Monday, April 02, 2012

Hell Is A Lonely Place

Most people I spoke to found it entirely appropriate that the day of this year's Connemara Ultra fell on April Fool's Day. How more foolish can people be than to voluntarily subject themselves to 39.3 miles of a rather hilly course, only to arrive back at the point where they had started from!

However, as I stood there on the start line at 9 o'clock, only an arm's length away from Giorgio Calcaterra, the current 100k World Champion, there was no place where I would rather be.

Ray O'Connor, the race director, sounded the horn and off we went. Giorgio took off like he wanted to lap the field, Mick Rice followed behind chased by a couple of other international runners, and then us mere mortals made up the rest of the field.

I had agreed with two other guys, Ray and Liam, to try and stick together for a while, doing 7:15 - 7:20 pace and after a couple of miles we were joined by 2 more runners, Paul and another runner whose name I didn't get. Right in front of us was a group of 5 runners who had run the first 2 miles a few seconds faster than us and then fell into the same pace, including the leading lady and another Italian, Roberto Giordano, who ran with a microphone and was followed by a TV production group, making a documentary of Connemara while running the Ultra at the same time. It was funny to watch, him talking animatedly Italian-style while running 7:20 pace, being filmed from a travelling motorbike.

Miles 1-5: 7:21, 7:19, 7:16, 7:18, 7:20

The first few miles clicked off easily but I didn't feel quite as smooth as expected. In training I had tended to start at 7:15 pace and then drifting into a faster pace, but today I was running a few seconds slower and feeling ok-ish, but not 100% right. I didn't worry too much, but I am wondering if the long taper had thrown me a little bit. I wasn't worried, we had a long way to go and running just a little bit more conservatively at the beginning usually pays dividends over that distance.

We chatted a bit, dodged the sparse traffic, including the buses that brought the marathon runners to their start, and generally enjoyed running. The sun was right at our back and while the temperatures were still fine, it was perfectly clear that it would be a much warmer day than forecast. I didn't worry too much, I had coped reasonably well with the heat two years ago, and I still had the same s-caps electrolyte tablets with me that had helped me through that race.

Miles 6-10: 7:10, 7:21, 7:23, 7:16, 7:07

I picked up my first drop bag from the 10-mile aid station and quickly caught up with the rest of the group again. I saw that another runner had joined us, and it turned out to be Grellan, which rather surprised me because before the race he had stated a rather more conservative goal. The group in front of us fell apart, 2 guys, one in a blue and the other in a white top, stayed ahead and the rest got swallowed by us. Then a car with a television camera at the back started filming our little group. We thought it would be connected to the documentary but actually the footage made it into the main evening news later that day, me and Liam prominently featuring in the front, Paul, Ray, Grellan and Roberto making up the background crew. My kids were suitably impressed.

12 miles into the race we went over a little hill and all of a sudden we could see the marathon runners gathered at their start. We were still a good bit off when they started as we crossed their start line, our 13.1 line, in 1:36, 6 minutes back. I predicted that we would catch the back of the pack within their first mile, but it took about 1.2 miles.

To their credit, the marathon runners stayed on the right had side of the road, leaving us plenty of room to pass on the left. I think the original intention of the organisers had been to let traffic through on that lane but we more or less took it over, thus avoiding weaving through hundreds of slower runners. We did make room from time to time to let cars pass, though.

Miles 11 - 15: 7:22, 7:22, 7:11, 7:15, 7:04

One more Ultra runner, Max, came from behind to join our group and by now we had formed a sizeable pack of 8-10 runners. I have never been in such a big pack so far into a race. The marathon runners gave us massive encouragement, plenty of shouts and lots of clapping as we passed them, and we all got a big boost. Presumably this was the reason for the pace increase that came at mile 14, right on the spot where we had caught up with the end of the marathon field. Max in particular pressed the pace, and we soon caught the aforementioned Ultra runners in white and blue, who both managed to stay with us.

