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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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
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|
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