Thursday, July 12, 2012

Round And Round In Circles

"There is no satisfaction without a struggle first." (Marty Liquori)

I have done a few silly things in my life, but when listening to the final pre-race briefing, I wondered if I was about to top them all. Coincidentally, one man instrumental in my decision was here as well. A couple of years ago, the Irish 24 hours record holder, Eoin Keith, had written a quick line to someone on an online forum, suggesting to "just do it" when he was pondering taking part in such a race. Even though the advice had not been aimed at me, it stuck in my head and at the start of the year I decided to follow it.

The question on everyone's mind was "Why?". Even my otherwise unquestioning wife (and she is used to a lot) once forgot to bite her tongue in time and let me know that she really could not understand my motivations for doing that particular race.

There is no straightforward answer. I have always been fascinated by long-distance running, and since I have done the marathon and the short ultra, the long ultra was the next step. I toyed with the idea of doing the Connemara 100, but chose Bangor for the easier logistics. The scenery would not be as good, but I reckoned I would not have an eye for the scenery anyway after a certain number of hours running.

Right there with me was my crew for the day in the form of Joanne (“Jo”) Fearon. She is one of Ireland’s most accomplished ultra runners and has several Ironman finishes to her credit as well. I have no idea why someone of her standings would offer her services to a complete novice with rather modest pedigree like myself, but I knew I had hit the jackpot and my chances of a reasonably good race had been significantly enhanced.

My race strategy was very simple, run 25 minutes and walk 5, use the walk breaks to get some food and drink into me, and follow that pattern for as long as I could. I was not going to get sucked into anyone else's race or pace and I would start very slowly, even if it meant a few blows to the ego.

Apparently I looked rather pale as I nervously chatted to some of the other competitors. I had a good chat with Iveagh Jameson, who had recently won the men's division of the Grand Union Canal Race from Birmingham to London, an incredibly impressive achievement. The pre-race crew talk was short and to the point. I made it clear that this was my A-race of the year and that Jo could do anything to keep me going, short of permanent damage,

Sadly, the numbers were well down on last year's race with only 18 runners for the 24 hours, plus several 12 hour runners as well as two relay teams, from Orangegrove and Donadea, whose members would all have to do 3 2-hour stints each. But what the field lacked in quantity it more than made up for it in quality. The reigning Irish champion John O'Regan was here as well as the Irish record holder Eoin Keith and their international team mate Eddie Gallen. On the women's side we had a world record holder in Sharon Gayter, to be challenged by another Irish international runner, Aisling Coppinger. Just like in the 50k championship in Donadea back in February, I very much expected the rest of us to be there solely to make up the numbers.

The closest thing I had to a direct rival was Liam O'Neill, who I had beaten by a couple of minutes in Donadea after ghosting past him on the last lap but who had gained sweet revenge in Connemara by beating me by 45 seconds. I jokingly referred to today's race as the final showdown.

Niamh and the kids were there at the start to provide some last-minute moral support. I did not expect to see them again for a very long time. As Niamh said, "when I go to sleep you will be running and when I wake up you will still be running, and you will still only be halfway through."

As planned, I started running as slowly as I could while still feeling comfortable, which was about 8:45 pace (minutes per mile, as always). Even though it was still way faster than what would be sustainable, it left me well down the field, and that was before taking into account the further slowdown that would come soon with the walking breaks. However, I was not the slightest bit worried. My only opponent was myself tonight.

At the front end of the field, John and Eoin immediately started their battle at national-record pace, with Eddie not far behind. I got lapped several times early on as they were doing some frightening pace. The women’s race, on the other hand, started in a much more sedate fashion. I seriously wondered if I was doing things wrongly when I passed Sharon Gayter for the first time, but her early pace seemed uncomfortably slow to me.

I fell into step with Iryna Kennedy and we had a good chat for a while. Like myself she is from abroad but settled in Ireland with an Irish spouse. She has the distinction of having done all three 24-hour races so far. I had to stop our conversation after 25 minutes when it was time for my first walk break, which seemed to catch her by surprise.

Me and Jo immediately settled into a routine that would last for a very long time. With one lap to go before the next walk break she would ask (later on suggest) what I would want and have it ready by the time of my next pass. At the same time as she was handing me the food she would enquire on the drink, which I picked up another lap later. I had brought a wide variety of food and drinks. There were gels and sandwiches and rice crispy squares and fruit bars - and, as a last minute addition, potatoes. On the drinks side I had Lucozade and Orbana sports drinks, water would be supplied by the organisers and I had Nuun tablets for electrolytes. For sheer variety I was already looking forward to a midnight pasta feast and porridge in the morning, mostly for variety's sake.

