Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Anatomy Of A Disaster

In the days leading up to the race I felt strangely detached from it all, as if I was watching from the outside. That was very much n contrast to 2 years ago, in Turin, when I had been a bundle of nerves for several days. Maybe the fact that my home race was suddenly the World Championship made it all feel unreal to me, but I did wonder why my head wasn't in it.

Things changed completely overnight. As soon as I woke up on Saturday, race day, I panicked at the thought of having to run for 24 hours. Breakfast was a nervous affair and the last minute packing was all a bit frantic, even though I literally had hours to spare.

I calmed down somewhat when I met my Austrian team mates at the race course and we all got ready for the start. Then, with about 30 minutes to go, I suddenly realized that I had no idea where my timing chip was. I went through all my belongings, increasingly panicky and out of my mind, until our team manager suggested talking to the RD. I have known the RD, Ed Smith, for years, which helped and within a few minutes he had procured a timing chip from one of the open race competitors that had not turned up, and they re-programmed it on the spot. Problem solved, panic averted. I owe Ed a pint or five. Reinhold, the team manager, quipped that a last-minute adrenaline shot may have some positive effects, and that was that. By now it was time to gather for the start.

Things weren't quite as organized, many open race and international runners seemed mingled together rather than separated as they had been in Turin and Albi, not that it made any difference to me. At 12 o'clock we all set off on our long, long journey, at a very sedate pace. This was going to last for quite some time.

I settled into the slowest pace that still felt comfortable. That's tricky, especially when you're full of energy and have been raring to go for quite some time. For me, it was just under 9-minute miles. According to my strava data my third mile was a tiny bit quick at 8:35 but the rest was more in line with expectations - and 8:35 isn't THAT quick, not even for a 24. In my best races I had faster miles in there.

The race course was the same as for the Irish championships last year, Victoria Park. Since last year's race I have mixed feelings about the setting. The park itself is marvelous and the course is very flat. However, the running surface is made of concrete. Last year a lot of runners gave up at some point because their legs could not stand the brutally hard surface any more. But many of the ones who managed to keep going posted great results, so it's a tough but potentially fast course. I guess that makes for an intriguing world championship.

The weather forecast had been excellent for running with temperatures no higher than 16 or 18 degrees, depending on whom you believed, and maybe a little bit of rain in the evening. The temperature bit was right but the rain arrived much earlier than forecast and we were treated to some typical Irish weather in the still early hours of the race - rain, followed by sunshine 5 minutes later, followed by some more rain, and repeat. Eventually the rain stopped, and I heard the announcer saying something about the next 18 hours being dry, which turned out to be correct. All in all, the conditions for running were excellent.

During one of the early laps I looked up and right in front of me there was Patrycja Bereznowska running just a few steps behind Tracy Falbo. How often do you have the chance to witness two world record holders live in action like that?

I passed the marathon mark pretty much exactly in 4 hours. That's what I expect to be my early pace in all of my 24 hour races, so all was good. And, most importantly, I felt good, very much in contrast to Albi last year when I was totally knackered at that point already. Things were definitely looking good and I was optimistic for the next 20 hours ahead.

With this being my home race there were tons of friends around, some of them running the course, either as internationals or in the open race, but also as spectators, volunteers and crew. I got plenty of cheers. That's what I love about ultra running. Virtually everyone is supportive and friendly and there is always a ton of mutual respect amongst all the runners. It's what shared suffering does to a group of people, I suppose.

I did have a bit of a problem with the fact that international runners were not allowed to run together with anyone from the open race, or anyone from the other gender, because that could be interpreted as illegal pacing. Obviously, many times I found myself running side-by-side with someone I knew very well, and of course we did chat for a few minutes. However, I was always conscious of that rule, so after a while I always had to send them off again, not daring to risk the wrath of the judges - though in reality I think they weren't bothered by runners chatting while running together for a lap or two.

Running for many hours in a 1-mile loop doesn't lend itself to a race report because details are merging into each other, time gets lost and the increasing fatigue plays all kind of tricks on you.

At one point Katy Nagy went past me and a few second later Florian Reus did the same, so I had a front seat witnessing the two reigning World champions greeting each other happily, and the mutual respect between those two great athletes was great to see.

I still felt pretty good during the second marathon and reached 80k in about 8 hours. 10 km per hour is exactly what I expect to run for many an hour - in Belfast 2014 I managed it for almost 16 hours before slowing down, so it certainly did not ring any alarm bells whatsoever. But I must have started slowing down a bit around that time, though very gradually at first. I still felt reasonably okay. Obviously there was a fair amount of fatigue but after so many hours that was perfectly normal, especially with my usual bedtime approaching.

