On Saturday, August 1st, I ran the Tralee 100K Ultra for the second time. Last year I had to pull out all the stops to beat the cut-off time, and ended up beating it by just 8 seconds, this year I was determined to go for a slightly less dramatic finish. The best laid plans of mice and men….
I arrived at the start line on Ballyard Hill nice and early, and had time to chat to the other runners and crews, and wish them well. It was a cool, dark morning, but dry and not too cold – perfect running conditions. Soon, the countdown started, and we were off.
I had made a last-minute decision to carry a backpack, as my crew weren’t joining me until later on, and the pack started to annoy me from early on – must try to train more with it to get used to it.
We headed down Ballyard hill, through the outskirts of Tralee, and then headed up the slight incline of Caherslee, before heading out the long road to Ardfert.
I ran this section with a group of my Born To Run teammates, and it certainly shortened the road, as there was great banter as usual.
Unlike last year, when I didn’t eat on the early stages, this time I made sure that I got plenty of food on board, as well as electrolytes.
By the time we came to Ardfert, 6 miles or so from Tralee, the sun was high in the sky, and it had gotten warm and bright, though not too hot as yet. I was well and truly sick of my backpack at this stage, and it was causing a hot spot on my back, so I threw it into one of the crew cars, and just carried a water bottle in my hand. We headed for Ballyheigue, another 6 miles or so away, along a relatively straight, slightly undulating road. Passing Ballyheigue, I did a quick scan of how I felt, and everything seemed great – my hamstring was throbbing slightly, but that was only to be expected – overall, I felt really good, though, as Gene Thibeault once said, if you feel good in an ultra, don’t worry, you’ll get over it.
There is a really long, steep hill after Ballyheigue, on the road to Causeway, and I walked this, as, I think, did almost everyone else. This was the start of the very undulating section that loops around Ballyheigue, taking in Causeway and Kerryhead, which broke my spirit last year, so I made sure that I was mentally prepared for it this time.
The road between Ballyheigue and Causeway seemed much shorter this year, and, unlike last year, I was comfortable throughout, and, in fact, it felt almost like a training run. In my visualisation plan for this race, I had broken it down into 10k increments in my head, and the race actually lends itself very well to this, with villages, hills, or landmarks almost every 10k to remind me.
By the time I made it to Causeway, I was feeling fantastic – although a little too warm for my liking, conditions were near ideal, my legs felt strong, my hamstring pain had almost disappeared completely, and I was ahead of my assumed times for each section, without having pushed myself at all.
I turned north in Causeway and set out for Kerryhead, the 16 mile section to bring us past the halfway point and back into Ballyheigue. This section destroyed me last time out, and I was determined that this time, I would beat it and run into Ballyheigue with a smile on my face.
Kerryhead is famous among tourists for its fantastic scenery, and among runners for its many hills, and today I would get a taste of both. My sister Hazel joined me on this section to take over crewing duty from Geoff, who had looked after me really well to this point. Hazel ran this race last year, so she knew the course well, and kept me on point with drinks and fuel. I walked the hills, and kept a sensible pace going on the flats all the way through Kerryhead.
At the top of a particularly steep hill on this section, a hill that everyone I saw walked, an elderly man was cutting a hedge. He shouted out as I passed “How long is this walk you’re all doing” At least I knew I wasn’t the only one walking the hills!
I was surprised when I came to the last few miles of downhill section into Ballyheigue – it had seemed so much longer last year. I ran this last bit as fast as I could, and passed the halfway point at around 6:42, which put me on for a sub-14 hour finish – in fact, at this stage, I felt that I could speed up a bit in the second half, and go for a sub-13.5 hour time.
However, within minutes of passing the halfway point, I started to get stomach cramps. They weren’t too bad however, and I didn’t worry too much – I knew I was just a mile or two from Ballyheigue, where I could take a quick break.
I came into Ballyheigue at a flat-out sprint, passing another runner on the way, and felt very happy with myself, even though the stomach cramps had gotten worse. I spent some time in the toilets in Ballyheigue and hoped that was the end of that!
I grabbed some food, changed my shoes and socks, and hit the road again, heading for my next “mental checkpoint” of Banna, around 5 miles away on the main Tralee-Ballyheigue road.
I felt better after my break, and ran this section well, knowing that I was finally heading back towards Tralee instead of away from it. Arriving in Banna I grabbed some electrolytes, and headed for Barrow.
The road between Banna and Barrow is narrow, twisty, and fairly uneven in places, and can be a bit of a drag. I felt good setting off, but soon the stomach cramps started again. I kept going and hoped they wouldn’t get worse. No such luck. By the time I was halfway to Barrow, I was very uncomfortable – I had to stop running on a couple of occassions due to the pain. I decided I’d get to the top of Barrow Hill and review my situation there. Barrow Hill was, as always, a challenge, but I made it, turned around at Tralee Golf Club, and set off back down. Near the bottom of the hill I got really bad cramps and had to make the first of what would turn out to be many detours into a cornfield. I was in a fairly bad way, and asked my crew to see if anyone had any medication that might help. Karma was certainly kicking my ass – several of my running buddies had advised me to bring Immodium or similar medication, but I had decided I didn’t need it because I NEVER have stomach issues…..
