Sunday, September 28, 2014

Twisting By The Pool

The song has absolutely nothing to do with running, except that for some reason it went round and round in my head for the entire two hours of Sunday's long run.

I was glued to the computer for most of Saturday, watching updates from the Spartathlon. Well done to Irish champion Eddie Gallen who, as ever, finished very strongly moving up the field towards the end at an almost scary rate. Well done as well to Anto Lee, race director in Staplestown and Donadea, who finished with 12 minutes spare, cutting it fine here mate! And I could not help but notice that a married couple, Reinhold and Regina Straßer, had run the entire race together - how romantic! I just need to convince Niamh and we're all set. Failing that, which, let's face it, remains a realistic possibility, I'll just have to run it on my own, hopefully next year.

Back here at home it was mostly business as usual, though my paces have picked up remarkably recently. The last 2 years it took me about 3-4 months to recover from the really long ultra races and I expected this year to be the same, which would have meant feeling fully recovered by about November. That does not seem to be the case; despite running the Dingle Ultra only 3 weeks ago the legs are feeling really good right now and training feels like fun rather than training, to the point where I'm wondering if this even qualifies as training because generally it does not feel like hard work.

Thursday was a little bit slower following Wednesday's long mountain run, though considering it was strictly a recovery effort I was pleased to see the pace slip under 8-minute pace, even if only by a few seconds. I was back out early on Friday, feeling possibly a little bit too good as the pace and the effort was a little bit higher than it should have been - ok, I admit it, I was chasing a Strava KOM in the middle and was knackered subsequently, probably not the smartest course of action in base training but good fun all the same.

I could feel my legs for the rest of the day but was pleased to see everything back in working order on Saturday morning. I was planning another easy 10 mile run but somehow the pace was a smidgen faster than on Friday, even with a lower effort. The HR was significantly lower as well, just goes to show how much one big push up a hill for a few minutes had messed up my legs for a whole day on Friday.

Still, I had probably run a little bit too fast because I did pay the price on Sunday. I felt pretty good for the first 10 miles but the remaining ones, especially the last 3, had me dragging my sorry backside home in a less than triumphant manner. Even the Dire Straits had gotten old after 2 hours.

25 Sep
10 miles, 1:19:56, 7:59 pace, HR 137
26 Sep
14 miles, 1:46:36, 7:36 pace, HR 149
27 Sep
10 miles, 1:15:55, 7:35 pace, HR 144
28 Sep
15.15 miles, 2:00:21, 7:56 pace, HR 144
Weekly Mileage: just under 78

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Life, Real

By Monday I was very happy with my training and how my fitness was developing. The miles just flew by and felt rather effortlessly and the slightly faster pace over the weekend did not seem to have any lasting effects.

Real life has a habit of interfering with running life, which is just unavoidable for any amateur in sports, I suppose (actually, professionals aren’t immune either). For a change it wasn’t one or more of my 4 children that caused issues but my work life. A very long daytrip required a very early start, and even though I cut the run to a mere 5 miles, pretty much the minimum for me, I still had to get up at 5 am. A rather long day later I arrived home late and as tired as can be expected.

The legs felt rather sluggish on Wednesday morning, but they often do that at the start of any run. With the way my schedule has evolved I tend to do head up into the mountains on Wednesday and I did not think a few sluggish legs would cause any more trouble than usual. Trying to learn from my mistake last week, this time I brought a headlamp, but it turned out to be surprisingly useless. It was perfectly adequate on the road but as soon as I hit the trail I experienced for the first time myself what I had read about plenty of times from other nightly trail runners, namely that a headlamp does not provide any depth perception and therefore I was still unable to properly make out the uneven surface. Cue plenty of stumbles and slow pace and one painful twist of the ankle, basically a repeat of last week. The situation actually improved significantly when I finally turned off the lamp because then I got a better feel for the surroundings than when I had focused on that tiny speck of light bobbing in front of me. I guess I need to move the trail run to the weekend, when I tend to run later during the day in much better conditions.

The steep climb up to Windy Gap seemed to feel worse than usual, though I keep thinking that every single time. However, this time I really started to struggle early; by the time I reached the top I was not just exhausted but lightheaded as well. I think a lack of fueling from the day before had come back to bite me. I did consider turning around but I tend to be stubborn and thick headed so I proceeded with the original plan and headed down towards Glenbeigh before turning around at the gate to climb back up. Someone pointed out that “you can literally see the horned evil of the hill” in the elevation profile, which had me giggle. The way I see it, every climb up that hill will get me another place in the championships next year -  at least that’s what I keep telling myself to keep me going when the legs turn to lead and the lungs are filled with acid and I’m still only halfway up the hill. Surprisingly, the second climb felt better than the first one despite being longer and on even more tired legs, and I seemed to improve as the miles ticked by. Funny how that works, sometimes.


