Monday, July 02, 2018

Under His Eye

Caution: This race reports contains some amount of swearing. It would not be authentic otherwise. If that kind of thing offends you, better fuck off right now.

Yes, that was BEFORE the start
I had been planning to run the 24 hrs race in Irdning for a long time. It is the annual venue of the Austrian championships, and despite having lived away for half my life, that’s still my passport. Also, race reports have generally been very positive, from the excellent organisation to the stunning views and the phenomenal crowd support. At some point I had to give it a go. With the World Championships being held here next year, why not now?

The journey from Ireland was not without hiccups but didn’t really add to the stress. We got to Bad Aussee, about half an hour’s drive from Irdning, late Wednesday evening and had all Thursday and most of Friday to relax. Race start was Friday 7 pm, quite a similar time to what Belfast used to be, which suited me just fine.

I met all my (previous?) team mates from the Austrian national team there, including some who had by now retired and were just running for fun, but also some new and upcoming talents. The vibe was very friendly and relaxed, though I got a bit tense as the start time approached. I knew I was in for a lot of pain.

Training had been … strange. At first it all went phenomenally well. I felt better week by week and could see improvements at an almost incredible rate. However, it seemed to hit a block when I ran the 100k on Easter Sunday. The race itself was challenging but had gone reasonably well, I was happy with how the legs had coped, I wasn’t particularly sore afterwards, but the HR numbers never fully recovered. Once immediate recovery was done, the legs felt perfectly fine but somehow the numbers were significantly worse. I wasn’t worried at the time. I still had 3 months until the race, seemingly plenty of time for full recovery. Alas, full recovery never came.

I also started tracking my HRV, which is supposed to be a great tool to track recovery, but somehow that failed to raise an alarm. My HRV numbers were always good, in fact they were in the green zone so much it seemed to indicate I was undertraining. In hindsight I think I can call that a failed experiment.

Still, at that point things were still pretty positive. But then I ran 3 marathons in 4 weeks. That didn’t ring any alarm bells for me. In fact, even now I don’t see much wrong with it as such, I have had much harder training blocks in the past. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, it seemed to push me over the edge. I ran all those marathons very relaxed, never pushing the effort even close to race pace. I felt good throughout. I was perfectly comfortable at all times, including the late miles. I was not sore afterwards. However, after the Cork marathons my hamstrings and glutes started to feel wrong. Very stiff. A little bit ... well, painful is the wrong word, just not quite right. It was worse on the right leg, but both were affected. And it never got right again.

So, here I was, at the start of a 24 hours race, knowing that something was not right. I could have pulled out but that was never an option I would have considered. I decided to give it a go. See how the legs would cope. I have gone into races not feeling quite right and ended up surprising myself. Admittedly, not 24 hour races. Anyway, I was going to give it a go.

I did not put myself under any pressure. I did not feel the need to prove that I’m an international class runner. If the legs did not cooperate, I’d just have to accept that and deal with it. Just do what you can.

I started at a very comfortable effort. I was slightly ahead of my average PB pace, but that’s normal. Everyone I know starts a 24 hour race a bit too fast. Ok, there are exceptions but I can count them on one hand and still have some spare fingers. In fact, I was probably starting slower than in any 24 race before. Looking at the early mile splits now, there are a couple of 8:40 miles, definitely too fast, but in fact it looks a lot more reasonable and conservative than in my other 24 hour races, including my best races. Honestly, that should have been fine.

In general, I felt very comfortable, as you should. However, the hamstrings were off, just like for all my other runs in the last 4 weeks. In the early hours that didn’t bother me, at so slow a pace some stiff muscles aren’t much of an issue.

Much more worrying was the fact that my stomach did not feel good right from the very first sip I took of my sports drink. It felt almost like heartburn, though not severe. That was a nasty and totally unexpected surprise. I have used that sports drink plenty of times before and never had an issue with it. I kind of expected to get sick of it after many hours but definitely not from the very start. At first I forced them down, but after a few hours I couldn’t do that any more. I started sipping it in very small amounts but even that became unbearable. In fact, it wasn’t just the sports drink. The mere thought of anything sweet almost made me gag – including the coke or sweets at the official aid station, or the gels I had brought myself. The one thing I could eat were my potatoes (ah yes, my claim to fame) but even with them I had to limit myself to only 1 small potato every hour, or even less.