My crew turned up a blank, so I kept going, paying visits to many of the fields and ditches around Barrow and Churchill.
The Barrow to Fenit section was next, and it is one of the toughest parts of the route – around 5 miles of narrow twisting roads, with lots of climbs. The only advantage as far as I was concerned was that I had planned on walking these hills anyway, so I hoped it would give me a chance to recover somewhat.
I actually found this section relatively ok, considering the state I was in. I got to Fenit in one piece, and headed off down the pier to the turnaround. I had gone the last few miles without any major stomach issues, so I hoped I was over the worst of it. Not quite. At the top of Fenit Pier, I had to make a dash to the toilets, and I ended up spending a long (painful) time in there, wondering how the hell there was anything left in my system. Afterwards, I took some electrolytes, but couldn’t eat anything, knowing it wasn’t going to stay in my stomach. I headed off towards The Kerries in a slightly dilapidated state.
This section has been my nemesis over many marathons and I hadn’t been looking forward to it, especially the way I was feeling now. However, Catherine had joined me by this stage to run the rest of the course with me, and she worked hard to keep my spirits up and to force me to keep taking on electrolytes. Overall this section wasn’t too bad, though I could definitely feel myself fading. The cramps in my stomach were back with a vengeance, and Gillian, who was crewing for me, asked the ambulance crew for help. They hadn’t anything on them, but very kindly drove back to base, and told us they would meet us on the course.
After passing through Spa Village, I turned down The Kerries, heading towards Tralee around 3 miles away – though, as we had to detour around Blennerville and Tonevane, I still had around 7 miles to go. Halfway through the Kerries, the ambulance crew were true to their word, and showed up with medication to help my stomach – and it worked brilliantly – within 10 or 15 minutes, all the cramps were gone, and I had no more detours into fields to make!
I knew that all I had left to do was slog it out, and that’s what I did. I was exhausted by the time I got to Blennerville, and was fading fast. The detour around Tonevane seemed to last forever, and, as I did the death march in the canal road towards the finish line, I started to wonder for the first time if I was going to beat the cut-off time. My crew cheered me on, and I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.
As I turned the corner of the Brandon Hotel and saw the finish line ahead, a huge cheer went up from the crowd. I put my head down, and, with my sons on either side of me, sprinted for the line.
I hadn’t noted the time for a while, and wasn’t sure crossing the line whether I’d made it or not. I collapsed to the ground as soon as I’d crossed, totally overcome with emotion. I don’t know why, but I was far more emotional this year than I was last year. As all my friends and fellow runners embraced and congratulated me, JJ told me the news – 14:59:59 – I had beaten the cut-off by a single second!
After having a sit-down to gather myself a bit, I stayed on for an hour or so to cheer in some of my Born To Run clubmates who were still on the road, before cold (and the need to get my boys home to bed after a very long day!) got the better of me.
This was another brilliant day by Marcus and his Run The Kingdom team – I really think this is one of the best running events in Ireland, for the sheer scale, difficulty, comradery, and organisation of the whole race. If you are contemplating an ultra, this has to be at the top of your list.
I’d like to thank everyone who made this run possible for me – Catherine, Adam, Lee, Gill, Hazel.
Geoff and his crewmates Kerry, Donna, and Bernadette. Marcus the Boss (without whose guidance and help I wouldn’t be running at all), Jim, Seanie, and all at Run The Kingdom. “Mammy” O’Se (for giving good drinks and great hugs), JJ (a quiet, unassuming star), and everyone else at the aid stations. Karen, Michelle, Laraine, Jim, and everyone else who went out of their way to stop and make sure I was ok. The ambulance crew who went above and beyond the call of duty – I don’t know your names, but a big thanks guys. Frederick for the pics (the ones at the finish line will become family heirlooms!), Sean, Tracy, and Karen for their photos. Cliff The Dog for tolerating a long day, not eating all my sandwiches, keeping the boys amused, and only tripping me up once.
If I have forgotten to mention anyone, blame my memory, not a lack of appreciation – I am acutely aware that running an ultra is a team effort, which I could not do alone. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
Once again I will be left with lifelong memories of this day – meeting so many wonderful people, remembering the goal when times were tough, and having a laugh with new friends and old when things were going well. I got to chat to several MCI members that I had seen on the road, but never spoken to before, and I got to see the sheer willpower of some of my Born To Run friends, who had to dig so deep to finish, but who refused to give up – well done to all of you.
Photos of the race are here.
Can’t wait for next year.