Sunday, September 05, 2010

Heaven And Hell

Ewen might want to read yesterday’s post again rather than subject himself to all of the following. The rest of you, grab a bevy and a comfortable cushion before reading on. You will be here for a considerable time. A long race deserves a long race report.

Just a few days after completing last year’s Dingle Marathon, I got an email from the organiser announcing a 46-mile Ultra for 2010. Of course I immediately responded, asking if he would consider extending it to 50 miles. He responded in the positive (and said he would point any casualties my way), and so, on 4 Sep 2010, I found myself with about 60 others standing in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the starting gun to go off.

The drive to Dingle had taken me almost an hour, but when I parked the car it struck me that the run I was about to do was a good bit longer than that drive. This was going to be a long day.

The course had been measured as 50 miles, but some last minute-changes meant we would start with a 1.5-mile out-and-back section rather than a straight-forward run. It also meant the first mile spotted a wicked climb, which got the heart rare soaring right from the start.

I found myself in about 10th position early on. I was absolutely determined not to start too quickly; my Garmin GPS was supposed to help me with that, but for the first 2 miles the heart rate display spiked and was useless until it eventually` settled down, so I had to rely on my own gut feeling.

One runner caught my eye immediately; he walked the uphills and ran the downhills rather hard, which meant we leapfrogged each other several times but had pretty much the same average pace. After about 4 miles, now on a tarmac road and properly on our way, we fell into step and started chatting. His name was Ken, he was from the states, had done a couple of 50-milers already and was training for his first 100-mile race later that year. A short while later we were joined by another runner, Alan, who like me (and most of the field) was a newbie at that distance. At one stage I fell back about 10 or 20 meters, but when the gap between the 2 guys and myself remained constant I accelerated and caught up because if we were doing the same pace we might as well do it together. The early miles passed quickly, helped by the conversation and after 8 miles we passed through a very quiet and sleep Castlegregory. At this stage Alan put the hammer down and accelerated away, Ken started walking an incline and our group split up. Ken soon enough passed me again on a downhill, only for me to push ahead on the next ascend.

Connor Pass is well known as the highest mountain pass in Ireland, and I had always assumed it means it’s the highest road in Ireland, but have learnt in the meantime that it’s merely the highest road with the name “pass” in it. Nevertheless, at 1350 feet it is a formidable obstacle for any runner. At the race briefing the RD had warned us about the 6 “severe” miles of climb to the top, but during our earlier conversation Alan told us it was only 4 miles of climb, with a few miles of rolling hills preceding that. I knew from studying the map that the top would be at 19 miles, and when the climb was still reasonably benign after 15.5 miles I was wondering what they had been talking about, only to round the next corner to see pretty much the entire road ahead of me; I could even make out the top, very, very far above my head. The next few miles were going to be fairly severe, alright.

Quite a few runners had been talking about walking this stretch but I had spent long hours of my training running up hills that were steeper than that and I found the gradient fairly reasonable, just right to put your head down, cruise along and don’t think about the rest of the journey. At one stage, about halfway to the top, I looked up and saw about half a dozen runners strung up like pearls on a chain. I spotted a cyclist climbing towards me, but it took her several minutes to draw level. When I joked if she minded me borrowing her bike for a while she responded that it wasn’t much easier that way. Just as I thought I was getting close to the top the road changed, becoming much steeper and narrower for the last quarter or half mile. I would not have fancied driving that bit against oncoming traffic, but running wasn’t any easier. I caught up with a runner just before the top, one other guy was almost drawing level with me and we reached the aid station at the top in quick succession.

As much as I tried to keep my time at the aid station as short as possible, frantically going through my bag took longer than it should have. I grabbed a couple of gels and a drink of Amino and then took a few items off the organiser’s table, a gel as well as a little bottle with the Red Bull logo on it. Despite a bad experience with Red Bull during the Dublin marathon 2 years ago, I was curious and resolved to check it out later on. One golden rule of running is to never try anything in a race that you have not used during training, which is one rule I have broken at almost any race and usually I get away with it (kids, don’t try that at home!).

It had been raining a bit earlier on and the mountains were covered in clouds but they parted in time for our arrival at the top of the pass and the views were indescribable, well worth the effort. But it was not the uphill part that had me worried. There were still 31 miles ahead of us, and I really did not want to destroy my legs, especially the quads, on the downhill. I had decided to walk some of the road if it was too steep, but was pleasantly surprised by the very runnable gradient. The next 5 miles brought us into Dingle for the first time, and when I looked back I noticed that I was steadily pulling away from the 2 runners that had arrived at the top at almost the same time. I was rather surprised when Ken, the American runner, went past me shortly after entering Dingle, running the downhill very hard. I would not have dared to subject my quads to that kind of punishment, but he was very good at it.

