The vast structure of recollection

Bear with me on this one.

The biggest problem with being a grown-up is the worrying about the future. Worrying might be the wrong word; maybe planning for or looking after are better terms.

It doesn’t really matter what you call it, when you’re a grown up its always getting in the way. It gets in the way of enjoying life, of living in the moment, of fully connecting to the thing you’re supposed to be doing. It’s the worst thing about being a grown-up (apart from the going blind, the skin like old paper, the outrage at the antics of teenagers, the outrage at the ill-fitting pants of anyone under 30 – you get the idea).

But there is a solution, a cure, and, like the best of miracle cures it’s free.

It’s your involuntary memory. Your Proustian memory.

I was in Paris a few weeks ago for work and I had a morning to kill so  I did what any normal person would do and I went sight seeing. I rented a bicycle and imagined myself as a younger man and pedalled around the 3rd, 4th and 11th Arrondissements. My destination was at the top of Rue de la Roquette and the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. I’d come to find the final resting place of the man behind the crystallising of the concept of involuntary memory in the 20th century.


Marcel Proust told a story that included an anecdote about a small cake and a cup of tea. The scent and taste of the cake transports him like a time machine to his youth and he describes in vivid detail eating the selfsame cake with his  aunt. This  involuntary memory has become known as Proustian memory. The next time you smell a freshly shaved pencil and a wax crayon and your first day of school flashes before your eyes you can say “that triggered an intense proustian memory” rather than “I think I’m going mad” – it makes you seem more intelligent.

Whats all this about?

Well, the activity of running for long distances allows me to live like a child and allow  space and time to lose their connection. This allows all of the burdens of being a grown up to evaporate and I find myself mentally, if not physically, free of the burden of being a grown up.

That’s the main reason I run. The freedom of childhood. The most natural state in the world.

Of course, most of my childhood, like yours, was probably a grind of homework, school uniforms, religion and rain. The same is true of running but the overall cumulative effect of all the running is to allow space and time to drift apart and in the gap between the two you find an alternative world.


After the trip to the graveyard I dropped into a small shop in Paris and picked up a bar of soap. Immediately I was 16, on my own in France for the first time and staring at topless women on the beach. But that’s another story.


2016 Vartry 50 mile race report

It’s been a few weeks since I finished the Vartry 50 mile on Easter Saturday and I’ve had plenty of time to physically recover and stir the simmering cauldron of stupid ideas inside my head that help me pick the next race.

I’ll give a straight vanilla race report here (for people who consider 50 miles of running of a Saturday morning to be just about normal) and I’ll give you my real thoughts (for those who, like me, think it’s crazy) in another post.

Race report for ultra runners:

I only entered this race about 6 days before the event – that’s plenty of time to deal with nerves and tapering and all that “prep” stuff. On the Sunday before the event I’d stretched my long runs up to 25 miles (about the limit of my boredom threshold) but more importantly, I had put in a solid few months of long runs and had adapted my diet to high fat and low carb in the month before the race. With no injury to speak of it seemed opportune to have a go at this race. I’d liked the course from the 50k last year and I thought another few laps would be a bit of a test. Also, as the course was all on roads it would be a proper test of aerobic endurance as opposed to testing my agility as a mountain goat which happens on trail ultras.

I borrowed my wife’s car (a mini-van if you’re from the land of Trump) and struck off from Cork to travel to Roundwood. Not being a fan of Facebook I didn’t realise that race HQ had been moved from the village of Roundwood to an Adventure/Assault Course outside the village. I pulled into the race HQ at around 22:45, parked up, surveyed the post-apocalyptic set-up in front of me, questioned my sanity, chatted to the race directors, said a silent prayer for the 100 mile runners out on the route for almost 5 hours already, made myself a cup of tea and climbed into my sleeping bag.

And lay there until around 02:00hrs waiting for the nervous energy and tea to work their way out of my system and eventually fall asleep. All too soon the phone alarm went off at 05:00hrs and I was up and put the kettle on for some buttered coffee. I sat in the car going over my kit and sorting out my box of tricks and trying not to dwell too long on the stupidity of my actions.

