In at The Deep End: Running My First Ultramarathon at The Connemara 100
Oliver Clare ran his first marathon last March in Connemara. On August 11th, he returned to run his first ultramarathon at the Connemara 100-Mile Road Race. It’s all in aid of ReachOut Ireland; you can follow his progress online on Facebook and please donate to ReachOut on mycharity.ie
“Don’t even think about it,” said one of the guys. “Sure that’s nearly four marathons back-to-back!” I was having breakfast at the B&B in Dervock before the Kennedy Kane McArthur marathon, and had just announced to the room that I was thinking about running the Connemara 100-mile Road-Race. Another guy in the corner joined in “That’s right; if you’re interested in ultras, you’d want to start slowly. Do a 50k and build up to 50 milers or a 100k.” All good advice, but deep down I knew I’d already made my mind up. I wasn’t prepared. I definitely hadn’t been training with anything longer than a marathon in mind. However, the appeal of taking on the longest race in the country was difficult to shake off. In hindsight, you could say preparations were somewhat last-minute. Towards the end of July, Ray O’Connor gave me the go-ahead to participate and three days beforehand, I had a crew put together (consisting of my dad, my aunt Rosaleen, and a great physio from Ballsgrove called Brian Milne). When I met up with Frank McDermott to bring him down to Galway the day before the race, he had two sports-bags full of food … I had a sandwich and Lucozade. He said something to the effect that I’d be burning through about 10,000 calories over the next couple of days – I make sure to make a couple of grub-stops on the way to Galway!
The heat is unbearable; when we leave Dublin it was 21°C – by the time we reach Galway it had climbed up to 26°C. “If it’s like this tomorrow we’ll be in serious trouble” says Frank. I tend to agree with him, hence the twenty litres of water and the ice box in the back of the jeep. On the way, I borrow a spare Garmin off our clubmate George Livanos. Unfortunately the battery in my own is unequipped for anything longer than seven hours, and unless the plan is to cut the current record on this course in half, I’ll be requiring something with a bit more juice. After that, carbohydrates are the order of the day – one quick stop to the Ballybrit Dunnes Stores later and the jeep is stocked up on Jaffa cakes, kitkats, chocolate muffins, a dozen or so lucozades, caramel slices, bananas, muller rice yogurts, and various other bits and pieces. It’s another hour by the time we get to Clifden, Dad and Brian are already in the pre race briefing at the station house hotel.
There are a lot of familiar faces at the briefing, although a lot of it goes over my head as we arrived ten minutes late and didn’t get the race-pack with the maps. However, having done the regular Connemarathon twice before, I can appreciate it when Ray comes out with the understatement of the century, saying that there are “quite a few” hills on this course! Directions are one of my main worries; the course is unmarked and I’m a bit paranoid about taking wrong turns especially during the night-time sections. We hear a few words from Karl Henry from Operation Transformation, and then Ray comes down to give my crew and I “the talk”. He explains that this is unlike anything I’ve ever done before and that a lot of things could happen. I could get sick, hallucinate, start talking gibberish or at least make bad decisions due to the effects of the race as it wears on. That’s what the crew is there for, he explains. He tells me that he’s very pleased with the plan I set out in my email to him the previous week (28 hours – 12 for the first 50 miles, 16 for the second 50, runwalking at a ratio of 3miles on, 1/2 a mile off from the start and walking all major inclines) and tells me he has no doubt that I’ll finish it. After hearing about everything that could go wrong, I’m not so sure but I let that go!
All this while Rosaleen is way behind us – her plan is to fly in from the Olympics in London, arriving in Dublin late Friday evening before going home to Louth for gear and then coming straight over (she’ll eventually arrive at the B&B in the wee hours of the morning). After the meeting is over, Dad Brian and I retire to the Central B&B with the race-pack. It contains a smaller version of the Connemara100 handbook that we were sent in the email, with four spaces on the back to be signed when we reach each of the aid stations. The aid stations are located at Mile 28, Mile 56, Mile 68 and Mile 82. The pack also contains a large map of the route around Connemara and a sign to be taped to the back of the support vehicle saying “Caution – Runner Ahead”. At least one of the crew has to be driving behind me at all times. The pack also contains eight safety pins and two tags – one with the race number on it for the front, and one for the back saying “ultra marathon runner”. It sinks in. I’m an ultra marathon runner … sort of (still haven’t done anything yet!). One charming side-effect of the success of the Irish boxing team is that the folks in the pub directly under our room decide to celebrate until 3am. As it turns out, I’m too nervous to sleep very much anyway so I spend most of my time preparing my gear for later.
