Running in circles – the Donadea 50k race report

‘You could be packed up and ready
Knowing exactly where to go
How come you miss the connection?
No use in asking, the answer is nobody knows
No use in asking, the answer is nobody knows.’

Nobody Knows
Paul Brady

Running around in circles may be just about the most perfect analogy for life sometimes. I mean, it’s just sitting there, eyeing me up, waiting for me to pluck it down from the shelf. This stuff writes itself, really. I don’t have to do anything at all. But before we do what we often do here at unironedman inc., I need to stop my tiny, wee brain from running ahead, all on its own, and getting lost in a maelstrom of mangled metaphors.

I recall the first time I tried my hand (and legs) at Donadea, in 2017. I wasn’t in particularly great shape but I had been doing a fair bit up to the end of August, in preparation for the Hardman long distance triathlon in 2016. But then things had slid a little. There was no Dublin Marathon for me that year. Winter came. Christmas passed. The New Year arrived, but I don’t think I had really put too many training hours in. If you are keen, you can read the race report from five years ago. But you don’t get any bonus points if you do…

A quick recap for those not up to speed with Donadea. It’s a 50k race around a woodland in Kildare. The outer path is about 5k, so cunningly enough, the organisers send you around ten times. Simple really. It is a national race series event, so there are some serious competitors taking part. For example, the winner this year was Sean Hehir. Sean ran 2:16.18 at the 2017 London Marathon, so he has pedigree. Second place went to Gary O’Hanlon, who has a similar marathon time. It’s quite the thing to have these guys glide past you. Indeed, they pass you as you head out on your second lap. But then that is not surprising, given that they will be aiming for about three hours, and my humble ambition was five. So getting lapped was going to be a common occurrence. Your only real job here is to mumble words of encouragement as they pass, keep your own pace, and get out of the f**king way!

I had been rather downplaying the whole Donadea thing, to be honest. I’d written it off before I had even got going. Whilst there were some green shoots (like the first sprouting stems of bluebells I spotted in the woods the other day) during the last few weeks, many of the runs – even the shorter ones – were laboured and not particularly enjoyable. The only one that felt in any way positive was the trot along the Grand Canal Barrow Line with Gary two weeks ago.

Still, the rituals would have to be followed.

For an ultra, one must pay attention to the details. Most decent runners can bluff a half, even with very little training. I can knock out 20k odd without any water, and if I’m well fed beforehand, I won’t need any gels either. But when you push out past 30k and into the red zone, there are fewer and fewer places to hide. A marathon requires some planning, in other words. And any ultra (which is literally anything beyond that), must have your full attention.

The night before the big race, I prepared all my gear in time-honoured fashion. I like to monopolise the dining table and lay everything out so I can see it. The main kit for the run. Spare kit. Warm kit for afters. All the gels. Energy drinks. Bars. Watch. Tick, tick, tick. It all seemed in order. The race number had arrived in the post that week and it was clipped onto the race belt. Favourite hats were plucked from their hooks. It was all packed away in a plastic storage box; this being one of the features of the run: you can leave your stuff at the finish line and dip into it as you pass, if that’s your plan.

My plan differed from 2017 in that today I would be wearing a hydration vest. I didn’t put too much water in; just enough to wash down gels. These I popped into the various pockets of the vest, along with my phone. I was treating this partly as a training run for the upcoming ultra in Summer, and to be fair, I have found the vest/backpack from Decathlon to be comfortable and handy and the best way to carry more than one or two gels. Oh to be an elite runner with their skimpy shorts and tiny little string vests and someone to hand them drinks as they whizz around…

The next morning it was porridge, as always. Plasters were applied to nipples and anti-chafing cream was slathered in the places where the sun does not shine (as a rule). Then out the door.

I picked up Gary from his house and we arrived in Donadea Park in plenty of time for the 10am start. The weather was… iffy. The wind had been blowing hard all night and there were a few squally showers. Nothing too dramatic, but the ground underfoot was taking a hammering from the many hundreds of pairs of feet. Race T-shirts were collected from the marquee (which I was pleased to see was still in place from the night before) and we passed the next hour and a half or so just faffing about really. This is Gary’s new club hosting the event, so there were a lot of familiar and friendly faces there, and much pre-race banter. The general air of the place – the tents, the thumping music, the organiser barking out abuse over the mic, and mucky cardboard underfoot to try and mitigate the worst of the mud – it was all reminiscent of the morning after at a large music festival. Though in this case, the music lovers had thrown off their denims and glad rags for shorts and runners, the smell of hash was replaced with Deep Heat, and the only hard drugs on offer were Ibuprofen.

