Thursday, July 24, 2014

The "A" Race

There is no satisfaction without a struggle first - Marty Liquori

At the beginning of the year, I had already decided that for 2014 there would only be one target in my running life: to achieve the IAAF B standard for 24 hours running of 220 km. It was a case of putting all your eggs into one basket. There would be only one single shot at the target. There would be no B race I might target instead, it was the standard or nothing.

Every step I have run in 2014 was done with this one target in mind. Even when I ran a race that meant something to me, like Connemara, it was primarily still only a training run for Belfast. As much as I loved Connemara and enjoyed running a PB there, nabbing the winning spot in my age group in the process, the year would have been a disappointment had I fallen short in Belfast.

Lack of confidence was definitely not a problem. I knew I was in very good shape, in better shape than two years ago when I had burst onto the scene. There was a nice surprise when I read the preview of the race on the NI_Atheltics website and found that I had gotten a name check as one of the elites, with my own short dedicated paragraph. On a different day I might have felt this was putting pressure on me, but not today. I was just itching to get started.

I met my crew, Siobhan and Billy, at the race track. Explaining the details of what I required did not take long, it was all very straightforward. I had brought about a dozen different nutritional options along, purely for the sake of having a range of options available at all times. I did not expect to consume even half of what I brought. I also brought about a dozen tops and loads of shorts, socks and extra shoes, even though I hoped not having to change my outfit at all. It is so much better to have something and not need it than to need something and not have it.

I said hello to well over a dozen competitors and crews; the ultra scene is small enough and you tend to recognise faces fairly quickly. Dave Mahoney told me he had brought potatoes as food choice, and so had about half the field, all because of my race report from two years ago, which seems to have been read rather often. In that light I suppose it's a good thing that I haven't changed my mind either, potatoes are still my favourite source of nutrition for that kind of event, and I had a ton full of them with me as well.

And off we go. This will take a while! Photography by NIRunning

6:45 pm came and the race got under way. Unlike most races, this one started at very sedate pace. Long ultras do not get decided early, not even in the first few hours. Of course some runners follow a different tactic, Billy Holden and Geoff Smith took off much faster than the rest of the 24 hours field. I have long given up trying to stop Billy from going out fast. He might not be able to hold his pace but his rate of recovery is amazing and he can keep going when most others would have dropped out. Even so, I was neither tempted to go with him nor worried about being lapped possibly 20 times in the first half of the race. Even 20 laps can be gained or lost quickly in that race.

My Garmin refused to boot up and after a couple of laps spent trying to sort it out by pressing a lot of buttons, I took the thing off in disgust and almost threw it at my crew. I had even bought a portable re-charger in an attempt to get the entire race recorded, and to be thwarted at the very first step was highly annoying. It also meant I did not have any feedback on my pace, which was not good. However, Billy came through in flying colours, somehow he managed to get the Garmin working. I was delighted and relieved.

For maybe half an hour I kept running right behind Jan Uzik, a Slovakian runner based in Cork. Jan had approached me last month in Cork and asked a few questions regarding the race, mostly about nutrition. He is a vegan, and I doubt I was being of much help (dates, smoothies, check out Scott Jurek and his book), but it was good to see him on the track and seemingly in good form. I did not mean to pace myself off him, but with 50 runners on the track there is always someone running at your pace. Eventually I went past him and started moving a little bit faster

The conditions were much better than two years ago, no doubt about it. The thundery rain that has woken me earlier that morning had only skirted Belfast, and while there might be some light rain later on, it would be nothing like that race in Bangor. A good thing, too. I reckoned they all would have blamed me for cursing yet another race with my presence, otherwise.

I slightly hesitated when I first passed Eoin Keith because that really felt like I was doing it wrong. After a couple seconds of hesitation I went ahead anyway. I decided I had to keep running my own race.

