Into the Great Wide Open… and the long, dark night of the soul: the Connemara 100 Race Report

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“Into the great wide open
Under them skies of blue
Out in the great wide open
A rebel without a clue”

Into The Great Wide Open
Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers


(Warning: for this blog is long and full of terrors!)

Where to start? Probably little point in going down the whole ‘why would you want to run one hundred miles’ routine for starters. That question was asked and answered a long time ago. 7th February, to be exact, when I registered and paid.

And what is the Connemara 100? Well, below is the route map. If you are familiar with the area, you know that it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the country. The central parts of the route around the Inagh Valley and Maam are wild, desolate but enchanting places. On the coast, you have the tourist traps of Clifden, Leenane and Roundstone; picture-postcard material, not least on a fine day when the Twelve Bens of quartzite stand proud above the surrounding blanket bog, or the mists are lifting off the tops of the Maumturks between the Inagh Valley and Maam (from the Irish mám, for mountain pass, and toirc, for wild boar).

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The official race route

The route is a convoluted figure-of-eight. In order to get the full one hundred miles, you must start in Clifden and do a quick lap of the town. Then out north towards Letterfrack and Killary before turning inland and finding the Inagh Valley. When you join up with the N59 again near Recess, you head for Maam Cross and once again head back into the mountains along the Maam Valley until you reach Leenane.

You then head along the shores of Killary Harbour before tackling the Inagh Valley once more, and then you dart south towards Roundstone and Ballyconneely and then you are home, once you have done another three laps of Clifden…

The week’s build-up was one of boxes. Many boxes. It was a logistical feat just to get it all together.

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Gear, boxed and ready to go

I think it was more work and planning than even the long distance Hardman triathlon. But as the old saying goes, better to be looking at it than looking for it. And I knew we had two cars and could split the crews, so space, at least, shouldn’t be a problem.

The crew for the adventure was going to be my brother Robert and two of his sons, Saul and Oren. Ciaran, Saul’s friend, was the second driver. Ciaran and Saul picked me up on Friday and we made good time down to Clifden, and found the B&B. Rob and Oren joined us later.

The race briefing was in a local hotel, and it’s at these moments when things start to coalesce a little in your mind. Practically all of my training was done on my own, and much of the planning beforehand. Not that I’m complaining; it was the just the way it was going to be. But when you walk into that room, and find your tribe, you realise there are other folks just like you. And then you can start to relax a little. Not too much, but at least you are here, after all the training, planning and plotting.

Ray, our race director, went through the course and some of the various features of the route. There were clearly plenty of former participants there, and lots of jokes were shared. He made two statements that stuck in my mind. The first was that there is a spot a few miles out of Clifden where you climb up out of the seaside village and the vista opens up before you, and you can see the whole terrain you are about to enter, and to embrace that moment, and savour it.

The second thing was that if you really had to pull out of the race, do so because of an injury. Don’t let your head be the thing to go. It was clear from the passion in his delivery that he knows how tough the course is, and that regardless, he wanted to ensure everyone would finish.

One more sleep. And of course, that sleep is never easy. It was made harder by the fact that my original booking in the B&B was for three. The original crew had to pull out for family reasons, and when my brother stepped in, I added another to the guest list. I was assured we could all squeeze in, given that we were family, into two singles and a double. The snag was when we added Ciaran and he had no extra space or beds. So five of us managed to get some sleep over the weekend in a variety of combinations. I suspect the room was a bit funky by Sunday morning, but I don’t think anyone noticed. By the time I found out this news from the owner, there was no turning back, so I didn’t tell the crew ’til we arrived at the accommodation. Mind you, I didn’t tell them I was feeling a little seedy either. All that week I had been having sweats and lower back aches, which are usually the precursor to some sort of illness. But then I remembered the same thing happened down in Kerry before the Hardman event, so I put it down to the runner’s versions of Leisure Sickness. And kept my fingers crossed that I would bounce out of bed on Saturday morning without an ounce of bother.