Since this was my first long ultra, I had no real idea of what would lie ahead of me. But I have spent significant amounts of time over the last few years reading as much as I could about this sort of thing, mostly in blogs but also a lot of online articles. I felt I had as good a grasp as I could, even without any practical experience. In such a long race it is inevitable that you run into several problems. The way you manage your low point will define your race.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the first low point to come within the first two hours. This was ridiculous! I do 2-hour runs week in week out at significantly faster pace; the difference is that I don’t eat during my normal training runs. My stomach felt very full. I asked Jo for a salt tablet, which helps to clear the stomach if it’s full of water, but that did not help. Eventually, after an uncomfortable hour, I figured that I was reacting badly to the sandwiches and stopped eating them. They were supposed to be my main food source, but luckily I had plenty of alternatives. The rice krispy bars went down well and the potatoes went down extremely well.

Eventually I felt better again. Jo kept notes about my food, drink and electrolytes intake and over the next few hours would on several occasions suggest some particular food whenever she felt that I was falling behind on one of them. An experienced crew is invaluable. They can make the difference between a brilliant race and an absolute disaster.

I was wearing my club singlet, and after an hour or so I suddenly realised that I had forgotten to put Vaseline under my arms. That is such a rookie mistake, I could not believe it. I don’t think I have done that for any of my marathons, so why would it happen in my first long ultra? The nerves really must have been getting to me. Luckily, these things can get rectified very quickly when you’re running laps around an athletics track. Jo provided some and I applied it on the go. She even had some wipes for the hands afterwards. Seriously, an experienced crew is worth their weight in gold.

We had started our race in very nice running conditions, overcast sky and lovely temperatures. The wind was a bit stronger than ideal but no big deal. We all had looked at the weather forecast and knew the rain would be coming, but I don’t think anybody spent any time worrying about that. Until it came, that is. It started raining about 2 hours into the race. The wind picked up as well and the temperatures dropped. I changed into a t-shirt, which immediately felt much better, especially as I had started chafing before applying the Vaseline. I was really surprised by how much better I felt in a new shirt.

I had already completed my longest ever track session after finishing the first lap, and some more ambitious milestones started falling soon enough. I passed the marathon mark in 4:21. Believe it or not, this was not the slowest marathon I have ever run. Coincidentally, that particularly inglorious race had happened just a few miles down the road in Belfast, 7 years ago. I have come a long way since then.

I had no idea where I was in the field, not that I cared at that point anyway. It eventually dawned on me that Eoin Keith must have run into troubles as John O’Regan kept passing me without Eoin in his wake. As for the rest of the field, it was difficult to say who was placed where. My strategy of regular walk breaks meant I was overtaken by just about everyone once every half hour. During the running periods I did catch up with a few runners, but others kept a faster running pace, at times significantly faster. On the other hand, I never stepped off the track but I could see other runners going into the pit lane for a break fairly regularly. I could not tell the 12-hour runners from our own field, which did not help. However, since I was determined to solely concentrate on my own race and never get sucked into someone else’s pace, it did not matter at all. Looking through the RD Ed Smith’s twitter feed now, I was in about 10th place at the 5 hours mark. To be honest, I felt I was further back than that.

Even before midnight I started feeling tired, not from exhaustion but from the body clock telling me it was past my bed time. That was inevitable, of course, and I always knew this would be coming, but I found it hard nevertheless. I was always looking forward to the next “event”, be it my next walking break, a change in direction (which happened every 4 hours) or anything else. Shortly after midnight we got a special treat in form of some pasta prepared by a chef that had previously cooked for the Queen herself, though I’m sure her dinner was more elaborate than our grub. Most other runners seemed to sit down in the tent for a bowl, maybe to get some respite from the rain, but I took my bowl out and ate it during my customary walk break. For sheer variety it was great to get something else, and the warm food in the tummy felt nice in the weather.

Oh yes, the weather. It sure deserves a mention. In the various reports I have seen it was generally described as monsoon, which I cannot really argue with. It was absolutely bucketing it down and the wind had picked up as well. I eventually put on my jacket, though I needed some help from Jo for this. I’m sure everyone else was well prepared with some €150 running apparel. My own jacket was from Aldi and had cost €20 (or was it 10?), had never been used before (I just don’t wear jackets when running) but performed admirably. It did not keep out the wind and it did not keep out the water, but in those conditions I’m sure the fancy stuff didn’t either. There is a short video that gives you some idea: and the race director’s 5-hour update describes the same scenario .

It was now very silent at the track. We had started out to some music from the speakers and for the first hour an MC had kept us all entertained, but at midnight the speakers went silent (the sports complex is in a residential area) and I missed the music. I had brought my own mp3 player but thought it would get fried if I used it in those extremely wet conditions. I guess I was not the only one with those thoughts as I only saw one or 2 runners with the headphones on.

