Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Unforgettable Albi

Some races I am immediately enthusiastic about. For some reason, the European Championships in Albi were not on that list. My initial reaction had been to say no when the team manager asked me to participate but after a bit of soul searching (and asking friends who voted 16:2) I decided, with a heavy heart, to forgo the Spartathlon this year and do the Euros after all. You don't get the chance to represent your country very often so I guess that made sense.

That doesn't mean I wasn't looking forward to it. Quite the opposite, as race day approached I was getting more and more excited. I also realised that skipping Sparta had been a good move in any case as it was scheduled only 3 months after the Belfast 24 hrs race and I would have had a very hard time. The extra month of recovery/training was going to be very beneficial, there was never any doubt about it.

When I got there I felt a bit intimidated by the sheer number of top runners around the place, with the inevitable feeling of "What the hell am I doing amongst those" but it wasn't as bad as before Turin; I guess I was a little bit more used to it and besides, I had proven in Turin that I can hold my own in that crowd.

An unforgettable number
The race numbers were being allocated on an alphabetical basis and due to Austria being the first team (Albania not sending anyone) and Bubendorfer being the first name in the team I was allocated start number 1!  Now that was super cool but it did provide a bit of extra pressure; with such a noticeable race number I would want to have a good race.

Anyway, at 10 o'clock on Saturday morning the gun went off and 97 men and 77 women started off on what would be a long journey. I fell into a very comfortable pace straight away, slower than most but that's okay. I did expect to work my way through the field in the long hours ahead.

I was wearing two watches. The reason was that I wanted to have a reading of my HR for the first few hours but my Suunto Ambit wouldn't last for 24 hours if it had to listen to the HRM as well so I set the Suunto into non-HRM mode and wore my ancient Garmin for the HR. Within minutes I was glad I was wearing the Garmin but for a completely unexpected reason: the Suunto's GPS signal had gone completely bonkers! I have used that watch for 2 years and never had any GPS problems before but it was displaying 6:xx-minute pace at times and I was pretty damn sure I wasn't on sub-3 marathon pace. The Garmin said 9:20-ish, which was definitely a lot more accurate. While I do pace myself on feel, not the watch, it is good to have some objective feedback from time to time and I was glad that my museum piece was here to pick up the pieces.

The first 3 hours passed quickly and without issues. I chatted a bit with some of the other contestants, especially the Irish ones, but for most of it I just jogged on my own. I checked the HR a couple of times and it was always between 135 and 140, perfect. The pace picked up a tiny amount and I had averaged 9:14 pace, which was very much within the pre-planned parameters. Everything seemed to be going to plan for the first 18 or 20 miles. Every lap, a bit more than 1 km, was passing quickly.

The first 20 miles in a 24 hours race are just the start of course. You can't win the race in that time but you can certainly lose it. As far as I can tell I had done everything right so far. Unfortunately, in an ultra things sometimes go wrong without an obvious mistake.

I felt far too tired! This was ridiculous. I run that far almost every week at a faster pace and before breakfast, so this should have felt like a walk in the park. Instead I felt like I was being put through the wringer already. As I have often stated, a long ultra is defined by how well you can manage your inevitable lows, so managing my first inevitable low, even if it was so much sooner than expected, is what I did, in the same way I always do: I put my head down and kept going. I made sure to drink enough and as far as I can tell my crew followed my pre-race nutrition plan very closely. The one thing that disagreed with me was a small piece of flapjack, so I told them not to give me any more of those, but that was the only deviation. I also helped myself to a couple of drinks from the organisers' table whenever I felt thirsty, and also to get a bit of variety.

