Sunday, September 02, 2012

Into The Wind

Going into this race I found it impossible to predict how it would go. Ultras can be hard to predict at the best of times of course, but my unorthodox preparation made it even more difficult. My last long run had basically been 8 weeks beforehand at the 24-hours Championship in Bangor, anything since then has mostly been recovery from that effort. Usually I would not attempt a serious ultra like that basically on a whim but Dingle is more or less my local race, certainly my local ultra race, and I really did not want to miss it even if it meant running at less than peak form.

The course had been slightly changed since last time; we started on the road between Annascaul and Camp, right in the middle of nowhere. I met a few friends on the bus and the start; the ultra running community is small enough to become very familiar with plenty of faces very quickly. The second I spotted Keith Whyte on the bus I knew the name of the winner. An early, unexpected highlight of the day arrived when Keith came up to me to congratulate me on my performance in Bangor - blimey! Thankfully I had the presence of mind to reciprocate for his win at the Anglo Celtic Plate.

Anyway, we gathered at the line and straight away Ray Lanigan took off like a bat out of hell; he must have been doing well under 6:00 pace (minutes per mile, as always), he even left Keith in his wake initially. The rest of us started at a much more sedate effort. The first mile was uphill, basically going over the spine of the Dingle peninsula, and then we started descending into Camp overlooking Gleann-na-nGealt, the "Valley of the Mad", the perfect spot to start an ultra marathon, really.

There was a bit of leapfrogging going on and eventually I settled into around 10th place. I couldn't really tell how my legs were feeling, it was too early, and I just wanted to make sure not to hammer my quads on even the first downhill of the day. Just as we got into Camp I saw a flag fluttering very strongly in the wind. Uh-oh!  We were about to turn right into that exact direction - and we were going to do it for the next 30+ miles!

Even though I was determined to run my own race and not care about my place in the field, I tried to count the runners ahead and thought there were 6 ahead of us when I fell in step with Gavin Murtagh, who I had been in contact with before the race. Our pace was about 7:30, a little bit fast, especially into such a strong headwind, but I definitely preferred some company in these early miles and was ok with going a little bit faster. Having said that, we probably slowed down as we were chatting away because one by one other runners kept coming up from behind until we had formed a group of six runners that would stay together for a good while. At times we were all chatting happily, at others we went single file to battle the headwind when it picked up yet again. But mostly conversation flowed and in no time at all we were at the foot of Conor Pass. Pretty much my last words to the guys were "don't kill yourselves going up that hill" when they all went ahead. The group splintered immediately as everyone went at a different pace, quite dramatically different in fact. My own pace was the slowest of all because I was really determined not to ruin my race this early. I even got caught by one more runner coming from behind.

As it so happens, just the other day I had gotten word from Ken Zemach who had finished fourth here last time round after running the early miles with me, and he had implored me to walk at least some of the climb. Maybe it was his message, maybe it was because I wasn't in full racing mode, but when I saw that my HR was in the 160s and climbing steadily I indeed stopped running and proceeded to hike. Looking back now I think it was the right thing to do. The road was really steep and the ever stronger blowing gale force made it worse still and the runners ahead were only inching away from me very slowly as my own HR gradually recovered into the 140s (not that I advocate pacing yourself by Garmin and HR). The climb is very long, obviously, going up to Ireland's highest mountain pass (though there are higher roads), and pretty damn steep (I think I mentioned that already). My calves started hurting but there was nothing I could do about that except literally keep my head down and keep going. I tried to start running again on a couple of occasions but gave up quickly as the effort just seemed too high.

To my big surprise, Micheal Mangan from our running club appeared seemingly out of nowhere. He gave me a bottle of water as well as a gel later on, but by far the biggest benefit was simply the fact that there was a friendly face amidst all the effort. He proceeded to cheer me on every half mile or so, which really helped.

Pat Quill on Conor Pass
Eventually I managed to run again, and wouldn't you believe it, I immediately and very quickly made up a lot of ground on the lads ahead of me. By the time I reached the top of Conor pass I had already caught two of them, despite all of my walking (or maybe because of?). Having said that, reaching the top of the pass was like hitting a wall, the wind was just brutal and right into our faces. It felt like running to stand still. Looking at the weather history now I can see the wind speeds between 10 and 25 mph, but that was at sea level; it was significantly stronger up here. There were a few supporters up there cheering us on enthusiastically, which helped. But there was nothing to do but keep going. Running right into what felt like a miniature hurricane meant that the pace didn't drop anywhere near as much as I had expected it on the descent; the overall pace was now well slower than 8-minute-miles and I wasn't really getting anything back. I could see a couple of lads ahead of me but we all seemed to run more or less the same pace and there was no movement in the field position until right at the bottom when I caught up with John Fitzgerald who seemed to be suffering in his quads judging by his running style.

