Connemara Ultra Marathon – 10th April 2011 – Race Report Pics by Iain Shaw, Philip Magnier and Aengus McMahon
Mucho Respect to Colin J.
The drive out towards Connemara on race morning was – as usual – magical. I knew that an adventure lay ahead, it was just the details that hadn’t been announced. This year, as I glided through Galway City and out towards Moycullen and Oughterard, I admit that I was a little more frazzled than usual. The source of my ‘frazzledness’ was principally to do with not having been able to find my race number earlier that morning. Having searched the house up and down for the missing registration pack, I got into the car, numberless and twenty minutes late, muttering to myself like a lunatic. I knew in my heart that I’d be able to get a replacement number out in Connemara, but I also knew that it was an inconvenience which neither I nor the organisers really needed.
Thankfully, it didn’t take long before the tension began to begin to melt away. Having phoned ahead, I was assured by race organisers that I’d be able to get a replacement number before the start. I allowed myself to relax a little. Deep breaths. Calm down, calm down – as I believe they say in Liverpool. Clubmate Valerie Glavin was sitting in the passenger seat, as cool as a cucumber, and Lezan Kimutai was in the back of the car. Neither Valerie nor Lezan seemed all that concerned about my missing race number. In fairness, I could understand Valerie’s relaxed attitude because she’s always ‘chilled’, but Lezan really should have been more concerned as his number was missing too – I just hadn’t told him that yet.
The race briefing in Peacock’s was a scene of well-controlled chaos. The room was a constantly shifting blur of friendly faces, smiles, worried looks and frantic last-minute adjustments being made to race kit. It was strange not to see Thomas Bubendorfer there, but Thomas has other fish to fry this year. I was even more personally disorganised than usual. Sometimes I’m a bit ‘relaxed’ about getting ready for a race and at other times I don’t even manage to be that organised. I had borrowed some gels and salt tablets from Valerie that morning and had bought some drinks in a petrol station in Galway on the way out. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Feck it, what could I do at that stage? It was almost time to run. Race director Ray O’Connor kept the ultra race briefing brief and all of a sudden we were in the bus for the short hop to the starting line. It was time to get some running done.
The last few moments before a race were calm. There were, at last, no more arrangements to look after or final preparations to make. I was there now, at the line, and I had to make the best of what I had. A few hands were shaken and a few shoulders patted. We were all in this one together. I had no great expectations of running well. After a poor race in Helsinki at the end of January I had missed three entire weeks of training. I wanted to have a decent run in order to find my metaphorical feet once more and I knew that Connemara would be a good place to get racing again. I know the course so well by now that it’s easy to feel at home there. I could see Vasily Neumeritski, Marty Rea and Gary Crossan at the start and felt sure that one of the three would be the first man home. I didn’t know if I could repeat last year’s 4:28:33 and 5th place, but thought that I’d go out on more or less the same pace and hope for the best. It sounded like a plan if I said it fast enough.
When we got underway, I was surprised to find myself running at the front of the pack. I knew I wasn’t going all that quickly and so I waited patiently for the faster runners to make their way past. Sure enough, after about a half a mile or so Vasily, Marty, Gary, and another chap that I didn’t recognise, went smoothly past. I concentrated on finding a rhythm that would deliver 6:50’s and tried to relax. The road out towards Recess was quiet and I fell into conversation with Sean Whitty from Wexford. It was really nice to have some company on the road as we eased ourselves into the difficult journey ahead. The miles passed just as smoothly as they should. The four leading runners were gradually disappearing out of sight and I was quite comfortable with that. At a guess, they were running at a pace of not much more than six minutes per mile, and that was too hot for me. I only have one tactic in events like this – run at an even pace, a pace that I hope I can maintain to the end. If I saw any one of the leading four again it wasn’t going to be because I had increased the pace.
Years ago I used to come away from races like this and be able to remember many small details, but I can’t do that anymore. As my father said to me many times, ‘old age is a bastard’. I retain impressions of how a race went and feelings, but not too many details. In those early miles, I remember feeling relaxed but a little detached from what was going on around me. I was looking forward to turning off the Clifden Road and towards Lough Inagh because I knew that the road there would be much quieter and the scenery even more beautiful. I had become less inclined to chat, and Sean and another runner moved strongly ahead. Because I knew that I wasn’t slowing up, I was happy to let them go. It was going to be a long way home and I hoped to be able to see them again before reaching Maam Cross. I passed through the full marathon start in a little over 1:28, feeling fine. The reception given to the leading ultramarathoners by the waiting Connemara Marathon field has to be one of the biggest thrills in Irish running. If you ever want to feel like a star, enter this race and cover the first thirteen miles in less than 1:30 – a guaranteed ego booster.
Once I was through the marathon start, I knew that I had to get my heart rate down and to re-focus on my own race. Most of my splits were well under the 6:52 average that I was looking for. I didn’t really feel under any pressure and so I just cruised along and tried to enjoy myself. After a while I came back up to Sean from Wexford. I was just about to catch him when he stopped for a drink. I went past without him realising it and didn’t see him again until the end. Thankfully I can see from the results that Sean had a good race afterwards. I also passed the other chap who had been ahead of me earlier at around this time. I always have mixed feelings when I pass another ultra runner on this course. I’m usually happy enough that I’m going forward in the field rather than backwards, but the sense of solidarity amongst the runners is so strong and so there’s also some regret that relative advancement can only come at someone else’s expense.
