Connemara Ultramarathon 2005
By Mick Rice
I’m going to try and keep this brief, as some of my recent race reports have been ridiculously long. So, here goes. This race had been my main focus since late last year. I had trained well by my own standards with long runs at a good pace every weekend since January and I had averaged about sixty miles a week peaking at seventy-six miles three weeks before the race. The route of the Connemara Ultramarathon is very straightforward. When you arrive in the village of Maam Cross, in the heart of Connemara, you are under the shadow of the Maamturk mountain range. The race route is one lap around these mountains over 39.3 miles of small tarmac roads. It’s as simple as that.
With hindsight my race strategy was bordering on the suicidal, but then again I think must have realised that beforehand. It was less ‘blissful ignorance’ and more deliberately foolish optimism. I didn’t want to consider the possible consequences of an ambitious early pace in too much detail and I was quite aware that I could pay a heavy price for enthusiasm. The stage was set for some smiles and a lot of pain.
Roughly fifty similarly optimistic souls stood at the start line at 9:00am. The weather seemed reasonably benign and at the sound of the hooter I strode down the road like a lamb to the slaughter. This event actually combines three races over different distances, on the same day, along the same roads and finishing at the same point. The Ultramarathon, Full Marathon and Half-Marathon all cover parts of the same loop around the mountains. The race starting times are staggered an hour and a half apart so that some runners in each race will eventually mingle as they make their way home. This meant that I had ninety minutes to cross the start line of the full marathon if I wanted to be amongst them as they departed. I decided that this would be a wise course of action. Can you tell what happens yet?
The initial 10 miles of the Ultra are on the main road between Maam Cross and Clifden – a good but little-used road. The early leader and race favourite, Brian Cole from Britain, a runner with fearsome credentials including a recent 2:29 marathon, strode purposefully ahead and was very quickly out of sight. I settled nervously into second place and didn’t dare look back. In the early stages there was a gentle following breeze, the birds were singing, and I ran smoothly on well-rested legs. All was well with the world and regular 6:45 -> 6:55 mile splits passed easily by. After only a couple of miles I could neither see nor hear anyone else in the race and some of the anxiety I had felt beforehand seemed to slip away. Can you tell what happens yet?
After eight miles or so, seemingly from nowhere, another runner appeared on my left shoulder. From his accent I could detect he was from the north but I didn’t recognise him. We exchanged a few encouraging words and he quickly passed by. Being passed didn’t worry me at all as I knew that my own pace hadn’t changed and that speeding up to stay with the passing runner just wasn’t an option. As the course turned right off of the Clifden Road I lost sight of my northern comrade and started to concentrate on pacing myself to the start of the full marathon where roughly 500 runners were waiting. I was given a tremendous reception as I passed by through their waiting ranks in 1:29:35 and as I crossed the starting line the hooter went to start their race. Having hit my initial target of an hour and a half for the first 13.1 miles of the Ultra I promised myself that I would slacken the pace in order to conserve energy for the later stages where two monster hills awaited. Despite a conscious effort to slow I still found that miles were clicking by in less than seven minutes apiece. It was only at miles eighteen and nineteen that creeping fatigue and some small hills pulled me back to an average of more than seven minutes per mile. Can you tell what’s just about to happen yet?
At mile twenty-four the Ultramarathon course heads decisively downhill and emerges alongside the coast at Killary Harbour. I ran that downhill mile in 6:41 but wasn’t to match that speed again until I drove home in my car that evening. As the course joined the coastline it was clear that we’d have at least two miles of a strong headwind. The headwind hit me like a brick wall and I slowed dramatically. I went from feeling slightly tired to ‘good grief’ in about a mile. I tried to reason that when the course headed back inland and away from the worst of the wind that I’d recover my stride. I kept my head down, trying desperately not to panic as I approached the 26.2-mile marker of the Ultra, and of course, the start of the half-marathon race. Approaching the village of Leenaun, I could hear the crowd of almost nine hundred half-marathon runners being sent on their way towards our mutual destination back at Maam Cross.