The forecast was for the sort of lazy wind and rain you get on a Wicklow hillside (lazy = would go through you rather than around you) so I had my race box filled with a spare set of gloves, hat and running top. My starting kit was a pair of Hoka Cliftons, SOLE dual layer socks, my regular shorts, a helly hansen long sleeve top, a Berghaus vapour storm jacket,  a reflective vest and the aldi gloves and hat I’ve been using for years. Most of the kit is old and run of the mill. the only two bits of kit that I’d recommend spending money on for a race like this (long and in bad weather) is a really good jacket and decent shoes. The berghaus jacket is one of the only reasonably priced gore-tex jackets that’s designed for running and it works. The Hokas allow me to run pain free. If you’re a martyr to the blisters then you’ll have your own approach to coping with them. I escape fairly lightly on this front but I always run in SOLE dual layer socks.

My food plan was a bottle of water every 10 miles with an Aldi multivitamin effervescent tablet in it and then if I felt any hunger I’d switch to snickers bars and bananas. I made it to 29 miles until I felt the need for food and then I had 2 bananas, 2 snickers and a cup of tea with a little bit of banana bread on offer at the start/finish over the next 21 miles. Apart from mile 29 I never felt any energy dip from a lack of food. One of my main reasons for making the effort to run on a fat based diet is because I want to enjoy the race. Trudging along with low energy and a stomach full of simple sugars just isn’t fun.

As we lined up at the start of the race the forecasters were spot on and the lazy wind and rain started down on us. It was the sort of character building rain you normally head out in for a long run and return with chaffed nipples and and being drenched to the bone.

Still, it was raining on all of us and the 100 mile runners were now on the go for 12 hours with no end in sight so there was nobody handing out sympathy. You generally don’t line up for these sorts of races without taking some HTFU pills.

This race is run on a 10 mile loop that is a tilted triangle with two out and backs on the triangle in order to make up the 10 miles. Later in the race the triangle is useful for visualising how you break the laps down into segments so you never get the existential “why am I doing this? – I’m going to walk” that you often get in a point-to-point ultra.

My race pacing strategy was to hold back for at least the first two laps, knuckle down and work on the third lap and see how my endurance was for laps four and five and be willing to settle for a 10 hr+ finish if it turned out I was a bit too cocksure with my ambition on a 50 mile race.

Apart from being thoroughly drenched, laps one and two went by uneventfully. Lap one was particularly pleasant and full of camaraderie as there was always someone to share the journey with. I met another blogger from Kilkenny who was out running with his friends (as you do). I found the bitter cold and driving rain made me run with the hood pulled up on my coat for most of the first 20 miles. This had the effect of allowing me to retreat into my mind and the miles rolled by without much of a strain. What the experts would call “the flow“. Lap one clicked by in 1:38 and lap two in 1:39. Both these laps had bear in the woods pit stops so the actual pace was a bit faster than the splits. This sort of pace was very manageable as my  easy 10 mile hill session training pace is about 1:27 and my Mo Farah 10 mile hill session is about 1:19.

Lap three was where the work started and more mental strength was required in order to keep the ship on course. I set out on this lap with a banana and my bottle of water and made it past the full marathon point in good shape (better shape than last year but slower). I felt my first dip in energy at mile 29 and decided that it was time to start on some food. I tried a banana and while it didn’t have much int he way of calories it was just what my empty stomach needed. Lap three arrived in 1:42. I had ditched m saturated gloves at mile 20 only to go rooting around in my gear box for anther pair as I started the fourth lap. The combination of wind, cold and rain meant my fingers were constantly numb.

Lap four was the closest I came to a low point. It was where you’re a long way from the start but the end still feels far away. The miles from 30 – 36 were the ones where I had to concentrate the most and where I found the need to compartmentalise the route into bit sized pieces most necessary. Around about mile 36 I ran for a while with the eventual second place finisher – another Cork man – Aidan  Hogan who was making 46 miles of running look very easy. This was just what I needed in terms of motivation and I realised that a bit less time in my head and more time running and I’d be grand.

Lap four clicked by in 1:45. Afterwards I was very happy with the pacing consistency of my first 40 miles but at the time I hadn’t a clue. In a race of this distance you just take what’s in front of you as opposed to race with a strategy (at least that’s how I approach the races – I’m sure the elites have an actual plan).