By the time I began the descent towards Killary I was running in fifth and getting just a little bit tired. I had picked up some time on my three-hour marathon schedule. I tried to do the mental maths – something I’m rubbish at in the middle of a race – and work out when I’d pass the marathon mark. As it transpired I was more than happy with 2:56:43. Along this stretch I met and talked with quite a few marathoners as they came past. The way the fields from the three races mix in Connemara is unique and once people realise that you’re competing in the ultra you get extra support and encouragement. I knew that I would have to steel myself for the push up the hill out of Leenaun and so I took some quiet moments just before coming into the village, just to look around the hillsides and calm my nerves.
The hill was tough and I won’t pretend otherwise. It was the first time in the race where I felt under real pressure. I tried to maintain the same pace up the hill that I had been running all along and in retrospect that was probably a mistake. I really enjoyed the U2 ‘heads’ at the top – perhaps too much as it was the last time in the race when I felt good. You could see them in the distance for a while before reaching them, and I couldn’t resist a little bit of cod-acting as I went past. Organisational touches like this, set the Connemarathon races apart from less well organised events and remind you that you’re taking part in a very special event and not just another marathon.
The top of the hill was where the hard work started. I managed to keep the pace going for the most part, but I was getting more and more tired as the miles passed by. I felt confident that I could finish off the job, but knew that it would probably hurt. More than anything else I wanted to finish off the job that I had started. Even though I don’t think I ‘bottled’ the race in Helsinki earlier in the year, I needed to finish off this race well to exorcise the ghost of that poor performance. My splits were becoming a little erratic, even though I felt like I was keeping up a good solid effort. The slightest gust of wind seemed to slow me dramatically and then I’d get going again a few minutes later. The support from people at aid stations and passing half marathoners was great. Of course Lezan had a friendly word as he flew past. With eight miles to go, the bargaining process began. I was starting to struggle and was finding it harder and harder to take on water or gels. I told myself that I had just two sections left to conquer – the four miles to Maam and then the last four miles up the hill. Two four mile runs – I could do that couldn’t I? It was shaping up like a long slog home.
Those last eight miles were uniformly tough and difficult. The weather had grown damp, cold and grey. It was somewhat of a relief that it seemed to be growing cooler and the light drizzle that started to fall was actually quite pleasant to run in. The only negative was that I’d have to run the last four miles up the hill with a steady wind into my face. Somewhere in this last eight mile section I passed another ultra runner who appeared to be having an even tougher time that I was. That left me in fourth place and one better than my finishing position last year. Before long, even though every step along the road was hard-earned, I found myself at the base of the ‘Hell of the West’. Two massive costumed Devils guarded the base of the hill encouraging people to walk or drop-out to a soundtrack opf AC/DC’s Highway To Hell- reverse psychology at its most transparent – but funny as well. The end was in sight. Almost.
I trudged up that hill with a stony heart. I noticed that I was re-passing some of the marathoners that had gone past earlier and that felt good. About half way up I was shocked to see Vassily, running slowly, just ahead of me. I have huge admiration for this man and all that he has achieved in running. A friendlier, more modest guy would be hard to find. At the same time, I wanted to pass him and to try to stay ahead ’til the end. I put my head down and went past as fast as I could – just saying a polite hello. All things being equal, I’d never pass Vasily in a race of this length but I’ll take my luck where I find it. Vasily had bravely gone with the early fast pace and was now paying a big price. Thankfully, I managed to get ahead and to stay ahead ’til the end. I tried to lengthen my stride and to not look back. Soon, I was home and very thankful for it. I haven’t been as high as third in this race since 2005 and, to be honest, I never thought I’d manage a podium spot again because the race has improved year on year. As the man says, I ain’t getting any younger, better looking or faster.
I almost collapsed across the line – more relieved than exhausted – and was welcomed home by my good friend and race director Ray O’Connor. My finishing time was very similar to last year – just a couple of seconds slower – with 4:29:05 on the clock. My feet had blistered up quite badly over the closing half-marathon and it was a relief just to be able to sit down. The volunteers at the finish line looked after me superbly well and helped me get sorted out with some warm clothes, my medal and a drink. I was thrilled to have put together a solid race and even more so to have run hard and raced honestly. Gary Crossan had been first man home in around 4:22 and Marty Rea was next in 4:27 – two fine performances on a generally tough day for running.
It was a nice feeling to have run well again. To be able to talk about my last race in positive terms rather than explaining away a bad one.
Valerie Glavin ran another great race to take third in the women’s race making it two ‘thirds’ for the Athenry AC crew. We never doubted you Valerie. Congratulations also to all of the other runners who took on the challenge of the half, full or ultra that day, and equally to the army of volunteers, helpers, bus drivers and organisers that make the whole day possible. It was a pleasure and a privilege to share the road with you all.
Let’s all do it again next year.
1st ‘Half’ 1:28:50
2nd ‘Half’ 1:27:53
3rd ‘Half’ 1:32:22