I followed Ken through Dingle. The town was busy and a lot of people were on the roads cheering us on. After the lonely early miles, this was a great boost. We turned right at a pub, directed by a steward and followed the signs that led us right through the town, arriving at the big roundabout at the other end. The marathon and half-marathon had started nearly 90 minutes earlier as we made our own way, following their footsteps.

Before the start the RD had told us that the roads would probably be closed for that stretch, but that turned out not to be the case. While it’s not exactly a major road, the traffic was busy enough to be a nuisance and we had to stick to the right side of the road at all times. Even then it got a bit hairy on a couple of occasions when cars came from both directions.

Two miles out of Dingle I passed the marathon distance after 3:46. This was 22 minutes slower than half a year earlier in Connemara, and I felt no better. Connor Pass has a lot to answer for.

Even though I was getting tired, others suffered a lot more. Just a couple of miles later I passed 3 ultra runners in quick succession. I remembered them from the early miles; about 3 miles into the run I had been right behind them when I noticed that we were doing 7:20 pace, much too fast, so I dropped back and let them go. They disappeared from view very quickly, but it was clear to me that their pace was unsustainable for me. Sadly, it turned out to be much too fast for them as well and I could see them suffering on the road with 22 miles still to go.

Ken also ran into troubles at that point. I could see him stretching his leg, and when I passed him I asked if he was ok, to which he responded “Charlie horse”. This was a redundant conversation, I knew he wasn’t ok and I could see that he was cramping, but he knew what to do.

Not much later, probably 6.5 miles outside Dingle, which would make this the halfway point of the half-marathon, a guy was removing some timing mats from the road, and he told me he thought I was in sixth position. That really surprised me. After the start I had counted the runners ahead of me and then kept track of anyone I passed or was being passed by and I had myself in eighth place at that time, though of course over several hours of exhausting exercise it’s easy for mistakes to creep in. It did not really matter; I just tried to reach the finish in the shortest time possible and as I was never going to win a price, the exact position was not important, but on the other hand, this was a race and as a competitive runner I want to end as far ahead as I can.

The mile markers for the Ultra kept confusing me, because the distance displayed on my Garmin was always a bit shorter than that. For example, at the 28 mile marker my Garmin only displayed about 27.7 miles, and this kept happening at all of those markers. So, when the steward told me I was two places further ahead than I thought I was, a terrible thought entered my head. Had I inadvertently cut the course? The only place for that to happen would have been in Dingle itself. I had mostly just followed Ken through town, but there were a few stewards directing us and I saw signs every few hundred meters. Still, what if one steward at a crucial junction had deserted his place just as we were passing by and now I had cut half a kilometre off the course? Would they disqualify me? Worse, would I be branded a cheat?

This all sounds rather melodramatic now, but out there on the course in the baking sunshine after running 30 miles, this was all rather real and I was seriously worried. I had trained like a maniac over the last couple of months and now I kept pushing as hard as I could through the steadily mounting pain, and I really did not want the effort to be in vain. All kind of scenarios went through my head. Would I still count this as a personal best, even if I was disqualified officially? Could I run an extra half mile after crossing the finish? Would there be trouble?

I was torturing myself and I knew that a negative mindset is the last thing you need when running an ultra; so much of it is in the mind, and I really needed to get a grip.

I had gone through Dingle 90 minutes after the marathon and half-marathon start, and I thought I might catch up with the back end of the field just as they finished their 13-mile trip. I was quite surprised when a steady trickle of walkers started appearing after 7 or 8 miles, and encounters became increasingly frequent. It made running much easier, I had a few words for most of them, even just a “hi” when I was too tired to speak, or a wave when even that became too arduous. A few of them asked if I was one on the ultra runners, and the inevitably following praise was always a boost.

Ken eventually caught up with me again somewhere around mile 33, and he was looking really good and strong. It did not take a genius to work out that this would be the last time we were leapfrogging each other. I was starting to struggle keeping the pace under 9-minutes per mile while he was jogging along happily. On several occasions I upped the effort, but even though I never consciously noticed slowing down, I always ended up back in a slow trot. As the muscles fatigued more and more, it became increasingly difficult to lift the legs and as a result the stride shortened and the pace slowed as the turnover remained reasonably constant. The feet come closer and closer to the ground, and eventually you are merely shuffling along.

