Sunday, April 29, 2012

Change Of Pace

One potential problem with my recent training that I have become aware of is that pretty much all of it happened at the same pace. Interestingly, that is a criticism that is sometimes thrown at the Lydiard training system, though only by people who don't know that system. But it would have been a valid criticism of my recent weeks, and I thought a change in pace would be beneficial.

The point here is not to replicate the race itself. It is not specific training. But a change in gear every now and again is important to stimulate adaptation in the legs by introducing new stressors.

The weekend became a bit of a copy of some of the back-to-back weekends I did during marathon preparation. Saturday was the faster day, but still very much controlled and nowhere near the limit. I kept the effort comfortably hard, with the HR never much above 160. I would have been delighted with 7-minute pace, but in actual fact I did significantly better than that and averaged 6:45. That's much, much better than expected. My legs must be in decent shape already. It did cross my mind that maybe I should have done Sunday's race in Castleisland after all, I would have done better than originally expected, I'm sure. But by then the decision had been made, and it would probably have been impossible anyway with the twins' busy schedule of drama exams and orchestra.

Sunday's long run was a test for next Sunday's marathon in Limerick. I am pacing the 3:30 group but haven't done any running at 8-minute pace, so it was high time to get some under the belt. With the legs a bit tired from Saturday's effort followed by several hours of gardening work, going slowly felt very much agreeable. The hills and the very strong gale force winds made keeping the pace a bit trickier than usual; I really hope it won't be like that in Limerick. But I never had a problem keeping up, even if the legs started to feel the effort after 15 miles. The right hamstrings especially felt rather tight. The HR was a bit high, but that's probably because of the windy conditions. But in Limerick I won't have to worry about 600-feet climbs and I won't run a fast 10-miler the day before either and I'm perfectly confident that I won't have any problems.

This left me with 83 miles miles for the week - a bit more than initially planned, but the legs are fine and seem to thrive on it. Now if only those pesky extra pounds started coming off (I'm starting to sound like Niamh)...
28 Apr
10 miles, 1:07:36, 6:45 pace, HR 160
29 Apr
20 miles, 2:38:18, 7:54 pace, HR 147

Weekly Mileage: 83

Friday, April 27, 2012


There are two things in life for which we are totally unprepared: Twins.  (author: Josh Billings)
I still remember as if it were yesterday when my daughter Lola was born - only to be followed by her brother 19 minutes later. Today marks the eleventh repeat of said epic day.

That makes me feel soooooooo old!

Luckily, ultra running is mainly for old people, so I fit right in.

On Wednesday I started resurrecting the old tradition of a midweek medium-long run. It was only 13 miles this time round but will increase in length, assuming that I can stay ahead of the recovery curve, of course. That particular run went very well, but Thursday saw a marked deterioration in pace despite the effort being the same. It might have been the blustery wind, but I think the legs just weren't very fresh after the extra load, even though I didn't notice it.

In general, training is going very well so far. My HR keeps coming down for the same effort and the legs are definitely coming round after Connemara. I have no idea what another marathon will do to them, but I am reasonably hopeful that it won't trouble them unduly.

What does cause slight concern is my weight. I expected it to come down again as my training mileage is going up, especially since my post-Connemara/Easter chocolate binge has eased up significantly (they just could not keep up with the production). Instead, I am still gaining weight. I'm not too worried right now, and I'm not too fat to fit into my trousers just yet; I'd just prefer to weigh less, that's all.

The weather has been challenging a few times this week; on Wednesday morning a tree came down in high winds and blocked our road some time between 8:30 (when I passed by on my way to work) and 10:30 (when Niamh had to turn around) but today was a lovely, if cold, morning and the forecast for the next few days isn't too bad.

It doesn't matter all that much, I suppose. I will run whatever the weather.

25 Apr
13 miles, 1:38:43, 7:36 pace, HR 147
26 Apr
10 miles, 1:18:42, 7:52 pace, HR 144
27 Apr
10 miles, 1:16:42, 7:40 pace, HR 144

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Last week I got a new (well, old, actually) Garmin 310xt in the post. Being a technology geek I could not resist a little experiment, so I ran with both Garmins strapped to my wrists. I expected the data to be more or less identical, but was quite surprised to spot the differences very early on in the run; 2 miles from home, they displayed a pace discrepancy of 4 seconds per mile, quite substantial. The difference then came down gradually and had halved by the time I was back home. As you can see from the screen shots, the reason for the discrepancy was the 310 measuring a longer distance than the 305. (I also found out that it is surprisingly tricky to take a readable shot of a Garmin's screen with a really bad camera when your fingers are frozen stiff, but that's beside the point. I apologise for the lousy quality of the pictures, though).