The pace dropped very close to 7 minutes. For a while I was happy to see the average pace on the Garmin drop to 7:15, my original target pace, and then even further to 7:14 but eventually I felt that the pace was just that little bit too hard. While I felt almost comfortable and could have stayed with the group, I found it prudent to ease off just a smidgen, enough to actually feel comfortable again. To my surprise, I almost immediately fell into step with Ray again who had exactly the same thoughts.

Miles 16 - 20: 7:00, 7:08, 7:12, 7:27, 7:26

As we saw the rest of the group slowly inch away from us, I commented that I hoped the boys knew what they were doing, but Ray voiced his doubts about exactly that. I reckoned we would eventually find out. We had a short banter with a couple of marathon lads but won the day when I pointed out to them that we were already at our halfway point and they were not.

I picked up my second drop bag at mile 19 and hurried after Ray again, hoping that I hadn't overcooked myself with the extra effort, but I sure appreciated my sports drink, for which is there is an Irish distributor, unlike my previous favourite which is sadly no longer available due to an absolutely stupid shipping fee (sorry, just had to get that off my chest).

Miles 21 - 25: 7:31, 7:25, 7:29, 7:07, 7:38

The first real hill came shortly before mile 20, but it was reasonably short and not steep at all and we reached the top quickly. Right there is a church with a big sign saying "Stop And Pray". I will always remember my second Ultra, in 2008, where I seriously contemplated stopping and praying rather than continue for another 20 miles on already tired and hurting legs. Today, in contrast, I still felt very good. It goes to show how much of tiredness is in the mind; normally I'm tired after 20 miles, certainly if I run at 7:15 pace. Right now I was perfectly fine and comfortable, not worried about the second half at all. If you go out with the intention of running close to 40 miles, 20 miles is nothing. It also helps to get the mystique out of the marathon distance. Mile 26 becomes just another mile marker.

At one stage the door of one of the many portable toilets opened just as Ray and me passed and Liam stepped out and re-joined us, thereby reforming the original trio that had set out from Maam's Cross two and a half hours ago.

Killary Harbour is often described as Ireland's only fjord, and the landscape is breathtakingly stunning. What is even more breathtaking is the headwind that is formed by the funnel effect of the valley, and I have yet to encounter that stretch of road in calm conditions. It is of course perfectly possible that memory is playing tricks on me but I did not remember the headwind ever being as fierce as today and eventually the three of us went into single file, Ray doing most of the work, me and Liam leeching on to him.

Grellan was just ahead of us most of the time and we caught him a mile or two before Leenane. He looked comfortable and was moving well, so I was rather surprised when he all of a sudden announced that he would be dropping back now and taking it easier for the rest of the race. He was the first runner of that group that had pulled away from us at mile 18 or 19 to drop behind, but I knew more would be coming.

I looked at my watch a few seconds after crossing the marathon timing mat and saw 3:12:20. We must have moved at virtually the same average pace as for the first 13.1 miles. A 3:12 marathon is a perfectly reasonable time. For example, it would comfortably qualify me for another Boston marathon. But now we still had another half marathon to go, and a brutally hilly one at that. In some twisted way, I was looking forward to that.

Miles 26 - 30: 7:31, 7:40, 7:56, 7:13, 7:22

Ray is a very strong uphill runner. We had established that over the first 26 miles already. He was always faster than me on the uphills and I was naturally faster on the downhills. The steep two mile climb out of Leenane was undoubtedly in his favour. Last year, he had dropped Liam at that point, and Liam seemed rather determined not to repeat that, even though his breathing was rather laboured. I was feeling even worse. My first instinct was to let the boys go and take my chances on my own, maybe even with an outside chance of catching them again, but I knew perfectly well that this was a rather remote possibility. So I eventually resolved to stick with them as long as the effort seemed still within some reasonable limits. I checked my HR at two points, both times seeing a value of 167, which seemed reasonable enough and just about manged to hang on to their coat tails. Eventually the hill levelled out, at which point we had already caught up with the back end of the half marathon field.