My stomach held up well. At some point I took some caffeine, after which it felt a bit iffy for a while, but it settled down again and all was good. Lack of nutrition certainly was not an issue today. I drank plenty but didn't use the toilet for almost 10 hours, which may be longer than you might expect but not unusual for me.

At one point Pat Robbins passed me (again) and when I said "Hi Pat", as you do, he did something I really had not expected, he slowed down to my pace for half a lap and we had a nice little chat for a few minutes. Thanks Pat, very much appreciated! It wasn't just him, the entire British team were absolute top class, as runners as well as extremely nice human beings. So were the Irish. And a few others. Have I mentioned how much I love the camaraderie and mutual support amongst ultra runners?

There was a screen with lap times and overall mileage at the start/finish line. That was a great feedback device and in fact that screen was the reason why I wore my glasses today. Usually I'm happy enough to run half-blind but today I wanted to be able to check my progress, which is important, mentally especially. Therefore it was a bit annoying that it kept failing, either being frozen or turned off completely. At first I thought the rain had affected it but they got it working again and then it remained dry, yet the screen kept failing again and again. Not good.

The other thing that wasn't good was that my legs started complaining. Obviously everyone gets tired after running for many hours. I get that. But I have been there many times before, and the way my legs went downhill wasn't the same. It was the quads especially, though the hamstrings weren't happy either. By contrast, my calf muscles, so often my weak spot, were behaving impeccably. Before the race I would have bet my house on the fact that the weakest link would be my calves.

Anyway, working somewhere in the haze of increasing exhaustion and burning quads, I kept going. And going. And going. I was still happy enough with my progress but then I noticed something very strange. A look at the screen, showed me at 88 laps. When I then looked at my watch, it said 83 miles. That did not make sense because 83 miles on a loop of just over 1 mile would be closer to 81 or 82 laps. I think I was still puzzling at the conundrum (the brain starts working in slow motion after so many hours of running) when a few laps later the screen said 95 laps when a look at my watch said it could not be more than 85 laps. What the **** was going on here? Were they counting laps twice? Was my "borrowed" timing chip an issue? I resolved to check again the next lap but when I came through the finish the screen was blank again. I didn't know it at the time, but it would remain blank for the entire rest of the race!

Things are getting increasingly hazy from here on, so some details and times may be getting mixed up. My legs went downhill very quickly. I went from running the entire lap to walking through the feed zone, to walking half a lap, to walking the entire lap in an alarmingly rapid decline. My energy levels seemed fine and my stomach was still taking just about anything they gave me. But my quads were shot and I just could not lift the legs any more. Walking was okay for the time being and I was optimistic that the good times would return eventually - in a 24 hours race you will always have big ups and downs, you just have to handle them.

From my watch as well as the screen I figured I had been close to 120k at the halfway mark, so a decent final tally seemed still on the cards. It was now past midnight and once I stopped running I got cold quickly, so I put on my jacket. The other things I noticed was that I had to go to the toilet almost every lap - and that after not going at all for the first 10 hours! I reduced my fluid intake, which got that issue back into balance. However, my quads just would no cooperate.

At one point, in desperation, I took one paracetamol. I did not like doing that. It's just a bad idea. Pain is there for a reason and masking it to push yourself through it is just asking for injury and health issues, but there comes a point when you try just about anything. Well, it did get me back running. For all of three laps, so about half an hour. Then it was over again. No more running. I also decided no more pain killers. While I was prepared to hurt, I wasn't prepared to damage myself, at least no more than whatever damage came "naturally".

I won't go into too much detail; I don't want to wallow in misery and go through the entire ordeal again. I spent many hours contemplating quitting, both that race specifically as well as ultra running in general. And of course I wasn't the only one suffering, half the field was struggling, including some of the best runners in the world. I no longer had to worry about being accused of illegal pacing, so I had the chance to chat with Andrew, Darren, Dennis, Aoife, Aine and a few others while we slowly circled Victoria Park again and again and again (apologies to anyone not mentioned).

After a few hours of walking (as well as 12 of running), my feet were swollen and the shoes felt increasingly uncomfortable. The top of my feet seemed to press against the laces so I decided to change shoes. My other pair were some Hokas, which I don't actually like because the cushioning feels wrong and takes away energy from my stride, but they were slightly larger and I knew they would feel better at that stage. When I put on one of the shoes I noticed something in there. I reached inside - and pulled out MY TIMING CHIP!!! So that's where it had been, and if I hadn't completely lost my head in my panic I sure would have found it before the race. Ah well. Too late for that now.

Since this race was held at the start of July and fairly high up north, the night was very short and after only a couple of hours of darkness the light returned already. If I had been running I would have very much welcomed the sun - walking through my misery as I was, it didn't make much of a difference.

