Last weekend hosted the second year of the Seven Sisters Skyline races which took place in Donegal and it was the first year of the Ultra distance of 50km. The 26km race took place on Saturday. I decided to enter the 50km, mainly due to the fact that it involved 4000 metres of elevation gain, but also because it is now 4 weeks out from TDS and this would be the perfect training. Now as mentioned before the fact that a 50km race in the mountains of Donegal is now a training session, is kinda worrying, but it is what it is!
My last 8 weeks since Wicklow Way Race have been crazy busy with long shifts through the night and early starts, meaning I have trained when I can, but all in all I have managed it reasonably well. I concentrated almost solely on climbing and descending, going up Nephin mountain 5 times one week and doing repeats on the mountain on numerous occasions. No major distance running due to the fact that I have most of that training done, but relentless climbs are the key.
I have tried to mimic the Alps in my little Mayo mountains and hopefully this training will improve my climbing abilities.
So myself and Donegal have a definite connection. I always enjoy my trips north and I’ve had some good races up there. The Seven Sisters wasn’t a goal race where I had hoped to do too well, knowing there were many UK and international runners coming for the Skyline series. At the same time I was hoping to be in top 10 throughout and with some endurance in the legs hopefully claw myself into the top 5. So here’s how things turned out.
As you can see it is very much up and down all day. We set off from the base of the mighty Errigal mountain at 7am, around 90 runner’s introduced to one hell of a course by Eunan Quinn and Shaun Stewart. Shaun having won the race last year and helped with the course design, was unable to run this year with a broken collarbone. The course would immediately climb from the carpark, through the bog, skirting past Errigal on your left before climbing the first peak of Mackoght mountain. Being a Skyrunning UK/Ireland national series race the lads looking for points took off up the hill, with myself just behind, doing my own thing. Shaun was marshal at the top of the first short climb and even though early in the race it was nice to see a familiar face.
From here we ran some nice wet downhills, onto a grassy road section and picked up some good speed as the course wound it’s way all the way down to the ruins of the old Altan Castle on the shores of a gorgeous lake. The mist was starting to close in and drop down the mountains. I knew there was a wet day ahead but it wasn’t cold. Next up was the longest climb of the day to Aghla Mor mountain where we would reach a marshal and then do an out and back to the very top of the peak at a cairn. This was where the field began to split. There was the front 3 lads, already 5 minutes ahead, then myself and three guys on my tail before a bit of a gap to the next bunch. It was easy tell where people were as we passed on the out and back section in the mist.
After Aghla Mor we descended along some nice technical bog and heather ground. Aghla Beag was next up and this included two peaks both divided by some steep descents. I was pushing hard on the ascents and using the poles to my advantage before slotting them away and letting myself go on the downhills. The terrain was so bad underfoot that huge concentration was needed on the downhill in particular. Stones hidden under the heather could be your end!
It was a super battle in 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th place with a Polish guy passing me as we descended towards the base of Muckish. We would run a 1km section on the road before taking a right across ‘the bridge of tears’ and starting the incredible climb and scramble up the side of Muckish mountain. This was tough, demanding but bloody class at the same time. We ran along tiny ridges, scrambled up steep ridgelines with drops on either side. I looked up mostly, as I ‘m not hugely in favour of the massive drops below! We bumped into Ian corless, the photographer and ultra podcaster, not far from the top and I was impressed by his quality positioning on the trail. Here’s one of his shots below.
At the top of Muckish we passed the mighty Cairn, which was the turn around point in The Race 2019, and from here took a left towards the Miner’s pass. You couldn’t see more than 20 metres ahead at this point and following the marker flags was tricky. We went wrong for 2 minutes at the top before finding our way to the path. The descent off Muckish is epic with rocks, sandy trails, boulders and scree thrown in for good measure. A pure trail runners dream!
At the bottom of Muckish we had 20km under the belts and we would turn around, do it all again and add in Errigal mountain and another 6km on some backroads and trails before the finish.
I was feeling good, not going into the red too much, eating jellies, drinking Tailwind and filling one of my bottles with coke for the return journey. The return trip came off Muckish on the same route as The Race, making it a pretty quick descent and we started the climb up onto Aghla Beag range in pretty good form. I was feeling strong and knew I could maintain this climbing speed for a few more hours. It was now a battle for 4th place between myself and Marek, the Polish guy stuck to my tail!
Marek was hard to shake, clearly a really strong competitor. We would be close for the majority of the return. I was running well on the downhills and hiking strongly uphill and enjoyed the crazy rain that fell at times. This was solely due to the 17 or more degrees temperatures.
The return climbs were very similar to the way out and after passing through CP3 where the always encouraging Fiona Nic Fhionnlaoich was marshal, I knew I had about 13km with only 2 big climbs left to conquer. Fiona was nice enough to send on a few photos at this point in the race.
Back up to the top of Mackoght and a cool descent down to the North face of Errigal I went before looking up at the sheer climb ahead. This would be a scramble to over 700 metres but I absolutely loved it. I could see I had put a gap between myself and Marek at this point, but it was only a small one. I needed to push up Errigal and slingshot off the little mountain to try and secure 4th place. The climb was rocky and steep and the views down the valley soon disappeared into the mist. Up and up I climbed along some steep and crazy edges. And once at the top I paused for a few seconds to remember the last time I stood on top of Errigal. This was in 2017 when we broke the FKT for the 26 peaks, finishing on Errigal at sunset. This and other positive thoughts are what push you through tough races. Now it was time to sprint down off the mighty peak.
A little clip as I came off Errigal.
From here the course wound it’s way down the road and descended down to a trail that brought us around the lake and over the dam before crossing the finish line in Dunlewy village at Errigal Hostel. I slowed up for the first time all day in the last few kilometres on the road. I didn’t push myself to speed up as I knew I had 4th place wrapped up and wanted an injury free race. I found the main road and crossed the line and as I did Eunan called out that I was 3rd place. I had passed a guy walking after Errigal and would then realise that he had been in 2nd but had fallen on Errigal. I felt happy to finish 4th but this was a nice little bonus all the same. The main thing was that the guy in question was ok and finished in 5th place in the end. Fair play Adam Quinn for finishing in those circumstances. This will stand to him in the future.
So 3rd place, a podium and a good long workout in the bag. 7 Hours 12 minutes in total. Fair play to the one and only Rachel Nolan for coming 2nd Female and putting in another great performance. A slog in the bog with 14 peaks thrown in is the best way I can describe this one. But I would say it is by far the toughest 50km you can do and one of the most spectacular in Ireland. Yes I will be back next year, all going well!
Next up, France and the TDS. Just 3 times the length of this one and over twice the climbing, 146.3km and 9100 metres up!!!
Check out Ian Corless summary below, nicely summed up.
There I am smiling away on the Wicklow Way, as I did for large portions of this epic race in the Wicklow hills. I will phrase that slightly differently, to say that this is a race, however for all but a few it is more of a challenge to reach the line. Starting in Marley Park and finishing about 127km south of the Wicklow hills in Clonegal Co. Carlow this is no run for the faint hearted. Some of you may remember my horrible race report from 2017, when I finished but in some discomfort. I had mostly hated the yellow men markers and had really not remembered anything positive from my experience. With this in mind I decided to give Wicklow a second chance and boy did it pay off.
The race started at 12am with approximately 90 runners lining up, about 30 of whom wouldn’t see the finish line for different reasons but all were in high spirits and ready for the night ahead.
My coach and good buddy Sinead would be my crew for the day at aid stations in Glendalough at 50k, Ironbridge at 80k and The Dying Cow at 101km. Knowing Sinead was there with her experience was key to my confidence in a good run.
Taking a few crazy months of work, lack of training properly and a few too many late nights the weekend before, my preparation wasn’t great, but I had slept well all week and felt ready for the challenge ahead. There was zero pressure on and my plan along with Sinead’s advice was to go steady and in comfort zone all day and if feeling poorly at any time I could pull out. Now you know me and the words pull out, DNF, and the fact that they don’t exist in my vocabulary, but I had decided that in this race I would drop if I was too sore. This is all training for the TDS.
I will keep this post as short as possible and really narrow it down to my thoughts on the day. I could go into fine detail but I feel you will enjoy a brief synopsis more. The gun went thanks to a countdown from Eoin Keith, one of the top endurance runners in Ireland. Robbie Britton and Gavin Byrne were due a showdown for the day. Robbie, basically being pro and Gavin, having come on leaps and bounds in the last 2 years was flying and in super form, expecting to both push the course record close. I, however, was not in the same league, nor was I planning to race anyone around me. I would run by feel and see where this led me. If in a position to nick into top 10 in the latter stages all good and well but this was a training race, full stop.