The sun had been burning down mercilessly since Dingle and I was getting really thirsty. At a couple of drink stations I begged for a second bottle of water and eventually I managed to catch up on my hydration again. At one stage, before mile 30, I had emptied that bottle of Red Bull Energy Shot I had grabbed from the 19 miles aid station without even knowing what it was. It went down well enough, but there was not a lot in the bottle. If you ask me, it’s a marketing gimmick and nothing else. The other thing I had taken off that table, a Lucozade sport gel, went down much better. I had brought along my own gels, SiS Isotonic which have the advantage of not needing water, but the taste and texture are just horrible and taking one always takes some persuasion. The Lucozade gel, on the other hand, tasted really nice. Maybe it was just the fact that it was different, but I pretty much switched my brand allegiance at that point.

Details are getting hazy now. At one aid station around mile 30 or 33, I missed the gel and took a jelly sweet instead. This turned out to be a mistake, it immediately caused my stomach to cramp painfully, which lasted for a few minutes. At one point I tried eating a banana, but that did not sit well either. My stomach was slowly shutting down, and with 20 miles under the blazing sun still to go, this was not good news.

At mile 36 we had another big aid station where our own bags were located. Despite my reluctance I re-filled my short pockets with gels, took one Amino and also some dark chocolate, which by some miracle had not melted yet. The Amino went down as well as it always does, but ever since that jelly sweet anything other than water or Amino would cause immediate stomach cramps, the gels only for a minute, the chocolate considerably longer, and anything else was becoming seriously unappealing, so I left it at that.

After going through Dunquin, where the half-marathon finished, the road became lonely again. At first I feared I would be running on my own for the final 13 miles, but eventually I saw plenty of marathon walkers ahead. This would do for the rest of the race. Soon enough I spotted a runner ahead; it was easy enough to tell him apart from the marathon crowd, even before I made out the orange number that confirmed his ultra runner status. I caught up soon enough and we had a few words. His legs were cramping and he was resigned to run/walk the final miles to the finish.

The half-marathon section is the most scenic of the course, and even though the final 13 miles are still set in beautiful surroundings, it’s just a little less dramatic and feels like a bit of a let-down after the stunning views from earlier on. Or maybe that’s just because the ever-increasing fatigue plays a more and more dominating role in our thoughts.

I passed the Connemara distance of 39.3 miles in 5:46, half an hour slower than at that race half a year ago, but still going ok. This was now officially my longest run ever. The map was now blank, here be dragons. Every step was one into the unknown. But somehow I felt comforted when I saw 40 on my Garmin. Only 10 miles to go. I can always do 10 miles. This was the home stretch.

One ultra runner once mentioned that you hit the wall after 20 miles (marathoners know that too), enter the pit after 40 and the abyss at 80. Luckily I was not going long enough to experience the last one, but running became harder and harder. Unlike the wall, which generally comes suddenly, there was no noticeable impact, just a barely noticeable but steady deterioration. Still, when I ran a quick mental check over all the bits of my body, I was pleased to see that the pain was manageable and the energy levels clearly sufficient to get me home. My stomach was the worst part, but at that stage I would make it to the finish even without extra calories.

Around mile 42, a black Toyota pick-up truck that I had seen on a couple of occasions earlier, pulled up alongside. The driver asked if I wanted something, which I declined, but after a few seconds I frantically waved him to stop. I enquired if he was an official steward, which he confirmed, and then told him about my worries about potentially cutting the course in Dingle. I described the route I had taken through town and the road I had left Dingle on, at which point he assured me that I had been on the correct course all along and nothing was wrong. As I ran off, I shouted “God, I have been worrying about that for 15 miles”, to which he replied “worry no more”. I was much happier as I ran along.

I passed one more ultra runner on the way, suffering as much as I was, but was then caught myself by an older runner in an Irish singlet, at least the colours were green, white and orange. His pace was unbelievable and I told him so, for which he thanked me. I would have liked some company for the last few miles, but I could not hope to latch onto him, his pace was much too fast for me. I was really surprised when I saw him walking a mile later and regained my place, but I guessed he might be back.

At mile 44 I got some water from some kids that I threw over my head. I laughed when one of them said “only 6 miles to go”. “ONLY!”

Last year we had to climb a brutally steep mountain on our way home. They changed the course for 2010. We still have to go over the same mountain, but on a much more gradual road, which makes things a lot easier. This route is shorter and they had to add an extra out-and-back section at Gallarus to make up the distance. That section was very well stewarded, which was good to avoid both confusion and cheating. I quite liked that part, on the out section you could see who was within half a mile of yourself and on the back you could see who was behind you. This included the three runners I had overtaken since Dunquin; we greeted each other happily and even exchanged high-fives, much to the amusement of one marathon participant. Towards the end of the section, one ultra runner asked how far this out-and-back section was. I did not want to tell him “well over half a mile” because that might sound discouraging, and I did not want to lie either, so I said “all the way to the corner”, which was both true as well as rather vague (and possibly completely useless).

