All Photographs Copyright Iain Shaw
I leant forward, rested my forehead against my forearms, bent almost double and sank onto the windowsill of an art gallery in Clifden. It was nearing ten o’clock on Saturday evening. It was almost dark and I was a happy man. With one-hundred miles of road behind me, I was wallowing deeply in the delicious sensation of simply not running anymore. I had been running, more or less continuously, for a little under 16 hours. I wasn’t completely exhausted – although I was almost there – but I was sore almost everywhere that it was possible to be so. When I eventually raised my head, I saw a small painting of a cow in the gallery window, which was entitled ‘Moo’. My scrambled mind made a connection to ‘Mu’, but that’s another story entirely.
It had been a day of gentle drama, of warmth and of physical hardship. It had been a long day. Like most days, it had begun early that same morning, when I found myself amongst a group of fifteen other ordinary people who had accepted the challenge of covering an extraordinary distance on foot. Each of the challengers would be supported along their way by friends or family. The crew members would find themselves as closely connected to the outcome of the adventure as the runners themselves. None of us knew exactly how the day would unfold, but we were ready to find out.
The evening before, we had gathered in Clifden to meet each other and to be briefed on arrangements by the organisers. As might be expected, the atmosphere was low-key. Some faces were familiar to me and others were new. Those of us who recognised each other exchanged nervous smiles, gentle jokes and handshakes. The first-timers were welcomed and, hopefully, they found some encouragement in the room. When the talking was all done, we drifted away in small groups to get some rest, to steel ourselves for the test ahead and to make our final arrangements.
Having gathered at the race hotel the following morning in the pre-dawn gloom, we made our way quietly to the starting line in the town. A few last photographs were taken and then we were ready to go. Heading away from Clifden through the early morning drizzle I thought I had a good idea what was in store for us. I know the damage that these races can inflict on a well prepared body and, unfortunately, I hadn’t brought one of those along. I was going to be tired and sore by evening time and I completely accepted that. My targets were twofold – to get the distance done without falling apart completely, and to try to enjoy the experience of slowly covering distance. Sometimes you just have to play the hand you’re dealt and that what I was intent on doing. I’d have to run this one with my head and heart, most especially when the time came that my legs would carry me no further.
The early miles were a little nervy but I soon fell into stride alongside Greame Colhoun. I was amazed to hear that Greame had competed strongly in the 24 hour race in Belfast just a few weeks earlier, but had somehow managed to recover sufficiently in time to tackle this race. It was brilliant to have such great company through those quiet early morning miles. Connemara was waking up around us as we ran. We jogged easily and I concentrated on not concentrating on the road. Greame has a lovely easy manner about him – a gentle sense of humour and is very easy to get along with. Our crews also got to know each other a little as they stopped alongside each other to pass over drinks and food to us at regular intervals. Greame and I didn’t always run side by side and on a couple of occasions one or other of us would draw a little ahead. However in the context of the full race distance we were together for the first 40 miles.
Although I had worn a stopwatch, I wasn’t trying to gauge how fast we were going. I tried to run on feel and I felt comfortable most of the time. In contrast with how my legs felt, the stretch between Recess and Maam Cross was quite unpleasant as there was quite a lot of traffic, more than I remember in other years. A number of camper vans came very close to us and you really had to have your wits about you to be safe. A part of me wants to resist when a camper van comes flying at me, refusing to deviate from its line. I get an urge to keep my own line, to dare them to drive straight into a pedestrian. I was glad, and probably a good deal safer, when we turned left at Maam Cross with 40 miles on the clock and quieter roads ahead. There was a lot of running still to be done, but at least it felt like we’d reached the end of the beginning.
I really had no idea what my actual pace was and that didn’t really concern me. In earlier years I had carefully, almost obsessively, monitored my splits, but this time I ran from corner to corner and satisfied myself with clipping off the miles and telling myself that each one I left behind was one that I wouldn’t have to cover again. I was able to work out later that I was actually a good bit ahead of last year’s schedule for the first 60 or 70 miles – up to 15 minutes at one stage.
By the time I started down the hill out of Maam Cross, I had pulled a small bit ahead of Greame. I remember him stopping briefly to get a drink and saying, “I’ll catch you in a second” and then finding myself running alone. It didn’t seem to matter, I was sure he’d be back alongside in a short while. I knew he was running well within himself at that point as he’d told me just a few minutes previously that he was ‘cushty’. I stopped briefly at the memorial to Frank Haines which is by the roadside two miles out of Maam Cross. Frank died suddenly and unexpectedly while taking part in the Connemara Half Marathon in 2006. On that day I heard the ambulance arriving to tend to him and I remember the chill that went down my spine when I realised that a runner was in serious trouble. I didn’t know Frank, but I can remember him.
I got to the fifty mile point with most systems in reasonable shape, although the strain was certainly starting to show in places. I suppose it’s all relative. On another day, in other circumstances, in the same shape, I might say that I was feeling like shit. I was however, still able to run and on this day that qualified as par for the course. Leaving Leanaun behind me, I turned into a strong headwind and occasional squally showers were sweeping up along the coast into my face. It was head-down time as I reckoned it’d be tough going along this exposed stretch. Sixty miles came and went and I started to really struggle physically. My feet were in poor enough shape and my quads weren’t handling the downhill stretches very well. What can you do? You push on and put miles behind you. It’s the only option. When you’ve put one behind you, you start on the next, having faith all the time that if you repeat the process for long enough that you’ll run out of road in the end.