The night was nice to start but as we made our way into the hills the mist came down and following a brief stop at checkpoint 1 in Crone the weather closed in for an hour or two on the next few climbs. The early section has plenty climbing but some lovely technical stuff and downhills too which were fun in the dark.
A very quick transition in Crone and off up to climb Djouce mountain in the mist and rain and howling gales. You couldn’t see your hand, let alone the person on front of you. I spent some of the climb with eventual ladies winner, Aoife Mundow, who came to Dorset with us last year and she is becoming a top ultrarunner. Her partner Pol O Murchu was out on the course all night and day and his support was super. I was only minutes ahead of Aoife for the day so it helped me as much as her. The section from Crone to Glendalough is around 28km and feels long as the body tires between 3 and 6 in the morning. Long sections of slippy boardwalk didn’t help matters but did focus the mind. I was going steady and had planned a 5.45am arrival in Glendalough. I think I arrived at 5.40am so all good at this point. I changed my top and runners and had a quick bite to eat and glass of flat coke from Sinead. I had no niggles and was feeling tired but not sore so onwards and upwards was the call.
The views in Glendalough just as morning was coming alive were top notch. The lake, waterfall and the hills opening up down the valley. I was smiling as I left the checkpoint and enjoying myself. I really wondered how this was to be honest, over an ultramarathon in the bag already. Just 2 marathons to go now!
I stopped for a toilet break a few minutes out from Glendalough and to my surprise this didn’t knock me back as I began to catch an Italian guy, now known to me as Fabio, soon after my stop. He had been literally metres ahead of me now for hours and I was sort of pacing off him. I caught up with him and we chatted all the way to Ironbridge, the day warming up alot at this point and the sun beaming down. There were lots of long slow climbs on fire-roads with some steep sections off road mixed in, but to be honest I was just enjoying the chat and the realization that in a race like this you might be tired and hurting but everyone is in the same boat.
We reached Ironbridge at 79km in about 9 hours and I was feeling ridiculously good considering. I launched into some water melon, loads of flat coke and replaced my tailwind with water in one bottle and coke in the other. The Tailwind had been super for 9 hours, but I just needed a change for a while. Aoife cruised into transition just before we left and came out pretty much just as we left too! Delighted to see her going so well. I waited an extra minute or two for Fabio in transition knowing that a minute or two was no real issue to me at this point. Having a running buddy for the next 50km would mean a lot. We soon picked off two runners and then met another one in Gordon. Gordon would stick with us, so now we had three amigos! Anyone we would meet from now on could register for our gang we decided, as long as they were sound!
We would chat and moan as we transitioned from uphill to downhill to flat roads. The worst thing after 80km is the transitioning of the muscles. You feel grand as you go up but a pain runs through the legs as you change muscles to hit the downhills. I actually felt incredibly good and now that I had completed my real goal of 80km I could try enjoy the rest. I was taking it all in, making friends with the yellow men along the way. I said sorry to them for the way I had spoken badly of the Wicklow Way for 2 years. The views as we climbed up along farmland, wound our way down country roads, through farm gates, under falling trees, over fallen trees and along river banks were just amazing. It may not be the Alps but it has its own sort of beauty.
The 100km mark was huge for the lads as it was the longest either of them had ever ran. I felt privileged to be with them for this moment. I knew when they hit this that they would make the finish as well. Fabio went through a big low in this section but we helped each other through any low moments and for a few lads that met only hours before we became friends. This is ultarunning.
Sinead was at the Dying Cow and said we were making lots of time and moving better than they expected. I could see we were on for a good finishing time and had agreed with the lads not to sit down and that this transition was a refill/top change and nothing more. If you sit at this point it will slow you dramatically. I also had a small pain starting on the inside of my left leg but it wouldn’t stop me as long as I kept moving.
After the Dying Cow pub checkpoint it is basically mind games on fire-roads and digging deep for a few hours. There were a few heavy showers at this point and we all threw our jackets on for a while. Dragging each other up relentless long hills and trying to let the legs go on the downhills. We were actually flying on the downhill sections and I don’t think any of us could’ve moved as fast on our own over this last 26km. The final checkpoint was at Raheenakit, just after the steep climb up Coronary Hill. I was still loving the hills with the flats being my enemy. The final 15km flew by, in comparison to it feeling like days in 2017. It just goes to show how with miles and experience in the legs, 2 years can mean a lot.
We finally left the last of the fireroad sections and met Pol on the road, for the 30th time! He said there was 5km to the finish and it was mostly downhill. Off we went. I think we did the last 5km in about 21 minutes. Not bad after 122km. It was mostly a gradual downhill with a few uphills, which we ran as well. Cruising into Clonegal and touching the sign at the finish all in unison in 15 hours and 44 minutes in joint 8th position. We had made a decision to do this at least 30km before the finish. Job really well done. I had taken 3 hours and 5 minutes off my time from 2 years ago by racing smart and using my head, as well as listening carefully to the legend that is Sinead Keogh. Thank you once again. Also a special thanks to my cousin Geoffrey and his fiancee Cara who surprised me by showing up at the finish line! Was great to see them there.
I have to finish with a mention of Gavin Byrne and the fact that he gave it his all finishing in just over 13 hours. Staggering time. Robbie managed to smash Eoin Keith’s record, finishing in 12 hours and 11 minutes. Mind boggling stuff. Aoife Mundow managed to beat the women’s record and finish in just over 16 hours. Incredible Aoife, only running her first ultra in December of last year and having never ran 127 km in her life. It just goes to show what can be achieved with good training, focused mindset and a wee bit of talent thrown in the mix..
A couple of videos below to give you a little idea of the day!
Yup that’s me after a 3 hour 25 minute marathon in the Burren hills. What can I say! A cracking race, a stunning course, incredible volunteers and a strong field of runners, but for me not the most graceful of days. Taking into account that I really exerted myself in The Race and my longest run since March was 23km, taking on this marathon was more of a training session/build up to a big summer. All this planned out carefully I still decided to try pace the race, in a comfortable way, so that come the final 10km I would be in with a podium chance.
The race started by the sea in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare. A huge crowd for a marathon, a half and a 10k, with walkers, joggers and runners mixed in. The run would be made up of basically 21km off road and 21km on the road. Not really suiting me but I would take it handy, ish, early on and see how I was feeling later.
The first 10km was basically up hill, a gradual climb into the hills, winding up into the rocky burren and off the road onto some pretty nasty ground underfoot. I was feeling well and staying out of the red, and somehow cruising along in 2nd place. The leader was a spanish dude I think, who was grinding out about a minute every 3k on me, so I decided not to chase today. At around the 12km mark I was passed out and I knew there were a few very steep off-road climbs ahead, so I let this guy go as well and let myself fall down a long downhill section on the road. The climbs started after passing some dried up riverbeds, a few lonely sheep and a donkey that looked at me as if I had 3 heads, probably right!
Up into the mist we went and by the top of the climb it was getting windy and cold but I knew the halfway point wasn’t far away. The climb topped out and the ground softened underfoot and I let my legs open up along a nice grassy trail, feeling good but I noticed my stomach wasn’t working as it usually does in a race and I felt very bloated. Too much sucking on the Tailwind? Maybe! Being an ultrarunner theses days, I’m used to a constant flow of fluids but I think pushing harder over a shorter race means less fluids are needed sloshing around in there. I had made a mistake and I was about to pay.
The trail wound it’s way down to Fanore and the Atlantic of Galway Bay spread out as far as I could see. I hit the road at the bottom of this long decent and the legs stopped moving, I slowed from a comfortable 4.20min/km pace to nearly 5.30. Off the road for a brief trail down to the edge of Fanore beach before more road to the Greenway which leads all the way back along the coast to Ballyvaughan. The stomach was aching and it was slowing me down. My legs were ok, not spent, but they were slowing all the same. I was passed by about 5 runners in a 20 minute spell near Fanore and I began to feel a bit crap to be honest. I hit the Greenway and had to stop briefly as my head was spinning and my stomach aching. Another runner skipped passed. I had about 9km to go when I met Sinead, who was out to support me and support every single runner in one of her favourite races of the year. I mean every runner knew her by the finish. I indicated as I passed that things were not too rosy and she said later that I was looking a wee bit rough at that point!
