Sunday, June 10, 2012

Adventure Time

Liz Fenton clearly is a very persuasive woman. She keeps organising dozens of runners to the Dingle Adventure Race each year, be it as part of a relay team or doing the full event. After spending hours last year waiting in the wind, rain and hail at the foot of the mountain I told her I wouldn’t do it again, so she worked on me to do the full one instead. Since the date is always 5 days after the Cork City marathon I could never envisage me actually doing the race, but in the end she wore me down.

With the marathon still in my legs, I took this as a fun day out and a valuable training exercise, especially the crossing of Mount Brandon. Niamh asked me the day before how long it would take and I answered that I had no idea, but a rough estimate would be an hour for the cycle, 90 minutes for the mountain, an hour for the road run and half an hour for the kayak/finish, which adds up to 4 hours.

Liz also organized a lift for me to Dingle, which meant an hour’s drive in the presence of four lovely and friendly ladies. The day certainly started on a very positive note. We arrived in Dingle at 7:30, registered and got ready. With so many Killorglin people in the field, I was surrounded by plenty of familiar and friendly faces and was very much looking forward to it.

My bike took a fair amount of criticism from the guy giving it a quick check and I was left rather embarrassed watching him turning this screw and that one, fixing one thing after another before letting me go. For a second I feared he was going to pull me from the race but he told me I was good for today. Still slightly embarrassed I made my way into the start area. I started fairly far back since I had no real intentions of racing this.

The start was a neutralized cycle through Dingle town and the actual race was signalled by an air horn, but I never heard that. Instead I eventually figured that we must be on our way for real and put some more effort into it. You hit the climb straight away, and it’s 4 miles to the top of Conor Pass, often described as Ireland’s highest pass but that description is misleading as there are higher roads without the word “pass” in it. Having said that, we were still in for a long climb.

Having started back in the field I started overtaking cyclists straight away and picked up bike after bike after bike. For a mile I was at the backwheel of another competitor but I eventually managed to pass her as well and kept climbing up the road as well as the field. My HR was in the 170s for most of it so I must have been working hard but I never felt I was at my limit, definitely a good thing considering what still lay ahead. I remember the road from the Dingle Ultra 2 years ago, though coming the other way. I always thought of the Dingle side of Conor Pass of having a nice, steady, runnable gradient, but it turns out that it feels a lot steeper when climbing up on a bike. Funny that. At one point I tried to find an easier gear only to realise that there was no easier gear left and I was left working with what I got.

The second we reached the top we immediately went into the steep descent down the other side. It happened so quickly that I barely had time to switch gears. The first half mile or so is the steepest part and rather scary with a 1000 foot drop immediately to our left. In addition to that, the road was not entirely closed and even though traffic was very sparse, it meant there might be no margin for error going round the bends, a thought I tried to keep out of my head. Despite being totally unfamiliar with cycling down a mountain at breakneck speed, I held my own. I was overtaken by a few riders but overtook a few ones myself in turn. At one point I got a bit closer to the edge of the road than I would have liked. There was still plenty of room but I took the hint and got more cautious for the rest of the descent, definitely overbraking on a couple of occasions but well worth it if it meant that I made it down in one piece.

As it turns out, a slightly more aggressive ride might have meant ending the descent with a group of 4 or 5 riders, but instead I was 100 meters back on my own, trying to close the gap for the second half of the cycle. I figured riding in a group would save a lot of strength, but right then I was struck by some technical hitch.

I tried to take a sip of water from the water belt I was wearing, but as I tried to open the valve, the whole mouthpiece came off, leaving the pipe from the bladder open with all the water gushing out. That was the water that was supposed to sustain me while climbing the mountain later on! It was a hot day and I figured I might be in real trouble all of a sudden. For the rest of the cycle I kept the pipe in my mouth, sucking out the rest of the water, so at least it would not be all completely wasted. All this meant that I completely lost contact to the group in front and had to cycle on my own. Shortly before Cloghane I got caught by a couple of riders and managed to hang on to them until the end of that stage. I took a little 250 ml water bottle out of my bike bag. For some unknown reason I had brought it along for emergency backup, which turned out to be an inspired move. I also took a gel here as I figured my stomach would be full of water for the last time today and I doubted I would be able to digest another gel without liquid

I had been looking forward to the mountain stage but as soon as I got off the bike my competitive drive completely evaporated. I really did not feel like running, something entirely alien to me. Maybe it was the fact that we immediately hit a steep climb through some rough, muddy terrain, but at first I didn’t run the short, runnable sections either. I lost a couple of places but eventually shamed myself into putting some more effort into it. Then we hit a road, which did not please me at all because it meant I had no excuse for walking, steep as it was. To my surprise it turned out that my run pace was a good bit faster than that of the people who had just hiked past me and I made up a good few places, at least until we reached the end of the road and the real climbing started.

