Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Marathon Comeback

Even though I see myself as an ultra runner rather than a marathon runner these days, I had spent a lot of time preparing for this race. Due to my last goal race being as early as July last year I had plenty of time to get ready for this one, and I had been focussing on today since September. After investing so much time and effort into one single race that's not even your preferred distance, the result better be good.

One of the main advantages of this being a local race was that I could sleep the night before in my own bed, and I regard that as a massive bonus. The car's thermometer displayed -2C (28F) when I left Caragh Lake, and on the drive over the mountain I regretted not packing a long sleeved top. But while it was undoubtedly cold, the sun was shining directly at us and I felt almost pleasantly warm. There was no wind, which had been my major worry weather-wise because of the exposed nature of the course, and conditions were absolutely perfect. There would be no excuses!

I lined up right in front, not quite my usual place, and enjoyed the bit of banter and trash-talk before the start. As we set off a handful of runners went ahead of me but it soon settled down. I found myself running right beside the master himself, John Griffin, a 2:14 runner back in the nineties. As much as I would have liked to run in his shadow, after a quarter mile I decided the pace was a little bit too hot for me and backed off. I found myself in 14th place (I think) as we turned left into the Ardfert road.

The leader is already out of the frame and Joe O'Connor in second place is moving away from the pack. Eventual  winner Peter Mooney is in the pack, in a black/blue top. The orange spot in the background is me. Photo by Francis Foley

The first mile had passed in about 6:20, definitely too fast, and I tried to calm myself down. Unfortunately it meant that I was now running entirely on my own; I had hoped I would find a buddy or two to work together, at least for a while. Instead there was a gap ahead of me to a couple of runners, one in black and one in white, and I don't think anyone was right behind me, so I was already ploughing a lonely furrow.

The road rose gently but steadily and I did eventually draw closer to the pair in front when the runner in black started falling off the pace and fell behind quickly. We soon reached the highest point of the course, though that was in no way an indicator that it would be easier from here on. There was a good buzz in Ardfert, 6 miles into the race, and shortly before the 8-mile mark I caught up to the runner in white, when I finally recognised him as Vasiliy. He is a very solid runner and I wouldn't normally expect to be able to keep up with him, though that did not matter at that point. He didn't try to stay with me and his footsteps soon faded away and I found myself running entirely on my own again, well behind another pair of runners, one in green and one in blue.

I had driven the course last week and had a good feel for it. The real race did not start until mile 10, but from that point on it was going to be tough. In my mind I prepared myself for what I called the 4 stingers, steep hills at miles 10, 12, 18 and 22, but there were plenty of rollers in-between and not a lot of flat road. The steepest of them all hit us hard at mile 10 with a climb up to the golf course, and since it was part of an out-and-back part of the course it meant we had to run down the steep hill as well, something I hate. I was unsure how I should pace myself on either way, but in the end I just did the effort that came naturally. I enjoyed seeing the leaders passing the other way, and I definitely enjoyed the support and shouts of encouragement from the runners behind me when I was on my back. I had a solid cushion on the 3-hour pace group and I reached the end of the out-and-back section shortly after waving to Grellan and John who were on pacing duty at the 3:30 shift.

The next big climb up to Church Hill was tough again and definitely longer than the golf-course one. I could always see the blue and green pair about a minute ahead of me. We seemed to be doing pretty much the same pace, and while the gap seemed to shrink or expand by a small amount at times, it was always sizeable, certainly too wide to even think about catching up. There was no timing mat at the halfway point, but I must have averaged about 6:28 pace on the Garmin, which in real terms would probably mean 6:31 pace, or about 1:25:30. Since I was hoping for a 2:52 time that was not outrageously fast but in hindsight just a little bit too aggressive, and a little bit of patience would probably have paid off, but at that point I was not to know that. Instead I felt good and was looking forward to the second half of the course, where I knew that the real work would begin soon enough.

We ran into Fenit, where the course formed a second out-and-back part. We went all the way down the pier, close to St. Brendan, before turning around. Again I could see all the leaders, and from the sidelines I got a shout from Stazza that I was still in 12th place and that 2 of the runners ahead of me were dead on their feet. I could soon see one of them, a guy in an orange top, who I had noticed at the start because he had looked fast, but as I found out later when I talked to him it had been his first marathon and he was in for a painful lesson on how to pace yourself for 26 miles. I passed him halfway up the small hill going out of Fenit, around mile 16. Not even a mile later I saw that Stazza had been right, another runner, in a black top, had pulled out of the race entirely, but as I got closer I realised that it was no other than the master himself, John Griffin. I was totally shocked, I had expected him to run for the win, but apparently he was carrying an injury.