The trail carried on for 4km and then a 3.5km section on the road would lead to the finish. Another runner passed me as I hit the road and I began my shuffle home, gradually feeling a little better as I had stopped for a mini puke before I left the trail. The first time in 10 years racing that I got sick during a race. I don’t blame Tailwind, I blame bad race fueling. Even with experience we make mistakes and learn from them.
The run home was kinda fun, stopping at the aid stations along the road to throw water over myself and laughed with the volunteers saying that my stabilisers had come off around 30km and now the wheels were wobbling. The walkers were making their way to the finish at this point so there was lots of banter and craic with them as I bounced along to the finish.
All in all the first 30km was solid, the last 12 was awful, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I think I gave my body too much to do with too much fuel and then I overheated as a reaction. That’s my excuse anyhow. All in all a good top 10 finish in a decent time for any trail or off road marathon and miles in the tank too. I recovered quickly and even that night and the next day felt fresher than I ever had after a marathon.
As I write this it is almost a month after this race and last weekend was the 127km Wicklow Way Race. Race report to follow very soon. Ah yes the YELLOW men are back. How would Wicklow treat me this time??!
At this stage most people that read about endurance distance racing have heard of ‘The Race’ in Donegal. My blog from two years ago gives a brief description of what it is like to take part. I still reckon that it is almost impossible to put into words what this race is really like. Some say spectacular, epic, gruelling, relentless, fun even, but for me it is no doubt Irelands toughest multisport race and this is how 2019 unfolded.
It all started at registration on Friday. It was a squally day with showers moving in fast from the west as I racked my bike in the car park near Rathmullan strand. This would be the starting point for the first cycle section after the kayak. I went for a short walk and had a coffee on the beach to stretch my legs. I had arrived up on Thursday. I decided that with The Race, the more rest in preparation the better and there would be no rushing. I literally had all day to register and to be honest I needed it. I will rewind a few weeks just for the background to training etc, but I’m not going to bore the hind legs off everyone, I promise.
So the two months before the race were made up of consistent but very short training sessions. I never got out on the road for more than 2.5hours and spent most trainings smashing out an hour on the turbo and maintaining fitness with plenty strength and mobility work. My running wasn’t great with a hip which had been giving issues but I still managed a few good trail and hill runs. I never ran more than 23km in the three months before this race, having finished the Dorset Ultra well on the 3rd of December, I decided that all the miles from 2018 would stand to me and at this stage over training would be my downfall. So it might come as a surprise to hear that after christmas I think about 9 hours was my peak weeks training. I was only a few weeks into a new job in the UK at the time and ended up coming back to Ireland at the beginning of March for another new job. All this piled in I knew I was in good shape but I also knew the mileage on the bike really wasn’t in the bag. You can never have it every way and now it was about turning up fit enough to be on the startline.
The bike racked in Rathmullan, check, registration complete in Garton at the startline, check, and boxes for transitions dropped off here too. Good stuff, now back to rest up and enjoy my last few hours before it all kicked off.
I woke up at 3am, ate some porridge, a pancake and a banana and Shaun gave me a lift to Garton for the start, which would kick off at 5am. Let the games begin!
I met my mum, Dee, and sisters Lisa and Linsey at the start. Fair play to them getting up at 4am to come see me off. The crowd gathered and the tension was real. I met Rachel Nolan and we went for a short jog. She could see the tension in the hall was getting to me a bit and reckoned a little jog would do us both good. We literally ran 100 metres and back to the startline. No point in doing a long warm up before a race of this multitude. So at 5am we were off, head torches dancing in the early morning as we set foot into the craziness of a race of 250km. The first leg would be a 23.5km run to Ramelton where we would head for the sea and out through Lough Swilly.
I decided to settle into my own rhythm and not hit the first run too hard, but at same time I knew the running was my strongest discipline so I wouldn’t be hanging around either. I ran at between 4.10 and 4.20 min/km and with the majority of the run on downhill or flat I remained comfortable throughout. The run winds its way along country roads, across the Leannon River and the Lurgy River, through Kilmacrenan village and as the light came into the day I sipped away on my tailwind and thought of my strategy for the day ahead.
Ah yes I had a plan this time! The last time I was here I had never taken part in an endurance event and really surprised myself in how well I did. This time I rocked up with a plan. My plan outlined was basically to knock out the first run in comfortable but fast pace, do a steady kayak and then try to get through the first hilly 96km without blowing up but in and around the 4 hours. From there I would hit my happy place on the mountain and this would catapult me around the next 65k on the bike before jumping off and running a marathon in less than 4 hours. Easy Peasy!!
I finished the run and transitioned onto the kayak in around 1 hour and 43 minutes, race results and splits at the bottom of the post, and turned the corner without breaking a paddle this year! The sun was just rising as I paddled out of Ramelton and the water was flat calm with a turning tide. There were kayak marshals all along the route and as the first relay team was already out of sight I had to pick my way from one kayak to the other most of the way in order to keep a good line. Thanks to all these kayakers and RIB safety crew for all their time on the water. Super support as well. I had a backrest, a nice light paddle and my buoyancy aid had a compartment for my bladder full of water and Tailwind. I sucked away on this for the entire paddle and felt pretty good throughout.
I think the paddle took a little under an hour and a half with a few minutes lost close to the pier in rathmullan as a tide race caught me off guard and I had to battle as if paddling upstream to get under the pier and into transition. I was passed and lost about 9 minutes on a guy in a suspiciously long sea kayak not far from Rathmullan and he would head out on the bike with a good lead leaving me in second place in transition. Two legs down and next up probably the hardest cycle leg in any race of this distance.
Part of my race plan was to be fast in and out of transition and I pulled this off well on the day. I managed to eat overnight oats and a banana before the bike and had a few bottles of tailwind and sweets for the journey ahead. Lisa, Linsey, Dee and Shaun were at transition and they gave me info on who was ahead etc, as I put on my helmet and ran out of transition. Most importantly, Shaun advised to take it handy and not go too hard on the bike, as tempting as it might be, it’s a bloody long race yet. The Race organisers put markers at every 5km, which is some feat in itself, but I can’t say I was admiring these too much over the next few hours.
As I spun my legs and got going I soon realised, only two or three climbs into the cycle that the first run had taken more than I expected out of my legs, where were my bike legs?, they just wouldn’t kick into gear. The hills came one after the other as I made my way out towards Fanad Head and Port Salon. The roads were wet after a few earlier showers and my hands and feet were cold. It was time to start digging deep. I would meet Shaun pulled in his van, every 15 minutes or so with words of encouragement and Lisa and the gang were driving in a separate car. They would come past, music pumping and beeping the horn. I would see them at every transition and the odd time in between as they made their way around the course. You can’t beat a friendly face when you are digging deep. I continued to battle the hilly course to Fanad Head and with a brief rest from the hills spun the legs out a little and soaked up the coastal views working my way towards Downings and a loop out and around another peninsula.
I was about 40km into the first cycle and at my lowest point really in this section before Downings. My legs were feeling heavy and I wasn’t able to climb like I usually am. A competitor passed me not far from here and he asked how far ahead the leader was. I reckoned he wasn’t much more than 5 minutes. This guy absolutely bombed on but I would later meet him in a bad way. He had pushed too hard too soon. As I rounded the loop from downings into Carrikhart another cyclist went by and I was now down to 4th place. I decided not to think about it and just concentrate on trying to recover my race. I wasn’t in a good place at all and the hills just kept on coming. Next up was the relentless long and steep climb up to the famous Lough Salt, a windy climb in the real wilds of Donegal. I started to climb a little better and decided if I reached the top without dismounting it would have to be a psychological boost. So I dug deeper and deeper and screamed at the sheep in the bog as I climbed. I saw the final climb to the top ahead and could see it was split in 5 by minor flat pieces. I would climb each little piece, inhale and climb some more. I reached the top and started to descend and something in me started to switch back to race mode. I can’t quite explain it but this was a turning point. Had I hopped off the bike, even though I probably could of saved time, I would of been beaten! The traits of a stubborn endurance athlete, or any athlete really!!
The next 20km before leg 4 on Muckish mountain were a little easier with only one really long drag in the few kilometres before the transition. The wind, sorry I forgot to mention the headwind which had been in our faces all day, was really strong as I passed Glenveagh National Park gates and made my way towards Muckish. I passed the guy who had raced passed me earlier on the climb towards the transition and came into transition in 3rd place and very happy to have that 96km under my belt. A quick change of shoes, a banana and a bar, stuffed all the food in my backpack, grabbed a bottle of Tailwind and I was away. I spotted Shaun’s Dad and his brother in law Ronan at this point. Both super guys and once again great to see the support. Shaun pointed up the mountain and said the lads were about 8 minutes ahead but that I could see them. I looked up and thought to myself. GAME ON!!
