The Connemara 100, August 2009
“I’m going up the country, baby don’t you wanna go,
I’m going up the country, baby don’t you wanna go,
I’m going to some place where I’ve never been before”
I’m driving out the Clifden road from Galway on the way to my first 100 mile road race. Everything that I see and hear seems to take on some special meaning. In my agitated state it seems there are omens and hidden messages all around. Tomorrow I’m going to try to run further than I’ve ever run before, and, to be honest, the prospect scares the life out of me. I know I’ve trained well, but I just don’t feel ready. The fact that I never really feel ready to run an ultra is of no real help to me whatsoever.
It’s raining down in buckets outside, and growing dark quickly, as I gingerly thread my car between the looming mountains and the apparently endless road works. Thankfully, we won’t have to run this road tomorrow. The man on the radio tells me that this weekend will be the 40th anniversary of the first Woodstock music festival. In my pre-race delirium I hope that some of those hippy vibes will transfer through space and time and assist me along one hundred miles of Connemara road the following day. I’ve had a tough week at work and I’m searching for inspiration. I’ll take help from anyone or from anywhere at this stage. I grab a random CD from the seat beside me in the darkness and pop it in. The music kicks in and I hear John Spillane sing “Will We Be Brilliant or What?” Who knows? We might know more by tomorrow night I suppose.
At the Station House Hotel in Clifden a small group of very obviously nervous runners are gathered together in a stiflingly hot room to receive our final instructions. Rain is dripping steadily against the large dark windows as we look outside and hope, with all of our worried hearts, for some sort of a break in the bad weather. Aside from Ray O’Connor and Valerie Glavin, both of whom are members of my own club, Athenry AC, I don’t recognise many faces. There is a lot shoe-shuffling and navel gazing going on as the room slowly fills up with more anxious runners and their support crew.
When the briefing begins, it’s clear straight away that this is going to be a very serious undertaking for everyone involved: runners, crew and organisers. There are arrangements in place for contingencies I hadn’t even considered. Most of the instructions we hear from the top of the room revolve around our safety on the course – it’s a constant theme. We’re advised about the various risks we might encounter on the road and how best to keep ourselves safe during the event. Up to this point I had protected my sanity by not thinking too much about how I might come with running such a long distance. I had conned myself into thinking that this was just another race. As the briefing progressed my comfortable illusions dissolved around me leaving a slightly queasy feeling in their place.
A detailed set of written instructions is handed out to each runner and crew member covering all of the various rules and regulations. We’re given plenty of time to ask questions but only one or two questions get asked. Perhaps we’re all too intimidated by what we have ahead of us tomorrow. I sit by the side of the room, quietly, determined not to sink into panic at this early stage. I try to look like I know what I’m doing but I don’t think I’m fooling anyone. My crew arrives wrapped in smiles and nervous anticipation. I’m very glad to see them. We spend a few brief moments going through the basics together before going our separate ways in order to get some sleep. It’s late and we’ll have an early start tomorrow. My support crew is composed of my good friend Peter, a former runner, and his teenage son. Quite how I’ve managed to convince the two of them to give up their weekend to this task is a mystery. Given that, even my most optimistic predictions envisage spending eighteen hours or more on the course, this is no small undertaking for any of the crew members. I’m not absolutely sure they know what’s in store. If I don’t know, how could they know?
My training for this race had been solid but unspectacular. At the beginning of the year I was sidelined for eight weeks with a stress fracture in my left calcaneus or heel bone. I got back on the road towards the middle of April and then gradually increased my weekly mileage until I was covering between 80 and 90 miles a week through June and July. This training régime felt comfortable and, with the exception of one small injury scare in late July, my buildup was trouble-free. In retrospect, I think the physical and psychological break forced on my because of the injury worked in my favour. My longest single training run had been over the marathon distance, which I had completed three times in the last five weeks before the race. I had built more ‘quality’ running into my training schedule than had been the case in previous years. Two of those marathon-distance training runs had been completed in well under three hours. I didn’t have any real reason for approaching my preparation in this way aside from the fact that it felt right and I was enjoying it.
