Dissolution

I’m back from hoildays and I can sense a month of medium-long runs coming on. Sort of 8 – 16 milers for the fun of it every second day so that before you know it fittness and long runs are sitting there looking up at you, tongue out, like a dog after a long walk looking for a new adventure.

The holiday was (I promise I won’t bore you to death on this one) excellent. It was full of nothing and everything like a holiday should be. The sort of break where you sepnd all day doing nothing and are happier for it. The sort of holiday where you find yourself queuing for the water slide at 8.00pm on a Thursday evening with humans from 5 to 50 and everyone’s having fun. The dissolution of all boundaries. No dads, no mums, no kids, no nationalities, just people having fun. Kind of like an ultra marathon without the black toenails and nagging feeling that you might be mentally ill.

I was going to post a picture of me in full flight on the water slide but it was at a stage in the holiday where I was enjoying wearing the budgie smuggler swimming togs a bit too much – You’ve seen the sort of person who seems to have forgotten part of their wardrobe – they’re wearing a polo shirt, underpants and shoes – not good for ayone.

Enjoy your summer!

Say cheese

Say cheese

Cro-magnon man

I’m mid-way through a family holiday in France and their love of all things old fashioned means that the internet coverage and free WiFi availability are more or less nonexistent. I suspect that the French philosophy on this sort of thing is that their way is better. Sometimes this is right, sometimes wrong; Citroen DS, Simca, the way French girls smoke cigarettes, hairy armpits, the price of wine, the price of motorway tolls, the price of fireworks, the price of tea. You get the picture.

Our soundtrack for the holiday is now that’s what I call summer. Perfect plastic pop to pass the days with. That and Katy Perry promising to get me in my birthday suit and to bring out the big balloons means that work and home life are a distant memory.

I’ve had a week of running around the sand dunes and flat oyster beds of Ile D’Oléron where my biggest worry was why the French made you wear budgie smugglers to the pool. My upper limit on the runs was about 9 miles – mainly because it’s a family holiday and the competing pressures of kids, wine, wife and forgetting about life are all due my attention after a long year. The good news is I could run on for miles more and my energy levels are good. Now all I need is a drive to train for something long.
image

Week 2 is underway in campsite no. 2. This one is outside the mediaeval village (tourist trap) of Sarlat in the Dordogne and to call it a campsite is about as appropriate as calling this a running blog. The accommodation we’re in (constant arguments about whether it’s a chalet, a caravan, a mobile home or a cabin) is so new and big we almost refused it at the start. Air con, ensuite, deck the size of Texas, leather sofas, built in kitchen. It’s better than home! The only certain thing is the cleaning deposit will be lost.

I’ve only ventured out for a short 5 miler so far but the good news (from a running front) is that we’re up the arse of nowhere and surrounded by hills so my week of running on the flat will be balanced with a week of sweating in the hills. Being miles from anywhere is great for the soul but a not so great for forgetting a pint of milk.

Still, onwards and upwards.

The blog title refers to the fact that this neck of the woods is where our ancestors grew up (proof we’re all descendants of the French I suppose- something to use in your defence when you try a new sexual move on your wife while smelling of garlic) and the area is dotted with cave dwellings and lots of stone age stuff. The empty spaces this week will be filled with the parents wrestling the devices from the children’s faces and whining at them about the troglodyte culture that surrounds them. The constant struggle between the near (iPod) and far (origins of man).

Laters

National Stereotypes

I have just had a week in the southern european sun at a beach resort where I got about 5 hours sleep every night and spent most of my time in the company of Norwegian, Swedish, German & Dutch ladies.  And my family were back home.

Sounds like a dream come true for most married men. For most men. For practically anybody who lives north of Paris.

It was work.

Cascais flowers

Cascais flowers

The late nights and lack of sleep were mainly because work went on until late into the night. And while the Hotel we worked in had a roof-top pool and bar looking out onto the beaches of Cascais and Estoril we were working in a windowless basement room.

Still, on the positive side I got to go swimming every morning when all the real holiday makers were sleeping off their hangovers and I managed to string together a few runs so the feeling of sucking in hot dry air as your body wondered where the mild Irish summer had gone came back to me.

The body is fully recovered from the ultra marathon and now I just need to find a “thing” to train for. I am stringing together several days of running but I’m drifting into that space where 12 miles is a long run. This is a mental rut rather than a physical loss of form. I am sorely tempted by a 100k in Tralee in early August but with my last long run 5 weeks ago I think I would have 30 miles of fun and a long day of coming to terms with my stupidity (the last 32 miles). In the absence of anything more meaningful I think I’ll just run on for fun and see what comes across my radar. A jaunt in the hills would be nice but I think it’ll have to be Ireland or naught as the funds are low with a family holiday in the next few weeks.

The title of the blog post is just a reminder for a future blog post about whether various nationalities live up to their national stereotypes (noting to do with running at all).

Ultra marathon aftermath

If the last post was the blogging equivalent of taking War and Peace to the toilet with you this one will be like reading the back of the shampoo bottle as you sit and stink.

The physical recovery has gone well insomuch as I haven’t really done any running with the exception of a few outings to see how damaged my calf is (which included a pretty nippy (for me) 7:25 paced 5.5 mile leg of the local Marathon last week).