I did have a long-ish chat with one other runner, Vilnis Pleite, who had done this race last year but had dropped down to the 12 hours version this time round (btw, his surname means “skint” in German, which I found amusing. Things like that are funny after 7 hours of running) and he was struggling with the conditions. I wasn’t feeling too hot myself, I have to admit, but sharing your concerns with a fellow sufferer did give some respite, at least to me. I was really sorry to see him step off the track after about 7 hours, saying “sorry”, but I could sympathise. The thought of a nice, comfy bed was starting to become overwhelming.

The sky was pitch dark, but the floodlights provided plenty of light; there were some shadows on the track, and as it got completely waterlogged we all stepped into some puddles on occasions, making our wet feet even wetter. I kept ticking off more milestones, after 7:30 hours I was now running for the longest time in my life and a good hour later I passed the 50-mile mark, which meant that from now on I was running further than ever before. This was uncharted territory. Here be dragons.

I was so tired, I cannot describe it. Everything about that race was just ridiculous. The amount of time on your feet. The distances involved. The sheer and utter exhaustion, even when only a third into the race. I hit a really massive low and kept drudging on lap after lap after lap, feeling extremely sorry for myself. I wished Niamh would come and pull me off the track. I ran past a relay runner who had just passed on his baton and was walking towards the building and muttered “you lucky bastard”, much to his and his mate’s amusement. I really meant it, too.

The high point was seeing Jo at virtually every lap. While just about everyone else disappeared into their tent, Jo kept standing in the field under a big umbrella. She never failed to give me a cheerful “well done”, and she handled the food and drink handovers with professional efficiency, like a Formula 1 pitstop crew. I was actually worried she might catch a cold, standing out all night in the miserable conditions.

I ran into a problem that I really had not anticipated. The safety pins that we used to pin the number to my t-shirt (as you do in virtually every race) started rubbing against my skin. One of the most important things in ultra running is to take care of every little problem before it becomes a big problem, but since this was so unexpected, I initially was completely dumbfounded and did nothing about it at all. Eventually it became too painful and I told Jo about it. When I took off my shirt we could see two huge, ugly marks on my skin. I should have told her much, much earlier. She somehow managed to fashion a race belt, like the triathletes wear, out of nothing but a piece of string and two safety pins, and to my amazement it actually worked perfectly. Hats off to that woman! I also used the opportunity to once more change my t-shirt. It felt good, but of course within no time at all it was just as soaked as the old one had been.

At one stage I chatted to a fellow competitor about Sharon Gayter. I think it’s fair to say that we all expected to see a great performance from a great athlete, but eventually it became clear that today was not her day. She eventually stepped off the track; I admit I was shocked to see her pull out. The other top athlete in trouble was Eoin Keith. Even though I only concentrated purely on my own race, his problems were all too clear when I lapped him several times. Someone told me that he had stomach problems, which may sound trivial but in actual fact a fully working stomach is absolutely vital in such a long race. He was clearly suffering badly, and when I saw him walk towards the building wrapped in a survival blanket it was clear that his race was over as well. This was unfortunate; in a short space of time we had been robbed of the possibility of an exciting race at the very top level in both the men’s and the women’s division.

While I had no serious thought about pulling out myself, I was feeling lower than I had ever before. I had been looking forward to this? What on Earth had convinced me that this would be a good idea! Before the race it might have sounded cool to come up with a statement like “I will fight my mental battles”, but right now the only thought in my head was This! F*cking! Hurts!

“If you are going through hell, keep going.” (Winston Churchill)

At about 3 o’clock in the morning, I thought I was starting to hallucinate. In the darkest hour of night when the rain was coming down so hard that animals starting queuing in pairs, there appeared this incredibly glamorous looking figure out of nowhere. Finn O’Mara had been partying late into the night in Galway and then made her way to Bangor, still in her party dress. To someone whose universe had shrunk to the size of an athletics track, it really was a sight out of this world. She eventually got changed and then ran the second 12-hours stint, but that was still several hours away at this point.

Shortly before the 10-hour mark, I noticed a blister forming underneath my right foot. This was a problem I had anticipated, especially in those wet conditions, and in contrast to my earlier problem this time I told Jo straight away. For the first time of the race I entered our tent. There was actually no visual sign of damage, but I could clearly feel it and showed her the exact spot. Jo told me I had trench foot, no wonder in those conditions. She tried to dry it and then put a Compeed blister pad on it, only for it to fall off immediately. I had never encounter a situation where a Compeed would not stick! While Jo went to the medical tent for help, I lay down and closed my eyes for a minute. I had two peculiar sensations. One, I had the clear impression that I was lying on a steep downhill with my head facing downwards. Two, my entire body was tingling. I was so exhausted, I wished Jo would stay away for hours and did not care one dot about the time lost. Eventually she returned with the medic in tow, and he used the strongest adhesive he had, which just about worked. It held up once I put my sock and shoe back on and I immediately knew that it would prevent the actual blister from forming. The whole operation had lasted 10 minutes.

