Yesterday was a long day. Any day when you get up early and try to run 50k straight is probably going to constitute a long day.
The night before was the classic preparation and gear check. Or in my case, multiple gear checks. But here’s the odd thing. If it’s not on the list you have prepared, chances are it’s not in the kit bag on the way to the race…
As the race is a series of loops, each runner’s box is placed at the starting point on sets of tables, and you just help yourself as you go around. And as it happens, one plastic box full of sugary products looks very like the next, so to make your box a little easier to spot, some ingenious devices are employed to give the weary owner a better chance of finding their magic beans when they need them most.
This was my attempt at a flag, and in fairness, it did the trick on the day.
Saturday morning begins with an alarm at 7.30. Rise and eat a bowl of porridge. With cream. Hell, I’m going to need all the help I can get. Sure, I may have done a few marathons in the past, but this baby is another 20% on top, or thereabouts. And I have never finished a marathon in good shape. On the contrary, the second half is always a battle of wills. As in, will my legs fall off? Will I wake up in an ambulance? Have I made a will?
The drive out to Donadea is ominous. There is a full moon setting on the horizon to the west, and a chill wind is whipping across from the north-east. Siberian, no less. The moon sits just above the motorway as we head towards Maynooth. By the time we reach Donadea Forest, it has sank without trace.
I’m early. And it’s cold. Bitterly cold. I register with the first few early arrivals, and the cold beats me back to the car, and I sit with the engine running, and the heat on, listening to the radio. Nearly two hours to go, and not much to do in between, although there’s always time to realise you have forgotten your race number belt. I didn’t think we’d have numbers; not sure why I thought that. The race is, after all, part of a national series. There are timing chips too, but fitting this to a runner doesn’t eat up much time…
I faff about. I duck into the trees for a whizz. I drop my box down to the tables and faff some more. I pop into the loos. Outside the cubicles near the wash-hand basins, keeping out of the cold, I apply another dash of Deep Heat to the legs, and nervously joke to the other competitors that it’s hard to say which smells worse; the Deep Heat or the toilets. There is no general consensus on this and I drift outside again and try to keep warm.
I bump into Jarlath from Grassroots Fitness who has been doing sterling work in the tent, handing out numbers and T shirts. He is now changing into his gear, so he is obviously running today. And then all of those minutes have run out and without any fanfare there is a mass movement up a path to the start. And with similar understatement, we are sent on our way.
Each lap is 5km. Ten in all. The first few are reeled off without too much trouble and I am tagged on to the back of the five hour pacers. There are some seriously impressive athletes here, and we (the back-markers) are lapped halfway through our second lap by the race leaders. A pattern that is repeated several times. At one point I am lapped by some decent runners who are in turn lapped by the leaders.
I go through the 21k mark in 2:02 or thereabouts. So far, so good, but as the 6th lap begins, things start to unravel a little. Not exactly a gaping hole, but a few loose threads. I notice it on the watch, and in any case, the clock at the timing mats at the end of each loop should be on the half hour each time. But we are starting to slip. A couple of minutes at first, and then a few more. I try and pick it up a bit, and claw back a minute or two.
I am pleased to see some friendly faces from home at this point. A few mates I run with have arrived to cheer me on. Ciaran from the station jumps in and offers to run a lap with me, and we reel off another one. The pace slows yet again, and the 5 hour pacers are now well out of sight. I concede defeat on the five hour pace, but keep plugging away.
Lap seven comes and goes and Ciaran stays with me. The pace slows yet again. I remark how odd it must be for him to be running at such slow pace. He is doing a remarkable job at sounding positive, and keeps pitching in with really upbeat feedback. It’s definitely a case of the ‘thought that counts’ as I don’t imagine for one second that I look ‘strong’ or ‘great’ or anything of the sort.
On the upside, despite the general fatigue and twinge of regret that I was going to miss the 5 hour mark, at least the knees were holding up. Perhaps all that work in the gym had paid off after all. Certainly another sharp medial knee pain like the one experienced getting off the bike at Hardman would probably have been a show-stopper. And despite the fact that each gel block or swig of energy source drink was getting harder and harder to swallow, overall, the body wasn’t rebelling so much as being somewhat grumpy. And we could handle grumpy.