In the lee of all of these events your mind goes into a motivational lull as you digest the accomplishment of the task. The trick is not to sit in the lull for too long nor to climb out of it too quickly. the former leads to  loss of conditioning (you get fat) and the latter to delayed recovery (you prolong your injuries).

From a mental point of view I recovered within a week. I had been contemplating the event for quite some time (you might have twigged that from the length of the report ;-)) so I was psychologically in the right place for it and with the exception of the excessive heat for the first 20 – 25 miles I never felt like the event was beyond me.

An interesting thing to note is that the round number of 100km has caught the attention of all the people around me. Even though I would consider that I’ve completed races that have taken more out of me from an physical and mental perspective (2013 Wicklow Way Ultra, 2012 Highland Fling, 2011 River Ayr Way) I am constantly approached by people marvelling at the 100km feat.

I am now in the space where I am mellow and happy. The psychological equivalent of having re-heats in your hands after being outside in the cold with no gloves. Now I just have to use this to move onto something else to occupy my spare brain power.

The only downside is that as I allow my calf to recover I am dripping with energy. The dog, the front and back gardens, the kitchen floor, the family – they don’t  know who this person is. I suspect they’ll be looking for the perma-exhausted version back soon.

100km Del Passatore 2014 full report

The seed is planted

In late August 2008 I was unpacking the car of children, babies, buggies and the greatest endurance competitor I know, my wife into the sticky heat of the north Italian summer. We were on one of those random holiday excursions in the midday sun that marks you out as being from climates north. No siestas for us.

As we trudged, en mass, to our goal I spotted a ceramic* sign on the outside of a closed up building that said something in Italian with the middle of the sign reading “100km”. *Faenza is famous for it’s ceramics and where we use rotting wood and mawkish cast iron to mark out our houses they use the most elegant of ceramics. I suppose you can only piss with the cock you’ve got.

My eyes lingered on the sign for slightly longer than was healthy and I got the inquisitive look from my wife as if I’d been cataloguing ladies bottoms at the local swimming pool. Being married I knew my place and got back to the random family excursion we were on.

In reality, even though my ultra marathon days were far in front of me at that stage, my thought processes went something like this: OK, there is something that covers 100km that happens in and around these parts that is so well established the committee has agreed to have a sign made up and to take out a lease on an office somewhere. Now, it’s either something to do with bicycles, horses or running. It can’t be cars because 100km is a bit too short. The bicycle theory got this treatment as well so it was down to running or horses. Horses, to my runner’s brain, weren’t really feasible either. For a start, horses, like a shitting yacht, required a considerable cluster of money and stupidity to exist and this town looked too smart for that.

So running it had to be. The seed was planted.

Germination

Like a stone in your shoe looking for a place to settle so it can set to work on annoying you I carried the idea of the 100km Del Passatore around in the loose bag of running dreams that fills a big corner of my imagination for quite a while. It didn’t bother me too much as it was in a queue behind a long list of other hopeless dreams that were waiting their turn to be called to the plexi-glass hatch to be humiliated by the conflict between my dreams and my running ability.

Still, as the decade ended and the new era of recession set down roots in Ireland the idea of the Passatore would not go away. By this stage I had done my research on the route and history of the event and confirmed that it wasn’t a race between shitting yachts but was a test of the human spirit and had been happening every May since 1972.  It was a point-to-point from Florence to Faenza over the Apennines, run on roads in late May; starting at 3.00pm and finishing late into the night (or early in the morning depending on your approach)  and it had a field of thousands. Anything that’s that old and that big in ultra running doesn’t really have to work very hard on proving itself. Cogito ergo sum.

Around about late 2010 or early 2011 I began to realise that short of dropping to about 10 stone and getting a leg transplant I wasn’t really going to break 3 hours in the marathon. As well as that I had started to find competitive (competitive against myself, the time I was aiming for)  marathons were starting to loose their appeal. In the middle of a 14,000 army of like minded people. it was the loneliest place in the world.

The world of ultra running was starting to appeal to me. Marathons, it turned out, were only a gateway drug. As you enter through the jangly curtain of the adult shop in Amsterdam you come to the mortifying realisation that the top-shelf magazines were only the appetiser. And so I started on my exploration of the limits of my body and mind by entering my first ultra marathon in 2011.

This was the point when I realised that I was no longer going to dream about the Passatore but was going to run it at some stage.

Needless to say, all of this was a secret on the home front.

Breaking through the soil

As the years went by I started specific training for this event in ways that make me seem like a psychopath when you look at it objectivity. The trip home from our Italian holidays invariably involved a scenic spin through the mountains that just happened to be on the same route as the race. I went running up and down the last 30km of the route (we holidayed at about 85km into the race route). All of this was the sort of conditioning behaviour that allows you to move from the land of normal people and through the invisible door into the land of people for whom spending anything from  7 hours to several days running was normal.

During this time I cut my teeth in ultra running terms on the beautiful trails of Scotland, where the attitude and the people are relaxed and the promise of a beer is never far from the top of the agenda. As time went on and I started to realise that I could achieve the same reduced blood flow to my brain and micky by running over the mountains of Ireland and I completed some nursery events like the the Ballyhoura and Brandon Mountain Marathons and the Wicklow Way Ultra. Nothing more than 6.5 hours.