Apart from the blister talk, there was just one piece of conversation between us. “This is really hard”. “I know”. There was no need to say anything else.

10 hours in and I really could not see myself complete the entire 24 hours. I was more exhausted than I had ever been before, had in fact been so for several hours already, and was not even halfway through. I told another runner that if my wife came to tell me to stop, I would immediately do so. “But would you really?” “Maybe not”.

Aisling Coppinger and one other runner just said hello to a relay runner finishing his shift and I found myself say out loud “sh*t, I should have opted for the relay”, which at least got a couple of laughs. I really meant it at that point. Even the 12-hour race seemed too far at that point.

Eventually I took out my mp3 player. I no longer cared if the thing got fried. I was much too exhausted to give a damn. I just wanted some music for my soul. It worked. I immediately felt a little bit better. How can you not when Marilyn Manson wishes you sweet dreams at 4am in the morning?

"Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic”. (Tim Noakes)

At that point, I must mention John O’Regan. After Eoin Keith had pulled out, the title was already his as long as he managed to keep going, and believe me, he looked good. I am sure that nobody on the track had the slightest doubt about who the eventual winner would be. I had no idea how often he had gone past me, but his pace was incredibly impressive and he seemed to take the weather in his stride. And yet, despite his unrivalled elite status, he had words of encouragement for everyone else. A few hours into the race he once slowed down enough to have a few words with me, telling me that he had noticed my strategy with regular walk breaks and that I should keep at it. Later on we chatted briefly about the upcoming Dingle Ultra (which I highly recommended to him; he wants to do it next year) and at one stage when I was feeling particularly low he told me how the body keeps telling the brain that enough was enough, and that it was important to ignore that message. To have the top runner take such an interest in your own race is amazing, and he did the same to others as well. I already admired the man going into this race for his running achievements alone, but his personality tops even that.

The 12 hour race finished and after a short burst of excitement the track became a little bit quieter. I realised that 2 or 3 of the athletes who were clearly going faster than me were actually not in the same race as me, which I suppose was good news, not that I cared at that point. I merely envied them for being able to call it a day when I still had a ridiculously long way to go.

After providing exceptional support all through the night, Jo disappeared for a while. She might have told me about it, but I was so out of it, at times she could have told me the world had ended and I would not have gotten the message. I only knew about it when she was not there after my lap to give me my 250th “well done”. I missed that, but since I did not really need anything at the time I just carried on running. When it was time for my next feed, she was still gone so I took something from the organiser’s table instead, and the first thing I saw was some gel.

I’m not much a fan of gels, even in a marathon I can never take more than 2 or 3 before my stomach starts complaining, but it would have to do. Then something absolutely amazing happened. All of a sudden my deep, deep weariness lifted. I had been drudging round the track for hour after hour, mostly feeling sorry for myself and way past the point of complete exhaustion when all of a sudden I was getting this massive amount of energy. What was in that gel, amphetamine? For a while I was the fastest man on the track, even Eddie Gallen got lapped several times over the next hour. I vaguely felt that I was going way too fast but figured that when you’re feeling unexpectedly good after 12 hours of running, you might as well make use of it, and running fast was fun. My spirits lifted, which was quite possibly the most important development.

Jo was still awol at the next feeding time, so I took another gel. This time I actually checked the wrapper and eventually found what I had already suspected, namely that the thing was caffeinated. I had stayed off coffee for the last 3 weeks, which was not an easy thing to do, believe you me, to wean myself off caffeine. It meant that when you eventually do take caffeine, the boost will be much, much bigger and that was exactly what happened here. Within one lap I had turned from a dead slug to the road runner, and kept that going for quite a while. When Jo returned I told her about the gels; she was ok with that and I took a few more over the next few hours.

Jo asked me if I wanted to know my mileage and my placing but I declined. I did not want to know and I only wanted to concentrate on my own race.

Eventually the caffeine effect wore off and I started suffering again. I fell in step with Paddy Quinn for a while. We were both feeling the effects of all the hours running but we were both confident we would get to 100 miles and beyond. We all had our highs and lows and we were all in this together.

Aisling Coppinger was running very steadily. After Sharon Gayter’s withdrawal the race was hers for the taking and she kept a very steady pace throughout. I had lapped her several times early on but at one stage of the night, when I was struggling really badly, used her as a pace maker for 25 minutes, just to keep me going until my next feeding time. The amount of times we had the minuscule conversation of “Aisling” “Hey Thomas” was unreal, but neither of us had the energy for any more. However, she never failed to be cheerful and friendly.

