 7:29 +20
16 7:30 +1
17 7:35 –4
18 7:46 +51
19 7:38 –9
20 7:50 +62
21 7:33 +10
22 7:43 +21
23 7:51 –24
24 7:43 –180
25 8:07 +7
26 8:05 +2
27 9:25 +67
28 9:07 +150
29 8:03 –78
30 8:05 –58
31 8:13 –20
32 8:37 +33
33 8:23 –40
34 8:08 –37
35 8:21 –13
36 8:38 +41
37 8:58 +204
38 7:42 –84
39 7:58 –69
final half mile (7:03 pace) +6

The 10th mile was rather fast but I did well until mile 24. Number 27 isn’t too bad considering it contained a walk break, but I kept the best until miles 36 and 37 when I flew across the Hell. The Garmin showed 39.5 miles at the end, an extra 0.2 miles compared to the official course length.

They also posted the official results together with the 13.1 mils splits. My splits were unusual in that the middle section was faster than the first one. But compared to some runners, at 1:43, 1:41 and 1:50 they were fairly even. Some runners’ splits (e.g. 1:41, 1:45, 2:33) are scary, those last 13 miles sound very painful. Mick Rice, meanwhile, wins the opposite price for the most even splits. Oh, and I was the 4th M40 and 5th master overall. That’s pretty cool I think.

Just out of pure curiosity, I tried to calculate how many runners I overtook along the way. I finished the ultra in 5:15:32, which means that I went past every marathon runner slower than 3:45:32 and every half marathoner slower than 2:15:32 (that’s assuming all 3 races started on time – a small difference is ok, the numbers won’t be too far from the true ones). Out of 480 marathoners, 392 were slower than that target, and 888 runners out of 2053 in the Half, which means I had to make my way around roughly 1280 people on the road. Now consider that it took me about 6 miles to catch up with the back end of the half runners and you can imagine how busy the last 7 miles were.

And what does the near future hold? Well, we’re going to Dublin over the May bank holiday weekend because Niamh wants to visit the new baby yet again (once in a month is not enough, obviously), and when I innocently asked Niamh if she would mind a trip to Wexford on that Sunday, she immediately asked by when I had to sign up. That woman knows me only too well. Anyway, the Wexford half marathon just happens to be on that day and by then I should have recovered sufficiently from the Ultra. Then of course there is the Valentia tri three weeks later, which I am very much looking forward to, and my next “proper” race will be a fortnight after that in form of the Cork City Marathon. I hope my endurance will carry over to that race, and with some speed work and tempo training between then and now (only once I have recovered, of course) we will see what’s in store.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Random Post-Race Ramblings

When chatting to Mick Rice (who had come 5th in a time that would have comfortably won last year’s race) after crossing the finish line, he told me I would have to change the name of my blog into Diary of a Vastly Improved Marathon Runner (or was it Ultra Runner?), but I’ve grown rather fond of the old name and it stays. Mick is a class act in more than one way btw, take my word for it.

I had a look at the Garmin’s chart of my race, but it does not really tell me much I didn’t already know. The spikes at miles 10 and 19 were caused by me trying to get my stuff off the aid table; I was walking for a minute just before mile 27, and the pace on the last drop after the Hell is very uneven because of the cramps. The two climbs at miles 26 and 35 are plain for everyone to see, but I was surprised that I had enough juice in me to push the HR well over 170 on that last climb.

I have not managed to find any photos of me yet, which is probably just as well. Every single item I wore that day was chosen for its practicality without any regard whatsoever of colour and/or fashion sense. Matching knee-high white compression socks with ugly grey shorts that show black compression shorts underneath them will never he the height of fashion, I’m pretty sure about that. But I did come across this fantastic photo of the elite Ultra runners; I think it’s just after the marathon start. It really captures the scenery extremely well.

I still have the outlines of my flimsy green singlet (now dubbed my ‘lucky’ singlet – I’ve worn it in all my good races) marked on my body. I neglected to wear sun cream because a) I did not think the sun would be so strong in April and b) I was worried it would interfere with my sweating, and as a result am now sporting a pair of bright red shoulders and matching neck in-between, with white lines to separate the burnt parts.