Still the Passatore beckoned. The idea of running on the roads of Tuscany and Emilia-Romanga in the late evening sun with the happy trance you get 5 or 6 hours into a race where the pain of endurance is still far away was calling to me like your sister’s French exchange student in a dream: alluring, exotic, dusky, hot and more than anything, unobtainable.

Still, if ultra running and the failure it delivers to you have taught me anything it is that failure is nothing more than bad timing. If you wait long enough your dreams and your ability to realise them will coincide and success will be yours.

Last year was a write -off in terms of ultra running with my body explaining in a language my brain will understand that less is more. I had one of those I can barely run a mile injuries that forced me to give up on all my dreams of the West Highland Way. In hindsight it wasn’t a bad thing really as I needed to get more comfortable with distances between 40 and 75 miles or so  I told myself. I did compensate with 6 marathons and one ultra  and over half of these were off-road so I had plenty of time to enjoy the isolation of running in the hills. If you’re struggling with the concept of mountain marathons think of it as sexy hill walking: everybody is really tough and fit and doesn’t bring a pack lunch or stout walking boots or proper clothes. And doesn’t have autism.

Growth and flowering

So, as 2013 drew to a close and I realised that no amount of partying on the trails of northern Europe would see me rid of this shoulder monkey I made the decision to run the Passatore. This was followed by the gently encroaching tide of hint dropping to my Significant Other so that when I casually said I was doing it the collateral damage would be minimised.

I put it into the front part of my brain and set about building a base in the most casual and slap dash way possible. I had 3 or 4 bits of work to get right: legs, heart and lungs, stomach and head. I scored a perfect 10 for head and the heart and lungs with little or no real effort. My legs went from zero to hero and, just before the race, back to zero again. On the food front I scored an NG. I suffer from a condition most people would dream of: I forget to eat. This is great if you like being thin but is pretty useless if you need to develop an eating strategy to carry you over the 100km of a race. The comedy value of this was brought home to me from about 65km into the race and started to feel like a dumb idea from 85km ’till the end. More on this later.

Still, I was only going to be challenging myself and all the people I know in the real world think this sort of thing is nuts anyway. 10 hours or 16 hours, it means nothing to them. All they hear is blah, blah, blah, blah, 100km, blah, blah, blah so fretting about negative splits and aoxic zones is pretty pointless.

As hinted above the training was adequate in terms of aerobic base, endurance ability and mental focus. My mileage was reasonably modest at less than 45 miles per week but I had gone down the route of mindless training before and it bore no fruit bar injury. The endurance development meant that food was never needed on the runs so the training of eating a little often was never developed.

The two weeks before the race were hectic with work and family. We had the communion for the middle daughter (a proxy wedding if you ever saw one),  I was in Brussels and Bonn for a week and then I was away again in Brussels in the days leading up to the race. On a 22 mile run about 3 weeks before the race I noticed that my good calf was feeling a bit tight. I ignored it and ran on (this is exactly the sort of stupid thing most runners do by the way). The injury reappeared about 10 days before the race during a 19 mile run through the Bois de la Cambre and the Foret de Soignes in Brussels and, again, rather than pull up and walk back to the hotel I just kept going, comforting myself with the knowledge that it was as painful at mile 4 as it was at mile 19. Then, like someone with the false hope of remission I went on a 12 mile run a week before the race and lo and behold the pain was gone. I had levitated to the plain of conciousness where I could cure myself through abuse. A sort of homoeopathy for runners.

As my wife would say: Yea, right.

Despite my best efforts to appear calm and casual I was a bit of a basket case in final run up to the race. This is nothing new and is simply a reflection of the store of commitment i had for the event. After all, 6 years of dreaming and fantasising has to come out somewhere.

I was in Brussels on the Thursday before the race and made my way to the airport that evening and then onto an easyjet flight to Milan. Milan is 330km away from my bed in Italy but the abundance of cheap car hire and budget airlines helped in picking this as my entry point. As I stepped out of the terminal and into my Fiat Panda the rain was just clearing and the air had the cool, dust dousing feeling to it. Everything was good. It was the right balance of rain and shine that makes crops grow tall.

I felt good.

I finally collapsed into my bed at about 2.00 AM and as tiredness took hold I faded away dreaming of running, the fact that I owned one child too many to ever own a Fiat Panda and realising that I hadn’t really eaten in the past 12 hours excluding the odd snickers.

The next day, the day before the race saw me back at the ill fated car park from late August 2008 on Via Cavour in Faenza. I stepped into the office of the 100km Del Passatore and  I realised there and then that this was going to be great fun. The relaxed atmosphere of the race organisers and the pride in their event confirmed to me that the first rule of ultra running was still intact. The first rule of ultra running states that the shittier the race website and the lower the cost of entry the better the race will be.