The next day I repeated the experiment, but swapping the Garmins round. Interestingly, this time the 305 reported a longer distance. This might indicate that I have an asymmetrical arm swing, or it could be just a fluke. Sadly I was prevented from examining the issue any further by the 305's sudden, if not entirely unexpected, demise. I have not managed to turn it back on, even though it is fully charged, so that little experiment has ground to an abrupt stop. At least I managed to time my replacement pretty much to perfection.

The best development is the fact that I can definitely feel the body bouncing back after Connemara. It took 3 weeks. I am not claiming that I am recovered, just that I can fell definite improvements. The heart rate data supports this as well, it has returned to values in the mid 140s rather than low 150s for the same effort.

There is a 10-mile race in Castleisland, 40 minutes drive from home, on Sunday that I was fairly tempted to attend, not least since the prize money goes rather deep into the field and I would fancy my chances of picking up something, but decided against it. As it turns out, Sunday will be a completely manic family day with all kinds of activities and I would not have had time anyway. Just as well. There are bigger prizes in store (though not monetary ones).

I didn't have any further car crashes.
23 Apr
10 miles, 1:17:12, 7:43 pace, HR 144
24 Apr
10 miles, 1:15:51, 7:35 pace, HR 146

Sunday, April 22, 2012


On Friday evening Niamh and me mentioned how nice it was to be looking forward to a nice, quiet weekend with nothing on. No obligations, no plans, certainly no early morning trips to Cork for a change. We really had no idea.

My Saturday morning run started off in an entirely unremarkable fashion. But about 2 miles into it I approached a blind corner leading to a 4-way junction. It was steep downhill so I was going at quite some speed and as I rounded the corner I quite literally found myself staring at the headlights of the car coming towards me, just yards away. I managed to jump out of the way, bumping against the side of it as I was still unbalanced after coming round the corner and abruptly having to change direction. Somehow I did not get hurt. I asked the driver if he was ok, which even then felt like a stupid thing to say but I couldn't think of anything else at the time, and I'm sure he had gotten just as much a fright as I had. I apologised, because the whole incident was clearly my fault for coming round the corner like that. I still don't know why I had not heard the car. He must have been slowly coasting towards the junction, which also explains why bumping against its side had not hurt.

I have run on these roads for 8 years without incident. They are narrow and windy and there are many blind corners but encounters with cars are sparse enough, especially since I tend to run early in the morning. I'm not a complete idiot (debatable, I know) and I do take precautions like wearing reflective gear in the winter and never listening to headphones. I do tend to worry about boy racers as I can hear them from time to time, especially as this year's Rally of the Lakes is fast approaching, but on the rare occasions when we did cross paths they were just as sensible as anyone else. I never considered that the idiot causing a danger by coming flying round a blind corner would be myself.

After that bit of drama I carried on for the rest of the run without incident. I did raise an eyebrow when I looked at the average pace and HR after the run. I thought I had run at the same, easy effort as every other run in the last couple of weeks but in actual fact I had been a good bit faster than usual. Maybe the adrenaline following the near-miss had something to do with it.

Sunday's run was totally mundane in comparison, but it was good to get back to doing a full loop around the lake. The big climb always feels a bit tough at first, but I will need exactly that kind of training for the Bangor race. Hills build leg strength, and leg strength is extremely important. It feels strange to be running hills to prepare for a completely flat race, but that's the way it goes.

I was wondering about my training pace recently because it felt much too fast compared to race pace. I studied what others had been doing. The general consensus is that almost nobody trains at race pace. Some people include walking breaks or regard hill hiking as part of their training, but nobody really recommends running at 12-16 minutes per mile pace in your day-to-day training. My thoughts at the moment are to train at whatever pace comes naturally and not to worry about it at all. I have been doing exactly that recently, certainly never speeding up, but I never bothered to slow down either. Looking at my recent training paces I do have second thoughts to that approach because 7:30 is a lot faster than anything I'm planning on doing in Bangor. My latest thinking is to keep doing what I have been doing for my midweek runs but to slow down a lot over the weekend long runs and go more for a time-on-feet approach. Then again, I have a few marathon pacing gigs coming up soon. That should help with time on feet, and the pace will be slower as well. It's a step into the right direction, I suppose.