At the corner that marked the end of that section, one kid shouted loud “5 miles to go”. “Thanks”. “But there’s a really big hill coming”. I had to laugh. “Thanks, but actually I knew that already”.

Last year, this was a killer hill. This year it was nothing compared to Connor Pass, but with over 400 feet elevation gain it was still a formidable obstacle with 45 miles already in the legs. Just like at Connor Pass I put my head down and one foot in front of the other. I got passed again by the Irish singlet, and again I could not hope to match his speed. No matter, just concentrate on getting to the top. I had to be careful, ever since mile 30 my legs went into spasms every now and again, and on climbs it happened a lot more. I wanted to avoid cramping at all costs, which put a limit on the maximum effort I could give.

Every hill comes to an end eventually, and as we crested the road at 46.5 miles we could see all the way onto Dingle, but that seemed still pretty far away. Last year during the marathon I had an ugly and very painful episode on that downhill stretch when both legs cramped at the same time and I hit the deck screaming in agony. This year it went smoothly but slowly. At one point I checked the Garmin and wasn’t too happy to see the pace at 10:00, even though it was downhill. So basically the pace had slowed for the uphill without giving back anything for the downhill.

Eventually I decided to try and alter my stride. It went against what my legs wanted and they resisted, but I strode out more strongly, taking bigger strides again, and eventually this paid off and my pace increased again. The odd spasm told me to be careful, especially at one point when I saw the Irish singlet ahead and increased the effort in a last-gasp attempt to gain one more place, but the legs very nearly started cramping almost immediately and told me to put those fancy thoughts out of my head.

From miles 47 to 49 the road is completely straight for over 2 miles; you can see it all and it looks incredibly long and discouraging. I started playing tricks, convinced myself to just run to the next tree, then the next pole, then the next driveway, and so on. For some reason a song entered my head and got stuck there, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth”, by Belinda Carlisle (Jesus, is that really 23 years ago!), which seemed completely inappropriate at the time because if Heaven hurts as much as it did right now I don’t want to know what Hell is like. But it reminded me of another mantra, “this is exactly where you want to be”, which hit home. I had anticipated this race for an entire year, had trained for months, could not wait for it and now it was here, so better enjoy the occasion, it took a lot to get here. I also told myself that this was the glory stretch. The last 3 miles of the Ultra, the end in sight, literally, now soak up the atmosphere and energy and enjoy!

All those mind games worked incredibly well, with the finish approaching I got my spring back into my stride and I raced down towards Dingle. The Irish singlet came closer and closer and I started chasing it again, but after 50 miles I ran out of road and missed out by about 30 seconds. But that did not matter a dot, I went over the line absolutely delighted, let out a primal scream and then it was all over.

I was incredibly elated, did not feel any pain and was immensely pleased with how the day had gone.

I could have sworn the timer said 7:27:xx when I crossed the line, but I forgot to press the stop button on my Garmin and the official results have me in 7th place in a time of 7:28:51, so I guess I must have misread the time. Before the race, whenever people asked me how long it would take, I had responded with between 7:30 and 8 hours, so to beat that time in my first ever attempt at the distance was great. I had hoped for a top-10 finish, which I achieved easily, coming seventh.

Running 50 miles is a formidable task and the first attempt is always a bit of a learning experience. It had gone very well indeed, but I think under ideal circumstances I could chop 20 minutes off my time. But I don’t want to think about that right now. This is the time to take a breath, appreciate the achievement and rest and recover. It’s all good.

04 Sep
Dingle Ultra Marathon
50 miles, 7:28:51, 8:59 pace, HR 151
7th place


  1. What a fab achievement!!! I did half yesterday and at times it felt like heaven & hell too but nothing like it was for you!! Well done you should be so proud

  2. Condor aka (Condo131)Sun Sep 05, 08:33:00 pm

    Great report Thomas. I don't know how you managed to put it together after the epic effort of the ultra!

  3. Well done, Thomas. Your preparation was great, despite that horrible allergy problem in the final few weeks, and your pacing on the day was near perfect. Your increase in pace at the end indicates you probably had a little in reserve, but that was the best way to finish – especially in light of your problems with cramping on the final hill last year at Dingle

  4. Another epic post for an epic run! Well done and now have one (or 2 or 3) on me ;-) and don't forget the ice cream!

  5. Fantastic report - inspiring even. Enjoy your rest, you deserve it.

  6. Ha ha Thomas! I will read it... have a couple of spare hours Wednesday arvo ;) I'll be back.

  7. Great report as always. See you back there again next year yeah?!

  8. Well done Thomas. I especially like the last 10 miles - this is the zone few will ever visit.

  9. great running (and writing!)what's next...comrades?