I filled in a race registration form for next February, and for the first time had to put “45” into the “age at race day” field. That’s right, I’ll be in a new age group category soon. It might make it easier to pick up some geezer prizes, or it may not. However, a few years ago I sure expected to be very much on the way downhill at such an advanced age, with maybe just an eye on some age-group PBs because my “young” ones were out of reach by now. I’m very happy to say that day has not arrived yet, all my PBs are fairly recent (at least for distances I have raced recently) and I sure haven’t given up on improving any of them just yet.

22 Sep
11.3 miles, 1:27:08, 7:43 pace, HR 140
23 Sep
5 miles, 38:35, 7:34 pace, HR 139
24 Sep
12.3 miles, 1:54:58, 9:21 pace, HR 148
Windy Gap x 2

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Evaluating Patience

I got a reminder a few days ago to keep doing the evaluation workouts and gather feedback from them. I was planning on doing them anyway, but a few jolts to the old, failing memory never do any harm. The general plan is to evaluate once every fortnight or so; the last one was three weeks ago, but with the Dingle Ultra in-between, that's ok.

The main idea of the base phase is to recover from the previous peak and the physical stress that accompanied that. If you're doing that right, the body will bounce back in a stronger fashion than before and you will be able to improve year on year on year. Obviously, there will eventually be ceiling as you get older, but one of the lessons I have learned over the last few years is that you should never put any limitations on yourself - your true capabilities are way beyond what you imagine, the big thing is to realise that.

Anyway, after two very easy days on Thursday and Friday, during which I felt really good, I did another evaluation on Saturday.
        Mile 1    6:45   HR 161
        Mile 2    6:45   HR 162 (6:48 adjusted to HR)
        Mile 3    6:52   HR 161
        Mile 4    6:53   HR 161
        Recovery to HR 130: 30 seconds

Evaluation is a rather mellow workout and actually quite fun. I get to run faster than on any other day of the week but still slow enough not to get into pain territory. Having said that, towards the end of the third mile I started getting tired and got a bit worried what that would do to my pace, but in the end it remained remarkably stable - but of course there is still room for improvement. Overall it was a smidgen slower than last time but the pace was a bit more stable and the recovery time was excellent, one of my lowest values ever. It confirmed what I had felt already, namely that I have recovered astoundingly well from Dingle, which really did not seem to take much out of me. With a bit of a break before my next event there is now plenty of time to just keep ticking off the miles and enjoy the fact that I keep getting faster week by week without ever feeling like I'm working hard.

Training at this point doesn't feel like "proper" training because you never work particularly hard, which in years past had me wondering if I should be doing more. It's a case of trusting the (former) coach and his system. These days, old wise and grey I can look back and see the results that it has given me so far and yes, this is clearly working remarkably well. Keep in mind that right now you're not just training for you next race, you are putting layer after layer of training to build on year by year. It's a game that requires a lot of patience and will take years to come to full fruition, but it's definitely worth it.
18 Sep
10 miles, 1:19:43, 7:58 pace, HR 137
19 Sep
10 miles, 1:18:45, 7:52 pace, HR 137
20 Sep
11.8 miles, 1:27:03, 7:22 pace, HR 149
   incl. 4 mile eval: 6:45, 6:45, 6:52, 6:53, 30 sec recovery
21 Sep
10+ miles, 1:17:47, 7:28 pace, HR 142
Weekly Mileage: 73

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What A Thing To Train For

Well, plenty of comments on my last post and not one of them contained Rory McIlroy kind of abuse, great :). What struck a chord was "what a thing to train for" as well as "Unreal that you have the chance to run for any country", which is absolutely true.

I very vividly remember my 4:36 marathon in Belfast in 2005 (though there were some minor mitigating circumstances) when the thought of ever running a sub-3 marathon seemed less likely than reaching the Moon one day, and a 3 hour marathon still only leaves you in the "club runner" category. To actually have a realistic chance of being selected to represent your country is just ... wow!

I actually try not to think too hard about it. I am actually fairly confident that I will indeed get selected (I think only 3 Austrian men have the national A-limit this year and I'm one of them), but what if I get injured or sick? Better not to dwell on it. My injury history is pretty damn good, in fact I don't know any other runner who gets injured less (and no, I didn't just curse myself, I've been saying that for years already) and I very rarely seem to get sick either, so I guess my chances of indeed standing on the start line for the Big Boys' dance are looking good.

I hope I won't wake up any time now and it was all just one rather elaborate dream. Mind, if it is then it's been going on for quite some time now.