My alarm went off at 4am and I snuck down to the breakfast room and made up a pot of instant oats, ate a couple of energy bars and a banana and went back up to lie down for another hour. Then it was up to get into the running gear.

For the runners interested in such things, I should point out that I am no ultra-runner or endurance athlete. I’ve done a few things, but not nearly enough to qualify for those titles. Some of the people I would be sharing the road with are the real deal: 16 hours would be their lot, and they would be home and hosed before I was anywhere near thinking about finishing. And in the run-up to the race, I had put out some feelers online to see if I could cadge a few nuggets of information that might save my bacon out on the course. So a big thanks to Thomas Bubendorfer, who blogs here. Don’t be fooled by the title of his blog; Thomas is an amazing athlete and he was very free and generous with his advice for Connemara, which he did in 2013, in an awe-inspiring 16:41 and change. That’s more or less four four-hour marathons, back-to-back. I can do one…

The running gear was pretty standard stuff. The runners I had been training in, mostly, which are Sauconys, plain old running socks (didn’t bother with compression socks) and standard two-layer lycra running shorts and running top. There was plenty of anti-friction cream around the toes and feet, and in the nether regions. And the all-important NipEaze plasters to prevent chafing. I had road-tested these a week or so beforehand and was suitably impressed by their ability to stay in place after a sweaty run, followed by a swim in the lake, and then a shower, and a day later, they were still in place.

It was all topped of with my trusty running peaked cap, and to stave off the light drizzle, my Patagonia light running jacket.

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We gathered for the obligatory group shot at the start, and Ray O’Connor – race director and participant – gave us a nice pep talk, and then without further fanfare, we were off.

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The first few miles were uneventful. I hooked up with another runner and we shared some running stories. Michael, if you’re reading this, you’re a gent, and your crew are angels!

My brother had generously agreed to let everyone else sleep on and have a good breakfast, and take the first shift. This took us north out of Clifden and the first place of note was Letterfrack. We were only 14k from the start, so the village was all but asleep. But I needed the loo, so I found a hostel, snuck in and used their toilet; apologies for that.

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Me and Rob at Letterfrack

The next point of note is Tully Cross. The landscape here is lovely, but the weather was not kind, and much of the terrain was lost in mist and drizzle. But the pace was reasonable and I was moving along okay. I had a running belt on with room for two 300ml water bottles. I just carried one bottle, and in it was Energy Source drink. I figured if I kept it on me, I would drink regularly, rather than having to keep troubling the crew. As each one vanished, a quick wave to the crew car would magically produce another one. Another more metaphysical boost came in the form of messages from my uncle in Wales who has done quite a few decent marathons in his time, passed on to me through Rob, in the car. Not sure how he found out I was running.

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Rob’s favourite arty pic of the day!

At the 20 mile mark, you turn right onto the main N59 for a couple of miles before entering the Inagh Valley for the first time. Here, I had made a slight miscalculation. Nothing dramatic, as such, but just that I thought I had already turned into the valley when I was only on the main road, so when I reached the correct junction and a marshall waved at me to turn left, and the crew shouted at me from the car as well, I was a bit confused. I was reassured we were on the right road, and we pushed on to the first checkpoint at the Inagh Lodge Hotel. By this stage, it was bucketing it down, and I was soaked.

The crew signed the check-in sheet while I sat in the back of the car and changed my socks and top, and added a long-sleeve for extra warmth. Though the rain found its way through most of that in short order. Nothing for it but to soldier on.

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Somewhere near the Inagh Valley. I think…

It seemed like a long slog out of Inagh and onto the main road again, near Recess. Here, we took a break and popped into the shops for supplies and other bits and bobs. There were flasks in the crew cars too, so everyone could keep topped up with tea and coffee. 33 miles or so under a damp and soggy belt. Next up was Maam Cross, and here we had another crew changeover, and it was good to get everyone together again. Spirits were lifted, shoes and socks were changed, dry tops were donned and I took plenty of time to eat a sandwich and have some tea and goodies. My NipEaze plasters were letting me down though, and I had to apply a fresh set.