In short, within only a few hours I was pretty much running on empty.

I passed the marathon mark in about 4:15 or so. That’s a bit uncertain because I noticed that my watch started to overestimate the distance right from the off. Exactly the same had happened in Belfast last year, but at least this time round I knew about it and noticed it straight away, so it didn’t come as a nasty shock when my actual distance was significantly less (well over 5% discrepancy) than what the watch had promised me. It doesn’t seem to cope well with 10 seconds GPS intervals, even though you’d think that should be reasonably fine on a course without any tight turns.

At that point I was still feeling perfectly fine. The same at 50k. Then things started to unravel.

Already! I was still in the early phase of the race. I knew I would be feeling tired at that point because it was past midnight and usually I’d be fast asleep by now. However, I was definitely feeling worse than anticipated. I started a run/walk regime. That was pre-planned. Instead of pushing, pushing, pushing until I could not push any more, as I had done in Albi or Belfast the last 2 years, I had planned to pull it back a bit and try to recover somewhat. 5 minutes walking, 25 minutes running. There is some scientific backup for a 5:1 run/walk ratio according to Bernd Heinrich, which is good enough for me. At first that seemed to work. 5 minutes of walking seemed to be just the right amount of time I needed. The legs (the hamstrings, really) felt pretty bad for the first 3-4 minutes of each walk and then they’d loosen up and I’d feel ready to tackle another running stint.

At that point I have to say thanks to Shea, my 17-year old, who did the graveyard shift in crewing. To be honest, he did not have to do much because I could not stomach anything, so the only thing he really had to do was to hand me my jacket when it started raining and hang it back inside our gazebo when the rain stopped. Oh, and voice the occasional encouragement (we can still work on improving that one).

Ah yes, the rain. If someone had predicted that between the Belfast and Irdning races, 1 week apart this year, there would be one with a heat wave in the high 20s and one with several massive rain showers, nobody would have batted an eyelid because we had been there before. However, nobody would have predicted that Belfast would see the heat wave and Irdning the deluge. It remined me of my first 24 hour race in Bangor. Sections of the course were completely waterlogged. Some runners ran on the grass verge, though I think that was silly, the feet would get just as wet as by running right through the puddles. A small section at the start/finish line was not tarmacked and was full of potholes; you had to mind your footing on the uneven surface though it was only a few meters each time.

I joked that that kind of weather was going to give me some home advantage, being more than used to running in the Irish rain. However, with my legs acting up and my stomach refusing almost any kind of food being able to cope with rain didn’t make any real difference.

Apart from the 24 hours race, they also had a few other events going. There was a 12 hours race, which started Saturday 7 am, so basically for the second half of our race. However, far more noticeable were the relays, including teams of 4 and teams of 12(!!!). Especially the 12-man/woman teams were moving much, much faster than the 24 hour runners, and I think they kept swapping after each lap. Even in the late hours there were runners that were basically sprinting. To be honest, that’s not ideal, the difference in speed could easily cause an accident (which has happened in past years), though on the other hand the non-running relay team-members and their support crews are creating a brilliant atmosphere all throughout the course. In fact, for crowd support this was by far the best I’ve ever seen in a 24 hours race; rather than run in our little isolated world for much of the race there was always a buzz around the place, even in the rain, even in the early hours of morning.

My own race, however, had totally fallen apart as the night wore on. The walk breaks might have pushed out the breaking point by a bit but they did not prevent it. At first I was having highs and lows in very quick successions, as quickly as within one single lap, but the highs started to disappear. I started to feel much better when the rain subsided and I took off my jacket (I must have gotten too warm in it, despite being wet) but that was only a temporary reprieve.

It should not have taken me 12 hours to run 100 km. When I ran my 100k in Easter, on a course with considerably worse footing and steadily increasing headwind throughout the second half, I ran 100k in well under 10 hours. And felt reasonably fine. So why had it just taken me 2 hours longer, and why was I completely exhausted? Even the lack of food does not explain this, because that 100k had not been ideal either with the aid stations being 10 miles apart. So why now? Why, why, why?