On the other hand, the fact that my shoulders are the only things that still hurt is a very good sign. Yesterday I was still grimacing as I went down a staircase, this morning I did the same without even realising that normally I should still be having troubles with that. I’m recovering quicker than after some of my marathons, but I’m holding off running for a bit longer. Last night I slept for almost 9 hours and yet was still tired by the time I had to get up, just before 8 o’clock – and that’s quite something coming from someone who usually regards anything later than 6 o’clock as a lie-in. I might go swimming tomorrow if I wake up in time (I won’t set the alarm), otherwise it will be yet another recovery day.

I was a bit worried about cycling to work on Tuesday, but I needn’t have worried. The legs actually approved having to work a little bit, and it made them feel better for the rest of the day.

I spent the afternoon after the race swimming with the kids in the pool in Clifden; Niamh was amazed that I didn’t fall asleep comatose on the bed following the race, but I was full of energy and more than happy to join the rest of the family. Obviously I didn’t do much real swimming, and the calves cramped soon enough when I tried to do a few lengths, so I just clowned around with the four of them while Niamh managed to do some actual swimming. The same scene was repeated the next day, before we travelled home to Kerry.

Niamh is going to Dublin on the weekend, leaving me in sole charge of the twins. Normally this would cause me plenty of anguish because I can’t go running, but in this case I’ll just have to recover for those days. If I’m absolutely desperate I could do some time on the indoors trainer, but I very much doubt this will be the case.

The weekend was absolutely perfect as far as sport went, btw. I had a dream race at the Ultra, Kerry won, Tyrone got relegated and City hammered the Brummies 5:1. It really doesn’t get any better than that!

Update: I should have checked my email! a few photos can be found here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hell: Conquered

By now you know how my race reports work. Grab yourself a cup of tea or coffee, sit down, relax, make sure you're comfortable. This will take a while.

By some amazing coincidence, Niamh's sister, Cliona, would go through her own equivalent of an Ultra at exactly the same time – by giving birth to her first child. We exchanged text messages in the morning. She was on the way to hospital at the same time as I was on the bus to Maam's Cross, her ordeal took as long as my race and we would reach our respective finishes at almost the same time.

As someone else once wrote, every runner has their soul race. The Connemara Ultra is mine. I might have done the Dublin marathon more often, but if I had to choose between the two there is no doubt what I would choose. It takes a lot to keep me away (i.e. a once-in-a-lifetime experience like last year's Boston marathon); even though I had a rather painful few hours here in 2008, the second I crossed the finish line I knew I would be back here for the 2010 race. The biggest change since then occurred in the number of Ultra runners – the numbers have doubled in the meantime. As Ray, the race director, let us know, this included a special guest from Italy who had come 7th in the 100k World Championship last year. This is almost unique to running – in how many sports do you have to opportunity to participate in the same event as a truly world class athlete? Yet here he was, standing less than 3 feet away from me. One other very notable class runner came over for a chat; Mick Rice, who has represented Ireland internationally, introduced himself to me (!!!), told me how much he liked my training diary and warned me that it would be a very hot day – hydration would be extremely important.

In the hour before the start I had a good chat with a few runners I knew, Grellan, John and Gary amongst them, all three of them Ultra novices; Grellan and Gary (also known as Krusty amongst certain circles) had run the Barcelona marathon a mere 4 weeks earlier (in 3:10 and 2:55 respectively), and I wondered if they had recovered. The we got bussed a short mile from the HQ, and a few minutes later we were off. The top runners went off at breathtaking speed while the mere mortal rest of us started in far more leisurely fashion. After a first mile of easy jogging mixed with plenty of jokes and banter, John remarked that this was the most social race he had ever taken part in; normally the running effort would be far too high to talk much. We passed the first mile marker in 8:11, which I thought was bang on target, but John seemed to get nervous. When he wondered what position we would be in, somewhere around 35th maybe, I answered probably more like 50th. He seemed to take this as a sign to speed up and within a minute he was already way ahead of us. I had no intentions of following, and Grellan, after a few moments of hesitation, fell back into my rhythm as well. Three miles later I timed the gap and he was over a minute ahead of us. As we were doing 8-minute miles, he must have accelerated to 7:40 pace. For his sake I hoped he knew what he was doing. For a while we were joined by Gary, who also mentioned the sociable atmosphere. He also pulled away, but at a more reasonable speed.

