The title of this blog post came to me when I was climbing one of the hills in last weekend’s back-to-back marathons in Clonakilty. Climbing is a running term for slogging-your-guts-out-on. The sort of hill you’d get off a bike on. The sort you’d have to change down gears in a car on, the sort that marathon runners call challenging.
When I was younger, about the same time as most of the competitors in last weekend’s double marathons, my brother-in-law used to pass judgement on a girl with sparrow’s kneecaps by dismissively saying “two backs”.
So flat the walls were envious.
As the course on Saturday (and Sunday) was what seasoned runners would call undulating (and most of us would call ridiculously steep) the two backs mnemonic wouldn’t leave my head so that’s the title of the blog.
The objective of last weekend was to see what it felt like to run a full marathon on legs that had 26 miles in them from the previous day. I wanted to see how I’d react physiologically and psychologically. That’s sports-speak for how sore would my legs be and how weak would my will power be. I also wanted to see if I could control the energy output for two days and focus on the delivery of the full 52.4 miles.
That sounds like the plan of a man in charge, doesn’t it? All I can say is that as one of these events unfolds in front of you the best you can do is hold on and hope for the best and if you land near your plan you can claim credit, otherwise you have to start looking for victims to blame.
Apart from the physical training that a event like this offers, the psychological training means that as you approach other events they hold less fear for you so you can control your response to them.
Speaking of training, my build-up for this event was pretty non-existent with only two runs over 16 miles in the 2 months prior but then I wasn’t targeting this event in terms of a performance but more as a time-on-my-feet stepping stone to later in the year.
Day 1 Saturday 16th February 3hr. 58 min. pace 9:02min/mile
In order to treat this as a training run I did my best not to go into the pre-marathon routine of carb-loading and freaking out over trivial details. I had a reasonably normal Thursday and Friday with none of the sitting at home sipping a sports drink that goes with most build-ups. Instead I was sitting in the cinema with the kids watching Wreck-it Ralph while munching popcorn.
I realised that I was being a bit too relaxed though when I realised that my hydration pack had last seen the light of day in mid-September and looked like it had been used as a catheter bag since then. I made a dash to the local tri shop, picked up some cleaning brushes and we were back in business. There was no real need for the hydration pack as the marathons were ridiculously well supported. I was only bringing it for the training aspect of it.
I’ve read Grellan’s report on this race and I’ve downloaded the data from the Garmin. I’m not going to trouble you with it because I doubt you’ll see anything important. My objective was to try and control the effort at about 9:20min/mile for the whole course but I was having trouble going slower than 8:50min/mile. The steep hills at mile 14 & 20 (both long drags as opposed to the short sharp stuff) and the occasional comfort break to make sure the giblets were still working were the only thing halting my pace. While I failed in my pacing effort I did feel fine for the first 20 or so miles with a great bit of chat going on with a bunch of lads from the Marathon Club of Ireland.
The course dragged from about mile 22 ’till the finish but I suspect that that was as much to do with me realising that a sub-4hr finish was achievable and pushing on and my lack of long training runs as anything else.
I was also, to use an Americanism, not in the zone for those last 4 or 5 miles. I was concious of each one of them and had an overriding fear that because they felt hard I was squandering my reserves for the next day’s marathon.
The other thing I was concious of was the fundamental difference between marathon running and ultra running (or a long training run) – no walking breaks. I can’t quite put my finger on why it is so but to walk in a marathon is a bit of a taboo. Maybe it’s to do with the definition of the completion of your first successful marathon. Mind you, I didn’t feel like I needed the walk but for any ultra runners out there you’ll know exactly what I mean.
I crossed the finishing line, got one of those Buck Rogers silver blankets, and started refuelling straight away. I munched down a few snickers bars and a litre of chocolate milk while chatting to a few of the lads I’d swapped places with over the day. Then it was back to the car and over to Grellan’s beach-front condo for a welcome shower and some cheese and crackers with a few of the Eagle AC lads. (Note: if you’re not from this parish the italics are for ironic effect – just in case you think Grellan is some sort of Santa Monica house in the sand dunes type)
It was about a 45min to 1hr drive back home and by this stage I had two concerns – my legs stiffening up and that loss of appetite you get after a big event. A day of sucking simple sugars can drain you of your desire for more food.
I went for a walk (about a mile) once I got home and generally tried to load up on as much food as I could stomach. For anybody who has run a long distance (or been pregnant) I was willing to eat whatever my body felt it needed. This meant peanuts, more chocolate milk, beans on toast, home-made pizza, a family can of creamed rice, loads of coffee, beetroot juice and some chocolate. Apart from sounding disgusting this was probably the mix of protein, fats and carbs needed to reload the muscles.
The biggest problem for the remainder of the evening and during the night was the wave of tiredness and the lack of sleep. Through a combination of fidgety legs and very high core temperature (as my body tried to replenish it’s stores) it was a pretty useless night’s sleep. As I lay there the thought that I wasn’t even halfway through the weekend kept invading the calm blue ocean I was trying to visualise in order to nod off.
