Sunday, May 18, 2014

Flat Out

I had been a bit silly. There was a perfectly good marathon in Killarney, one that I had run last year and enjoyed very much and had every intention of running again this year. Instead I had gotten my dates mixed up, signed up for a 50 mile race at the other end of the country, not realising that the dates would clash. But since I am training for a much longer race and do require some longer-than-marathon training runs, I decided to leave it as it is and go ahead.
The 50 mile field
I had never even heard of Staplestown before. It turned out to be a pleasant little village in rural Kildare and the course consisted of 8 loops between Staplestown and Prosperous. Some local runners had confidently predicted that this course would put an end to the myth that Kildare is a flat county due to the formidable hill that had to be conquered once on each lap.

Mile 1
We started a few minutes after 7 o'clock. It was pleasantly cool with a tiny little breeze but everyone knew that it would heat up considerably during the day. We did a little out-and-back first, adding just over a mile before heading back out on the first of many loops to come. I fell into step with Gerry Duffy, just like in Connemara. We chatted for a good bit, watching the top two runners, Ger Copeland and John O'Regan, very quickly disappear beyond the horizon. I was a bit worried about Ger burning himself out trying to stay with John, but let's wait and see.

We ran about 7:35 pace, which felt incredibly easy as I was jogging along. My heart rate was a very low 140 and I was very confident about the miles ahead. In Connemara I had started at 7:10 pace and finished with an average of 7:20; today was just 11 miles longer and the pace, HR and effort level seemed perfectly appropriate.

Lap 2
I made a comment about the "not-much-of-a-hill", which got a wry smile out of Gerry. The first loop passed very quickly. The 50k had started just before we came through, we saw the entire field on their own initial out-and-back section before they would go onto their loops, but they only had to do 5 of them, of course.

The hill seemed more noticeable on the second attempt, but I still was not overly impressed. Halfway through that loop Gerry started pushing the pace. Initially I stuck with him but after 2 miles, about 11 miles into the race, I decided to back off and preserve my energy and let him go. He was still only a few seconds ahead of me at the end of that loop but then quickly pulled away on the hill, and I knew I would be running almost 40 miles entirely on my own.
Lap 3. Still good.

The marathon started around that time as well. Again, I saw the field on their initial out-and-back, but apart from that it pretty much passed me by, I hardly saw any of those runners afterwards.

I still felt very comfortable. The miles flew by quickly and effortlessly. I was pretty much on autopilot cruising along, holding the pace somewhere around 7:35-7:40 pace. I checked the HR on a few, rare occasions and it was always between 140 and 143, very easy effort. Around mile 17 I thought how funny it was to be running so easily when on a long run at home at that point I would be looking forward to finishing and definitely feeling the effort.

I cruised through the marathon in about 3:21, which felt almost effortlessly and was pretty much the same pace I had done in the Donadea 50k back in February, just around the corner from here. I was now in the second half of the race and still cruising along easily and the "hill" was still unimpressive. Apart from the top 3 of the 50k, nobody had ever passed me, which did surprise me as I sure expected the pointy end of the marathon field to go past me at some stage.

Lap 4. This is easy.

Things still kept ticking along at lap 4, though I did start noticing the rising temperature. It reached 22 degrees, which isn't much if you're used to mediterranean climate but for Ireland in May this is fairly hot. But I think direct sunshine has more of an effect on running than the actual temperature, and we were running right in the sun with very few shady spots on the course. I fell a bit behind on my hydration, and initially they only gave out drinks at the start/finish, 6 miles apart, which was not enough in those conditions. They did rectify it later on and started handing out bottles in Prosperous as well, which made a big difference and I felt I managed to catch up again.
Lap 5. Maybe not quite so easy ...

However, at that point the wheels started to come off. I still felt reasonably okay and I did get a few compliments on my relaxed form, but the effort started to get to me, the legs were aching, especially the hamstrings, and it all felt a lot harder than initially. I finished the fifth loop, just past the 50k mark which had passed under 4 hours, which would have been a perfectly acceptable 50k race.

In a marathon you'd say I hit the wall. It's usually not called like that in an ultra because you are invariably going through several rough patches. These can take a long time, and sometimes you reach the finish before recovering from your most recent low spell. It is inevitable in ultra running. Deal with it.

The only way I know how to deal with it, really, is to put my head down and get on with it. Don't even think about how far it is until the end, that's how DNFs are made. Just put one foot in front of the other and repeat. I kept up with hydration, very important on a hot day like today. I tried taking gels and sports drink but that didn't seem to make any difference. I don't think the lack of glycogen was the problem, my legs were just not fully prepared for the miles. I had run 28+ pretty hard miles 2 weeks ago and then did a couple of mountain runs and a hilly 15 miler last Sunday on top of all that, so my guess is that my legs were a bit overworked.

I told myself that this was exactly what I was here for. I could have comfortably cruised through yet another marathon in Killarney but had deliberately chosen to come here and run almost twice as far instead. As much as it sucked at the time, this was the very reason why I had to do it. The human body is very capable of adaptation, but you need to give it a good reason to adapt in the first place. Running many, many miles is the best preparation for running even more miles.
Lap 6. Looking better than I feel!

