On Sunday, the day finally arrived that I have long dreaded, but never fully believed would come to pass – I DNF’d in an ultra. After 19 marathons, and 8 ultra marathons, I failed to finish for the first time, in the Tralee 100k. This is how it played out.
I arrived at the start line bright and early with the rest of the runners. After a bit of chat and banter, and lots of photographs, we got the countdown from Race Director Marcus, and I set off on my third Tralee 100k.
We did a short lap of the outskirts of Tralee, then headed out Caherslee towards Ardfert.
If I’m honest, I wasn’t feeling this from the start. I lacked energy, and just felt sub-par. I tried not to worry too much, as I have had good runs in the past in races where I didn’t feel good at the start, but deep inside, I think I knew that this was more serious.
I made it to Ardfert in reasonably good time, on par with last year, and grabbed a quick snack and drink from the aid station manned by Danny, before heading on towards Ballyheigue.
The road to Ballyheigue again passed without incident, and, although I was passed by a couple of runners on this section, I was still happy enough with my progress, and my time. It was getting hot though, and the niggling feeling that everything wasn’t right was still there – I felt flat and listless, with a distinct lack of energy.
When I got to Ballyheigue, I met Marcus (who’s brainchild this race is) manning the aid station, and he gave me a few words of encouragement, before I headed up the (very) big hill out of town towards Causeway.
This was another very warm section, but I made sure I got plenty of Elivar in to prevent dehydration, and I ate plenty of crisps and chocolate for energy.
The Ballyheigue to Causeway road wouldn’t be one of my favourite sections, but it seemed to pass quickly enough, and I soon reached Causeway. I paused here to check my pace and time, and was surprised to discover I was very close to last years time (when I did this section quite quickly), and was well on track. Just outside Causeway was another aid station, and I got another pleasant surprise here, as I caught up with a lot of the runners who were ahead of me. I also met Mazza here, and discovered that she was suffering a bit – she was carrying a leg injury, and was also feeling ill. I joined her, and medic Caroline, who was biking the entire route, as they climbed the monster hill out of Causeway.
This was the start of the long, hilly, and hot loop around Kerryhead, which would eventually bring us back into Ballyheigue. This is usually my second-least favourite part of this race (though it is the most scenic part!), after the Fenit-Tralee road, but there was nothing for it but to get stuck in.
Myself and Mazza (and Caroline) more or less stuck together on this section – sometimes she’d go ahead for a bit, sometimes I would, but most of the time we were close enough to chat and have a bit of banter. There are lots of hills here, and one of the toughest issues turned out to be a fairly strong headwind, which blew straight into our faces for most of it. The only advantage to it was that at least it kept us cool, but it made the run a bit of a slog.
I began to flag a bit from here on. The lack of energy, and general feeling of being unwell got worse, and I had to walk a lot more of it than I had intended. Myself and Mazza were like two elderly people as we spent most of the route complaining about our respective illnesses! I had occasional bursts of energy, when I’d put in a good mile or two, and one of these came to an abrupt halt when a farmer stopped me, because his cows were coming up the road, and he claimed my “bright colours” would frighten them. I had to wait until they all passed (eyeing me suspiciously) before I could continue.
The last few miles of this section are downhill into Ballyheigue, and they couldn’t come fast enough for me. I had suffered far more on this section than I had the year before, and I was worried about my rate of progress. As soon as we reached the downhill, I pushed it as hard as I could, and I made some good miles into the halfway point in Ballyheigue.
By this time, my sister Gillian had arrived with my two boys in tow, to act as crew for me for the rest of the race.
I changed my clothes here, got some food and drink, and checked my pace notes again. I was surprised to find I was still on track timewise, and I hadn’t lost too much time on Kerryhead. However, it struck me that I was still lacking in energy, and I felt nothing like I did at this point last year. I knew I had a tough 50k to go.
I set off for Banna with my crew keeping an eye on me. For the first 3 or 4 miles I felt OK, but about halfway between Ballyheigue and Banna, I started to feel really unwell. I walked a bit, hoping it would wear off. Suddenly, I was violently ill. I just about had enough time to step off the road onto the grass margin, before every drop of fluid I drank came up. I felt really bad. After a few minutes, I came around a bit. I took some anti-nausea tablets, and got back on the road. For a few minutes, I was alright again, but the sickness soon came back. I felt weak and miserable now, and was starting to get worried. The few miles to Banna seemed to last a lifetime.