I shared the road with Felim for a few miles, who was adopting a run/walk strategy. The great thing about ultra-running is that you can casually yak away to a complete stranger whilst you squeeze anti-friction cream into your hand from a tube and lather it around your ball-sack. We chatted for a bit and I pushed on, slightly anxious about hills I had heard of from the notorious Hell of the West race that shares this route. But in truth, Maam Valley is relatively benign, and even the weather decided to take a break for a few hours, and I passed the time listening to the Dublin v Mayo GAA match on my little FM radio. The signal was poor and drifted in and out, but alas, the same could be said for Mayo’s efforts in the second half, and the juggernaut that is the Dublin team continues on to the final.

We reached Leenane, and I was in reasonably good form. The second checkpoint was here at the hotel on the shores of Killary Harbour – the same place Saoirse and I had stayed in for the Great Fjord Swim. 55 miles in the bag, and I can see from the sign-in sheet that we arrived at 19:02. 13 hours or so to cover 55 miles. We took another decent half-hour break here, and I ordered toasted ham and cheese sandwiches for all three of us, and they went down a treat.

The weather was turning gloomy again as we set out for the steady climb out of Leenane, and the rain started to get heavy once more. The sun had never shown its face all day, and now it was well and truly sunk. We entered the Inagh Valley for a second time, and at some stage over the weekend, Tennyson’s poem about the charge of the Light Brigade came to mind, though I am not sure at what point.

Whatever fogginess was enveloping runners and cars alike was having a similar effect on the mind. The odd tweak and twinge that had occasionally been tapping gently on the back door and heading off again when they got no answer suddenly kicked the front door in. The right knee exploded into a ball of pain. I flagged the crew car down and slumped into the back seat. After a bit of rooting around in boxes, the Diflac (Difene) was found. This was my last resort, secret weapon stash that I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. But these were desperate times. I took one, and got back on the road. It was about ten o’clock and I rang Saoirse. We had a quick chat and I assured her that all was well. But in truth, it was not. No sooner had I hung up and stuffed the mobile back in its waterproof pouch when the side-effects seem to kick in: nausea, dizziness, and a definite need to sit down in a hurry before I fell over, threw up, or both.

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This shot is not as dizzy as my head was at the time…

Back into the car again, and some concerned faces peering over me. I must have looked awful but they were good enough not to tell me. The notes written onto the A3 map which the crew shared shows that we stopped for 50 minutes. I can well believe it, though in truth, I have little recollection of much of that time. I think I drank tea. I ate some ginger biscuits. But mostly I wrangled with my mental state. It wasn’t just that the clock was ticking… it was, of course. But the longer I stayed in a warm car with the heating on and a steady supply of tea and biscuits, the less likely I was to continue on. And it was not hard to visualise the route home. From here, the lads would make Clifden in about twenty minutes. So, in half an hour, I could have slumped into a warm, dry bed and fallen into a deep sleep.

At some point, my brother pointed out that we needed to make a decision. Shit, or get off the pot. Or something. So I slowly opened the door and took a first delicate step on the road. My legs went from under me. I stopped. Steadied myself. And went again. This time, we had success. And then it was some forward motion. I slowly walked up the road, and one of the race marshals stopped in his car to see if I was okay. I explained my predicament, but let him know I was going to try and push on.

Oren jumped out of the car with rain mac, hi-viz and lights, and joined me. The long, dark night of the soul was just beginning, though the trick with these things is not to let on that you know it. Just take it one step at a time.

If the first shift up the Inagh Valley was tough, the second one was a trial. When you are used to running a reasonable pace of, say, 9 minute miles in training, or getting in 6 miles an hour, then you can quickly and safely calculate how long it will take you to get to wherever you are going. When this pace is chopped in half, the figures start to look very ugly, very quickly.