So, all of a sudden, I found myself in the top 10, not that I was too concerned about that right now. I enjoyed the rare luxury of almost 2 miles of reasonably flat road, and if I'd had some spare energy left I would have enjoyed the view in the unexpectedly good weather, but I was definitely feeling the strain, and there was still a lot of running left. My pace had started slowing, and I remember seeing an average pace of 6:32 on the Garmin. I tried to inject a little bit of extra effort but I knew that I didn't have a lot of reserves left. Earlier on during the race I had taken a gel and an isotonic drink, as well as water whenever I felt thirsty from one of the plentiful water stations, but from mile 12 onwards my stomach was no longer in the mood. Forcing down a gel at mile 15 might have been a bad idea, but it probably made little difference. From here on to the end I basically would have to rely on the fuel that was already on-board.

The potential disaster struck when I reached the third stinger at mile 18. I was not even three steps into it when my left calf went into spasms, and very painful ones at that. Luckily it didn't really turn into a full cramp but I was left with no other option than to take it a bit easier. I did not have to slow down by much, but I was walking a very fine line here and on a couple of occasions a painful spasm told me that I was very close to the edge.

I definitely hit a bit of a low point here. I soon reached the point where the half-marathon runners re-joined our route, and they had done 10 miles compared to our 20, but had started 20 minutes later. I guess there will be at least 100 half-marathon runners tonight telling stories about some marathon runner in an orange top making all kinds of strange noises, painfully moaning with each breath but refusing to slow down. I always used to moan and wheeze when I crossed a certain threshold. I have worked this year to better control my breathing, with good success as I noticed in my string of 5k races as well as in Ballycotton, but now I was beyond the point where I had any control and the noise returned, at least with every single uphill step.

Luckily there was not a lot of vehicle traffic on the road and I had plenty of room to cruise past the half-marathon runners, at least initially. When we reached Spa we turned off right into the much smaller road towards the Kerries, and it was at that point that I encountered a group of at least 6 half-marathon runners taking the entire width of the road.

"Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, ... oh for f*** sake!" Ok, I should not have sworn, all but one of the group had reacted and left a gap but I was annoyed that one lady, who happened to run right in my line, did not budge even by an inch. But there was enough of a gap for me to get through and I should just have thanked the ones who had moved aside, but I was in a bad place mentally at that point and annoyed at having to weave around her. She reacted rather indignantly, and in the unlikely case that she is reading this, I do apologise.
Car traffic - though it was nowhere near as bad as it may look in that picture

Let's move on. The last sting was waiting for us, and boy, did it hurt. It had not looked quite as bad from the car, but after over 21 miles of running hard it was a tough one. After every corner there seemed to be yet another piece of hill in front of us, and then another one, and then another one. It was endless. At least I did not waste time by looking at the Garmin and watching my pace slipping by, I just ran, trying to keep the left calf from cramping which was getting worse and worse. Eventually, finally, when my mood was hitting rock bottom I almost unexpectedly reached the top. And here, right beside another watering station, was Liz, handing me my sports drink that I had given her beforehand. Unfortunately my stomach was in absolutely no mood to break his strike. I forced down some drink, spat out plenty of it and eventually gave up and tossed the bottle away, still half full, probably.
Awful running form - I apologise!

At mile 18 I had started cramping on a big hill. At mile 22.5 it was so bad that my calf went into spasms every time I had to run over a speed bump! Luckily that was the end of the hills, but there was one more sting left, but one of a different kind. At this point we were back in Tralee, and at the end of the Spa road the half-marathon runners went straight towards the finish, maybe half a mile away. The marathon runners, on the other hand, turned right towards Lohercannon and Blennerville, almost 4 miles still left to run. The road went very quiet again, the support from the sidelines was sporadic, and after a mile or so we reached a crushed gravel surface.

That's supposed to be a great running surface but I hated it, I felt the pebbles against the soles of my feet and I felt like I did not get much traction, though I'm pretty sure that was all in my head. Fact is I was hurting badly and wanted this to be over. Stazza was there once more, assuring me that I was in the top 10 and there was nobody behind me. Unbeknownst to me a runner in front had pulled out, which is how I gained one more place. The green/blue pair in front of me was still there, still out of reach, but broke apart in the last mile. I did not have anything left to chase them down, though in the end I got within 13 seconds of one of them but that's still a sizeable gap.

