Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Walk Straight Through Hell With A Smile

It’s funny how perception changes things. When I focus on a goal race, the days and weeks preceding it seem to be drawn into incredible lengths. It was the other way round this time. Just three weeks after the Tralee marathon I was on the bus to Connemara thinking “I can’t believe it's that time already”.

I had a minor scare the day before when I developed a splitting headache after the journey to Galway. I suspected I was dehydrated and drank lots of water which seemed to help but did not get rid of the problem entirely. I woke up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep for at least 2 hours still suffering from the same headache but finally managed to fall asleep again and when I awoke I was feeling fine.

I was rather relaxed before the start, only got nervous in the final few minutes. Mainly I was just feeling cold from the biting wind but knew I would be fine once the race got underway. It didn't really help that I knew that we would be heading right into that wind for the first 10 miles, though.

The plan was to run about 7:10 pace (on the Garmin that is, so probably more like 7:14 pace in real miles) until the marathon point in Leenane and then hang on over the last few miles. The hope and expectation was that the wind would have died down by then, which would make for rather good conditions.

I started off slightly slower, entirely be design in order not to burn unnecessary energy before I had warmed up. What did take me entirely by surprise was the amount of runners ahead of me; I counted no less than 20 of them. I had run the first mile in 7:15; anyone holding that pace until the end could reasonably expect to come in, or at least near, fifth place, so there were definitely a few very optimistic runners on the road today.

One runner who definitely knew what she was doing was Ruthann Sheahan and I was tempted to run with her when I caught up to her, but I saw another pair of runners straight ahead, and one of them was Gerry Duffy of 32-marathons and deca-ironman fame, and I decided to catch up to them instead. The only comment when I reached them was ”just the man I expected”.

The first 10 miles of an ultra are all about pacing yourself and keeping comfortable. I was a bit concerned about the headwind; we were running right at my planned pace, but since we had to fight the wind, would we have been better off a little bit slower? However, I figured that running in a group, especially against the wind, was better than running alone and well worth the risk of running a smidgen faster. Besides, I was feeling very comfortable. The only time the guys gave me a filthy look was when I joked at mile 8 that there were now only 50k left. Ah well, it’s ultra runner humour, I suppose.

“Thank f*** for that” was my only comment when we reached mile 10 and turned sharply right. All of a sudden the wind was now mainly on our backs and running felt a lot easier. The pace did increase a little bit but not too much. We could see the assembled marathon field at the start as we neared mile 13 and several hundred marathoners forming an elongated snake on the bendy road along Loch Inagh as their starting gun sounded. We reached 13.1 miles in just under 1:34, pretty much on pace, and caught up to the back-end of the marathon field in less than half a mile.

Running past the marathon field gave me a massive jolt of energy. Plenty of runners gave us a good shout as we were passing them and I fed on the positive energy that was in the air. I met and said hello to a big number of friends and all of them had nothing but encouragement for us. That lasted for about 3 or 4 miles, by which time we were catching people at a much slower rate and the previous miles started to make their presence felt in the legs. My hamstrings weren’t all that happy.

Still, it might have required a little bit more effort but I could easily remain on target and our little group stayed together. When we broke up at mile 19 it was because we all took separate amounts of times at the feed table, and from here on I was running mostly on my own.

I was ahead of the guys initially but was definitely feeling the miles and both of them caught and passed me within 2 miles. I made up one place myself when I caught Billy Holden, the first ultra runner I passed since the first couple of miles. He was paying the price for a slightly ambitious early pace but looked reasonably okay and indeed would hold it together just fine until the end. We chatted briefly and he expected me to catch a lot of the runners ahead. I wasn't quite so optimistic, I wasn't feeling too hot at the time.

Luckily that low did not last long and by the time we started the descent into Leenane I felt a lot better again already. I did think back to August when I had run that same stretch of road going the other way and feeling pretty rough with about 60 miles in the legs; it definitely was a lot more fun going downhill with "only" 22 miles covered yet.

I went through the marathon in 3:08:42 (on my own watch), about 80 seconds ahead of plan and feeling reasonably good at the time. So far it was going to plan but the defining part of the race was still ahead of me.

The climb out of Leenane isn't just the first real test, it can also be dangerous. Two years ago I definitely ran this too hard, trying to keep up with Liam and Ray and paying the price for it soon after when the legs started cramping. This time I was running on my own and setting my own pace, which was beneficial, but I think I probably did a similar pace as I was feeling strong at the time and the climb did not bother me at all. Maybe those runs on the Kerry Way up to Windy Gap are already paying dividends.

