Monday, August 12, 2013

Always The Bridesmaid

Ideally you want to be calm and relaxed the day before any race, never mind a 100 miler. Things started to go haywire much earlier than anticipated when my car broke down less than a mile from home! A few frantic phone calls later Niamh had organised a taxi to the airport, I picked up my hire car and drove towards Clifden flustered and late, but I got there even if it was late. It was not the ideal preparation, but sometime you just roll with the punches.

Twelve highly trained runners/hardy souls/lunatics/feckin eejits (choose one or all, as appropriate) gathered at the Station House in Clifden shortly before 6 o'clock on Saturday morning, 10th August 2013. With serial winner Mick Rice absent for the first time, it was clear that a new name would be on top of the podium. I thought the win would be contested between 4 runners, namely Maciej “Magic” Sawicki and Graeme Colhoun who had both finished second before, myself and Grellan. I even pointed Grellan out to my crew, “he's gonna be dangerous”.

Grellan told me he would probably curse the day he came across my blog at some stage today. (Niamh's comment: So does Abina!)

We started exactly at 6 o'clock. Most runners ran off at what they expected to be their race pace, except two of them – me and Grellan. I trotted down the hill very slowly and when I walked the uphill on the other side I turned around expecting Grellan to be right behind me but there was no sign of him. He was obviously walking the entire first mile. I immediately fathomed that he obviously knew what he was doing. He really was going to he reckoned with today.

We completed one loop around town and then headed northwards out of Clifden. The road climbs steeply and I walked a lot of it, starting to run every now and then when the gradient lessened. I caught a couple of runners soon enough but was rather surprised when Grellan caught up with me within about half an hour. Once he had started running he was obviously moving a lot faster than I was. We leapfrogged each other a couple of occasions as one or the other started walking, reminiscent of our first Connemara Ultra (the 39 miler), but he soon enough took off and disappeared very quickly.

The view when I reached the top was absolutely fabulous, even my crew noticed my excitement. That's one of the main draws of such an event compared to running 24 hours around a track – the scenery in a place like Connemara is worth the extra effort. I caught a few more runners as we descended towards Letterfrack and I fell in step with Paddy Quinn, who I had shared a lot of miles with last year in Bangor, though Paddy has run both the 24 hours as well as the Connemara 100 in both years. We chatted about running and football and a few other things until I took off again, wishing him good luck.

The next runner I caught was Magic around mile 15. He commented that we were running too fast. He had a point of course. We were doing about 9:15 pace at that point, which would give us a finishing time of 15:25. Mick Rice can do it, we can't. However, I felt I was running as slowly as I could without feeling awkward, so I kept the pace and Magic soon fell back a bit.

Running through Lettergesh provided some more stunning vistas and I soaked up the atmosphere while I was still fresh enough to enjoy it. Last year, when I was crewing at this event, this was the stretch I had enjoyed the most, where the scenery was stunning and my runner still in good spirits, though this year was even better as I was able to run myself.

By now my crew and I had developed a good understanding of what was required and we were working well as a team. They were keeping an eye on what I was consuming, making suggestions at times and always handing me the goods with great efficiency, so all I had to do was run. My nutrition at that point consisted mainly of potatoes and pasta for food as well as sports drink and electrolytes for drink. I had plenty of different options, but right now I felt that the sports drink provided more than enough carbs to lay off the sweets for the time being. I definitely preferred savoury food at that point.

I reached the road between Leenane and Kylemore and turned right. I was now on the Connemara 39 (and marathon) course, and would remain on it for a long while, though we were running it the other direction. I am very familiar with that road after running the Ultra 4 times and the marathon once and I feel I know every stone. I passed the “Stop and Pray” church after 22 miles, funnily enough pretty much the same distance you would go on the Connemara 39 to reach this point. More importantly, I was feeling very good. I kept seeing two runners not far ahead of me who seemed to be moving at more or less the same pace as I was because the distance between us seemed to remain constant. I was still determined to entirely run my own race and not get sucked into anyone else's pace, so I did my best to ignore them and just do my own thing.

We turned left into the Inagh Valley, another stunningly beautiful area (I keep saying that, I know), though the scenery started to get spoilt by the rain which started as a drizzle and gradually and steadily turned into rather heavy rain. This caught me by surprise, the weather forecast had mentioned potentially heavy rain later on, and I sure had not expected it so soon. I was too slow to get into my rain jacket (I should have listened to my crew of course) and I got soaked, wet and miserable. I guess the race had turned serious.