The race organisers call this the hiking stage but before the race I had thought of it as the “mountain running” stage. This just shows how clueless I was. I had absolutely no idea what was in store. Mount Brandon is the ninth highest peak in Ireland and the highest outside the Macgillycuddy's Reeks. I did not see the elites, but I doubt they managed to run much of it either. There certainly was no question of us mortals doing anything but hiking. I tried to put a positive spin on it. I need some hiking practise for Bangor and I was bound to get plenty of it.

This did not change the fact that my calves were soon screaming in pain and my mind drifted into dark territory. I kept thinking that this was only 5 days after the marathon and I wasn’t supposed to race, nothing of which did much for my effort. Despite that, I more than held my place in the field. Some guys and girls went past me but I caught a few people myself and gradually started moving up the field. After a long, steep initial climb the terrain became more runnable, much more suited to my strengths. But it was rough territory, not something I would be used to and I stumbled a few times. Halfway up the mountain, battling with another guy, I stubbed my toe no less than four times within maybe 2 or 3 minutes, each time only just avoiding a full faceplant. At that stage I felt an eventual tumble was only a matter of time and that I would be lucky to come home with a full set of bones, never mind a full set of teeth.

Despite being clearly competitive, everyone was very courteous to each other, moving aside when someone wanted to pass, giving each other plenty of encouragement. I twice managed to glimpse the reading of my HR on my Garmin; despite not running I was in the high 160s both times.

The trail became very stony and we had to climb over some massive boulders. Then I looked up and “Holy Jesus F***ing Christ!!!” there was this enormous vertical wall of stone right in front of me and what’s worse, I could clearly see the line of yellow shirts dotted on it, meaning that’s where I was headed for. It wasn’t the only time that I was reduced to swearing today.

I was glad it was a dry day. I would not have fancied that seemingly vertical ascent on a slippery surface. Especially close to the top it became extremely rough, requiring the use of hands, knees and anything else to heave yourself up and, most importantly of all, not looking down.

Eventually, and to my immense relief, we reached the top ridge, my Garmin displaying well over 3100 feet elevation, only to be greeted by a wall of clouds and/or fog. I could hardly see because drops of water kept running down my glasses; I wasn't sure if it was sweat or condensation, but my vision was seriously hampered, which did cause a fair amount of problems over the next few minutes.

I had managed to more than hold my own on the climb up the mountain but I was in real trouble here. Runners kept passing me so quickly that they dropped out of sight within a few seconds. My compromised vision was major factor but the second problem was that I just could not bring myself to stride out properly. I am not used to running on that kind of territory, much too rough for a road runner. Eventually we dropped out of the fog, the vision improved, and eventually I managed to hang on to a couple of guys, striding out much more confidently instead of constantly breaking with the quads. I even managed to re-pass one or two guys.

When I arrived at the transition point I realised how dehydrated I was. Apart from the 5 or 10 foggy minutes at the top it was a very sunny day and my water bottle had long been emptied. I drained 3 cups of water in quick succession before hitting the road.

Even though we were now on a road, the first mile was still rather steep downhill. My quads were screaming in pain and I wondered if I was already too exhausted to use my road running background to my advantage. I just about managed to keep up with the guy in front as we ticked off the first mile in 6:18, but as soon as we reached the second, uphill, mile, I immediately started gaining ground very quickly. Another cup of water from a helpful family helped a lot, especially as I used it to take my second gel.

Running on a road with mountain running shoes wasn’t ideal but I managed just fine. My hurting quads and my general exhaustion were much more of an issue, but despite feeling so tired I steadily gained on everyone ahead of me and the positive race energy I got from passing runner after runner kept me going.

Last year, when doing only this one stage as part of a relay, I had been averaging about 6:20 pace, today, with two mountains already in the legs, I was about 45 seconds per mile slower, but it was still fast enough to make big strides up the field. I wasn’t entirely killing myself but I ran hard. I felt something rubbing and realised that the chest strap of my HRM had come loose but could not fix it so I just ignored it. My bag seemed to weigh a ton, but again I just tried to get on with it. Despite having run on that road before, I could not remember all those ups and downs and it really started dragging. I had conflicting feelings. On the one hand I knew how much this road running stretch worked to my advantage, on the other hand I really wanted it to end because I was utterly exhausted and just felt like hanging on.