I caught the tail end of the half marathon well before I reached the summit, and I knew from here on the road would be busy all the way to the finish. I would pass about 1500 runners from Leenane to Maam's Cross, that's well over 100 per mile. It means a lot of weaving around, trying to find gaps when groups are running 5 abreast and dodging headphone wearers that are unaware of their surroundings. When I'm tired then all that can really get to me, but today I did not mind it at all, quite the opposite. Like at the marathon start, I was feeding off the energy from the field, and every shout of "Well done Ultra" gave me a little bit of extra energy. By the way, at least 90% of those encouragements came from female runners - I'm sure psychologists can have a field day with that kind of stuff, but thank you, ladies, all of you!

Unfortunately the prediction of the wind calming down turned out to be incorrect. The opposite was the case and the last 13 miles were against a swirling headwind with some gusts that felt rather severe and were accompanied by heavy rain on a few occasions. It did not help our tired legs.

An ultra is very much defined by how you work through your low points. You will go through several of them, it is just inevitable, but keep at it and eventually you will get through it. I started feeling seriously bad soon after mile 30. I was by now on my third sports drink and had taken 5 gels and my stomach was telling me that enough was enough. I forced the rest of the drink down, partially to get some energy aboard but also to lighten the weight of the bottle which seemed to weigh a ton. There was no way I was going to eat the last gel, I knew I would not be able to force that down and I eventually chucked it away unopened. I was afraid I would have to do an unplanned pitstop but luckily the stomach settled down once I stopped forcing more sugar into it.

However, the stomach troubles did transfer into the legs and my pace slowed down considerably. I still managed to pass two ultra runners in those miles, but that was entirely down to the fact that they were struggling even more than I did. Going through the half marathoner field gave me the false illusion of decent progress, but if you are passing runners doing 9:00 miles while running 8:30 miles you will of course make your way through the field but it was nowhere near target pace.

I could see the numbers on the Garmin deteriorate at an alarming rate. The average pace had been 7:08 or 7:09 in Leenane, had declined to 7:12 after the long climb and was now at 7:16 and dropping like a stone. At that rate, I would not even get close to a new PB, I was losing way too much time. I saw 7:40 for the present pace on 2 or 3 occasions, but neither swearing nor increasing the effort seemed to do the trick because before I knew it I was seeing 8:30.

Just as I was thinking that it was strange that no other ultra runner had caught me despite me slowing down so dramatically, Thomas Klimas came from behind, cheerfully shouting "caught you". He said he had seen my bright orange t-shirt from the far distance for most of the race and seemed more than happy to pull ahead. He also told me that he had been running with Magic for a long while, and when I asked if that meant that Magic was going to catch me as well soon, he certainly did not rule out the possibility. And then he was gone, pulling ahead at some amazing speed.

I was shocked. I have run with him before and we have similar abilities, and it must have flicked a switch in my head "if he can run that pace then so can I!!" It took a minute or two the rev up the legs but eventually I was doing 7:30 pace again, and it even felt sustainable, at least for a while. I had been in a funk for about 3 miles, I was now just past 33 with about 6 miles yet to come. I had lost quite some time, but if I could keep going, there was plenty of road ahead to make up for it. I knew the Hell was just 1.5 miles ahead, but that didn't worry me too much yet.

It's all in the head. Thomas catching up with me and giving me a jolt was the best thing that had happened to me all day. All of a sudden I was able to run a minute per mile faster again. Nothing physically had changed, the legs were just as fatigued as before, the blood sugar at the same level, the muscle damage done, and yet I was running properly again.

I caught another ultra runner just as we turned right the last time, crossing the bridge and heading straight for Connemara's signature piece, the Hell of the West, the feared 2-mile climb that has to be conquered before the finish. It's not that big, it's not that steep, but you are hitting it with tired legs and that's what makes it so tough.

I have had good times and bad times on that road, but today was the best of them all. It started with me passing Shane Whitty, usually a much better runner than me but obviously suffering now. Then I could see no less than 2 ultra runners amongst the field ahead, and one of them was Gerry Duffy, who I had not expected to see again. I caught the first ultra runner about half a mile into the climb "how you're holding up" "not as good as you", and Gerry just after the hairpin turn halfway up the mountain. When passing runners, always run strongly to discourage them from hanging on to you and that's exactly what I did, though it did require a supreme effort. I never looked behind me (another big no-no) and was never quite sure if I had dropped them but all I could do was to run as fast as I could, so that's exactly what I did.

I was surprised to see yet another ultra runner ahead of me when I reached the top and with even more effort I passed him on the downhill stretch. The wind was howling and made it twice as hard but as the other runners seemed to suffer a lot more than me, it seemed to be in my favour because I was feeling good and could handle it. I was still in fear that one or even all of those runners I had just passed would hang on to me and outsprint me on the line so I pushed harder and harder.

