Connemara 100, 2010 – Race Report
During the early miles of this race I spoke with two other runners and, as we ran along, I told them that this race scared the life out of me. They seemed a little surprised, or at the very least a bit confused, but I was telling the truth. By any realistic assessment taking part in such a long race is going to be a physically painful experience, in all likelihood very painful. Having participated in the event last year I was aware that, even if everything went perfectly well, I’d be walking with a big limp the following day. Despite having a passion for ultramarathons, I’ve never learnt to embrace pain and discomfort as well as I know some others have done and a lot of my racing strategies have been contrived around avoiding as much of it as possible. Enough of all that! How did I get to the starting line?
I drove to the race start in Clifden directly from work on Friday evening. It had been a chaotic day in the office that included two flat tyres on my car and a last-minute mini-crisis. I was more than a little bit frazzled when I eventually checked into the race hotel around 08:00pm and eventually hooked up with Peter and Gary – my crew for the following day. I’ve been blessed with superb crew at this event for the last two years and knew I could relax into their tender care and just concentrate on the running side of affairs. Both Peter and Gary are experienced athletes in their own right and seem to know intuitively how to handle every contingency. I suppose the contradiction is that although ultramarathon running is essentially a solitary pursuit, it often wouldn’t be possible without the support of others. I can’t thank these two good friends enough for all of their help, both this year and last.
For once in my running life, I was well organised on this occasion and was able to hand over all of my spare clothing and other race supplies to Peter and Gary before retiring to my room. I went straight to bed with the intention of getting as much sleep as possible. Unfortunately, due to a noisy function that was taking place elsewhere in the hotel, that amounted to just a little over two hours. Some you win, some you lose. I was a bit groggy when Gary came into my hotel room at 05:10am the following morning, having slept through two alarms. I was told afterwards that I was the proud owner of ‘Barbie Pink’ eyes. I looked out of the hotel window to see what conditions were like – dry, overcast and coolish – and decided to run with a singlet over a t-shirt. I hoped to discard the t-shirt later. Downstairs, the other runners and crew were gathering and preparing quietly for the task ahead. The atmosphere was subdued and voices were kept low as we sipped cups of jet black coffee and tried not to think too deeply of what the road ahead might hold.
The starting line was only a few minutes walk from the hotel and soon it was time to drift out into the dark coolness of an early Connemara morning. The starting line of an ultramarathon is often a strange place to be. The air was heavy with both optimism and trepidation in almost equal measure. Only half awake, I just tried not to think about it all too much. Without undue ceremony the race began and eleven anxious runners started out on their journey of 100 miles. The course wound around the town of Clifden for a couple of laps before heading out into the surrounding hills. It was nice to be able to see the town emerging from it’s sleep before we had to begin our journey through the hills. We ran as a group for a little while, all eleven starters together in a pack exchanging bad jokes and nervous chatter.
As the road extended out of town I very gently increased the pace – just from a very slow jog to a slow jog – but that was enough to take me to the front of the race. For a few moments I was on my own and then, almost immediately, two other runners joined me. The early miles unfolded gracefully along the roads leading north out of Clifden and, as time moved on, we moved onto increasingly smaller roads and into quieter country. Connemara is simply beautiful early on a misty summer morning. Aside from the sound of our striding and the occasionally exchanged word, the world was majestically silent. On these rolling roads we eased into the start of our journey on fresh legs. My strategy was to eat and drink like the proverbial horse and I began putting that plan into action right from the start. Every three miles or so I took on a 330ml bottle of water or sports drink along with something solid to eat – usually a biscuit or a bar of some sort. Every ninety minutes I took an electrolyte supplement tablet. I kept this going for the majority of the race.
We had been told that green mileage markers were discretely painted onto the road at five mile intervals. I had planned to run at a pace of nine minutes-per-mile and watched for the first green circular mark as forty-five minutes approached and then passed on my watch. When I eventually found that first mark, I saw that 0:49:45 had elapsed. I was a little surprised to be quite so far off target but, of course, there was a long way to go and I knew that I had to err on the side of caution if I was to err at all. We had our first view of the coast on the road between Moyard and Letterfrack where the land swept dramatically down from the roadside to a wild shore on our left hand side. The three of us continued running together through the village of Letterfrack with just nine easy miles under our belt. Conversation was less frequent now and I suspect we were all giving some more serious thought to the remaining miles and how we might manage to get through them. We turned sharply to the left left in the village and out towards an even smaller collection of homes at Tully Cross. There were quite a few steep ups and downs here but I tried to run as smoothly and efficiently as possible – with even effort rather than even pace. The second five-mile split passed on the roadside after Creggans and my watch said 0:47:34.