There was more drama on Sunday, which led me to get Shea to A&E in Tralee. There's no need to go into more details about the cause, let's just say boys will be boys and the culprit is very sorry and feeling sufficiently guilty. The trip cost over 100 Euros (and imagine, across the border that kind of thing is free!) and a few nerves, but the one thing that counts is that he is fine. I can hear the boys fighting again, right now. I guess things have gone back to normal sooner than expected. So much for an nice, quiet weekend.
19 Apr
10 miles, 1:15:17, 7:31 pace, HR 148
20 Apr
10 miles, 1:17:06, 7:41 pace, HR 147
21 Apr
12 miles, 1:28:15, 7:21 pace, HR 152
22 Apr
15.1 miles, 1:56:57, 7:44 pace, HR 150

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Base Training

Runners in the South of Ireland will know that the Great Island 10-mile road race had been on in Cobh last Sunday. The strange thing was that we were actually in Cobh at the time – and I was not running! We had gone there purely because my offspring (well, 2 of them) insisted on visiting the Titanic's last port of call on the anniversary of the disaster. It would have been obvious to combine the museums with the race, but two weeks after Connemara I was in no shape to race 10 miles. Instead I got up at 6 am and jogged 12 at normal pace – a much more reasonable thing to do, at least in my world. But if you ever find yourself in that place, I can recommend the Titanic Experience. It is rather short (and even that is a bonus with 4 young kids in tow) but very well done, though some of the stories are rather harrowing, but that comes with the nature of the event.

The HR on my runs is slowly coming down and the pace seems to settle down a bit as well. On the downside, the legs feel a bit heavy at times, but how much of that is just in my head, I'm not sure. On Monday I cycled home from work and felt absolutely awful. I had to work twice as hard and it felt like one of those nightmares when you run and run and don't move forward, except on a bike. I thought my legs must be in absolutely atrocious state – until I came home and after a short inspection realised that the rear brake was wonky and one of the pads was rubbing against the wheel. The realisation instantaneously made my legs feel much better.

I’ve got three weeks until my next pacing gig, the Limerick marathon, which I of course first and foremost regard as a training run for Bangor. I need to get used to 8-minute pace again and I need to make sure I have a fully functioning Garmin, but I'm confident all these things will be in place come 6 May.

The most challenging thing at the moment is the weather. It has turned rather nasty and I was battling gale force winds and at times very heavy rain both yesterday and this morning. There have been a few hail stones as well, but even the rain feels painful against your face at those wind speeds. The cycling commute into work was interesting as well. Apparently it’s not going to change until the weekend. Maybe it’s just nature’s way to toughen me up a little before the Big One.

It looks like I have a very experienced crew for Bangor, which can only be a good thing. From what I hear the organisers will have plenty of provisions there and it is perfectly possible to run the race unsupported, but I think having someone there whose main job will be to tell me to HTFU and get the f*** out of that chair will make a real and significant difference. Also, since I'm a complete novice at that kind of thing, having someone with experience at my side will be invaluable.

I guess I can’t chicken out now.

16 Apr
10 miles, 1:15:26, 7:33 pace, HR 148
17 Apr
10 miles, 1:17:27, 7:45 pace, HR 150
18 Apr
10 miles, 1:16:22, 7:38 pace, HR 150

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Weighty Matters

The last 2 years I successfully managed to drop quite a few pounds off my frame just before my spring goal race by staying off any sugary things during lent. This year, it was a complete disaster; despite following the same procedure through a torturous few weeks, I actually gained half a pound before Connemara. It's probably all down to starting from a lower base - despite that setback, I was lighter for Connemara than for any other goal race in several years.

You might have thought that since staying off sugar did not lower my weight, re-introducing it should not cause a weight change either. Not so. I must dig out that article I read a few weeks ago that mentioned that eating chocolate can help in losing weight. I'm dying to find out how they did it. Following my selfless scientific experiment of the last two weeks that consisted of sitting on the sofa stuffing my face with chocolate until it almost comes out of my ears, I can conclude that it is not a successful strategy for weight loss. No need to thank me.

Actually, having Easter one week after running almost 40 miles through the beautiful desolation that is Connemara is a brilliant way to ensure a completely guilt-free two-week gluttony session. Me and the Easter bunny have become best mates. Right now I'm 5 pounds heavier than 2 weeks ago and truth to be told I'm loving it. I just need to get back on track in time for my next race.

There is still a bit of a problem as far as my running is concerned. My subconscious pacer is completely locked into Connemara pace and I find it very hard to break out of it. I don't want to spend every moment of my run concentrating on slowing down. It would not work anyway. Instead, I'm working on the theory that low mileage keeps my legs in too fresh a state and am therefore in the process of cranking up the training again. When I say fresh legs, that's all relative, of course. I can still feel the effects of Connemara deep inside. That will take a good while longer to go away.

My resting heart rate of 50 bpm is still about 10 beats higher than before the race. I was surprised to still see it at that level yesterday, unchanged from the week before. The pace/HR ratio that I keep tracking after each run is still significantly lower than before Connemara, but at least that one is showing clear signs of improvement.
12 Apr
8 miles, 1:00:31, 7:33 pace, HR 153
13 Apr
8 miles, 58:55, 7:21 pace, HR 153
14 Apr
10 miles, 1:14:31, 7:27 pace, HR 153
15 Apr
12 miles, 1:30:36, 7:32 pace, HR 147

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A New Chapter

Taking a week off running after Connemara seemed the most sensible thing to do. I know that my former coach would have prescribed one week as the absolute minimum rest time. Following the last few days, I'm not so sure.