Anyway, recovery from Dingle has been going rather well. Running 50 miles over a very hilly course is a serious enough undertaking but I seemed to have taken it in my stride. The pace over the weekend has already gone sub-8 for an easy run, though I made very sure to run very easily on Monday, just in case. I certainly could not feel any ill-effects on Tuesday, but the mountain run on Wednesday did not go entirely without a hitch. Despite the forecast of a beautiful warm sunny day it was very overcast and as a result much darker than expected. It wasn't a problem on the approach roads, but as soon as I hit the trail it became an issue. Visibility was poor enough for me not to spot a few holes and I got a fair amount of rather unexpected bumps. The steep climb up to Windy Gap itself felt as hard as ever, but with the footing being so unsure it is hard say how much of the fairly slow pace was down to heavy legs and how much just to visibility. Anyway, I got up and down without any falls, which is probably as good as it gets on a day like this. I had been intending on doing these mountain runs all through winter, weather allowing, but for future runs I will either have to bring a headlamp or I'll have to move them to the weekend when I tend to run a couple of hours later and light conditions are bound to be much better.
15 Sep
10 miles, 1:20:34, 8:03 pace, HR 136
16 Sep
10 miles, 1:18:49, 7:52 pace, HR 142
17 Sep
10.8 miles, 1:33:01, 8:36 pace, HR 145
   Windy Gap

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Decision Time

It was a hard decision.

I spent a lot of time mulling things over and certainly took my time. After achieving the IAAF standard in July, I was contacted by both the Irish and the Austrian ultrarunning authorities and both of them let me know that I had a good chance of being selected for the team to represent them in the next World Championships, in April 2015 in Turin.

My passport is Austrian. My home is Ireland. My parents and siblings are Austrian. My wife and children are Irish. But even though I had kept my options open until now, I was always leaning towards my native country and I finally contacted John O'Regan last week and told him of my decision to run for Austria. Luckily, John is the perfect gentleman and was very understanding. In many ways I am in the same position as Irish national runner Eddie Gallen, who has been representing his native country numerous times even though he has been living in Spain for at least 20 years. Still, while I definitely feel I have made the right decision (I'm sure my parents will be proud of their son), it was not an easy one.

Since my training for Belfast has delivered the goods, this one will take similar shape. There are three major phases. First I'll build up my base, doing plenty of miles at easy pace, very much influenced by Maffetone training, though I don't strictly keep to the HR limits and I'll do one mountain run per week. Then I'll add some speed training, not much and mostly in the form of fartleks or the odd 5k race, and the third phase builds race specific endurance by doing a lot of long runs with plenty of recovery in-between. I very much favour marathon and ultra races over long lonely training runs and got really lucky this year as there was always a suitable race every 2 weeks over the summer. Things don't look anywhere near as good for the winter/early spring. The only races so far are Donadea, which happens to fall on Valentine's Day next year, and Tralee, which will coincide with Mother's Day, and Niamh has already voiced her objections. Getting to the startline in Turin both fit and still married might be a tricky task! That's assuming I will indeed get selected, of course. Things used to be much easier.

My legs aren't too worried about all those capers and continue to recover amazingly quickly from the Dingle ultra. I have kept the effort very easy every day, doing 5 miles early in the week and 8 miles later on. I thought about doing 10 miles on Saturday but decided to err on the side of caution. The pace had improved every day and by Saturday I actually had to put on the brakes a couple of times as I started to get carried away a bit, but I felt so good that I guessed it was safe to do 10 miles on Sunday. The HR on Sunday was a bit high, higher than it had been on Saturday for a faster run. That's not a problem as long as it remains an isolated case, but it shows that I am still very much in recovery and need to be careful.

Now I'll build up my mileage again, which won't take too long, and then I'll see how high I can safely push it while still being able to recover day by day. I also need to make sure that I can comfortably run a 3:10 marathon (7:14 pace, 7:10-ish on the Garmin) at the end of October as I'm pacing Dublin once more, but that should not cause any problems.
11 Sep
8 miles, 1:04:42, 8:05 pace, HR 135
12 Sep
8 miles, 1:04:37, 8:04 pace, HR 135
13 Sep
8 miles, 1:02:16, 7:46 pace, HR 142
14 Sep
10 miles, 1:18:22, 7:50 pace, HR 145
Weekly Mileage: 49

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Dingle Dangle

I can't run 50 miles and then not spend a couple of posts rambling on about it.

I was wondering how my 6:54 from Dingle compared to my 6:45 in Staplestown. It's really hard to say which one was the better race, I think I did fairly similar in each - and of course, I came third in both races.