Muckish is class, well mountains are class. I hiked at below top speed, to conserve a little but I started to reel in the two lads and before the base of the steepest part of the ascent I was chatting to them. This was my terrain and I was gonna make it count. The mountain was in bad nick so it wasn’t easy to make time. I just hiked to the gravel track where it evens out a bit and the jogged bits to the top. I drank a can of coke I had grabbed in transition at this point as well. Evil evil stuff, but bloody amazing mid race! I began to open up the legs on the descent and open up a gap on 2nd and 3rd as well. They were both working hard and I knew this was only the start of a really hard sprint for the finish. Yes I know a 100km sprint, no bother!
Everyone always says that the least memorable stage is the next 65km on the bike. This is mainly due to fatigue and a less amazing coastline to admire. In saying this there are some nice parts, however, I had a serious goal in mind at this stage. I was in poll position and I wasn’t planning on letting it slip. As far as I’m aware it was Michael Flood that was on my tail, a serious biker and he as well as John Whoriskey, Danny McLaughlin and Matt Casey had all shown how they can run earlier in the race. Any mistake or bad luck on my behalf would most likely cost me the race at this point. I had to focus and make sure I did everything in my power to avoid any mistakes. The cycle went from Muckish to Falcarragh then Gweedore, and Crolly, before a nasty climb up some country roads and a descent to Dungloe before the final 10km towards Doochary. I was moving far better on the bike than earlier and any little niggles in my hamstrings seemed to be gone, for now at least. I threw on my jacket in one nasty shower but soon took it off again, sticking to just the tri suit and a light cycling jersey with arm warmers, as I had worn all day. No point in layering up, I wasn’t hanging about. Keep her lit, was all I heard as I cruised over the hill and descended into my final transition for the marathon.
In and out in about 2 minutes and now it was make or break. How would the legs react after another 2 hours 49 minutes on the bike. I was over 200km into the race and it was time to run a marathon, mostly on road I might add, not my thing really, but it was what it was. Lisa roared at me as she passed, that Michael flood was about 13 minutes back and moving well. I was struggling to get going and was running closer to 6 min/km over the first 6 or 7 k. Michael must of been around 2.5km behind and soon Shaun passed and said it looked like about 10 minutes and the gap was closing. There is a long drag at about 10k before what they call the Minor’s Pass. I had to get myself moving a bit more and it was now or never. I started the climb and really worked. I was pouring with sweat, both from nerves and working hard. I knew if I could climb well that the chances were this would be the difference. I got to the Minors pass and a long trail descent down to the lake began at this point. I just opened up the legs and let fly. I was running 4 min/km on downhill and smiling. I felt better and even strong on the downhill. I glanced to my left and a big herd of deer were roaming the hillside, the lake was flat as the wind had finally dropped a bit.
I scared a man and woman on the trail as I bounded past not far from the Castle on the shores of Lough Beagh. I ran through the castle grounds and another marshal was there to greet me. They seemed to be everywhere all day, many on their own, but in mighty spirits and encouraging all the way. I was tipping away at around 5 min/km on the flat sections and after the castle the trail turns right and up a long drag. I almost hiked in one or two sections of the steep trail but kept the hammer down as much as I could. As I turned one corner I came face to face, well almost, with a big red deer stag on the side of the trail. I could see the whites of his eyes and realised I was been greeted in Glenveagh National Park by one of the founding creatures. He was magnificent and in hindsight maybe an omen for me. It took a lot of willpower not to stop for a chat and a selfie!
I met the camera crew led by Paul Doherty as I topped out on the hill before descending towards the gates of the National Park. Shaun was at the gates and ran with me for a few minutes informing me that Michael was 16 minutes behind according to those at the Minors Pass and that I had it if I could maintain a steady pace. I was flying as I ran the descent out of the park and managed to keep a steady 5 min/km or less pace on the road as I started the last 10k of the run. This is a mostly flat section with a few nasty sharp hills to negotiate. I ran it all, shuffling up the hills, in quite a lot of pain, but managing to let the legs go and pick up speed on the descents. Funnily during this race my downhill running was nearly better than up, not normal for me! Who knows.
It was dark at this point and I had my Petzl headlight on. I had borrowed this and many words of wisdom from Sinead Keogh, who was caught up with work and couldn’t make The Race this year. She had told me how to race today and to be honest I had followed her plan almost exactly. I thought of her wisdom and lots of other things on this final 10km. I realised even though I was hurting that I could also soak this up a bit. I felt a load come off my shoulders as for the first time all day I knew I had a gap.
I thought of Emma and how proud she would be if I could pull of this final 10k without falling on my face, of all my family here to support and how they would get a kick out of it. My friends had supported me so well in the lead up to the race, telling me I had a great chance and I had the experience to do it. I would never of gained the confidence to pull it off without them. Most important on the day was Shaun Stewart as he had basically given up his day to follow the race and continually give me advice throughout. He had roared at me on a few occasions, “come on O Farrell, pick it up” and other nice things! !
So I passed the last set of marshals and began to climb a few mini hills over the last 2km of this epic event. A tiny part of me, and I mean tiny, wanted more but most of me wanted that finish line. This was my time and my chance to enjoy the sport I love. Not only was I about to finish but I was about to win the race. STOP those thoughts, Focus, Focus, Focus. I saw the light on the final direction sign, swung left and ran towards the line. I could hear the speakers call my name and as traditionally I do, I flashed my headlight on approach. See below what followed!
A nice added surprise at the finish line were my Aunt and Uncle, many people already know Greg for his fanatical approach to following the races. Thanks so much Greg and Deirdre, absolute legends.
Thanks to the organisers who helped me gain my bearings at the finish and who all day had put on an excellent show. The volunteers and the supporters are what makes this race. The scenery is second to none, the hills, well enough about the hills and the other competitors, well done to each and every one of you. Whether you finished or not, just taking on this event is a huge step. Be proud of it and don’t forget 2020 is another chance to let rip in Donegal.
I made it to Ireland and Foxford in Co. Mayo since my last post. Starting the new job, a lack of time and wifi has curtailed my blogging of late, but for the rest of the year I hope to get back in the groove! Another new start and one we hope will be a good one. The Race is only 12 days away and my training has been a mixed bag with little time and less mileage than originally planned. In saying that I am mostly injury free, have trained most days and all in all am looking forward to what is a super event and one to challenge anyone.
My new abode is set between the hills of the Ox mountains and the tallest stand alone mountain in Ireland of Nephin. I went for a brisk hike up and run down Nephin 2 weeks ago and no doubt with a big training year ahead it will be one for my vertically challenging plans!
Somy lack of bike miles, miles on the legs and little time in the mountains leaves me where exactly for the big day?!
A question I am finding it hard to get my head around but as always the only way forward is positivity. I look at the distances I raced in the last 2 years since I took on and raced The Race really well. At that time I had never ran further than 30km’s at once, I had never raced for anything like 15 hours on my own at once and I was coming off the back of an injury that meant I only really trained for 2 months pre race. So with this all in mind I should be, even though untrained to an extent in the last few months, in a better place, certainly mentally than two years ago. That is what I am telling myself and I will also use this event as a slingshot for the year ahead where all roads lead back to Chamonix and the 145km in the Alps of the TDS. That is my ultimate 2019 goal and everything else race and training wise in 2019 is linked to the TDS.
So have I answered the above question? Possibly not perfectly, but my mindset will be good, i’ve learnt a lot in two years, and I hope the weather will be kind. It has been one storm after the next the last week here and in March this kind of weather is hard to shake in Ireland. Fingers and toes crossed there folks as the weather can be the difference in this one!
2019 has gotten off to a pretty hectic start. I have been up and down to Dorset with work and in the last week I have been offered a new post back in Ireland with Inland Fisheries Ireland in Ballina. This means another pack up and I move back to Ireland next Thursday. This has all been unexpected but in the long run I hope the right decision!
‘The Race‘, is just around the corner and I’ve been all over the place with training. I haven’t managed the mileage at all and am battling a sore hip again, this time the bike causing the issue. Another bike fit may be needed. I must be growing!!