Grellan had devised a run/walk strategy that meant including short stretches of walking every few miles coinciding with a drink. He then sped up as well, leaving me running on my own for a while. I caught up during his first walk after the 5-mile water stop, but he passed me again shortly afterwards. He managed to build up quite some gap, probably as much as 100 meters, but I was not going to break my race strategy of starting slowly. My two previous Ultras had provided me with sufficient pain to drive home the message: this race is defined by its 13 final miles, not the first ones. If you don't feel like you're running almost too slowly at the beginning, you're running too fast. Tempted as I was at mile 6 to speed up, I kept my discipline. I was confident my patient approach would pay off later.

Deserted by my initial buddies, I fell in step with another runner for a couple of miles. His singlet as well as his northern twang gave away his cross-border origins; we confirmed to each other that it was really getting hot now. There was not a single cloud in the sky, and while the temperatures had been fresh enough at the start because of haze, this had now disappeared and the sun was starting to beam down mercilessly. This was bound to have an effect eventually.

After 8 miles we descended down a little hill somewhere in the vicinity of Recess and I seemed to carry the momentum forward. I didn't really feel like I was running faster, but my Garmin confirmed that my HR had risen from the early values of 140s into the 150s. Still, this seemed safe enough, especially as I was still running well within myself. But there was no doubt about it, I had accelerated; I kept passing a few fellow runners and drew closer to Grellan again. My first drop bag waited for me at the 10 mile aid table, a bottle of a sports drink called Amino, especially formulated for Ultra runners, together with a gel in a little bag. I lost a few seconds handing the empty, ripped bag to the volunteers (I could not bring myself to littering the country side), but didn't let the little mishap get to me. Over the course of 5-6 hours, a few seconds mean nothing.

I had spent a bit more effort than ever before working out my nutritional strategy. My three drop bags all consisted of a half-liter bottle of Amino and a carbohydrate gel, and I had two more gels and two granola bars in the back pocket of my shorts. This pocket also contained a little container of electrolyte capsules called S-Caps, from the same maker as Amino, to be taken at a rate of one per hour. Especially on a hot day like today, they could make a hell of a difference. All in all, this amounted to about 1100
calories, probably at the upper end of nutrition I would be able to process during the run, but I'd rather have a little bit too much than not enough. I knew that my stomach might object to 5 gels, but bringing one back home was hardly a problem.

I had tried the drink once or twice in training and was a bit worried. It may have been designed to aid the Ultra runner's effort, but my taste buds really objected to it and I had to force myself to drain the bottles. Imagine my surprise when the same drink felt much more palatable now. I kept sipping for the next few miles, always careful not to overfill my stomach. We soon came up to the marathon start on the shores of Loch Inagh. Grellan was just a few steps ahead of me as we crossed the timing mat, him goofing around, raising his arms as the race winner. The time was just under 1:43, and my Garmin gave me an average pace of 7:51. We must have speeded up considerably over the last 5 miles. A mile later Grellan received a bottle from the sidelines and started his third walk. We had leapfrogged each other during his previous walks at miles 5 and 10, and he said “see you later” as I passed him again. Actually, I did wonder if he would manage to catch up again, because I was really finding my rhythm now. I think the Amino gave me a boost, and after the long warm-up the real race was starting now.

We came across the buses that had ferried several hundred marathon runners to the start, and as always there was quite some congestion. At one point I had just passed a few cars waiting in line when one bus cut me up rather rudely. One spectators made a comment that was less than flattering about the driver as I had to stop and go round the other way, but I was not going to let this little incident get to me. In the long course, this was nothing.

In my previous Ultras it took me about 6 or 7 miles to catch up with the back end of the marathon, but this time I passed the first runner after 2 miles and after 3 miles the trickle turned into a steady stream of runners. After 2 lonely hours, the rest of the race was going to be rather busy. It made it difficult to identify the other Ultra runners. Even though we all fought mostly against ourselves, it is always a boost to overtake a direct rival. I eventually found that looking at the wristbands provided a good clue. Ultra runners wore yellow ones, there were green and red(?) ones for the marathoners, and later on there would be blue and pink ones for the half (plus a few white ones, don't know if they had special meaning).

I finished my Amino just as I got to the 16-mile table and immediately grabbed some water. I took some gel as well, and this sustained me until the 19-mile water station, where I had another drop bag waiting for me. I lost a few more seconds trying to locate my bag at the crowded table. Again, I did not let this affect me. I was having too good a time right now.