  10. Congrats Thomas. A great effort and another well written report.

    If you 'enjoyed' that one you MUST do a proper off road ultra.

    While still tough they are a lot easier on your legs and feet than running on roads.

  11. Looks like the pacing strategy paid off Thomas. Fantastic to get under the 7:30. Not far at all from a podium place.

  12. Congratulations Thomas! You are really running well and far these days. Way to go!

  13. many congratulations thomas. 2010 is turning out to be a very good year for you.

  14. Thomas - I really enjoyed the report and of course many congratulations on a very good run.

    I love the quote about the "abyss" coming after 80 miles....I'm certainly going to use that one again and shamelessly claim it as my own.

    Well done and enjoy the well deserved rest.

    Mick Rice

  15. Thomas! It's Ken, one of the guys that was running with you. I'd actually wanted to catch up with you after the race, but my back seized up pretty bad so I split at the finish, and then you weren't at the dinner that night.

    Anyway, fun to run with you. Now, I'm no pro by any measure, but STILL implore you to not run the hills up! You'll remember you were ahead of me before the main part of the Connor pass started. You ran the entire thing. You are nuts! I walked about 75% of it, and run 25% (the parts that were less steep, but only in short 50m lengths at most). When you got near the top, I could still see you, so I marked where you were and checked my watch. When I passed that place I was able to log how much time you gained on me by running instead of walking. Ready for this? 2 min 15 sec. So now ask yourself, was jacking your heart rate up, and churning your legs for that entire time worth 2 min and 15 sec? I say not!

    As for the downhills, I cruise them but don't push. I let gravity do all the work. Yes, it can be a bit of a pound on the quads, but really only if you're braking. If you're letting them go, it's not so bad. So basically, I don't fight gravity on the way up, and use it on the way down. Also, when cruising down, think "I'm getting a nice free leg massage" as you do it, and it really does seem to shake the legs out a bit.

    My charlie horse (cramp) was most likely due to a combination of all that downhill pounding and not enough electrolytes, so after I cramped, I doubled my salt pill intake. Only had one more minor one on the last hill down into Dingle at the end.

    Honestly, we ALL started out too fast. A 50 miler isn't so long that one shouldn't be doing negative splits (faster second half than first). My split at 25 miles was exactly 3:30, but my final was 7:08, and considering the connor pass was in the beginning, that just shows how much we blew the pacing at the start. That said, other than my back being on fire, I felt great pretty much the entire second half, and paced by heart rate (effort), not pace.

    If you're going to start getting into these, the other thing I think is that you're not drinking/eating with as much discipline as one should. You should definitely download and read all of the "Endurance Athletes Guide to Success, V.8" for free from here:

    These guys really know what they're doing. You don't have to buy their stuff, but the info on fueling and hydration is KEY.

    Anyway, great race for your first one. Next time walk the hills! There are plenty of miles to make up the 2 min you lose over THREE MILES of uphill. Remember: testosterone is not a strategy.

  16. Epic journey. what a great read. Well done in your achievement.

  17. Sorry I missed this Thomas, but enjoyed reading this report. Hell of an accomplishment mate!

    A honest report, I don't know if I would admit to having a Belinda Carlisle song entering my head ;)

  18. What an awesome thing to have done, Thomas! You ran it so fast too! Had to smile on Ken's comment, smart ways, but you know, at the same time we are different. I agree with him, but for others it may work what they do. That said, with your attitude, you'll find another one and tackle it on! Congrats on a fabulous time.

  19. So well done, Thomas. Determined, dogged and consistent training followed by intelligent race strategy and successful mental gaming equals a fine and much deserved result. Savor a moment, then on to the next challenge.

  20. That was good Thomas. Sort of know what you were going through after crewing for Jog in Melbourne. Fantastic achievement - still can't get my mind around those distances.

    Oh yes, we saw Belinda when she played in Canberra, so I guess it was 20+ years ago - she sang that song - it was a good concert. And also... please don't take up six-day racing ;)

  21. Thomas - epic! Ha! 'all the way to the corner'; you've definitely become Irish with a vague, ambiguous and non-committal response to a question.
    On the gels, I also dislike the SIS gels and have been using the high 5 isotonic gels for about six months now and I think they are great.

  22. WOW! I'm thinking to do the next year ... :)