I was in fourth place after about 4 hours, behind the two flyers and John O'Regan, but unlike everyone else on the track I was blissfully unaware of all standings. They had brought in a great new innovation in shape of a fancy monitor that always displayed in real-time every runner's lap counter as soon as they crossed the mats. Unfortunately I was running without my glasses and could not read a single thing! It's not easy being half blind. Then again, this served me well. I had my gold target of 220k and nothing else mattered. I could not have cared less about what position I might have ended in and being unable to read the screen meant I was never going to get sucked into anyone else's race.

Mind, neither the flyers in the 24 hours race nor the top guys in the 12 hours race were going anywhere close to the pace of the fastest man on the track, Paul Martelletti, a 2:16 runner who ran a 100k with the aim of making the World championships, which would require him to run them in close to 7 hours. Even though Paul always looked very strong, I somehow doubted he would make it; this did not seem like the ideal race as he constantly had to weave around the 50 runners on the track, which must have added a fair amount of extra, uncredited distance.

Nighttime at the Mary Peters track. Photography by NIRunning

Night fell and I was feeling surprisingly comfortable. Siobhan was crewing for me all on her own now as Billy had gone off to bed to get some much needed rest for the coming day, and she stuck close to my instructions of handing me some food every 30 minutes. Apart from the potatoes, my main source of nutrition was a more conventional sports supplement called Perpetuem, which I had successfully tested 5 weeks ago in Portumna. In addition to that I had grapes, dates, nutribars, chocolate, sports drink, granola bars, chocolate wafers, chocolate bars, Jelly babies and possibly one or two more options. On a couple of occasions she asked me what I wanted, sometimes she just handed me what she thought was appropriate. It worked very well. I did not have to think and I did not have to remember eating and drinking either, a common cause for problems in ultra running. A good crew is worth their weight in gold.

In Bangor I had gotten incredibly tired and exhausted early in the night, but this time I felt okay for much longer. Running through the night is hard because your body clock tells you to go to sleep, adding extra exhaustion on top of the usual running fatigue. The much better conditions undoubtedly helped, in Bangor everyone was just miserable running through the relentless rain.

I caught a few glimpses of the 12 hours race. Grellan had chosen that race option after deciding he was not trained enough for the 24 hours, after being stuck on the waiting list for too long. We had spoken about this a few weeks ago and agreed that the course record for the 12 hours was fairly soft, certainly when compared to the 24 hours one, and I'm sure Grellan had come here with the intention of setting a new record. Unfortunately for him, this was the year Ger Copeland had the same idea and after witnessing Ger's incredible run in Staplestown 2 months ago I feared for Grellan. Grellan, to his credit, never seemed to take much notice what was going on around him and just kept running his own race, which all of a sudden put him into the lead when Ger had to pull out with injury. Fate had intervened.

Chased by Geoff Smith. Photography by NIRunning

With almost 7 hours done, Paul started his finishing spring for a few laps, which were definitely by far and away the fastest laps anyone would see today on this track. He finished in 6:57:22, well below the required standard, congratulations to him. The excitement subsided quickly and the slow drudgery of long ultra running returned.

A few hours into the race I put on my mp3 player and started drowning out the world in favour of Iron Maiden, AC/DC, GnR and the likes (yes, I'm showing my age here). I never listen to music outside of running in excess of 100 miles, but when running through the night, the usual rules do not apply. It had the drawback that I could no longer hear what was going around me, including anything Billy was trying to tell me, but he started to communicate with hand signals. He started getting excited, and I guessed two finger meant I was in second place, pinching the fingers together meant the gap to the leader (Billy Holden) was shrinking, and one finger and a big smile on his face meant I was now in front. This must have been around 11 hours into the race. Still too early to race, but it felt good (as well as slightly unexpected) nevertheless.

Billy had a very different approach to crewing than Siobhan, who had followed my instructions of feeding me every half hour very closely. Instead he kept offering me food seemingly almost every lap, and he tended not to take no for an answer. His Mrs Doyle approach to crewing wasn't what I asked for, but I very soon noticed that it seemed to work very well, I started feeling stronger and running better. That may well be a very important lesson for the future. At times I just could not take in any more for because my stomach felt completely full, but I was running very well.