At 5am, Brian, Dad and I head off into the cool morning air, dumping all the remaining gear in the jeep before joining the great and good of the Irish ultramarathon community for breakfast at the station house (Unfortunately I didn’t see what Mick Rice was eating so I’m not in a position to reveal any trade secrets!) The tension is starting to build up in the crowd; people are throwing on their reflective jackets and taking last-minute pictures with their crews. We had to be at the start-line by 5.45am and we would start the race at 6am. Eventually, everyone makes it down to the starting line (such as it was – basically Ray was standing outside the bank on the main street with his arm outstretched!) and after ten minutes of messing around, we’re away!! One lap of Clifden, which will be repeated three times at the end of the race to make up the 100 miles, and we take off up the Westport Road.
Mile 3: My crew finally materialises out of the dark behind me. Now we’re in business, we pass a long pier at Attirowerty and I’m in good humour, sprinting for a while to keep up with Iain Shaw on the bike. “I really wouldn’t do that if I were you, still 97 miles to go!” That’s good advice! The temperature is still pretty mild with a lovely cool breeze, nowhere near 20°C yet.
Mile 9: We pass through Letterfrack after 1 hour & 48 minutes. I meet up with Marcus Howlett and decide to stick with him for a while. It’s good to have someone to run with, and we’re swapping stories although his are somewhat better than mine. I can’t imagine that my epic day in Tullamore is going to be of much interest to a guy who’s ran the Comrades 89k in South Africa. In any case, I abandon my previous plan and stick with Marcus for a while, running 20 minutes, walking 10. “Always measure by time, not distance,” he says. I nod sagely, pretending I know what I’m going on about. We reach the first landmark on the course, the church at Tullycross, after two and a half hours. We meet the incredible Gerry Forde at this point; Gerry is going for a new record for the longest distance completed by an Irish wheelchair athlete. We take the furthest right turn and carry on, but he soon catches us on the downhill into Mullaghglass!
Mile 19: 3hrs56min This is the stage where I would normally start hitting “the wall” but today it doesn’t seem to apply! Marcus and I both stop the crews at the Salrock Lake. I’ve been running flat-footedly for a while so Brian gives me a massage on my legs and ankles. It’s starting to warm up so I dip the bandana in the lake, ditch the cotton Reach Out top in favour of a lighter Drogheda AC singlet and have another lucozade. Marcus is away about half a minute before me so we hurry to finish the Deep Heat on my legs and redo the Vaseline on my feet. Getting Brian to come along was probably the best decision we ever made; I have full mobility back in my ankles straight away. Good stuff so far.
Mile 23: 4hrs54min The surroundings are starting to look familiar; we’re starting to approach the start line of the regular Connemarathon now. It’s grand and cool, around 11am and it’s nowhere near as hot as yesterday. I’ve started eating solids at this point; nothing serious – just a muffin and a couple of Jaffa cakes. We pass the Stop and Pray Church (sounds like a good idea right now…) and head onto the N59. At this point, Marcus is starting to pull away from me, I’ve been running an extra minute to catch up with him when he takes his walking breaks but I’m not able to keep up with his running pace right now.
Mile 28 – FIRST CHECKPOINT 6hrs27min – 12.27pm. Stopped at the Lough Inagh Lodge – the last two miles were the hardest stretch so far; you’re expecting it to be all over after 26 miles and then, to keep on going is a shock to the system. I meet Rosaleen at the gate, she tells me “You’re doing great, you’re doing great!” And she helps me across the cattle-grid. Brian had the massage-table setup in the dining room; he gives me a quick ten minute rub, loosens out my joints, puts the deep heat on my calves and redoes Vaseline on my feet. I update the social media stuff while lying on the table (very important!); get some fig rolls, Jaffa cakes, tea and half a banana. Rosaleen has the great idea of pouring extra electrolytes into the Lucozades, which gives me a little boost, and we’re away again! Having broken through the 28 mile barrier, it’s a new race – I feel like I just pushed the reset button. After about half a mile, the Garmin starts running of battery so we get the sellotape out of the car and tape up the portable charger to my arm. This time tomorrow, we’ll be finished……
Mile 35: 7hrs46min It’s just 13.46pm ICE-CREAM TIME! Dad’s taking a break; Rosaleen and Brian are behind me in the jeep and Rosaleen gets me an iceberger; the sun is really starting to beal down. I’m not paying attention to splits for the moment, I’m just happy to run for 20 minutes, and then walk for 10. The guys tell me we’re a bit less than 10 miles away from the Peacock Hotel, so I’m feeling good. It’s going well … so far.
