Sunday, August 30, 2015

My Physio Doesn't Know I'm Here!

Photo by Alan Murphy
Going into this ultra I had one major goal, namely to come through it without injury. It was very much a test on how the body is holding up and I was perfectly aware that one more injury would take me out of the Spartathlon game for good. The hip had been feeling good all week and was barely noticeable, so I was actually fairly confident that it would work out fine.

Achill Island is a very long way away from Kerry and I had arrived there very late on Friday, at 11 o'clock, because the drive had taken much longer than anticipated. Thankfully my bed was still available (I had visions of having to sleep in the car) but I was utterly exhausted when I finally got there. Just under 6 hours later I was awake again and got ready for the day. It was unlikely to be the optimal preparation for an ultra but there you go. Next time I'll take some time off work though, to give myself an easier time.

Photo by Brian Ankers
The race was a small and intimate affair, certainly the ultra was. Just before 8 o'clock we gathered at the start line and Donna, the RD, sent us off without much fanfare (wait - did she really tell us not to take any drugs?). One guy in yellow and one girl shot off at the front and the rest started in a more sedate fashion. I settled in beside Anto, a fellow Spartathlete, and we jogged the first mile in 9 minutes, pretty much where I wanted to be, and then he had to go off for a nature break (FFS - who needs a weewee break after one mile!) and I found myself unexpectedly on my own. I must have sped up a little bit because over the next couple of miles I overtook a few runners, though I was very much running within myself. I could see Don Hannon disappear into the distance and was reasonably confident he was going to win. Had I not just spent the last 2 months out with injury I probably would have given him a mighty battle, but seeing as we are both planning to gather in Athens in four weeks' time it's probably better that we did not kill each other today in a misguided attempt to go for glory here.

Photo by Mark F Chaddock
Oh yes, the last 2 months. Some minor muscle in my right hip had given out at the end of June and I spent 6 week almost entirely on the sidelines and had only just gotten back onto the road over the last 2 weeks. My longest run had been 15 miles, a week before, and then I had gotten rather tired after 10 miles. I wasn't quite sure how I would be able to get through almost 40 miles today but hoped a mighty dose of  bloodymindedness together with a fair amount of stupidity would see me through. Oh, and my physio, Derek, who had nursed me through the last few weeks on the road back to recovery, had not been informed of my plans. I thought the better of telling him.

Photo by Susan Baughman
Anyway, after about 5 miles I fell in with another runner, Jason Kehoe, who turned out to be a running mate of my good friend James Whitty, and we spent the rest of that lap chatting away. The scenery was absolutely stunning. I have run several races that claim to be the most scenic race in Ireland but Achill can give every single one of them a run for their money (I'll keep an eye out in Dingle next week for comparisons). Obviously, with breathtaking scenery like that come even more breathtaking climbs and there were three major ones on each loop, with the second one especially tough and followed by an even steeper quad-busting descent down to sea level only to be immediately followed by an even steeper climb the other side of the valley. It was also very windy and the climbing was mostly done against a stiff breeze - as if it wasn't hard enough already!

It's on that stretch that we encountered the one organisatorial hitch of the day. There was supposed a table with our own supplies at mile 7 but when I got to the station that I thought was the one at mile 9, my stuff wasn't there. I didn't really mind, I wasn't racing this one and if you put supplies into a box there is always a chance that you won't be seeing it again, it has all happened before. It took me a mile or two to realise that there had been a water table at about mile 5. I had not seen a supply box but that must have been the one. I would get there at the next loop.

Photo by Olwyn Dunne
Oh yes, the loop. I was 13.1 miles long, with a (hilly) out-and-back section tagged on to ensure correct distance. The ultra was 3 loops, the marathon 2 and the half marathon 1, obviously. The marathon had started an hour after the ultra and we would hardly see any of it. The half started 2 hours after the ultra and since we finished our first loop in 1:52 we got a big reception from the runners gathered at the start, which was great. Jason fell behind here, picking up some supplies, and once more I was running on my own again. The fastest half marathon runners took 3 miles to catch up with me and gradually a few more runners would trickle by over the next few miles, almost all of them giving some words of encouragement, thanks very much. That setup worked the opposite way of Connemara where I would gradually catch up to the back of the full and later half field and run past the slower runners. Here, in contrast, the faster runners caught up to us and we never even saw most of the slower runners.

Photo by Mark F Chaddock
This time I managed to pick up my drinks bottle at the 5 mile table and then proceeded to run up the series of very steep climbs that had seemed to grow a bit since the first loop. Right at the top I caught up to 2 walkers that seemed rather familiar and when they turned around I saw that they were Darren and Caroline, two thirds of my crew in the Connamara 100 2 years ago. I had absolutely no idea that they would be here and hugs and cheers were to be had. We chatted for a bit, Darren told me he wanted to run the ultra one day but had to content with walking the course today with his better half before sending me off again - oh yes, I was supposed to run a race here!

I was almost at the top of the third climb when the trouble started: my left calf was starting to cramp. I walked a few steps to alleviate the cramping before starting to slowly jog again. I reached the top but the cramping continued even on the next, gentle, downhill stretch. That was not good. I was only at mile 22 and still had 17 miles to go and I really did not fancy battling with cramping legs for that amount of time and distance. Luckily, it then subsided again. Maybe the orange slice I ate at the aid station helped wit electrolyte balance, maybe it was the cup of water but most likely it was the fact that the next few miles were gradually downhill and I was able to take it easy and as the effort level dropped the leg recovered somewhat. I finished loop 2, and the full marathon, in 3:48 but I knew the third lap wasn't going to be all fun and games. Donna later told me she could see I was struggling a bit.

