Boiling Frogs Slowly

 

Race Report, Leipzig 100k, 16th Aug, 2008

            Ultra-marathons fascinate me. I enjoy marathons more, but I just can’t seem to escape from the dark lure of running really long distances. In the same way as a young child wonders how far they can bend their ruler before it will break, I’m fascinated to see just how far I can run at a steady-to-slow pace before the wheels come off completely. Although I still enjoy shorter races a lot the same questions don’t arise in a 5km road race as they do for a 100k; where the unknown looms hazily in the far distance. I suppose, after a good few years of running, what challenges me most at this stage is exploring my limits in places where it’s just a little scary to tread.

            I had tried running a 100k race only once before in 2006 and it had been a somewhat mixed experience. The race, which had been held in Gloucester England, was run in atrocious conditions with high winds and intermittent heavy rain. I was a sorely beaten man when I eventually finished that race in a time of 8:18:51. I wasn’t unhappy with the performance because it was simply the best I could have done on that occasion, given my level of fitness and the conditions. I was however completely convinced that given different circumstances, and a little bit of luck, I could run a quicker time for the distance.

            In the time since that run in Gloucester I had tried on two occasions to prepare properly for another ultra-marathon race and both times I had broken down with serious lower leg injuries that would knock me off the road completely for several months. Self-doubt was becoming a problem. I began to wonder if I would ever stay fit for long enough to run another decent race. The conundrum to be solved was how to run sufficient miles to build the necessary stamina and at the same time avoid the temptation to push my luck too far when my legs were tired and sore.

            Early in 2008 I had failed for the second year in a row to make it to the starting line for the Connemara Ultra-Marathon – my favourite race of all. I was at the point where I was sick of being injured, sick of recovering and almost sick of running. It was a depressingly familiar scenario but I gave myself another break to recover and then started down the road once more with the intention of rebuilding for a race in the summer.  To say that I was optimistic would be a downright lie. I built my mileage up really slowly, trained on grass as much as I could possibly bear and tried to stay ‘sound’ from day to day and from week to week. If I had no news, that was good news.

            For a good eight to ten weeks leading up to Leipzig there was no news. I built my training gradually up to a maximum of 95 miles a week with a longest weekly run of 26.5 miles. At times my legs felt unbelievably dead and sore but I managed to stay the right side of an actual injury. For nine weeks I didn’t miss a single day of training and ‘doubled’ a couple of times a week. I had entered Leipzig in late June and the race was to take place on the 16th of August. It sounded like a great place to run. Two-thirds of the course was through mature public parkland on packed gravel paths, along forest trails and beside a lake. The remainder was on smooth tarmac paths. The race started and finished at a small local sports stadium and was organised by Laufclub Auensee e.V. Leipzig.

            I travelled to the race with fellow Athenry AC member Seb Locteau. Seb had generously volunteered to coach and assist me for the weekend. Seb’s sporting experience and expertise is extensive. As Seb has previously coached at Olympic level, I was confident he wouldn’t buckle under the pressure of having to support one cranky runner going round and around in circles in a German forest. Above all Seb is a good friend and it would be fantastic to see a friendly face and hear encouraging words during such a long race. We were truly a team for this one. Having negotiated our way from Athenry and through Shannon and Stanstead airports, we arrived in Altenburg airport near Leipzig at lunchtime on Friday. The race was to start early the following morning. My personal highlight from the trip was seeing a rather large man waddle through the airport terminal in Stanstead in a shirt that read “My Other Body Is a Temple”. It made me laugh on a day when laughs we few and far between. I was quite nervous.

            Race day activity began well before dawn. Sunrise was at 05:58 and the start was scheduled for 06:00. By 04:15 I was out of my hotel bed and munching Fig Rolls and sipping Diet Coke. Super Seb had prepared all of my race drinks the night before. I was relying on the proven combination of High Five energy drink, High Five gels and Succeed electrolyte replacement capsules. From experience I knew these products did exactly what was said on the tin. In all honesty, in those moments before leaving the hotel I wished I was anywhere else in the world but Leipzig. I knew that even if everything went exactly to plan, and I enjoyed a perfect race, that a world of pain was waiting for me at lunchtime. Any confidence or bravado that may once have been in my possession had slipped away during the night. My second favourite ultra saying of all time floated before my mind like some malevolent vapour. I had heard it said before that training for an ultra-marathon was like training to be hit by a bus – you can practice all you like but when it happens it’s going to hurt.