I know my blogging has been abysmal of late and apologies for this. Especially to those at Tailwind and Uglowsport that I wish to plug more in 2019. I have managed a few cycles around the 60km mark and some runs at weekends, but all in all it has been a one or two hour smash and grab in the gym between work, sleep and travel. It is important when tired and stressed over life not to overtrain and I think at this point it is more important to me to make the start line of The Race, than make it overtrained or injured. I know I have the endurance and my fitness is good. I may not have the miles, especially on the bike but I will dig deep on the day.
I ran in all sorts of conditions in my training of late with snow, ice, rain and even sunshine and 13 degrees last weekend. All good prep for the next event, even if I only managed short sessions.
So with 34 days to go to The Race, I realise I have to move countries, start a new job and somehow keep up a decent level of fitness in between. This said I will ramp up my miles on the trails in the next three weeks and do some hard bike sessions as well. A lot can be achieved in three weeks if you put your mind to it.
All this said The Race is just a starter and a body check for 2019. Once I sit down post race I will weigh up my options for 2019 back in Ireland. I am really looking forward to meeting all the other participants before the event, some first timers and others returning like myself. There are some like Andrew Wallace and Couch to 250km that have put massive effort into the event both in their training and for charities. Ye will smash it no doubt.
It wasn’t until I started to look back at my blog that I realised how busy a year it was in 2018. I raced in adventure races and ultras, did an incredible amount in training and managed to move countries, find a new job and move house three times, ending up living in my camper in Dorset in the South of England. It was one of the busiest years of my life, even though I only worked 5 months of the year!
The year started with a lovely camper trip around a few parts of Ireland and between hill runs and dips in freezing water we started the year in style. Little did I know the mileage the van would do in 2018 as well as the mileage my own legs would end up covering. I won’t go into the stats in a big way but I ran 5 Ultras from 50km to 100km, 3 marathons and an adventure race. My average training for the year was 10 hours a week both on the bike and running, with running winning out by a massive margin this year.
My first ultra of the year in Donadea, a flat but fast 50km on the forset trail, finishing in 3 hours and 50 minutes. I was happy with my first ever looped and predominantly flat ultra. This was a great leveller and a super way to see where I was fitness wise after the winter. My plan in 2018 was to try to enjoy every race and training and smile whenever I had the energy on those trails. I think my photos tell their own story.
The lads after Gaelforce Dublin. My first time doing this race and it was the week after Donadea. Maybe not the greatest race planning but I was happy with 4th place and again a good fitness session. I was starting to ramp things up.
The Maurice mullins 51km ultra over the Wicklow hills was a super out and back race. The weather was really kind on the day and I finished a very respectable 7th overall. I paced myself well throughout and used this as a training race. It was good to train in race scenarios and get used to my normal pace over these massive distances.
The first of 2 huge races this year was the Transvulcania Ultra, an absolutely epic race,. It was technical under foot, hot, with relentless climbs and a mixed bag of weather to put you in the pain cave. We had rain, wind and baking heat over the course of a 9 hour and 50 minute race where I hit the wall 5 km from home only to pick myself up, just in time to knock back a beer on the home straight thanks to some supporters. I finished well inside the top 100 in my first really big international ultra. The highs and lows of ultrarunning really came to the fore in this race.
From La Palma and the heat to the Exmoor trail marathon and my first podium of 2018. I cruised around this course and felt really good throughout finishing third in 4 hours and 1 minute. A very respectable marathon time with 2500 metres of ascent in the race.
In July it was back to Snowdonia for the marathon and another tough day. It might of been a little reminder that I needed to take things easy with the CCC around the corner. I suffered at times during this tough marathon over some really hard terrain. I managed to knock 2 minutes off my 2017 time but realised my body was in need of rest if I was to give the CCC a decent effort in just over a months time. A great holiday in Sweden in early August really helped get the body ready for what lay ahead.
Smiling at 55km into the CCC, the most amazing race of the year. I had highs and lows but the good times were certainly worth the wait. I will never forget running into Chamonix with Emma by my side on the camera and my folks at the finish line. Without Emma, my family, and friends such as Sinead Keogh, the race would of been much harder and lonelier and from there you don’t know how things will go. My finishing time of 16.01 was good enough for top 100 men in the race and really an incredible placing out of 1600 runners. I managed to make up close to 40 positions in the second half of the race. What a day and night it was.
Back to Ireland in the Autumn for a cross country and running with Castlegar is always a proud moment. We managed county medals again and every chance I get I like to run with the club. A PB of 17.10 in the 5km and a good 36.40 in a 10km were other highlights. Nice to keep up some speed considering I don’t train on the road often or do enough interval training .
To finish the monster of a year of ultra running a 10th place finish in the Dorset Ultra plus was a super result, one hampered by an extra 30 minutes on the trail with a wrong turn, but then maybe after a year with such mileage and effort on the trail this was inevitable! Mistakes happen both with tiredness and complacency. I finished this ultra really strong averaging 4 to 5 minutes per kilometre over the last 20km. Thanks to Adam Gamble for making it a super way to finish the year.
2019 looks interesting with a massive result in the UTMB draw this week. I was pulled from the hat for the TDS and will take on the new mammoth 145km course on the 28th of August all going well. Between that and the Lavaredo Ultra 125km, on the 28th of June, I will plan my year.
I am lucky enough to be a Trailblazer for 2019 with Tailwind nutrition and you will see me promote them even more this year. Without Tailwind the likes of the CCC would of been trickier both logistically and from a nutritional direction.
I will also spend 2019 as an ambassador for Uglowsport and look forward to trying out their gear during the year. I apologise in advance for the constant tagging of both them and Tailwind in all posts!
The return to the Jurassic coast for the second outing in the Dorset Endurance Life Ultra race would be a different experience to last year. We knew this before the race even started, with a wet week and a very wet day forecast, this was going to be one of those outings. I knew that I have always been good racing in the rain, not suffering from the cold and actually I think I enjoy it more than most. I decided pre race that I would once again have a reasonably relaxed week in the lead up to the event and on the day a top 10 finish or even a push for the podium would be possible. Myself and Emma travelled down and met the Irish gang in Dorset. Nine of us would race from 10k to 74k races the following morning and an air of excitement as well as some nerves was evident as we sat around for a cuppa on Friday night.
I woke up around 6am Saturday and as forecasted the weather was horrendous. Wind and rain battered the house as we cooked the scrambled eggs. Bring it on!!
Myself, Sinead, Owen and Pol, all part of the Chamonix gang from August would give the ultraplus a rattle, with Emma, Noreen and Paschal ripping up the half marathon, Aoife giving the marathon a rattle and Sharon would run the 10km in a pair of walking boots. All serious feats in different ways. The main thing I hoped was that everyone would have fun and cross the line in one piece. It was going to be slippy and treacherous out there.
After registration the race would kick off some time just after 8. We huddled behind a tent and almost missed the start as they moved it from last year’s location to near the registration tent. Of course in our relaxed state we were almost late on the morning and missed almost all the race briefing. We did get the idea in passing that the course would be altered due to the conditions. Not what I wanted to hear. It actually turned out that it was altered in a huge way and led to a very different race that expected. More of this later.
We were off. I have to say I had looked forward to this race ever since the CCC and with my training going well I expected I could perform and dig deep for a decent time. I decided to bunker in somewhere in the top 20 and take on the first few climbs with a cool head, stay out of the red for as long as possible and feel my way into the race. This is becoming a theme in my ultra running! Only 5km into the race I began to realise that the course alterations were massive. We took on two early climbs but then the trail led to farmers fields, mud and puddles and worst of all, FLAT. I had basically spent the entire last two months doing hill repeats for these short sharp hills. Now I would have to run at least 55km’s of this 75km race on almost flat ground. A completely different turnover of the legs, a different style of running and not to mention the conditions underfoot. One thought came into my head, ‘forget it, you are here now, you are strong and racing’. I soon found myself running with a guy of very similar speed and we started up some great conversations. Adam Gamble was his name and a super runner he was. It turned out we ended up running the entire race together. Adam, like myself had expected more hills, he was a 17 minute 5k runner and around 36 minute 10k runner, had completed the CCC and had plenty notches in his ultra running belt. All similar levels to myself so we decided to work with each other, encouraging the other when things were low and see how the day went.
At around 15km the lead ladies in the ultra caught us. They were doing the 55km course and were motoring. Becky and Bonnie were there names and Becky would stay with myself and Adam for a good chunk of the race. Both of them bit by bit catching my accent and wondering if they would go home sounding a bit Irish!