Dingle has by far the tougher course; Staplestown was almost as flat as a pancake, Dingle had one of the toughest road climbs of the entire country in there, we are talking complete opposite ends of the spectrum here (at least as far as road races are concerned). On the other hand the weather in Dingle was pretty much ideal and even the wind was blowing in the most beneficial direction while in Staplestown we were melting under a relentless sun on a course that provided virtually no shade on one of the hottest days of the year. There are too many variables in there to make a valid comparison.

It doesn't matter. I honestly think I ran as well as I could have in Dingle. I wasn't in best shape, only 7 weeks after Belfast, but I made the most of what I had on the day; even tactically I ran well, being patient at the beginning and having something extra in the tank when it counted late on. When I ran 7:01 in 2012 I figured I should be able to take 20 minutes off that time, though that would require coming into the race in great shape and having a good day. I guess I'll never get the chance to prove that theory but what can you do.

Recovery from the race has gone spectacularly well. My usual and very much tried-and-tested recovery plan calls for running 5 very easy miles every day until the legs feel good, then do 8 for a few more day, all at a very easy effort. I rather reluctantly went out on Sunday morning, hobbling along awkwardly and painfully down our driveway at 11-minute pace, hoping for the best. I didn't make it 5 miles but I did 3, which was more than enough that day, believe me. However, I spent the next couple of hours mowing the grass in the garden, which seems to have been an absolutely inspired move because by Monday my legs had come round in an absolutely amazing fashion. The stiffness was more or less gone and while I was still slow at 9-minute pace, the legs felt just amazingly good so soon after a 50 miler. I didn't even have to take care on the staircase in the office, I was able to walk down normally and without any discomfort.

Three days after the ultra my HR/pace ratio has shot back to almost pre-race levels, which is just mind-blowing and almost scary. Either something is very wrong or something is very right.

A slight worry remains in shape of my left hamstring, which I had mentioned in my race report. It did hurt on Sunday and was still noticeable on Monday. I don't have the medical understanding to know what exactly is going on here but I think I came rather close to an injury. By the looks of it I got away with it because any discomfort was more or less gone by Tuesday but it was probably a close call. Why my hamstring would all of a sudden act up while running not particularly fast for 10 miles I don't know. It's a bit scary to think about, what if it happens again, and in my next goal race, so I'll probably try not think about it at all.

8 Sep
5 miles, 44:35, 8:55 pace, HR 126
9 Sep
5+ miles, 42:02, 8:15 pace, HR 130
10 Sep
5 miles, 40:45, 8:09 pace, HR 132

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Long Goodbye

Does anyone ever sleep properly the night before an important race? If you do then count yourself lucky because I sure don't. This wasn't even a goal race, just a fun run, to celebrate the last ever running of the Dingle 50 mile race. I wasn't going to miss that one, even if my legs had not recovered from Belfast yet, though they had been improving rapidly the last 2 weeks before the race.

After three short hours of sleep on Saturday I got up and half an hour later was on my way to Dingle. It felt a bit unreal, the last few days had passed so quickly, somehow I wasn't even convinced if this all was real. It got real soon enough when I got to Dingle, saying hello to RD Ken Dunne and the fellow ultra runners, then getting on the bus to the start line. Two years ago I immediately knew who the eventual race winner would be when I saw Keith Whyte sitting there; it felt like a replay this year when I spotted Jan Uzik. He may well be the most talented ultra runner in Ireland right now, not that he would ever claim so himself. Anyway, off to the start line we went and before we knew it we were on our way.

My expectations were moderate, most of all I wanted to enjoy the race. I knew I would not win but I also figured I had an outside chance of a podium finish, though that would require a good run; I would have to beat some runners that were very much capable of finishing ahead of me on their day.

As expected Billy took off like a scalded cat, a runner in black at his side, Shane James Whitty in hot pursuit. I ran for most of the first mile with Jan but when he realised that I had no intentions of chasing the lead pack down he took off on his own and then I ran for a little while with Jacek Laiaka, the winner of the recent Tralee 100k (just what I needed, yet another strong runner!). The first mile was very slow at 9 minutes, though it was uphill and against a fairly strong headwind, and I was determined to take it easy and conserve my energy at the start.

As soon as we crested the first hill I accelerated away from Jacek and was soon in no-man's land in fifth position, with a big gap before and behind me. I was clear that this would be a long, lonely day.

After 5 miles we reached Camp and sharply turn left. Two years ago it was at this point that I realised that we would be heading straight into a fierce headwind for no less than 50k, this year the wind came from the opposite direction and would help us for most of the race, though it also meant a tough finish with the last 10 miles into the wind. The miles ticked by rapidly, even running in my own little solitary world. At one point we ran on a very long straight piece of road and I could see all 4 of the leaders ahead, running fairly close together. I figured I was about 5 minutes behind and wondered how many of them were able to sustain that pace, and if that would give me a chance to sneak into the top 3 - though that would almost certainly require that nobody would catch me from behind either.

