It wasn’t until today (Tuesday) when I was looking at my Garmin records for the last few months that I realised just how rubbish my running has been since Christmas (and before Christmas I had eased off a bit and was planning on a mini running camp to get my push for Donadea back on track). I was honestly under the impression that I was running at least semi regularly but I was all over the shop – a long one here, a couple of short ones there, two days in a row one week, nothing the next week then a 36km run on the Saturday and 16km on the Sunday. So much for consistency eh? It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t fully grasp the bleakness of my fitness situation before I started on Saturday which brings me back, in a roundabout way, to the start line of the Donadea 50k. My usual running buddy Mark and myself lined up along with roughly two hundred others (our other Friday morning companion Paul couldn’t make it, bloody real life getting in the way of running) for what is definitely Ireland’s, if not Europe’s most popular 50k. Ten laps of just under 5k around Donadea Forest, and a little run up to the start line to make up the distance, lay ahead of us but I’ve never known a start line that had such a relaxed and friendly air. Very little apprehension, a slight smattering of nerves but friendly chat seemed to be the order of the day, at least back where we were anyway. Even the start was a very causal affair – people started running but no one seemed to know whether this was the actual start or whether we should start our watches. A minute or two later we were all streaming across the timing mats anyway so the race had definitely started now.
The first lap was really nice and easy. I planned on doing 28 minute laps, which would bring me in at 4’40”, but I’m not sure why I picked that time. It’s not like I was basing it off extensive preparation or dry runs, I think it was just because 4’40” sounded like a respectable enough time under the five hour cut-off and 28 minute laps made it easy to count them up. Regardless, with only a quick look at my watch at one stage of the lap to check my pace I clocked my first 5k in 28:00, absolutely perfect pacing, bang on schedule. Surely a good omen for the rest of the race.
Somewhere around the start of lap 2 I heard a shout from behind of “on your left” and shortly after that Gary O’Hanlon, the eventual winner and a young red haired guy (who I found out was pacing him) came flying by at a rate of knots. I didn’t even really think about the fact that I was getting lapped so early, I was just blown away by the speed they went past us at. It was some time before the guys in second, third, fourth place and so on came past and despite all of them being fantastic runners in their own right, and light years ahead of the likes of me, the difference between Gary O’Hanlon and them was marked. Just after they went past I got chatting to another runner, a guy called Jarlath who apparently was (a) local and (b) quite well known as we couldn’t run past a spectator without them giving him huge cheers, or the more usual Irish alternative of mild abuse. I ran with Jarlath and another couple of guys for most of laps 2, 3 and 4 and although I had an inkling the pace was a tiny bit too fast I was enjoying the company and rather than slogging round on my own, which I’d surely have enough of at later stages of the race.
Midway through lap 5 I can distinctly remember starting to feel a little tired, looking at my Garmin and seeing 22.49km on the clock and thinking “balls”. Almost all my confidence heading into this race was based on that one 36km training run I did where I felt great throughout. Now I wasn’t even at the halfway mark and I was beginning to feel more tired than I had at any stage on that run and I started to worry. This is what happens when your confidence is built on shoddy foundations, the slightest bump in the road and it all begins to crumble. Instantly my mindset changed from one of cheery blind optimism, just enjoying the day, enjoying the running to one of obstacles, endurance, distances and times. So much longer to go and I’m slowing down, tiring, I’m on my own now, where is everyone else? Am I miles behind everyone?
I had it in my head for some reason that lap 8, 35-40, was going to be the toughest, and looking back I think I made that a self fulfilling prophecy. Lap 6 I did in 30:17, so I was obviously still going OK, but the thoughts going through my mind at that point weren’t great. This is getting really tough, I’m slowing down so much, my legs feel so tired, I should really walk this bit. I was on my own and living in my head at that point, dragging myself down and giving in to every little moan. I dropped from a 30 minute lap to a 37:30 lap, in large part due to my mindset. You can’t physically deteriorate that much over five or so kilometres, as someone in a 100 Marathons Club vest had said to me about half an hour earlier “it’s all in the head at this stage”, and he was 100% correct. Unfortunately my head was not a great place to be at that point.
Lap 8 actually turned out to be a little bit better, but only because Don Hannon, the sweeper for the race suddenly appeared beside me in all his beardy, smiley glory. Now I was worried. I really wasn’t expecting to see the sweeper, the guy who was supposed to be enforcing the 40k/4 hour cut-off pop up alongside me so early. That meant though I had no option but to run, or at least shuffle. No more walk breaks or it would be no finish for me. Actually, how bad would that be? I could just drop back, slow down, get cut off, pulled from the race, then I wouldn’t have to carry on. “Sorry, it’s beyond my control, just didn’t make it you know”. Except I really didn’t fancy going home and saying to my sons I didn’t finish, that I just let it go because it got a bit hard. Family, friends, work colleagues, everyone knew I was doing this and I really didn’t want to have to repeat, over and over, “nope, didn’t do it, didn’t finish” and be reminded over and over again that yet again I hadn’t finished something I’d started. So I gritted my teeth, I pulled all sorts of faces, all the time whinging internally and feeling sorry for myself but held on to Don’s coat tails (figuratively speaking) until we at least made it to the finishing straight for that lap.