I picked up my final drop bag at the 29 mile station and realised that I had made a big mistake when packing it. For the other two drop bags I had used some ice cream tubs as container which were distinctive enough to be identified immediately. We only had two of them in our cupboard and my third drop bag was a little white plastic bag. Imagine my horror at the sight of at least a dozen white plastic bags at the ultra table. I found mine after examining about half of them and took off again, Ray and Liam of course by now far, far away.

But the drink was worth it! There was half a litre in that bottle, 2 servings of Orbana, and I took a good few sips, realising how thirsty I was after running for hours in the ever rising temperatures. I soon felt much, much better and my pace increased a level. I knew that I was getting close to my limit but figured that with only 10 miles to go I might as well take a few risks.

Things were going extremely well, I was passing the half marathon runners by the dozen, and soon caught Ray and then Liam. Or was it the other way round? Not sure, but they had split up as well by now.

Alas, it was not to last. Both of my calves started cramping and I realised that things had turned ugly all of a sudden.

Miles 31 - 35: 7:10, 7:43, 7:45, 7:44, 7:49

What brings on cramps? Not even the scientists know. I had suffered a lot from cramps in my early marathons and ultras and practically solved the problem by wearing compression socks. Unfortunately, this was obviously not working to full effect today. I guessed that a lack of electrolytes could be the problem, a perfectly reasonable suggestion in the hot temperatures, and took my last two s-caps in relatively short succession. This didn't help either. I suffered from spasm after spasm, not quite going into full cramping mode but always teetering at the brink. At one steep downhill stretch, shortly after the 32-mile aid station, one of my calves cramped violently and the pain was excruciating but thankfully relaxed its grip immediately before I had to stop, but the runners around me sure heard me screaming out in pain. Ray and Liam had of course long passed me, but I was not the only runner suffering.

Despite being reduced to a pathetic baby-step like gait with a quick turnover that was half a minute per mile slower than my previous pace, I caught the runners in white and blue that had been part of our group many miles earlier, and then another Ultra runner who I did not recognise. It is possible that I might have missed others, weaving my way through thousands of half-marathon runners, but I don't really think so. Nobody passed me on the entire stretch, apart from Ray and Liam of course, but those boys were long gone and I did not even think of them any more.

I know the Connemara course like the back of my hand by now and am familiar with every little bump, especially on the final half-marathon stretch. I always knew what was coming.

Despite that short episode on that one downhill stretch, the spasms were distinctly worse on the uphills. This did not bode well for the Hell of the West, but I decided not to dwell on that fact. There was no point worrying about it in advance.

I figured that even 9-minute miles would still get me under 5 hours, which seemed safe enough but if I were reduced to walking the Hell, I wasn't safe yet.

I started taking on a lot of water, taking two water bottles at the aid stations, pouring a little bit of it over my head but drinking most of it. Wouldn't you believe it, that seemed to eventually get the better of my cramps. I had drunk plenty of fluids, 1.5 litres of my sports drink as well as water from most aid stations, but I might have been dehydrated after all.

And right there I hit the Hell.

Miles 36 - 37: 8:13, 8:56

I figured that from that point on even 10-minute miles would see me under 5 hours. That seemed safe enough.

I had by now passed the majority of the half marathon field (as well as 90% of the marathon field) and the runners around me were of reasonable standard, roughly 2-hour half-marathon runners and sub-3:30 marathon runners, but the Hell is a challenging climb for everyone. On previous years I have always encountered a lot of walkers on the Hell, but this time most were able to run, albeit rather slowly. Unfortunately, one woman started walking right in front of me and I had to swerve very quickly or I would have run right into the back of her, and the sudden sideways movement immediately sent one of my calves back into cramping mode. I eventually figured that holding the foot in a dorsi-flexed state provided enough tension to the calf muscle to stop it from cramping. Running like that would have been impossible on the flat but luckily (?) I was right at the steepest part of the hill, and when it flattened out temporarily again, the spasms had stopped.