It started raining, which came as an unpleasant surprise. The weather forecast had been good, not too hot with maybe a little, passing rain shower, but this was more of a relentless drizzle, never strong but seemingly never-ending; I could have done without. Shortly before the 10 mile mark my left Achilles started hurting a tiny little bit; it had been bothering me for most of 2012 without ever becoming serious but eventually receded, though I can still feel the odd twinge every now and then, and this was one of those occasions. I wasn't worried. What worried me a little bit more was my pace. It now read as 7:37 on my Garmin, a bit faster than planned and I worried about burning myself out. When I had seen the leaders I must have gotten a little bit excited and accelerated without realising. I tried to relax and slow down when I noticed what was happening, but every time I checked the Garmin I seemed to be running close to 7-minute pace again - too fast for a 50 miler.

Then, seemingly, disaster struck, just at the 10 mile mark. Entirely out of the blue my left hamstring started to hurt like hell. I wondered if I had pulled a muscle, it was such a sharp pain, and the chance that I might be staring at my first ever DNF was very real at the time.

I wondered what to do. Running 40 miles on a pulled muscle did not seem possible, and even if it were somewhat possible then it still did not sound like a good idea. The last thing I wanted to take out of this was lasting damage. Then I figured that I was still able to run, so it probably wasn't too bad. The first thing I did was to slow down a bit, to about 8-minute miles, which felt better already. The thought crossed my mind that this might even help my race by ensuring that I would not burn myself out, though given the choice I'd prefer two healthy legs, thank you very much. I kept going and after about two miles the sharp pain had dulled considerably, even if it was still clearly noticeable. I figured that it therefore wasn't too bad - maybe I'm an idiot for trying to run 40 miles and climbing Conor Pass on a dodgy hamstring, but if I had any brains I wouldn't be running 50 miles for fun anyway.

Photo by Lillian Deegan
At that point I hit the climb to Conor pass. Since this was my third time doing that race I knew perfectly well what was coming and that the last 4 miles of climbing would be rather severe, with the last half mile averaging 17% gradient. Last year I had walked the steepest bits when I figured that running wasn't really any faster but took much more energy, and I was planning on doing the same thing again. So far the climbs never felt too severe and I just kept going at an effort level that felt entirely sustainable, and eventually I realised that I was already doing the steepest climbs and felt surprisingly good. All those training runs up to Windy Gap were obviously paying dividends, my climbing abilities have improved immeasurably. On a good day the views from Conor pass are to die for but the last 2 miles to the top were engulfed in incredibly thick fog/clouds with the visibility down to 10 meters. It actually made it safer than usual because all the cars were driving very slowly on the steep, narrow, winding road.

As soon as I reached the top the icy wind struck me and I was freezing cold. I figured hanging around here would get me hypothermia, though I hadn't been planning on a picnic break anyway. On the way down I started fussing around with my drinks bottle and an s-cap, all of which took much longer than it should have, and when I looked at my Garmin I realised that I was descending that mountain at a slower pace than I had been climbing it! I sorted myself out and tried to get back into a proper running rhythm, but found it hard to get the pace under 8-minute miles initially; the steep downhill gradient wasn't helping! Eventually I got back into it and clicked off a few miles at about 7:30 pace until we dropped back down into Dingle. A few cyclists whizzed by me, one of them far too close for comfort, but nobody got hurt. Just as I reached Dingle I saw Billy ahead of me and the distance between us shrunk rather rapidly.

Maybe it was just my own impression but the town seemed very quiet. A couple of people were there clapping and giving encouragement but on the whole there was not a lot going on. Dingle Main Street is rather steep and after the long descent off Conor Pass I have made the mistake in the past of climbing that stretch too hard and subsequently paying the price, so I made sure to take it reasonably easy this time. The distance to Billy still shrunk rather quickly. I reached him a mile later close to the 1-mile marker of the marathon that had started about 80 minutes before we had gone through town. We had a good chat and ran together for about a mile, but then I saw 8:45 pace on the watch I took off again, wishing him good luck.

It was very lonely again, but the main thing was that I felt really good, very much in contrast to the previous two occasions I had done that race. I thought that this had been one of my easiest marathons ever, and then I remembered that I had just crossed Conor Pass, pretty much the toughest road climb in Ireland, so I figured I must be doing really well. The hamstring was still noticeable but only just, and by now I was confident that it would not trouble me unduly.