"Find the level of intolerance you can tolerate and stay there." (David Horton)

As the caffeine boost wore off, Iveagh Jameson started lapping me regularly. He came with big credentials after his performance in the Grand Union Canal Race but had started very slowly. By now he was clearly finding his stride and his speed was rather impressive. Eddie Gallen was matching his pace and the two of them were clearly adding up some decent mileage. John O’Regan’s performance was still as imperious as ever, and I reckoned I might be in fourth place behind all those guys. I was really happy with that.

About 14 hours into it, Jo asked me once more if I wanted to know my mileage and placing. I didn’t really, but I could tell she was itching to tell me so I agreed. “You were at 104 km at 12 hours, and you are in second place!!!” “WHAAAAAAT!” I saw Iveagh, who had just lapped me yet again, and pointed to him “Surely he is in front of me” “No, Eddie and Iveagh are 3 laps behind you but he and Eddie have been gaining steadily over the last hour”.

The boost I got from that was unbelievable. Up to now my mind had been mostly in a dark place, I was exhausted beyond belief, could not imagine running for the full amount of time and perceived myself as struggling. All of a sudden I realised that, actually, I was more than holding my own. And since ultras like that are mostly decided in the head rather than the legs, such a boost can have incredible effects.

There was also a dangerous element in Jo telling me that. I immediately got hit by the stupids and decided not to do my walk breaks any more, so as not to get overtaken by Eddie and Iveagh. Luckily what was left of my rudimentary brain cells started clicking into gear and in time I was able to conclude that sticking to the exact same strategy that had successfully brought me to this point was by far the most logical course of action. I did, however, speed up enough to stay on Iveagh’s coat tails. It meant going a good bit faster than I had over the last hour, but with my refreshened spirit, that was ok. We almost immediately lapped Eddie, which I took as a good sign because as an international class runner he was clearly the biggest threat. I wondered what it did to his morale to be lapped by the 2 runners closest to him, but chances are that with his vast experience he did not care too much just yet.

The music system came on again at 7 o’clock, I took off my mp3 player and became a bit more social again. Jo promised me that it would stop raining at 10 o’clock. I was looking forward to that, believe me. It had been raining so much that the water pit of the steeplechase was half filled and it dampened everybody’s spirit, some people had dropped out with hypothermia and we all were thoroughly sick of it.

"Never judge a day by the weather." (Dave Nelson)

Liam O’Neill was clearly struggling. I later found out that he had been battling a hip injury from as early as 3 hours into the race. At about 9 hours he told me he would pull out at 12 hours. I tried to talk him out of that, but he was clearly suffering. I had full respect for his grim determination to keep going despite the hell he was going through, and to his immense credit he gave me plenty of encouragement all day, telling me how impressed he was with my race. To hear that from a fellow runner is a great boost. Thank you, Liam. I was happy to still see him going at 15 hours, but he did pull out eventually.

John O’Regan had some troubles himself. He told me that he had to visit the toilet every 2 or 3 laps and suspected a kidney infection. You could not have told from the way he was running, though. His stride was beautiful and his strong pace was awe inspiring. And he still kept encouraging everyone else.

I thought I was hallucinating again when I saw the twins standing beside the track. “What are you doing here!?!” “We came to say hello”. Apparently Niamh had planned a surprise visit all along to boost my morale, which worked a treat. The twins kept me company for 3 or 4 laps running on the infield; Cian and Maia stayed at the tent, shouting excitedly. Maia had been very excited about a race that runs in circles, and she was loving it. Eventually they left to spend a family day in Belfast, my spirits dutifully lifted.

I kept hydrated all through the race, which had the side effect of having to visit the portaloo every hour. It cost a good bit of time, but I was happy to get off my feet every now and then, and having to go to the toilet a lot is actually a good thing in an ultra; you lose a lot more time if you get dehydrated. Jo still kept notes regarding my intake, often suggesting the next food or drink, advice that I always followed.

John and one or two other runners had made jokes about my potatoes at one stage or another, but actually they were incredibly delicious. I had only boiled them on Friday morning as as complete afterthought, an emergency food supply. They really saved my race when the sandwiches turned out to be a non-goer. I was getting towards the end of my supply by now, but Jo did not seem unduly worried. We had gotten so far already and later on in the race the food intake is not quite as critical any more.

Plus, I managed to get some porridge. Everyone seemed happy to have a different thing to eat for a change, and I was no exception. And it was warm, which was particularly nice after the night we had just endured.

By 10:30 I complained to Jo for still not delivering her promised dry weather, which seemed to help as within 10 minutes the rain had stopped and the track conditions slowly started to improve. The deepest puddles started clearing up and the track became a much happier place.