  1. Consistency is the most vital ingredient in marathon and ultra running, and consistency is achieved by forming a habit. I have now broken that habit and it takes work to get back into it. Getting up early? I was so used to it that I never wasted a second thought to it. Now I have to fight the daemons every morning.
  2. Core work had become a habit as well, something I started about half a year ago. I haven’t done a thing since Connemara. That one is even harder to get into.
  3. Soreness. After one week of complete rest, my quads were screaming in pain after 3 miles on Sunday and Monday. After only two days of running, they were fine.
  4. My pacing has gone completely out of the window. Every mile or so I look at the Garmin, get a slight shock, slow down, then let my mind wander and immediately am back at the old pace.

Interestingly, the pace that my body seems determined to tune into is pretty much the same pace I fell into in Connemara after 31-or-so miles when the calves started cramping. I don’t know if that is coincidence or if it has any meaning at all, just find it a bit weird.

Talking about cramping, I had the weirdest thing happen to me on my bike commute this morning. I spent the time thinking about the race and the problems with my cramping calves, when all of a sudden my left calf started – cramping! I have never heard of a cramp being caused by the mere memory of a previous cramp, but that’s exactly what had happened. It must be my geeky nature, but I find that absolutely fascinating. There is something about the human motor neuron system that no scientist has yet managed to figure out.

That’s it for Connemara and I am now starting to focus on the next challenge. I am very much looking forward to the race in Belfast Bangor. In contrast to what it says on the sidebar of my blog, I don’t feel like I have yet run a “real” ultra. Connemara, Sixmilebridge, Donadea and even Dingle were “short” races as far as ultras are concerned and the challenge was mostly physical. I am eager to find out about the mental battle that lies ahead. At the same time I am perfectly aware that I may come to rue those words. I'm not sure why I am insisting on putting myself through the wringer, but determined to go through with it. Maybe I just want to find out what I'm made of.

One major problem I am facing is the fact that nobody seems to be in agreement on how to train for such a distance. I have read countless of ultra running blogs, plenty of books and emailed some renowned ultra runners for advice; some who responded, some who did not. Not two people/sites/books came back with the same advice.

Fittingly, just today I read a paragraph by Western States winner Geoff Roes stating exactly that:
There are many theories on how to best prepare for and race 100 miles, but you find very little consistency within these theories. Every successful 100-mile runner has found an approach that works for them, but no one’s approach seems to work for everyone.

I’ll have to fall back to trial and error, then. I will take a few lessons into account that I have learned so far, especially when training for Dingle two years ago, but if these lessons will still be applicable for a much longer race I do not know. I’ll find out, I guess.
9 Apr
5 miles, 38:12, 7:38 pace, HR 154
10 Apr
5 miles, 38:36, 7:43 pace, HR 152
11 Apr
7 miles, 52:42, 7:32 pace, HR 153

Sunday, April 08, 2012


Exactly one week after Connemara, I was out on the road again. We're back in Kerry and the Kerry weather comes with that territory, literally. The warm, sunny days of Connemara are just a memory, as is my performance that day.

I ran much too fast on a seemingly fresh pair of legs, but after 3 miles they suddenly felt like mile 35 again, the quads were quite sore, but just like in Connemara they settled down for the final mile. Sadly it looks like unlike me my Garmin has not managed to recover from Connemara. It was unable to pick up the heart rate strap, the start button did not work, the lap button neither, and the on/off button had been completely work off already. As a result I was frustrated in my attempts to read my resting heart rate, and the run wasn't recorded properly either. It seemed to come together in the last 2 miles, but I think the device is on its way out. I can't complain, really. I've had it for well over 4 years and must have run close to 14000 miles with it on my wrist. I doubt there are a lot of Garmins out there that got better use. But the time for a replacement had clearly arrived. I need a GPS I can fully trust when the pacing season starts again.

Today is of course Easter Sunday and I spent much of my run planning the Easter egg hunt. Not all of it worked quite as seamlessly as planned, but the kids were very happy and Niamh satisfied. Mission accomplished for another year. The one major drawback was that Cian spotted the shop label on his Easter egg and confirmed his already heavy suspicion that mummy and daddy are in fact the real Easter bunnies. He's ok with it. I'm pretty sure he already knew. What it means for the big guy who is supposed to come round 8 months from now I'm not quite sure, though.

And with this, my training for my next goal race begins. I have 13 weeks, first to recover from Connemara and then to get as much endurance into the system as possible.

8 Apr
5 miles, 38:20, 7:40 pace, HR 152

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Post Race Trauma

A few days have passed since my run in Connemara, and as usual I've had plenty of time to reflect on the race. In all honesty, there are not many things I would change. I certainly feel I raced well; the target was realistic yet challenging and the execution went pretty well.