Between miles 19 and 20, basically at the halfway stage, the first real climb of the day awaits. It is not as steep as the other two and only half a mile long, but it is a proper climb and it signals the start of the tougher section. My first thought was to take it easy, but I just automatically fell into my rhythm, and before I knew it I was at the top already, having flown past scores of runners. The Amino was again doing the business, by now it was tasting delicious and I felt great. I did remember how I had really started suffering here two years ago, and the contrast to today was remarkable. Unfortunately, by the time I ditched the empty bottle, somewhere around mile 23 or 24, the good feeling had disappeared. I think the long downhill stretch into Leenaune was taking its toll on my quads, and they responded with wave after wave of pain. The Garmin gave me an average pace of 7:45, well ahead of target, but I did wonder if I had overcooked myself over the past 15 miles, especially considering the heat. The next few miles were very difficult, but I was amazed to see the average pace seemingly stuck at 7:45. I guess the downhill miles, painful as they were, enabled me to keep the pace steady, even as they were ripping my muscle fibres apart.

I made it into Leenaune, by far the busiest spot of the course so far, and the first time I encountered a sizable number of spectators giving great and enthusiastic support. That really helped. I also reached my last drop bag. As a boy handed it to me (great service!) I noticed that it was basically empty. I quick swear word and a glance at the table later I spotted my bottle – and a good bit of drink was missing! I can only hope that whoever was responsible for that had done it by accident, in which case you are forgiven. If, on the other hand, you took my stuff knowingly, then I hope the Gods of Running will snap your Achilles tendon, rip apart your IT band and cause a stress fracture in whatever bone you treasure most! Actually, I decided not to let this get to me, took whatever was left of my drink and continued on my way. I crossed the marathon timing mat at 3:24:xx, virtually the same time I had clocked at the Dublin marathon less than half a year ago. Back then, I was shattered and broken. Today I still felt able to add a demanding half marathon for fun.

In some ways, the climb out of Leenaune is the worst part of the road. To the half marathoners it is the wake-up call, the marathoners know that the second, tough part has started, and the Ultra runners know that the time of reckoning has arrived. It is the steepest climb of the day and it goes on for about 1.5 miles. Sadly, I was still feeling rather low. I thought it would be a good idea to take some solid fuel aboard, but found it impossible to run, eat and drink at the same time. After a brief assessment of the situation I decided to walk for a bit. Eating a granola bar and washing it down with some Amino became much easier; I'm not sure how long I was walking for, just as long as it took to eat the bar, maybe a minute or so. Suitably refreshed I took up running again., re-passed the 3 or 4 marathoners that had just gone by and tried to find my rhythm again. At that point, a fellow Ultra runner passed me. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and as he pulled away he remarked that I'd probably catch up again on the downhill. Seeing him running much stronger than I did at the time, I very much doubted that.

Eventually we crossed a blue line marked KOH (King of the Hill) and I knew the worst was behind us. To my surprise, I felt much better. Following my experiences from 2007 and 2008, I expected a long, hard, slow, painful shuffle once my quads started giving out, but instead things improved markedly and I was able to run properly again, but not quite at the same pace that had carried me into Leenaune.

I had pressed the “Lap” button on my Garmin as I crossed the marathon mat, and now switched to display the lap pace rather than the overall pace. I knew I would not be able to keep going at 7:45 pace and watching the average figure melting away before my eyes would be too depressing and discouraging. Instead I would try to keep my pace from Leenaune back to Maam's Cross at a reasonable level. My brain wasn't functioning too well any more, but I managed to work out that a set of 10-minute miles would still deliver a new PR, 9-minute miles would get me reasonably close to my target and get me home at 5:22 or so, and my dream target of 5:15 would require roughly 8:30 pace. Anything faster was out of question, in fact at that point I would have been absolutely delighted with 9-minute miles. As it was, I was already playing catch-up even on that fairly modest target. The climb, including the walk break, had left my average pace at about 9:40, but I was delighted to see that figure come down over the next few miles, slowly but steadily.

To my big surprise I managed to catch up with the ultra runner from the Leenaune climb again, “You was right” I said, “told you so” he responded. I went by, expecting to drop him soon enough, but I never bothered to look back.

Around the 30 mile mark I finally caught up with John. He was clearly paying the price for his early pace. A friendly pat on the back got a “well done, Thomas” in reply. I told him he should have stayed with me, but he said he always has to run like that and didn't seem to have any regrets. I was soon ahead.