With Aidan Hogan before the start
Usually (as in, always until now) this first low will last an hour or two and then I'll feel better again. That's what I expected to happen. Instead I was just sinking deeper and deeper into the mire and every time I thought I had reached an absolute low I inevitably started the descend into yet another circle of hell. At some point the Austrian team manager told me to slow down as it was very hot. I wasn't going very fast at that point and I don't think it was particularly hot but I was in no position to argue and slowed down, complying with his request. My guess is that he saw what I was going through and knew I had to ease up, distance goals be damned. Anyway, running slower did feel easier, no doubt about it, but my energy levels still refused to play ball and eventually I started to descend into the next level of hell once more. Dante Alighieri had his way with me today.

I ran a few laps with Brian Ankers, who unexpectedly had joined the open race. As much as he denies it, he still dreams of the day when he finally beats me in a 24 hours race (having ticked the marathon and 50k off that particular list already). I told him today was his big chance. Unfortunately he eventually decided he didn't want to beat me after all and stepped off the track. He still hung around for hours and gave us plenty of encouragement. Thanks mate!

I had gone through the marathon in about 4:05, which was perfectly fine. By the time I had forced myself towards the 50 mile mark I was at 8:36, which still isn't a complete disaster but it took me about 11:20 to get to 100k because by that time my energy levels were no longer my biggest problem. Nope, something else had gone wrong at an epic scale.

Basically, you can only go as fast as the weakest link allows. In long ultras, that is often the mind but that doesn't seem to be the case for me. No, my limitations were definitely physical.

I have suffered from cramps in quite a few races, and this year was pretty bad in that regards, especially in Manchester when cramping calves put paid to any chances of a sub-3 marathon or Tralee where that may have cost me a podium place. But I have never had a cramp in a long ultra. I supposed that the slow pace was preventing me from cramping. Maybe it did. Until now.

I could feel the first spasms going through my right calf muscle and it got worse very, very quickly. Within a lap I was very close to going into full cramping mode when I passed our tent and mentioned it to our physio. She immediately told me to come in and sit down. She tried to apply some cream but the second she touched my leg I immediately went into full cramping mode, very sudden and excruciatingly painful. I don't know how we eventually got this under control but she knew what she was doing and eventually she gave me a full massage and mentioned how the muscle was softening considerably. Of course all this took time, which must have cost me close to a lap. Therefore, when she told me to come back after 4 laps, I ignored her because I just could not get my head around losing so much time sitting down and decided to keep going instead.

You can guess how well this ended. 6 laps later the spasms were back and I sheepishly arrived for my delayed re-appointment with the physio. This time she did not even get to touch my leg. As soon as I sat down in the chair the tent was filled with some high-pitched alien noise that turned out to be me screaming while my calf was caught in the most brutal grip imaginable of some invisible vice. Again, I have no idea how we eventually got this under control, I vaguely remember having to lean against our team manager at some funny angle so that the physio could access my calf muscle at the required angle. It was, however, as sweet a moment as can be when the pain eventually subsided. After an absolute age I was released, once again under strict instructions to return every 4 laps for another massage. This time I had learned my lesson (it would have been hard not to). I was back in that chair 4 laps later. And again. And again. And again. And ...

It's hard to say for sure how often I visited that tent. When I was moving, I was actually moving rather well. I overtook plenty of runners when let loose but of course they would more than make up for that when I was back in the tent. I definitely had more than a dozen appointments, and they usually lasted about 5 minutes, sometimes less, sometimes more, sometimes a lot more. My best guess is that I spent close to 2 hours sitting down there while the physio kept working on me (she certainly went through her own version of an ultra!). However, it would not be right for me to claim that I lost 2 hours. The fact that I was able to rest every 4 laps, sometimes 5 when there was a queue in the tent (I wasn't the only runner in our team to have problems), enabled me to run surprisingly well for those 4 laps at a time, and even when I was getting very tired I knew I only had to push myself for so long until the next rest. Usually when I get too tired I switch into a run/walk mode. This time is was a run/stop mode, which obviously was slower overall but it just could not be helped.