I checked the Garmin when I reached roughly the first marathon and saw the pace at 9:09, so this was a 4-hour marathon. Of course this was too fast. Keeping the same pace would mean I would equal the Irish National record for 100 miles (the official one, not Mick Rice's real but unrecognised one), and that was obviously not going to happen.

I reached the first checkpoint, Loch Inagh Lodge, at about mile 28. I changed into a new shirt which immediately made me feel better. My aim was to spend as little time as possible at any of the checkpoints and I was out again in about a minute (which later got me a rebuke from Angela for being anti-social). A minute standing still meant two seconds added to the average pace at that point. At this point I figured out a rough strategy. I had averaged under 9:15 pace for the first quarter of the race, if I could keep the average pace at 9:30 by mile 50 and 9:45 by mile 75 and 10:00 by mile 100 I would reach the end in 16:40, and I would still have a 12 second per mile cushion to break 17 hours. Maybe it was a stupid plan, but at that point it was something to focus on.

The rain kept coming down heavily, and when I saw a road sign “Road liable to flooding” I didn't take it as a great sign, but reckoned I would make it out of here in any case. My feet got soaked and I was worried about getting a blister, which can be a serious problem in a long ultra, but the main problem was that it dampened my spirit and I started feeling rather low.

Running a race like that will always provide a few highs and lows, and the way you are able to deal with the low points will mostly define your race and its outcome. I just put my head down and kept moving, just about the only way I know how to deal with that problem. Eventually we reached the end of the road and turned left into the main Galway to Clifden road. We had been warned about this stretch, the traffic was rather heavy and I found it rather unpleasant. Adding to the difficulties was the fact that the side of the road was waterlogged, forcing me to run far more towards the middle of the lane than I would have liked. I was not in a good place.

Luckily the rain stopped, I could take off my rain jacket and the road stopped being waterlogged. Only one driver had hooted at me angrily (a BMW of course) and then Seb and Iain turned up in their fancy little sports car and their cheers lifted my spirits a bit more. The road widened, making dealing with the traffic much easier. At mile 38, I turned to the crew with a big grin on my face “only 100 km to go”, which shows that I must have felt much better already (we had agreed beforehand that I could make 5 statements of that kind that before they would punch me).

Still, I was mightily relieved when I got to Maam's Cross and could turn off the main road after 9 miles. I had expected this to be a quiet spot with loads of room for the crew for the next food and drinks handover but it was heaving with a Farmer's market in full swing. We first had to make our way through all of it for the next feed. I also caught up with the 2 runners I had seen ahead of me over 20 miles earlier, and it turned out they were Sammy and Graeme. Reaching Maam's Cross also meant we had arrived at the Hell of the West, though going the other direction meant the climb was significantly shorter than from the other side – but then again, we already had 43 miles in our legs. Easy it wasn't. Sammy, Graeme and me were all within a minute of each other and I got the impression that Graeme tried to drop me as he seemed to run strongly and determinedly, though I passed both of them in quick succession when they were being looked after at the side of the road by their respective crews.

I was feeling reasonably good, but my legs started cramping and, strangely enough, so did my neck. The cramps subsided when I stopped running and started walking, but covering 55 miles that way would not be fun and I was seriously worried. I discussed it briefly with my crew and we tried a few things. It only improved a few miles later after I took a salt tablet. That really surprised me. The potatoes and pasta were all very salty and I kept drinking plenty of electrolytes so I would have thought I took on enough sodium, but apparently not.

My hands felt tingly and I started feeling light-headed at times, though I kept that secret from even my crew as I did not want to worry them. I briefly wondered what would happen if I fainted on the road but quickly put that thought away.

We saw a lot of cyclists coming the other way on a charity cycle, and many of them were aware of the Connemara 100 and we got a lot of cheers and encouragement on that stretch, which was an immense help. Of course we were all tired at that point, but we all knew that the worst was still ahead of us, and a few cheers went a long way to help.