The last 10 miles included some of the fastest I’d run but the split was a 1:53 which was because the first two miles were very slow. I changed my top and had a cup of tea and some banana bread at the start of the first mile ( an 18 minute effort) and during the hill in the second mile I walked and made a phone call to my long suffering wife. I got the by now default response of If you think you’re getting any sympathy from me while I mind the kids and the dog you can think again buster!! I WhatsApp-ed my wider family who were decent enough to wish me well and mention that it was all a bit mad.

I worked again on the compartmentalising of the race into little bits and found I was able to keep running for all of the race with the exception of the little hills at mile 45.5 and 46.5. At this point I stopped to take a stone from my shoe and decided I could make it to the end without stopping.

As I kicked off I found the mile pace dropping closer and closer to 8:00 min/mile and I had the euphoric feeling you have from knowing that you’ve made it and can empty the tank.  I think My last mile just dipped under the 8 min mark but I haven’t down loaded the Garmin yet.

When you reach the end of a big marathon you are generally cheered on by the crowd and you have a mild sense of not being worthy of the praise. At the end of a moderately long ultra marathon there are generally a couple of exhausted marshals, a few kids who’re not old enough to tell their dad (or mum) that they would rather SnapChat their friends than stand around freezing as one of their parents slogs around the course and a few die-hard supporters. Even a clap from one of this raggedy bunch is worth more than the thousands cheering in the finishing chute of a major marathon.


And so it was, I crossed the line in 8hrs 38 mins and 44 seconds – 9th overall. I collected my medal and finisher’s tee-shirt and chatted to one or two other runners doing different races (marathon, 50km and 100mile).


50 miles finished – I need a haircut.

I changed my clothes and hightailed it for the drive home (around 180 miles) home  with a quick pit stop to collect a bunch of Easter eggs on the way.

The collateral damage for the race wasn’t bad with one black toenail and some sore legs for the next two days (the last three miles of “sprinting”) and the safety pins on the running shorts had rubbed two areas of my thigh raw. None of this sort of thing hurts until the next day.

The shoes were fairly banjaxed but I only replaced them this week past as the wear patterns between the shoes was starting to give me a bit of hip pain after some recent runs.

So that’s that. Thanks for reading. Now, the litmus test of any ultra marathon would  I run this race again? In short, YES.

I’ll give you more details and a longer version of the yes in another post.


(S)lower Pace

If you’ve stumbled on this blog in the past few weeks you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s all about the running. Like most people who have an unhealthy interest in anything that might attract the anorak brigade (stuff involving men standing around talking in hobby-shorthand about their shared passion), you will eventually realise,  if you get deep enough into the hobby, that its not about the running.

Now with that middle-distance-staring bit of philosophising out of the way I’m about to talk about nothing but running.

Around 45 miles into my Italian Adventure last year I started to realise that there was a flaw to my strategy for the race – apart form the obvious one that I shouldn’t have entered in the first place. I hadn’t practiced running really slowly. Like Eskimos and snow there are many ways to describe slow when it comes to running. The ultra marathon slow shuffle is, like Guinness, an acquired taste (i.e. shitty but you get used to it). It’s the economy of movement that is either a recipe for victory or a death march.

At mile 45 I found myself running fine (no muscle or joint pain) but having to take walking breaks every mile or so to allow my temperature to drop. This meant that I was covering the same ground as the ultra-shuffle practitioners but far less efficiently.

So, this morning I went out for a long run (25 miles) with the express intention of keeping  control on the pace and the running economy. Running economy is what the anoraks say when we mean a senior citizen jogging shuffle.

This worked a treat and combined with a night of fasting and a mug of bulletproof coffee meant I covered the 25 miles with no sugar low and a steady pace (8:44-9:00 min/mile) – all in about 3hr 41min.

Is this sensible? No, not really. But a combination of a WiFi connection, a website and a visa card yesterday mean I’ve entered a 50 mile race next weekend and this senior citizen jogging shuffle and diet of butter and coffee should make the first 30 miles a little more bearable.

My expectation is that the first 30 miles will be fine as these sort of things go and then it’ll be about how much of the eventual collapse of form, fitness and performance can be put off over the next 20 miles.

I have another busy work week coming up so I’m not sure how that will feed into the race next Saturday morning but then I think “race” is what the elites would call it. For me it’ll be a day with the other anoraks.