Having followed the gently undulating road from Tully Cross to Glassillaun, we turned back inland once again and towards the heart of Connemara – same pace, same three runners, almost in lockstep. I was now about nine minutes outside of my projected pace and I wanted to start clawing back that deficit a little. I dared to lengthen my stride a fraction but nothing more. I wondered if my two companions on the road would notice. If they did, they said nothing at the time. However, as we continued to make our way away from the coast and towards the rolling mountains, it began to look like the youngest of our trio was feeling the effect of the marginally increased pace. As it was his first outing over such an extended distance, he wisely decided to conserve energy and he eased back a fraction. Shortly afterwards, as we passed a series of lakes on our right-hand side, we were assailed by huge clouds of black midges. There was just no way of avoiding them and so we ploughed ahead, hoping to get through them before we were eaten. We eventually emerged onto the Leenane to Clifden road and left both the lakes and the midges behind. We had completed twenty miles at this stage, having recorded splits of 44:06 and 43:44 at the fifteen and twenty mile points respectively. I was still feeling fairly fresh and well, although I was occasionally guilty of allowing myself to project ahead to the remaining miles. I’ve learnt over the years that to dwell on the miles ahead is a dangerous habbit, particularly so early in a race. Each time I found my mind wandering in that direction I tried to snap out of it.
It seems strange to say so now, but the next twenty miles were reasonably uneventful. The race lead changed hands many times as my remaining companion and I stayed within a few yards of each other on the road. I was less inclined towards conversation by this time but tried to remain alert and aware of where I was. I was starting to get a little sore in places, but nothing that worried me – it was just the accumulation of miles – none of it avoidable. Songs floated through my head as I ran. A perennial favourite, U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ played itself over and again, particularly the lyric, “I believe in the Kingdom Come, Then all the colours will bleed into one, Bleed into one, But yes I’m still running”. Bono is an ultrarunner at heart – I’d swear to it. Another song that drifted around my head as I gazed up at the mountains was Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ – “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon”. It’s very easy to feel both small and temporary amongst the mountains. Unfortunately I wasn’t heading to ‘Yasgur’s Farm’, but Maam Cross, a beautiful place in it’s own right, was just down the road.
Maam Cross came and went quickly. A weekend fair was taking place at the cross- roads itself and we got a lot of strange looks from the farmers who were checking out the chainsaws, turf and vegetables for sale by the roadside. Thankfully, the lead vehicle cleared enough of a trail for us to pass through comfortably. The pace had remained remarkably constant since Glassillaun and the last four five-mile splits I had recorded were, 43:33, 43:22, 43:23 and 43:35. I was happy with the way things were going generally, happy with my progress and with how I felt in myself. I was focusing then on getting to the halfway point. I knew that once I had passed the fifty-mile marker, I could tell myself that I was closing in on the finish rather than running away from the start. From head games such as these, many an ultramarathon finish has been fashioned. Having passed through Maam Cross, we had a sharp downhill section ahead. This is the famous ‘Hell of The West’ on the Connemarathon course, only we were running down it rather than up. I was still feeling reasonably confident and I decided that I’d press the ‘button’ just a little on that decent – a decision that changed the rest of the race for me. At the first sign of a downhill gradient, I increased my pace to about seven minutes per mile. I didn’t use the brakes at all going down the hill and lengthened my stride – that was enough. When I glanced backwards, just a short time later, I knew that the forty-mile partnership had been dissolved. I learnt shortly afterwards that my companion had been forced to retire from the race with stomach problems.
I was on my own now, and although I tried to ease back again, the change in pace was more difficult to reverse that I had thought would be the case. I found I was constantly making small regular adjustments, slowing and then increasing the pace once again in an effort to get back into the same groove I had enjoyed earlier. Once the steady rhythm had been broken it was quite hard to find again. Two more splits of 43:21 and 42:20 took me to the halfway mark in a total of 7:24. Halfway home and still on track!
The next section of road was familiar to me from the Connemara marathon and ultramarathon races each March and I did get back into a really good groove at this point. I felt increasingly stronger and ‘easier’ as the miles ticked by, but was wise enough to realise that this wasn’t going to last forever. My initial target had been to complete each five-mile section in less than forty-five minutes and by this point I was consistently under that figure each time a course marker floated by. The downhill sections were becoming a bit of a problem as my quads were becomming tender, but uphill or flat sections were fine. I picked my way gingerly down the long hill into Leenane, to the general amusement of locals and tourists alike. Some people seemed to have had an inkling that I might be part of some race but I presume that many thought I was just a very tired looking guy out on a run. I was happier when I was through the village and back out onto the open road and away from curious gazes. I made my way as quickly as possible along Killary Fjord and back up the hill towards Lough Inagh. Embarrassing as it is for me to admit now, I sang AC/DC songs all the way up that hill.