The other reason why I was running so well around the 12 hours mark is due to some extra help. I had not drunk any coffee for a week to wean myself off caffeine (not an easy sacrifice, I assure you!), and when I took 2 caffeine tablets I got a massive hit that last for a couple of hours. Caffeine is perfectly legal to take in running events and if you lack the talent for running then maybe some legal chemicals can do the trick? Unfortunately this is a one-shot strategy, any further caffeine does not provide another boost (believe me, I tried), so maybe talent will have to play a role after all.
In the lead. Photography by NIRunning

I was now in the lead but apparently being chased by the finest ultra runners this country has to offer, but due to my inability to read the screen I was completely oblivious to any potential race day dramas. At one point I noticed that Eoin Keith, record holder as well as the defending champion, was no longer on the track. I eventually asked John O'Regan what had happened to him, but he just shrugged. As was revealed after the race,  Eoin had started with a torn cruciate ligament in the knee and could not finish - I am absolutely astonished that he even managed to start! Apart from that loss, and the absence of Ruthann Sheahan, the cream of Irish ultra running was now at my tail and I could not possibly have cared less.

Dawn broke, which came as a relief, though the night had not been anywhere near as bad as the one in Bangor two years ago had been. The forecast was for a warm day, but it was quite cloudy and I felt conditions were just perfect. I don't usually care too much about the weather as all the runners have to deal with the same, and I am usually fairly good in dealing with adverse circumstances, but my one big goal for today was distance based, and the better the conditions the better my chances of achieving it.

Siobhan returned rested (if you can call 2 or 3 hours of sleep that) and resumed crewing duties. I was still in the lead, which was exciting news to her, though personally I was hardly aware of it. I took off my headphones because I wanted to become more aware of my surroundings, but pretty much at the same time my pace lapsed, so maybe that wasn't such a great idea.

I had lapped John and Jan several times, and Eddie Gallen was in real trouble as I could see him bent over on several occasions, though I never doubted his ability to return to form. Sometime in the early morning John and Jan started passing me, though there were times when I would see neither of them for a long time and I never knew if they were running at the same pace as me on the other side of the track or if they had stepped off or gone to the toilet or the medical tent. A look at the screen might have given me some answers, but I just could not make out anything.

My stomach held up very well. If you have ever done a long ultra you know how crucial that is. Bringing so many food choices was definitely an inspired move. My strategy for feeding was always to eat and drink on the move. My pace might slow down a little bit while I take stuff aboard but it's a lot faster than standing still. I am surprised that elite runners like John or Eddie stop at their crew's table to eat, it seems like a waste of time/distance. John has told me that he does that deliberately and he obviously knows what he's doing, but my own preference is the complete opposite. I like to keep moving.
Chased by Irish international Eddie Gallen.
Photography by NIRunning

My strategy last time had been to run 25 minutes and walk 5 right from the start. It worked exceedingly well. Despite the success, I had eventually decided to change my approach and so I ran without break. It was a risky move but I felt my target required a new approach, even if it had the potential to backfire badly.

So far so good. I was very tired but my distance was better than expected. My Garmin had displayed 77 miles at the halfway stage but the official distance was probably around 75 (and no, I'm not for a second disputing that). Another 62 miles, or 100k, and I would have the 220k that I was craving so badly. It felt absolutely possible, though I tried to shoo away any thoughts of it being probable. It was too early for that. Too many things can and do go wrong in long ultras.

After running for 14 or 15 hours I was absolutely knackered and felt like I had used up all my energy. The miles on the Garmin increased far too slowly. My stomach didn't feel great either, though I still managed to take food, so that was actually working prey well. My legs, however, were in bits and had turned into concrete pillars that were increasingly difficult to lift. The 100 mile mark was getting closer and I started making a deal with myself, I would run non- stop to that mark and then maybe get some break.

I had watched Ruthann's video before the race, and the one thing that stuck in my mind was that she said you keep making deals with yourself but it's important not to compromise too much. I very much tried to follow that approach and heed the warning.