I crossed the marathon point in 3:02:07 and began the twenty-seventh mile on a tough uphill section in the company of hundreds of fresh-faced half-marathoners. Unfortunately, the wheels started to come off at this point. I met some running friends on the road but I could only grimace and watch as they ran ahead. One charitable soul did offer to keep me company, but being involved in one unfolding running disaster was enough to be responsible for at any given moment. Under strict instructions not to look back, I sent him on his way. I felt like one of those mortally wounded soldiers in the movies who volunteers to stay behind in the jungle so that his pals might escape.
At the top of the hill it became clear that I was going to have considerable difficulty dragging my sorry ass to the finish line a further twelve miles down the road. From that point onwards, finishing the race was the only consideration. My main problem was cramp. My right upper hamstring was cramping badly roughly every half mile or so. I knew from prior experience that if this cramp took a good hold of the muscle I was finished for the day. I concentrated on running to the point where I felt the cramp was just about to strike and then stepping off the road to stretch for 10-15 seconds before starting to run again. Sometimes I had to walk a few strides before I cold break into a jog. The term ‘death-march’ must have been devised to describe sections of a race like this. Despite being surrounded by lots of other runners I started to feel very lonely and sorry for myself. I was still third on the road in the Ultramarathon race and the majority of runners were in the early stages of a half marathon. Not surprisingly they were in high spirits and eager for the road. I must have looked distinctly out of place as I staggered/stopped/stretched my way from mile to mile.
Despite my very obvious problems I was managing to keep most, although not all, mile splits below eight minutes apiece. Psychologically I was getting very low. I found it dispiriting to make such slow progress and the realisation that I had clearly dug my own grave earlier in the day wasn’t cheering me up at all. This was the pattern for the next seven or eight miles. Slog, slog, slog, stretch, slog, slog, stretch, small walk, slog, slog…etc, etc. As the miles ticked by I was at least getting more optimistic about completing the course although I knew I was in deep trouble. The last few miles of the race also feature a hill that stretches for about a mile and a half from the bottom to the top of the Maam Valley. Connemara runners playfully refer to this hill as the ‘Hell of The West’. Gradually and thankfully the cramps were growing less frequent and I was able to move forward for longer stretches. I couldn’t in all honesty call it normal running. At the base of the hill I drained a bottle of water from one of the last aid stations and tried not to look up again for a while.
The remaining three miles of this race were without question the most difficult miles that I have ever run, without a shadow of a doubt. There wasn’t a scrap of mental energy that I possess that wasn’t drafted into the effort to move my weary body up that hill and along the remaining two miles towards the finish. As I crossed the finishing line I was near collapse and it took me many minutes to recover any sort of composure. It still surprises me that no other ultra runners passed me along this final stretch. There was some measure of compensation for such an ugly finish to the race in that I had clung onto third place.
This report is already longer than I had intended and so I won’t extend it much further. All that remains to be said I suppose is that even as we get older we don’t always get any wiser, but if we’re lucky we can sometimes still have some weird sort of fun making mistakes.
1 Tom McGuire Northern Ireland 39068 04:28:46
2 Brian Cole United Kingdom 39072 04:36:38
3 Mick Rice Ireland 39003 04:46:59
4 Garry Perratt United Kingdom 39035 05:21:20
5 Larry Rigeny Ireland 39070 05:27:24
1 Maria de Jesus Jersey 39078 05:29:30
2 Aisling Coppinger Ireland 39015 05:36:38
3 Teresa Daly Ireland 39063 06:00:12
4 Lynda McDade United Kingdom 39057 06:54:03
5 Carol Elliott United Kingdom 39058 06:54:03
|1st Half Marathon = 1:29:35|
|2nd Half Marathon = 1:32:32|
|3rd Half Marathon = 1:44:52|
|Full Marathon = 3:02:07|