I went off to the local Ipercoop and Decathlon to pick up some food and energy gels. For the energy gels I would have to make do with whatever they had in Italy so I settled on powerbar gels.  I might as well get my opinion on these off my chest now rather than let it ruin the flow of my gradual decline in the race later in this report. I can only suggest that in the focus group for these gels they tested them on people who prefer the taste of the devil’s jockstrap to the taste of say…real food. Until they make taking these things less like sucking down someone’s man-sauce mixed with ribena I will have to politely decline these gels from now on.  I did manage to pick up a handy little rear light for the back of my cheapo aquapack that would prove very helpful in saving me from an early grave in the second half of the race. Y’see the roads were open for the event and most Italian drivers see runners on the side of a mountain the way you might see a loose sheep. Collateral damage in their bid to be the next GP driver.

Back to base after that and it’s straight into the usual routine of packing and repacking bags and pasta and ice cream for tea and, after a stroll of a few kilometres to stretch my legs,I went off to bed to pretend to sleep. The sort of sleep you get in the night before a race is akin to the sort of sleep you get in economy class on a transatlantic flight. Technically you’re not awake but to call it sleep would be a bit of a lie. Like calling a soft-on an erection.

The next morning it was clear blue skies and tee-shirt only weather and I was up and out the door before 8.00AM and off to the railway station in Faenza. As I parked my car I realised that I’d run marathons with fewer people in them. In total they had over 2,200 runners for the race. The organisers had arranged a special train for the event that meandered through the mountains and the train company were up for a laugh as well but marking the ticket as being for 101km (the station being about 1km from the finish line). What was striking about the passengers was that over half of them were cyclists who intended to support their friends during the race and that they were all well over 35 years old. Age bring wisdom – or stupidity, depending on your perspective.

Km101 train

Km101 train

I managed to doze on the train and contemplated to myself how different nations deal with nervousness. While I retreated into my own world the Italians burnt off their nervousness by incessant chatting. Silent meditation to centre the mind was not on the curriculum for these people.

Marradi by train. The next time I saw this would be in darkness

Marradi by train. The next time I saw this would be in the dark of the night

Eventually we arrived in Florence and I followed a few other runners who looked like they knew where they were going. I settled down in the shade to eat my sandwich and try and relax and set out my gear and bag for the half way point and for the finishing line.  The only comfort you could take from this was that everyone was up to their own little private rituals. The sort of shamanistic offerings  and rituals normally carried out in the privacy of their own homes. Still, like being at an orgy, everyone was at it (note to wife: I am not speaking from experience on this one).

After over two hours of this idle torture we made our way to the start. This was where I had the first exposure to the sort of characters that these races throw up. I walked past a man of 90 who was lining up for his 41st running of the race. This makes your casual pub bravado seem very hollow.

Vai, Vai!

Vai, Vai!

As the clock counted down the atmosphere was closer to a celebrity 5k than a 100k ultra marathon. It was all applause and cheers for the announcements over the tannoy and selfies for Facebook and designer running gear.

The nerves build.

The nerves build.

Then, BANG. Everyone laughed and we realised that the race had started.

No sitting down for a while.

The harvest

If you ever see the start of a large (or long) race and you look into the eyes of the mid-pack competitors what you’re likely to see is a combination of concentration and fear. This can sometimes be masked with humour. I suspect that as you went over the top on World War 1 it was the same look hiding the same emotions.  The kind of nervous giggle you make when swimming in deep water over a kelp forest after having just watched Jaws: I’ll be fine………..really, I will. 

Off we went, through the throngs of curious tourists with vague looks of incomprehension and respect from the random few who understood what we were up to.  The route of the race passes out through Florence, climbs to over 500m in the first 15km and then drops back down to 200m by 31.5km. This is then followed by what Homer Simpson would call the Murderhorn. A 16km climb on switch back roads to the passa di Colla di Casaglia at 48km and 913m above sea level. Then you’re less than halfway home.

As we ran out of Florence three things became apparent in the first 3km. Firstly it was hot. 24 – 26C hot. the Irish do many things well; singing, drinking, telling stories but hot is not one of our good things. To be fair, from what I could see, nobody was doing hot very well. The second revelation of Florence was more practical: I needed to pee like someone who had been sipping on a water bottle for 3 hours. What ensued was some of my best urban pissing. At least some of my training had paid off. Finally, on a more sombre note, I started to realise that my injured calf had not been cured. It was there, hurting with every ultra marathon shuffle that I took. I was at first alarmed and then in very quick time resigned to this fate. It wasn’t going to go away so I might as well adjust my running gait to deal with it. On top of this it wasn’t going to be 97km of pure and constant pain, the elevation of the hills and the heat meant that I could reduce the overall damage to it by moderating the loads on it with walking breaks. The pain was less pronounced on the down hills so this would take care of at least another 30km. Sometimes it pays to be an optimist.

The climb out of Florence to the hilltop town of Fiesole was, to use the word in it’s truest form: splendid. To be carving your way up a hillside in Tuscany while looking back onto the beautiful sight of Brunelleschi’s Duomo jutting out of the Florentine skyline on a late afternoon was fantastic. Fantastic apart from the stabbing pain in my leg, the drowning pools of sweat blinding me in the heat and the tsunami of fear that I may have entered a heavyweight fight with welterweight abilities. We were now at 7km.