I passed the halfway point and was looking forward to the second checkpoint at Leenane. Niall was waiting there on behalf of the organisers. Before the race he had given me a message from Jo, his wife, who had crewed for me in Bangor last year, telling me not to mess up the weather this time. She is blaming me for the monsoon in Bangor and the heatwave in Sixmilebridge. When it was raining so hard in Inagh valley I wondered if he would give out to me but by now it was quite nice. We still had the odd shower but it never lasted and on a few occasions we even had the sun coming out.

The average pace had dropped to 9:30 by mile 50, just about within the limits I had set 25 miles earlier, though I was perfectly aware that these limits were completely arbitrary. But it was something to hold onto, and I did gauge my progress against it.

I had intended to more or less run straight through the checkpoint but had noticed the sock rubbing against my left foot so decided to sit down and change socks. I sent the crew ahead and they had prepared everything for my arrival, and we worked through it with the efficiency of a Formula 1 pit stop crew. Niall even chided me afterwards for being unsocial (seems to be a theme developing here). I did ask who was ahead of me, and he confirmed that it was just Grellan, though I confirmed to my crew that I was not going to chase him down, but would still run my own race.

Get out of the chair”

I don't want to get out of the chair”
Get out of the chair”

I got out of the chair. Even with the efficiency of my crew the pace had immediately dropped to 9:34 and already taken much of the allowed slowdown out of the game.

In contrast to my own crew, who kept very closely to me for almost the entire race, Graeme, Sammy and Magic's crews had the tendency of driving ahead by maybe half a mile and setting up a quick aid station, which meant I always knew their runners were fairly close. After leaving Leenane I realised that I stopped seeing Graeme's crew altogether and I only saw Sammy's crew on a couple of occasions, but Magic's crew became a very familiar sight indeed. We always had a nice hello and a friendly wave for each other, but of course we were on rival teams and I would have preferred not to see them quite so often. I had no idea where exactly Magic was and I never turned around to check. I wasn't even remotely tempted to do so, I was so focused on my own race.

It was a long climb out of Leenane and I did not enjoy it, especially as I was running right into a nasty headwind. There has always been a headwind when I had been running that stretch, but this time I was heading the other way, uphill, and the wind was still in my face! I did have to walk more and more of the course, not just because of the uphill but also because of the exhaustion which threatened to take over. At the 60 mile point Seb and Iain showed off their sport number once more, inquiring how I felt and suggesting that the fact that I has just run 60 miles was somewhat responsible for the “f***ing knackered”. I admitted they might have a point.

I passed the “Stop and Pray” church for a second time and shortly afterwards turned left once more into the Inagh Valley for our second pass. On the plus side the weather was much better than during the first visit, but it could not be denied that the 100 km I had already run at that point had left their mark, and I was utterly exhausted. The pace on the Garmin kept coming down much quicker than I would have hoped and the thoughts of breaking 17 hours seemed more and more fanciful. Mind, at that moment just finishing was still the only game. I hardly even cared about the outcome. I was way beyond the point of full exhaustion and just staggered on.

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

We went through Checkpoint 3, Loch Inagh Lodge again and this time I really ran through it without stopping. I was now two thirds through the race, but mentally I reckoned I wasn't even halfway through. I did not help that, just as had happened at the first pass through the valley, I felt really low again, and at that point I had definitely lost all interest in the lovely landscape. I could no longer stomach either the potatoes or the pasta, but the sweets now seemed rather palatable. “Open the package of chocolate wafers and give me at least one”. (they gave me two, and some jelly babies as well). However, food did not provide a lift. What did help were a couple of painkillers, something I absolutely hate taking and in some way I do not understand how their use can be regarded as legal by the sports authorities because they are definitely performance enhancing, but at that point I started calling them my Happy Pills, which probably means it was a good thing that I had given strict instructions to the crew not to overdose me.

I was maybe a mile from the end of Inagh Valley, 70 miles into it, when Darren told me “your German friend is right behind you”. I looked back, and indeed, Magic was right behind me. “He's Polish”. “Oh”. Never mind his nationality, all of a sudden I was worried about being caught. Magic is well known as a strong finisher and I already started formulating my race report in my head “Magic caught me at mile 70 and I could not keep up with him”. I did some soul searching, trying to figure out how much I would care about being caught, and the initial answer was surprisingly little, but eventually my competitive instincts kicked in and I notched the effort up a bit.