We completed the first 20km in about 2 hours and realised we would do that loop later on as well as half of it again to finish the race. That was after tackling which looked like a much hillier 24km ahead. We descended into Lulworth, grabbed some water, filled bottles with Tailwind and away we went to start the next section. This 24km was much hillier, following a decent amount of the course from 2017. WE skipped the beach section and one section of the coastal path but would run a few of the big hills on the coast as well. I was dying for hills at this stage and it wasn’t until nearly 25km that we started to hit a few. Of course I felt myself here and powered up the hills, barely breaking a sweat on one or two of them. Adam and Becky were going well too and we started to get a nice pace between the three of us. We descended one of the final hills and took a left away from the coast and across some farmers fields. The mud was relentless. Sticky mud, caking to the bottom of your runners, making your feet as heavy as led but we continued to have fun and a good laugh in seeing who could gather the most mud on their runners! The ploughed field went on and on and up a nice incline before we hit a ridge trail and took a left to start the 10km or so back to Lulworth, most of which was on the cliff ridges with one long climb on the road mixed in. This is where it all went PEAR shaped!
As the 3 of us followed the markers along the ridge, joining the trail we had come up on we realised the trail was following the fence. This would be our downfall. We kept going and began to meet lots of the ultra plus, ultra, marathon and half marathon runners coming in the opposite direction. We hopped a stile and began to descend a long descent that we had come up earlier on. As I ran I was delighted to see Owen and Sinead and flew by as they said, ‘you sure your not gone wrong’. In my haste I thought they were joking and we continued to run. Almost at the bottom of the hill now and I started to wonder and look around, looking for arrow markers. We decided we had gone wrong. I let out an incredible amount of disgust, at myself, in the most gracious of language before gathering my thoughts a little. We could descend to the bottom of the hill and try rejoin the trail inland but we felt we should do the course properly and go back to find where we went wrong. After ascending the hill we eventually found the point where we went off route. There was a gate 30 metres to the right of the trail and an arrow further back on the trail we had missed due to following the fence. There was no X on the stile we had hopped and therefore we had kept on going. Definitely our own fault but the arrows on the course were poor and I have better proof of this a little later.
As you can see from the photo the conditions didn’t help our chances of seeing the small signs, no excuse for going wrong, but at the same time the strong winds led to moments where we all dropped the heads. The rain had eased at this stage and as you can see I had my jacket off and was enjoying the cooling effect that had.
So after rejoining the actual route we knew that for Becky her chance of top 3 ladies in the ultra was probably over and we knew that myself and Adam had been very much pushing the top 5 if not already in the top 5 before things went arie. As you can see from the next photo, we continued to have fun, this taken only 10 minutes after we rejoined the trail. We had met a group of little kids along the trail and all high fived us. Some of them so tiny we barely reached down to high five as we passed.
This photo was taken on the final climb before a roughly 6 kilometre run back to Lulworth. A quick refuel, grab some dry buffs from the drop bag and on we went. Becky was just ahead and stayed there until she turned for home on the ultra as myself and Adam continued to slide our way back around the 20km section of mostly flat but undulating course. The trails were now very wet and the mud was slippier and thicker than before with hundreds of athletes running in the different events all day. Both myself and Adam hit lows during this 20km, but as promised earlier on we talked each other through these lows. How incredible is a sport where you can meet someone for the first time and end up helping them through hard times and making a friendship all in an 8 hour period.
There was little to report on this section as we were a bit slow on the way out to the 10km turning point. It took us close to an hour and a half and the following 10k around an hour. This was of course still good running with 60km in the legs, including our 4.5km detour earlier on! The second 10km was particularly fast in parts (helped by my religious can of coke on ultra race day!) and we began to feel really strong again. During this particular section of the race there is a trail through the forest. At one point you come to a T junction and turn right. The sign here was telling us to turn left and head to the beach. I touched the sign and it spun around. The staples had come loose and a person or the wind had hit the sign. This just goes to show how easy it is to go wrong when you rely on course markers. I am not blaming the organisers as in these races the conditions/weather are the biggest issue and they did have to change the course at the last minute as well. My biggest worry in the long term is that these races lose popularity due to cutting corners on food, medals, tshirts and the likes. A lot of people come to enjoy the finish line banter, the soup or cake, together in celebration. There was little of this to be seen in Lulworth I’m afraid (rant over, now back to the race).
We arrived back to Lulworth for the penultimate time at about 3.45pm and decided we would really try to smash out the last 10km. Back up the steep hill out of the cove for the last time we went, knowing the route like the back of our hands at this stage. We really began to move. The ground seemed to be drying in the wind and the mud began to harden a little. Let’s finish this in style. My legs started to come back to life and I was flying the downhill sections again.
An hour later we were descending once again to the finish line. We crossed the line in unison and let a couple of goat like roars out while doing so! Emma was there, having finished the half and as always it was amazing to see her. That incredible finish line moment is always worth it, even if there was very little to see or do at this particular finish line. A protein bar and a photo and we were sent on our way.
On crossing the line we had no idea where we were placed. The computer print out soon saw us in 10th and 11th place, on the same time of course, but we were delighted. We added 30 minutes to the course with our route but still managed a top 10 time in 8 hours and 53 minutes. Taking our mistake out of the equation, we were very much in the mix for top 5. This was definitely a good example of a type of teamwork. It would of been a really really long day on this course alone. The views were limited to gaps in the mist and the ground was poor underfoot. The banter and craic made the day fun and I thank both Adam and Becky for this. Becky ended up fourth lady which was super considering the detour.
Lastly well done to the gang, everyone giving it their all on a day to remember. I’ll probably be back next year! Why not, I now work just up the road.
Thanks again to Tailwind for their amazing fuel for the day and here are the results.
I recently travelled back to Ireland in ‘The Mueller’ for a few days and between this and a few weeks of constant interviewing and job applications, I haven’t mustered up the time to blog. This said, my training has been reasonably good in the lead up to Dorset UltraPlus, next Saturday week!
I spent time doing hill repeats around the Bristol trails and we spent a weekend trail running in the South of Wales along the coastal path in Gower. Another fabulous UK running destination. A 50km running weekend in Gower was the highlight of the past few weeks with some nice photos to tell the story.
So my training ramped up in the few busy weeks and I found myself a good job, starting in December, but more on this later.
I decided to really mix things up over the last few months. After a race like the CCC we have no idea how the body will react. Rest, good food and rehab seemed to bring me back pretty quickly and I decided to keep 2018 rolling. I don’t really believe in long breaks from training. We all need a week or a few weeks sometimes but as I said before, winter is for becoming stronger and focusing for the year ahead.
A cross country race, a 10k on the road, long hilly trail runs (a few up to 30km), hill repeat after hill repeat and then some turbo sessions thrown in the mix, kept me busy of late. With all this in the bag I am feeling good in preparation for Dorset. I was a little down on both my 10 kilometre and cross country times, but I put this down to maybe some season fatigue as well as holding back just a little for the bigger race. The only issue here is that in the past, when feeling good, I have been less successful. Therefore, I have decided to take Dorset in my stride, enjoy it as I did last year and hopefully make the finish of what is a gruelling 74 kilometres of hilly coastal trails. Sure if there is a podium place up for grabs I might give it a go as well! The massive boost this year is that a huge group are travelling from Ireland, pretty much all on the word from us second timers that this race is amazing! Fingers crossed for the weather.
I had some training plans for the last 12 weeks since the CCC all ready for off. As per usual I veered away pretty quickly from these as life wasn’t playing ball. So instead I trained when I could and I have logged everything in a spreadsheet which will be produced after Dorset. I will be able to explain whether it worked or not at this stage. The lack of mileage, increase in hill work and variety of training will confuse many, but it is my way of keeping things interesting. I have been using Tailwind in most of my training session, keeping the body used to a regular racing fuel. Lets hope it continues to serve me well. Check out Shaun Stewart’s seasonal report here on his amazing year and how Tailwind helped him in the final burst to the finish. My fond memories of Sea to Summit came flooding back as I watched the footage of him crossing the line in 1st place. The end of what was a phenomenal year. Lets hope I get to race with and against Shaun in 2019. Exciting times ahead.
Both myself and Shaun were lucky enough to recently get involved with Uglowsports as Ambassadors for 2019. Plenty to follow on this but for now check out their site here. There is something here for everyone running for the winter. Hopefully I will be kitted out by Uglowsport for races in 2019.
