Wednesday, June 29, 2016

When The Force Wasn't With Me

Without a shadow of a doubt, the Energia 24 hrs race in Belfast in 2014 had been my greatest race ever. Ever since then I have been itching for a return; I missed it last year with a heavy heart because with the world championship in Turin (where I only ran because of that Belfast result) and then the Spartathlon I was already pushing my luck as it was. When I heard that the 2016 race had been moved from the Mary Peters track into Victoria Park, my first reaction was not to run it at all because I really favour a track setting for that kind of a race. It took a few months to come round, and eventually I signed up after all.

Going into the race I knew perfectly well that I was not in the same shape I had been back in 2014. I do measure feedback in my training and the cold hard numbers made it quite clear. However, I figured I was in similar shape to last year's race in Turin, and with a better race, especially in the later hours, I might be able to hit 220k, though I always knew it was an ambitious target. 216k, to get a guaranteed Spartathlon qualifier, was the fallback goal. 200k would be the minimum goal, but only because it happens to be a round number.

I'm not sure how, but I do have a habit of snapping up top class crews for that kind of race, sometimes at a very late notice. My support this year was particularly impressive in the form of Valerie Glavin, no less than the the Irish National record holder for 24 hrs indoors, and Ger Donohue, fresh off the podium in Portumna 2 weeks ago. Valerie was working Saturday and would arrive late but Ger would undoubtedly be able to handle the first few hours on his own.

The start- photo by Mike Flanagan
The date of the race had moved as well, 3 weeks earlier than anticipated, which screwed my training plan and for which I never properly adjusted (my own fault, of course), though with the European Championships in France (the running, not the footy!) in October, that was actually a good move. Or it would have been, had I adjusted my training properly. More on that later.

Even the start time had moved - from an evening to a noon start, though that didn't make much difference to me to be honest. I got there with a few hours spare, though with all the hellos to dozens of other ultra runners and their crews they flew by so fast that in the end I barely had time to get ready in time.

I started at a very measured effort, as befits a race of such monumental effort. Within a lap or 2 I found myself right beside Thomas Klimas and we just happened to run the same pace, so we spent the next couple of hours running together, which brought a fair few remarks that we were re-running the Spartathlon, including from ourselves. At one point the two of us were running with Don and Brian, which almost made this a Spartathlon reunion (we did miss Anto!). However, I found it really hard to find a comfortable rhythm. After about 45 minutes Thomas remarked how he loved this phase of the race when everything feels so easy and you think you can keep this going forever. I, on the other hand, just never felt comfortable and was definitely wondering where this would go, but for the time being there wasn't much to do but keep going and try to eventually find a decent rhythm. After a couple of hours Thomas had a break at his crewing table and we went our separate ways.

I thought I sped up a bit after that, but a look at the mile splits doesn't really confirm that. However, I did soon get into the flow and was finally feeling much more comfortable and optimistic about how the race would go.

You cannot win a 24 hours race in the first few hours but you can certainly lose it, so I was definitely surprised to see Eddie Gallen start out at what must have been at least 260k pace. Eddie was running his 33rd 24 hours race (I don't know if anyone has run more) and I certainly wasn't going to question his approach. Alex O'Shea was starting rather fast, which definitely had me worried for him. Keith Whyte, the Irish 100k record holder, on the other hand, seemed to start at a much more measured effort, and I was really looking forward to witnessing what he would do today. So far I could only admire his incredibly smooth running style.

I did run into a potentially serious problem early on. My right thigh was getting quite painful and lifting the leg became a bit of an effort with each step. I think it was the pectineus muscle, though I'm not an expert in that field. It was far too early to have muscle problems, really, but that's what I was faced with.

