Monday, April 02, 2018

April Fools

"Are you here for the sword?"

Paddy's question referenced the winner's prize today, a beautiful full-sized hand-crafted sword made by Cyril. "Alex O'Shea is here. The rest of us don't have to worry about the sword". That summed up the situation. I was here to do a training run. A very long training run, the longest of my build-up, but a training run nevertheless. Alex's presence meant I would not have to stress about potentially trying to win and could just pace myself sensibly instead. At least that's the theory, it doesn't always work out like that.

Anyway, the most stressful part of the day was already behind me, namely finding the start somewhere in the back end of Kildare in complete darkness, but I had managed that in good time. Then we all got ready, had Anto deliver his race directions, including "there's a sign at mile 8 saying towpath closed. Ignore that.", mixed with his usual mixture of jokes and abuse.

And at 7am, just as it started getting bright, we were off. Alex stormed away right from the start to disappear behind the horizon in next to no time. 2 lads went past me at a fairly ambitious pace and then it was me. For the next 2, 3, maybe 4 miles I kept hearing voices chatting behind me but they eventually faded away. By that time Alex was a barely noticeable orange dot at the horizon and the other 2 lads were quite a distance ahead of me. At some point, when going through a turnstile, I caught a glimpse of the road behind me for what looked like a mile and there was nobody to be seen. I guess I didn't have to worry too much about being chased.

Directions were simple enough. Follow the Grand Canal from Ollie's and Charlotte's Spartan Way house for about 30 miles until you hit the turnaround point, keeping the canal 2 feet to your left. Then run back, keeping it 2 feet to your right. It really was as idiot-proof as that; it even saved Anto from having to signpost the course. However, I did disagree with his assessment that the surface was "85% road, 10% grass, 5% shit", and more like "50% road, 40% grass and 10% muck". Especially for the first 15 miles I remember preciously few parts of proper road and kept slipping on the wet grass and stumbling on the stones. In fact, the 2 or 3 miles of "shit" weren't really any worse than much of what we had already covered.

The checkpoints were 10 miles apart, which made me think about the best strategy. Most runners had their backpacks with them, and for a while I did consider that as well. However, water is heavy and carrying heavy load slows you down and makes you tired. Besides, I hate carrying stuff, so I just put my phone (the only compulsory item) into a little fanny pack together with a couple of gels and some caffeine/salt/paracetamol tablets (the last ones with the intention of not taking them, though I didn't see that through in the end), with a small muesli bar as a late addition, and resolved to drink at each aid station, and if I really was too thirsty I'd start carrying a water bottle from one of the aid stations.

Coming into CP1
I caught up with the 2 lads at the first aid station, and since I spent a lot less time in there than they did I was right on their heels as we left, though I wasted that time again to reply to some "Happy Easter" messages to the family back home in Austria when the phone started buzzing. I usually hate people posting selfies on FB during a race (it's race, FFS), but in this situation I deliberately tried to remind myself to treat this as a training run and not a race. That initially restored the gap to the lads again but once we hit proper road surface as we got close to Daingean (what? A Dingle in Offaly?) either I inadvertently sped up or they slowed down because by mile 17 I passed them and from then on was in second place.

There were about 12 miles of almost uninterrupted road surface, which initially felt hard on the legs after all the soft grass, but I quickly got used to it and relished the feeling of being able to stride out properly. Yes, I am very much a road runner. I got to CP2 and had a sports drink as well as a chocolate bar, before heading off towards Tullamore, where we passed the marathon distance. I was really pleased with how great the legs felt at that time, until I realised that taking on the carbs from the sports drink and the chocolate was probably responsible for that. There were 2 road crossing in Tullamore but I got through them without having to stop.

I got to some rougher surface again and at about 28 miles saw an orange top approaching rapidly, which was of course Alex on the return journey. This would have been my one chance of taking race victory by attacking him unawares, but instead we gave each other a high five and went our respective ways again. The turnaround point arrived sooner than expected with "only" 30 miles on the watch. A quick drink, some banter with Anto, another selfie, and off I was.

At that point I remembered the weather forecast. It had been cold but completely wind still at the start. However, the remnants of the "Beast from the East" were predicted to visit us once again, which meant an increasingly strong wind coming from the East - oh shit! Basically, no or next to no tailwind on the way out and more and more headwind on the way back. Lovely. There was also some forecast of rain in the afternoon. I really hoped to get through the mucky bit 8-11 miles from the finish before that would arrive.

Anyway, I straight away noticed the breeze blowing right into my face though it wasn't too bad just yet. I kept going for maybe 10 minutes before encountering the first runner heading out towards CP3 and for the next few miles it was a steady stream of friendly faces with a common purpose, plenty of hellos, high fives and best wishes, which made the miles fly by and the wind not particularly noticeable. Shortly after Tullamore, just as it got quiet again, another, unexpected friendly face appeared in the form of Jack Healy, who helped out with an extra support stop and encouraging words. Thanks mate!

Off I went again, and eventually I started to notice the wind properly.

I don't usually run with music. Never in training. I prefer to listen to my body and go through the signal it sends. Music just distracts from that. However, once you run for long enough there comes the point where I prefer not to listen to those signals any more because they're starting to tell me things I'd prefer not to notice, and as I got close to the 40 mile mark I reached that point and I took out my tiny, old, very rarely used mp3 player and tried to drown out the signs of ever increasing fatigue with some good old-fashioned hard rock.