Eventually I got there, and I turned off the Banna road at the Roger Casement memorial, to head towards Barrow. Gill pulled up at the 60k marker sign, and was in the middle of saying “Let’s get a photo…” when I was violently ill again. This time my legs went completely, and I could only kneel on the side of the road, retching my guts out. Danny, and Mazza’s crew came along to see if they could help, but there wasn’t much that could be done for me at this stage. I knew now that I was in deep trouble. I felt weak and drained, and it took every ounce of my willpower just to stand up.
Lee, my youngest son, decided to run and walk with me for a few miles. It was slow progress. I was reduced to a shuffling run/walk, and every now and then had to stop for a fresh bout of retching.
The next 10k or so were truly awful. I ran when I could, but most of the time I walked. I met Jim, who was course director, and he warned me that I was dicing with the 80k cutoff time. I knew it would take a miracle at this stage for me to make it, but I was determined to give it everything I had. I slogged on to the bottom of the infamous Barrow Hill. My sickness was getting worse, and by now, every drop of water I took was coming back up. I had absolutely no energy left, and felt awful. I slowly climbed up Barrow Hill, with Caroline sticking close by in case I needed a medic in a hurry. I hardly went 50 yards on this section without retching, and I thought the hill would never end. My wife Catherine appeared at this stage, planning to run the home stretch with me, but she got a bit of a shock when she saw me. She, and my crew told me that the time had come to call it a day. It was obvious now that I couldn’t possibly make the 80k cutoff, and I was going to be pulled off the course. I couldn’t quit though. I tried to accept the inevitable, but I couldn’t. I pushed on, with Caroline’s help. I made the turnaround at the top of Barrow, and set off down the hill. Just after the top, Caroline gave me some more nausea medicine, and some rehydration drink, and I started to feel a little better – it stopped me getting sick, but by now I had nothing left in the tank, and was badly dehydrated. I was joined by Terence, who has run this race before, and came out to see how some of us were doing. He spoke to me about letting it go, and between him, Catherine, Gill, and Caroline, I started to accept that I couldn’t finish.
I made the bottom of Barrow, where I met Jim, who told me that I had missed the 80k cutoff, and would be disqualified. I decided that I would go to the top of Churchill, and would bow out then. Jim agreed to this, and myself, Catherine, and Terence set off. I managed to run Churchill, and made it to the top, where I finally accepted the inevitable. My race was over.
I’ve now had a few days to digest this setback, and get some perspective on it. In the immediate aftermath, all I felt was relief, as I had suffered so much. In the day or two afterwards, I felt a bit down about it – seeing the pictures of the finishers, hearing how others had battled through, and so on, made it hit home. When a runner suffers a DNF, only the runner themselves can honestly and objectively evaluate it. When you are alone with your thoughts, there are no excuses, only the raw truth. I always said that if I ever DNF’d, I hoped that it was because I couldn’t carry on, and not because I wouldn’t carry on. I am satisfied that I did that. I am satisfied that I pushed myself beyond the point where my honesty and integrity as a runner could be questioned, even by myself. I know in my heart that I gave it my best shot, gave it all I had, and it simply wasn’t enough on the day.
In the past I have been dismissive of runners who drop out because of minor ailments, or because they didn’t have the heart to go on – If I felt I was one of those runners, I would call a halt to my ultra running career right here and now. I would rather not run at all, than run without honesty. I will be back for the Kerry 24 Hour endurance race in a few weeks, and I will give it everything I have. It may be enough, or it may not be, but I will again give it all I have. I owe myself and my sport no less.
The day after the race, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, when my eldest son came over to me, threw his arms around me, and whispered in my ear “You’re still the best, Dad”
Fuck DNF’s, there are more important things in life. I’ll be back.
Thanks to Gill, Catherine, Adam, and Lee for crewing and caring, to Caroline for putting up with the world’s worst patient, to Mazza, and her crew for helping me, and to all the other crews, runners, volunteers, and everyone else who looked out for me.
Well done to everyone who ran. Well done to Marcus, Jim, and all at Run The Kingdom on another great event.