Day 2 Sunday 17th February 4hr 20min. Pace 9:54
Dragging my ass out of bed at 06:00 was possibly the greatest achievement of the whole weekend. The thought that my family loved me whether I did this to myself or not wasn’t exactly the drill sergeant I needed to get me going.
A bowl of porridge, an espresso and a trip to the bog got me going and it was back to the car for round 2.
Apart from grabbing the running shoes from the space by the front door I didn’t need to do much more as the car looked like the floor of a teenager’s bedroom who had a serious dose of the munchies. Sports drinks, rice crispie squares, kinder bars, energy gels, various running paraphernalia and a small spot cleared for me to drive.
Saturday had been a windy day with some bracing gusts bringing the predicted 11 deg C down closer to about 5 or 6 degrees but compared to Sunday it was the doldrums. Sunday morning was what a windsurfer would call stonking or a sailor would call a force 6 or 7.
I’d call it freezing and very, very windy.
Apart from sucking the motivation out of you all it really did was make sure you were dressed appropriately for the day. I chose a long sleeve top, a hat and gloves and I packed a jacket in case one of my legs fell off and I had a long walk home.
My car was parked about 500m from the start and I thought it would be a good idea to try a little jog to the start to get the legs moving. After about 20m I realised that today could be a very slow day.
I met Grellan at the start and got a bit of a morale boost when he disclosed that he was also questioning his sanity about the day ahead. Great! I thought, I’m not the only fool here.
As the gun went we all plodded off. The pace was predictably slow but surprisingly pain free. The joints all loosened up after about a mile and apart from the Atlantic headwinds it was just a case of plodding it out.
The most notable thing was the lack of conversation amongst the runners. Whereas on Saturday it had been easy banter right to the finishing line the mood had settled into a steady sombre silence by mile 5.
By around mile 6 or 7 another noticeable thing happened. The huge food intake of the previous day was looking for a way out.
I had a bear in the woods moment at mile 7 and as I got going after it I realised that working on nutrition is the biggest challenge in big or multi-day events. At the end of the race I was chatting to a few guys who’d had similar bio-breaks.
Before today started I felt it was going to be a question of when and not if I had a walking break as all the hills appeared to be slightly steeper than the previous day.
As we turned onto the coast at mile 8 we met our first real hill. A steep climb of about half a mile. It all went well and the desire to give in to walking stayed away. The miles ticked past in the company of one of the support cyclists (they were superb, as were the locals who came out with their kids to clap us on) until just before mile 14. As the steepest section of a 2 mile climb loomed in front of me I found myself walking. I didn’t feel too bad about it because I was holding the guy who was running ahead of me but like a drinker who’s fallen off the wagon I knew there was no such thing as only one. The walk was only for about 50m and it gave my lower legs a great break but I knew I was losing focus and only hoped it would pass.
I fell off the wagon again at the steep climb at mile 16 past the church at Ardfield and again at mile 17/18 as you turn onto the coast. Again, walks of no more than 50-100m. I used each walk for fuelling up so it wasn’t totally wasted but at this rate I’d be walking over every little bump in the road.
Then just past Dunmore House Hotel I clicked in and zoned out.
From then (mile 18.5) until the finish I disconnected with the time and distance and just ran (very slowly). The pace stayed constant and the miles clicked past. Whereas I’d been passed by a half dozen people up to that point I was now passing people. I passed about 5 people up to the 24 mile mark and another 7 in the last 2 miles of the race. I wasn’t all easy and there were lots of mental tricks to keep the legs moving but the physical effort was very manageable.
I hit the finish line, collected another silver blanket, a delicious cup of orange energy drink, a snickers and then an hour long soak in the thalassotherapy pool and I was on the road for home.
The one interesting thing (if you’re so inclined) between the two days is that the average HR for the second marathon was 10 beats per minute lower than first one (145 versus 155) showing that as fatigue built up my body protected itself by reducing the amount of work it was willing to do. I assume that some back-to-back running will be a useful addition to my training – but not if it induces an injury – that would be totally counter productive – fucking for virginity, fighting for peace and all that.
Two days have passed since the event and everything is back to normal. Minor DOMS but nothing you wouldn’t get with a normal weekend long run. From that point of view – running lots in the weekend – it was a successful experiment.
Despite my walking breaks (not adding more than a minute per mile) I didn’t find it as mentally challenging as I thought I would. Pointless? Maybe. Surreal? Certainly. But that overwhelming feeling that everything is beyond you that you can get at a low point in an ultra? No, that never materialised.
The other thing I take away from the weekend is the importance of nutrition. I have a routine of eating a little every half hour when running races. A bite of this, a gel, a few jellies, a rice crispie bar. Just enough to take the edge off the fatigue. But the large amounts of food required for the gap between the two marathons means that you will have digestive issues if you haven’t tested the food previously. I don’t know if this will have an impact on an ultra marathon but I think it might be useful to start experimenting with savoury foods on some longs runs. Just to see what works and what doesn’t.
Apart from all of that it was a great event, with great organisation and superb support. With only 112 competing in both marathons it bodes well for the years to come.
I came 47th overall with a total time of 8:18:44 (clock time). The chip time was about 10 seconds faster (who’s counting?!)