The memory gets rather hazy at that point. I do remember a lot of details but not where and when they happened, and a few things might be out of sequence from here on. The sun was blazing down mercilessly, someone later told me the temperatures reached 20 degrees, which is incredibly hot for Ireland in April, and it felt warmer still running on black tarmac that seemed to radiate extra heat. I was really thirsty at times and begged for extra drinks at each aid station. I picked up two water bottles at one of them, and a water bottle as well as a cup of sports drink on two more. Both times I stopped to walk with the cup, draining it in one go before resuming running again. My glycogen stored must have been utterly drained at that point and I was gasping for the sugary drinks; they immediately made me feel better but the feeling never lasted.

Said fellow Ultra runner suddenly pulled level again. Taken by surprise I asked where he had you come from all of a sudden. Apparently I had provided some welcome pacer duties and he had never really fallen behind. At that stage he let on that he was a fan of my blog and had recognised me. We introduced each other; of course he knew my name already, and I shook hands with Peter, a race rival as well as a fellow sufferer at that point. You do get some funny encounters at mile 32.

At one stage someone's watch started beeping. I looked at my own Garmin and saw that almost exactly 4 hours had passed. It was time for another S-Cap. I struggled to get the tablet, and just as I was about to put it into my mouth I dropped it. I did not have any spares and I didn't hesitate to pick it up again. I used a little bit of water from my bottle to clean it, and promptly dropped it for a second time. I think the lady I had just overtaken was shocked by the language coming out of my mouth as I stooped low for a second time. Another wash, and this time I actually managed to deliver the package into my mouth. I reckoned that the salt and other electrolytes would work immediately, and any bacteria acquired on the road would not affect me until after the finish – a price that would have been well worth paying.

Back at mile 28, I had expected my legs to break down any minute now, but the miles kept ticking by surprisingly quickly and I was still going well. I was amazed and very pleased to see the lap pace at 8:30 when I checked the Garmin again after a while; maybe all hope for 5:15 was not lost yet. I could see Peter not far in front, and like mine his stride was short with a quick turnover. We could not lift our knees very well any more, but we were still going at some reasonable pace.

Going up a small incline, a half marathoner asked me if this was the famous 2-mile hill. I pointed towards the right. “See that big hill over there? That's the one”. I'm not sure if he believed me, but even if he didn't he would have found out soon enough.

Somewhere around here I scrolled through the display of the Garmin to check the time and inadvertently caught a glimpse of my overall average pace, which to my dismay read 7:58. Taking my ever-growing fatigue and the fact that the Big Hill was yet to come into account, an average pace of 8:00 looked very, very unlikely at that time.

Keane's Pub turned up sooner than expected, but instead of going for a pint we turned right, crossed the bridge and headed into Maum. That was the second spot with a lot of spectators and they had special praise for us 2 Ultra runners, Peter and me. This was a massive boost, especially with the Hell looming straight in front of us.

The Hell of the West is the signature of the Connemara races. No matter which distance you are going for, it ends with a 2-mile climb and a subsequent drop back the other side. It's not that steep. It's not that high. But you're tired by the time you hit it, and its fearsome reputation is well deserved. In 2006, doing the marathon, I was reduced to walking a lot of it. In 2007, on my first Ultra outing, I did well until I got hit by cramps. In 2008 I was doing a lot better, but it was already too late to salvage a wreck of a race. And in 2010, on my fourth attempt, I finally tamed the Beast.

I don't remember going past Peter again, but I must have. I remember being worried about him hitching a ride again – for all the good will, we were still race rivals. Maybe it was the fear of being overtaken again that spurred me on. I was in a serious amount of pain, but I managed to tune into The Zone nevertheless. It was not pretty. With each breath, I let out a long, loud moan. John once said I sounded like giving birth when running up a hill a few weeks ago; I don't know what he would have made of it here. But actually, it was the thought of Niamh's sister Cliona doing exactly that right now that helped me. Compared to the pain she was going through, that little bit of discomfort I was feeling in my legs was not even worth mentioning, and that kept me going. Actually, moaning loud enough to be heard well ahead had a very welcome side effect. By now I was right in the middle of the half-marathon pack and the road was very busy. I had spent a lot of time weaving around runners over the last few miles, but now I was making so much noise that the masses parted in advance like Moses and the Sea. A few people did look back, saw my yellow bib and gave plenty of encouragement to the tired Ultra runner. A few others, on the other hand, did laugh at me, though I was so far beyond caring I hardly even noticed.