Behind us lies Florence

Behind us lies Florence

Still, constant forward progress was the only game in town so on we went, a meandering snake of stupidity and human endeavour, making our way out into the Tuscan hills. As the crowd thinned out it was interesting to distract yourself from the constant worries and fears about potential failure by watching your fellow runners. The most interesting thing to see was that the race was made up of the most ordinary people you could ever hope to meet. I spotted tall, small, fat, thin, sexy, blind, bearded and bald people all slogging away under the Italian sun. What they  all had in common was that at some point in the past they had broken through the gravitational pull of conventional thinking (i.e. a 100km race is impossible) and had found the courage to enter the race. Like all these long races, the victory is not in finishing the race but in lining up at the start.

Around about now, this revelation about the power of the human mind was broken by the strong urge to open the bomb doors and  to fertilise a Tuscan olive grove. As a firm believer in better out than in I scampered off-road to make like a bear.

Back on track and feeling refreshed I crested the first hill at Vetta le Croci at 16.5km and marked it down as some of the toughest running I had ever done. The heat, gradient, sore leg and fear of the next 85km made me wonder about my ability to complete the course. I was anxious about possible failure but never defeated in the first half of the race. These races are so long and unfold over such a long time that solutions to most problems arise as the race develops. Dynamic problem solving is what the gimps in suits would call it.

The refreshment stations up to this point and on until at least 35km were a case of SOS – stretch or starve. The refreshments were scoring a 8/10 for range (biscuits, nutella and bread – very good, brean ‘n jam, water – flat and fizzy, coke, iced tea,  fruit juice, ribena) but about a 4/10 for abundance. In most instances you had to queue as the helpers kept up with demand. If I ever ran the race again I’d look for a personal support solution like most of the locals did (a personal support solution is the sort of business bullshit language used to describe your buddy cycling beside you with a rucksack full of treats). If it did nothing else it would shave at least 30mins off your time.

As we started the 15km downhill run I realised that my new magic calf guards were doing nothing for me except making my legs hotter than they needed to be so I pulled them down to my ankles. Now I looked like someone with very poor ankle warmers and as they are so good at compression I was now starting to realise my feet were becoming numb. I pulled in at 27km at Faltona and took off my shoes and the calf guards so I could keep going. The scene here at Faltona showed the impact that the heat and hills had had on people. The rest stop was a scene of carnage with full ambulances, people death marching through hastily arranged showers and vomiting from drinking water or juice too fast. This was doing nothing for my confidence levels. At this stage I felt that if we didn’t have some positive experiences soon I was not going to be a happy bunny!

Borgo San Lorenzo (31.5km) came about in 3hr 45min and my ultra marathon strategy of starting slow and slowing down was right on schedule. I still had plenty of appetite for food and the appreciation of the crowd and the general sense that things might get better lifted my spirits.

As we started the climb out of Borgo San Lorenzo we faced a 718m climb to the top of the Colla di Casaglia. The warm up was over and we were onto the main part of the race. This would mark our transition into the meat of the race. The next 35km would see us up and over the mountains and into running in darkness. The last stretch of the race was the 35km drag home to Faenza.

Leaving Borgo San Lorenzo and the support crews get to work

Leaving Borgo San Lorenzo and the support crews get to work

As we climbed I settled into a steady rhythm behind a few other runners. The combination of the steady slow climbing, a pick up in the breeze and a neurofen meant that I could settle into a routine of running about 80% of what was in front of me. As I passed through Ronta and Razzuolo the mountains closed in and the splendid isolation of long distance running came down to embrace me. While there were still people within sight the mood had changed to one of work and concentration and as we passed the full marathon distance I was feeling better than ever. In these races you realise that you have to take the good times when they come and don’t defer them. Bad times’ll be there for long enough.

We passed through the last refreshments stop before the colla in Razzuolo (a bend in the road) and you could feel the warmth of the small communities who gathered to support the runners. Their care and attention to the runners was repeated right the way through the race and it was all done with a mindfulness that made you realise that it was their race and you were only a passenger.

As I left Razzuolo the road really kicked up. There was a near vertical wall of mountain in front of us with the road climbing over 300m in 5km. I enjoyed this bit of the race more than any other. The temperature had dropped to an Italian sub-Arctic (a warm Irish day) level of about 15 or 16 C and the top of the pass (913m), the half way point, marked the start of the finish (only 52km to go!)

See the road climb in the background?

See the road climb in the background?

I crested the hill in 6hr 05min and felt satisfied with myself that I had been able to get my race back on track and was looking forward to the change to downhill running. We had an official bag drop at this point so as the Italians changed from tee-shirts to long sleeve tops, neck warmers, beanie hats, leggings, gloves, wind proof jackets and all manner of accoutrement I  changed my top from a vest to a tee-shirt and a head torch.

Into the darkness we plunged. The thumping heartbeat was gone, the lights and noise of the traffic jam of supporters, runners, cars, bikes and motorbikes that was the Colla were all gone. The only detail outside of the circle of light from your head  torch was the ridge line of the mountains offset by starlight.  Despite the fact that I knew that the rate of descent was going to be like taking a meat tenderiser to my  quads the relief of cool air in my lungs, being able to open my stride and make some progress akin to running were all worth it.

