Monday, November 19, 2012

So Near And Yet So Far

I went into this race with unclear targets. It was not a goal race, not even close. I don't run goal races 3 weeks after a marathon. I did not taper for it, just took it easy for two days, otherwise I was training right through it. Nevertheless I was very much looking forward to it. Tom Enright and his crew always put on a fantastic event.

And yet, last year I had somehow managed to win this race, and a repeat would be nice. The plan was to run it as a training run, and if there was a chance of winning (which obviously depended more on who would turn up rather than my own performance) then push that little bit harder and see what happens.

I arrived in Sixmilebridge in good time and all we talked about were the freezing conditions, but we were sure we would be fine once we started moving. Time passed quickly and before I knew it we were at the start line. There were many familiar faces around, but no fast guys that I would have recognised.

Right at the start I took off together with Deirdre Finn, running 7:30 pace, exactly like last year. The main difference was that one other runner in a yellow top and red shorts was doing 7:00 miles and quickly opened a gap. I was undecided if I should go with him, but decided to wait and see, which would save me from putting out an effort that would unduly set back my training for Tralee, because Tralee was and still is my actual goal race and I did not want to compromise my preparations for that race.

There were 4 races going on today, the double-marathon runners had already been out for 3 hours by the time we started and the marathon and half-marathon runners would join us later on. The race course was very unusual, a 1-mile loop through Sixmilebridge, and included a hill that climbs by 17 or 18 meters. Over 30 miles that adds up to over 500 meters of elevation change, a rather significant number. I find 30 small hills much easier than a long, sustained climb, but opinion amongst runners remained firmly divided on that matter.

Photo by Jason Fahy

I got a bit of feedback from the double-marathon runners as I passed them, some telling me that the "other guy" was huffing and puffing up the hill and would blow up eventually, but I mostly kept an eye out for him myself, seeing that he gained 10-20 seconds per mile, while I spent the first 3 miles mostly chatting with Dee. Eventfully, going up the hill the fourth time, I decided to push a bit harder to make sure the gap to the leader would not grow too big. I wasn't worried about blowing up myself - after all, at that point there was only  one marathon left.

I initially gained back some distance, but on the fifth lap (or was it the sixth) I spent a minute chatting to Ray, the leader and eventual winner of the double-marathon, and when I took up the chase up again the guy in front had dropped from sight. I was confused, I couldn't understand how he had opened up such a gap all of a sudden, but decided to just keep a steady pace; if he blew up I would catch him later, if he was able to genuinely keep at 7:00 minute pace for 30 miles then all kudos to him.

According to the weather forecast the rain was supposed to hold off until after midday. We had started at 10 o'clock and I hoped I would have done most of the race by the time the rain arrived. Unfortunately it started drizzling about 45 minutes into the race, and by the time the marathon started at 11 it was already getting seriously wet. For the rest of the day there was to be no respite, the conditions got progressively worse. With the rain came the wind and the cold, eventually big puddles formed and by the end parts of the course were basically flooded. But hey, living in Kerry means I'm used to that.

Photo by Jason Fahy
The average pace on my Garmin dropped steadily, from 7:20 early on down to 7:03, 7:02 and 7:01 after a while. Obviously that means that I ran a few sub-7 miles, which I always felt was a bit fast for an ultra, but I was always quite comfortable, though I might indeed have blown up myself had I run any faster. Looking at the splits from the race results now, I can see that my adversary steadily ran a few seconds per lap faster, gaining about 10 seconds each time.

Unfortunately it was far from plain sailing, my stomach started acting up even before the 10 mile point. It was manageable at first, more like hunger pains, but it started cramping badly later on as the race progressed. I took 2 gels and a couple of sports drink, which I could stomach easily enough, but any more would have been pushing my luck.

I went going through the halfway point still feeling pretty good but as I was nearing the 20 mile mark I started slowing down, and my stomach took a turn for the worse. I considered going to the toilet each time I passed the GAA ground, but each time felt it might settle again and hoped that I would be able to finish before a pitstop became required.