I was still in reasonable shape when I reached CP4 (same as CP2, of course) and didn't spend much time there, just another drink, and put a chocolate bar into my bag as an emergency supply for later. They had some pot noodles there but my stomach revolted at the mere thought of it and anyway, I don't think they would have contained a lot of calories. Some savoury food would have been good; maybe I should suggest to Anto to offer some boiled potatoes there next time, my own special secret for ultra running.

Soon after leaving CP4 I really started to notice the headwind and the miles on the watch ticked by at an every decreasing rate. I still held it together somewhat until I got to Daingean again but once I hit the grass again the wheels really started to come off and I stumbled from step to step again rather than run.

Actually, in some ways I was very pleased with how the legs managed to cope. There was not one muscle that was particularly sore, nothing where I could have pointed to and said "this hurts", and there was no sign of cramping. However, I was undeniably absolutely knackered.

Obviously, this didn't come as a complete surprise. I know I was treating this as a training run but once you hit a certain distance you reach the point where just moving forward required 100% effort, and the idea of taking it easy because it's not a goal race becomes meaningless.

In an ultra you will always have some ups and downs. Sometimes they last, sometimes they come and go quickly. It's how you deal with the inevitable lows that defines your race. As always, I dealt with it the only way I know: I put my head down and kept going. Left foot, right foot, repeat.

The landscape did not help. It's completely flat along the canal (well, duh!) and rarely are there any landmarks you can look forward to. Instead you tend to be able to look ahead for miles and see nothing but a pretty much featureless strip of water and a path either side of it. There will be a bend in the canal at some point and so you run for ages to reach it, only to be greeted by the next stretch of nothingness. And if you let the negativity get to you, you're in trouble.

Approaching CP5
Eventually I got to mile 50 and the final CP. "I need a chair and a coke", and both very provided immediately. I also took a paracetamol here, all good intentions not to take them having long evaporated. They also gave me a fruit bar, which I wasn't sure if my stomach could handle it, but it seemed rude to say no and my stomach did manage. I didn't stay long and left as quickly as I could. I wanted to get this over and done with.

As exhausted as I was, I was thankful to hit the mucky bit before the rain had set in, which was a definite plus. In fact, both the mucky miles as well as the many mile of grass seemed to provide much better grip now than they had on the way out. Unlike on the outward journey I didn't constantly feel like I was slipping all the time and seemed to find good traction all the way. I think the course had dried out a bit in the intervening hours. However, the headwind was now reaching the point where it could be described as "brutal". For a few more miles I was still running every step because walking would have been just as painful but somewhere around mile 55 I did have a few walk breaks, which I think was merely psychological because physically I was actually still feeling surprisingly good with the muscles all in good shape. Just exhausted, that's all.

I did curse Anto's name a couple of times, not sure if loudly or quietly. But mostly I did curse the wind. At some point, when I saw the gorse beside me swaying wildly, which really drove home the fact just how windy it was at the time, I started to scream out loudly in frustration at having to keep running right into the gale, but the wind was entirely unimpressed. I was tempted to just lie down in the grass but that would still have hurt just as much and would have had the distinctive disadvantage of not getting any closer to the finish.

Eventually I remembered that chocolate bar I had taken at CP4 and ate it. My stomach was less than thrilled at the idea of even more sugar and I think any more and it would have all come up again but as it turned out it was the exact right thing to do at the time. Within 2 minutes I was running again and within half a mile I was running faster than at any point in the last 15 miles, headwind be damned (which, admittedly, still wasn't very fast in objective terms). After almost 5 miles of nothing but empty landscape ever since passing Edenderry I finally saw some buildings again, and when I got closer there was a welcoming committee, which was fantastic to see and gave me a big lift. Thank you! There was only maybe half a mile to go, which flew by quickly, and then I was done.

Finally done!

The time was a rather modest 9:34:04, exactly an hour slower than my PB. How much of that is due to the dodgy surface, the wind and a lack of fitness is a question I'm not entirely sure about; however, the main purpose of that run was to build exactly that kind of endurance.

There was a BBQ going on, provided by our fantastic hosts Ollie and Charlotte, and the burger I ate right after finishing was probably the best thing I've ever tasted. Alex was of course long finished, recovered and happy out, and for the next couple of hours gradually more and more runners joined us as they finished. I stayed until about 7 o'clock, happy to have done the race but equally happy to be finished.

Thanks to Anto for putting on yet another great race, to Cyril for crafting a fantastic, unique trophy, and of course all the volunteers who spent all of Easter Sunday looking after a bunch of April Fools.

I never ate my muesli bar.

Courtesy of Sean Cassin

28 Mar
4.1 miles, 35:58, 8:46 pace, HR 121
29 Mar
4.1 miles, 31:11, 8:05 pace, HR 131
30 Mar
4.15 miles, 34:17, 8:15 pace, HR 128
31 Mar
4.25 miles, 36:03, 8:28 pace, HR 130
1 Apr
Spartan's Way 100k, 60+ miles, 9:34:04, 9:33 pace, HR 135
   2nd place
2 Apr
4.15 miles, 43:48, 10:31 pace, HR 121


  1. Great report Thomas, thanks for the superb write up.
    Congratulation too on your achievement!

  2. A “training run”, you’re killing me! I’m amazed st what y’all do!

    Start downloading more tunes, & look for upbeat rock or R&B. I love a good jam with my fitness. I found it interesting that you don’t normally run with it.

    Good luck in your next “training run”.

  3. Excellent work Thomas, looking forward to seeing your times in your 2018 'non-training' ultras..

  4. Good going Thomas, your training run is still a good few hours faster then my best 100k time :P