The next twenty-five miles were like no others that I’ve experienced during such a long race before. I was enjoying each stride and I felt that I could run like this forever. My head tried to keep a lid on my growing enthusiasm but I couldn’t avoid being glad to be able to make such smooth progress. I knew that each step I took was towards Clifden and the point at which I could stop running. I told myself that all I needed to do was to run and to wait for Clifden to arrive. If I could do just those two things, I would be OK. I ran and I waited and the miles ticked by. Every two to three miles I drank and ate something. Thankfully, I had no problems eating, drinking or keeping food down at any point during the race, and I believe that this helped me enormously. My five-mile splits from 50-75 miles were 0:42:59, 0:43:11, 0:42:19, 0:43:35, 0:40:22. The last of these figures worried me a little as it seemed to be too quick for my own good and I concentrated afterwards on slowing my stride in a controlled way. All good things must come to an end and, as I knew in my heart it would, my purple patch came to an abrupt end just as I reached the Galway to Clifden road and the start of the last major section of the route. I knew then that it was slog-to-the-finish time.
The concluding twenty-five miles of this course winds along small quiet roads and onto a lazy-loop through Roundstone, Ballyconneelly and then finally back to into Clifden. Here too, the tale is relatively uncomplicated but certainly a lot less graceful. Both my physical condition and my state of mind deteriorated rapidily over these concluding miles. Two forces struggled for control of my mind – optimism as I approached these closing miles and despair at the thought of having to run another step. I kept on trying to out-wait the pain and to run. I thought to myself – “I’ll outlast this bastard yet! I’ll be here and still running when the miles are gone”, but I really wasn’t sure at times. Maybe I was beaten. Perhaps I should just stop. I forced myself into a more upright position as my shoulders had begun to crumble forwards. I forced myself to look around and to reconnect with the outside world. I forced myself think of my crew and of the other competitors in the race. I forced myself to run. I ran.
The village of Roundstone was full to the brim with more happy festival-goers. In as far as it is humanly possible to do so, I blanked the entire town and every single person in it. I felt like I could only see the world down a length of dark pipe which itself was growing narrower. My peripheral vision had blurred and even finding the energy to speak had become quite difficult. It seemed that I was becoming more distant from my crew and I could no longer eat or drink after about 85 miles. I ran entirely in search of the next green circular five-mile marker. Despite my growing difficulty, my splits remained amazingly steady between mile 75 and mile 90 at just over forty minutes apiece (0:42:30, 0:40:19, 0:40:13). I no longer tried to gauge the pace. I had two options – to run or to stop, and I tried with all my heart not to stop. Although my legs were very painful, it was a manageable situation. I was just that I was running out of steam, hitting very close to rock bottom. Two miles out from Clifden and roughly five miles from the end of the race (the race concludes with three short laps of the town) I passed by Peter at the side of the road and told him that I’d have to run-walk it in from there. He looked a little worried but I figured that by now I had no real choice if I was going to avoid complete collapse. He shouted back at me just to keep going as long as I could and handed me a bottle of water to drink. Instead of drinking the water I dumped the entire content of the bottle over my head in an effort to spark some life back into my tired body. Within strides, I felt a lot better. The water washed over my face and neck and poured down my back. The coolness was fantastically welcome. At the next opportunity I grabbed another bottle and did the same. Roughly twenty minutes later I was in Clifden and still going. The three laps of the town were vaguely hallucinogenic. I ran alongside cars and holiday makers but, as in Roundstone, I just couldn’t summon the energy to react to anything or concern myself with thoughts of how bizarre I probably appeared. On my second lap, I became aware of an angry shouting match going on behind me. I was told afterwards that an enthusiastic local teenager had decided to intervene into affairs and had made a run at me from behind. Luckily for all concerned a race official got in between him and me and blocked his run. It was all about getting under the finish line at that stage and a few minutes later, to my great relief, I finished with 14:27:06 on the overhead clock. It was over. It was finally over. For just a moment tears came and went. The relief was overwhelming.
Many people contributed to my run and I couldn’t, perhaps even shouldn’t, thank them all here properly. Suffice it to say that I deeply appreciate all of the help I was given before, during, and after the race. I offer my deepest respect and admiration to my fellow runners in the race. Until you’ve faced down the barrell of 100 miles and wondered how you’re going to get home you won’t appreciate just how daunting a prospect that can be.
(aproximate five mile splits taken from my own watch)
0:42:20 – 7:24:54
0:43:40 – 14:27:06