Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Grand Day Out

My biggest problem with the Irish 50K championship race in Donadea was not the fact that I would have to run 50 kilometres. It wasn't even the fact that I would have to recover quickly because of the Connemara race, my real goal, 6 weeks later. No, my biggest problem was how to get there.

Niamh needed the car for the weekend here in Kerry, the other side of Ireland and I was literally on my own. I took Friday off work to travel to Dublin. However, public transport to Donadea on a Saturday morning isn't an option, so I am very grateful to Rob Cummins from wheelworx for the lift to the start.

This was the official Irish 50k championship, but also open to non-elite runners like myself. I met plenty of familiar faces before the start and was left looking in awe at some of the best ultra runners in Ireland. No doubt, the quality end of the field was absolutely formidable.

Mick Rice warned me against wearing my racing shoes as some parts of the course were stony, but since they were the only pair of shoes I had brought along, I didn't have much choice. Luckily, they turned out to be just fine.

The course consisted of 10 laps in Donadea forest park, and since each lap had been certified as about 4.97 km, we had to run a little bit extra at the start. No problem. The loops were all on packed dirt roads, nor tarmac in sight, which suited me just fine as there should be a lot less damage to the legs that way. There was a bit of climbing on each lap, maybe 50 feet elevation or so, but the gradient was so gradual that I hardly even noticed the downhills. You could of course argue that I always felt like running uphill, but that would be a rather unkind view.

Since this was strictly a training run for me, I had resolved to take it easy for the first half at least and maybe run a bit faster for the second half if the legs felt okay, but never push it to anywhere close to race effort. Accordingly, I started off at about 7:45 pace (minutes per mile that is). I shared much of the first lap with another runner, and when he saw me checking the Garmin, he enquired about the pace. "Exactly 4 hours pace", which seemed to shock him a bit, I think he intended to run a lot slower than that and he soon fell away.

Lap 1: 25:23 (including the 300+ meters at the start)

I don't think I have ever run so slowly while wearing my racing shoes, and it was hard to keep the effort so low. My heart rate was in the low 140s and I kept getting sucked into other runners' paces, and every time I backed off a bit and deliberately fell behind, I caught myself right at their heels again within one km. This pattern would repeat itself again and again over the first few laps.

The route was well marked and there were a lot of stewards at each junction initially, though a lot of them left once we had completed 3 or so laps. That was not a problem, by then we knew the course and with the markings and the other runners around there was never the slightest danger of going off course.

Lap 2: 23:47

Just like in Sixmilebridge, I found that I love racing on loops just as much as I hate doing them in training. It's different when you share the course with plenty of other runners, and since I tend to totally concentrate on my effort during a race, the repeating scenery of a loop course makes it easier to concentrate inwards. The biggest drawback is that it makes writing a race report much more complicated. The loops start the blend into one another and it's difficult to remember if a certain occurrence happened in lap 3, 4 or 5.

Lap 3: 23:47 (consistent or what!)

I definitely started straining at my mental leash on lap 4. I started getting a bit bored by running so much within myself, but managed to keep those temptations at bay by promising myself to loosen the shackles considerably at halfway, which did not seem too far away at that point. It helped that a couple of runners started coming back to me already at that point. On the other hand, I was being lapped by some of the top runners on that loop. Their pace and intensity was frightening.

Lap 4: 23:05

I caught up to a lady runner, Charlotte Kearney, and she invited me to share a few miles. I didn't realise it at that point, but she was actually the first woman. She complained about a pain in her hip, but that did not seem to slow her down much. I noticed her running style, she landed very much on her toes and her heels hardly touched the ground, very unusual for an ultra runner. She told me that while she had run plenty of marathons, this was her first ever ultra. As a member of Donadea she had plenty of friends and support on the course.

Lap 5: 23:28

As soon as we went through the finish area at the halfway point at just under 2 hours I told Charlotte that I was going to push on from here on. We wished each other good luck and went our seperate ways. Well, the same way but at different speed. The idea had been to run the second half at about 7:15 pace, but to listen to the body at all times and never push the effort too hard. I didn't check the Garmin, at least not initially, and was a bit shocked when halfway through lap 6 I found myself running pretty much at 7:00 pace, and that was the uphill part. I backed off a bit, but next time I checked I was at that same pace again. It didn't feel anywhere near that fast, I was still running very much within myself, even at the higher effort.

Lap 6: 22:00

I passed plenty of runners now, but I was never able to tell if I lapped a runner or gained a place. Looking at the results page now I can see that I caught only 3 runners over the entire second half, moving up from 15th to 12th place. It was quite lonely at times, I ran almost an entire loop without seeing another runner. There were other people on the course as well, a few families and plenty of dog walkers. The other trail users were all very accommodating, only on one occasion did I have to run around a dog blocking my way, and the little children tended to be the most enthusiastic spectators.

I guess I ran a bit too hard on lap 7, sub-7 pace between km 30 and 35 isn't really training pace. But I can honestly say that I never really pushed the effort, I was never anywhere near race intensity. Still, I'm sure the coach would have had his misgivings had I done this last year.