Jan was now clearly the fastest man on the track. This year he was the unknown runner who had come out of nowhere, just like I had predicted that there would be one. He kept going past me again and again and at some point he overtook me in the standings, taking the overall lead. It can be very hard in a track race like that to know who is ahead of you and who is behind because runners of somewhat similar pace will all go through good and bad spells at different times and keep passing each other. Without access to the information on the screen I was purely guessing, but Jan's exceptional performance was obvious enough.

I got ever closer to 100 miles, but twice I had to reset my expectations on when I would get there. First I had calculated my outstanding mileage by the Garmin, but that was still ahead. Then I realised that I had a couple of laps less on my tally than I had thought. Both times I wasn't too pleased, but I got there in the end. Unfortunately my Garmin died on the very last lap before crossing the line for 100 miles and I did not even have my time, so I'll never know for sure what my shiny new PB is, apart from "about 16:15". Mind that's a pretty good time, taking over 25 minutes off my previous best.

I had been the third runner to pass the 100 mile mark, or the finish line as the organisers kept calling it (you get a special jacket for doing 100 miles), and over the next few hours there would be 20 more to do so, almost half the field. The standard of the race is pretty damn good!

My deal with myself to keep running was now void, but it felt too early to start walking yet. I did not have any significant milestone approaching, so for the time being I just focused on running one more step, one more straight, one more lap. I was completely exhausted and in a fair amount of discomfort. The fun part of the race was clearly over and the hard work had begun.

I started moaning with each breath, something I do when the discomfort reaches a certain internal threshold. I think I had my crew worrying, but eventually they copped on that I was not about to collapse. The number of laps kept increasing, but at a maddeningly slow rate. I still needed almost 150 more laps after passing the 100 mile mark, a formidable and intimidating amount.

We had a couple of former champions at the track side giving encouragement, something that was highly appreciated. With each lap my energy reserves depleted even further, but as much as I thought I was already down to 0, I always found a tiny little bit extra to keep me going for another lap.

It's very important to keep your mind focused on the immediate task at hand. The race is far too long to focus on the finish. Even after crossing to 100 mile mark, there was still almost a third of the race left, and that was longer than almost any other race I have ever done.

"After covering 188km @tfbubendorfer is turning down donuts in favour of salt tablets thats as impressive as distance" - from the @energia24 twitter feed

I had a small chat with John, and he exactly mirrored my thoughts at the time. "How could I forget how much this hurts!" The obvious comparison with child birth was brought up, not for the only time today. Neither of us is claiming that the pain is the same, just the level of amnesia.

I managed to keep running non-stop until the 18 hours mark. Then I took one more step, and one more step, and one more step and then my energy level/willpower was drained. "I can't do this any more!" I whined, but at least I think it was the only time I started whining out loud that day. Walking used up less energy and hurt a lot less, but it was significantly slower. I had to come up with a strategy, and quickly.

I decided to try and walk half a lap and then run a full one. That would still see me run a lot more than walking and should yield a decent mileage, though I was not sure how long I could keep this going. It worked very well to start with but after a while I noticed something strange happening. Towards the end of each walk break I started getting dizzy. I had black spots appearing before my eyes and started to worry that I was going to faint.

My brain wasn't working very well anymore and it took me far too long to come up with a new strategy. Since I was only feeling dizzy towards the end of my walk break I eventually thought it might be a good idea to cut down the size of these breaks. My new strategy consisted of walking one straight (or bend) and then run half a lap. This was of course the same total amount of walking and running but with the shorter walk breaks I no longer felt like I was about to faint.

I had not expected that I would be able to keep this up for long but it worked much better than I could have hoped for. Time seemed to pass reasonably quickly again, which was of course a very good thing at this time in the race.

I kept calculating in my head the pace required to break 220k, but after 20 hours of running that didn't work all that well any more. At one point I thought I was in real danger of finishing just short. Can you imagine the agony if I ended up with 219k? But eventually, with the laps ticking by, it became clear that I was well on my way to achieve my target.