The “1 km to Kayak” sign came as a massive relief, but because of the low tide we had to run further than last year on a grassy stretch that just did not seem to end. After a few more swear words I finally reached the transition.

The best bit about the kayaking seemed to be the fact that I was told to take off my backpack in order to fit the floatation device. It was such a relief to get rid of the weight. Then I stepped into the kayak and set off, following the guy in front.

This was only the third time in my life in a kayak. One had come last year during an activity day where I had chosen kayaking specifically with an eye on eventual future adventure races. The second time had been a couple of weeks ago as a practise for today. This was the first time on my own.

Thankfully the water was incredibly calm and it all started rather well. I gained on the kayak in front and caught him before the first buoy. The second buoy seemed incredibly far away. Then I got caught myself, by a lady who I had overtaken only a few minutes earlier towards the end of the road section. She certainly knew how to handle a kayak, unlike myself, or the guy in front of me who seemed to zig-zag all over the place, but even though I steadily reduced the gap, he was still a good few seconds ahead of me when we reached the shore. I hadn’t known what to expect on this section, being a complete novice. But from what I gather, that seems rather common in adventure races, most people are just winging it and the equipment is always provided by the race itself. It was definitely by far the most enjoyable part of the race.

The lady who had overtaken me on the kayak and the other guy were a good bit ahead of me and there was barely a kilometer left until the finish, but I was prepared for an all-out effort in an attempt to catch them. However, as I tried to pick up my bag, it was not there.

Frantic and flustered as I was, I could not think straight. When the marshal asked me the colour I wasn’t even sure if my answer (grey) was correct (it was). Then I picked up a bag, only to realise after 5 more seconds that it wasn’t mine. Eventually they told me to forget about it and just run. I have no idea how much time I had needlessly left there, but it was enough to forget about catching anyone, and since there was nobody behind me, my place in the field was now set and I ran home with a decent enough effort but without killing myself. The lady who had caught me turned out to be the ladies' winner.

I timed out for the last time in 3:50:18, pretty close to what I had estimated but much, much, MUCH more exhausted than expected. I compared the effort to Monday’s marathon and this had been so much harder. For the rest of the day I kept telling everyone who wanted to hear it (and some who didn’t, no doubt) that this had been tougher than running a marathon and that anyone who had completed it should try one, earning a few sceptic looks in return. I am perfectly aware that I am trained for a marathon and that I had started the race on already tired legs, but still.

Analysing the split times from the results confirms pretty much what I already knew. The descent from the mountain was my weakest stage and I did pretty well on the road.

I was 48th after the cycle, 39th at the top of Mount Brandon (39th for the stage as well), dropped 4 places to 43th on the descent after being 69th for the stage but the ninth fastest road time catapulted me forward no less than 18 places to 25th. A 65th time in the kayak did not change the overall position and neither did being the eighth fastest on the short sprint to the finish.

Considering that I do no cycle training apart from my short work commute, am utterly unused to mountain running and a complete novice at kayaking, and had to rely entirely on a road running fitness that had been severely compromised by running a marathon only 5 days before this race, a 25th place amongst a field of 260 finishers is far better than I had a right to expect.

I just about got away with the water belt mishap. I probably had a bit too much respect for the mountain and was overdressed with tights and arm warmers (Ewen will love this, no doubt), but the warmth of the day caught everyone by surprise and it's better to have too much respect than too little.

The winner, Tim O'Donoghue produced an awesome performance, winning not just the overall race but every single stage of the race!

And as I kept saying for the rest of the day:
That was great fun! … I’ll never do that again!

Thanks to Liz for tirelessly organising the sizeable Killorglin contingent and Kay Bermingham and the other ladies for the lift to and from Dingle.

Photo of the three of us descending Mount Brandon by Valerie O'Sullivan. I don't know the names of the other photographers; all the pictures are from the race's facebook page. If you know the photographer I will add the name to the credits.
9 Jun
Dingle Adventure Race
   3:50:18, 25th place

1 comment:

  1. Yes, if it wasn't for the girly arm-warmers and long pants you would have made the top ten!

    Sounds like fun in a masochistic sort of way. Running fitness is worth a lot - 49 minutes behind 1st place is a great result. Laughed at the 'wall' at the top of the mountain - they should have supplied ropes for that ;)