For all of the two miles up the Hell I deployed the well-known Bubendorfer-moan. If you have ever been close to me in a 5k, you know what it sounds like, and if you were close to me at any point of the Hell this year or 2010, you know it as well. Every breath is accompanied by a high-pitched moaning sound. It might even bother myself on any other occasion but I was far inside my pain cave and I just let it happen. It got me over the hill.

I had one overriding thought, that I might have shared the entire climb with a big number of other runners, but it had felt like a very lonely place indeed, and I'm sure most other runners felt the same. It really is every man for himself, and every woman too.

Eventually I could make out the tower of Peacockes far in the distance. This would be over in 15 minutes!

Miles 38 - 39.3: 7:58, 6:58, (6:23 pace rest)

I naturally thought that the pace would drop considerably on the downhill stretch but was dismayed to keep seeing 7:45 on the Garmin. One marathon runner in a triathlon suit and an American accent started chatting to me. This did not bother me. What did bother me was the fact that he pulled away from me and I just could not keep up with him while still doing my baby-step gait.

Halfway down the hill, with less than 2 miles to go, I finally snapped out of my funk. I opened up my stride and started running more naturally again; longer steps, still with a good turnover, yielded a much better pace and all of a sudden I was flying past other runners like they were standing still. I immediately knew that this would not be sustainable for long. The quads were screaming in pain. The calves were dangerously close to cramping and I was really pushing my luck. But I could smell the finish and was determined to squeeze every single second out of it.

I got plenty of encouragement from the other runners. All credit to them, they must have been tired as well, but many of them found the breath to shout a comment and on a couple of occasions I even heard my name, one of them coming from Ken Dunne, the organiser of the Dingle marathon.

This last mile was the fastest of the day, my only sub-7 mile. I only intended to better my time, but close to the 26-mile marathon sign I spotted another Ultra runner. He did not wear the "ultra" tag on his back but I recognised him from earlier. It was all the encouragement I needed. I was quickly running out of road but I was flying and he had no idea I was coming. I might have no natural finishing speed but going so much faster than him I figured that by the time he realised he was being caught it would be too late for him to react.

I passed him and crossed the line only a few seconds later. I was on a total high and celebrated in style, prompting the announcer to say something about an excited ultra runner coming to the finish. I felt vaguely guilty for the other guy and went to shake his hand and apologised, but it turned out that he had been so out of it he hadn't even noticed me. Ah well.

Ray O'Connor got a sweaty hug (I'm sure he got plenty of those today), as did Jo at the finish area, right in front of her husband. Apologies to all of them.

Ray and Liam were there, having finished 3 minutes and 45 seconds ahead of me respectively. I had known that Ray would be super strong over the final stretch but I had not expected such a strong finish from Liam. 6 weeks ago he had wilted badly in Donadea where I had caught him on the last lap. He told me he had become completely paranoid over the last few miles, convinced that I was right behind him for a repeat of the Donadea scenario, but this time he had held out. The only other 2 runners from that big group we had formed 25 miles earlier to finish ahead of me were Paul and Max, full respect to all of them.

World champion Giorgio Calcaterra had won in under 4 hours, Irish international runner Keith Whyte had beaten Mick Rice into second place, Vasiliy was fourth and after that elusive group of international-class runners the rest of us settled for the places.

Before the race I had harboured secret hopes of a top-10 finish, which I knew would be tough as the race is getting more competitive by the year, and when I crossed the finish line I knew it was close but did not know if I had made it. I was thrilled when the results came out with me in ninth place.