Gradually the track filled up with supporters again and we got plenty of help from the sidelines. Grellan and Ray Lanigan especially deserve special praise for turning into my personal cheerleader troupe. With about 520 laps completed (and a new 24 hours PB therefore already guaranteed), the 220k mark (550 laps) started to feel close. I told my crew to stop feeding me (my stomach felt full and so late on I no longer required extra energy) and instead tell me the number of completed laps every time I passed the line. This ensured I was being kept up to date and even seemed to make time pass quicker again.

Jan was now clearly in trouble, but he held such a substantial lead that it did not really matter. I overheard parts of a conversation between him and John where John urged him to keep going, otherwise he risked being caught by him. This tells you everything you need to know about John, he'd much rather see a man achieve his best than grab victory from someone else.

For a good while Jan kept following me. I did not mind. It can be so much easier at that point to let someone else set the pace and just follow, I have been there myself. At one point I did some calculations and even in my state I was able to figure out that Jan was now out of reach, even if he stopped, so I turned around and congratulated him, though he was so exhausted he hardly seemed to take it in.

It had started raining a bit, but I did not mind at all. During the day a couple of runners had complained that it was too hot, but I never felt like that. I once even rejected the offer from my crew to change my top into a singlet and instead kept wearing the same t-shirt I had been wearing from the start. Likewise, now the rain did not bother me either.

With just over an hour left I realised that 220k was virtually guaranteed. As soon as my conscious mind had come up with that fact, my subconscious mind switched off my ability to run completely. Nothing had changed physically, this was entirely in the head, and literally from one step to the next my ability to run had disappeared. I tried once or twice to force the issue, but just could not do it. For the rest of the race I would have to be content to walk. At least my walking pace was reasonably quick - it was faster that at least one other athlete's running pace!

The laps kept ticking by and eventually I reached the magic mark, the one I had hardly dared to dream about for the last 7 months. I found a tiny ounce of energy and managed to run for a few metres, just enough to ensure I would cross the line in half-decent style. Then it was time to raise the arms in triumph and give a fist-pump and celebrate the achievement. I finished the next lap and than gave my crew as well as Grellan and Ray a big, sweaty, smelly bear hug. Anyone else in the vicinity would have gotten one as well.

One of the drawbacks of timed races is that the finish is a very low-key affair, instead of the triumph of a conventional finish line. I had reached my target but there were still 40 minutes left. I know a lot of runners who leave the track at that point, no longer able to find the energy to keep going just for the sake of a few extra miles, and I don't blame them. But I had come so far (literally!) that it would have felt like a wasted opportunity to raise my PB as high as possible.

I might have been more tired than ever before but I kept on walking. Eddie Gallen was moving exceptionally well now and I had no doubt that he had passed me, and to be perfectly honest I could not have cared less. Once or twice my crew told me I had gained a lap on John, but the significance of that completely passed me by. I was far too tired to chase anyone left in the race or hold off a strong finisher. The fact that I was still moving was a bonus, anything else was beyond the realm of possibility.

Niamh and the kids turned up, were happy that I had achieved my target (and they had avoided having to deal with the brunt of a crushed runner for the next few months) and provided some company for the remaining time.

I kept walking until the end. I tried running one more time but was still unable to do so, even within sniffing distance from the end. And then it was finally all over, I could stop moving and try and relax.

Last time I had fainted about an hour after the race. This time I very nearly fainted within 10 second of stopping. My body seemed to go into some kind of shock as soon as I stopped moving (reasonably common in ultras actually, as the calf muscle help pump blood back up as long as they are being used), I pretty much was only held up by Niamh on my left and an ambulance lady on my right while Billy struggled to unfold a chair. He eventually succeeded, and with that I could sit down, relax, and finally start reflecting on the achievements of the last 24 hours.

Photo by Veronica O'Brien

I had covered 225.271 km, or 139.977 miles, and finished in forth place. Am I disappointed missing out on a podium place? No. Am I annoyed missing the 140 miles by such a ridiculously small amount? No. I got everything I had aimed for and more, and seven months of very, very hard work have yielded the result that I had hardly even dared to dream about.