Race morning dawned mercifully dry and calm. I could hardly believe our luck. At 5.00am I rolled over, knocked off the alarm and started getting into my running gear. Coffee and croissants were being served in the hotel lobby from 5:15am onwards and I arrived on time. I don’t usually ‘do’ croissants, but I most certainly ‘do’ strong black coffee and I immediately started into the first of my three cups in fifteen minutes. There was only barely enough time for some last minute trash-talk and to wish each other well before walking to the start, which was only a few minutes away. By this stage I was beginning to get to know some names and was starting to recognise faces. I spoke with Maciej from Poland during the five minute walk to the starting line. He was a little downbeat but he certainly looked fit and ready. From what I could gather, many of us were attempting something completely new that weekend and that was comforting in a strange sort of way. If the whole enterprise went completely ‘Pete Tong’ these people, of all people, would probably understand.
I had written two words in black permanent ink on the palm of my left hand before leaving my hotel room to guide me during the miles ahead and they were ‘courage’ and ‘compassion’. I was hoping that I could use those ideas to guide myself through the race. I didn’t want to lose my nerve and I also wanted to keep in mind that I wasn’t at the center of the universe. Experience has taught me that races like this can often come down to an exercise in fear management. If you fall into the trap of projecting your difficulties ahead, over such a long distance, it becomes easy to succumb to either panic or despair while you’re actually still in relatively good physical shape. If I could be focused enough to run ‘in the moment’, rather than thinking of the miles ahead, I might spare myself and others some unnecessary hardship. I also wanted to remind myself that I was taking part in this race for ‘fun’ and that nobody had herded me towards the starting line with a pointy stick. With all of this in mind, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t put myself under unreasonable pressure and remained mindful of the feelings of my crew and fellow runners. If things didn’t work out, I wanted to be able to walk away from the race and feel good about myself.
The actual start of the race was efficient but, for me, unmemorable. There was certainly no jostling for position at the front. I was vaguely aware that a few photographs were being taken and that I had shaken some cold, pasty hands. I can remember that there was a palpable feeling of shared ambition mixed with cautious optimism. We all really wanted to do this and that’s why we had gone to all this trouble to be on the starting line. Perhaps there were ‘second thoughts’ for some, but it was a bit late to back out now. I don’t think that any of us would have attempted such a mammoth run on their own but each other’s presence gave us permission to try what might well be impossible as a solo effort. The clock struck six and we started off down the road. It was time to be gone.
There was no gentle introduction to this run as the road immediately began to climb away from Clifden on the N59 towards Westport. After only a few strides I found I was at the front of the small pack and I shuffled forwards at what I hoped was nine-minutes-per-mile pace. After only a half a mile or so, I heard another set of footsteps close behind and, when I looked back, Joanne Fearon was right behind me. We immediately fell into step and I think we were both glad of a little company. As it turned out, it was an unintentional partnership that was to last a little over 30 miles and would ease us through those early panicky miles. The road continued to snake upwards through patches of forestry on mostly barren hillside for a few miles. We jogged easily and talked about everything except running or the miles ahead. The pre-race tension was beginning to melt away as we both continued easily on fresh legs.
A routine of sorts was established where our support crews would hop ahead of us and then wait for us to catch up. There was great comfort in knowing that help was never too far down the road and that whatever I might need Peter would probably have it in the car somewhere. I tried to slip into automatic pilot mode and tried to keep a check on my progress as the milage markers ticked by. I was hoping to run nine minute miles until the ‘wheels’ fell off and then make the best of my way home. As you might observe, this wasn’t the most sophisticated pacing strategy ever devised, but it was the best I had been able to come up with after weeks of deliberation. As I passed the ten mile marker I looked at my watch to see 1:30:07 had passed – this couldn’t last forever.
The weather was holding up quite well as we worked through those early miles. Some of the route was quite familiar to me in that it is used for the Connemara Marathon and Ultramarathon which take on some of the same roads place each April. There were plenty of ups and downs, but it all felt comfortable enough at this relaxed pace. Just after thirty miles I became separated from Joanne. She had pulled ahead for a short while and I then had caught and passed her again when she had paused briefly with her crew. Although I didn’t see her again for the rest of the race, she never fell very far behind. For hours afterwards I would see her crew as they drove past on their way to their next meeting point down the road, which told me that she was close behind.