I did not mention it in the race report and only remembered it afterwards, but I was actually dealing with a side stitch between miles 5 and 10. It was quite uncomfortable but not bad enough to slow the pace. It came and went but I eventually managed to overcome the problem by concentrating on exhaling fully with each breath. I have no idea why I would get a stitch from running 7:15 - 7:20 pace. I felt really comfortable at that effort otherwise.

Interestingly enough, both Ray and Liam mention in their race reports how we all suffered up the hill out of Leenane. Liam said he was barely hanging on to us (funny, I thought I was barely hanging on to them) and Ray seriously contemplated quitting with a busted ankle. Each of us was convinced the other 2 were in much better shape than themselves. Interesting.

That's the way ultras work, I suppose. You never get the perfect race. Instead you will encounter various problems and deal with them as they come, and the way you deal with them will define your race.

My biggest problem was of course the cramping, and I still think it was a dehydration issue. Grellan had similar problems and suspects the same cause, though we don't know for sure, and both of us thought that we had hydrated well enough all throughout the race. I can see in the HR graph that the "crash" happened between miles 31 and 32, obviously the point where the calves started cramping. It did cost me a couple of minutes, but after setting a new PB of 22 minutes despite of it I have no real cause for complaints.

As for in-race nutrition, I had 6 servings of Orbana (1107 calories, 265g carbs) and 5 Hi5 gels (460 calories, 115g carbs) and two tiny sips of the provided Lucozade sports drink (very little cals or carbs), which adds up to about 1600 calories and about 400 grams of carbs in just under 5 hours, at the upper end of what I thought I can ingest. Of course I also drank plenty of water, but didn't count them all. It still was not enough, apparently.

One "interesting" fact is that I had blood in my urine after the race. While this can be a sign of a very serious problem, in this case it was almost certainly related to dehydration. The walls of the empty bladder rub against each other as you run, causing blood to seep into it. It's completely harmless and pain free, and in fact by far the most frequent cause for bloody urine in ultra runners.

On Monday, my quads were aching like they hadn't done since my first marathon. Walking down staircases was an interesting exercise; dignity went right out of the window.

Slightly more dramatically, I got violently sick during the night from Monday to Tuesday and spent virtually all night wrapped around the toilet. Niamh attributed it to the after effects of my race, but before she could tell me not to do it again we got words that her sister had the same problem. We struggled to figure out what the cause was (dodgy water in the coffee machine?). Once my stomach settled down, some 12 hours later, I spent almost 20 hours of the next 24 asleep, which did wonders for my aching quads and made me feel almost human again, apart from a splitting headache that was still with me for another day. I also did not have any appetite, a first following a race. I do wonder if that alone might prolong recovery a bit.

I managed to drug myself up sufficiently to drag myself out of bed to see Shea perform the violin in the National Concert Hall, together with the rest of the Kerry School of Music orchestra. It helps bringing things into perspective. As pleased as I am with Sunday's performance, being a proud parent tops being an ultra runner.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Hell Is A Lonely Place

Most people I spoke to found it entirely appropriate that the day of this year's Connemara Ultra fell on April Fool's Day. How more foolish can people be than to voluntarily subject themselves to 39.3 miles of a rather hilly course, only to arrive back at the point where they had started from!

However, as I stood there on the start line at 9 o'clock, only an arm's length away from Giorgio Calcaterra, the current 100k World Champion, there was no place where I would rather be.

Ray O'Connor, the race director, sounded the horn and off we went. Giorgio took off like he wanted to lap the field, Mick Rice followed behind chased by a couple of other international runners, and then us mere mortals made up the rest of the field.

I had agreed with two other guys, Ray and Liam, to try and stick together for a while, doing 7:15 - 7:20 pace and after a couple of miles we were joined by 2 more runners, Paul and another runner whose name I didn't get. Right in front of us was a group of 5 runners who had run the first 2 miles a few seconds faster than us and then fell into the same pace, including the leading lady and another Italian, Roberto Giordano, who ran with a microphone and was followed by a TV production group, making a documentary of Connemara while running the Ultra at the same time. It was funny to watch, him talking animatedly Italian-style while running 7:20 pace, being filmed from a travelling motorbike.

Miles 1-5: 7:21, 7:19, 7:16, 7:18, 7:20

The first few miles clicked off easily but I didn't feel quite as smooth as expected. In training I had tended to start at 7:15 pace and then drifting into a faster pace, but today I was running a few seconds slower and feeling ok-ish, but not 100% right. I didn't worry too much, but I am wondering if the long taper had thrown me a little bit. I wasn't worried, we had a long way to go and running just a little bit more conservatively at the beginning usually pays dividends over that distance.