What more can a man ask for!

Photo by Brenda O'Keeffe

18 and 19 Jul
Irish 24 hrs championships, Belfast
   139.977 miles, 10:17 pace, 4th place
   achieved IAAF B standard


  1. Savage stuff altogether man.(and that's just the race report) Really epic- unreal running stuff. To think when you started blogging and running all those years ago you would have the natural talent and ability and capacity to take you this far.The rest of us can only dream. Plenty of recovery now

  2. Very impressive. And another great read - congratulations!

  3. Good report Thomas. You could probably estimate your 100 mile time a bit closer than 16 hours 15 minutes going off the lap times and rough speed you were running at the time.

  4. Well done Thomas and enjoy your break now with the family. Your report does a good job of bringing out the mental aspect of these races - All in the head as Br. Colum (David Rudisha's coach) would say.

    I'd seen Jan Uzik in my neck of the woods over the past year and his economy of movement alays impressed me.

  5. Superb running accomplishment Thomas, excellent read as always. Best of luck with recovery and going forward with future running goals.

  6. (Hardly) never ever doubted you'd achieve your goal. Seriously well done after a long focused training programme... Just goes to prove that if the work is done the rewards will come. Brendan

  7. Amazing performance - you're a hero!

  8. Well done Thomas. Can't wait for the book!

  9. Unbelievable achievement, Thomas, congratulations!

  10. Great stuff Thomas, followed race progress via twitter feed and was very happy to see you achieve your goal.

    One of the twitter posts on the 4hr results was a bit of a concern though - doing 30+miles in 4 hours gave the illusion that several runners were pacing themselves for a 180+ mile 24hr race, and that included you!

    Perhaps the twitter snapshot was done a bit later than 4hrs but if not it does suggest many runners started out a bit too fast. One can't predict how much faster one might have gone with more even pacing but for sure that level of discomfort in the second half of the race will have been directly related to this relatively quick start.

    The good news it that pacing an area you can easily improve upon for your next 24 hr race, and it's now inevitable you'll have to do a few more as your country/countries need you!! :-)

    1. The time on the printout says 23:32, 4:47 into the race, so the start was not as fast as you might have thought (150 miles pace instead of 180).

      I did run a bit too hard around the halfway mark, after taking caffeine. I subsequently ran out of energy at the 23 hours mark. Slightly better pacing might have given me second place instead of fourth, but that's impossible to say for sure.

      Anyway, I had decided to go for it, and have no regrets. Sometimes you just need to take risks.

    2. That makes more sense w.r.t time of "4 hr" splits, I suspected it might be the case but didn't know the precise time of start.

      Interesting response to taking caffeine and ended up going too fast subsequently. I took caffeine during the West Highland Way Race but took it as part of an electrolyte drink, with just 60mg of Caffeine per 330ml drink. I think I drank around 5 or 6 of these through the day so will have a more subtle but even hit from Caffeine through the race.

      I suspect that going too hard for any section will lead to double hit of possible slow down later - when we run harder we burn through glycogen stores quicker and build up fatigue quicker, and we also slow down digestion which means less fluids and energy are digested and dispensed into the blood stream and liver. If you keep stuffing in fluids and solids food quicker than you are digesting it then gastric stress is just around the corner.

      For these long ultras where we are running relatively slowly the margin for digesting food whilst moving should be wider so in theory we should be able to eat and drink more without problems, but this is likely to be tempered by the increasing levels of cortisol and adrenaline through the race that will likely hamper digestion. This is just speculation though... I haven't ever seen an scientific study of ultras that covered these issues...

      As for 2nd place, you were so close to 2nd and 3rd that small tweaks in pacing/eating/drinking and mental state/focus would have put you in contention. It sure would have made for a even more exciting finish with 3 runners all racing right up to minute. In situations like these you'd hope to be able to put in a clear gap and maintain it as sprinting for the finish has to be painful even if it would be super exciting for the crowds.

  11. awesome, thomas. many congrats. marty