Running a 100k is never easy. Running a tough, hilly, 102k with no training is madness. But then running ultras probably isn’t a sane activity anyway.
I looked forward to this race with some trepidation, as I knew I just didn’t have the mileage done – I am way behind the training mileage I had done last year, and have been carrying a hamstring injury for the past few weeks that has made what little running I have done, slow and painful. However, I didn’t want to miss this race – it was the inaugural running of it, and it just seemed like an awesome challenge, so I decided I’d have a crack at it. There were two races being run in conjunction – the individual event we were doing, and a longer relay team event.
I travelled to the start with my Born To Run teammates Brian, Mazza, and Dec, for the painfully early time of 5:21 (‘cos that was the official dawn time), and we lined up with the other runners.
We set off with the ever-bubbly Mary O’Donnell-Bowler as our crew. My wife Catherine would be joining me later to crew for me. The first section from Killarney to Killorglin, around 22k, was bright and sunny, and we did it in a 25 minute run / 5 minute walk pattern. I felt from fairly early on that the pace the others were setting was slightly too fast for me, but decided that I’d stick with them until Killorglin, and fall back to a more comfortable pace then, as we would have to split the crew cars to accommodate different speeds. In Killorglin, Mary handed crewing duties over to Geoff and Ashley.
On the last couple of kilometres into Killorglin, I was definitely noticing that the pace was too fast, and I also noticed something more worrying – I seemed to be developing a hot spot on the sole of my left foot. I never suffer from blisters, and I hoped this wouldn’t be my first – especially this early in a race this long.
In Killorglin we had a quick pitstop, and when I checked my foot, my fears were confirmed – I had my first running blister forming in the centre of my foot. I stuck a blister pad on it, and hoped for the best.
We set off on the next section, the 13k to Glenbeigh. I soon fell behind Brian, Mazza and Dec, and Ashley and Kirsti took up crewing duties behind me, while Geoff and his crew followed the faster bunch. I felt better at the slower pace, and I wasn’t getting much bother from the blister, so I was happy enough on this section. My hamstring hadn’t given me any bother – in fact, despite it giving me near constant pain over the past few weeks, it didn’t once cause me any pain at all in this race. Maybe I killed it.
This section of road consisted mainly of long, fairly straight, undulating sections, with quite a lot of traffic, and wouldn’t be my favourite type of running. Kirsti ran some of it with me, and helped me keep my spirits up, while Ashley made sure I had everything I needed. I found it very warm at this stage, and when Ashley gave me a frozen facecloth to cool me down, I thought I’d weep with joy. In ultra running, it’s the little things that count!
Shortly before Glenbeigh, Catherine arrived, and she and my youngest son Lee took over crewing duty for me. I took this opportunity to grab a bite to eat, change my shoes and socks, and tend to my feet. The blister had grown a bit, but still wasn’t too bad, so I decided to let it be.
We soon arrived in Glenbeigh, and I had another quick pitstop, including more food.
Once we left Glenbeigh, we went off the beaten track on our way to Cahirciveen, around 27k away. I grossly underestimated how difficult this section would be, as I had only ever travelled it on the main road. Marcus had found an alternative route however, and, true to form, it contained some challenges….
The first, I soon found out, was an absolute monster of a hill. This seemed to go on forever, and at one stage, I was moving so slowly that some guy out for a walk caught up to me, had time to ask me about the race, and then passed me.
After what seemed like hours, I finally got to the top of this hill, and there was a much nicer section of downhill and flat running, on narrow country roads. Lee joined me for some of this, and we both enjoyed it.
I continued on my merry way, tackling occasional hills, and trying to keep taking small amounts of food on board. I was trying a new hydration drink on this run (breaking my mantra of “never eat, drink, wear or carry anything on race day that you haven’t eaten, drank, worn, or carried on at least two long runs”) from my sponsors Elivar, called Hydrate Plus, and I found it really good for thirst – it definitely did the business, as this is the first ultra of this length I’ve done without encountering stomach issues.