That stretch back up the hill towards Killary, past the ‘Stop and Pray’ Church, around by the shore of Lough Inagh and up again towards the main Galway to Clifden road, was a very low point for me. I had run out of fitness by that point and I was getting very sore around my hips and quads. My left forefoot had blistered a few hours previously and somewhere near Killary it burst suddenly causing me to yelp in pain. I was worried that it might become very painful to run on but thankfully it settled down again quickly and didn’t bleed at all. I didn’t look back for Greame because I didn’t want to encourage him to bridge a gap faster than might be good for him and I didn’t really want to slow down to wait for him either. The time had arrived for survival mode to be engaged. I needed to draw on experience and doggedness to make up for physical failure. My number one priority being to finish the course, I came to the realisation that attempting to run all the way to Clifden would put that primary objective in danger. In short, I realised that I should take a walk-break before I was forced to either walk the remaining miles or withdraw altogether. A few yards after the 70 mile mark, I slowed to a power-walk. I decided that I’d run and walk alternating 5 minute periods until I had recovered a little. After just two five-minute slots it was clear that a strict adherence to this schedule wouldn’t work as I ended up running up hills and walking down them and that seemed a tad counterproductive.
For the last thirty miles I kept up a pattern of running and walking. In the earlier part of those 30 miles it was more running than walking, but the nearer I got to Clifden the less I ran. For one reason or another I never really got down in the dumps. I knew in my heart that I’d get to the finish line and that was all that mattered. I was refusing to suffer. Roundstone was thankfully quiet and aside from the usual bemused looks from the outdoor beer drinkers and afternoon strollers, I made it through unscathed. Ballyconneely was similarly quiet. I went through a few stretches where I felt quite detached from the process of walking or running. I was very light-headed at times and occasionally my peripheral vision began to narrow, as if I was running towards the end of a tunnel. Having said all that I was making the best of my way home – getting the best out of myself.
And so it came to pass that I eventually made it back to Clifden just as it was starting to get dark. The last act of the drama was to run three laps of the town – or in my case walk two of them and then run the last one. On the second lap, I was told that Greame had arrived in town and so would be only minutes behind me on the road. Apparently, he was running well and going to finish in style. Towards the end of my second lap of the town, I hauled my aching body into ‘run-mode’ one last time and circumnavigated Clifden on increasingly tender legs – a few minutes later I crossed the line and it was over, for me at least. A few minutes later, Greame crossed the line, smiling broadly as he had all day. It was a hugely impressive run on his part and his parents, who were crewing for him, must have been very proud indeed.
Over the next 14 hours, 7 other runners and their crews completed the course in similarly impressive fashion. Some glided over the line and some hobbled, but each one had a story to tell. You just can get involved in a process like this without meeting with adventure. With four finishers under 18 hours the standard was clearly high this year. Maciej, who has completed all of the races to date, improved significantly on his time from 2010 and yet dropped two places in the finishing order. George Webb ran an astonishingly strong race to get both himself and his crew home on the same day they started, which is always a bonus. I didn’t have a chance to talk with George, but it was clearly an astonishing performance on his part. Johnny Donnelly made it back to Clifden with just a little over 21 hours on the clock. For a relative novice at this type of event it was a breath-taking achievement. For a novice with shag all training done, it was even more impressive than that. It was disappointing that no women took part this year. It’s a deficiency that I hope and believe will be rectified next year. It was a source of enormous satisfaction to me that Ireland greatest ever female twenty-four hour runner, Valerie Glavin, was at the finish to welcome the runners home. Valerie ran this race two years ago, finishing second on that occasion to the equally brilliant Joanne Fearon, and I’m sure both athletes will accept the challenge of the Connemara 100 in the future.
I couldn’t finish any report like this without paying tribute to my crew who were simply phenomenal. Gary and Peter have supported me in this event for each the last three years and, as runners themselves, they understand precisely how to fill the role. When I wilted they encouraged me, when I was dry they gave drink and if I got too big for my boots they gave me a slap. My only regret is that, even though Peter is a runner he doesn’t run much anymore. Peter – go for a run – not for us but for yourself. If you don’t, you’ll regret it in years to come. Life is short.
Irish ultra-running needs events like the Connemara 100 and others if it is grow. Years ago Irish ultra-runners needed to travel to Britain, or even further afield, to find and enter good quality races. This is no longer the case, with races like the 39.3 mile Connemara Ultra in March, the Portumna 50km and 100km in June, the Connemara 100 in August and the newly instituted Longford 39.3 ultra-marathon which takes place later this month. In particular the Connemara 39.3 race in March is fast developing into one of the best races of its kind in Europe. There are excuses anymore. If you want to run these types of race, they’re there for you.
Full 2011 Result
- Mick Rice 15:41:09
- Greame Colhoun 15:57:33
- George Webb 17:37:58
- Maciej Sawicki 17:55:53
- Iveagh Jameson 19:18:14
- Johnny Donnelly 21:09:15
- Brian Donnelly 23:29:21
- Jim McNeice 28:41:45
- Neal Collins 29:31:22
Marcus Howlett DNF
Karl Henry DNF
Ray O’Connor DNF
Noel Dilworth DNF
Oliver Wellings DNF
Ray Flanagan DNF