There are times in your life that you realise how much we all change as life goes on. Only two years ago I swore I would never do a marathon and that adventure racing was the only thing for me. Now here I was, standing on the start line of one of the most iconic ultramarathons on the planet, The CCC, (Courmayeur- Champex lac- Chamonix), Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, only a few rows back from the pros and the thoughts running through my head were incredible. This would be my 4th ultra of the year as well as two trail marathons on top of that. The most important thing I was telling myself was to ease into it, remember all my experience and enjoy the day.
The best thing about this race was the fact that I would have crew support in the latter stages and I had the chance to race with fantastic runners, like Owen above. Such a gentleman and all round just loves the sport. He is fully fanatical and it helps so much bouncing things off other runners before the race starts. Emma would be my tent crew and Sinead and Kieron would be the word in my ear as I entered and left. Little did I know how important a crew really is. I have heard all these mushy stories about how a familiar face can really pull you through the hard times in Ultras. Being honest I thought it might help but never as much as it actually turned out. My parents would be at the finish line and there was no way I was going to leave them hanging out there all night!
For anyone that has 5 minutes and less time to read my report there is a video summarising my day if you scroll to the bottom of the post, or a link here.
The UTMB race series is the biggest trail running event in the world. Over 10,000 athletes arrive with another 20,000 supporters and crew to the little alpine town of Chamonix for a week of running, good food and fun. Myself and Emma arrived on Tuesday night, I spent Wednesday crewing for Shaun Stewart as he completed the TDS, a mere 123km and over 7000 metres of ascent. Thursday was spent in Chamonix, registration along with 2147 other athletes and some time eating and chilling before an early night in preparation for the race Friday. Before I launch into the race report I want to mention something that was said to me by a few supporters and non runners. They said that no matter what you tell people, there are no words to explain what these races are really like, what they do to the competitors and what the feeling of finishing is like. You have to see the race or experience it to really get the idea. I will try to put in words what my day was like on the 31st of August 2018.
We hopped on the first bus at 6am to arrive in Courmayeur Switzerland at 6.45am. The race wouldn’t start until 9 but being my first time I had decided to air on the side of caution for everything. The morning was calm, about 12 degrees and dry. The mountains loomed on every side of this beautiful alpine town and the buzz was gradually building. What better time for a quick nap!
I have to say I was pretty relaxed, excited and the body was feeling very much like a run. I hadn’t ran all week, bloody crazy I know, but you can’t beat the feeling of hunger to run before an event.
The mandatory kit, water and some food added up to almost 3kg on my back and I kept my phone and Black Diamond carbon poles on my Arch max belt around my waist. I would run in shorts and socks with Salomon S-lab ultra runners and a cycling jersey on top with my foldable mug/bowl tucked in the pocket. It was a “no plastic bottle” race so we had to carry a cup/bowl for the aid stations. A super idea in my book.
It was 8am, a last queue for the bathroom and on to the start line. I soon noticed that I would be in the first wave/pen alongside the elites and the pros. I hadn’t expected it to be easy to try and start in the top 300 but it turned out I was standing somewhere in the 200-300 group as we lined up (This is decided by your ITRA points from qualification races. Basically to do with where you finished in these races, therefore it tends to be accurate in terms of where you stand). The crowd gathered quickly and the anthems of Switzerland, France and Italy were played around 8.40 as the tension really started to build. The race of course passing through all three countries over the route. To give you an idea of how much it means to people and their families, there were numerous people crying and the emotions were running very high. It may of taken years of preparation or be a life goal for many to stand here on this line. The level of athlete was clearly high with streamlined people all around me, buzzing to get on the move. TV helicopters and drones hovered above as an Irish guy gave the introduction to the race. Weird to here an Irish accent announcing the race here in the middle of the Alps. Before I knew it the count down was on and the gun went off. This was really happening and now all I had to do was put one foot on front of the other for somewhere between 14 and 27 hours. No problemo!
Goals, times, places and pretty much all that side of things quickly went out of my head as I decided to race the first half of the race steadily, not go into the red at any stage in this period and hopefully be in a position to improve on my placing as the race progressed. Whether this would unfold or not was a mystery.
From the outset my nutritional plan was to stay away from gels, eat and drink almost only Tailwind and hopefully be hungry enough in aid stations later in the race, to eat some real food. The Tailwind has been tested for nearly two years now and I have to say it is the best thing I have ever found. From the off I sipped away on my bottles, drinking lots, ingesting the Tailwind in my water and therefore taking in calaries (200 per sachet) as well as lots of electrolytes.
The first 10km of the race are basically uphill with a few little runnable narrow trails. From the start we wound are way around the streets of Courmayeur and up along a winding road before stepping onto the single trail in a conga line of runners. The crowds along the road in Courmayeur and pretty much in every town all day were incredible. As we arrived at the single trail, I quickly took out my poles and would use them for every climb all day. We gradually climbed from 1000 metres all the way to 2500 metres, fast hiking the uphills and jogging the downhills and flats. If I felt an increase in heart rate, which I generally didn’t, I would ease off a little. I didn’t wear my heart rate monitor as it is only another distraction and also drains the battery on my watch a bit faster. Listen to your body is the name of the game. Up and up and up we went, above the treeline, checking out the town of Courmayeur below, now in the distance. This was amazing. As we started the final 500 metres of the climb, the live camera helicopter hovered over us throwing dust all over the mountainside and creating an amazing atmosphere. I felt really comfortable on the climb and after about two hours I was on the top of Tete de la Tronche and through the first marker. From here we descended on a really runnable open trail all the way to Refuge Bertone at the 15km mark. The downhill was class and easy but I did hold back as I didn’t want to burn the legs too early. What I didn’t realise was that this was one of a few really nice descents and that the majority of descents later in the race were steeper and far more technical. I stopped in Bertone for some nice orange slices, some watermelon, a baby snickers and topped up all my water with Tailwind. Goal one over, now lets go find the next checkpoint!
The next 7 km was all along nice rolling terrain, technical in parts but I ran most of it and the field was starting to spread out into little groups. I could see I was generally in the same group that I had started in and took comfort from this. The views as we arrived at Refuge Bonati were spectacular with a vast line of massive steep mountains to the left of the trail on the other side of a valley below. Unfortunately my go pro camera was acting up a bit at this stage and I could only take videos. These are in the clip below. The trail was still very open and nice to run at this point. Small climbs meant slowing down and hiking and then rolling off the top of them and onto the winding trails again. I topped up on water in Bonati and realised the next stop was at Arnouvaz at the bottom of the valley. This would involve a big descent. I was half way down when I went to suck some water and found that one of my soft flasks was gone. Would I be running another 75km with only one water bottle. Slight panic set in for about a minute until I calmed myself and told myself that I could drink more at the checkpoints and then fill up in streams when needed. All would be fine. I cruised down to Arnouvaz at 27km and felt I was doing ok. I came across a big heard of alpine cattle on the trail and took a slight detour around them, not knowing how pleased they were with all these mad people carrying poles on their territory. I had just had my first pee and realised I would need to keep topping up on water and drinking as much as I could. Running at over 2000 metres for the first time ever with climbs like these was causing me to lose fluids the instant I consumed them. The really interesting thing was that when I drank, within minutes I was pouring sweat again. Logical you would think, but it made me decide that I wanted to be sweating all day. If I was sweating I was hydrated, if not I was running out of fluids. Simple but I’ve seen it go wrong before! Just before arriving at the checkpoint I spotted a soft flask on the side of the trail. Karma you might say but I was back to two bottles, nice one!
After Arnouvaz I ran along the river and at a crossing there were dozens of kids out cheering us on. As I approached the far side of the river, beside the kids, the guy on front of me fell and I landed on his back on the ground. Hilarious for the kids. I picked him up and on we went. It just goes to show how easily a fall could end your race. It wasn’t long before the second big climb of the day. I locked into gear and started to fast hike as best I could. It turned out that my hiking uphill was really steady and would continue this way all day. I felt strong, as I was holding back a bit on uphills. All the hill repeat training was paying off. The top of this second climb, called Grand Col Ferret at around 2500 metres is on the border of Italy and Switzerland. After about 2200 metres the weather had changed and I had thrown the jacket on. The mist made it a little cold and my hands were cold on the poles so I grabbed my gloves. I passed a good few people on this climb, enjoying it a lot. It was after summitting Col Ferret and starting the decent towards La Fouly that I started to feel the downhill legs burning (mostly my quads). The descent was full of switch backs, running on hard mud and then much more technical towards the bottom. I passed through a scanning checkpoint half way down and from this point on the trail got steeper and it started to takes it’s toll. Towards the bottom of this descent of about 11km I came across a gravel fire road and then onto a paved road, running in a group, but this group soon left me behind. I was slowing on the road (as usual), the downhill on pavement beginning to hurt the legs. I let the group go, knowing I would see the majority of them again and there was no point burning too hard just now. The rain was now pouring down but with my Salomon jacket I was comfortable. La Fouly, at the end of the first marathon of the day, was busy. Some people were changing clothes but I decided it was only 17km until my first assistance checkpoint at Champex lac and if I kept moving I would be warm enough. We were also descending a lot over that 17km with one climb up to Champex so I didn’t expect to be cold in this section. It was like a soft Irish day after all, nothing out of the ordinary. I had a drink of coke, some oranges, another snickers and filled my bottles. My thoughts were, don’t stop when you feel a bit low, get going and run it off.