The first marathon in such a race is basically the warm up. I finished it a few minutes after 4 hours, pretty much where I planned and expected to be. I know I can't keep that pace for 24 hours but a slowdown is always part of the calculation. I was feeling very comfortable at that time and looking forward to the next few hours. It became increasingly obvious, however, that the weather forecast had not been correct; instead of the clouds and maybe even the odd light shower it was really warm and sunny, very much to everyone's surprise. Quite a few runners started moaning about the heat - I didn't feel too bad, maybe my heat adaptation was unexpectedly paying off after all.

About 45 miles into the race I passed the start area just as one of the 100k runners, Natalie Bowbanks, was having a bit of a mental low. We ended up running a few laps together. Physically she was fine (for someone past the 40 mile mark that is) but she was struggling a bit mentally. However, she did recover and I was delighted to see her finish a few hours later.

Dealing with a low - photo by Ed Mc Groarty
I still felt good for a few more hours but it was never going to last - ultra races are usually defined by how the runner handles the inevitable lows. I often have a dip at 30 miles but got through that just fine. It hit me all the harder at 50 miles, though. I got there in almost exactly 8 hours, still very much on schedule, but the next 4 or 5 miles were by far the most difficult so far. I was totally devoid of energy and found it very hard to keep running. I tried to eat but must have overdone it because my stomach started to feel too full - then I stopped eating but within 2 or 3 laps I staggered up to our table, barely able to hold myself up, feeling dizzy and all I could do was stammer "I need sugar or I'm going to faint". A few jelly babies later I was feeling better and eventually started to run better again. That also more or less coincided with Valerie turning up, and she immediately took control - neither Ger nor myself are experts on nutrition during ultras (I just never had any real trouble, so never had to learn my lessons), and she really was a godsend. She declared I had eaten too much and put me on the Coke diet - a few sips of coke per lap, nothing else for a while. It worked. I quickly felt better again.

However, once more it wasn't going to last long. I had barely been able to enjoy a brighter spell when it all went downhill again. Crossing the 100k mark was no cause for celebrations - I was almost crawling at the time. I was also getting whiny and started moaning to my crew - I hate it when I do that, it's just pathetic. I apologised to Valerie for wasting her time with my poor performance, and I can't even remember what I said to Ger but I made him promise afterwards not to tell anyone.

I passed Darren Sheridan, the winner of the Donadea 100k three weeks ago, and mentioned how back then I had covered 100k in an hour less and had felt a lot less exhausted, to which he replied he was in the exact same position. This low was a lot worse than the one at 50 miles, and it took until I had crawled to mile 70 that I finally managed to get to grips with things again. Unfortunately, the last 10 miles had taken me 2 hours, and my goal was starting to slip out of my grasp.

I wasn't the only one struggling. Runners of such high calibre as Ger Copeland and Thomas Klimas had had to pull out completely and even Keith Whyte was clearly suffering and struggling (he had stomach issues from what I gathered). Eventually, after 12 hours I seemed to get second (third? fourth?) wind and for the next 2 or 3 hours I finally started to feel like an international runner again. My pace increased and I started to pass people that up to now seemed to have been running rings around me. Most importantly, though, was the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this stretch. I was back in the flow and things just clicked for a while. I was never really aware what distance target was still realistic but at least I wasn't slipping even further behind.

Almost halfway - photo by Valerie Glavin
Alas, it wasn't going to last. At 90 miles I felt reasonably good. At 92 miles I was in the depths of hell. I hadn't hit the wall - I had fallen into a bottomless pit. It was a very different low to the previous 2; my energy levels were actually fine but my legs were completely killing me. My right pectineus (presumably) was hurting badly and I was barely able to lift the feet off the ground. Running was basically impossible and even walking was slow. Mile 92, 93 and 94 were the 3 slowest miles of the entire race. Having the 100 mile mark reasonably close helped mentally but it was a brutal grind and very hard work. It took me 90 minutes to cover 6 miles - walking pace, basically. I tried a few things, like a toilet stop, not because I needed one, just to give the leg muscles a minute of rest. I did the Morton stretch, to no avail (it was hard work to get back up). Grellan tried to get me going but at that point there was nothing left. Eventually, after an eternity, my legs very slowly started to come round again. Valerie just came back from a break when I told her that the last 6 miles had been pure agony. "But you still did 6 miles" was her short response, and that was that. Somehow I managed to start running again, but at that point I very much doubted I'd reach 200k.