It usually takes me about 8 miles to catch up with the tail end of the half and full marathon field, until then I would be running on my own again. I guess I am used to that. I passed the time by looking at the scenery. By now the weather had improved and the sun was coming out and the views here are just incredible, Ventry Bay, the Iveragh Peninsula across the water (home!), and the tourist sites I kept passing at rather quick intervals. I sure was not bored.

As predicted I caught up with the first walkers around the 8-mile mark of the marathon, about 33 miles for the ultra. It was maybe a little bit later than expected, but not by much. Gradually the trickle of walkers turned into a more steady stream over the next 5 miles. Most of them were lost into their own little world, probably listening to music, others talking to each other, but a few gave me encouragement and praise, which is always nice to hear, and always a little boost. Slea Head was as spectacular as ever, the Blaskets in full view. Wow, what a beautiful part of the world, I felt privileged to be running here.

Dunquin was buzzing, by far the noisiest place I had been visiting today. The half marathon runners were celebrating their successes and the party was in full swing. Alas, I still had work to do, and as soon as the climb out of the village started the road immediately became much more quiet again. It wasn't as lonely as the previous stretches as I could always see 2 or 3 marathon runners ahead and they always gave me a target to chase, and I always caught them rather quickly. Considering how far I had run already, the legs felt surprisingly good. As expected I was now running into the wind, but it felt perfectly manageable. The miles ticked by reasonably quickly, even if the fatigue was undeniably building up. The average pace had gradually been deteriorating ever since mile 10. By the time I hit the climb to Conor Pass it was 7:45, on top of the pass it was 8:10, it improved slightly on the way down to Dingle to 8:05 and then drifted steadily backwards as I made my way around the second half of the course, to about 8:15 by mile 40.

At that point it was all finally catching up with me and I was really starting to feel the effort and not particularly looking forward to the final few miles, which would invariably be painful. Just as I was about to drift off into despondency, I saw the totally unexpected sight of Shane Whitty not far ahead of me.

This came as a total surprise and I was immediately invigorated and got excited. After running the last few hours in fourth place, maybe I could get onto the podium after all? I started timing the gap between us. This does not require a watch; I looked ahead, remembered when he passed a certain point and then counted my steps up to the same point. At first I got to 130 steps, so he was about 40-45 seconds ahead. More important than the gap itself is the fact if it is shrinking or expanding, and when I repeated the same a few minutes later it was well down, so I was definitely getting closer.

It was no easy task, Shane was still moving well and I had to run 8-minute miles just to inch closer, almost unperceivably shrinking the distance between us. By the time we reached Ballyferriter, about 42 miles in, I was maybe 10 meters behind him. I could hear his footsteps, but it probably meant that he could hear mine as well and knew someone was closing in, even though he never made the mistake of looking behind. Instead he must have accelerated, because all of a sudden the gap was no longer shrinking but clearly expanding. I tried to respond but was found lacking; I had expended too much energy over the last 2 miles trying to close the gap and now the legs had nothing left and I could not prevent him pulling away again. I cursed myself and wondered if I lacked the required will to win. I also started writing the race report in my head, and it didn't make good reading at the time.

I didn't give up entirely, keeping the pace up best as I could, even if it wasn't quite enough. At the very least I hoped it would prevent anyone from catching me from behind. With about 6 miles to go I realised that there was less than an hour remaining, and while the rest of the race would not exactly be a cakewalk, especially with another tough climb yet to come, I could feel this coming to a close. Around the same time I must have noticed that Shane was no longer pulling ahead, instead, incredibly, he seemed to be getting closer again, though for some reason I never tried counting steps again, maybe I was just too exhausted. Close to the 45 mile mark we came to the junction where the marathon runners have to turn left for an out-and-back section that the ultra runners do not have to do and I could see the marshal trying to send Shane the wrong way, but thankfully he knew the course and must have told him that he was an ultra runner. I passed the same marshal a few seconds later, and when I confirmed that I was an ultra runners as well he sent me straight ahead as well (not that I would have let him send me the wrong way).

Very shortly afterwards the last severe climb of the day started, and all of a sudden the distance between us shrunk like an ice cube in the sun. My climbing legs were still there, Windy Gap be thanked. Just as I was about to draw level, Shane turned around to say hello, we exchanged a few friendly words, and then I was off, all of a sudden and rather unexpectedly in third place.

With that my perception changed. Being the hunter is exciting, but as soon as you catch your target you become the hunted, at least I did in my mind, and the thought of getting passed back was not appealing. I ran up the steep slope as fast as I could. As soon as you reach the left hand turn, more or less right at the 22 mile marathon point, it becomes a lot less severe, though there is still a mile of climbing left, and I whizzed past a lot of marathon runners. I was running as fast as I could, moaning with each breath as I tend to do when I go over a certain threshold. I knew I had the better climbing legs and wanted to build as much of a cushion as possible before cresting the last hill because I did not know who would have the better descending legs and any additional second would give me a better chance.