Photo by Fiona Byrne
Onto the third loop. I was leapfrogging another ultra runner a few times but wasn't concerned at all if I would end up before or behind him at the end. I first concentrated on reaching Grainne's Tower between miles 4 and 5 (I had no idea it was on Achill Island - you learn something new every day!) and then it was a matter of surviving that set of rather brutal climbs one more time. It speaks volumes for Achill Island that I was still very much appreciating the stunning scenery.

What I did not appreciate was the fact that the aid station was not here! I was rather taken aback, surely they would not leave the ultra runners to their own devices on the third loop, when they needed help the most! However, there was not much I could do but battle on. A mile later I caught up to another friend, Paolo, possibly the nicest person out there, run/walking the marathon with his wife, and before I could even ask for a sip of water he had already handed me bottle! Thank you Paolo, you have no idea how parched I felt at that point and just how much you helped! Another mile later I unexpectedly came upon the aid station - they had not abandoned us but moved (they had been supposed to be at that second spot all along, Donna told me afterwards). Since I had not picked up my bottle at the first loop I still had 2 in there but only took one because I did not fancy carrying two heavy bottles with me. However, I must still have been badly dehydrated because I drained the one bottle that I had taken in less than a minute. I almost turned back to pick up my second one, but didn't.

I passed the early race leader (the guy in yellow) after 33 miles and he was clearly suffering. A better pacing strategy would almost certainly have saved him a fair amount of pain!

Photo by Susan Baughman
Considering I had at one point feared I would have to battle cramps for 17 miles I was pretty pleased to get to mile 34 in reasonably good nick but that's where it all fell apart, on the same steep climb where the problem had started a lap earlier. Unfortunately, this time there was no relief to be had. Another orange slice did not help, a cup of water did not, and even easing up on the gentle downhill gradients did not either. There are all kinds of theories what causes cramps. Dehydration is mentioned, and I was definitely dehydrated. Electrolytes are another, and I had not brought my s-caps with me and some levels may have been out of whack. However, there is no doubt in my mind what caused the cramps on this occasion: lack of fitness. All the other factors may have played a minor role but it was the fact that I had hardly been running for 2 months and lost so much fitness in the process that was responsible.

I passed Anto on the out-and-back section. "Your name will be Muck if I catch you!" He must have been about half a mile behind, with 4 miles to go so that seemed safe enough, but the legs really stopped cooperating. It was mostly the left calf but the right one joined in occasionally as well. I experimented with changing my gait - heel striking actually worked a bit better than midfoot landing and keeping the legs as relaxed as possible may have provided some very minor improvement. I stopped at a wall and tried stretching the muscles. In the end I had to concede, nothing really worked, I could just run for a bit until the cramps came, would have to walk for a bit and then repeat the process, rinse and repeat.

Photo by Susan Baughman
With a bit over a mile to go my name turned into Muck when Anto strode by, finishing very strongly. When I told him about the cramps he quipped "that's what happens when you run your weekly mileage all in one go", which succinctly described the entire problem in one single sentence. There was no way I could keep up - he put 2 minutes onto me by the finish! I deliberately walked for a minute before turning into the campsite where the finish was so that I would be able to run the final lap of honour without cramping - at least that bit worked!

I finished in 5:55:47 (on my own watch), a personal worst for 39.3 miles, but since the main goal had been to run without re-injuring the hip (or without acquiring a new injury for that matter) this was actually a success. Going under 6 hours was a minor bonus as well, not that it really mattered. Don Hannon had indeed won but he too had battled cramps for several miles at the end and had almost been caught by the leading lady. He was very gracious to state that I would have won today had I been in form, but I had not and I did not and he was the clear and deserved winner, congratulations. The ladies' winner, Dee Grady, came seemingly out of nowhere to rack up a first win in her first ultra - very impressive and there may well be a major talent about to be uncovered.

As for myself, I had driven almost 6 hours to get there, slept for almost 6 hours, ran for almost 6 hours and drove back home for almost 6 hours, a major expedition and a rather exhausting one. However, my legs felt surprisingly good on Sunday morning and I did my usual 5-mile recovery run feeling much better than expected. I guess the slow pace means I wasn't as taxed as I might otherwise have been.

27 Aug
5 miles, 42:45, 8:33 pace, HR 138
28 Aug
5 miles, 42:32, 8:30 pace, HR 137
29 Aug
Achill Island Ultra
39.3 miles, 5:55:47, 9:03 pace, HR 147
30 Aug
5 miles, 45:45, 9:09 pace, HR 133


  1. Great report "Muck". Amazing pics!!! I hope I can run there sometime.

  2. Well done, what a relief the injury did not reappear, good omen for Athens. A great achievement compared to us mere marathon distance mortals.

  3. What a beautiful place to be running, and nearly 40 miles off bugger all training is encouraging.

    I've struggled with cramp lots of times, for me a combination of muscle fatigue, intensity of effort and how warm the day is seem to be the key ingredients that mix together to make cramp more likely.

    In the early days I tried taking salt tablet or electrolytes and plenty of fluids to avoid cramp but none of this seemed a magic cure - only backing off intensity for a while has been the reliable fix when I'm actually running.

    Over the years I've got fitter and stronger and am far more resilient at fending of cramp - this to me seems to be the only reliable long term cure for cramp. However, as you've found out gains in resilience are easily lost if you can't keep the training mileage up.

    Best of luck with recovery.

  4. Bet you're happy with that! A very successful test. Dehydration/lack of training would have caused the cramping problems, but nothing to worry about. Think I'll introduce a touch of bloodymindedness and stupidity into my schedule.