Mile 39: 8hrs52min And we just passed 39.3 miles i.e. the length of the regular Connemara ultra-marathon. We pass about ten cars from Dublin in a row, just beside the lakes at Recess and Shannakeela. They all start beeping and roaring out the window at me and I start jumping up-and-down, egging them on. About twenty minutes later, I turn around and realise I’ve accidentally caused a 50 car pile-up. I pull myself up to let them by, making a mental note to retire these running shoes when this is all over.
Mile 42: We arrive at the Peacock hotel and I am in bits. Brian has the massage-table setup in the snooker room; my legs and ankles are relatively okay but the soles of my beet and badly bruised and sore. Also each one of toes has to be clicked back into place, something which is going to need to be redone several times … it’s not fun. Marcus is just leaving the hotel as I arrive; I leave after about fifteen minutes with a hamburger and a protein shake. Gerry Forde passes me as I’m polishing it off on the move, everything hurts but the craic is mighty!
Mile 50: We pass the halfway stage after 11 hours and 55 minutes, almost exactly the target we’d set at the beginning. The course takes in the regular Connemarathon loop but in reverse, so it’s very pleasant to only have to run down the ‘Hell of the West’. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to go up it at this stage!
Mile 56: SECOND CHECKPOINT – I’m finding it very difficult to keep running at this point. We arrive at the second aid station in Leenane; Finn O’Mara, who’s crewing for Gerry Forde, is kind enough to help Brian loosen out my feet and ankles. She also straps some padded cotton inserts around my feet and loosens the shoes which is a huge help (as is the spare rainproof poncho she gives me)! The night-time portion of the run is just beginning so I change into all my fluorescent gear. After about 60 miles, I make a quick phone call to my rather amazing friends Aoife and Meghan, who have always had a knack for pepping me up; their Mam opines that I’m either amazing or completely nuts. I start running again…
Mile 65: We re-enter the Inagh Valley, which I will refer to from here on as the Valley of Doom (or at the very least, Crappy Valley), for the second and last time. Marcus was telling me earlier about pulling out of the race last year at Mile 90 due to hypothermia. However, what he was saying didn’t really register with me at the time, I thought you’d just power through at that point, no matter what. Then it became very real. Dad stops the jeep and I get inside for a muffin and some Lucozade. Five minutes later, I jump out and run ten steps. Then a gust of wind hits me out of nowhere and I literally just start screaming. I’ve never had that experience before where cold causes you physical pain, it was most horrible moment of the entire race, I literally was roaring for a solid half-minute before the guys caught up with me and I threw on a tracksuit. So if you ever do the Connemara 100, you probably have that to look forward to, have fun!
Mile 68: THIRD CHECKPOINT – 18hrs 25minutes. We arrive for the second time at the Lough Innagh Lodge and I collapse into a chair in the front room. Dad and Brian guide me into the front room and lay me out on a couch. The staff is being very accommodating and nice; the food and tea comes thick and fast. We originally planned for a ten-minute stopover but it becomes clear very quickly that I need sleep. Unfortunately, I can’t lie down without cramping up so Brian has to work on my legs for most of the time I’m there. My temperature is spiking and dropping quite a lot, so the half-hour’s sleep turns into a half-hour of staring at the ceiling. Afterwards I found out that I almost got pulled out of the race at this point, which would have been more than reasonable. Fortunately, Rosaleen hadn’t come this far to quit and so persuaded the other two to keep me in. A half hour after we arrived, we’re away again – only this time Rosaleen Clare is taking over my pacing. My brain can take a break; all I need to do is keep moving forward!
