Monday, November 17, 2014

Back At The Bridge

“Welcome back to The Bridge”
“It’s always good to be here”

It was still dark at 6:20 am when I arrived at the race HQ. There was so little life at first that I wondered where everyone had gone but within minutes the place had gotten lively. After running the 30 mile option 3 years in a row I had finally decided to give the fun runs a miss and moved up to the Double. I was very much looking forward to it, though I was a bit nervous as well – running more than 50 miles is always an ever so slightly daunting task. Thomas Klimas was there, just like I had expected as this was almost in his backyard. It also meant I would not have to worry about the outcome of today’s race. Last year we were running at more or less the same level, this year he is well out of sight (and he’s only going to get better – scary, really). The only surprise was his beard, but in some circles that goes as the authentic ultra runner's look. He told me his wife was running the half marathon, which was scheduled to start 7 hours after the double, and he would have to be finished by then to take over babysitting duties. Talk about putting extra pressure on yourself!

We assembled at the start line the seemingly obligatory 20 minutes late and set off. Thomas K soon disappeared over the hill and far away. I found myself in 4th place over the first mile but moved into second position, which I was pretty sure I was going to hold until the end. Stu Wilkins, a fellow veteran of last year’s 10in10 was here, but since he had already run 2 marathons over the previous 2 days he was never going to race today. His mission was survival.

The race is held on the famous 1-mile Sixmilebridge loop, or should I say infamous. Half of it is uphill and half of it downhill and the only flat bit is the tiny out-and-back section at the race HQ that ensures one loop equals one mile. There seems to be some confusion how much elevation change there is (I have seen wildly differing numbers) but my shiny new Ambit comes with a barometer and tells me that it’s about 50 feet per lap, which over a double marathon adds up to 2600 feet, or about 800 meters. It’s not exactly mountainous, but it sure adds up. Mind, climbing the elevation in small chunks is much easier than a sustained climb like Conor Pass.

The plan was to run about 8-minute miles for as long as that felt doable and then hang on until the finish when it no longer does. Having said that, I never pace myself either via the GPS device or the timer but always strictly by feel. The first mile was in fact a good bit slower than that as I eased into the effort but then I gradually got faster. There was a clock at the race HQ and on the couple of occasions early on when I remembered the previous lap’s time I could figure out my present pace and saw that I was moving a bit faster than planned, though even the fastest mile all day was still reasonably restrained at 7:37.

Time passed very quickly. I was still dark when we started but it got bright very quickly, within 3 miles. I was already contemplating ditching my headlamp and reflective vest when a thick fog descended upon us, and for safety reasons decided to keep both of them on. It took about 2 hours for visibility to return to normal and to get rid of the safety equipment. My bright yellow t-shirt was nice and shiny anyway.

I passed a runner in a blue shirt and almost missed Brian Ankers. He had not been at the start (apparently he had arrived late) and therefore this was rather unexpected. He said he'd run a lap with me but that turned into 3. This was very welcome as I was just starting to drag a bit and a friendly face to talk to and run with was just what I needed. He didn't entirely believe me when I told him we were running 8-minute miles, they felt slower to him. I checked the watch and if it was slower than only by a couple of seconds - I had averaged 7:56 pace at that time, very close. Brian would later drop out after 35 miles. He has bigger fish to fry, and anyway, he already had a marathon from Saturday in his legs.

Time kept passing quickly. As some point I looked at my watch and saw about 21 miles already done and realised there were only 50k left but unlike in Connemara there wasn't anyone running with me, so I could not blurt it out loud and get a kick out of the incredulous looks they'd give me. I could only make my smart-ass comment when I passed the next set of runners, and it wasn't quite the same.

The 1 mile loop format makes this a very unique event. Usually in ultras you spend hours running completely on your own. Sixmilebridge, on the other hand, is a very social race. You constantly pass other runners or they pass you and there is plenty of banter to be had, and always a friendly and encouraging word when you need one. I know perfectly well how mad it sounds to be running 52 laps, and even if I didn't know I have been enlightened several times by now, but it really makes this a special occasion. There is not a hope in hell I would be running anything like that on my own in training. I hate running even two loops of anything on my own. But in a race setting with so many friendly faces on and around the course this becomes something entirely different.

Don Hannon was one of the friendly faces hanging around but since he is still recovering from a very recent 24 hours race he wasn't running himself, just helping out. I went through the marathon in about 3:29, feeling reasonably good, and when I joked to Don that I should have signed up for the marathon instead, I didn't really mean it.

4 miles later I came up with the same lame joke about the 30 mile race, though at that time I meant it a tiny bit more. While I was still feeling ok, I could already tell that at some point in the reasonably near future that would no longer be the case.

The 30 mile race started about 4 hours later, which increased the number of runners on the loop by a bit. 4 of them were running faster than me, so that's where I started being overtaken regularly rather than going past other runners myself. Last year's winner Mike "Curley" Cunningham looked particularly impressive, his pace and smooth running style marking him out amongst of the competition.