In any long race there are times of pain and times of elation and, like the Irish weather, if you wait 15 minutes one of the emotions will soon replace the other and the trick is not to panic if things get tough. A solution will present itself.

The downhill switchback road was something that I could enjoy for quite a while and if I could pass miles 30 – 40 (48km  - 65km) in this way I wasn’t going to say object.

Crespino, a village that suffers the insult of being bypassed by a road that no one travels on, came around and I got a text from my brother congratulating me on my achievement (he assumed it was a 6 hour run). I replied that I was about 6hr 40min into the race and had about 6hrs left before finishing. I think that was the point where I felt total immersion in the event. I was no longer starting or finishing the event but was in the middle of nowhere, in pitch darkness, just existing. Running in total darkness is a unique experience. You are cast adrift from a whole load of anchors that fix you to your environment. Distance and direction disappear. All you have is the sound of your breath and the the chattels in your pockets and backpack.

The hill eased out and I stopped to water the ditch just outside Biforco. On hot summer afternoons when we tire of the noise of the village swimming pool in Brisighella we head up here to swim in the local river where it slows down and forms pools. while I was enjoying the race I felt that without the family around me Italy just wasn’t the same. Italy was family holidays.  Biforco marked the end of the real darkness and the start of the daisy chain of villages that lead to the end of the race in Faenza.

As I entered Biforco I realised that the 16km of downhill running had rendered me empty of energy and my legs were looking for a rest. A rest in these sort of races involves power walking and eating as opposed to sitting down for a cup of tea and a creamy cake. I used the 15 mins of walking between Biforco and Marradi to check in at home and phoned my long suffering wife to fill her in on the escapade to date. She seemed fairly encouraging (she didn’t tell me I was stupid) so I agreed I’d check in again when she was heading to bed.

The 65km mark in Marradi was the start of the last phase of the race and the part of the route I knew the best. This was different from other ultra marathons I’d run where the closing stretch was the wild blue yonder. At this point of the race most of the running is done with will power so the ability to read the road and create maps in your head is very powerful.

Unless you’ve lost your appetite to eat.

Apart from my sore achilles and calves the real problem of long distance running was starting to hit home around now. The failure to train my stomach to absorb fuel late in the race was not working in my favour. All the twitter tips about high fat/low carb diets and running on empty don’t count when you’re walking and should be running.

That said, almost everyone around me was a member of the same club. Someone would run past you with the gritty determination of a winner, making your heart sink and motivation evaporate only for them to suddenly and without notice stop and walk. As they stopped you took the mental baton from them and assumed the mantel of the winner and plodded past them.

When your running is reduced to this sort of leap frogging with the other poor souls seeking the limits of their being the trick is to make sure you are doing more leaping than being leaped. You have to leap two for every one who leaps you. This keeps you on track and gives you the drive to restart the engine every time it splutters to a stop.

In this recounting of the race I haven’t really mentioned the surreal experiences and thoughts that go through your mind, the little events that are carved into your memory forever that form the details of the masterpiece. The things that, if you have a photographic memory like mine, are the photo album that makes the event (expect plenty of tangential rambling blog posts to cover these memories in the future).

As we came out of San Adriano (some very nice coffee at the aid station) there was a live band playing in a bar at the side of the road – playing psycho killer by Talking Heads.

Psycho Killer
Qu’est-ce que c’est
Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-far better
Run run run run run run run away
Psycho Killer
Qu’est-ce que c’est
Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-far better
Run, run, run, run, run, run, run, away

This became my ear worm for the next 15km. Thankfully I had an exercised induced low IQ so I couldn’t dwell on whether the lyrics might have carried any special meaning.

The race continued on in this fashion of a gentle decline in form as my stomach shut down and the gradient flattened but the closing goal pushing me on until about 01:20hrs in the morning. I had had a quick chat with my wife during a walking break and by the time I reached Fognano I was experiencing a brand new feeling – utter exhaustion. Lie down on a footpath and fall asleep tired. It came on me suddenly, this wall of sleepiness, I walked through Fongano and ran my head under a street side tap – no joy. Like a man with a hammer where everything looks like a nail, everything looked like a bed. Steps up to a church – a bed; a hedge – a warm duvet, a football pitch – a soft, soft bed.

At the food stop in Fognano I could gauge by the giggling of the teenage girls manning the aid station that I was either the missing member of One Direction or I looked like a drunk uncle at a wedding who was about to be taken home by an embarrassed wife.  I stood, eyes unfocused, swaying and picking slices of luncheon roll from the sandwiches on offer.

Constant forward progress is the motto in these races so even if the running is broken the walking persists. At this point I munched down a pack of chocolate covered  espresso beans I’d been carrying. This would be the only nutrition apart from a cube of cheese I would see for the last 20km of the race. I continued on like this until the outskirts of Brisighella when, from nowhere a small ember glowed in the engine and with this small glow I moved my feet a bit faster and lo and behold I was running. I moved into Brisighella and up via Roma to Cafe Aurora where I had eaten innumerable gelatos with the kids. No chance of that now. The aid station might as well have been serving offal for all the good it would do me.