Running laps and laps and laps of the same course means all events become jumbled in your memory, and it all blends into one. Early on I was chatty enough each time I passed another runner, later on I became quieter and quieter, and eventually I basically stopped talking altogether. That happens every time in similar circumstances, I can use my willingness to exchange a few words as a gauge of how fresh I am.

Getting close to the marathon  point I was really starting to suffer. The legs, while tired, were still holding up but the stomach was in knots. At one point Niall Campbell, who was stewarding, told me I was about 4 minutes behind the leader and he was slowing down, but I told him it didn't matter because I was f*cked myself (excuse my language). And still I kept running past the GAA ground without stopping.

Just as I about to finish the 26th mile I realised that I was slowing down so much that the runners I had just overtaken were going past me again. I basically admitted defeat in the race, and this time I stopped at the GAA ground for a pitstop. To be honest, it was very much needed, I would not have lasted another half hour.

I lost about 90 extra seconds in there, but as soon as I started running again I realised that I had my running legs back. Apparently my stomach cramps had sapped much of my energy, now with that problem out of the way I was able to speed up considerably, from 7:33 in lap 25 to 7:16 in lap 27 and 7:04 in 28. I passed the marathon in 3:09, despite the emergency stop, which actually makes this one of my faster marathons, despite the fact that I still had almost 4 miles to run at that point.

Chasing victory seemed futile, but I gave the race my best shot, more for my own satisfaction than a real conviction that I could actually win. The announcer at the finish line noticed it as well, he commented that I was looking strong again all of a sudden.

Going into the last lap I still could not see the leader, which means I was more than a minute behind him. Pointless. I still ran as fast as I could. Then, halfway through the lap, all of a sudden I could see him, for the first time in 25 miles, halfway up the hill just as I was at the bottom. I gave it my best shot, ran as fast as I could, but when he turned the corner at the top he still seemed too far ahead. When I reached that point myself he was much closer than I thought he would be and I gave chase with seemingly all that I had left.

I caught him with less than a quarter mile to go. For a couple of seconds the thought that I was going to win the race after all was filling my head, but then I heard him, cursing loudly and coming after me. I'm not sure if he was swearing directly at me (which would have been a bit severe, considering the kind of language he used), or at himself, or if it was just his way to pump himself up for the finish, but he caught me again, still cursing loudly. I was slow to react and let him go past instead of trying properly to hold him off and all of a sudden I found myself a couple of meters behind again, with next to nothing left in the race.

29.99 miles into it. Photos by Sean Power

Sprinting was never my forte, I have absolutely no natural speed, and despite giving it all I was up against it. I can't say I didn't try, and I might even have managed to close the gap a little bit at the end but it was futile and now I know what it feels like to be losing out by a whisker.

I lay on the ground, completely exhausted and in utter disbelief of what had just happened. Ultra races are not decided in a sprint finish! But here we were, him celebrating, me sucking oxygen into desperately empty lungs as if through a straw. Eventually he helped me up and we gave each other a (manly) hug, each acknowledging the other's effort.

Race over, friends again!

All finish line photos kindly provided by Sean Power.

It was only then that I could ask his name and found out that my conqueror was called Fergus McCarthy, up to then he had just been that nameless competitor up front.

Obviously I was disappointed to have missed out on a rare victory by the smallest of margins, but I could live with that. I had a warm shower but started shaking and shivering. As I went back towards the tent at the finish, Tom Enright took one look at me and immediately dragged me off to the ambulance where I spent the next 10 or 15 minuted recovering from mild hypothermia. Eventually the shivering stopped and a few minutes later I was feeling sufficiently recovered to leave. I didn't hang around much longer, though. The freezing cold, rain and wind were still there and I was better off making an exit with the car's heating turned up full blast.

I had plenty of time thinking about the race since. This was a race I definitely could have won. I'm not blaming my lack of speed - I could have avoided a sprint finish. It was a tactical mistake to let Fergus go at the start. I have learned last year that holding a commanding lead in a race gives you a big boost, and I handed that boost to him on a plate. When I started chasing him I should have done so with more conviction rather that keeping a steady pace and hoping that he would eventually blow up.