We chatted a bit, dodged the sparse traffic, including the buses that brought the marathon runners to their start, and generally enjoyed running. The sun was right at our back and while the temperatures were still fine, it was perfectly clear that it would be a much warmer day than forecast. I didn't worry too much, I had coped reasonably well with the heat two years ago, and I still had the same s-caps electrolyte tablets with me that had helped me through that race.

Miles 6-10: 7:10, 7:21, 7:23, 7:16, 7:07

I picked up my first drop bag from the 10-mile aid station and quickly caught up with the rest of the group again. I saw that another runner had joined us, and it turned out to be Grellan, which rather surprised me because before the race he had stated a rather more conservative goal. The group in front of us fell apart, 2 guys, one in a blue and the other in a white top, stayed ahead and the rest got swallowed by us. Then a car with a television camera at the back started filming our little group. We thought it would be connected to the documentary but actually the footage made it into the main evening news later that day, me and Liam prominently featuring in the front, Paul, Ray, Grellan and Roberto making up the background crew. My kids were suitably impressed.

12 miles into the race we went over a little hill and all of a sudden we could see the marathon runners gathered at their start. We were still a good bit off when they started as we crossed their start line, our 13.1 line, in 1:36, 6 minutes back. I predicted that we would catch the back of the pack within their first mile, but it took about 1.2 miles.

To their credit, the marathon runners stayed on the right had side of the road, leaving us plenty of room to pass on the left. I think the original intention of the organisers had been to let traffic through on that lane but we more or less took it over, thus avoiding weaving through hundreds of slower runners. We did make room from time to time to let cars pass, though.

Miles 11 - 15: 7:22, 7:22, 7:11, 7:15, 7:04

One more Ultra runner, Max, came from behind to join our group and by now we had formed a sizeable pack of 8-10 runners. I have never been in such a big pack so far into a race. The marathon runners gave us massive encouragement, plenty of shouts and lots of clapping as we passed them, and we all got a big boost. Presumably this was the reason for the pace increase that came at mile 14, right on the spot where we had caught up with the end of the marathon field. Max in particular pressed the pace, and we soon caught the aforementioned Ultra runners in white and blue, who both managed to stay with us.

The pace dropped very close to 7 minutes. For a while I was happy to see the average pace on the Garmin drop to 7:15, my original target pace, and then even further to 7:14 but eventually I felt that the pace was just that little bit too hard. While I felt almost comfortable and could have stayed with the group, I found it prudent to ease off just a smidgen, enough to actually feel comfortable again. To my surprise, I almost immediately fell into step with Ray again who had exactly the same thoughts.

Miles 16 - 20: 7:00, 7:08, 7:12, 7:27, 7:26

As we saw the rest of the group slowly inch away from us, I commented that I hoped the boys knew what they were doing, but Ray voiced his doubts about exactly that. I reckoned we would eventually find out. We had a short banter with a couple of marathon lads but won the day when I pointed out to them that we were already at our halfway point and they were not.

I picked up my second drop bag at mile 19 and hurried after Ray again, hoping that I hadn't overcooked myself with the extra effort, but I sure appreciated my sports drink, for which is there is an Irish distributor, unlike my previous favourite which is sadly no longer available due to an absolutely stupid shipping fee (sorry, just had to get that off my chest).

Miles 21 - 25: 7:31, 7:25, 7:29, 7:07, 7:38

The first real hill came shortly before mile 20, but it was reasonably short and not steep at all and we reached the top quickly. Right there is a church with a big sign saying "Stop And Pray". I will always remember my second Ultra, in 2008, where I seriously contemplated stopping and praying rather than continue for another 20 miles on already tired and hurting legs. Today, in contrast, I still felt very good. It goes to show how much of tiredness is in the mind; normally I'm tired after 20 miles, certainly if I run at 7:15 pace. Right now I was perfectly fine and comfortable, not worried about the second half at all. If you go out with the intention of running close to 40 miles, 20 miles is nothing. It also helps to get the mystique out of the marathon distance. Mile 26 becomes just another mile marker.

At one stage the door of one of the many portable toilets opened just as Ray and me passed and Liam stepped out and re-joined us, thereby reforming the original trio that had set out from Maam's Cross two and a half hours ago.

Killary Harbour is often described as Ireland's only fjord, and the landscape is breathtakingly stunning. What is even more breathtaking is the headwind that is formed by the funnel effect of the valley, and I have yet to encounter that stretch of road in calm conditions. It is of course perfectly possible that memory is playing tricks on me but I did not remember the headwind ever being as fierce as today and eventually the three of us went into single file, Ray doing most of the work, me and Liam leeching on to him.

Grellan was just ahead of us most of the time and we caught him a mile or two before Leenane. He looked comfortable and was moving well, so I was rather surprised when he all of a sudden announced that he would be dropping back now and taking it easier for the rest of the race. He was the first runner of that group that had pulled away from us at mile 18 or 19 to drop behind, but I knew more would be coming.