I crested the hill and caught my first glance of Dingle for a long time, seeming so close but still three miles ahead, even if a lot of that would be downhill. Much of that road can be rather soul destroying on tired legs; there is a perfectly straight stretch of almost two miles and at the end of a long race it certainly can feel like you're going nowhere. I did not have that problem today, there were plenty of marathon runners and I always had the next target to chase as soon as I caught another one. Of course overtaking marathon runners wasn't the point, staying ahead of Shane was all that counted, but by catching as many marathoners as possible I also increased my chances of holding on to my place.

I passed my friend Paulo from the marathon club shortly before the end, saying a quick hello to each other. It was not until I reached the roundabout in Dingle with less than half a mile to go that I managed to sneak a quick glance behind and realised that there was nobody there and I was indeed going to finish third. Instead of letting up, it gave me an extra kick and I must have been on an overdose of adrenaline as I ran down towards the Marina as happy as I had ever been, celebrating my finish at the end and being on a total high. It was the perfect way to celebrate my final run of the Dingle 50 miler!

My time was 6:54 exactly on my watch and they gave me an official time of 6:54:01, though I think the snuck in a few extra seconds because I only stopped my watch a few seconds after finishing (I had been far too busy celebrating) and sure thought I had run 6:53:xx, but that does not matter. Shane took another 3 minutes to finish, so I never needed have worried. I apologised for catching him so late in the race, but of course he was the perfect gentleman about it ("it averages out"). Jan had indeed won the race, and in a rather impressive time of 6:07, not too far from Keith Whyte's course record. Second place went to James Slowey who I did not recognise but should have because we had run together up to Conor Pass in 2012. Billy took almost another hour to finish (ouch - get some rest, mate!). My third place finish got me a very nice glass trophy that has immediately taken pride of place and if that sounds like I'm rather pleased with the result, then that would be absolutely correct.

I'm really sorry to see the end of the 50 mile race in Dingle, it is a fantastic course, very tough but incredibly scenic. I know the 39-mile course planned for next year will still have all the best bits in it, but it just is not the same. I perfectly understand the reasons for the change, we only had 45 starters this year and the numbers are actually shrinking rather than growing, and a switch to a shorter distance might change that but it is still a shame to lose a race course that I regard as iconic.

But hey, I sure gave it a memorable send off!

6 Sep
Dingle 50 mile ultra race
6:54:01, 8:16 pace, HR 147, 3rd place
7 Sep
3 miles, 28:42, 9:33 pace, HR 124

Friday, September 05, 2014

Training And Recovery

It is just past 6 am on Friday morning and the Dingle pre-race nerves have truly taken over. I've been awake since 5 am, totally unable to sleep, thoughts of the race coursing through my mind. I very much doubt I will be able to sleep much tomorrow, so that's basically it.

Somehow, on an emotional level, I don't feel prepared because I haven't done much training over the last 7 weeks, even though rationally I know perfectly well that it's what I've done over the last 7 years that is much more important and will get me through the race. Anyway, I'm not even planning on racing this, this is a fun run and I am out to enjoy the 50 miler for the last time.

To alleviate my fears, I can look at my this:

This is a very simple graph where I plot the ratio of pace and HR. It ignores any other variables, including distance or temperature, which explains a few of the dips (usually long runs, where the HR tends to go up for the same pace as the miles are building up), but the general trend is obvious.  I wish I had such a nice upwards gradient every month! It clearly shows how recovery is progressing after I returned to running after Belfast. This graph is for the month of August and the early September figures are showing further progress.

My legs are fine.

The Dingle Ultra this Saturday will obviously have an impact on recovery. After that I have almost two months before the Dublin marathon, but since I am running that one as a pacer and not all-out, recovery will be significantly quicker.

Training this week has been fairly low-key, I ran up Windy Gap on Tuesday, a day earlier than usual to give me 3 easy days before Dingle. The rest was easy running and with a reduction in mileage since Wednesday. I've done this before and I'll be just fine - so why can't I sleep!

1 Sep
10 miles, 1:19:16, 7:55 pace, HR 135
2 Sep
10.8 miles, 1:33:20, 8:38 pace, HR 139, Windy Gap
3 Sep
7.5 miles, 58:35, 7:48 pace, HR 139
4 Sep
8 miles, 1:03:19, 7:54 pace, HR 137

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Product Review: Airia Running Shoes

A couple of months I was contacted by a representative from a company called Airia, which I had not heard of before. They had been developing a new kind of running shoe, which they hope will be revolutionary. At first they asked if they could put an article on my blog, which I rejected out of hand, but the alternative offer was to send me a pair of shoes and I would use them and give a review. They agreed that I could write whatever I want, even if my review was negative.