Grellan came 13th in 5:02, just missing out on the sub-5 but very happy all the same. Gerry Duffy, of 32-marathons fame, was 15th in 5:12 and he was gracious enough to chat with me for a good bit afterwards. Mick Rice introduced me to Frank Greally, the editor of the Irish Runner magazine as well as a running legend. There were a lot of famous people around and a good day was had by all.

Almost 36 hours later I still can't quite believe that I had managed a top-10 finish in Connemara. I almost feel like a decent runner right now, but my badly aching quads leave me in no doubt that I'm not dreaming.

I can't wait to do it again.
1 Apr
Connemara Ultra, 39.3 miles, 4:53:34
   Avg. HR 161, 7:28 pace, 9th place, 22 mins PB!


  1. Congratulations Thomas.

    A superb run and once again a great report.

    Recover well.

  2. Great blogging Thomas, enjoyed the company for the first 13/14miles, then found myself on my own, wasnt sure if ye had slowed down or I had speeded up, found the headwind at Leenane a challenge, enjoyed the overall experience of my first Ultra (although had to double back at mile 19 to collect drop bag) see you in Limerick

  3. Great report Thomas as always. I love your blow by blow description and can hear you coming up that Hell!

    Makes we want to start training for my 1st ultra not that I'm retired and have more time to train.

    Terrific race and a big congratulations!

  4. Congratulations Thomas, what a fantastic performance... and race report, well done!

  5. So you're no longer rubbish...! Trade descriptions Thomas.... Brilliant report... Sub 5 .great stuff!

  6. Fantastic run Thomas! Congratulations! All that hard training certainly paid off well. Enjoy some good rest.

  7. Thomas - What a great account of a well executed race. It was a wonderful day in Connemara that will long in the memory. As you know by now, you've outgrown that blog title, but we'll let you away with that for now.



  8. Congrats Thomas - as always a great report, love the idea of the Italian all mic'd up doing a documentary whilst running an Ultra!

  9. That doesn't look as bad as I was expecting. Haven't read it yet. I'll leave a sensible comment when I do ;-)

  10. Great report Thomas, sub 5 is mighty impressive. This report makes me want to go back next spring. I have not been since I did the marathon in 09 and the ultra is prominent on my bucket list.

  11. Way to Go Thomas ; great report as always and a brilliant race performance. Happy days and great memories ; enjoy !!!

  12. Great running Thomas & a fabulous read again. Your descriptions bring it all back.

  13. Fab report! Wonderful mix of the joy and trials and brought back some happy memories of Leenane. Again, what an achievement, both writing and running. You'd make anyone want to get out there. Congrats!Congrats!

  14. Fantastic run, love the report, well done and enjoy the buzz, feel like we were there with you. Rest up for a few days now maybe, Anne (Milltown Mini Marathon)

  15. Well done on a well executed plan. Not as much pain as I'd expected.

    Both yourself and Grellan seem to suffer from calf cramp and as someone who has never suffered from it (except early morning cramp following a heavy day of running with poor hydration) I'm curious to know whether it is because you are running at a faster pace than I do and it is linked to a hydration failure or whether it is physiological.

    Take it easy for a while now.

  16. Job done in style! Great to see you pull through the cramps and put away a fantastic time.

    Good luck with the recovery, if it goes well one has wonder what next... Catch the ferry to Scotland on the 27th of April and you could join us doing the Fling... :-)

  17. Finally got around to reading it Thomas. Good report. Didn't realise Grellan was ahead of you through the marathon. By the way, 3:12 for the marathon seems incredibly fast to me these days. Great result - top 10 and all. You're a natural at the longer distances. Shame the Sydney to Melbourne race no longer exists ;-)

  18. Stumbled across this report Thomas.great reading and great run. I'll definitely be logging in again. I was one of the runners who formed a group just ahead of you and ran some of Race in same group. I was the lad in the white running a lot with my club mate in blue. It was his first ultra & my 3rd race. Ended up finishing in 11th in 4.56. I'm sure we ll cross paths again In future! Well done . Anthony