            We arrived at the venue in the pre-dawn murk. There were volunteers everywhere setting up barriers, erecting tents and generally being fierce busy. Depeche Mode was blaring over the PA which added to the slightly spooky atmosphere. At this stage I was deep into ‘WTF am I doing here’ territory. Seb was doing his best to distract my inner demons and without him I’d probably have run screaming into the woods. At one stage he asked was I all right and all I could do was to hold out one of my hands and show him that I was visibly trembling. There was a surreal atmosphere as the last few minutes to race time ticked away. People everywhere were shuffling towards the starting line and chatting away in groups, the DJ was pumping out 1980’s pop tunes and shouting encouragement – but all was in German and therefore a mystery to me.

            The time arrived. We lined up. The gun went. We all started to run. Slowly. I shuffled cautiously under the banner that hung over the starting line and moved with the mass of around 150 runners into the slowly brightening dawn. I had pace figures tattooed into my brain. I wanted to run 7:34 per mile or 4:42 per kilometre for the entire race in order to eventually finish in 7:50:00 – simple really. We had ten 10km laps ahead of us and I wanted to finish each and every one of them in 47:00. I’ve always run my best race times when I manage to spread my effort evenly over the entire distance, but whether this would still hold true for a race of this length or not I was unsure. It seemed unlikely that I’d keep exactly the same pace going for almost eight hours.

            As we moved into the first few kilometres I was a little surprised to see so many people streaming ahead at a decent clip. There was a 50km race being run at the same time and so I hoped that most of the enthusiasm on display was from runners in that shorter race. On the first lap I had my first chance to really find out what the course was like. The surroundings were absolutely beautiful. The route wound softly through forest, a nature reserve and public parks and was almost completely traffic free – excepting a few cars belonging to local residents living along the edge of the course. I was determined to be conservative and passed through the first four kilometres in around 5:00 pace which was a little slow but I thought that was ok. The paths were a little uneven in places but as they were softer than tarmac I suspected they’d be kinder to my feet and legs in the long run. I did my first loop around the lake and shuffled back along the same path to rejoin Seb in the stadium with 48:19 on the clock. I was 1:19 behind schedule and well down the field but not really worried as I knew the race was only just starting.

            On the second time around the course I made a really silly mistake. As I approached the far end of the course, where we loop around the lake started, I ran counter-clockwise around the lake rather than the opposite, which was the correct course. I had a sinking feeling that something was very wrong when I found myself facing one of the leaders running towards me on a part of the course that was meant to be ‘one-way’ only. I turned around and retraced my steps back to the correct turn and got on my way again. It was a stupid mistake and I’d lost about a minute and a half, but what could I do? At least it had happened early in the race when I had the strength to attempt to recover the lost time. As it turned out this mistake actually woke me up a little from a daze I had been running in. My kilometre splits started to come down into the 4:30’s and low 4:40’s and my concentration wouldn’t falter again until the race was over. I made it to the end of the second lap in 48:23 and was now 2:41 behind schedule. As I came to the end of each lap I could see the leader, Mario Pirotta of Italy, striding out strongly. He looked to be a formidable runner and was absolutely flying in comparison to most of the other runners. By the end of the second lap Mario was about fourteen minutes ahead of me on the road and was increasing his lead on the field with every stride.

            Laps three and four were relatively uneventful. After the initial hullabaloo everyone seemed to settle down to work, whether that was 50km work or the 100km work. I retreated into my own little world and watched the splits tick by one, by one, by one. I had a few panicky moments when my mind wandered and I made the mistake of working out how much ground there was left to cover. For the most part I tried not to think further ahead than the next kilometre marker and just ran. I also tried to remember some advice that Richard Donovan had given me in the week before the race, which was to concentrate on good running ‘form’. As I moved along, with nothing else to do but move along and try to keep the demons at bay, I made sure I stayed upright and measured my stride so that I didn’t shuffle or over-stride. If nothing else it gave me something with which to occupy my mind. The day was warming slightly and I felt good. Lap three was a 46:32 and lap four was a 46:44. So far, so good. I was still 1:56 behind schedule but reducing the deficit slowly. On the other hand had it looked like I was going to be lapped soon by the race leader ‘Super’ Mario Pirotta, who was still steaming around the course like a machine.