I did tire eventually, but I could see the top straight ahead, and once the road levelled out the moaning stopped but the effort remained. The downhill hurt. A lot. My quads, already at breaking point, were being stretched past any reasonably threshold and let me know about it. All I concentrated on was the finish – I could see the tower in the far distance and I knew this would be over soon enough. But before I got there, my legs went into spasms. I knew the warning signs from the Dingle marathon and slowed down immediately. Back then both my legs had started cramping at the same time and I had hit the deck screaming in absolute agony; I had no intentions of a repeat performance. The good news was, things did not get any worse and the spasms did not develop into a full cramp. The bad news, they didn't really improve either, at least not until I reached the bottom of the hill. The level road was definitely welcome. I slowly started to go faster again, but paid the price when my entire left leg went back into spasms, from hip to heel. A group of runners who I had just overtaken went passed me again, one of them making a comment that I didn't quite hear, but it didn't sound overly complimentary. Eventually things settled back and once again I cautiously picked up the pace. I checked the Garmin; 38.5 miles, less than a mile to go. It wondered if I should stop to stretch the affected leg, but so close to the finish this did not seem worthwhile. And sure enough, soon I was running all out without problems when my brain finally accepted the fact that the end was indeed in sight – literally in this case. There were lots of spectators, and on at least three occasions they called out my name, though I did not look left or right to see who had called me, just kept my focus at the line ahead, which I crossed 5:15:30 after the start. It may have been half a minute slower than my dream target, but I was immensely pleased nevertheless. Had my legs not started cramping, I would have made it. I knew I had given absolutely everything and did not have the slightest reason to be annoyed.

My training had been great, delivering me to the start line in the best shape ever. My patient early pacing strategy payed off in spades and my nutrition was spot on, so much so that the heat, which affected a lot of others quite badly, never bothered me unduly. Race calculators pretty much fall apart when it comes to comparing Ultras to shorter races, but my gut feeling is that this was the best performance I have ever managed to deliver in a race. Even if this turns out to be the highlight of my running career that will never be surpassed, I won't have any complaints. And now, over 24 hours later, I'm still on a massive high. It doesn't get much better.

I wish to dedicate my race to Julie De Vallier, born 11 April 2010 in Dublin

Connemara Ultra Marathon
5:15:30 (unofficial), 8:00 pace, 15th out of ~200

Thursday, April 08, 2010

It Is Time

With the Ultra just three days from now, it’s time for another summary. I included last year’s figures as a way of easy comparison, but of course they were from marathon training, not ultra training.
Training (excluding long recovery from Dingle/Dublin and taper):
14 weeks (2009: 18 for Boston, 14 for Dingle)
Total Number of Miles:
862 (2009: 1388 Boston, 1210 Dingle)
48, 70, 55, 61, 72, 62, 65, 65, 52, 66, 64, 62, 70, 50
Average mpw:
61.5 (2009: 77 Boston, 86 Dingle)
Highest weekly mileage:
72 (2009: 88 Boston, 103 Dingle)
# runs of 20 miles or more:
14 (2009: 6 Boston, 7 Dingle)
long runs by week (20/20 means back-to-back workout):
14, 21, 15, 20, 20/20, 20/20, 20/20, 25, 20, 30, 20, 26.3, 22/15, 18
# of PRs:
0 (2009: 1 Boston, 1 Dingle)
0 (2009: 3 Boston, 0 Dingle)

What jumps out immediately (to me, at least) is the significantly lower mileage per week but the just as significantly higher number of long runs, both in number and duration. This is not by accident, of course. I wrote a training program at the start but then mostly ignored it, leaving only the long runs in there and moulding the rest of my training around them. The idea was to do many more and longer ones while at the same time ensuring full rest and recovery. Now, if you take 2 days for a back-to-back workout, rest/recover for two days before that to ensure freshness and rest/recover for two days afterwards for recovery, there is only one day in the week left, which I used for a fast workout. Due to a quirk in this year’s racing calendar, a lot of these fast workouts were actually races, including a slightly mad spell of 6 races on 6 consecutive weekends, though I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of these, so no regrets. On weeks where I did not do a back-to-back workout I either ran very long (25, 26+ and 30 miles) or took an easy week with “only” 20 - 22 miles for the long run.