“Strong legs, good heart and lungs and no brain cells” (Bruce Fordyce on what makes a good ultra runner)

Despite all the pep talk from Jo and the couple of boosts I had gotten earlier, I started struggling again. Iveagh and Eddie started overtaking me again and I was losing ground in the battle. I was not entirely aware of it, but at 16 hours I was only one single lap ahead of Eddie and another one ahead of Iveagh. It definitely looked like I might have to settle for fourth. At the start of the race I would have gladly taken that, but two thirds into the race my ambitions had grown and I was not going to give up without a fight. John, on one of his many passes, remarked that you can’t even say “only 8 hours to go” because 8 hours is still a ridiculously long time to be running, even if it’s only a third of the entire race.

My Garmin died after about 17 hours. I knew it was not going to last the whole distance but I found it very comforting to have the numbers ready on my wrist for the first 3 quarters of the race. Throughout Saturday morning I could tell that my pace was very steady and the miles were accumulating. However, once it was dead I did not spend any effort thinking about it, by that time the race was well set in its tracks.

Eventually I could not take the pain any longer and asked Jo for some pain killers. There’s a bit of a moral hazard here. You could classify them as performance enhancing drugs, but their use is allowed by the governing bodies. Use of pain killers is fairly common in endurance sports, though my own personal view is that I generally prefer to know about any pain rather than mask it. At 17 hours, however, I had drained my pain tolerance as well as my moral objections. At that point I would have cut off a finger if it had meant pain relief. I must have looked miserable three minutes later because Jo said “they don’t work THAT quickly”, yet one single lap later I was bouncing along happily all of a sudden, telling Jo that they DID work that quickly and I started putting some distance between myself and Eddie and Iveagh again.

John passed the 100 mile mark still looking like he was out for a nice, gentle morning jog. He was about 5 or 6 miles ahead of me, a good hour. As long as he kept moving the title was his, there was never any doubt about it. The battle for second place, in contrast, was very much on between the three of us. At times I thought Iveagh was the bigger threat, at other times it looked like Eddie. But even though we were clearly battling each other, everyone was nice and friendly at all times and we all kept encouraging each other throughout it all.

"It hurts up to a point and then it doesn't get any worse." (Ann Trason)

I reached my own major milestone of 100 miles after 18:35, a time I was well pleased with. . Anything under 20 hours would have been a great result. The ibuprofen wore off eventually and I started slowing down a little bit. Eventually I would take some more later on, but we were careful not to exceed neither the recommended dosage nor the time between taking them. The one thing I did not want to take from this was permanent damage. It meant a few very uncomfortable hours in the meantime. I invented a little trick, running while gently biting my tongue. It might have looked weird if someone noticed it but it took the focus away from the pain radiating from my legs.

I saw Rob Cummins, Aisling’s partner giving her legs a massage at the feed station. “Aisling, that’s pure love” I remarked which got a good few laughs. Someone said I must be in exceptionally good shape if I could still make jokes after 19 hours of running. Rob had been very supportive to me all through the race, giving me plenty of encouragement, which I was very grateful for.

Then I saw Iveagh walking on the track and thought that I had not seen him in a while. He confirmed that he had gone for a massage and that his legs had seized up when he tried running again. He kept battling on bravely for the rest of the race, but he was no longer a threat for second place. As long as I kept going, my podium finish was hereby assured. I would not wish any problem on any fellow competitor, but it made my job much easier. Focusing purely on staying ahead of Eddie was hard enough.

"Adversity introduces a man to himself." (Unknown)

20 hours came and went and I was about 6 laps ahead of Eddie, a nice cushion to have but not enough to feel safe. In fact, I felt decidedly unsafe. Eddie ran past me every time I had one one of my walking breaks, and with 8 walking breaks still to come it meant he would finish ahead of me if he would lap me once every half-hour segment. I felt very much under pressure. I kept a look out for him on many occasions and he usually seemed to be on the opposite side of the track.

Aisling Coppinger crossed the 100 mile mark, guaranteeing herself the title of Irish champion. She was moving slowly, but she was still moving. However, within 2 laps her body shut down. I saw her walking extremely slowly, and John saw her too. Gentlemen that he is, he immediately slowed down and asked if she was alright. She told us she would just finish this one lap and then retire from the race. It took her a long time but she battled on like a true champ and finally managed to cross the line one last time for a very much deserved rest. She looked a lot better a couple of hours later.

Gradually throughout the day, people had started taking notice of my performance. Rob Cummins and Liam O’Neill were the first to tell me how impressed they were, and eventually others joined in, including John and Eddie’s handlers. This was always a boost, it’s so much easier to push hard when you’re told how well you’re doing. The RD Ed Smith started making comments as well, at one point wondering what they put into my water to keep me going like that for so long; at a different time I could hear him say to the person standing beside him “I can’t believe he’s still smiling”.