Fat Running

If all memory is essentially Proustian then the scent of coconut has moved from the memory of lazy days on the beach and exotic (i.e. beyond my reach) girls to the memory of feeling stupid, exhausted and alone in the middle of a strange country (i.e. ultra running).

So, as I popped the lid on the jar of coconut oil yesterday morning to make a cup of bulletproof coffee (butter + coconut oil + coffee – not as bad as it sounds) I was not whisked away to a land of sultry ladies but was landed in the middle of the night fighting my inner stupidity demons with 50km left to run.

Why would I want to drink this magic concoction as a replacement for a nice bowl of porridge? Read on: As something to take my mind off of my creeping sense of morality I have decided to enter an ultra marathon in 2 weeks. I’m flip-flopping between the 50km and the 50 mile. I think I’ll opt for the 50 mile  – hear me out – as it will allow me to make a mess of the last 10 miles and still be able to tell a good pub story. The 50km will require a “decent show” all day and I’m not sure I’m up for that.

In arriving at a decision like this there are two things that cause me real anxiety. The first is quite predicable: Who want’s to start running at 06:00 on Easter Saturday?! That’s just not normal. The second one is linked to the coffee: After about 30 miles of running on carbohydrates my digestive system is the first thing to hoist the white flag of surrender. I just can’t touch any food after that amount of time sucking down gels and munching jelly babies.

For the first one of these I’ll solve it by sleeping in the car at the start of the race – this will ensure that I can sleep until 05:30 before the running starts.

The second one involves the buttered coffee. I could pretend to spoof you on the science of it but I won’t. Essentially if you restart the engine with fat and not sugar in the morning you can operate all day on almost no sugar. If you are more curious just throw some of the following terms into a search engine and sit back: Ketogenisis, LCHF, Up-regulating fat metabolism, fat adapted.

Back to the training: So, having fasted for over 13 hours I struck out for a long run just before midday yesterday with a couple of cups of the buttered coffee in my stomach. The first five miles were a bit disconcerting as my stomach was wondering where the sugar had gone. But then, as your body realises that there are only two gears – slow and really slow – you settle into the running.

I made it to 22.5 miles before I got so bored I decided that that was enough. I think there were another 2 or 3 miles in there without any problem but I don’t like pushing the marathon distance in training as it leaves nothing else to aim for.

I’ll try and make an effort to eat less carbs over the next few weeks and increase the number of these fat coffee runs. That should make the 50 miles a bit more bearable. I wonder if I wore a hula-skirt would it help bring back the memory of the exotic beach holiday?



Ne Travaillez Jamais

I rarely talk about what I do for a crust on this blog and that isn’t going to change today. The only thing to know for the purposes of this blog post is that it sometimes forces me to travel overseas for meetings.

The destinations for these meetings are normally European Capitals. If you live in Australia or Argentina this is exotic. If you sit in a dull meeting room in Brussels/Berlin/London/Dublin/Copenhagen/Paris it makes little or no impression on you. One of the only up-sides to speaking in the third person in meetings, sitting in coach class on the airplane and loitering in chain hotels watching BBC world news on repeat is that I get to go out for one of my misanthropic runs either early in the morning or late at night.

On a basic level it’s a great way to see a city but apart from that it’s an antidote to the routine of work.

And so this week I found myself running along the banks of the Seine and taking in the glories of Paris. An early morning run at the edge of the river as the city wakes up. The homeless sleeping under the arches of the bridges, the insolent french women with their “I wouldn’t touch you with a barge pole” look (maybe that’s just at me?).  And the city – Snug inside it’s peripherique existing as a Utopian ideal – the apex of urbanism.

And me, frantically looking for a hedge to take a piss in.

Still, 10 miles in Paris is a treat.


Run on me!


If you want a good hotel – I know just the place.




Porridge free zone

The tile of the blog refers to famous graffiti from 1953 by Guy Debord on Rue De Seine in Paris. I went past it the other day after a long day of cuddling my laptop but they’d paid someone to clean the graffiti from the wall.

Irony is alive and well.


Ne Travaillez Jamais





Whilst last week’s long run was all about “progression” (getting faster the farther you run) this week’s was all about the long slow stuff that love making in ladies novels talks about – effortless endurance.

I remember when I used to actually use a structured training plan for marathons, the joy of a slow 3 hour run on a Sunday morning was something to look forward to. It was just running.