The fading of my performance was bugging me at this stage. Brisighella was where I ran when I was on holidays. Holidays is a proxy term for beer, pizza, sleep and ice cream – all as vital as porridge when it comes to running.

Still, the leap frogging, the give and take of places was still the only way forward. I was 11hrs 22mins into the race with 15km to go at this stage and based on my current progress I was settling myself into a 13hr+ finish. The run-walk social contract I had in place between my body and mind was undergoing a constant renegotiation as my circumstances changed so that the gaps between the running and walking phases were becoming more frequent and more balanced. The easy undulations of the road became reasons to swap the running for walking, the contract with your body came down to bartering about running until the 3rd street light so you could walk until the 5th light.

I reached Errano with just over 5km to go. I managed a cube of cheese and a paper cup of fizzy water. I’ve eaten more and felt better.

From here on in the race was marked out in countdown kilometres.

I don’t bet; mainly because I can’t derive any pleasure from the thrill of winning (or losing). The mathematician in me just does the calculations and works out the odds and then I put my money back in my pocket. I had enough fuel for 3km of running but had to run 5km.  What to do? Open the throttle and hope I didn’t explode or keep metering out the rope ’till the end?

At 97km I decided to give in to the indecision and hit the afterburners. Without this decision and at my slow pace I would miss 13hrs. From the outside this might have looked like a man going from a slow shuffle to a faster shuffle but inside my head it was like Mo Farah in the last two laps of the 5000m.

If you’ve ever ridden a motorbike at speeds over 140mph you’ll experience a sensation of heightened awareness and an ability to concentrate and process information at a speed you didn’t think possible. Your ears stop working, your breathing slows and 100% of your processing power is concentrated on a tiny coin-sized vanishing point of vision on the horizon of your view. Your existence is reliant on this point and if you tune out for even a moment you’ll end up with what hospital doctors euphemistically call a negative outcome.

And so I was, in the closing 2km of the race, running for all my banjaxed legs were worth and focusing on the stragglers ahead of me. The runners being passed, the crowds (they were still there at nearly 04:00hrs), the lights, the cameras – they all counted for nothing – As fast as I could, all along via Firenze, onto via Marconi, past the Sport 7 shop with the road sign pointing back to where we had started with “Firenze 100″ on it, across the junction, onto corso Matteotti, the last kilometre, past Saloni bicycles and Bar Italia with it’s pizza by the slice and then, the finish, Piazza del Popolo, the finishing arch, the giant screen with Cronin, Richard, IRL on it, a final push, a big smile, arms in the air and it was done.

12 hours 51 minutes 24 secondsThe chip time is a bit faster.

The chip time is a bit faster.

 

 

The end brings a feeling of elation and euphoria. The mechanical processes take place like a parent of a new born child. Collect your medal – smile, 3 bottles of wine for finishing – smile, official finishing certificate with split times – smile, returning the timing chip and collecting the deposit -smile, collecting your bag – smile. Like any event that has been running for 42 years and can cater for over 2,000 ultra runners the event is precision personified. All voluntary.

Swollen fingers

Swollen fingers

And then, with no further ado I slipped away from the crowds and into the quiet sleeping streets to walk (limp) the final kilometre to the car. As I drove back up the race route (my bed was in Brisighella at around 86km) the long procession of cracked and fractured souls moved past me on their journey to the finish. I spotted some of my leap frogging friends from 30km ago and was happy that I had made it home before them.

I was showered and asleep within 50mins of finishing and in just enough time to miss the dawn.

Don't tell my wife that this is how I dry my running gear

Don’t tell my wife that this is how I dry my running gear

After about 4 hours sleep I was out of bed, a litre of milk and some yoghurt for recovery and a 330km drive to Milan airport, a blue and yellow bird of freedom and then another 260km drive home. I got in the door at about 11pm and was straight back out the door to walk the dog.

The best part of the whole adventure came the next day when my middle child went to school with my medal.

The end.

 

Best feeling in the world

Best feeling in the world

100km Del Passatore – short update

Two brothers are told by their parents that they are going to go to the biggest amusement park in Europe. This will be a once in a lifetime event, never to be repeated.

The brothers get their hands on a map of the amusement park and pour over it. One brother makes out an itinerary for their big day with the rides listed with a timetable for which ride to take and when with all sorts of minor details like when and what to have for breakfast, what the queues will be like and alternating fast rides with easier ones. They plan out all the details, the car park, the distance from their hotel. Their parents only wish they were this good at school work. The other brother agrees and takes it all on board, knowing it makes perfect sense to make such plans but deep down in his soul, as he lies awake at night suppressing the butterflies and dreaming of their big day out, he knows that these are just details and they will count for nothing once he’s through the turnstiles.

And so, their big day comes, one brother sticks to his plan and gets to go on every ride in the park and ends his day satisfied with himself, the other one rushes off to all the extreme rides straight away, vomits his breakfast up onto himself, drinks too many slushies (gets a blue tongue), gets sunburnt and misses about half the other rides. He falls asleep in the car on the way home.

Who had the better day?

In life, and in particular ultra running, there are two types of people and this analogy is the best description I can give to explain the difference. I know which type I am (wipes vomit off face……)

The long and the short of it was that I had a calf injury from the 3km in (to be fair, it was pre-existing so I was hardly surprised by this)  and the remainder of the race was a plate spinning exercise between injury, heat, food and tiredness.