The minutes leached away and soon the MC was calling for us all to head to the start line in front of the castle, and then we were off, courtesy of the legendary Jim Aughney, who is Mr. Dublin Marathon. Gary’s plan was to sit in with the 4.45 pacers for as long as possible so we parted ways just before the gun. My plan, as before, was simple. 5 hour pacers all the way. And I recognised two of the three instantly; Jarlath Hynes and Joe Dunne. Jarlath is a Leixlip legend who has done great work for the local running community, often without any fanfare. He just rocks up and gets on with it. He had spent the morning handing out T shirts, and now he was at the start line. That’s Jarlath. Joe is also a stalwart. Here’s one example. A few years back, during a Dublin Marathon, he died. I don’t mean in the running sense where you step off the track and DNF, or your pace collapses and you stagger over the line in a heap. I mean he actually died. For about 11 minutes. Only quick action by two people kept him alive, as they knew how to do proper CPR. He had stents put in. And then he got back out running. He tells this tale modestly to myself and Paul as we get ourselves around the course. Paul is a Garda, so he and I have some stories to swap and for the first few laps, there is good chat amongst our small knot of runners. As the laps mount up, the group dwindles, and I notice the chat subsides. Indeed, for my own part, I have decided I am going to conserve energy as best I can.

I am a chatty fecker. I will yack away on any subject at any time, even on long training runs. But as the morning gave way to the afternoon, I had decided discretion would be wise.

I had a bonus guest for a short while, as my brother was over from Italy for the weekend, along with three of his four kids. Rob did apparently jump in for a lap but I didn’t see him. But Leah did appear at my shoulder, so that was a nice surprise. She had just ran a 50k the previous weekend, so this would be in every sense a ‘walk in the park’ for her. I spotted Rob a couple of times at the finish line, supping coffee, and then they were both gone. Which was understandable. As a spectacle, Donadea 50k is not going to win too many awards. And Leah was planning on meeting up with her older brother in Dublin that afternoon, so giving her uncle a dig-out had not been on her wish list. I really appreciated the support.

Leah snuck into the official race photos!

Like all long distance events, the real business starts when you’re well into it. Indeed, you’re best not to think too much about what’s left until you are at least 5 laps in. As we approached the end of lap 6, Sean Hehir streaked past, and a minute or two later, we heard the roar as he crossed the finish line in 2.56:04. We passed under the gantry, and shortly after, Gary O’Hanlon came in second in 3.00:55. Third place was over ten minutes later, so it had been a two-horse race for much of the event. (Fun fact: what separates the true athletes from the also-rans? Well, at Donadea, the simple visual answer is how far up your back the mud spray reaches. For the top runners, this went all the way to the shoulders. As the speed and form drops, the spray dwindles until you are down and dirty with the slow-pokes like us. We just had muddy feet and calves. But the top athletes have perfect running form, and that means their feet ‘flick’ backwards as they glide, throwing up a tell-tale mark of true athletic prowess. Don’t say we teach yis nuthin’ here at unironedman!)

(Watermarked images © Sweaty Snaps)

For us, as our little group dwindled, the race was really only getting going. And our race was just against the clock. For at Donadea, the cut-off sees the clock getting switched off at exactly at 5 hours. That honour is handed to the last runner over the line before the dreaded 4.59:59 ticks over…

As each lap was reeled off, I was taking a gel just before the finish line. Then a sup of water from my pack. The downside to the 500mls of energy drink I had taken that morning was multiple wee stops in the woods which meant a break in momentum and a necessary speeding up to catch up on the pacers. My fear was that there would be one break too many and I would not have the necessary ‘oomph’ left to reconnect. Or worse; I was waiting for the show-stopper. The sudden sharp pain in a knee, or perhaps the hot twangy gloom of a hamstring giving up the ghost. My hope here was that a combination of gym sessions since the new year, a gentle but noticeable increase in training since Christmas, and the more agreeable 6 minute a kilometre pace would be just enough to keep the show on the road.

So it was eyes down for a full house. Grit one’s teeth quietly. One foot in front of the other. Every now and again, Jarlath would shout out over his shoulder ‘you’re very quiet back there, Declan Kenny’, and I would should back ‘I’m grand!’ or similar. The pacers were doing an excellent job, both on the pace, and on the encouragement.