There was plenty of suffering to be had on lap 6 and the sun was just relentless. I still didn't rate the hill, but the layout of the course meant that we kept looking at endless stretches of perfectly straight road for miles and miles, and it started to become soul-destroying.

I wished there had been more runners. Connemara creates a fantastic buzz as you make your way through the full and half-marathon fields. Here, in contrast, it was very lonely. I caught runners at a rate of not much more than one runner per mile, which meant I was running entirely on my own for many hours. Passing through the start/finish area was always great, but then it was back to almost an hour of being more or less on your own.

When I pressed the "lap" button after lap 6 I saw just how much I had slowed down and it wasn't pretty. However, lap 7 was even worse. I couldn't really run properly any more so I just shuffled instead, something very familiar to all ultra runners. The feet barely leave the ground any more. Your step size shrinks and your pace with it, but you are still making progress, and that's what counts.
Lap 7. Hard work.

Twice I was asked if I was on my last lap, which would have been a soul-destroying question at the time had I not been prepared for it. Dave Brady did it right. "How many laps have you left?" "Just one more" "Good man". Much better, good man yourself, Dave!

I lapped Anto and quipped that I should have signed up for the 50k instead. "Me too!"

I finally started the last lap. I was about a mile into it when I suddenly saw John O'Regan just ahead of me, which was entirely unexpected. A mile ago I'd had some vague worries that he might lap me, instead he was almost within touching distance.

How often do you have the chance to realistically chase a two-times national champion? I reasoned that since I had obviously managed to close the gap I was moving better than him, but he clearly had no intentions of being caught and increased his own pace. He never managed to put some telling distance between us but he did manage to inch away from me again, and with my destroyed legs I could not really give proper chase any more.
Lap 8. Don't make me do this again.
Photos by Gareth MacCauley

The temperatures dropped slightly as it became a bit hazy, which definitely helped, but the legs were gone and there was nothing I could do about that. As I reached the top of the "hill" for the last time I shouted out loud "Come on, is that all you've got!" at the top of my voice. Actually no, I didn't. The words had formed in my head but never made it out.

One last run on the endless stretch into Prosperous, get some encouragement from the marshalls, "only 3 miles and you're done!" One last run on the even more endless stretch out of Prosperous, for once made easier by the knowledge that I would never have to run it again. It dragged on but each step got me closer to the finish, and one step further was all I ever concentrated on.

Eventually I reached the last junction. The GAA ground seemed to have moved further and further away, but I caught up. Go round the last couple of bends, soak up the applause on the last meters before the finish, cross the line and revel in the fact that finally you can stop running!

I had managed to run every single step, never had to pause for even a second and kept on going until the end. It was hard work, harder than what I would have expected and probably harder than what I would have wanted, I guess. I finished in third place. Gerry had run into serious troubles and wanted to pull out but managed to get back on the course after a break. Ger, on the other hand, had finished in 6:11, an incredibly serious time, much respect and a very worthy winner. I finished just 2 minutes behind John, which is an achievement even on a day when John clearly had to deal with some issues himself.

And Kildare is still a flat county.

extra bit 9:27  7:50 pace
lap 1 46:24 7:36 pace
lap 2 46:44 7:39 pace
lap 3 47:08 7:43 pace
lap 4 47:40 7:49 pace
lap 5 48:35 7:59 pace
lap 6 51:37 8:30 pace
lap 7 54:08 8:53 pace
lap 8 53:21 8:47 pace

15 May
8 miles, 1:01:34, 7:41 pace, HR 134
16 May
5+ miles, 40:32, 8:01 pace, HR 130
17 May
50 miles, 6:45:08, 8:06 pace, HR 143
   Staplestown 50 mile race, 3rd place
18 May
5+ miles, 45:16, 8:58 pace, HR 126


  1. Another interesting & honest report, you looked reasonably fresh in all photos despite the legs failing. I feel pretty lazy Comared to your milage this weekafter only doing a 20 mile run this morning & a low milage week. Just 3 weeks of hard running a few days taper & as the old saying goes "I'll see ya in the next cartoon!" P.S. Well done again sir, inspirational after recently tough ultras too.

  2. Fair play Thomas and very well done on excellent race, its never easy to run a long race on your own, a great challenge on the day and more lessons learned. Best wishes.

  3. Congratulations, Thomas, that is a very inspiring performance!

  4. that heat/direct sunlight made it very tough. great that you ran through and got a podium finish. congratulations. see you in 2 weeks.

  5. Looks like all your hill training was put to good use :). Well done!

  6. Well done on the podium finish. 6:45 for 50 miles is very respectable.

    It rather sounds like you were ill prepared for the heat, and perhaps not quite recovered from racing/training to handle quite so many miles on road.

    Pacing sounded fine at the start so I don't think you went out too fast for what you are capable of in more benign conditions. In hindsight you could probably done a little better in the second half with am easier first half, but the main causes of slow down will have been the added heat stress that made it's presence felt in the second half.

    For fine tuning you training for the 24 hour, it might be worth considering the heat factor that may or may not be present on the day. Spending time in a sauna or steam room as part of a taper might be useful, as would finding opportunity to run mid-day when it's hot.

  7. Great job keeping your wits as things got tough. Any ultra finish is a great finish!

  8. Even if the time was slow, great to snag another podium finish. Your "agonisingly slow" 7th lap is my tempo run pace!