At some stage I must have decided to make light of the situation and started to joke about it. When I overtook a team mate who previously had been running very well I loudly announced to the tent that I had just lapped Andy for the first time, which had been so much fun - admittedly, maybe less so for him. When I made a face after the physio had once again found a sore spot she pointed out that the birth of my 4 children must have been a lot more painful. My response? "That's true, that was really painful because my wife kept squeezing my hand so tightly". I'm surprised she didn't deliberately squeeze my calf after that. Come to think of it, maybe she did.

I'm clearly not about to start a career as a stand-up comedian but the fact that I was still making jokes, no matter how bad, was a sign that at least my mind was still in a somewhat positive frame of mind, despite what I had been through that night and what was undoubtedly still ahead of me.

When I started to suffer after only 3 hours I knew perfectly well that this was going to be a very long, very tough, very painful day and that the end result was going to be distinctly underwhelming. But the idea of stepping off the track never even crossed my mind. I knew I was going to keep moving for as long as I could, even when it was at a snail's pace. Stupid? Maybe. Probably! But that's the way I'm wired.

I had spent about 8 hours during the first half descending deeper and deeper into the mire when my energy levels kept plummeting. At times I thought I must have been more exhausted than ever before but then I remembered that I was still able to run, which had not been the case in the late stages of last year's Spartathlon, so that must have been worse and I merely had forgotten how bad it had been. Then I had 6 or 7 hours of doing reasonably paced laps, 4 at a time, interspersed by those physio appointment. It was during that time that I made some modest progress through the field, moving from 80th to 60th position. However, after 18 or 19 hours, that came to an end as well.

Every single time when getting off that chair I felt very stiff. It took a while to get going again. I always had to walk for a minute or two, until my legs were able to turn properly again and I started jogging. But then, with a few hours still to go, there came the point when the legs simply no longer complied and that was that. From that point on all I could do was walk.

Of course I tried to force the issue a few times. I made myself run but all I achieved was to almost make me fall over as the legs put in some uncoordinated steps, wobbling all over the place and not getting me anywhere, so eventually I accepted my fate and resolved to walk. That wasn't without challenges either, due to sheer exhaustion I felt like collapsing on more than one occasions. I had trouble focusing, my vision got blurry at times and even the slightest uneven feature in the road had me stumbling at times, though thankfully the course was in very good condition overall, very flat and mostly smooth. Somehow I manged to stay on my feet without a single face plant, though it was close on a few occasions.

The Irish runners all seemed to be moving well, which was good to see, but Amy Masner was moving particularly well. She is amazing. She is able to keep her pace going for just about forever and even when she clearly started to suffer she still put in a major shift. She would end up inside the top-20, a great championship debut and I'm sure there is more to come. Well done! She put the rest of us to shame!

I also had some nice chats with the British contingent, Debbie and Marco but even Dan Lawson gave me the occasional shout while steaming his way to a European championship (!!!). The funniest exchanges, however, happened with Robbie Britton who unfailingly kept calling me "Thomas, Number One". Initially I wondered if he was simply taking the piss but quickly decided to take it as a fun game and encouragement. I was sorry to see his race curtailed, the heavily bandaged knee giving a hint to his problem. By the way, my own knee, which had been a source of worry beforehand, never bothered me in the slightest today. Shame about the rest of that leg!

Obviously I also had a few chats with my Austrian team mates, though they all went through their own issues. Before the race we all had been optimistic and looking forward to the race but somehow we collectively seemed to be hit by a series of individual disasters. Only one of us got close to his PB, another one had a still somewhat reasonable race and the entire rest of the team basically had a disaster. Not a good day for us.

Anyway, I kept ticking along, trying not to fall over and willing the time to pass. It was still pitch dark at 7 o'clock and only with about 2 hours to go did it get bright, which did help because I seemed to wobble less from then on.

Actually, the last couple of hours seemed to pass quickly. I was surprised when I looked up at the clock and realised that we only had half an hour to go.