            As I started out on the course for the fifth time, I knew that there would be two important markers to pass this time around. Early on in this lap I would pass the marathon distance and then, at the conclusion of the round, I would reach the halfway point. The marathon came and went in 3:20:03 and I was glad. I felt at last that I had some significant distance behind me. I was running well now but was also starting to show some little signs of wear and tear. In particular my right lower calf and both quads were complaining a little and I had to remind myself that this was ‘allowable’ given that I’d just run a marathon. The halfway marker was passed in 3:56:02 to remain just over a minute behind target. At the end of each lap I would round the bend and run onto the track at the start/finish area. Each time I would hear Seb roar support from the distance as he sprang into action. Photographs were taken, bottles were offered and news of texts and phone calls from home was relayed. On each occasion I would only be in the stadium for a little over a minute but it gave me a tremendous boost that would last well into the next lap. There was loud music, people rang cow bells and cheered and of course I had the comfort of knowing that Seb was in my corner. I set out on the second half of the race in reasonable shape and relieved that I was finally making progress.

            On the sixth lap I started to try to work out where and when Super Mario would lap me. I made a note of what point on the loop we were passing each other so that I could judge how fast he was gaining on me. The leading runners in both the men’s and women’s races had bicycles in advance of them with signs announcing that they were in the lead. I was surprised to see that Mario was gaining less quickly now and I made it my new target to stay ahead of him until the end. Seb had told me that I was placed 15th in the field and I was quite happy with that. Based on some previous year’s results, I guessed that if I could keep my pace going, that I would move up a place or two before the end. I just needed to stick to my guns and run my own race. Lap six was covered in 46:39 and I was nearly back on schedule. There were just a couple of small issues. In the first instance I desperately needed a ‘wee-wee’ stop but more worryingly I was starting to wilt noticeably. Covering the same kilometres in the same times was becoming increasingly difficult. Although I wasn’t very sore anywhere in particular, I was getting extremely tired.

            I’ve always associated the ‘boiling frog’ story with the progress of an ultra marathon. In this story we’re told that a frog if placed into boiling water will jump to safety but if dropped into a pot of cold water can be slowly boiled to its death. The same applies to a really long race in that you can end up in bad shape but get there in very small increments. Without anything in particular going wrong it can slowly dawn on you that you’re the frog and you’re in very hot water.  By the seventh lap I was struggling badly. Having watered one of Leipzig’s bushiest bushes I struggled back towards Seb and the sanctuary of the stadium. Richard Donovan had also recommended trying some ‘de-fizzed’ Coke at the end of the race to get a sugary boost in combination with some caffeine and Seb had our supplies at the ready. I needed a lift badly. My quads were shot and both calves were screaming blue murder. Working back towards Seb I again made the mistake of contemplating the fact that there were twenty miles left to run. It seemed like a long way, given the state I was in. Lap seven was a 46:58.

            Once more into the stadium, once more out, once more I was lifted by the noise of the crowds and, of course, Seb’s shouts of encouragement. The outside world was getting a little fuzzy and it was hard not to feel a little isolated and sorry for myself. It was around this time that somewhere on the course I passed by Super Mario running in the opposite direction. I was shocked at his appearance and how he seemed to have aged about twenty years. Whereas previously he had bounced now he trudged. His face was ashen and he gazed glassily at the ground ahead. Despite the poor shape that he appeared to be in, he was still leading and seemed to be moving steadily if not well and, of course, his work was nearly done. At least it looked like I was safe from lapping for today. There was very little rise and fall on the course but what little there was became agony. At one point in the lap the course crossed over a wide single-span wooden bridge. As runners crossed it wobbled a bit and on dead legs it had the effect of making you dizzy and a little disorientated, particularly when another person crossed it with you. Lap eight was a 46:34, which meant I was now only fifteen seconds behind schedule.