The mile to the finish seemed to drag on forever, I could see the tower in the far distance and with all that headwind it felt even further away. I could hardly believe my eyes when I spotted yet another ultra runner ahead of me! I wasn't even pleased, I was already pushing as hard as I could and I didn't want a race to the finish line. I was hurting too much for that, but the gap melted away surprisingly quickly and I gained yet another place, and my fear of yet another runner chasing me increased by another notch.

And then I could see the gantry ahead! I did not dare to slow down even by a smidgen because I did not want to lose any of those places I had so unexpectedly gained late on, but I should not have feared, I had left them all behind and crossed the line with the timer at 4:49, an absolute dream time. Race director Ray O'Connor got yet another sweaty hug from me, and confirmed that I had come in the top 10.

Before the race I had announced to anyone who wanted to hear it that I would be very happy with a new PB (4:53:33), still happy with sub-5 and ecstatic with sub-4:50, and ecstatic I was. The last 6 miles were the kind of finish a runner can usually only dream about, making my way through the field to improve my position from 15th to 9th in just a few miles. The legs never once cramped, but my stomach was in bits and I was unable to eat solids for a long time afterwards. I guess it was a good thing the race wasn't any longer, at some point the stomach troubles would have come to haunt me. I might have cut it fine, but this was a new PB by well over 4 minutes, and the next day brought an even bigger surprise when I saw in the results that I had come first man over 40! To win my age group in what is in many ways Ireland's premier ultra is an absolute dream come true, I never would have thought that even remotely possible.

It's great to be on a high.
6 Apr 2014
Connemara Ultra 2014
39.3 miles, 4:49:09, 7:19 pace, 9th place, 1st M40


  1. Another victory, pb and well run race! Congrats!!

  2. Well Done , great finish to the race ,thomas ,, same time as my good self in 2012.... all to play for in 2015 (i'll be back & unfortuntally we are now in the same age group!!)

  3. Super report Thomas, and a run that was well overdue, your commitment to your running was proven over the last 10 miles, big congrats , enjoy the memories of this one K.

  4. Great writing.
    Thanks and Congratulations

  5. Excellent race and report, as usual :-) Enjoyed running a good few miles with you. Lost it in the feeding dept (waiting until 32mile for a gel) and head at the end!

  6. Well done, Thomas, from one of the female hecklers on the Half Marathon; at least I called you Thomas - not Ultra! It was also a great pleasure to make your acquaintance post-race, at last. A great race report, a great run! Congratulations!

  7. Wonderful to share so many miles with you early on Thomas and now I know your strategy for the next time!!!!. If passing another runner, speed up. LOL. Fantastic report as always. Thoroughly enjoyed it. I spotted Damien came in at 5:10, his first visit to Conn since 07. Was great to have the company of you both for such a long period. GD

  8. Great performance Thomas.

    Funny how we can feel so fatigued one minute and then a couple of minutes later be powering back up with only a mental switch being toggled. I believe the latest view in the sports science world is that fatigue could be more of an emotion than a specific pain.

    I wonder if the negativity of your stomach discomfort coupled with the feedback that almost everyone else was slowing that tilted your "Central Governor" to view slowing as a safe and proper thing to do so it created the emotion of fatigue.

    Once you got a different input, being passed, that suggested that it might be safe to be running strongly, it kicked your "Central Governor" to re-evaluate where it was, and actually it turned out that you had plenty of glycogen in your liver, you were safely hydrated and muscle damage were within limits that you've run with plenty of times before, we'll there wasn't any good excuses, so the breaks were progressively released.

    I guess all the energy gels and fluid you consumed might have been slowly making their presence felt too. Given you discomfort though I suspect you tried to consume too much too fast. Do you have any idea how many calories per hour for each stage of the race you were trying to consume?

    For my last three ultra's I have aimed to consume no more than 100 Calories from carbs per hour and got on fine, feeling strong at the finish without stomach complaints. During the Loch Katrine marathon I ate about 100 calories of Jelly Babies in the last hour, for the rest of the consumed just water.

  9. Great report of a great run in a great race - a great precursor for your goal A race...

  10. Congrats on the age group win, pb, and gritty run; great report too.

  11. A perfect race Thomas. No more to say except I wish I was there.

  12. Congratulations on being the first in your age group, Thomas, great race!

  13. Now that you've achieved the holy grail you can retire Thomas. 7:19 miles - wow! I dream of holding that pace for the Parkrun!

  14. Seriously good performance Thomas, as always a good report as well

  15. your fine run continues. many congratulations on another 1st ag place.

  16. Amazing job, Thomas! You are on quite a roll!