A few of my Austrian team mates had already called it a day. Heinz, the early leader, left after issues with his blood pressure (I think). Ulli had left very early on. Georg had looked very strong for a good few hours but eventually started to crawl, moving even slower than I was, and pulled out as well.

Why didn’t I? I kept telling anyone that I was too stupid to stop. That’s one part of it. I’m also very weary to start doing that because stopping can easily become a habit, and then you start pulling out of a race whenever things get tough, and then you can forget about 24 hour races.

The walk break got longer, the run stints got shorter. And slower. And MUCH shorter.

Niamh came back; it might have been around 6 or 7 o’clock. She brought some grapes, and by some miracle I was able to eat them. It was the first time I had eaten anything other than some soup (which doesn’t contain any real amount of calories) for far too many hours. It was too late to safe my race but at least it made me feel better. She eventually managed to source some more fruit and I ate some peaches, nectarines and grapes. Again, it wasn’t enough energy to sustain a race but it sure was a lot better than nothing at all.

“You look a lot brighter now”
“No, I’m still a fucking idiot”
“Well, ... yes”

Last year in Belfast I ended up walking for virtually the entire second half when the legs just would not run any more. It was different today. I kept running, not much and certainly not fast, but I kept running. There were times when the legs were so dead I could not imagine being able to run even a single step but then, half an hour later, I felt better again and could run, maybe for a lap or 2, but I could still run.

Niamh was still there, trying to help even if I was beyond help.

“Is there anything you’d like?”
“I guess a shag is out of the question?”
… she didn’t dignify that with an answer. Ah come on! It never hurts to ask to treat a bleak situation with a bit of humour.

The area has its own interesting micro climate. It had stopped raining at some stage of the night. When it got bright again I could often see very dark clouds surrounding the nearby mountain overlooking the race course, the Grimming, and in fact I could see it rain just a few km from here, but most of the time the clouds did not make it over to us. We had 2 or 3 rather short rain showers to contend with but from about 12 o’clock on it was a very sunny, warm day. Due to yesterday’s weather it was very humid, which would not have been ideal for racing, but as I was already moving so slowly it didn’t make any difference to me, I think.

With 6 hours to go they started yet another event, a kids’ relay. I must say I am surprised that they send out young kids for such a long time. Even with a relay (maybe 12 per team? Not sure) that can add up to a decent amount of distance for some of them. However, their enthusiasm definitely added to the atmosphere, both when they were running and when they were shouting their heads off from the sidelines.

I fell in step with Kurt, who was doing his first 24 hours race. Apparently he had begged his crew to let him pull out at some stage during the night but quickly got sent out again, and there he was (he didn’t tell me that, his crew did). We chatted for a good while. At some stage I made a joke about how good it was that at least there were others around suffering even more than we were. Justice was swift and harsh. I tried running again but very quickly had to abort the attempt, and that was that. I seemed to have ripped apart the last of my working muscle fibres and from now on I could not even walk properly. As slow as my lap times had been, they completely fell off a cliff at that point from 13 minute laps to 19 minute laps, and several even slower. I didn’t know it was even possible to walk that slowly! That was with about 3 hours still left, and for those last 3 hours I was pretty much the slowest person out there.

Despite the fact that my hamstrings had been the troublemakers early on, during the second half it was definitely the quads that were acting up worse, so maybe those hamstring/glute issues had been a red herring? I really do not know.

I thought about pulling out. What was I doing there? A respectable distance had been out of reach even hours ago. And yet I kept torturing myself. I reasoned that stopping would hurt just as much so I might as well keep going. And I knew that if I pulled out, once the race was over I would have been angry with myself for quitting needlessly. When is it ok to pull out of a race? When you’re sick, when you’re injured, and when you might be able to save yourself for a better day. I had none of those reasons, and feeling tired doesn’t count. So I kept going.

Niamh tried to get a video of me swearing I’d never run another 24 hours race, and she almost got it, but I just about managed not to say it.