Dingle marked the halfway point and there was also the first drop-off aid station. My plan for these aid stations was very simple, I quickly picked up two bottles of sports drink and re-filled my bum bag with gels and was off again in just a few seconds. I had started the run with two bottles which I had drained over the first 15 miles; there were two more bottles now and two more were waiting for me at mile 36. Each time I used one bottle of Lucozade (leftover from my stash for Bangor) and on bottle of Orbana. I had a few gels in my bag and initially had taken one roughly every half hour but I always had to force those down and eventually stopped using them (I had 8 or 9 during the entire race). I also had one rice krispie square coming down the pass, and that was it as far as my entire race nutrition was concerned. I picked up water bottles from the aid station if I did not have a sports drink in my hand at the time.

I checked my watch as I went up Dingle's Main Street and 3:23 had passed since our start. It meant I was 83 minutes behind the half- and full marathon runners who had started right here. I also realised that the faster half-marathon runners had finished already, not that that was of any concern to me. There was a good bit of support from the locals, which of course helps, as it always does.

Anyway, my quads let me know that they were not happy at all. All along I had been more worried about the descent from the pass rather than the climb, and I was proven right. Halfway through the race and I started suffering. With basically a marathon still to go this had the potential to turn into a very long day. I saw one runner half a minute ahead of me, I'm pretty sure it was James Slowey from out group earlier on, but he gradually started to pull away from me. I never checked behind me so I never knew if I was being chased. I would not have been surprised if someone caught up because my pace was now almost a minute per mile slower than it had been before the pass, despite the effort being at least equal and the discomfort being significantly higher. The road was very lonely; there was quite a bit of car traffic coming out of Dingle but after a couple of miles that stopped almost completely and I was literally on my own. Support was sparse, but one very enthusiastic guy a couple of miles outside Dingle, stood out.

Mentally this was definitely the most challenging party of the race. Dunquin was still a half marathon away, the headwind was still as fierce as ever, the road was lonely and the legs were trashed. It was very tempting to take it easy, maybe even walk for a while, especially since this was not a goal race of mine. But I still had a bit of pride left and resolved not walk another step for the entire rest of the race and keep on pushing, no matter what.

It took me about 7 or 8 miles to catch up with the back of the pack. I presume the people I encountered early on were half-marathon walkers; if they were doing the full it would be a very long day indeed. Some of them gave a cheer, most were indifferent or just too much inside their own little bubble. By mile 10 the crowds had swelled and the last few miles into Dunquin were by far the busiest of the entire day. To be honest, this was my favourite part of the race. A bit of human interaction goes a long way to lift your spirit.

I picked up my drinks from the second drop-off station, again only taking a couple of seconds. The support there was great, the girl had seen my number and handed me my bag as I approached. I took the bottles and was off again. A Formula 1 pit stop could not have been more efficient.

Going through Dunquin I got my biggest cheer of the day from the assembled half-marathon finishers, and then the the road immediately turned lonely again. On the plus side, after battling the headwind for a gruelling 50 kilometer stretch, we finally had it on our back.

After going through a dark patch after leaving Dingle I had finally pulled through. My legs were still hurting but I was able to pick up the pace again. Nobody had caught me since Conor Pass and I was confident nobody was going to do so for the rest of the race. Very gradually a few marathon walkers came and went, but for the next 5 miles I was still pretty much on my own, ticking off the miles one by one, getting the job done.

With about 6 miles to go Michael was there again, and once again the main benefit was not the water bottle he gave me (I refused anything else, my stomach wasn't up for it and at that point I did not really need anything else), but the friendly face. I really appreciated the fact that he had basically given up his entire day to offer support. Thank you very much!

The full marathon course has a 1.5 mile out-and-back section before hitting the last hill but the ultra runners just went straight ahead instead. It felt a bit like taking a shortcut, and from that moment on the road was busier again, sharing it with the runners who finished just after 5 hours.

The last hill was a challenge. On the ultra course profile it looks like a little bump because Conor Pass is so overwhelming, but on the marathon profile it looks much more formidable. It is a little bit higher, steeper and longer than Connemara's Hell of the West, and after 45 miles it sure feels tough. I kept to my resolve to run the entire rest of the race. I overtook a good few runners; as far as I knew at the time they were all marathon runners. After the race James Slowey said I had been flying past him but did not elaborate where that had been, and I had not noticed. Anyway, I got to the top in good enough shape and tried to push the pace for the final 3+ miles in Dingle but paid the price for pushing a little bit too hard when my left calf started cramping. I tried to hobble on; keeping the foot in a dorsiflexed position kept the cramp somewhat at bay. On several occasions I tried to run in a more relaxed manner, but the spasms returned immediately. Just as I got the thing somewhat under control the right calf joined in on the fun and we went for a repeat performance on the other side. Under different circumstances I would have stopped to stretch out the cramp but with just over a mile to go it seemed worthwhile to run through it. All those fun and games finally came to an end when I reached the bottom of the hill. Running on an even surface did not give me any troubles and I picked up the pace again, but this time in a slightly more measured way.