Checkpoint 3 at the Inagh Valley Lodge Hotel was 23:39. Mile 67 or thereabouts. And another 20 minute break, according to the map. It would be one o’clock before we finally reached the end of the valley. And now it was a question of maths and pace. And finding the right turn for Roundstone. The turn was finally reached, and we set off for the final checkpoint. There was no cut-off here, thankfully. But I had been warned about the siren-song of the lights of Roundstone, and it was along this stretch that I started to understand what they had warned about. The road seems to climb forever (it doesn’t really, but I had to check the gradient map afterwards to convince myself) and as you reach each high point, you can see the glow from the village lights. But they never seemed to get any closer. Even when I could clearly distinguish between individual street lights, it seemed to take an age to get there. But then my run/walk policy was mostly a walk/walk faster policy, and ‘faster’ may not be the correct use of the word here.

I steadied my nerves with some classic hits from RTE Gold. I can say without fear of contradiction that they play some of the most god-awful shite ever committed to vinyl, but needs must. You know you are between a rock and hard place when you welcome the soulful tones of Michael Bolton. At least I didn’t have to look at his mullet.

The marshals at Roundstone were a tonic. Felim was here too, somewhere, and I had sweet tea and fig rolls. Why hadn’t I thought to pack them! They were just what I needed. More quick mental maths was done. I just needed to keep moving. I met Felim briefly on the road, but he was moving a little freer than I, and he moved ahead. By my estimates, I was the last one on the course.

And so began the slow and steady march to Ballyconneely and Clifden. I might just mention at this point the multitudinous and fantastic beasts that joined me on my journey. There were cows twenty feet long. There were bears (I think), and there were definitely wolves and a variety of dogs. Most were crouching down in the fields to my left, but some loomed over me in rather menacing fashion from both sides of the road.

They weren’t there, of course. I was just seeing things as the beam of my running lights made dramatic shadows amongst the rocks, stones, ferns and monstrous Gunnera leaves. As the hours dragged on, the gloom started to lift, almost imperceptibly, and my strange menagerie slunk back amongst the metamorphic rocks strewn around Connemara’s coastline, and left me to fend for myself.

The sun still refused to shine. It tried once, and I took this picture…

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Sunrise over the Twelve Bens

That’s as good as it got for the morning, but at least it wasn’t raining. Those were the Twelve Bens in the distance, and I had circumnavigated them.

Clifden finally arrived, but it took an age. Rob pulled alongside in the car and gave me the good news that we were about 5 miles out from the town. The bad news? We had to do three laps when we got there, and each lap was about a mile. When you are moving at 3 miles an hour, this is not what you want to hear. But unless I fell over and sprained an ankle, I was going to make it.

There is a hill into the town. Of course there is. I had forgotten about it, but it was there alright. Even Oren admitted afterwards that it was tiring enough to climb. Into the town’s sleepy main street and a first glimpse of the finish line. And of course, you must pass it and go around the block. Three times. I rummaged around in my kit bag and found a tiny, tiny drop of energy and broke into a run at the end of the last lap.

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“Nurse, nurse!”

I like this pic, because my wonderful crew who had been with for the whole journey were now suddenly at the end of the road, and here I was, like an escaped lunatic, making a bid for freedom. And they were trying to get in position for that classic ‘finish line’ photo op.

I crossed the line and knelt down to kiss the road. For a brief second I wasn’t sure I would make it up again. Ray and Vincent and other crew were on hand to offer congratulations, and I had the added bonus of turning off the clock, which is something of a rite of passage. And of course, all you speedy runners miss out on this privilege, and I feel your pain 😉

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Oren, me, Saul and Rob

It just like that, it was all over. All the planning. All the training. All the waiting. It was done. I was spent, but I was happy.

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With the run over, the body started to shut down and I was carried back to the B&B by my two wonderful nephews. My feet were in tatters and I wasn’t looking forward to seeing them in the flesh.