He had a good point here. Before the race I could not have envisaged still being able to run after 80 miles, never mind well over 100 miles. My strategy of running 25, walking 5 for as long as I can was supposed to get me through the first half, maybe a couple of hours longer, but I never thought I’d be able to keep it going for so long.

I’m not quite sure when my right shin started to hurt, it came on so gradually and it took some time to register amongst all the other pain signals. It was worse when walking, which meant that those breaks did no longer provide much respite.

After hearing that I had done over 100k in the first half, despite the struggle through the night, I was wondering if I would be able to go to 200. At that halfway point it didn’t look likely, but I did not rule it out entirely. By now it was a real possibility, maybe even probable. I tried to calculate the pace required, but my maths skills weren’t too hot any more. Besides, my more pressing concern at the moment was to stay ahead of Eddie, and I figured that as long as he kept chasing me he might as well push me over the 200k mark.

At one point, shortly after being lapped by Eddie once more I started whining to Jo “Eddie keeps chasing me down”. She gave me one of those looks, and at the next lap she told me that he had been behind me by 6 laps for hours. I felt like saying “yes, but if he overtakes me once per walk break he will still catch me” but luckily managed to bite my tongue.

I had long ago run out of potatoes, but there was one more goodie to come from the organisers, a bowl of stew. Like with all the other things they had provided, I ate it on my walk break. I have no idea what was in it, but it tasted absolutely delicious. I had stopped eating at every break, but still kept a reasonable amount of calories intake going, enough to get me over the line.

Then I suddenly saw Eddie walking. Jo told me to go ahead and lap him, and I did so 2 or 3 times in quick succession. That was it. Second place was assured, as long as I managed to keep going until the end. The pressure lifted and I felt much better. Jo hinted that I could slow down but I told her I was aiming for 200k.

John got to 200k with about 2 hours to go. Around the same time I asked Jo if I should still do my walk breaks, and she said do whatever feels comfortable. Since my shin was quite sore whenever I walked, I switched to permanent running. Not even in my most optimistic dreams would I have anticipated that when I would abandon my strategy it would be after 22 hours, and then for permanent running! Having said that, I still did the odd walk, but shorter, maybe for only a minute or so.

I kept scanning the car park for a sign of our car. Almost every other competitor still on the track was by now joined by either a friend or family member and they were all walking the final miles together. I was sure Niamh would be here in good time, but I started getting anxious nevertheless.

With about an hour to go, my left knee started hurting really badly. It was ok when walking but running really hurt. At the same time Niamh and the kids finally arrived, and they all seemed suitably impressed to still see me going. With the 200k just a few laps away, I decided to stop running. If the margins had been tight I might have been able to ignore the pain and keep going, but the 200k was assured by this point, second place was cemented and there was no need to risk injury. Had the knee started acting up a few hours earlier it could have wrecked a promising race, but now it was almost irrelevant. I passed 200k with almost half an hour spare and walked another few laps, the twins keeping me company. The weather was very pleasant now and it was a really nice way to end an epic race.

With a couple of minutes to go they prepared the finish line for the finale, there were a good few spectators at the track (mostly friends and family, I’m sure) and I managed to fall into a nice running pace for one final push. I’m sure it wasn’t anywhere near as fast as it seemed. I stopped at the final whistle, the RD coming along with a trundle wheel a couple of minutes later to measure my final distance, which was confirmed as 202.913 km = 126.1 miles.

Before the race I had been very reluctant to give a mileage target. On the few occasions when I let it slip I mentioned 100 miles as the absolute minimum target and 120 miles as the super-duper golden dream ticket. To surpass that by a decent enough amount is unbelievable. It just happens to be enough to get me an entry in the Austrian all time honour’s list (Ewige Bestenliste) as well as serving as a qualifier for the Spartathlon, though I’m not sure if that will ever become relevant.

Everyone was really nice to me at that point. Eoin Keith, the record holder whose own race was wrecked, was particularly complimentary and told me how impressed he was with my debut. John and Eddie were generous with praise as well, as was the race director. He had words for everyone at the prize giving ceremony, in which Niamh managed to film my part. I got a great reception there. John was still as complimentary as ever, saying how we had had a great and real race, but I think he was overly generous on that point. Eddie and me had certainly pushed each other hard but John had never been in danger and was always far ahead. He is without a shadow of a doubt an extremely deserving champion.

Is there anything I would do differently next time? Well, I’d bring more potat … no, scratch that. There won’t be a next time! I’m going to buy a 46 inch plasma telly, I’ll plant myself right in front of it with a huge crate of beer, gain 5 stone and never run another step in my life.