I looked at my watch a few seconds after crossing the marathon timing mat and saw 3:12:20. We must have moved at virtually the same average pace as for the first 13.1 miles. A 3:12 marathon is a perfectly reasonable time. For example, it would comfortably qualify me for another Boston marathon. But now we still had another half marathon to go, and a brutally hilly one at that. In some twisted way, I was looking forward to that.

Miles 26 - 30: 7:31, 7:40, 7:56, 7:13, 7:22

Ray is a very strong uphill runner. We had established that over the first 26 miles already. He was always faster than me on the uphills and I was naturally faster on the downhills. The steep two mile climb out of Leenane was undoubtedly in his favour. Last year, he had dropped Liam at that point, and Liam seemed rather determined not to repeat that, even though his breathing was rather laboured. I was feeling even worse. My first instinct was to let the boys go and take my chances on my own, maybe even with an outside chance of catching them again, but I knew perfectly well that this was a rather remote possibility. So I eventually resolved to stick with them as long as the effort seemed still within some reasonable limits. I checked my HR at two points, both times seeing a value of 167, which seemed reasonable enough and just about manged to hang on to their coat tails. Eventually the hill levelled out, at which point we had already caught up with the back end of the half marathon field.

I picked up my final drop bag at the 29 mile station and realised that I had made a big mistake when packing it. For the other two drop bags I had used some ice cream tubs as container which were distinctive enough to be identified immediately. We only had two of them in our cupboard and my third drop bag was a little white plastic bag. Imagine my horror at the sight of at least a dozen white plastic bags at the ultra table. I found mine after examining about half of them and took off again, Ray and Liam of course by now far, far away.

But the drink was worth it! There was half a litre in that bottle, 2 servings of Orbana, and I took a good few sips, realising how thirsty I was after running for hours in the ever rising temperatures. I soon felt much, much better and my pace increased a level. I knew that I was getting close to my limit but figured that with only 10 miles to go I might as well take a few risks.

Things were going extremely well, I was passing the half marathon runners by the dozen, and soon caught Ray and then Liam. Or was it the other way round? Not sure, but they had split up as well by now.

Alas, it was not to last. Both of my calves started cramping and I realised that things had turned ugly all of a sudden.

Miles 31 - 35: 7:10, 7:43, 7:45, 7:44, 7:49

What brings on cramps? Not even the scientists know. I had suffered a lot from cramps in my early marathons and ultras and practically solved the problem by wearing compression socks. Unfortunately, this was obviously not working to full effect today. I guessed that a lack of electrolytes could be the problem, a perfectly reasonable suggestion in the hot temperatures, and took my last two s-caps in relatively short succession. This didn't help either. I suffered from spasm after spasm, not quite going into full cramping mode but always teetering at the brink. At one steep downhill stretch, shortly after the 32-mile aid station, one of my calves cramped violently and the pain was excruciating but thankfully relaxed its grip immediately before I had to stop, but the runners around me sure heard me screaming out in pain. Ray and Liam had of course long passed me, but I was not the only runner suffering.

Despite being reduced to a pathetic baby-step like gait with a quick turnover that was half a minute per mile slower than my previous pace, I caught the runners in white and blue that had been part of our group many miles earlier, and then another Ultra runner who I did not recognise. It is possible that I might have missed others, weaving my way through thousands of half-marathon runners, but I don't really think so. Nobody passed me on the entire stretch, apart from Ray and Liam of course, but those boys were long gone and I did not even think of them any more.

I know the Connemara course like the back of my hand by now and am familiar with every little bump, especially on the final half-marathon stretch. I always knew what was coming.

Despite that short episode on that one downhill stretch, the spasms were distinctly worse on the uphills. This did not bode well for the Hell of the West, but I decided not to dwell on that fact. There was no point worrying about it in advance.

I figured that even 9-minute miles would still get me under 5 hours, which seemed safe enough but if I were reduced to walking the Hell, I wasn't safe yet.

I started taking on a lot of water, taking two water bottles at the aid stations, pouring a little bit of it over my head but drinking most of it. Wouldn't you believe it, that seemed to eventually get the better of my cramps. I had drunk plenty of fluids, 1.5 litres of my sports drink as well as water from most aid stations, but I might have been dehydrated after all.

And right there I hit the Hell.

Miles 36 - 37: 8:13, 8:56

I figured that from that point on even 10-minute miles would see me under 5 hours. That seemed safe enough.