The real change in scenery came at 12 o'clock when the marathon started. All of a sudden the course became really busy. Somehow I managed to pass the marathon startline just seconds after their start and was immediately blocked by a wall of runners but once I had made my way past the worst of the congestion, there were no more barriers. The field spread out within a mile and passing was no problem. They were obviously feeling fresh and excited and I really fed off their positive energy; it made a real difference to me, just when I started flagging for real. I also got the opportunity to shake hands with Eamonn and congratulate him on his recent 100th marathon. He obviously wasn't hanging round and immediately had to add number 101 to the list.

A few laps later the official lap counter gave me a shout of "40 miles done". A lady standing close by incredulously exclaimed "he's run HOW far!", which I got a kick out of. It was a completely random occurrence but it did make me feel good again for a while.

Thomas Klimas had lapped me twice by that time and not long after mile 40 he came round for a third and final time. Each time he slowed down sufficiently for me to hang around for a lap or two and we had a little chat before he sped off again. By now it was clear that he would easily make his target of finishing before the half-marathon start and also bag the course record. He didn't even look tired and the results show that he barely slowed down towards the end and indeed sped up again over the last 5 miles.

While not quite up to the same standard I had been running pretty well up to then and even though the pace had dropped a bit I was still averaging almost 8-minute miles, maybe 8:03 or so, but now the wheels started falling off. A look at the chart now confirms what I already knew at the time. I was doing well until about the 42 miles mark and then I started slowing down for real. With only 10 miles to go I always knew that I would finish reasonably well, but I had to work a lot harder. The hill had grown a little bit steeper with each loop and by now it was becoming a real challenge. A little devil started sitting on my shoulder and whispered into my ear how much easier it would be to walk the hill instead of enduring the ever-growing pain of running it at an ever-growing effort, but luckily I was far enough into the race to see the light at the end of the tunnel and manage to brush him off.

On one of those climbs Ger O'Donoghue passed me like I was standing still. I'm pretty sure he has never passed me before, and after complaining last year how the faster 30 mile runners had left him standing during his own fastest lap, I'm sure he enjoyed that one. He went on to have a great marathon after a tough first 5 miles - good man, Ger.

I probably felt worst with about 5 or 6 miles left and while the slowest mile was yet to come I was now within sniffing distance of the finish and could smell the coffee (quite literally, in fact). I took a sip of coke after each lap from the aid station table, which got me around yet another lap and the remaining number started melting down surprisingly and satisfyingly quickly. I expected I would be cursing the person who had decided to make this a 52.44 mile race rather than a 50 miler to high heavens over the last couple of miles, but surprisingly that was not the case. I almost enjoyed myself over the last few miles, soaking up the atmosphere save in the knowledge that the torturous part of the day would be over very soon.

I even managed to break into something vaguely resembling a finishing sprint, though I do have a painful history as far as sprint finishes in Sixmilebridge are concerned. And then it was all over. I had come second in my race in Sixmilebridge for the third year in a row, but since that had been entirely expected I did not mind. Instead I was content to have gotten the fastest ever non-winning time in the double marathon. I got a few hugs, ate and drank a few bits and pieces, had a lovely warm shower and hung around for a good while before returning back home. The two hours drive was a rather uncomfortable one because my legs were stiff and tired, but what can you do.

My left hamstring, the one that had been trouble me in recent weeks, behaved impeccably, which as a major bonus. In fact, during the race it was my right hamstring that hurt, and that was purely due to fatigue, which is a normal part of ultra running.

My Ambit shows a shortened distance, off by half a mile which equates to about 1%, which is well within the accuracy rate of any GPS device. I can assure you that this is not down to me cutting the course, I always remained on the road, on every single lap. I had already noticed in training that the Ambit always shows a shorter distance than my old 310 had and I'm sure the Garmin would have shown more than 52.44 miles. In the end you can only trust the fact that the course was certified. Looking at the map it looks like the Ambit sometimes cuts corners in the path, even when the runner goes a longer way round, and I do suspect that the 180 degree turn at each lap might have led to a shortened measured distance.
16 Nov
Sixmilebridge Double Marathon
52.44 miles, 7:05:14, 8:06 pace, HR 146


  1. Awesome Thomas! Well done all round. ( pardon the pun)

  2. Seems like you've controlled the pace right to the end. I'm impressed you can still do that after a few big races since the summer & pretty decent weekly milage as well. Congratulations again Thomas, truly great running.

  3. Great stuff Thomas - & the Dub Mara only 3 weeks previously...

  4. Great read as usual. Hope you weren't too dissapointed you didn't get to spend more time in my company ;)
    Joking aside you ran a great race. Nice consistency. I myself new early on i wasn't firing on all cylinders. The sore throat and chest developed today. Enjoy ur xmas.

  5. Great report on a very solid race, Thomas. Impressive pacing by feel and still a kick at the end. Keep running smart.

  6. Well done Thomas, another great run ticked off.

    So... was it a training run, or what is racing? 8:06 for two marathon sure doesn't sound like a training run to me ;-)

  7. Savage stuff Thomas. Amazing consistency race after race.

  8. Thomas I had never passed you before and will likely never do so again on a level playing field. But yes I got a little bit of a buzz from role reversal alright. 7:05 ish for a double marathon is still pretty damn impressive.

  9. Great run Thomas. It would have been nice to have met en-loop but you were done before I got to start the half.