The race around me kept going of course. Apart from some early flyers, my old team mates Heinz and Andi had been the early leaders (they would have been the favourites). Heinz pulled out, I did not even get the chance to say bye. Andi kept going and going and going but with 8 hours to go he looked cooked, which surprised me. Rene, a trail runner on his first 24 hour race, had put in a great shift but was faltering badly eventually, which could have been the long hours or the unaccustomed hard surface, or both. There were just 2 runners on the male side that kept looking strong: Klemens and Günther. Klemens had 3 advantages on his side: One, he is a very talented runner, the Austrian record holder over 12 hours, though it had taken him a long time and several failed attempts to translate that into 24 hours. Two, his wife is a great ultra runner herself as well as a top physio, which is the best crew you could possibly ask for. And three, he clearly is the brainiest ultra runner in country, knowing exactly how to race, and how not to race, unlike the rest of us. He was nowhere near the top for most of the race, plodding his way unnoticed and unheralded, until everyone else was faltering and suffering and then he powered through the field, untouchable and unstoppable, and a very worthy champion. On the female side, young Sabrina had clearly learned from a painful lesson in Belfast last year and powered to the Austrian championships despite troubles with her achilles earlier on, but what are a few tears for a tough ultrarunner like that? Congratulations! Oh, and the overall female winner, Nenu Mariana, had always been in full control of the race, though I didn’t manage to speak to her, owing to some language barriers, but we’ll see her again next year for the Worlds.
The end is nigh

I cannot help but look at the results, wistfully thinking that I have run distances right up there with the best of them.

The kids from the relay got a bit boisterous at times, which I didn’t mind, it added to the atmosphere. At one time a boy, maybe about 10 or 12, shouted at me “Thomas, Du bist a hoarte Sau” which roughly translates to “Thomas, you’re one tough MF”, which definitely got a grin back on my face, though I’m sure his mum would not have approved.

What more can I say? Eventually, 24 hours had passed. When the siren sounded we stopped, though it was so quiet that some runners at the other end of the course had to be told. It seemed to take an absolute age for the measuring wheel, which gives you the final distance with the last partial lap, to come by.

My earlier theory that stopping would hurt just as much as keeping going proved to be pretty much on the mark, because I was still in the same world of hurt. In fact, the drive home was rather awful, with me basically screaming in pain half the time, and it wasn’t because of Niamh’s driving!

Two days later my hands are back to normal shape, my legs are still hurting and the feet are still so swollen that I don’t have any ankles.

I’ll try and spend some time figuring out what had gone so wrong but right now I’m stumped. It looks like I was overtrained but I had been training much harder on occasions in past years and gotten into great shape. Running a 100k in April was a mistake in hindsight but before my 2014 race I had run a 100k with 5 weeks to go and some other tough races as well and had gotten into the best shape of my life. Running 3 marathons in 4 weeks seems to have pushed me over the edge but I have done significantly harder training blocks in the past. To me, all those supposed mistakes only reveal themselves with the benefit of hindsight. Until 4 weeks ago, the legs had felt pretty good, even if the HR had been elevated. The HRV figures had always been good. I simply don’t know how I would have predicted the training mistakes in advance.

Then again, there is more to it than just that one race, and just that one training cycle. Have a look at the distance covered in my last six 24 hour races:

225, 215, 207, 189, 185, 170

That is a horrendous decline that cannot be explained by getting older. There is something more fundamental going on here.

Let's not end it on such a downer, so at least have a look at how I'm spending my recovery.

Hot tub with a view

I ran for 24 hours and all I got was ...

29/30 Jun
Austrian 24 hrs Championships, Irdning
170.5132 km / 105.952 miles
18th place overall, 6th M40


  1. Great, honest read. Enjoying your reports!! Well done, finishing is a huge achievement, although it probably doesn't feel like that right now!

  2. Really insightful report TFB. You've really captured the raw emotions that you felt during the race. What kind of weekly volumes were you doing in the run up to the previous 5 24 hour races? Were you doing S&C back then? or running less during the week and more back to backs at the weekend?

    Sorry for all the questions but I'd really like to see how you unravel what the issue is and get back to the highs that you experienced before.

    1. Sinead, if you send me an email ThomasAndNiamh at, or contact me on, I'll try and answer any questions you might have

  3. That was a good read Thomas. LOL the translation from the young boy. Maybe a very slow start like Klemens did might reverse the trend?

  4. great read as usual thomas. sorry you were so disappointed but judging by your comment "we'll see her in the world's " suggest you aint due to retire quite yet. Maybe though other types of ultra's might be the nest bet for you for a while? You have had a good running year all the same and a very tough work/real life year too.