Wednesday, April 17, 2019

I Used To Be Good At This, You Know

The Connemara Ultra is an iconic race in Ireland, and it used to be an absolute highlight of my running year, at least during the earlier stages of my running life. Things changed a bit 5 years ago, when Ray stopped being the race director it lost some of its shine and I had not been back since. Having said that, the reviews were still as good as ever, so when a few months ago a colleague at work asked me if I were interested in running it as part of a group that remembers Simone Grassi, a two-times winner of the marathon, I agreed to do it and so I was back at the start line after a 5 year absence.

Things had not changed much at all. In fact, the only two things I noticed differently were the fact that we were asked to run on the left side of the road rather than the right side, and the fact that Ray was not there. Apart from that the new organisers wisely left all the good bits in it, and it's still as brilliant a race as ever.

What's changed a bit is myself, and try as you might I knew I was in for my slowest time ever, barring a miracle. Losing 6 weeks in training at a crucial time is not something you can make up for, I really only got 2 decent weeks of training, and those were damn close to the race date at a time when I would usually have been looking at tapering, so I was under no illusions. I expected a very tough time ahead, even more so after cramping on my only 20 mile day, less than 2 weeks ago.

Never mind, we were actually pleasantly surprised by the fact that the torrential rain had stopped just in time as we gathered at the start line, it would have been an utterly miserable 20 minutes wait otherwise. I was particularly glad, standing there in my shorts and t-shirt when almost everyone else was wearing a jacket, and most of them with a backpack as well. However, I make those choices out of experience as well as personal preferences; on a cold day you're overdressed if you're not cold at the start, and I definitely don't see the point of carrying my own water around when there are aid stations every 3 miles.

Anyway, I started a good bit further back than usual and then drifted a few places further back with a slow first mile. All good. I got a couple of comments of "what are you doing back here" and "someone took your place up front" and responded that he must be 10 years younger. Then Barry pulled alongside and we fell into step, chatting relentlessly along the way, and the scene for the first few hours was set. We are both very experienced ultra runners and knew what we were doing. After a few miles a few guys went past, one of them commenting that they were probably doing something wrong passing us out, which reminded me of thinking exactly the same 5 years ago when I went past Eoin Keith early in a race. Ah yes, the good old times. Barry and myself talked a lot about them, and eventually Paul started running alongside us and got to hear a few good stories along the way.

The wind had been almost non-existent at the start but picked up considerably a few miles in, and at that point it was pushing us along, making things very easy. Obviously we knew there would be a price to pay, but so far so good. The first miles just flew by, and we were at the marathon start before we knew it.

In past years I would have caught up with the marathon field in next to no time but today they had been long gone when we got there in 1:53-ish. I picked up a nice bottle of sports drink, which hit the spot and was probably a factor in how easy the next few miles felt, though the fact that we had a rather strong wind pushing us along was a bigger one. At mile 17 or 18 Paul marvelled how easy it all felt, how he had never gotten so far feeling so fresh. The one downer was at the mile 19 checkpoint, where my prepared drinks bottle had gone missing from the ultra table. I had known perfectly well that this had always been a realistic possibility but I still wished the arsehole who had stolen someone else's bottle off the aid station table some violent diarrhea and a miserable race.

Anyway, the sharp turn towards the first proper climb of the day wasn't far off by now, and I pointed out to the lads that I hoped they were ready for 20 miles of headwind!

It wasn't a hard prediction to make.

As soon as we took that corner the wind was in our faces and we had plenty of time to get used to it. At first it was still all good, we all had gotten to that point in pretty decent shape, and by now we had finally caught up with the tail end of the marathon and gradually started reeling in a few of the stragglers. That first climb isn't all that long (I call it the "half a hill") and the "Stop and Pray"church wasn't as inviting yet as I thought it would be.

But there was no doubt that the real work of the day had started, and Barry was the first to feel the effects of a cramp, which was damn early in the race and with a lot of miles yet to go. He was actually moving pretty well when he could, but every now and then had to pull up and deal with cramp. Not good. We got to the downhill part into Leenane, found that running right behind an ambulance still did not provide any wind cover but a lot of Diesel fumes. The road into Leenane is always a bit longer than you think,and by the time I got there I was somehow running on my own again. The 13.1 miles since Louch Inagh had taken me almost 2 hours and I passed the marathon point in about 3:53. From the way the miles had felt I would have thought I would get there a bit quicker, but obviously the clock doesn't lie. However, I was still in reasonably good shape, which was good because the last half marathon would be significantly more challenging.

I might have felt okay but that feeling evaporated in no time whatsoever as soon as I started on the steep climb out of Leenane. Its the other hill of the course, the Hell of the West, that gets all the headlines but personally I think this one, the Devil's Mother, is worse (and the names here are somewhat telling). The wind was brutal, right into my face and I'm sure the valley ahead of us created a kind of funneling effect and doubled the wind speed. It was also much steeper than I could remember. In years gone past I had known that race so well I thought you could drop me off anywhere on the course and I would immediately know exactly where I was but the intervening years have obviously had an effect, though as I went along all the memories of yesteryear kept coming back again.

Anyway, I kept battling up the climb and I kept running because I knew that once I started walking everything would still hurt just as much but progress would be much slower and it would be a struggle to start running again. So I kept running, albeit slowly. Until the moment when I didn't, somehow. Not sure how that happened but it just seemed to take too much energy to run yet another step that barely brought me further up the hill and all of a sudden I found myself walking, thoroughly pissed off with myself for being so soft but at the same time utterly incapable of running again.