Back at the B&B, a bath was run and I slipped slowly into it. I did manage to get out by myself and collapsed onto my bed with just a towel around me.

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Can I have eggs with that?

We had to be out by midday, so there was little time to slumber, plus the medal ceremony was at one o’clock. We packed up and drove back to the hotel and met up with all the various runners, crew and marshals. What a great buzz. Ray had completed the race too, and was in good form, despite the fact that he must have got no sleep, because he had made a point of welcoming each runner over the line.

Those beautiful views he had mentioned? Yes, they never materialised. But he presented the medals from last to first, so I was first up. My crew had dropped me on the front row, as it would have been cruel to make me walk about 30 feet to collect my medal. Ray said some really great things about my race, and though I had lots of things I wanted to say, all I could do was hold the medal aloft and point to my crew and say ‘this is for you’.

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Getting my medal from Ray O’Connor, Race Director and all ’round great bloke

That’s the sort of thing that would make me cringe if I was watching the Oscars. Maybe next time I will be more charitable when I hear it said.

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Saul, Oren, Robert and Ciaran, with me (seated, so I don’t fall over)

We met up with a few of the runners we had befriended and swapped some stories, and then it was time to hit the road once more. We all drove out to Roundstone (how quick a journey in a car!) for lunch. I had promised them all I would treat them.

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Shortly after this pic, I passed out…

Alas, my body finally let me down. As Rob remarked afterwards, that was some sneaky way to get out of paying for lunch. I sort-of passed out at the table; well, slumped over my lunch, anyway. I woke to find worried faces staring down at me for a second time that day. I heard someone on a phone to the ambulance. I managed to have a chat with the dispatch guy on the other end of the line and assured him I was not at death’s door. A passing nurse also stopped to help out. I lay back in the car and dozed while my hungry nephews devoured my fish and chips and drank my pint.

And more than welcome they were too!

And then it was home time. Fair play to my brother; he had not had much sleep the night before, so he did well to get us all home in one piece. Home, then, and another long soak in the bath, and then finally bed. Just as an odd sort of coda, I woke the next morning and found a NipEaze plaster on my stomach; they seemed to be turning up in all sorts of strange places! I might need to alter my glowing Amazon review…

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The sign-in sheet

Today is Tuesday, as I write this blog, and the body is recovering well. I have been eating plenty, and staying hydrated, and even the knee is not too sore. The quads have had a few rubs and we are back on speaking terms. The soles of my feet (I think Saul described them as looking like two badly-cooked rashers) are a little delicate, but otherwise fine.

And so, there we have it. It was a long blog, but it was an even longer day.

Thanks to my fellow bloggers for your words of encouragement.

Huge thanks to my Super Crew of Robert, Saul, Oren and Ciaran. Thanks too to Ray, Vincent, Ken, Iain and all the gang who put on such a great gig in Connemara. I’m sorry I can’t name you all. Thanks to the runners and crews who helped us out with advice, kind words and cheery waves. And to Micheal at the B&B, who probably thinks we’re all mad.

Thanks too to my Mum and Dad, who suspect I am mad but don’t have to live with me, but special thanks to Saoirse, Dallan and Tamsyn who KNOW I am indeed mad and do have to live me. This time, Dad is home for good.

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Freya and Odi: that was one walk they would not have enjoyed…
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26 thoughts on “Into the Great Wide Open… and the long, dark night of the soul: the Connemara 100 Race Report

      1. Well, I didn’t run the full distance, so that’s worth noting. Quite a few don’t. I’m not overly bothered by it, other than I wish my knee hadn’t given in. But then I would have regretted it at a lot more if I hadn’t finished. Overall? Pleased. Still a little tender but no lasting damage. It’s not for everyone but it’s definitely doable and given you’re history, I think it’s well within your reach.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Congratulations! Shame that the weather didn’t play ball, but it’s the memories you take away from that race that you will treasure forever. Well done, chapeau!

    Liked by 1 person

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