At 01:22pm, I passed the fifty-mile marker, with – work it out – 7:22:11 on the clock. I was working on the assumption that this was way ahead of schedule for an 18 hour finish, but, as I didn’t know what to expect later on in the run, I just carried on. I knew that I lose plenty of time to the clock when it eventually came time for ‘walkies’ – I just didn’t know for sure when I was going to reach that point. On the road, I was about halfway between Maam Cross and Leenane. It was a beautifully quiet place, the scenery was stunning and I was just slogging away at much the same pace I had maintained all day. There surely isn’t a more perfect place in the world to run than Connemara. For most of the time all I could hear was the pad, pad, pad of my feet and the rhythm of my breathing. As the hours passed, I could feel the effects of the miles accumulate in my bones. The day had grown quite warm towards noon and I had long since abandoned the long-sleeved top I had started out with at 06:00am. My quads were well on the way to being shot from the constant ups and downs along the road, but I hadn’t yet reached the point where I knew I’d have to walk soon.
The sixty mile point passed in 8:50:58 and shortly thereafter I passed the 100km mark. I was now into completely unknown territory. This was now, officially, my longest run ever. As is usual for me in long races, my judgment of time and distance started to deteriorate in tandem with my legs. For long sections of road I’d ‘zone-out’ and then suddenly come to and then not be able to remember passing points on the road that logic said I must have. It was at times like this that the support is essential and my crew was magnificent. I was waited on hand and foot, literally, as I changed shoes at one point in order to relieve pressure on the sides of my feet. As I was running on the right-hand side of the road for most of the time, the camber on the road had caused my feet to rub on the right-hand side of my shoes. I reasoned that a change of shoes wouldn’t cure the blisters but at least they might rub in a different place. When I did change my shoes, just after 70 miles, I changed from trainers into my lightweight racing shoes. My reasoning was that I might take some pressure off my quads and make it easier to lift my feet. It seemed to work.
Right from the start I had been eating like a horse – there’s no other way to describe it. With the encouragement and assistance of my support crew I drank sports drink, water and, later in the race, ‘de-fizzed’ Coke. I ate salty crackers, Fig Rolls, Jaffa Cakes, apricots, bananas, jelly beans, chocolate, energy gels, salt tablets and more. I guessed that at some point I’d no longer be able to force food down and I wanted to get calories and fluids in early. Peter kept on handing out the goodies and I kept on stuffing them down. As you might surmise I don’t have a fragile stomach. Seventy miles came and went in 10:19:59 and I started to believe I was going to finish. I was getting more and more tired, more sore and more grumpy, but, thankfully, the decent into the abyss was gradual. I still hadn’t reached that point where I knew I’d have to walk soon. The ‘wheels’ were wobbling a bit but they weren’t off yet and I started to wonder if it was possible to make it to the finish without walking.
My support crew had been supplemented with the arrival of Gary, another friend from my club in Athenry. A more dependable soul you’ll never meet. The rules of the event dictated that, in the interests of safety, we could be paced over the later miles. Once I had crossed over the main Galway to Clifden road, and headed out towards Roundstone with about 28 miles to go, Peter and Gary took turns to join me on the road for a few miles each. My memories of this point in the race are a little hazy. I was finding it harder to eat and drink and sometimes ended up quietly throwing away food that I had been given. My focus shifted away from the bigger goals and I concentrated almost completely on just completing the next mile and then the next mile. Along this part of the route I glanced down a number of times at my left hand where the smudged word ‘courage’ could still be seen and I tried to lift my chin a little.
As the roads were fully open to traffic, we all had to be very careful how we ran. Although some people along the route seemed to know what we were doing, the majority hadn’t a notion. With safety in mind, we had to tread carefully, and this becomes more difficult with tiredness. From this point onwards, my crew was to play an even more important role than before. Not alone were they responsible for feeding me and encouraging me but they were also concentrating on keeping me safe. When we passed through the village of Roundstone, there were throngs of people along the main street and a local festival was in full swing. I weaved my way through the happy crowd trying to steer the straightest route possible. Any deviation from a straight line was agony. I knew that there was a long uphill section ahead of me on the road out of Roundstone and I wondered if my ‘no-walking’ streak was about to come to an end. All sophistication had now gone out of the window taking most of my good-humour with it.