With the exception of a few (in hindsight) minor crises I managed to finish in a reasonable time – 12hr 51min by my watch and 12hr 53 by the clock (chip time not through yet).

Race report to follow.

Swollen fingers

Swollen fingers

The four horsemen

I am sitting at my desk and the nerves have kicked in.

I’ve about 5 days until I line up in the main square in Florence and start my 100km race at 3.00pm on Saturday the 25th May.

I you could see me now I would, like a swan, look serene. But look a bit harder and you’ll see about 3 long range weather forecasting websites opened on my computer; google maps is open with various sets of directions to and from the airport; there’s a vertical profile of the race (a natural laxative) on the desk in front of me; I have the race website opened in Italian and English and I have started re-writing my checklist for the race again.

If you meet me and ask me how things are make sure you have a lot of time to spare; I’m not known for Clint Eastwood style answers.

On the race front I’ve narrowed the worries down to four key things: heat, food, legs and distance.

The distance doesn’t worry me as much as some of the others and I have the advantage of having run the last 25km many times before so when I get to that point in the race where the mind is the only thing still driving you forward I will be in  a better position than I have been for other races.

The long range forecast is showing 27 degrees C and clouds with a chance of some rain. That spells muggy weather with a chance of thunder showers. It could be worse and it could be better. I’ll try and allow the heat to control my pace and I plan to bring a handful of S! Caps with me for the heat.

On the food front I’m in the best/worst position in that I am able to run a long way with no food but not the length of the race. 30 miles on water is now possible but that is about as much use as tits on a bull when it’s a 62 mile race. I think I’ll adopt an “eat a bit, often” approach to the race until at least km 65 and then I’ll see how the stomach feels. There are two hills (500m & 900m) at 5k and 40km that should allow me to control my effort in the afternoon heat (5km hill) and eat a bit (40km hill).

I plan to hide some personal drop bags of food between 65km and the finish as it gives you a mental goal as the race drags on and you start to question your own existence. These might include some caffeine based products (I have some chocolate covered espresso beans that might be a good goal) and maybe something that has worked in other races.

The real current worry is the legs. Last Wednesday I went for my last medium long run (18 miles) in Brussels and my good leg was bad at mile 4 (serious muscle pain in the right calf) and I stopped for about 10 minutes to do major stretching and then, like a fool, kept going. I was so worried about this pain that I sought advice from Grellan and Thomas and am now €40 poorer and about to become the owner of those calf compression guards you see on many an ultra runner.

The odd thing was that I went out yesterday for a 12 miler and took some S! Caps to see if they were any good (yes is the answer) and I had no leg pains whatsoever.  Still, 12 miles is a long way from 62.

I think I’ll just suck it and see (dynamic problem solving is probably what that’s called now) on the day. I’ll start with a loose plan that can be adjusted as the day wears on so I never feel like I’m in the failure zone. What this means in reality is a set of goal times that are subject to adjustment as the day wears on: crippling heat – slow down; aching calves – walking break; rain – lash on.

In my head the race has several stages (like a large meal – from the sitting down to the last, wafer thin mint) and it’s in my head like this:

first 20 miles to Borgo San Lorenzo – the warm up:  5k out of Florence – calm the nerves and soak up the atmosphere, power walk the first hill (to 10k) and then jog to the top (15k at 500m), enjoy the downhill to 30k.

10 miles to climb to halfway at Colla di Casaglia (900m) – dinner. Run-walk this so that the top approaches and the cool evening air makes you feel refreshed. There’s a drop bag here so some sort of reward will be handy here (a change of running top as opposed to a pint and a fag).

Managing the downhill home. 10 miles to Marradi. When you tell a non-runner that the last 31 miles of the race are down hill they give you a sly smile and a wink like that makes it easy. For a runner they give you a look of real concern and empathy. These 10 miles will be as slow as I can make them so I have functioning legs for the last 20 miles.

The drag home Marradi to Faenza. I’ve driven and run most of these 35km at some stage in the past  so I plan to break the run down into village-to-village chunks of about 3-5km each. this will get me to 88km at Brisghella (my base) and then I’ll just have to grit it out in a run-walk combo.

Time? On a dull wet day with low temps I think I could grind out a sub-11 hr. In my head I’ve got the following goals:

Nothing goes wrong: 10 – 12 hrs

One of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (heat, food, distance, legs) meets me on my travels – 12hrs  - 14 hrs.

More than one of the horsemen meets me: Long picnic where some poor soul gets to hear my life story! Time becomes an abstract concept.

I’m working in Brussels on Thursday so the plan is to high tail it to the airport for a 7.00pm flight to Milan (the cheapest airport I could find) and then a 330km spin to my bed. I’ll register on Friday and fanny about worrying the toilet bowl and then I’ll catch the train to the start on Saturday morning and try and have a nap in Florence before the start.

After the race it’ll be back for a power nap and then speed back up the Autostrada for a flight from Milan to Dublin and then a drive home and out to walk the dog on Sunday night before work on Monday.

Easy peasy.