We got back into Tralee, passed the Brandon hotel and then there was the final straight. I hit a clear stretch of road and cruised towards the finish, all of a sudden able to run sub-6 pace again without any danger of the calf cramping. I don't know how that works. I did the "aeroplane" thing as I crossed the line, don't ask me why, I don't know, but it felt the right thing to do at the time.

I had slowed down just that little bit too much over the second half and missed my sub-2:55 target by a few seconds, but I was delighted nevertheless. I could not fault my effort, and it is very tricky to get the pacing spot on in a marathon. I had not been overtaken by anyone in the race once the field had settled down after the first quarter mile or so, and had moved up 5 positions throughout the race; my pacing might not have been optimal but still pretty good I like to think.

When I had picked up my race number on Thursday I had sized up the M40 winner's trophy, but had not thought that I had a realistic chance of taking it home, though I had hoped for a top-3 place in my age group. After the marathon I went home (after some shopping, that is) and enjoyed some time with the family before returning to Tralee more in hope than expectation for the prize ceremony. Due to some miscommunication I arrived late, and within 30 seconds of my arrival I heard my name being announced and I walked up to receive the winner's trophy for the M40 Kerry champion (the Tralee half and full marathons doubled up as the Kerry county championship). Later I picked up another prize as well, because I had been the overall winner of the M40 category as well, which came as a total surprise, and my assessment of the race went from being delighted to being over the moon.

I call this a very successful return to the marathon distance. After my last real marathon it had taken me two years to race one again. I don't think I'll leave it as long this time.

16 Mar
2013Tralee marathon
   2:55:07, 9th place overall, 1st M40


  1. Easy to say I will get such and such a time but actually doing it is a credit to you. We all know how hard it is to put it all together! That is a very impressive time! If you can do that time on that course imagine what you can do on a flat fast Japanese marathon course!?

    Always be a bed here for you ;)

    Enjoy the reverse tapper, well deserved.

  2. Well done Thomas a great time on a tough course! great read by the way! I felt I was with u for some of it!! rest up now!

  3. Well done - you're going to have to change the title of this blog.

  4. A excellent but remarkably restrained piece of writing considering you Pb'ed and sub3'ed. I see you have the connemaraultra and ten marathons in ten days in sixmilebridge planned plus i suspect a crack off the 100 miler in connemara in august. You'd be crazy not to have a go off the sub 2.50 before the year is out

  5. Excellent run Thomas, can't believe you had the energy and coherence to write it all up so soon.

  6. Congrats Thomas and a superb effort for a pb and a great M40 win, thoroughly deserved knowing the training you put in day in day out, as Scott says talk is easy here but you did it and a sub 2 50 is possible for you now on a flat racing course,rest now , savour the memories and no doubt you are plotting your next target..... (a sub 1.20 half would be a nice addition to your racing CV :)).

    Best wishes Keith.

  7. Congratulations on a great race and thanks for the blog.....i look forward to your training updates!! Enjoy a few days off and cant wait to find out what your next race is

  8. Well forecasted and well raced. hard to do when you throw a few unexpected cramps into the mix. well done.

  9. Well done Thomas, it was indeed a tough course, but you really nailed it there. Fair play for holding it together when the legs were giving out! I finished in eleventh myself in the end, and reading your report, i felt every one of those hills again! Like you, the wind was my biggest fear, thankfully we got a nice calm day. What was with that hill up to the golf course.....that almost broke me....thank god it was early on!


  10. Congratulations. Great run!

    PS I won't even mention Saturday's result !!

  11. it just gets better and better for you. richly deserved with your training and application. many congratulations.

  12. Well done Thomas, a nice reward for all the hard training.

  13. Yes, while you're relatively young why not go for two all-out marathons a year? Give yourself more chances to snag the ideal race and ideal conditions - chip away at that PB. Look at Yuki Kawauchi!

  14. Not bad, a little bit slower than I would have expected from your consistant 5k times. You should focus on bringing this down by a minute or so and the 10k pb as well. This will pay off exponentially in a marathon.

  15. Would be interested in your thoughts on the training (Canova?) you did this time verses Vienna under the coach. I think your average mileage was a little lower this time if I remember correctly.

  16. Warm congratulations! The Kerry Champion! Fantastic!

  17. Great running Thomas - well done - inspirational stuff.