Lap 7: 21:35

While I still felt good at the start of lap 8, I started paying the price for my slightly overenthusiastic pacing over the previous 10 kilometres. A certain weariness started creeping into the legs and for the first time today I started looking forward to the end; until that point I had been entirely in my Happy Place. But with less than a quarter left, the end was approaching fast.

I didn't put too much thought in my nutrition, but I was careful never to run out of energy. I had brought 5 or 6 gels to the race and between laps 3 and 8 I picked one up more or less every time I passed the finish area. I also took a water bottle on most occasions. It took me close to 4 kilometres to finish it and I kept passing the empty ones to the same steward on every occasion 4 times in a row. I think I made the mistake of not taking on enough calories in my early ultras, something I have become aware of only recently, and I am more conscious of this now. Mind, I still don't plan my intake in advance. I prefer to listen to my body rather than follow a set script.

Lap 8: 22:34

I knew I was slowing down, but this was still a tad faster than planned, so I just kept it going. I experienced the same phenomenon as in my first ultra, namely that I felt basically stuck in one gear, slowing down felt just as impossible as speeding up. Of course, back then this was at about 9 or 10 minute pace, today it was closer to 7, even if it felt the same.

Lap 9 was definitely the hardest one, but with an entire marathon behind me, feeling tired seemed perfectly reasonable. I had run far beyond any other distance I had run in training up to that point this year and taking this into consideration I was still in very good shape. I kept the effort ticking along, not worrying about the actual pace this would produce and stopped looking at the Garmin.

Just before the end I lapped Frank, the lonely 5-hours pacer, for a second time, and he three times asked me if I had one lap to go and I answered with "no, one lap to go". I guess I must have been tired at that point, I could not get the actual meaning of his question aboard. Luckily, he is an understanding sort of fellow. He knows what it's like at km 45.

Lap 9: 22:46

Now I could definitely smell the finish line. All sights were very familiar at that stage and I knew I was passing them for the final time. I lapped Medbh, the second lady. "Are you on your last lap?" "Yes, and on my last legs as well". The stewards at the midpoint were just as enthusiastic as on the first lap, and the last 2 miles were the glory stretch, the weariness lifted as if by magic and I stormed to the finish, setting my third quickest lap of the day. Unbeknownst to me I even gained one more place during that lap, moving up to my final finishing position. I soaked up the applause at the end and felt rather pleased with my effort.

Lap 10: 22:17

The organisation of the entire event was absolutely impeccable, my thanks go to race director Anthony Lee and his crew of the Donadea running club. I sure enjoyed my first ever race in county Kildare. I managed to get a massage, had a good chat with Gerry Duffy who remembered me from the Killarney marathon of his epic 32 marathon quest. Unfortunately, Mick Rice had to drop out after 7 laps, I really hope he is ok and will be recovered for Connemara. I congratulated some of the elite runners but for some felt a bit intimidated in their presence, very unlike me. John O'Regan seemed a bit annoyed about missing his 3:30 target by 2 seconds, but according to the results he had been pipped to 6th place by one second, which would have annoyed me too. But as he himself pointed out, the race was very competitive but still maintained that friendly atmosphere, a great combination. I can highly recommend it.

Results with lap splits can be found here.

Thanks to Dave Lee and Larry Boyle for the photographs.

16 Feb
8 miles, 1:05:48, 8:13 pace, HR 130
17 Feb
5 miles, 39:15, 7:50 pace, HR 136
18 Feb
Irish 50K Championship, Donadea Forest Park
   3:50:43, 7:24 pace, HR 150
   12th place overall, 4th M40
19 Feb
4 miles, 33:30, 8:22 pace, HR 129


  1. just fantastic. to place 15th overall in a national championship is a really impressive achievement. you are on a stepp upward curve. let's hope it continues. congratulations.

  2. great Job !!!!

  3. Great report Thomas, I ran my first ultra yesterday in Donadea.I found it very tough. You have a new follower after yesterday. Keep on running.

  4. Well done Thomas. Shame I didn't get to chat to you much. So many familiar faces in one place at one time it's hard to get around to everyone. See you in Conn, our paces might even be close that day with me doing the half!

  5. Well done Thomas. Great running.

  6. Well done, you're improving, not too rubbish a runner now! I expect a 3:30 next year though!

    Will you be putting it on the PB list?

  7. Sounds like a fun event, looks like beautiful trail, and well done on the very fast time!

  8. Well done Thomas. Good report - the packed dirt of the course sounds perfect for a 50k. The woman who came 2nd in the Stromlo 12 hr was a toe runner too - don't know how they run like that.

  9. Good read really enjoyed it. I want to do a first ultra next year. A 3' 56" marathon on. So not breaking any records. Was thinking ww ultra. But this sounds slightly less demanding. Want an off road. Did ww trail, ballyhoura marathon and Dublin peaks this year.

  10. Really enjoyed reading your report, I am considering the race for next year. You are a bit too speedy to be rubbish! :-)