The marathon had taken me almost 6 hours but on this terrain that was ok and it also meant I was bang on where I wanted to be. I had no idea at the time but I was around 204th position overall. I had decided pretty early in the race, on seeing the type of climbing and the terrain involved that today was about finishing, maintaining as good a pace as my body would let and learning for the future. After that everything was a bonus. From La Fouly to Champex was a long downhill slog. My old pain behind my left knee, floating down my leg, almost into the top of my calf muscle was flaring up. I stopped to stretch it out a bit, do some leg swings and on I went, descending down on paved roads, fire roads and then more paved road through tiny little farm villages. I began to lose some places but then picked up a few as well. As I ran a fellow Irish runner, passed me. I picked up the pace to say hello. Stephen told me he was from Dublin but leaving in Hong Kong for years. Another runner travelling a long way for this race! After about 12km of downhill I could see Champex up on the hill and realised that a 500 metre climb would bring me to food and the company of my crew. Bring it on.
I was delighted to see Sinead and Kieron outside and Sinead told me she would see me at the exit again. I entered the tent and Emma was there with all my kit ready. It was great to see her and she informed me I was looking fresh and in great shape compared to others that were passing through. I ate a small bowl of meat and pasta, a bar and some sweets for dessert and drank some water. I changed my wet top and the dry t-shirt felt great. A few minutes later I emerged from the tent, a new man. It had been a fairly low 17km before Champex. I gained 8 places in leaving the checkpoint in good time. I ran along the amazing lake beside Champex and Sinead kept me company. She told me ” your race starts here, this is when you come into your own, you have it in the legs and we will see you again in 18km”. These words were hard to believe as I really wasn’t sure I had it in me like that, but I took them in and decided if Sinead, an accomplished runner, had this faith in me, it must be true. Right, let the race begin!!
After a kilometre or two on the road I was back on the trail and it wound its way along for a good few kilometres, some of this on a fire road before the next 1000 metre climb started. I was in the middle of a few strong climbers and I decided to stick with them. I could see two of the guys were particularily strong and I called this right as the three of us soon dropped another three as we ascended. Relentless is a handy word for this climb. It was incredibly steep and technical. The inside of my elbows started to cramp but soon stopped. All the work my arms were doing was new to them. I had told myself that once at the top I had more than half the days climbing in the bag and almost 4 Carrauntoohils (Irelands highest peak). Only two more of those to go until the finish. This climb and the next few were all in the forest. The summits were just above the tree line at around 2000 metres. I climbed watching the altitude rise on my watch. I was counting it down 100 metres at a time, still feeling strong on the up and hoping the downhill leg pain might ease with the break.
At La Giete, the top of the climb, I had gained 11 places, not that I really knew this, but I did know I was moving well on these climbs. I was drinking a huge amount, with Tailwind, and stopped to top up both bottles. The volunteers here were dancing around to music and having fun. They had been amazing at every stop all day and this was a lift to people. They told us there was a 5 km descent over 600 metres to Trient. My next chance to see Emma, change, eat and get ready for darkness.
My leg was fine on the descent until the last 200 metres on the fire road. The light was fading but I knew I was timing it nicely before it died completely. I arrived in Trient, filling my water up on the way in with Sinead running alongside me. She was told to head into the spectator tent, which she did by jumping over a barrier at the last second. Nicely done Sinead! Emma was set up and ready in the tent and I told her I was feeling well and felt I had smashed that last section. She got me some tea with sugar, hot soup with rice and I changed into my thermal top and headlight for the night ahead. I ran out of Trient as the light was starting to fade. A long straight path followed and then into a 700 metre climb, similar to the last one, awaited. It took me about an hour and ten minutes to reach the top and I was passing people constantly throughout. Almost 5000 metres climbing under the belt, I arrived at Tseppes at 8.40pm, 11 hours and 40 minutes of racing under the belt and 76km. I started to realise that I only had just over a half marathon left and my second marathon was almost complete. Who would of thought the second one was almost more comfortable than the first. You may be thinking I’m making this sound kinda easy, but that is what we do when we are going well. The reality was that I was just about staying out of the red and had to push harder and harder on the climbs to keep pace, before concentrating on the descents. It was taking it’s toll and I was really feeling the brunt of all the downhill. 7km of downhill followed from Tseppes to Vallorcine. My leg was now screaming, but just about manageable. I wasn’t able to descend fast but I could run most of it which felt good. Lots of zig zagging, running under bridges and along footpaths followed before Sinead met me at the entrance to the checkpoint at Vallorcine. My headlight had been poor since I switched it on near the top of the climb and my plan was to switch to my other headlight before leaving on my final push to the finish. Emma was waiting and explained that they had barely made it on time to meet me. I had expected this as they explained it might be the case. The fact that they had made it was a big boost and made things alot less stressful for me. Once again being fed and watered, as we say in Ireland, helped a great deal, not to mention the fact that I only had 18km to the finish line in Chamonix!
I left Vallorcine and switched on my headlight to be delighted with my new found light. The previous descent had been so tough, not only with pain in leg but with the technical trail that I could barely see. I was psyched up now, the finish line in sight. The trail wound up a gradual slope on a farm road from Vallorcine, onto a long stretch of main road and then on crossing the road I started the climb from Tre Le Champ to La Flegere. Of course having not studied the course in detail I was unaware that this was split into two big climbs. The climbs were extremely steep, the first going up to about 1700, descending to 1400 and then back up to 1950metres. Mighty craic when your legs have very little left. The really fun part here was the descent after the first climb. It was actually a detour last minute as a climber was killed in a rockfall here a few weeks ago. This descent was incredible tough, jumping over boulders and massive roots, loose rock and the odd trail runner slowing to a stop! I spotted some lights just off the trail at this point and realised a huge group of hikers were lying under a massive rockface in their sleeping bags. The second climb ended up following a ski field all the way up to La Flegere. It was midnight and the stars were out. My whole body wanted to stop and have a rest but I knew I just needed to throw myself 900 metres and 8km’s down the mountain to Chamonix. I had been semi-hallucinating for the last hour with my headlight making the grass move and things were a little weird to look at at times but with a cup of tea and a swig of coke I was off again. A lady passed me in the tent and literally sprinted down the mountain on front of me. Incredible!
With 6082 metres of climbing under your belt you would think a little 8km to a finish line would be a piece of cake. Well, not so much. Pretty much every step hurt like hell. I was ok on the winding trails but the steep fire road sections were pure pain. I was, however, still running. The trail passed through a restaurant, literally through the outdoor seating area, closed at 12.30am of course and on down the mountain I went. I finally came to the town and bridge number one of two crossings of the road and river. Climbing up those steps was something else this close to home. I fell twice on the first bridge! These were my first slips in 100 kilometres, thankfully. I ran along the river, passing two and being passed by one before reaching the centre of town and there was Emma to run the final 500 metres home. The relief was amazing. I was almost there. Sinead and Kieron were out and following me, somehow scooting from the 500 metre to the 100 metre marks in seconds! I saw the line and lights and then my parents on the side. Holding back the emotions, really being too tired to cry I crossed the line 16 hours and one minute since leaving Courmayeur. I was in 163rd position making up 40 places in the second half. Holy crap that was pure madness, but one hell of an experience.
As I stood at the line all the last energy drained and I became weak and cold instantly. A shuffle home to bed was needed. I didn’t sleep as my body was completely beaten up as well as excited. I was able to make the finish again to see Owen arrive in the morning. A job well done.
It had worked, my pacing was a success, my training got me around and I felt as if I might even get better. It is such a fragile thing running 100km or really running anything further than a marathon. You really don’t know what is coming next. Bit by bit I am learning that experience is the key but you can never be over confident. The body will shut you up in a heart beat. The mind will continue to do somersaults.