Most of all, I should have set a clear target. Either treat a race as a training run and leave it at that, or decide that you are going for the win, but do not mix the two. Trying to win without giving it your best shot is a stupid tactic, and just because I managed to win last year did not mean a repeat performance was on the cards. In light of that, I'm happy enough that I came second - I did not deserve first place. If the opportunity will come again I do not know, but should it ever do so then I will be better prepared, tactically as well as mentally.

Sixmilebridge has not seen the last of me.

18 Nov
Eddie Murphy memorial race, 30 miles
3:35:46, 7:11 pace, HR 158, second place


  1. Hi Thomas,
    reckon a toilet break earlier would've given you the win by a margin. Fergus was driven from the start he passed me at the cone on the start line and told me to "get out of the F**in way". All it needed was to shout coming through a bit earlier and Id've stepped aside.You had a good day in the conditions though.

  2. Nicely done, Thomas! Maybe it's a good thing you didn't win this time. Fergus seems a bit...intense? haha. Strong work, my friend. Take care!

  3. HI Thomas, the first time I gave you a split I believe you were 2 min 40 behind and as you came around the next lap the gap was going to be down to 2 minutes but you nipped off to the toilet and were 3:30 down by the time you came out. You clawed it all back in the last 3 laps (he was doing 8 min/mile at that point). I reckon if you had taken the break early you would have got him. I should also point out there was a toilet at the start/finish line which would have meant less time lost!! Either way thanks for keeping me entertained from my freezing position, the finish was epic and worthy of any movie. I think Fergus was just angry at himself for letting you back in the race as he obviously had slowed but was running steady and had enough left for a sustained spirnt at the end.

    Well done, still well faster than last year in much slower conditions.

  4. I like the evil eyebrows that Fergus has as he sprints and curses to the finish. Nice job.

  5. I like the label of "cold" - very rarely need that one down here ;-) Good report (yes, I read it) and pics. I reckon you need to look up Clyde Hart for some sprint coaching - that's what you need to win these ultras!

  6. What a crazy race and great time too - you would have beaten last years winner by nearly a whole lap :-)

    While the "race" might not have been executed perfectly from race to win perspective, your clearly weren't racing to win for the majority of the race so this is fine. Not racing all out for such a long distance will mean that recovery will be faster and will contribute positively to your build up rather than risking it. Well done!

  7. Well done Thomas. I think your last paragraph is spot on. You can't decide to try and win a race in the final lap. Had you aimed for the win from the start, the outcome would likely have been very different. But it wasn't an 'A' race anyway. Interesting comments on the earlier toilet break too. Perhaps a lesson in there? Anyway, congrats to both yourself and Fergus. You both made for a cracking race report!

  8. At the same time, your final 10 miles were quicker than the final 10 of the marathon winner, sickener!

  9. This is the same Fergus McCarthy who ran 3:36 in the 2011 Dublin Marathon, encroyable.

  10. Fergus sounds a bit intense alright. That said good effort and well done Thomas. Your Hr was wonderfully low 158 which suggests you will plenty in the tank for TraleeAs
    As a training run it was a excellent workout.


  11. Thomas well done Sunday. I would like to hear your thoughts on the Low HR. Mine was low as well but the perceived effort was anything but.

  12. Thats a wonderful run for 30 mile after 3:36 for 26.2 in 2011. Well done Fergus - deserved the win. MO.

  13. Thomas,

    Hope your feeling better after Sunday!! To begin with, the swearing was definitely for self motivation, at that stage in race my internal monologue was definitely off!! But I am sorry if you were offended. Thanks for your generous comments!! I had a simple race plan which was to go flat out and if I blew then lesson learned. I certainly found the last three laps tough but your own last few were excellent particularly your last mile, which pushed me very close and made it a very exciting race!!

    Thanks again for everyone's generous comments - gotta say, my eyebrows do look a bit evil!!

    All the best with Tralee in March and hopefully see again in the New Year!

    Fergus McCarthy

    1. Don't worry, it takes a lot more than that to get me offended! Congratulations again on winning, and for sticking to your race strategy. See you again.