Up to now I had been running entirely my own race, not caring one bit about my position in the field or the distance to the other runners, but being caught late sounds nasty and besides, now seemed a good time to actually do some racing. I ran more and walked less than I had done before and I also kept half an eye on the Garmin, as I figured racing might improve the numbers as the average pace had kept dropping massively to about 9:49, well behind “schedule”, and by now I felt that breaking 17 hours was rather fanciful indeed.In retrospect, Magic sneaking up on me was just the kick up the arse I needed. My crew told me later that they had been debating for 15 miles if they should tell me as they could see him inching closer and closer. Eventually they figured that I would be going like “Why the hell did you not tell me” if he passed, and decided to tell. It was a good move.

This time we turned right on the main Clifden road and once more I did not like the traffic at all, but it was only for 2 miles, which always seemed manageable. I just wished they would not signpost junctions quite so prematurely, it must have been at least half a mile from the first sign to the actual junction.I had been warned about the road towards Roundstone, at least 2 people have called it the “Valley of Death”. I thought it would be around 7 miles but a sign, shortly after turning off the main road, said 15km to Roundstone, so I know it would be almost 10 miles. It really is a testing stretch where climb follows climb follows climb. Under normal circumstances I would have loved the desolate landscape which I find so beautiful, but these were not normal circumstances by any stretch of the imagination. All those runners who had warned me about that stretch – they were right. It really dragged on for what seemed like an eternity.Eventually I reached the houses and my crew pushed on to the checkpoint. Then I passed more houses and more houses and then some more houses, and then I rounded a corner and saw a little bay and the actual village of Roundstone at the other side, still 2 miles away. Yes, those runners definitely had been even more right than I would have thought. I could not quite understand what the sea was doing here, though. I reckoned I had been climbing by at least 300 feet since leaving the main road, and as far as I know that is not located in a deep depression.

My crew - Chris, Carole and Darren

Roundstone was buzzing, at least the pubs were, and I got plenty of odd looks but no hassle. I did ask Ken, the race marshal, what the official mileage was at that point and he said 82, which was much more in alignment with my Garmin than the 80 miles I had been told before the race, and I left the village with some feeling of relief. An extra 2 miles at that point would not have felt appealing.I did not know this stretch, so the big climb out of Roundstone came as a bit of a surprise, but in some way I did not mind as it gave me plenty of excuses to walk instead of running, and running really hurt at that point while walking provided at least some level of respite. I'm sure the view would have been nice, but I no longer had an eye for it.

Eventually it dawned on me that Magic's crew did not turn up as often as they had used to, and when I eventually saw them again they did not set up an aid station but turned around again, so they were obviously checking out my progress and Magic must have fallen behind. Apparently he spent a couple of hours praying “please let him die” but luckily the prayers went unanswered (and I won't take it personally).The wind had really picked up by now and I was once more heading pretty much right into it, which again was not a lot of fun. I might have thought that it was a long road into Roundstone, but it turns out that the road out of Roundstone is even longer.

By now I had concluded that the repeated turns of feeling light-headed were caused by pure exhaustion and since I had not fainted over the last 50 miles I reckoned I would be okay for the rest of the race as well.Darren eventually told me that the wind would turn into a tailwind after the next bend. Unfortunately he had misjudged the distance to the next bend, since Ballyconneely has the same feature as Roundstone, you pass the first houses miles away from the actual village. It meant a longer fight against the elements than I would have liked, but I did go through the very quiet village eventually, what a contrast to the buzzing Roundstone, turned northwards, finally heading for Clifden, and Darren triumphantly announced that he had delivered once more.

I felt easier running with the wind for a change, not that I appreciated it at the time. It was now dark and I was using my headlamp, not that it provided much light, but it certainly was a safety feature. The miles dragged by slowly, and my head was wrecked trying to figure out how far it was; I did not know how closely the Garmin was corresponding to the real mileage. At one point I even asked the crew what the mileage was, adding “be honest”, but they weren't entirely sure either, though it turns out that their guess of 94 miles was very accurate.

Because the last 3 miles are made up of 3 loops through Clifden, the same loop we had done at the very start a long time ago, you get into Clifden itself a little bit earlier than you would expect when you're only focusing on the target of 100 miles, and the sign “Clifden 3km” was the sweetest thing I had experienced all day. From here it was only a few more bends and a few more hills and one more climb into the town centre, and then I was back in civilisation. There were plenty of people out on the road and quite a few seemed to know what we were doing, so I got a lot of cheers on those last few miles, which might explain why I felt so much better all of a sudden.