I'm not sure what position I was in at that point in the field. Someone told me afterwards that I had been 13th at some point, which sounds plausible. I never particularly care about my finishing position, that is always secondary to trying to maximise my mileage, but of course I still want to finish as far ahead as I can. I clearly wasn't in the running for the medals today. I could see Eddie Gallen and Eoin Keith running very well and Alex O'Shea and Tim Brownlie in contention as well - but the real surprise was Aidan Hogan. I've known him for a couple of years and was perfectly aware that he was a very good runner (2 sub-3 marathons within one week!) but I could not have predicted such an extraordinary performance. When they talk about someone running like a machine they must have a picture of Aidan in mind!

100 miles complete - photo by Valerie Glavin
Anyway, when I finally got going again I actually started to move reasonably well, though the damage was already done. I reached 100 miles in 18:18, about 2 hours slower than 2 years ago and at least 90 minutes later than anticipated (not that I had a fixed schedule in mind). Seeing how the last few hours of a 24 hours race have always been a bit of a death march for me, I wasn't sure how far I'd go and 200k still seemed optimistic, especially after the last couple of hours. But in actual fact I started to feel better again. I was still on Valerie's Coke diet, with the occasional piece of melon but not much else thrown in. I did have some porridge when it was served by the organisers, which took about 30 seconds to wolf down, but apart form that it was the black liquid. I must have drunk enough coke to give myself diabetes had I not burned it off straight away.

Gary Reinhardt kept passing me like I was standing still. I've know him for a long time and I've never seen him run as well as that. At one point he was just a lap behind me and the way he was moving had me seriously worried he was going to finish ahead of me. He has improved immensely as a runner over the last few years and was one of the surprise packages of the day.

A late push - photo by Ed Mc Groarty
Maybe it was the fact that it was getting bright again but somehow I found an extra gear when I thought I had already spent everything I had. Ger and Valerie had settled into a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine and every time she told me to run, I ran.

I sidled up to John O'Regan, who wasn't having his best day either. "John, how come we always forget how much this hurts, every single time?" "I have no idea!"

At about 8:30am it started raining, but only lightly. I put on my rain jacket and kept going.

Victoria Park is right beside the airport, which simultaneously provides the stunningly different sensations of running beside a peaceful water feature and having a commercial airliner pass over your head so close that you can almost touch it. The park itself is lovely enough, the loop just over a mile long, very flat and perfectly suited to a parkrun. I'm not entirely convinced about its suitability for a 24 hours race though, in all honesty. The surface is basically concrete with rolled-in gravel. It is a totally unforgiving surface and after several hours your legs are going to notice. I had opted to wear Hokas for the first time in a 24 hours race, the total opposite to the lightweight trainers I usually prefer, and I wasn't the only one. I never ever expected to see Eoin Keith in Hokas, but here he was, as was John O'Regan, and quite a few others. On that brutal surface, however, I do think that heavily cushioned shoes are indeed the right choice.

I wasn't sure what to expect over the last 4 hours. I was dreading yet another crushing low. What I did
Pushing through the pain barrier on the final lap
Photo by Mark Ramsey
not expect, especially after the tough hours I had just been through, was that I would start feeling stronger and stronger as the race went into its final stretch. The only runner who was still moving decidedly better than me was Eoin Keith, and he was untouchable. Eddie Gallen was having a strong finish as well. Others were moving about as well as me, like Don Hannon, Jamie Killeen or Aidan (apologies to any other strong finishers - this is not a definite list!), but most runners still out there were in death march mode. I was still in 11th place with a bit over an hour to go but was clearly making my way through the field. Grellan had been 3-5 laps ahead of me for hours but was having a rough time towards the end, and even started to develop a slight lean, though he never stopped moving. I wasn't actually aware when I was passing people if I was overtaking them or moving up a lap, but according to the final results I did move up into 7th place. The watch actually stopped working with 10 minutes to go, which was a minor irritant. It had been about 1.5 or 2 miles ahead of my official distance at that point. It would have gotten well over 130 miles had it lasted for 24 hours but the official result has me at 128.4 miles / 207 k, which sounds about right.