            Lap nine was perhaps the hardest of the race. All my superficial fitness and toughness were gone and it was like I was running on a combination of pride, memory and stupidity. I circled the course trying to console myself with thoughts of, “…the next time that I’m here will be for the last time…” over and over again. It was obvious that the race was doing a lot of damage to runners around me and it was weirdly comforting to see that I wasn’t the only one struggling. People gathered in little groups around the aid stations and ate fruit and drank bottles of beer whilst others walked sections of the road with grim determination etched all over their faces. Quite a few bunnies were a long way from being happy. I guessed that I was making up a place here and there although it was impossible to tell for sure. Someone going well might be either a lap ahead or behind you. It was impossible to remember who you had previously passed or vice-versa and that fit looking chap or chapess that you just ran past might be two laps behind. All you could do was to keep yourself moving and hope the end would come soon. Lap nine was a 47:08 and I was twenty-three seconds behind the plan.

            Seb sent me out on the final lap with his strongest encouragement yet. He roared at me from the side of the course to keep the effort going and not to slow down. He told me I was close to schedule, fed me High 5 gels and Coke and sent me packing to do it all one more time. I felt like a man who had worked in a mine for a thousand years and who was setting off for his last day of toil at the coalface. I tried to distract myself by thanking every volunteer I could see on the course, although I knew most of them had not a single word of English. It didn’t seem to matter as they all smiled, waved and cheered.  Halfway through the last lap things started to go downhill more quickly. This frog was almost boiled. Some of my kilometre splits started to reach towards 5:00 and there seemed to be very little that I could do to stop the decline. I started to do the sums in my head and realised I wouldn’t make 7:50:00 which had been my target all along but knew that I would fight for every second. It was either that or stop by the side of the road. I started to improve the pace a little. To repeat my absolutely favourite ultra quote of all time, “I was flying – I was passing rocks and trees like they were standing still”.

            In the shadow of the finish line I gave my last effort and did my best impression of a sprint which I suppose must have fooled nobody. I rounded the final curve and ran onto the track for the last time and with Seb screaming encouragement I made it over the line. The final lap was a 47:25 and my finish time was 7:50:49. I was so, so, so happy to be able to stand still for a moment. I was shattered but vertical. One of the organisers came over and asked was I okay. Once he was sure I wasn’t in too much trouble he asked would I wait for a moment so that he could take a photograph once the third placed runner had crossed the line. What? I was second? I couldn’t believe that. Having kept a reasonably steady pace I had moved right up through the field without being aware of it. Super Mario had indeed held on to his lead but was fading fast at the end. From Seb’s notes it looks like he was about a half an hour ahead of me at one point but I had reduced the gap to a little over two minutes at the end. I had closed by about ten minutes in the final lap alone. I was very happy with the finish time and the high placing was a real bonus. I couldn’t believe it.

            I collapsed onto the grass and lay back. I was sore everywhere. Not moving a muscle hurt like hell, but I didn’t care a bit. I was glad for Seb who had so generously travelled all the way to Germany to help and coach me and that I hadn’t let him down. The sense of relief was enormous. A few photographs were taken and after a while I struggled towards the massage tent where I spent twenty blessed minutes while someone else moved my muscles. It was all over. Seb and I returned later that evening for the awards ceremony and there were presentations galore for the various categories. I smiled a lot and enjoyed some German cake which went down a treat. Later Seb and I said our goodbyes and went back to the hotel.

            As a final note it’s important to acknowledge both the quality of the race organisation and the helpfulness of the people we met. We were made very, very welcome and everyone we met went out of their way to be supportive and accommodating of our inability to speak German. Neither Seb nor myself had any more than two or three words of German but we were able to get by given the understanding and generous nature of our hosts. The course is the most enjoyable and beautiful 100k route I’ve ever come across and the race organisation is efficient and friendly. Seb and I wound our way slowly home the following day through Stanstead and Shannon on tired legs but with the satisfaction of a mission accomplished. One frog travelling with another – neither one boiled.

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