While I did not set any PRs I was pleased with my races, and I came pretty damn close to my 5k PR that had seemed way out of reach beforehand. And just over the last weeks, coinciding with me taking an iron supplement (ok, probably not a coincidence then), my tempo runs have all of a sudden taken off and I was running 10-20 seconds faster per mile than ever before. Take my new found speed and my hopefully better-than-ever endurance and I should be in for a good day in Connemara, though in Ultras things are never a given. However, I think I’m in better shape than ever before.

The race itself has developed as well since my last go at it 2 years ago. From what I’ve heard the number of runners has doubled since then, from 100 to 200 this year. I like to think that I have personally inspired a few of these new entrants, but this will probably mean that my name will be cursed to High Heavens on the approach to the Hell of the West.

You might remember that I had pledged to stay off sweets during the period of lent. Despite numerous temptations I managed to stay true to that goal and was rewarded with the loss of about 6 pounds, which apparently left me looking like a whippet, according to Richard. Well, after eating my way through a humongous mountain of chocolate during the Easter Weekend, I hoped to become abstentious again for the rest of the pre-Connemara week, but after weeks of iron discipline there was none left and I’m still living on sugar. I could call it carbo-loading, but sadly that’s not really how it works. It doesn’t help that a work colleague won an Easter egg in the raffle, the size of which would make a Brachiosaurus squirm, and has left it out for all the people in the office to share, and I could not resist munching through my share as well. The result of all this saw me 4 pounds heavier this morning than on Sunday. How can it take 7 week to lose 6 pounds (ok, 5 them came off within the first 2-3 weeks) and only 4 days to put most of them back on? Surely I have not eaten that much chocolate!?!? Anyway, since the Easter Chocolate Mountain has now been demolished I might get back to a reasonable diet with 2 days remaining. As for my next blog entry, that will be from beautiful, sunny Connemara.
7 Apr
6.1 miles, 44:57, 7:22 pace, HR 148
8 Apr
4 miles, 32:30, 8:07 pace, HR 142

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Easter or Connemara

Whenever someone asked where and when my next marathon would be I answered with “Connemara, the week after Easter”, even though in my mind it was the other way round and Easter happened to fall the week before Connemara. Well, the week after Easter has arrived and Connemara is looming right in front of me like the Hell of the West looms in front of the unfortunate runner after 35 unforgiving miles. When I was still awake at midnight last night I asked out loud “why can’t I sleep”, to which Niamh responded “because you’re scared of the Ultra”, which may or may not be true.

The weekend brought some truly wild weather at times, but here in Kerry most mornings tended to be reasonably bright until the next storm front arrived, usually around lunchtime, to keep us indoors for the rest of the day. That’s good enough for me, it enabled me to run in the mornings in reasonable conditions and then wait out the storm sitting snugly on the sofa.

Saturday was easy enough; I headed out towards Ard-na-Sidhe on my standard 5-mile route but kept going a little bit longer until I reached the foot of the steep climb towards the Devil’s Elbow. Here I proceeded to run up for 10-12 seconds at full effort, then turn around and very gently jog down for another go. This was repeated 10 times, though for some reason I cut the last repeat a bit short as my legs seemed about to buckle under the strain. I have been experimenting with several ways of doing hill repeats over the last year, from 10 second sprints to 2 minute efforts, the shorter workouts having the distinct advantage of leaving your legs in decent shape for the next day while apparently still providing a good stimulus on the neuromuscular level, though I have to take their word for that.

On Sunday I inadvertently proved correct the theory that you can run a good effort the day after a set of hill sprints. The weekends have generally seen a fast effort throughout this training cycle, mostly because of the races I did but also a few tempo runs on race-free weekends. I’ve had some very good tempo runs recently (which sadly did not transfer into a good time in Ballycotton – ok, ok, I’ll stop whining about it now), and this one was my last one. Because I’m tapering I did the short version with 2x2 miles at HMP effort. It was quite windy, and when I hit 6:25 pace fighting the headwind I did wonder what I would be able to do on the return. Normally my second effort is slower than the first one but with generous help from Aeolus I was astounded to find myself cruising at an average pace of 6:16, which I would normally think of as my 10K pace, but the HR as well as the effort level were definitely on the aerobic side of things.