It was definitely less than I had expected. I knew 220k was always going to be a stretch but 216k, and with that a guaranteed Spartathlon entry, did feel achievable before the start. In the end I had to be happy to avoid a personal worst, though I have now managed over 200k in every single one of my four 24-hour races, which is pretty good as far as consistency is concerned. I clearly did not have a very good day but I like to think I was very good in squeezing out the best possible performance that my misfiring body was capable of that day,

Ed, myself and Jamie - all happy to be done. Photo by Ed Mc Groarty
So what went wrong? Amongst the things that went through my head during the dark spells in the middle of the night were that I'm too old, that my 2014 performance was a fluke and that I should retire from competitive racing right now, but thankfully the drama queen went away eventually.

I did get my training wrong. Following the outline set in 2014 I was planning on 2 long training runs, a 100k 6 weeks out and a 40 miler 3 weeks out. I cannot imagine running so far on my own, so these were official races but regarded as training runs, as I've done multiple times before. When the date for the Energia race was announced, it was 3 weeks earlier than anticipated, but for some reason I never changed my training. It ended in me running too little and too much - too little in the months before June and too much in June itself, and I never got to do that second long run.

I don't want to end this race report on a down note. There are plenty of positives to take away. I can run 200k even on an off day. I have learned a lot, about training as well as nutrition, and neither lesson would have been half as effective had I had a great race. I now know that I can still run strongly after 20 hours, something that is very new to me, If I can combine a better preparation and nutrition and mix it with the fortitude I've shown today, I still have at least one spectacular performance in me.

Also, congratulations to some great performances. Eoin was incredible but my "merit of the day" award goes to Aidan, who ran the best Irish 24 hours debut in history. Ed Mc Groarty improved massively on an already high standard, and Aoife Lyons should be very proud for covering 100 miles as still a rather inexperienced runner. Don Hannon ran a great race (I think it was a PB), and Eddie ran a PB in his 33rd 24 (the mind boggles)! Gary Reinhardt had an outstanding race, as did Jamie Killeen and Alex O'Shea. Lets's not forget Catherine Guthrie and Finn O'Mara who lightened up the day with more very strong performances.

I guess I should not have started naming names as it's impossible to name them all - no less than 12 runners ran 200k or more, which is almost unheard of outside an international championship. The standard has increased by a frightening amount and I am proud to be part of that group.

As some other guy with a similar accent once said, I'll be back.
25th/26th June
Energia 24 hours race in Belfast - Irish championships
128.4 miles / 207.204k, 7th place


  1. Fantastic report Thomas, I was keeping an eye on the tracker during the night so it's fascinating to read how your race panned out as we could see you and Jamie and Eoin improving a lot towards the latter part without any comprehension of what might have gone before. Well done! Firedance

  2. well done thomas,a phenomenal effort, again. running for 24 hours on a non track surface and covering 200k is a top class result. i think the differing surface compared to 2 yrs ago did effect things. great to lots of cork guys doing well too

  3. Great report as always Thomas. Always a good day when you finish on a high. 200k is savage going especially considering the low's you went through. Well done.

  4. Good report Arnie. Sounds like a very tough 24 hours at the office. Shame about missing the 216k but 207 is still a great result. I'm sure you'll put the lessons learned into the next one and come away with a PB. By the way, you're NOT too old!

  5. Gutsy run Thomas. One tough experience to keep pushing through. Great to see you finishing strong.