European Champion and new European record
holder Maria Jansson. She was just magnificent!
Last year in Turin I had ended up 3 meters behind one runner from Japan and 10 meters behind one from the Czech Republic. Just that tiny amount of extra distance would have seen me finish two places higher in the World Championship. Granted, coming 58th or 60th does not make a difference to anyone but me personally, but I resolved that this would never happen again and I would spend the last half hour squeezing the very last ounce of energy out of myself. If anyone happened to finish a single step ahead of me at least I wanted to know that I had tried my hardest to make up that step. With that in mind, I made myself run again. The brain had obviously gotten the message that we were reasonably close to the finish and actually allowed me to run, which was a nice change to all the failed attempts earlier. All of a sudden I was moving well again, though it sure hurt like hell. The first 10 minutes or so passed quickly but then I was back at the very bottom of the pain cave once more and every step was a challenge. The minutes seemed to pass increasing slowly and with about 5 minutes left I wondered if I had misjudged this once more, but thankfully I somehow made it to the end, the final signal coming as a big relief.

The elation of finally being able to stop moving was overshadowed by a deep disappointment, I cannot deny that. Of all the races I had done, the one where I wore such a highly noticeable bib number had to be the one where I performed at my worst! At the end I had accumulated 189.045 km, a personal worst by almost 14 km, and the first time I had failed to break 200k, and by quite some margin. On the plus side I have the knowledge that I never gave up even when I knew that this was going to be a very long day with very little reward at the end, so at least mentally I performed well.

I will take my time to make any decision on what to do next. I will let myself rest for longer than ever before and try to recover physically and mentally, and eventually I'll come up with a plan. But right now I'm not a sportsman, so excuse me, there's a can of beer or two waiting for me.

22 and 23 Oct
2016 European Championships in Albi, France
189.045 km, 12:16 pace
63rd place


  1. Great determination Thomas, many others would have packed in.
    I wish you the best possible recovery, it will probably take time, but with your determination and discipline you will get there as there is no reason why not.
    Look after yourself.

  2. Enjoy those beers! I was enjoying one as I read your story of trials and tribulations. Well done, now relax and decide whats next but keep the joy of running 1st of mind. Take care!

  3. Well done again Thomas. Of course you are disappointed but take time off and in no time you will be back on the roads in no time dreaming of plenty of races to tackle. 24 hour race in Belfast, Spartathlon etc etc

  4. Great report as always. I wish I was as mentally tough as you are. A mere marathon for me, and many others, this weekend. I will draw strength from yours when I hit the pain. Enjoy the recovery break, no doubt this period of sensible reflection won't last for too long, you are a runner after all.

  5. Well done on finishing Thomas #1. Enjoy the break and have a Coopers or 3 for me. Hope your wife doesn't squeeze your hand to hard if she reads the blog.

  6. Great report Thomas. You are a legend in my eyes.

  7. great report . maybe your gait changed to allow for the knee issues .... its hard to comprehend .. run 189 km and be disappointed .. a real runners thing!!! well done . pm

  8. Sounds horrific. Not many would have kept going. There's your consolation - you have proven you can (mentally) get through anything a race throws at you without giving up. Onwards and upwards!

  9. Well done on making the best of a bad day at the races. Keeping going and covering the miles is what makes you a worthy competitor. Lots of positives to take away, even if the final mileage wasn't what you are capable of on a good day.

    I've suffered lots from cramp in various ultra's too, pretty horrible thing to deal with, especially full on cramps like you ended up developing. I suspect the lack of energy early in the race and developing cramp are related. Could it be a deficiency in sodium, potassium and/or magnesium? Magnesium in particular is linked to cramp.

    Potassium and magnesium deficiencies are pretty common these days due to depletion of minerals in soil. In every day life we can get away with deficiencies more easily, but in heavy training and racing were are pushing our bodies are will likely be more sensitive to deficiencies. Chronic stress is known to increase the need for these minerals, so it can be pretty easy to burn the candle at both ends when training and racing these big ultras.

    Best of luck with recovery and halloween :-)