Conversations dried up, for my part anyway. By about lap 7, my stomach decided we had had enough gels, thank you very much. I tried a small chocolate from one of the volunteers. Hmm. I grabbed a bottle of water and had a few swigs. Not sure why. I still had some in the vest. These are recognisable symptoms, in fairness. They are the first itchy, twitchy signs of panic mode. But lap 8 came and we were still running. By now, there were only two actual runners left, to three pacers, in our little posse. Anyone ahead was either finished or still running at a slightly faster pace. As we passed those souls who had taken to walking, no amount of encouragement from the epic pace crew was going to jump start them again. Many others – about 100 or more of the 300 listed – had dropped out entirely.

Now we were in that dangerous territory. 2 laps to go is 10k. 10K is a pretty standard training run for most folks, myself included. I can mentally map this distance and overlay it onto the features of Donadea. One kilometre from the start line: that gets me to the Beech Tree in St. Catherine’s Park. The two kilometre marker? Now I’m at the weir. And on it goes.

The beginning of the last lap approaches. We pass under the gantry and there is good roar from the crowd. All we have to do is keep going. Past the tables. Past the pond. Left turn towards the straight stretch that leads to the 9/11 Memorial. Left turn. Left again, and into the series of three rolling hills. They’re not hills really, unless you’ve just run about 45k. Another left-hand bend as we are halfway through the last leg. We pass the last of the stragglers. We hit the three k marker. I think we’re going to make it. 4k. One to go. I pick up the pace a little. Paul is up ahead with Joe and Jarlath. I figure I’ll let him go, but then why not just push on a bit? As we round the last bend, Lorraine is worried about the time. Have we, perhaps, just cut it a little too fine? That brief moment of panic is the spark that fires up the last gas in the tank and I catch Paul before the line. Rather than pass him out, I grab his left arm in clumsy salute, and he roars to the crowd, and they roar back, and we cross the line together.

With a minute to spare.

I hug Paul. I hug Joe. I hug Lorraine. I even hug Jarlath, who I’m sure finds the whole thing quite amusing. I glance back at the finish line. Someone else will get the job of turning off the clock; an honour bestowed upon me at Connemara 100.

Gary and Niamh track me down by the time I have found a bench to collapse into. Gary has had a great race, and come in with 4.49:10. He offers me a nip of his hip flask but at this stage, what I need is a bath and some food. The gear is collected and we wend our way back to the car park. The weather has held up well, in fairness, and only now does it spill down with rain.

Gary crosses the line

Home then, to a hot bath. There is rugby to be watched, and food to eaten. Later on, beers are cracked open, and Rob, Saoirse and I watch the telly. My head is still a bit wired and I hang on ’til the bitter end. The body is fading, but a large part of my mind is still out there somewhere, trotting around Donadea Wood, and when I do finally crash into bed, I wake early enough the next morning and get going again.

There is a large family meal to help prepare, and before we eat, Rob and his three, along with our gang and my Mam head out to visit my Dad who has been in hosptial for the last three weeks with a chest infection. Along the way, they conspired to give him Covid too, but thankfully he is asymptomatic, and his main complaint now is crushing boredom in the ward as the occupational physioterrorists try and get him mobile again. We have not been allowed to see him, so this is one of those infamous ‘Covid Window Visits’ and it’s very frustrating.

We all try and have a bit of craic through the half-open window but in truth, it’s a bit gloomy. S takes some wonderful pictures and for posterity, I have included them here. Needless to say, we want to get Dad home, but not as much as he himself wants to be at home. A week, maybe. We’ll see.

And so the gear is gradually washed and packed away. The medal is laid out on the table and duly photographed. Anto puts on a great show, and this year has been just that little bit extra special. I suspect there is a post-Covid ‘buzz’ in the air. And why not? Donadea will happen again next year, and for many more to come, I hope. For my part, I think we have made our peace. It’s a nice little green oasis, and I think my next visit will be much more sedentary. We will bring the hounds, and enjoy a hot chocolate in the café.

A wonderful family meal is had at our house on the Sunday, though of course, everyone is conscious that we are missing one important guest. By Monday, things are getting back to normal.

Did I ever tell you running races is a privilege?

11 thoughts on “Running in circles – the Donadea 50k race report

  1. Congrats! Good job meeting your goal and getting in under the wire through dogged perseverance and despite a less-than optimistic take on your chances. Excellent writing, as well. I felt I was with you every step of the way, the frustration of your dad’s situation makes my heart ache (best wishes for bringing him home SOON!) . . . and for some reason, I’m craving hot chocolate.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great race and yet another brilliant report, thanks for bringing us with you 👍

    Best wishes to your Dad. It’s a horrible situation but he does look to be in good spirits in the photos at least, either that or he’s telling you all to bugger off and stop spoiling his view 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

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