At some point our team physio decided to give my quads a massage, to which I agreed only too willingly, mostly because it gave me an excuse to sit down for a couple of minutes. I expected this to be rather painful but she was actually quite gentle. Alas, as far as running was concerned, it did not make any difference whatsoever. My quads remained as dead as a dodo.

My legs weren't the only thing out of whack. Doing constant calculations in my head I kept thinking that 200k were still very much on the cards, until the moment when Finn O'Mara patiently explained to me that with 15 hours gone there were only 9 left to go, not 11 as I kept on thinking. Oops. Actually, the fact that I was disappointed by the fact that my projected mileage had just taken a fatal blow rather than relieved that I was closer to the finish is a good thing. At least mentally I had still been in the race.

The hours ticked by slowly and I was still walking. At some point I stopped questioning myself why I was still doing this because even that started to get old. I really have to thank the crews from the open race for their never-ending support and cheerful attitude. Ger, Don, Audrey, George, … ok, I should not start naming names, I can't possibly list them all. If you were there, consider yourself thanked. I can’t remember all the names, there were too many of you!

Usually towards the end of such a slog you start smelling the finish and the legs start responding again. Not so this time. If anything, things got worse. After too many hours even walking had become increasingly painful and when I tried running again I was more likely to fall over than to gain speed, and now my energy levels dropped to zero and even remaining upright was challenging enough on its own. I remember one particular moment when I needed to use the fence near the finish line to stop myself from falling over but thankfully that was once-off. Right at the end I really was at the end of my tether. I didn’t even hear the final claxon and only reacted to others stopping still.

Done. Finally done. There was a tree nearby and I rested against it, waiting for the measurement wheel to come by. I really wanted to lie down but knew that I would not be able to get up again. However, within less than half a minute (estimated) my ears started ringing and black spots started appearing in front of my eyes. I’ve been there before and knew I had only a couple of seconds before I would pass out. I didn’t want to fall down and bang my head uncontrollably but my legs wouldn’t bend over either. Thankfully two guys nearby saw me and literally caught me. I mumbled something that I was about to faint but probably didn’t sound too coherent, though the message got through. Whoever you were, thanks a lot! I lay in the grass for a while and even that was uncomfortable. Some sugary drink got some balance back into the system and they eventually helped me up and I slowly, very slowly made my way back to the tent.

Not much was said there. I mumbled something along the lines of “I would love to say that was the hardest thing I've ever done but I'm sure Spartathlon was worse!” which pretty much sums up my day. My watch displayed 121.7 miles, and even with the usual slight overestimation you get from a GPS device I thought at least I had cracked 120 miles but the official results have me at 115 miles / 185 km. I have no idea where that massive gap came from. I thought I was very close to 120k at the halfway stage, and surely I must have walked more than 65 k in 12 hours! Maybe the data at the halfway mark was off already, but when I compared the watch and screen data after 50 miles/ 80k / 8 hours, there was about half a mile of difference, so I would have expected a total discrepancy of maybe 1.5 miles at the end, not almost 7 miles!

I'm not disputing the official result, it was just one final disappointment at the end of a thoroughly disappointing race. This just wasn’t good enough. Not good enough for me, and most definitely not good enough by international standards.

Let's finish on a positive note. I once more managed to keep going even when things had long gone south, which must count for something, though I very much preferred never to go there again. And being in the same race where Patrycja Bereznowska set yet another amazing world record was quite something.
1 Jul
24 hrs World Championships, Belfast
185.48 km / 115.25 miles
103rd place / 17th M45


  1. Great report as usual. I think just put this down to a bad 12 hours or so. If you try to over-analyse this it will do your head in. You did finish 103rd in the world championships and 17th m45 so it wasn't a disaster. You're still an inspiration to lesser mortals. Recover well.

  2. I alway appreciate the time it must take you to write such a report, thank you for it. I love reading them, good or bad. Your title is a bit harsh in my humble opinion, to engage in an endurance event and cover 115 miles is certainly no disaster, but I do understand it is all relative. Speedy recovery, I will be interested to see what the next adventure is! Us short distance runners are still impressed anyway!

  3. That sounds as tough to write as it was to run Thomas. I know what you mean about feeling detached or disinterested before the race and then panicked on the day of it. It has happened to me in some races (short distances obviously) and it is never a good sign, possibly fatigue or underlying non running related stress. The only advice anyway can give in these situations is to rest up , get back to easy jogging and then get the fun back into running and take it from there. Keep up the ultra running if you want but maybe different goals? You did well man, running in a event way out of the scope of mere mortals.

  4. Good read Thomas. Tough when the legs are only good for walking in the back half. At least you didn't do a Jim Walmsley.