Sunday, September 03, 2017

The Wet Wild Atlantic Way

And so, exactly one week after being transported in an ambulance to A&E with chest pains, I found myself on the start line of the Dingle marathon. As daft as that may sound, this was my first ever race for which I had been specifically cleared to run by a cardiologist, so I wasn't worried about dropping dead. What I DID worry about was the fact that I had not run more than 10 miles in one go for over 2 months; I expected some serious amount of suffering to come my way, especially with that big hill at mile 22.

I got to the start with less than 15 minute to spare - I wish they had told us about the roadworks on the Dingle road beforehand. And my night before the race had been rather restless, as always before a big race. But when I got to the start I met Stephen and Tony and Seamus and a few more, and somehow it felt like I had never been away.

Photo by Chris Grayson
Just like last year I joined in with the 3:30 pace group of Chris and Fozzy, and just like last year it felt ridiculously easy for the first half. In fact, several times I found myself drifting slowly ahead of the pack until I realised I was well ahead of them and took it easy for a minute or 2 until they had caught up again. It was a rather conservative way to run a marathon but with my lack of specific endurance fitness I preferred it that way.

When I had checked the weather forecast on Wednesday it promised a dry and overcast day, perfect for running. Alas, by Friday they had changed their mind and from 10 o'clock on we would be running in wind and rain, with plenty of both in store. Of course it was the latter forecast that proved to be correct and from about 6 miles on we had a full-on experience of the Wild Atlantic Way.

It was a shame as the absolutely stunning scenery is the major draw of this race. Of all the races I have done, this one and Achill Island are outstanding even amongst tough competition in the scenery stakes, but today we didn't get to see all of it. Slea Head and the Blaskets were as stunning as ever and the Seven Sisters still looked good in the mist but the Skelligs and much else was kept hidden.

Anyway, as the road dropped down into Dunquin for the finish of the half marathon I once again found myself a bit ahead of the pace group and decided that I had played it safe for long enough and just kept going. It was only marginally faster than 3:30 pace, so the risk I ran by running a few seconds faster per mile was rather negligible. Another runner seemed to latch on to me and I kept hearing his footsteps for miles and miles after that - not that I minded, I have done the same plenty of times. Together we gradually roped in a couple of runners ahead of us at the rate of about 1 per mile, but the effort still felt surprisingly easy. Even with all the hills and the blustery wind I found myself feeling surprisingly fresh even after the 15 mile mark, something I had not expected.

Photo by Chris Grayson
The wind threw in a few extra challenges. It was strong enough at times to feel like it was going to blow me off my feet and constantly changing direction. We would have it right in our faces at times, almost bringing us to a standstill, only to blow us forward again just a minute later. At least we did not have a straight headwind for over 10 miles, something I had worried about earlier on.

Alas, it was not going to last forever. As we got into Ballyferriter at mile 18 it felt like someone had tied a piece of string around my windpipe and pulled it tighter and tighter. I still managed to get just enough breath to keep going at roughly the same effort level but any faster and I would be unable to get enough oxygen into the system. With 8 miles still to go that wasn't ideal but I was still running and just tried to keep things under control.

Eventually that runner behind my back drew level and it turned out to be John. "I had no idea it was you following me" - "sorry, without my glasses I don't recognise anyone 2 feet away" (a problem I'm familiar with) and we chatted a bit while running together for the next 3 miles, which helped pass the time and took my mind off the breathing issues. Eventually he pulled away from me and since that big hill was just about to start I knew I would not be able to keep up with him anyway.

The next miles were definitely a struggle. The legs, while clearly tired, were still in reasonable shape but my lungs were not and all I could do was suck in air as through a straw and jog up the hill at a very slow pace. I could hear the 3:30 group catching up very quickly and I must have sounded pretty bad because Chris and Fozzy both inquired in a rather more worried tone than usual if I was okay.

I knew I would be okay as soon as I got to the top of that hill but it's a bloody big hill and I lost a fair amount of time. I doubted Chris' appraisal of the situation that I would catch up with them again - last year they had caught me exactly here as well and I never managed to close that gap again, though back then the problem had been cramps rather than asthma, which is rather different. By the way, I had no issue with cramps today, probably because of the easy effort for so many miles.

Anyway, I eventually made it up to the top of that hill, close to the 23 mile mark. I had 3.5 miles left at that point and once the road stopped climbing I quickly got my breath back and started to spin the legs a bit. I was pleased to see them respond enthusiastically, my quads were in very good condition and relished the downhill. I threw in a 7-minute mile, which carried me past the 3:30 boys again and I sailed past a few other runners as well, feeling good.

One more twist in the tail of the Dingle marathon route is that the road at that point is completely straight for over 2 miles and just seems to go on forever. At first you have the benefit of the downhill gradient going for you but then that flattens out and you still have a long way to go, and this time we really were heading right into a relentless headwind, with tired legs and tired minds. I can only suggest not to look ahead as the end never seems to come any closer but just look at the road right in front of your feet and just take it one step at a time, and eventually, after an age, you get to Milltown and then finally the t-junction at the end.

After 3 strong miles I did struggle again over the last half mile, my breathing becoming increasingly more erratic but it sounded worse than it was and I knew this would be over soon enough. Still, I don't remember the road towards the Marina ever taking quite so long, it sure had expanded since last time. But of course eventually that was behind me as well and I crossed the finish line in 3:28:31 on my watch, certainly better than I had expected and the legs still in surprisingly good shape.

I had taken a very conservative pacing approach to this race and I'm sure I could have run a few minutes faster but this was a training run, very early in the program, and I'd much rather err on the side of caution. The breathing was a problem over the last few miles but I hope this will eventually sort itself out. The legs were in much better shape than I could have hoped for, and that's what I'm mostly focusing on.
2 Sep
Dingle marathon
3:28:31, 7:57 pace, HR 153
3 Sep
5 miles, 45:19, 9:03 pace, HR 137


  1. You're amazing T! I was just in Dingle and driving around the Inch Strand on my birthday last July! It was just breath taking, and the hills were very hard on the car, hahaha. Congrats on a fab finish and I'll share your posts on all my pages. It'll be an inspiration to anyone coming off injury.

  2. Wow I'm amazed at this accomplishment Thomas, this was so cool and inspiring.

  3. Congrats Thomas, 3:28:31 is a great time! I noticed reading your article that we have similar breathing issues. I never ran a marathon yet but when I run over 20k I have breathing issues sometimes, it's like someone is choking me. Well, not that intense but yeah a bit of a struggle to breath air. Congrats again, well done. Just landed on your blog and damn, you've done a lot of races! Cheers, Vic

  4. Good result Thomas. Full steam ahead!