Their claims sure are ambitious. The shoes are supposed to make 8 out of 10 runners run faster, and potentially by quite some amount as well. The price of the shoes is rather ambitious as well, for $190 you can call a pair your own. By contrast, I tend to buy all my shoes in a sale and generally spend no more than €60 per pair. I'd need some serious persuasion to spend so much on a shoe; I admit I was a bit sceptical from the outset (my parents didn't call me Doubting Thomas for nothing) but at the same I was also intrigued. I'd love to get a pair of shoes that automatically make me run faster - who wouldn't!

Anyway, when one pair was delivered to my house, I had two initial impressions: 1) they look very nice. 2) They sent me the wrong size, the shoes looked much to small.

The first impression still stands, though to be honest the looks are my least important consideration. The size turned out to be correct after all. The shape of the shoes means that the sole at the toes curls upwards, giving the impression that the shoe itself is shorter than it actually is. I had gotten a pair of the same size I always get and the fit was perfectly fine.

The telling feature about these shoes is the curved sole with a few bumps, the most noticeable one at the outside, beside balls of the foot. They do warn you that the shoes are strictly for running only, and you immediately know they mean that, standing around and walking in them feels really strange as the shaped sole pushes your feet into a sloped position and subsequently your legs are kind of x-shaped.

You can watch the video and have a look yourself. The unusual shape of the sole immediately becomes obvious.

Luckily, as soon as you start running it feels a lot better. Again, they do warn you that it might take a while to get used to those shoes as they are so different to other pairs. They advise to start with a short run, but I'm an ultra runner and a short run for me is 8 miles, so that's what I did, in the full knowledge that they most likely had a different distance in mind.

The first run didn't go all that well; while I had no real problems with the pronation the shoe's shape forces you into, my right foot kept brushing against my left calf, feeling rather uncomfortable. I sometimes do that with "normal" shoes when I'm very, very tired and my form gets sloppy, but here it happened right from the outset. Interestingly, this did not repeat itself on any other runs, so either I was tired on that run or I somehow adapted subsequently.

While much of the shoe, especially the sole, is heavily engineered, other parts are surprisingly close to a minimal shoe. The shoe features a zero drop (meaning there is no height difference between heel and toes), which could cause problems for runners used to a 12-mm drop, which used to be de-facto standard a few years ago until the minimal shoes came along, but is something I already have experience with. There is also next-to-no cushioning, again something that could cause issues for some runners but again something I am fine with (in fact, I prefer my shoes that way).

The upper feels nice and airy (and good quality), but the shoes are heavier than my usual Brooks and Saucony trainers (about 250g per shoe against 190g, as Niamh's kitchen scales just told me [don't tell her I used her kitchen scales for running shoes!]). Mind, I barely noticed the extra weight.

In short, the shoes have plenty of things I like in a shoe, so I should have felt perfectly comfortable with them. But unfortunately, it did not turn out that way.

I am an ultra runner with (I think) excellent biomechanics and I am used to having very light shoes under my feet that don't interfere with my running pattern. These shoes, however, do not fit the bill. They try to force you into a certain pronation pattern and nothing else will do. That may work for others. If a runner has bad running form, maybe these shoes will indeed improve it and enable the same runner to run faster as if by magic. However, it does not work with me. I tried to run as relaxed as possible and just let the feet follow the pattern that the shoes dictate but I never felt comfortable.

When I initially got the shoes I had the mad plan of maybe wearing them for the Dingle Ultra. That would be a real acid test. However, after realising that I did not feel comfortable in them, I had to abandon that idea. The clincher came in a long run last week when I had to run up a very steep climb that forces me onto my toes. The curved sole of the shoes basically threw me off-balance with each step. Try running on a rocker and that's what it felt like. There is no way I could make my way up the steep 5-mile climb up Conor pass in those shoes, it is just not feasible.

I do have the subjective feeling of the shoes not being comfortable, but I also have cold hard numbers. My runs in those shoes are not faster than in my Saucony or Brooks shoes, and the HR isn't lower either. Add to that the high price and for me, personally, it quickly becomes a no-no.

I wanted to like those shoes. They look good and they are screaming good quality materials and manufacturing. I felt excited about being asked to review a pair of shoes, but unfortunately, they do not work for me. Maybe they do indeed work for others, I cannot say. But I definitely get the impression that ultra runners were not on their potential list of clients when they started the design process.