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go." (T.S. Eliot)

Race photos very generously provided by Peter Mooney, who also happened to be part of the winning Donadea relay team.

Race results are here, though they are slightly confusing as they are listing the relays as well as the individual relay runners.

The official report from NI athletics is here.
6 & 7 July 2012
Irish 24 hrs Championship, Bangor, Co. Down
202.913 km = 126.1 miles, 2nd place


  1. What a race, what a smile, what a report! Well done and congratulations just doesn't do justice to this result. You may now bask in the glory for many days, weeks, months!

  2. Now look what you've gone and done. Making me want to do it. You f&€€er. Mo

  3. Stupendous achievement Thomas. This was a treat to read and I'm incredibly impressed.

  4. Congratulations Thomas. A truly superb performance.

    I've not done a track 24hrs but I have done some races that took over 24hrs and I identified with lots of what you wrote.

    I've always felt that running ultras is more to do with the mind than the body. Obviously you need to train and be in good shape but it the end it all depends on how much you really want it and you showed that you did.

  5. i was looking forward to reading the report and it was well worth it. two questions tom 1) how did they measure the distance you covered- timing mats or just the old fashioned judge/pen/paper 2) how do you plan to recover? obviously you will rest but anything else. hope the workcrowd congratulated u

    again well done.

    having joanne feron in your corner was a masterstoke some of tips on food intake, painkillers etc and the palcing of safety pins etc were a masterstroke

  6. Hi Thomas,
    Thank you for the kind words and well done on a very well executed and disciplined race.


  7. Well done Thomas. Excellent race & startegy. Fascinating reading the report on how you felt throughout the day. Really does come across as incredibly difficult and painful. Well done again.

  8. Congratulations and well done, Thomas! Whoo-hoo!

  9. Great report Thomas, it's amazing that you were able to remember all of the details despite you going through all of the ups and downs during the race. Well done in the race, a great achievement.

  10. Fantastic report of a great race. Enjoy your great big telly - maybe see you on the road again when you get bored!

  11. A real inspiration. Such strength. Be very proud!

  12. Awesome performance! Your running just keeps getting better and better.

    I LOL-ed when I saw your training widget saying "last run....126 miles" !!! Hilarious. Take a
    screen shot of that for the scrapbook!

    Thanks for taking the time to do a good report...very fun to read and a lot less painful
    than having to actually run 24 hours.

  13. Very well done my freind ...actually you are amazing!!!

  14. Inspiring and superb result Thomas. I'm sure mystery coach (i know him) would be proud :)

  15. Hi Thomas,
    Well done again on a GREAT race!! You seemed to be going very well throughout. Hope you are recovering quickly. I am still wrecked!

  16. I enjoyed reading that Thomas. Love the Bruce Fordyce quote although I hardly think you qualify there. You're more like Martin Fryer who brings his scientific mind to bear on the problem of executing a successful ultra race. Well done again, and a huge congrats to your crew. Enjoy the beers ;-)

  17. Congrats on your retirement Thomas!

  18. Made me exhausted just reading it! I'm also amazed that you were able to remember all those details without everything blurring together. Congratulations.

  19. this your first time finishing top 3 in a race?

  20. Thomas, this is a wonderful report. Like a very good book.
    Your accomplishment is outstanding.
    Thank you very much for sharing it with us. I look forward for your next great challenge. Thanks. AC

  21. Amazing performance! I've been thinking of doing one of the local ultras, a 12 hour race around a 1.3K loop. That sounded monotonous enough until you talk of 500 laps around a track! By the way, salted potatoes are provided during the Comrades Marathon - they definitely helped me along the way...

  22. Great report. In a long line of achievements for you, this one may be the most remarkable - a hearty congratulations. Nice of Jo to provide the support. The ability to overcome the "massive low" in the race is a lesson we should all keep in mind.

  23. a truly inspirational story - you keep pushing the boundaries and reaching new levels but this has to be your finest moment. 126 miles and 2nd place is just off-the-scale. many, many congratulations.

  24. Thomas,

    I know I'm a bit late with the congratulations (holidays) but I am in awe of that performance. It is one thing to plan it but the execution is another thing altogether.

    Well done and take some time to recover and to reflect in what you've achieved.

  25. Thomas,

    You were my pacer for Limerick and Cork so I just stumbled onto this blog. Fantastic achievement excellently retold, you type as well as you run, inspirational stuff!


  26. Congratulations Thomas, That was an absolutely amazing performance.

    It really shows how mentally tough you are... or just how mental?

    I wonder if Jo would be willing to do a 'guest' post on your blog telling a little about how she 'managed' you and explaining the decisions she made for you?