I really must be in good shape. All of a sudden I’m running 10-20 seconds per mile faster than ever before. I kind of wonder what time I would be able to run in a marathon right now. Actually, what am I talking about! Truth is, I truly believe that I am in sub-3 shape right here and now, but I’m not going to cancel Connemara. The marathon will have to wait, but it was the ultra training for Connemara that got me to this point. If I have one regret then it is that the race was not on that very Sunday – I felt incredibly good and as race ready as I’m ever going to be.

Since I know that I’m only jeopardising my race performance by running much this week I did an hour on the cycle trainer yesterday instead. The weather was wild with very heavy rain and 60 kph wind, which made the indoor option look much more attractive. And this morning I drove to the pool in Killarney. It might not be what the coaches would recommend, but I did 750 meters without rest to see if I’m able to manage that distance without drowning. I’m more than happy to report that I survived and covered the 30 laps in 17 minutes, a time I am more than happy with. It’s much faster that I thought I would do, and since this was not a race effort there’s still some improvement left for Valentia, though obviously I am aware that comparisons between a swim in the pool and the open water will always be fraught. But I now know that I’ll be fine in that race, and that was the entire point of the exercise.

But let’s get that Ultra out of the way first!
3 Apr
6 miles, 49:14, 8:12 pace, HR 144
incl. 10x10-12 hill sprints
4 Apr
8 miles, 54:23, 6:47 pace, HR 159
incl. 2x2 miles @ 6:25 (HR 163), 6:19 (167)
5 Apr
60+ minutes indoor cycling
6 Apr
50 minutes swimming

Friday, April 02, 2010

A Joke

What do you get when you pour boiling water down a rabbit hole?

A hot cross bunny!

Not the funniest of jokes, and believe me, it gets a lot less funny when you have heard it a dozen times already. Unfortunately, it seems to be the only Easter themed joke my kids know, and it’s getting tad old by now. And the Easter Weekend has barely started yet!

Rather predictably, the taper madness is getting hold of me. I’m itching to get out, run or bike, just do something. Instead I’m supposed to relax and not expend too much energy. And with 9 days still to come, this is only going to get worse. As nice as it is to have a long weekend, if I get any more jittery Niamh will throw me out of the house sooner rather than later.

It could be the reduced mileage, but I have been finding it very difficult to slow down over the last few days. I did my last hilly 15 mile run on Wednesday. Usually, when I reach the top of the climb, an average pace under 9:00 is a sign that I’m moving well. When I checked the Garmin and saw 8:19, I initially thought I had turned it off by mistake before the climb started. But no, I was indeed going a lot faster than usual. Even though I tried to keep the effort easy I ended up with 7:36 average pace by the time I was back home. While this is definitely not the pace I can hold over 39 miles a week from now, it is almost scarily fast considering the low effort (and HR) level.

Because I’m tapering, I went swimming on Thursday. It didn’t go quite as well as on Monday, but I was still pretty happy. I bumped into my coach on the way out, and he said he had watched me over the last few minutes and thought I was doing well. He certainly has no doubts about the Valentia tri, and once mentioned that I should aim for a swim time closer to 15 minutes rather than 20, which had been my dream goal a while ago. It’s great to have a wildly optimistic coach! (Disclaimer: I don’t know who accurate the swim distance in Valentia actually is. On the map it looks closer to 500 meters rather than 750, but I simply don’t know)

The long weekend started with a nice lie-in, as always cut short by the steadily increasing number of children joining us in bed until there was no room left. Still, getting up at 8 o’clock seems like pure luxury! Once out on the road I found it impossible to keep the pace slower than 8:00 pace and I ended up with 7:40, much faster than anticipated and much faster than it had felt like. While the fresh legs from the reduced mileage are bound to have an effect, I’m convinced by now that I had indeed been anaemic and that the iron supplements are having a positive effect. I’m no longer feeling tired, the dizzy spells have almost stopped and the pace on my runs seem to have increased by 15 seconds per mile. Having said that, I have felt the same effect in previous tapers and it’s impossible to compare them. Still, I’m very much looking forward to Connemara, and I’m wildly optimistic about crushing my old PR (one of my goals this year).
31 Mar
15 miles, 1:54:06, 7:36 pace, HR 149
1 Apr
45 minutes swimming
2 Apr
6.15 miles, 47:08, 7:40 pace, HR 147