I trudged through the feed area to start lap nine, shoving whatever I could into my face, trying once again to substitute calories for miles in training and only succeeding in giving me stomach cramps and GI distress. Lap 9 was an absolute horror show. The pressure of making it through the 40k/4 hour cut-off was off now so I completely slacked off. Feeling thoroughly down and sorry for myself, I trudged around, walking as much if not more than running. I was lonely, tired, cold, sore and wondering once again why I was even doing this. I love running, it’s honestly changed my life for the better since I took it up a few years ago and I’ve had some of the most enjoyable times of those years out running, but here, now, on my own slogging along this cinder path I was wondering what the point of it all was.
At the start of the last lap nothing much had changed. My stomach still felt like crap, my legs felt like lead and my head was a hundred times worse than both of them combined. Benny (and Mags and Buzz) had come along to offer support and Benny started the last lap with me, asking me what I wanted from my feed bag. I really wasn’t in the mood for anything, and I definitely wasn’t in the mood to chat, but Benny walked alongside me, just yammering away, not looking for any response from me, just talking shite to keep my mind off things. He came with me for the first couple of kilometres, which was by far the hardest part of the lap, before turning off to head back to the finish line. At that point even I had had enough of my whinging and moaning and gave myself a bit of a talking to. Three kilometres to go, forty seven done, all I had to do was shuffle forwards, the quicker I got to the end the quicker this would be over with. Could I do three kilometres? Of course I bloody could. So that’s what I did for three kilometres, asked myself “Can I do this?” and answered “Yes I can”. Over, and over, and over again, like a mantra, for three kilometres. And you know what? It worked. Just the simple process of filling my head with these simple words allowed no space for the nagging negativity and with that everything seemed so much easier. Don’t get me wrong, I was still really tired, my legs ached and my feet were really sore, but I was moving, jogging if not running and constantly moving towards the finish line.
When I did cross the line, five hours, seventeen minutes and thirty four seconds after starting I was in an infinitely better place than I had been for most of the three hours or so before that. I’d forgotten about times, I’d forgotten about finishing positions, I’d forgotten about what I should have done and instead just thought about where I was at that point in time. I’d been down in the dumps and dragged myself back out of it. Through a combination of misplaced optimism and unfounded confidence I’d got myself in way over my head but finally, belatedly managed to find enough stubbornness and will to get me through it. I’d really, really like to think that this will be one of those learning experiences that people talk about, but I’m pretty certain I’ve written before about ‘learning lessons’ and so far the evidence would indicate that’s not the case. However, this is the first time in a while I’ve got myself into a situation like this and managed to finish strongly, come out the other side and sit there humbled but very, very happy with how things worked out in the end, so maybe I have learned something after all.
A few quick notes:
Huge thanks to Anto Lee the organiser and everyone else involved with putting on a fantastic race. Obvious to see for anyone who was there that day why it’s such a popular race.
Absolutely phenomenal running from Mark who not only finished in a time of 4:17 but set a marathon distance PB of 3:27 along the way. That’s ridiculously good going.
An amazing performance from Gary O’Hanlon who set an Irish 50k record in winning in 2:57:06
Sinead Kane who became, as far as I know, the first visually impaired person to complete an Ultra distance race in Ireland, and her guide John O’Regan were truly inspirational (literally as I piggybacked behind them for a while and was following John’s advice to Sinead myself).
Peter Mooney, who finished in third place, ran the whole thing with a smile on his face, encouraging everyone and thanking all the stewards and supporters on his last lap.
Mark Doyle who finished in fifth place had everyone, without fail, commenting on how easy he was making it look as he went past.
Speaking of the stewards and supporters, phenomenal. The previous two ladies winners cheering like lunatics, the two ladies just before the monument at the first bend, the lady and gent out in the woods at around the 2k mark, the ladies with the selection of home made signs, all made a huge difference.
This lady, who for the last three laps, while I was running/walking/stopping/starting/whinging/moaning, just kept on grinding it out, keeping the same pace going all day long. Amazing consistency and resilience.
I could mention just about everyone here but I suppose I should also give a special mention to my good wife Brid, who (eventually) got out of bed to come over and take a few pictures towards the end. What better way to spend a Saturday in mid-February?