The last mile into Dingle was the glory stretch, I enjoyed it, just as much as I enjoyed the fact that I would be able to stop soon. I knew I had run a good race, I wasn't even disappointed when I realised that I had missed the 7 hours by a hair's breadth. My last Dingle ultra had been a bit of a death march for the last 17 miles, this time I had kept a decent enough pace for the entire stretch, even picking it up again after coming through a dark patch.

Finish line photos by Mick Hanney

I finished in 7:01:41 in 8th place. Two years ago this would have been good enough for second place, but I always knew that this year would be more competitive, though I was surprised by how much more competitive it was. Keith had won it by breaking 6 hours, a mind-boggling achievement. It puts my own performance into perspective. In Connemara he had put half an hour on me in a race of just under 40 miles; therefore I should not really be a full hour behind after 50 miles. I guess that's the difference between Connemara being a goal race and Dingle a fun run.

Conor Pass makes a huge difference. Not only does your pace suffer as you go across the hill, it also trashes your legs for the final 25 miles. The 30+ miles of headwind significantly added to the challenge, on another day the same effort would easily have yielded a sub-7 time - Keith's time was all the more impressive under these circumstances. 

Anyway, I was satisfied and happy enough. It showed that I can put in a reasonable performance in an ultra even if it's not an A race. I know the next sentence sounds stupid, but it also showed me that 50 miles is basically too short to play to my strengths. I was still moving very well at the end. Had the race been longer I am convinced I would have caught a few runners and ended up further up the field. In short, I had a decent enough race, not great but good enough to be happy.

1 Sep
Dingle 50-mile Ultra 2012
7:01:41, 8:25 pace, HR 151, 8th place


  1. Seán BrosnanSun Sep 02, 10:26:00 pm

    Great race report Thomas. Think I was the runner who came past you from behind on the Conor Pass so I can vouch for the conditions being pretty horrendous up there to say the least!
    Great race overall though, superb organisation and some breathtaking scenery to distract from the pain. It was my first ultra and don't think I could have picked a better race to start with.

  2. A confession Thomas: I didn't read it. Looked at the photos though ;)

  3. Awesome race, well done! That is a great performance in those conditions. Lovely report and photos. Rest well!

  4. Another impressive performance. Well done again Thomas. You looked too well at the end!

  5. Awesome! Great job. Glad you did some walking. Not saying you have to walk the entire hill, but when you watch people ahead of you just killing themselves, or at least exerting themselves, and gaining, well, next to nothing while you walk, you realize where your energy is best spent. 10% extra energy on an uphill will get you maybe 5-10 sec/mile faster. 10% extra energy on a slight downhill will get you a minute/mile or more faster. So that's where you push... the flats and downhills. Of course, you MUST train those quads on the downhills, and nothing simulates that other than running downhill. Either way, super impressive time. If they'd get the damn course off the tarmac and onto a trail, I'd come back for it again.

    Anytime you want to come run in California, let me know. Mi casa es su casa...

  6. One more great performance to further cement you as a contender most inappropriately named blog award!

    Your experience with cramp on the downhill following a big uphill effort reminded me of your Connemara report. Given that cramp is related to fatigue my guess is the cramp you've got on these occasions may well be associated with pushing on a little too hard on the ascent when already fatigued.

    Still you can't fault the bravado and sheer effort of those last few miles!

  7. Another superb race report and a terrific run in tough conditions. Gearing up for Comrades I'll bet! Good luck!

  8. Hi Thomas, I have a look in at your blog every now and then. Your race reports are excellent. I blog myself but won't go public till I improve a bit :-D
    I notice you wear the "Brooks Green Silence" shoes, like myself. Scott Jurek is sponsered by Brooks and actually set the American 24 hr record in these last year. There are, as I'm sure you agree, a very comfortable minimalist / road flat.
    I was wondering if you have tried the Brooks "pure connect" range. These seem to be only available in the states at the moment but come with a great reputation as a minimalist shoe.
    Love to hear your thoughts on this,

  9. Is this pose now called the Tho-bot?

  10. Uphill walking on ultras is a must and only novices or those with exceptional ability can run them. Invariably it is only needed on hills where running only elevates your HR.

    Well done.

  11. Well done Thomas. Just catching up on your report.

    Congratulations on another great run.

  12. you certainly seem to have found your running niche. another impressive performance and so soon after that epic 24 hr race. many congrats and i agree with anon that the 'tho-bot' should be compulsory from now on)