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


  1. Inspirational stuff Thomas, Well done!! Sounds like you raced it perfectly, not an easy thing to do I'd imagine over such a long distance! Love the analogy with the childbirth (congrats btw) it's like runnings answer to 'Alone it stands'! Well done again and enjoy ur rest!

  2. AWESOME RACE & report Thomas! I read every word and felt every twinge of your cramping legs. What a grand struggle and so well executed. Well deserved and well done!

  3. WOW. Well done. Great race and gripping, inspiring report! Almost felt like I ran the race with you. Well controlled run right on target. Enjoy the recovery and relax in the knowledge of a job well done! hopefully I'll be there with you some time in the not too distant future! Brendan

  4. Well run, well written and well dedicated, Thomas. You're a good man using his time on this earth well. Celebrate the moment.

  5. Brilliant effort Thomas, and well deserved. Looking forward to following the next challenge.

  6. This is what I've been waiting for... well done my friend, well done! Congratualtions on the training and the race, the latter well deserved.

    Your report was great, I felt I was there with you. Rest up and recover; enjoy!

  7. You Irish sure can write!

    Wonderful report Thomas. Congratulations!! Sounds like you gave it your all and the proof of that is in the way your feeling now. Tired body elated mind!

    Very happy to hear that it was such a success.

  8. Congratulations. Awesome race.
    Seems that your training and race strategy has paid off 100%....

  9. Well done Thomas on a fully deserved PB. A truly professional and brilliantly executed performance! Enjoy the rest.

  10. Congratulations Thomas.

    It's great when a plan comes together and you pull it off.

    You fully deserve this for all the planning and preparation you have put in.

    I was really interested to read your strategy on pacing and determination to stick to your plan.

    In the ultra's I've done so far I think it has really helped me to start steady, well within myself and seek to keep it going.

    I have been toying with the idea of trying to go off a bit faster and see what happens but reading your report has convinced me to stick with my tried and tested plan.

    If I am to get any faster it will be because I'm stronger over the last 10-15miles not quicker over the first 15miles.

    Anyway thanks so much for writing it all down! I printed it off (all 8 pages!) and took it to bed last night to read.

    So well done on a great race and don't worry you will have more great races to come. This is just the start.

    I remember when I broke 20hrs in 2008 on the whw thinking I'll never go faster but I did and hope to again this June!!

    Recover well

  11. Well done Thomas - I have to admit that I even shed a tear for you in the end. Brighton this weekend will seem a walk in the park after reading this.
    Congratulations to your sister-in-law.

  12. Very impressive running, comgrats on

  13. Fantastic race Thomas. Your training was top class, you peaked at the right time and executed your race plan with military pecision. I knew when you forged ahead after 13 miles that, from your training and previous experience of the course, no matter how well I did I wouldn't see you again until the finish line. Conquered? You smashed that SOB.

  14. Brilliant report Thomas, and inspirational. It is so much 'in the moment' that I finished reading the report with the relief of one reaching the finishing line.
    It's thought provoking that you say that Conn is your 'soul' race - it was certainly a dream fulfillment for me to first run a Half there, though the overcrowding has tarnished those dreams a little now. But for a Kerryman I thought you'd not make such a fuss over a bit of muck on a tablet :-)) Well done.

  15. Hi Thomas, great stuff on a fab PB. It's a pity that you can't take on the marathon now, as you would be in flying form to record a massive PB.

    Would appreciate your thoughts on recovery from an ultra, given that you've been through the experience twice before after Connemara. Any suggestions? Answers on a blog, boards post, or back of an envelope welcome! Thanks and congrats again, Gary

  16. Hi Thomas, another great report and I can comfirm very word is true, I'm 'Peter'. You passed me half way up the HOTW and as a true sportsman gave me a tap on the back and some words of encouragement. The heavy breathing was funny, I could hear you catching up for a long time and after you passed, watching people clear out of your way as you passed:-). Hopefully we'll compete again, maybe push each other on to a Sub3. Cheers, Peter.

  17. I was anticipating this report, after the early morning (late nights) training you completed a PB was only fair. Great run and report Thomas, amazing how you remember the stuff at all.

  18. legendary stuff thomas. many congratulations

  19. Fantastic descriptive report Thomas. To most it is difficult to understand that how one can enjoy an ultra even though you went going through so much pain in the process.
    I went through pain also but it was still a fantastic day.

  20. Well done. An excellent training strategy; disciplined and determined racing and a great report.

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