I expected to absolutely hate the last 3 miles, having to pass the finish gantry again and again without being allowed to stop, but the cheers I got from the assembled crowd was always uplifting and carried me through all the way to the next loop. With one loop to go I saw Grellan, already finished and managed to give him a quick shout to voice my respect and congratulations, and then the crew (well 2 of them) joined me for the final lap. They confirmed that there was nobody behind me so I could relax mentally, but I felt good enough to keep the pace up, at least for someone past the 99 miles point.

I even managed a sprint finish, though I don't think Mo Farah will be worried any time soon. First and foremost I felt relieved to be able to stop running. I was also very proud of having finished a 100 mile race, and was absolutely delighted with my time, breaking 17 hours with almost 20 minutes spare. I was also immensely grateful for all the crew had done for me all day. There were plenty of sweaty hugs.

Grellan had been ahead by about 30 minutes at almost all checkpoints and I had managed to cut 10 minutes off his lead on the way from Roundstone but his assured victory was never in doubt. Would I have liked to have won it myself? Of course I would have, but at the same time I am delighted that one of my best friends has won, and it will provide an incentive to push myself to the next level. I have urged (and still do) Grellan to sign up for a 24 hours race [sorry Abina] because the equivalent performance would easily see him qualify for an Ireland singlet at the next European and World Championship. And if Grellan can do it, so can I ...
10 Aug
Connemara 100 miles race
16:41:49, 10:01 pace, HR 136, 2nd place


  1. Great report, congratulations on an amazing performance.

  2. Huge respect Thomas. Fantastic event and your report and experience mirrors a lot of what I went through - salt tablet at mile 58 appears to have solved muscle cramp - thought Roundstone would never come - 3km to Clifden sign gave me a huge lift as I thought it was still 3 miles away. Very surprised to find myself out in front so early in the race and even more surprised that I was not reeled in. As my plan was based on a combination of heart rate and intermittent walking (mainly uphills), the pace achieved was the result rather that the basis of my race strategy, well for the first 50 or 60 miles anyway – after that it was whatever the legs could give me.

    Mick Rice gave me a bit of a wakeup call at Roundstone when he said “it’s very close at the front with only a couple of miles between the top 3 or 4”, normally a gap of a couple of miles means the race is in the bag, but you can’t take anything for granted over the closing stages of a 100 miler.

    Rest and recover well. As for 24 hours? - officially I have retired from ultras, unless I get a spousal dispensation, which at the moment requires divorce and remarriage ;-)

  3. Thanks again for your usual detailed and well written blow by blow report of your latest adventure! Makes one almost want to try the madness yourself as you seem to be further inclined to do. Well done, well executed and well endured!!! Now have a nice long rest willya?

  4. Good read Thomas, but I reckon you're both feckin eejits!

    Go for the divorce Grellan.

  5. Astounding! Chapeau to both yourself and Grellan. The power of the human mind is incredible.

    And having a massive heart & lungs helps as well.

    And the legs.

    And the long-suffering wife!

  6. A brilliant piece of writing, it gives us at least an insight to the superhuman effort and awesome mental stamina required for such a race. Much respect to all involved, well done Thomas, us mere mortal runners can only be truly inspired.

  7. Super run, congratulations! A great report! There is something about a 100 miler that you can only find in the 100 miler itself. Rest well!

  8. Excellent report Thomas, the memories were flooding back as I was reading it. Last weekend was one of the longest I ever put in a chair hanging out for every update of your race. Special word of thanks to Iain and Seb for the feedback, really appreciated it was my "fix" for the day. Savour the memories Thomas ; precious !

  9. Excellent report and again well done.


  10. Superb result Thomas, 100 miles will always hurt, conquering it in such a quick time really shows you fulfilled your potential. Amazing how quick you got your report up too, puts me too shame.

  11. Epic (and that's just the report :) ). Great achievement to add to your other great achievements this year.. Recover now!!

  12. Fair play to you,I'll be happy to log 100 miles every two weeks let alone in one day!!

  13. fantastic report of a fantastic performance. many congrats thomas. your day will most certainly come. keep on inspiring....