I kept on walking for most of the second half of the climb, not quite a mile, and three times unsuccessfully tried to start running again, unable to do so and having serious doubts about the miles again. Once I reached the top I eventually managed to get into a shuffle again, a rather pathetic one that was barely faster than walking but eventually the legs started loosening up to some extend and at least you could call it a run again.

From there on I was making a noise with each breath, and if you hear tales from the tail end of the marathon field about an ultra runner who was moaning with each step, yup, that was me. But I was making progress again, gradually making my way through the field, mostly the marathon field but I also started to reel in quite a few ultra runners as well as the miles passed by, always with some mutual words of encouragement. We were all in this together.

This was tough, definitely, but in all honesty it was going better than expected. I definitely had thought I would be battling tooth and nail with my cramping calves by now, but they behaved pretty well. I did notice one stark contrast to years gone by, however. I am used to weaving my way through the massed ranks of the half marathon on this stretch, and today there was just a sparse sprinkling of marathon runners left, which made for a very different experience. The running itself, however, felt just as tough, despite the slower pace.

Having said that, progress was much better than I could have hoped for. I had found the level of discomfort I was able to tolerate and got into a groove, steadily making my way towards the finish. The mile signs kept appearing reasonably quickly and with each sign I knew I was getting a good bit closer to the end. It was just a matter of keeping going, never mind that moaning noise I kept producing with each breath.

Knowing the area pretty well I kept seeing glimpses of the Hell from way back, and before I really knew it I was already at the bridge in Maam, and shortly after that the climb started. One thing to add, by the time I got there they had already run out of sports drink both in Leenane as well as in Maam, which wasn't great. Basically, it means that the one group of runners who might need some sustenance the most, the ultra runners, aren't getting any. Yeah, not great. Thankfully I had some carbs in my own pockets (some chews, from some goody bag from a race gone past that I happened to find in the cupboard when packing my bag the day before, and I never bothered to check the expiry date) and they made a massive difference. Every time I got some sugar I got a little boost that kept me going for another couple of miles, and by the time I was running out of them I was close enough to finish to keep running on fumes alone.

The Hell of the West was definitely the one place where I had been absolutely convinced my calves would be in full cramping mode, but somehow they were still working away perfectly fine, despite the 35 miles I had already covered by now. I cannot explain why that was the case. I had been so convinced that I would be cramping today that I had started to wonder if that negative attitude would actually bring on a cramp (the head works funnily in running, especially in ultra running), but that was obviously not the case. And unlike the earlier hill I had a handle on this one, I kept running and passing a lot of runners (including the back end of the half marathon by now). Having said that, the climb seemed to go on forever, there was always another turn when you thought you were on the last one, and another steep bit when you thought it was flattening out, but after an age of sisyphean effort we actually made it to the top, well past the 37 mile marker, which I had mistakenly expected to mark the top.

In theory you can see the finish from the top, but not if you're as short-sighted as me and not wearing glasses because you expected it to rain for the full 6 hours. Never mind, I knew where it was and I still knew the road towards the finish pretty damn well - a mile of downhill that feels pretty quick and a flat mile to the finish that keeps going on forever. I was still in reasonable shape, passed a few more runners and actually posted one of my faster miles today, and then, a very long time after starting, crossed the finish line in 6:06.

The time was pretty much what I had expected, though for much of the race the effort I had put in had felt faster than the pace I was actually able to churn out. The last 13 miles had taken me 2:13, contrast that to the 1:41 the same stretch had taken me 5 years earlier, though I can say with all honesty that today's effort had been at least at the same level, it's just the result that was different.

However, I was actually pretty happy about the race. I am still amazed about the fact that I had no problem with cramps today, and I really cannot explain why not, I wish I could. I am just as happy about the effort I put in, it was an equally honest effort as I used to produce in my competitive days and I could not have asked for any more. That mile coming out of Leenane had cost me a potential sub-6 finish but I just had not been able to run that hill, and scraping home under 6 hours would still have been my slowest Connemara time ever, so not really much of a difference.

I missed being greeted by Ray at the finish line, that's something that won't happen again, which is a shame, though I cannot fault the present organisers for any of their efforts, it is still a first rate race and one of the best in the country. I have the sneaking suspicion that I might be back for more.
14 Apr
Connemara Ultra
39.3 miles, 6:06:41, 9:19 pace, HR 142

4 comments:

  1. A terrific report, as always, Thomas. Nice to hear the cramping failed to bedevil you.
    Due to a slower pace?
    Also curious as to a comparison of your HR in this year's race with years past.

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    1. The idea that the slower pace might have something to do with the lack of cramps has occurred to me as well. However, I once cramped badly in a 24 hours race at a much slower pace still, so it's definitely not the only factor.

      Avg. HR in 2014 was 153 and apparently 161 in 2012, definitely a noticeable difference.

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  2. Fair play. I might even return myself after reading that thomas...

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  3. As always Thomas good reading on the race report,
    It was good to chat to you, think its the first time I ever had a conversation with you other then saying hello when you lapped me at a race :)

    You were lucky to drop that ambulance and its fumes, damn thing kept leap frogging me for a further 6-7miles or so.

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