Another lap, another nibble out of the pace. The hardest part was undoubtedly coming to the finish line with the clock showing 4:49; there was tight knot of cheering supporters, and one of the marshals offered me congratulations and tried to take me aside before I could explain that I had one more lap to do. She shouted ahead to clear the path: “runner coming through” – clearly most folks were finishing up. Not this one.
The last lap was only manageable with the consolation of knowing I would not have to look at that seat again, or that tree. Or face those ever-steepening hillocks. Or listen to the daggle of mallards in the pond cackle each time I passed. Who knew a side-effect of fatigue was avian neurosis?
Des, a fellow runner who soldiers in the Pilates trenches each Monday, came out to greet us and suddenly the last bend was in sight. I had been visualising this moment, and as with most things you visualise… let’s just say terms and conditions apply. The home straight stretched away in front of me. Surely that was a hundred yards or so this morning? Had they laid on some extra track? What cunning ‘dolly-zoom’ effect was at play here? I was emptying the tank for the grandstand finish but the finish line was moving, and both tank and grandstand were empty.
The clock was gone, as were the timing mats. The crowd from the previous lap had sensibly melted away to warm cars. A marshal sat me down on a plastic bench and left my medal beside me. Then she was gone. I hugged Ciaran, my running mate, and they too scarpered; not least as he was back on call at the station and had overstayed his welcome. But in truth, he had done me a huge favour and got me around in one piece. I could ask for no more.
So suddenly it was all over. One or two more stragglers were coming in as I gathered up my box of bits and struggled to get some track bottoms on. Jarlath, who jogged around in a comfortable sub-five time saw me heading for my car and dropped me up. It’s only two hundred yards or so, but I must have cut a lonely figure, trudging off to the workhouse with all I owned under my oxter.
Back in the car, and I listen to the last of the Ireland v Italy game on the radio. They have bounced back in savage fashion after their narrow loss to Scotland last week and thrash the Italians in Rome. At home, there is a blazing fire, and the water is on for a bath. Saoirse has pulled out all the stops. I run it and sink in. Luxury. It will take more than a hot bath to unwind the legs but it’s a damn good start. A few beers later on help.
The next day, I lay out the spoils of war for the obligatory photo-call. The Donadea 50k T shirt is something of a badge of honour, and though I may have missed the official time, I feel I have earned it nonetheless.
My own watch stats reckon 5:24-ish all told. Hard to say; there was a little stopping and starting here and there; a handful of quick detours behind a tree to offload some of the litres of energy drink, stops each lap to fish something out of the box. But overall, that’s about right. The green elevation chart is the ten-toothed blade that slowly sawed my legs off, and the blue one underneath shows the magic pace line that separates sink from swim.
Today is Sunday, and I’ve had some time to reflect. The legs are still sore but better than the last marathon I finished, and the one before that. In fact, I pretty much matched my best marathon time, so that was a positive. I didn’t get enough miles under the belt for Donadea either, nor did the Christmas sickness-imposed layoff help with training. But these are all just the things we all go through. And none of it really matters anyway. Life has a way of letting you know, in case it has slipped your mind.
After the first of of two calls today, a scout leader dropped in to the station to say thanks for a great visit their group had had last week. Simon and I had put on a good show for the kids, and they had responded with a shower of thank you cards.
It was a really nice touch, but we were all a little despondent. We had just returned from a call-out to a stretch of a road I know well as I had done some of my ironman training there. A group of cyclists were out that Sunday morning and one young lady had a collision with a car and was killed.
It was during the warm up for the race the day before that someone had remarked to me that they were doing this race because they were fifty. Fifty kilometres, fifty years. As mathematically neat as the actual race pace itself. And I am normally quick at picking up the semiotics of such things. So I cheekily claimed that one for myself. In my fiftieth year on the planet I too was going to treat myself to 50k. Well this poor young cyclist won’t have that luxury now. It is without doubt the great downside to this job.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam dílis.