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


  1. Wow, nice! I actually expected to see a turn-table win in the end but hey, 3rd place deserves some praise, too! Congratulations! :) Enjoyed reading the post and I hope you get them all next time.


  2. Very nice trophy indeed, congratulations!

  3. Well done, & not even 2 months since Belfast!

  4. Well done again Thomas. A savage year and a nice wind down ( of sorts) for the rest of the year until the training for Turin begins. Still think you should tackle a sub 2.50 marathon though. Amazing stuff from you.
    Cathal Daly

  5. Beautiful trophy which looks like a diamond! Fantastic result and great report as always! Thanks for the nice story ;-)

  6. Great to see you having a great race, these last two weeks you've come good in style. 3rd place and a 7 minute PB, very nice indeed

  7. Well done Thomas. Classy trophy!

    By the way, you shouldn't warn people on Twitter about how long the race report is ;)

  8. Congratulations on a great race and another fantastic read.

  9. Superb run and result Thomas. Congratulations. You really must come over to Scotland to run an ultra one day!!