One of the Run The Kingdom team, Jim, who was keeping an eye on all the runners dropped in shortly before the halfway mark, and told me he felt I needed to increase my pace if I hoped to finish on time. I checked my pace notes, and I felt he was wrong – I had planned on reaching the halfway point in 7:45, giving me 9 hours to do the second half. This would have been fine if I’d looked at the course profile – I hadn’t, and had made the fatal assumption that the course was relatively evenly spread in terms of climbs. I would learn a harsh lesson. Note to self: In future, always assume Jim is right.
Eventually, after what seemed like an age, I reached Caherciveen. I grabbed some more food and checked my feet again. They weren’t pretty. As well as the increasingly painful blister on the sole of my left foot, I was developing blisters between the toes of my right foot. Nice.
I set off from Caherciveen with the cheers of some of the other crews in my ears, determined to get the job done, and feeling very positive. Then it started to rain.
The next destination was Portmagee, around 16 kilometres away. Most of what I remember of the next 10k or so is rain. Lots, and lots, and lots of rain.
Shortly before Portmagee, I began to feel some chafing in my crotch. The Runderwear I was wearing had done a great job, but the rain had soaked me to the bone, and nothing will stop chafing in those conditions. I decided to nip this in the bud, and apply some anti-chafing cream. I had a look both ways on the road to make sure the coast was clear, dropped my shorts, and reached down between my legs with a nice big dollop of cream. At this moment, a car pulled up alongside me, and the passenger window rolled down. It was an American couple, and their teenage son, who were obviously on holidays. We had a nice, casual chat about the race, and the area, all while my shorts were down, and I had my hand inside my underwear, rubbing vigorously. Wherever they came from, wet, bedraggled men publicly fondling themselves in the middle of nowhere is obviously not something that causes alarm.
We reached Portmagee, a picturesque little seaside village, without further incident, and I had more American tourists shout “God bless you” as I ran through. Goodness knows what they thought I was actually doing.
A couple of miles after Portmagee, we came to this:
Yes, that’s a mountain. Yes, it’s so high the top is lost in the mist. Yes, I have to go up there. I was not a happy bunny. Next time, as well as training for the race, I might actually have a look at the route profile too. I had an awful feeling that what I could see of this wasn’t even the worst part. I was right. The mountain turned out to be Coomanaspic, and it was fairly epic.
I put my head down and trudged onwards and upwards. I consoled myself with the thought that everybody else would find it just as hard as me, until I was passed by one of the relay runners (Thomas Bubendorfer I think) in what appeared to be a flat-out sprint.
The higher I climbed, the more painful my legs got, and the worse the rain fell. By the time I got to the top, it was pouring, and I couldn’t see more than about 50 yards ahead of me. I began to seriously think about taking up an easier hobby. Stamp collecting perhaps. Or flower arranging. Something you could do while sitting down at home in the warmth.
There was one of those holy statue/grotto things near the top, that are found at the top of so many high passes in Ireland, and I’d say there were a few runners that found religion at that point.
I practically had my tongue hanging out at the thought of the downhill at the other side, but it turned out to be a major disappointment – it was so steep that it was only marginally less difficult coming down than it was going up. Same pain, different muscles – with the added risk of slipping and landing on my ass, or worse still, faceplanting.
Once I got off the steep downhill, I was on to a much more manageable gradient, and this was far more pleasant to run – for the first time in a long while, I began to make some decent progress.
I was soon back to walking a bit and running a bit, when I was joined by my Tralee Triathlon Club teammate Fran, who had run as part of the team event earlier in the day, and he joined me for a few miles. I had gotten it into my head that the rest of the course was flat, but Fran dashed these hopes by telling me there was “a bit of a hill” coming up. I should have known by his manner that he was trying to break bad news to me gently. Fran left shortly afterwards to rejoin his team, but he would be back.
It wasn’t long before I discovered the bit of a hill was another bloody mountain pass. Not as bad as Coomanaspic, but not exactly a molehill either. It had the added bonus of being very long. I started to get passed by a lot of the relay team runners at this point, and while nobody likes to get passed, at least they kept my spirits up, as most of them (and their crews) gave me plenty of encouragement.
