Sunday, April 23, 2017

I'm back! I'm back!

Let's start with a confession: I would not have gone to Longford if I had picked my own race. I would have gone to Connemara instead, a race very close to my heart. But I guess the coach preferred a race 6 miles shorter, thus requiring less recovery time. To be honest, it seems a lot more sensible. In the last 6 months I have done exactly one run of 17 miles and that's it for long runs. It seems extraordinary to even attempt an ultra on so little endurance training, even a (relatively) short one. Nevertheless, that's what I was in for.

Longford is a long way from Kerry. This better be worthwhile! To be honest, I didn't sleep well the night before. I was too nervous.

The plan was very simple, start out at 8-minute pace, or whatever felt easy and natural, and stick with it for as long as I reasonably can and then suffer until I'm done. I would re-assess at miles 15 and 23 how I felt and adjust accordingly, but that seemed a long way off at the start.

Aidan Hogan was there, which was great because it meant I would never have to worry about potentially winning this race, leaving me to run this as a training run, just as planned (I would have gotten into serious trouble with the coach had I raced a training run). He asked me what my plan was and didn't look too pleased. I guess he had hoped for some company but my pace was too slow for him to even consider.

Anyway, at 8:30 in the morning (ok, a bit later) we were off, together with the early marathon starters. Aidan and another runner stormed off at the front and I was left in third place, at first pursued by a few others but they slowed after a while and I knew I would have to run on my own for a long time. Two marathon runners passed me after a bit, one of them usually finishes closer to 4 hours so I have no idea why he felt the need to start at 7:30 pace, the other one slightly more sensible but I caught him later on as well, close to the half marathon mark.

The course consisted of 10 laps along the Royal Canal, each lap being about 5.2k, plus about 1k extra at the start. The run along the canal was very flat but there were three bumps along the way past some bridges, which I knew would grow with each lap. About 2k were tarmac, 1k was smooth but narrow single track and the rest double track, which was rather uneven and stony, which I didn't particularly like to be honest. On each lap I was looking forward to the tarmac section, and while the single track was nice and smooth, it did make overtaking bit tricky, and there would be a lot of overtaking today.

At various stages we were joined today by a 10k, a half-marathon and a full marathon, 700 runners in all apparently (that's amazing on the same weekend as Connemara and London!), and while the better runners of those races were obviously moving faster than me, most did not and I have no idea how many times I went past another runner but it could have been over 1000 times, all on a rather narrow course. On the plus side, it ensured I never felt lonely and there was always someone to chase - a welcome change to most other ultras. I do like the company of other runners!

Anyway, the pace I settled in was a bit faster than 8-minute pace, which initially worried me a bit. I did slow down a few times but every time I checked the watch I found I had unwittingly accelerated again, and soon enough I stopped looking at the watch and just ran by feel alone.

I did expect to suffer. I hoped I would get to halfway feeling good, which would still leave plenty of scope for suffering, and I hoped to be done in roughly 4:30. I also worried about cramping - surely running twice as far as your single longest training run, at pretty much the same pace, was almost guaranteed to bring on some cramps, going by past experience. On the other hand, a bit of suffering might be character-building, or at least I keep telling myself.

There was one minor incident after 3 laps when the 10k runners were assembling at their start line. Since the course is so narrow, it really required everyone to be careful with everyone else, especially when one large groups assembles on the path while other runners are already in the middle of their race. Actually, the other runners were all great, for all races. My problem came when one of the marshalls stepped out, right into my path. "Excuse me" - still stepping out. "Excuse Me!" - still stepping, and now he's getting uncomfortably close. "EXCUSE ME!" and bang, I bumped into him. I could not step aside because there was absolutely no room to do so, and I hadn't slowed down because I really had not expected him to fully block my path, especially with me shouting 3 warnings. Anyway, no harm done, though I did wonder how he possibly could not have seen or heard me!

That was as exciting as it got, really. I did notice 2 runners running less than 30 seconds behind me for over 20 miles, but when they accelerated and finally overtook me they turned out to be marathon runners from the early start, so I didn't lose my place in the ultra field.

At mile 15 I re-assessed and decided that I felt surprisingly good but accelerating was most likely a bad idea with so much race still left and I just kept going at the same pace.

I did the same at mile 24 or 25, a little bit later than planned but the miles were still ticking by so fast I had missed my cue. At that point my hamstrings were definitely tired and my hip flexors were starting to complain as well, but overall I was feeling a lot better than expected; before the race I had expected to be in a world of pain by that point. Instead my running form seemed still solid (as far as I could tell at least) and I was still moving at the same pace. I decided to try and keep going as I was, but without increasing the effort past a certain threshold, which realistically meant I would slow down a tad. That's ok. Aidan lapped me, moving at the same pace as the faster half-marathon runners, which was very impressive to say the least. He still looked totally comfortable going considerably faster than 7-minute pace well past the marathon distance. Afterwards he told me he finished with a sub-6 mile. Blimey!

Anyway, my own pace did drop just below 8-minute pace but I was well ahead of schedule and, most importantly, feeling so much better than expected I could hardly believe it. I passed the marathon mark in about 3:24, still very comfortable though at that point I definitely started tiring and it got a bit harder from here on. But with the finish in sight that wasn't much of an issue.

Right at the end of my last lap the microphone guy announced an ultra runner just finishing, which I obviously took to be me, until he said "number 7", which was not my number, and it was only then that I realised that I had almost completely caught up to the second runner who had headed off fast at the start, but finished maybe 2 or 3 seconds behind him. Honestly, had I known that I would have run just a tiny bit faster, not that it mattered. Both of us were so far behind Aidan that he had time to shower, change and eat, and he could probably have finished reading a book or paint a landscape to pass the time waiting for us.

So, I finished in third place (at least as far as I know, not having seen any official result), 32.85miles on the watch, in 4:16:40, which translates to 7:48 pace, a bit faster than expected, but feeling so much better than I thought I would. I was really pleased, not with the time, I didn't care about that, but with how well this had gone. I had no business to believe this would go so well, with my reduced training the last few months, but apparently I don't have to run 100 miles a week to get into some decent shape. Maybe it's muscle memory.

Anyway, now there's some time for recovery. But my confidence level has increased by an enormous amount, which is the main thing I take away from Longford.

Lap paces: 7:46, 7:45, 7:49, 7:42, 7:43, 7:33, 7:46, 7:56, 8:03, 8:03. I'm very happy with those numbers and how well they held up.

I'm an ultra runner again!

21 Apr
4 miles, 32:52, 8:13 pace, HR 135
22 Apr
Longford Royal Canal Ultra, 53k
4:16:40, 7:48 pace, HR 154
23 Apr
4 miles, 33:57, 8:29 pace, HR 141


  1. You said Blimey! Why.. oh why!!

    1. Because it sounded more polite than Bloody hell! :)

  2. Way to go, Thomas! A long road back, but well done.

  3. Good report and result Thomas. You're going well.

  4. Awesome!!! Feels like a long time waiting for a really positive race to confirm that fitness is finally on the right track, good to know that you've bounced back. Kudos on being patient with training and not loosing focus.

  5. You animal! My best marathon PR was 4:11, so I can't even fathom doing more in about the same time. Hope you make Connemara again soon:-)