I had by now passed the majority of the half marathon field (as well as 90% of the marathon field) and the runners around me were of reasonable standard, roughly 2-hour half-marathon runners and sub-3:30 marathon runners, but the Hell is a challenging climb for everyone. On previous years I have always encountered a lot of walkers on the Hell, but this time most were able to run, albeit rather slowly. Unfortunately, one woman started walking right in front of me and I had to swerve very quickly or I would have run right into the back of her, and the sudden sideways movement immediately sent one of my calves back into cramping mode. I eventually figured that holding the foot in a dorsi-flexed state provided enough tension to the calf muscle to stop it from cramping. Running like that would have been impossible on the flat but luckily (?) I was right at the steepest part of the hill, and when it flattened out temporarily again, the spasms had stopped.

For all of the two miles up the Hell I deployed the well-known Bubendorfer-moan. If you have ever been close to me in a 5k, you know what it sounds like, and if you were close to me at any point of the Hell this year or 2010, you know it as well. Every breath is accompanied by a high-pitched moaning sound. It might even bother myself on any other occasion but I was far inside my pain cave and I just let it happen. It got me over the hill.

I had one overriding thought, that I might have shared the entire climb with a big number of other runners, but it had felt like a very lonely place indeed, and I'm sure most other runners felt the same. It really is every man for himself, and every woman too.

Eventually I could make out the tower of Peacockes far in the distance. This would be over in 15 minutes!

Miles 38 - 39.3: 7:58, 6:58, (6:23 pace rest)

I naturally thought that the pace would drop considerably on the downhill stretch but was dismayed to keep seeing 7:45 on the Garmin. One marathon runner in a triathlon suit and an American accent started chatting to me. This did not bother me. What did bother me was the fact that he pulled away from me and I just could not keep up with him while still doing my baby-step gait.

Halfway down the hill, with less than 2 miles to go, I finally snapped out of my funk. I opened up my stride and started running more naturally again; longer steps, still with a good turnover, yielded a much better pace and all of a sudden I was flying past other runners like they were standing still. I immediately knew that this would not be sustainable for long. The quads were screaming in pain. The calves were dangerously close to cramping and I was really pushing my luck. But I could smell the finish and was determined to squeeze every single second out of it.

I got plenty of encouragement from the other runners. All credit to them, they must have been tired as well, but many of them found the breath to shout a comment and on a couple of occasions I even heard my name, one of them coming from Ken Dunne, the organiser of the Dingle marathon.

This last mile was the fastest of the day, my only sub-7 mile. I only intended to better my time, but close to the 26-mile marathon sign I spotted another Ultra runner. He did not wear the "ultra" tag on his back but I recognised him from earlier. It was all the encouragement I needed. I was quickly running out of road but I was flying and he had no idea I was coming. I might have no natural finishing speed but going so much faster than him I figured that by the time he realised he was being caught it would be too late for him to react.

I passed him and crossed the line only a few seconds later. I was on a total high and celebrated in style, prompting the announcer to say something about an excited ultra runner coming to the finish. I felt vaguely guilty for the other guy and went to shake his hand and apologised, but it turned out that he had been so out of it he hadn't even noticed me. Ah well.

Ray O'Connor got a sweaty hug (I'm sure he got plenty of those today), as did Jo at the finish area, right in front of her husband. Apologies to all of them.

Ray and Liam were there, having finished 3 minutes and 45 seconds ahead of me respectively. I had known that Ray would be super strong over the final stretch but I had not expected such a strong finish from Liam. 6 weeks ago he had wilted badly in Donadea where I had caught him on the last lap. He told me he had become completely paranoid over the last few miles, convinced that I was right behind him for a repeat of the Donadea scenario, but this time he had held out. The only other 2 runners from that big group we had formed 25 miles earlier to finish ahead of me were Paul and Max, full respect to all of them.

World champion Giorgio Calcaterra had won in under 4 hours, Irish international runner Keith Whyte had beaten Mick Rice into second place, Vasiliy was fourth and after that elusive group of international-class runners the rest of us settled for the places.

Before the race I had harboured secret hopes of a top-10 finish, which I knew would be tough as the race is getting more competitive by the year, and when I crossed the finish line I knew it was close but did not know if I had made it. I was thrilled when the results came out with me in ninth place.

Grellan came 13th in 5:02, just missing out on the sub-5 but very happy all the same. Gerry Duffy, of 32-marathons fame, was 15th in 5:12 and he was gracious enough to chat with me for a good bit afterwards. Mick Rice introduced me to Frank Greally, the editor of the Irish Runner magazine as well as a running legend. There were a lot of famous people around and a good day was had by all.

Almost 36 hours later I still can't quite believe that I had managed a top-10 finish in Connemara. I almost feel like a decent runner right now, but my badly aching quads leave me in no doubt that I'm not dreaming.

I can't wait to do it again.
1 Apr
Connemara Ultra, 39.3 miles, 4:53:34
   Avg. HR 161, 7:28 pace, 9th place, 22 mins PB!