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).
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.