This section of the route really knocked me back, as I had thought I’d lots of time left, but now I began to fear that I was going to miss the cut off. I had little or nothing left in the tank, and I was getting further and further behind schedule. The blisters on my feet began to hurt to add to my woes. And the accursed rain continued to fall.
By the time I got over this pass, I was in fairly bad shape. You can hide under training in a lot of sports, but ultra running isn’t one of them. The course would well and truly kick my ass from now on.
Catherine and Lee encouraged me on, as my pace fell to a shambling walk/trot. Soon Fran appeared with his partner and fellow triathlete Trish, and Fran fell in beside me to keep me going. As the miles wore on, my pain got worse – I could now feel the blisters on my toes popping, and I have never known anything like it. It wasn’t pleasant.
Fran has an extremely calm demeanour, and I think his presence definitely helped prevent me falling apart at this stage. He’d make an excellent psychiatrist.
The road wound on. I passed the 10k sign for Waterville, where the finish line lay waiting. Then, what seemed like days later, the 5k sign. I was in very bad shape now, my body was one big ball of agony, and I could feel my willpower fading. I kept telling myself to think of my boys, to think what it would be like to face my sons if I quit. I stumbled on.
Jim came back, and he replaced Fran as my pacer. Jim had a very no-nonsense approach. He simply told me that he and I were going to finish, that he was going to set the pace, and that was that. I don’t know how he did it, but he made me run the last couple of miles.
We passed the 3k sign. Members of my club, Born To Run, began to appear. They shouted me in. I will never forget, as long as I live, stumbling in the last few miles with these amazing friends, my son alongside me, and turning the last bend in the darkness.
The main street of Waterville lay ahead, and it was amazing. I was the last runner home, but damn, did they make it count. Cars hooting and flashing lights, camera flashes, and the whole crowd cheering. I’ve never had a finish like it.
My companions pulled out, and Lee and I crossed the line together.
What a day, and what a race. I hit the floor as soon as I crossed the line, and the whole agony and emotion hit me at once.
My friends helped me to my feet, the medic checked me out, and I was helped into the hotel where all the runners were. I got another huge cheer as I entered. Who needs to win when you get this for coming last!
I’ve said before that I consider ultra running to be a team sport. There are some runners I’m sure, that can do this all alone, and fair play to them. I’m not one of them. I wouldn’t be able to do this without the support of my family, and my running family, nor would I want to. I really feel a huge debt of gratitude to those who helped me finish this race; Catherine and Lee for crewing, and for their patience and love when I needed it, Ashley for crewing and keeping others updated, Geoff, Kerry and Denice for making sure I was ok, Kirsti for sharing the road with me, Fran for helping me on the most difficult section, and Trish for the many offers of water, hats, and bananas, Jim for his infinite patience, and his ability to quietly and calmly and inexorably make a person do things they know full well they can’t, Mazza, Brian, and Dec for the company and encouragement on the first section, Gill for worrying about me, Adam for knowing that nothing would stop his dad finishing, Mary for getting up at an insane hour of the morning to crew the first section, Marcus for organising it all (illegitimi non carborundum), all the Run The Kingdom team and the volunteers for making it possible, the huge number of people who cheered me in at the end like I’d won it, and made me feel like a hero when I crossed the line. The wonderful, amazing, teammates of mine from Born To Run and Tralee Tri Club who cheered, encouraged, helped, and enquired. The staff of the Sea Lodge Hotel who will probably never get the sweat out of the seat I collapsed into. James for taking some wonderful photographs, and staying until the bitter end. If I’ve forgotten any name, I have not forgotten any contribution – thank you to everyone who helped me through this.
Well done to the amazing Fozzy Forristal who won the individual race, Team Liebherr 1 who won the male team event, and Star of the Laune AC who won the mixed team event. Amazing running guys.
Ultrarunning isn’t for everyone, and you wouldn’t want to go into one thinking you are doing a 10k, but the pain is in direct proportion to the reward. You have to want to finish it, and be prepared to suffer for it, in order to succeed. I have never come across a sport like it, where people are prepared to inflict such enormous suffering on themselves, purely so they can prove to themselves they are capable of it, but I can say this – it is something to behold. Can’t wait for the next one.