Having passed through Roundstone I knew I had about 18 miles left and I started to dare to believe that I’d make it back to Clifden under my own steam. I had never taken it for granted, at any stage, that I’d be able to complete the course. I really, honestly wasn’t ever sure that I’d make it to the finish line, but I wanted, perhaps needed, to have a go. Sometimes you have to go out and just experiment to find out what’s possible. I was always prepared to ‘walk it in’ from some point, but had worked hard all day to push that point as far forward as possible. Neither did I ever consciously sell myself short. I desperately wanted to finish the distance and to run the best possible race. So many people had invested their time, expertise, energy, and money in making the race happen; that I felt I should show my respect for all of their work with my own best efforts.
The last fifteen miles were unlike anything I had expected. As we turned along the Connemara coast and towards refuge in Clifden the wind blew from behind us. I was shattered and at times close to tears as I ran along. Conversation became scarce. At times I felt a little disorientated but my crew kept me on the straight and narrow. I was aware that sometimes they were asking questions just to see if I could provide a lucid answer. I was in poor physical shape but had managed to maintain an even pace all through the race. After the initial 10 miles, which I had covered in 1:30:07, every subsequent 10 mile section had been completed in under 1:30:00. Now, with the wind behind me, and ‘only’ 18 miles left, I could feel that I might actually be able to pick it up a little. I had long passed the point where I had a pain in any particular part of my body but rather, from the waist down, I was in general pain. I reasoned that, the sooner I got to Clifden, the sooner it would all end and I could stop running.
The final few miles are just a blur in my memory. There’s a small climb into the town of Clifden itself and, once we got amongst the shop, pubs and restaurants of the town, there was the small matter of three small loops of the town to cope with. I felt like one of those Japanese soldiers that had spent forty years in the jungle and was being re-introduced, suddenly, into civilization. I felt like I had been running for days, but, as I made my way around the first of the three small laps of Clifden, there were merely fourteen hours on the clock. I had far exceeded even my most optimistic expectations about how long it might take me to complete the race. All that was to be done now was to cover the last mile or two and come to a glorious stop. On each of the concluding laps of the town, I had to pass the official finishing line on the opposite side of the road and I tried not to look towards it. I could feel the strength and resistance to fatigue draining from both my legs and my mind as I trudged along the last few yards. The finish line couldn’t come soon enough.
Miraculously, in the last half mile the pain went away. For a few moments at least I strode forward at what felt like six-minutes per mile pace, but probably wasn’t. I crossed over the line – it was over. My finish time was 14:31:54 and I was delighted. The first thing I did was to shed a few tears. The sheer relief of not having to run anymore swept over me in a wave. The race director put his arms around my shoulder and helped me to steady my nerves. There were a few photo’s taken and congratulations were offered but I wasn’t able for much. As soon as most of the hullabaloo had died down I shuffled off slowly towards the hotel and had a shower. I was overwhelmingly happy to be finished, to have made it and to be home from the ‘jungle’. My valiant crew, having made sure that I was going to be ok, retired for a few well-earned pints. I couldn’t thank them enough. No runner could have asked more from his friends.
As soon as I could manage it, I made my way back down towards the finish line. I wanted to re-live some of my finish-line excitement by seeing others finish. I saw Joanne home and Valerie my clubmate from Athenry AC. They had both run fantastic races and had many of their own stories to tell of battles they had fought with demons on the road. For each of the runners who made it back to Clifden, and who completed their ‘laps of honour’, it was undoubtedly a moment of great personal achievement but was also a shared accomplishment. Race organisers, crew and runners alike had been in the metaphorical trenches for a very long time and each survivor was cheered home like the heroes they truly were. There were so many outstanding moments over the course of the race that I can’t hope to record all of them in an account like this. More than anything else I will remember this race as a shared experience. I don’t remember hearing a cross-word or a complaint from either competitors or crew all day long. It was a special time that took courage and imagination to create and I will remember the hours I spent running the Connemara 100 for a long, long time. Looking back on the race I believe I got my wish in that some of the spirit of the Woodstock generation could be found in Clifden that weekend. The people who ran together that weekend, or who worked on the race, lived through a special experience: one which I shall never forget.