The target for yesterday’s run was 18 miles but I started to experience the elasticity of time and space you get on an ultra marathon where mile 4 feels like mile 9 which feels like mile 13 and suddenly you’re at mile 18 and wondering whether you should stop now or keep going. So I decided to round it up to 20 miles as this always marks a milestone in training (visualise pub-style conversation while struggling through latter stages of an ultra-marathon: I mean, I was cracking out 20-milers in mid-February, I don’t know what’s gone wrong today…….!)

I had completed the run on a mainly fat based diet (avocado and feta salad + beef the previous night) with porridge, coffee and berocca for breakfast so the run had that element of running on empty to it. This helps with the steady endurance performance you want in a long run – no sugar highs and lows.

Now what, you may ask, is that element of running on empty?

Remember when you were a kid you were always buzzing around the place like a 2-stroke moped, fuelled up on white bread and jam sandwiches. Well, it’s the opposite of that.

It feels like your legs (and your muscles in general) are not connected to your stomach. They’re operating on some other power source that leaves you neither tired nor energised but does bring great clarity. As you run along at mile 17 you feel the same as when you were at mile 4. In equal measure it is both reassuring and disconcerting. A normal sugar based run will see your brain and muscles fighting for the same energy source leading to a fog of perception. This is why you always look shagged in photos of your marathon performance when you think you look like a hero (that’s my theory anyway).

Secret Ingredient

Before you read on,  if you’ve any interest in food, exercise and stopping yourself from eating all the cookies then the BBC food program on BBC radio 4 has just up-loaded two podcasts on running and food. It talks about the fat -v- carbs debate and the performance effects of both.

I thought the two programs were very interesting but they fall into the old trap of  studying the elites and then hoping to transfer their findings to the plodders. Kenyan elites or Scott Jurek are not even close to my baseline.

If you haven’t the time nor patience to listen to the two podcasts then the whole thing can be summed up by the following (to paraphrase Chris McDougall): Eat whole foods, mainly vegetables and not too much.

Anyway, onto my secret ingredient.

The thing that separates the boys from the men in the world of long distance running isn’t your ability to wee in the woods or to consume sugar like a 7 year old at a birthday party. No, it’s your ability to climb out of your warm, warm bed in the dark cold mornings of winter and slam the front door behind yourself and start running for a few hours. I was in London last week for work and went out the door of the hotel at 06:50 hrs for a 10k run and felt like a teenager at midday. Moody, sluggish, wishing I was under the duvet. I am a boy and not a man!

No matter how hard I’ve tried I just prefer a warm duvet to the world of running. When I enter a long race I am more stressed out by the 07:00 hrs start gun than by the 50 miles of running in front of me. Duvets were given to us by God to prevent us having to leave our caves in winter. By this logic early morning running is the work of the devil.

So, as I got under way yesterday for my long run at 10:00 hrs I was met by a stream of people coming back from their long runs. Every one from the amateur elites knocking out a 19 mile maintenance run to the stumble-drunk novices amazed they’ve made it to 10 miles with all their limbs still attached.

My normal long runs are what might be called “semi-structured” which is a management speak sort of way of saying they are made up as I go along. I will usually settle into an 8:10 – 8:50 min/mile pace so that I have some brain power in reserve to start but not finish solving all the problems of the world. If I’m heading out faster than this I have to pay a lot more attention to my form (a running term for putting one foot in front of the other while breathing and trying not to fall over).

My run yesterday was a 17 miler made up of an out and back 10 miles from my house to the top of Rochestown and then a 7 mile loop around the Mahon amenity walk and railway line (disused for those of you not familiar with Cork Geography).

The technical term for the run was a progression run which just means that I finished faster than I started. Mile 17 ended up being a 7:08 min/mile which is an achievement for someone with as little tempo work done as I have. (tempo just means running fast).

As I basked in the warm glow of mile 17 being 7:08 and not 9:08 I had to wonder what had happened. I’m the same runner I was the previous Sunday.

The only difference was that I had gone to bed for the previous 4 nights before 23:00 hrs and had had at least 8 hours of sleep every night (and some very strange dreams – a blog post for another time).

So, my duvet theory was right all the time. Sleep really is the secret ingredient.

Now, if only I could introduce the siesta at work…….