Mile 70: – 20hours 46 minutes. I didn’t experience many of the promised hallucinations on this race but I swear that I saw the sign for Clifden at the end of the Innagh Valley at least four times before we actually reached it. The Valley of Doom is slightly under ten miles long and it took forever to get out of there; reaching the T-junction onto the N59 was nearly as good as reaching the finish-line itself. At this point, I started using the iPod. I don’t know what my crew thought they were signing up for, but listening to me roaring out the theme song from Grease in the middle of the night probably wasn’t what they were expecting. The boy had officially lost it….
Mile 75: 22 hours 22 minutes. At this point, I need massages fairly regularly just to keep moving. To speed up the process, Brian lays out the case that holds the massage-table on the ground behind the jeep (it’s almost the same length as my torso) and loosens out my joints right there on the road.
Mile 80: 23 hours 38 minutes. Brian has gone on ahead to get some sleep so there’ll be no more massages. We run into Morris and the lads from the 100 Marathon Club on the road into Roundstone; I’m not sure who’s more incredulous that I’m still moving, them or me! Dad gets out the jeep and walks with me for a while; at this point, I’ve got nothing left in the tank. The only “plan” is to walk each of the remaining miles in under twenty minutes and pray that we beat the cut-off, which is thirty hours.
Mile 82: FINAL CHECKPOINT! We hit the final checkpoint in Roundstone. I remembered being warned that we might run into lads out on the booze in Roundstone but fortunately, they’d all gone home at this stage!
Mile 83: Houston we have a problem! Our plans are thrown into disarray, as word comes back from Clifden that we may be over twenty miles away from the finish-line. We think the actual figure is closer to fifteen but nobody knows what’s going on, Brian drives on ahead to Clifden to find out. I ditch the tracksuit and the poncho; losing the weight of all the extra gear is a godsend. The salty air and the light from the dawn of a new day revitalises me and we set off running to Clifden. From now on, we walk the hills and eat up the miles on the level and on the downhill – Rosaleen following me with a Lucozade in one hand, a protein shake in the other.
Mile 90: 25 hours 25 minutes. A huge psychological barrier falls away as we cross 90 miles. Rosaleen and Dad are delighted and it gives me a great buzz; the route is solidly hilly from here to Clifden (“they’re annoying wee f***ers but they’re do-able!”) but it becomes apparent that unless I break both legs, I’ll beat the cut-off.
Mile 97: I meet Thomas Bubendorfer about three miles outside of Clifden; we pick up the pace again – the moving times on each mile drop right down into 12-13 minute zones. Pat O’Keefe materialises out of nowhere in the jeep with a spare PowerAde. I’ve screwed up my running line and will end up running slightly over 103 miles but it doesn’t matter; we’ve reached Clifden. All that’s left between me and my first ultramarathon finish is three one-mile “victory laps” of the town. Then we’re home and dry. At this point, I’m running everything except the very steepest uphill portion of the Main Street. I’ll have to pass by the finish-line three times before I can actually cross it; all the other runners have gathered at the finish-line and are cheering me on each time I come around.
Mile 100: We began at 6am on Saturday morning. 28 hours, 47 minutes and 43 seconds later, it’s all over. I have just about enough energy to raise my arms as I’m running over the finish-line before hitting the ground. Oddly enough, the last song offered by my iPod before it died was 500 Miles by the Proclaimers. Having finished a fraction of that distance, I can safely say that those guys are full of it! It’s been a uniquely challenging race, which I really had no right to be taking part in at all, but I’m very glad I did. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to a lot of people; firstly to Ray O’ Connor for allowing me to take part in the first place. Although my crew was put together at the last minute, it turned out to be a flawless combination of talents. Dad was brilliant in the whole area of navigation and logistics. Rosaleen has a wealth of experience in marathons and triathlons and letting her direct my pacing and nutritional intake unquestionably got me through the night-time portion of the run. And of course, without Brian Millne, I wouldn’t have even made it through the first half of the race. If I could give one single piece advice to anyone considering a race of this distance, it would be to have a physiotherapist on your support crew. It makes a world of a difference. Thanks are also due to everyone who supported me on the day and everyone who was texting me and sending me messages on Facebook/Twitter. Okay enough babbling; if you haven’t checked out Running for ReachOut on mycharity.ie, please do! The next race in the calendar is the Longford Marathon on August 26th, which will be #13 of the year. A mere 26.2 miles, should be no problem at all!