The wall of sound hits me as I take the last bend.  The glowing red digits on the finish line clock say 2 hours 59 minutes and the seconds are counting inexorably up.  My entire existence is distilled into the death battle between those red digits and my aerobically depleted legs but the sound is a wave of raw energy coming from my friends on the other side of the line and it picks me and it lifts me and it’s Bloomsday and I am running the race of my life and like Molly my “heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."



It’s probably a good idea to attempt to run your first sub three hour marathon before reaching the age of 55 but I came to road running a little late in life so here I was in Portumna on the 16th June 2012 trying to do exactly that.  My first marathon was London in April 2006 where I finished in 4:20 and in a very sorry state.  Looking back on it now I did just about everything wrong – not enough training, not the right kind of training, running too quickly three quarters of the way through, incorrect nutrition...  It was a week before I could walk down the stairs without facing backwards. 

But I had the bug and I went and ran a few more with gradually reducing times; Amsterdam 2008, 3:35, Boston 2009, 3:20, Dublin 2009, 3:12.  I had to take a break in 2010 after an altercation with an Aberdeen Angus cow left me with a dead leg for most of the year but I resumed in 2011 with Connemara in April which went well (3:16) and gave me the glimmer of an idea that a 3 hour might be possible. 

Why do we do it?  Why do runners try to do faster and faster times?  Non-runners look at us mystified, “What difference does it make whether you run a 5K in 20 minutes, or 23 minutes or 25 minutes?” they ask.  We try to explain the feeling when you finish a race and deep down you know you could have done better and you want to come back next time and prove it to yourself.  I think the important thing is the “yourself” part.  Sure, it’s nice to beat your friends/enemies and it’s great to have bragging rights over the other guys but the real pleasure comes in setting a tough goal, upping your performance, going for it and achieving it.  When your potential performance roughly coincides with a big marker like 3 hours then the temptation is irresistible.

42.2 kilometres multiplied by 4 minutes and 15 seconds is 2:59:21.  Simple, just run every kilometre at a pace of 4:15 and you will have 39 seconds to spare in a marathon.  I could run 1 kilometre easily at that pace, I could run 5 comfortably, I could even do 10, but after that I had no idea how many more I could do.  There was only one way to find out so I trained hard and started the Dublin marathon in October 2011 at a pace of 4:15.  I maintained the pace for 21K but then just fell away.  I finished the race in 3:10 but I thought that I was capable of doing much better.

Jane-Ann Healy and Mick Rice persuaded me to target the Kildare marathon in April 2012 for my first serious “sub 3” attempt.  It ticked all the right boxes; Mick would be pacing it and Jane-Ann was also making her first sub 3 attempt; it was supposed to be a flat course and I would have the benefit of their enormous knowledge and experience in the build-up.  I went for it and I did it all – 20 weeks of serious mileage, long runs, speed sessions, hill sessions, strength work, circuit training, stretching, foam rolling, off the drink, careful diet, etc, etc.

I picked Mick up at 5:30am on the morning of the race and on the way to the Curragh he asked me how I was fixed.  My summary was “I have no injuries, I am fitter and faster than I have ever been in my life and the last time I was this weight I was 17.  The question is – is it in me?”  The answer was no, actually.  I kept the pace going through 29 kilometres but after that I just could not keep it up.  I finished in 3:07 and the last few kilometres were just miserable.

Back in the changing room I was about as low as I have ever felt.  It had been a very windy day and the course was much hillier than we expected and we started too fast in the first 5 K but in the back of my mind was this nagging doubt that these were all excuses and that I just didn’t have it.  Then Ruthann Sheahan pipes up, “Why don’t you run Portumna in 6 weeks time?  It’s a lovely flat course, it’s a 5K loop and it’s in the woods so the wind isn’t a factor.”   Jane-Ann and I talked it over. We persuaded Owen Curran to run it with us (Owen had already run two sub 3 hour marathons) and we decided to go for it.

In Project Management there is the saying of the four Ps – Poor Planning makes for Poor Performance.  Of course the converse is not automatically true but without Good Planning there definitely will not be Good Performance.  So I set about planning for Portumna with something approaching military precision.  I first took all of the Garmin data for every K in the Dublin and Kildare marathon, put it all on an Excel spreadsheet and analysed the living daylights out of it.  Then I turned the microscope on Portumna.  It’s an unusual race because the marathon is actually the shortest of 3 races taking place on the day (the “fun run” as our ultra marathon colleagues in Athenry AC described it).

We would be sharing the 5K loop with 50K and 100K runners and in practice this was fantastic as a load of Athenry runners were doing the 50K and they kept encouraging us every time we passed them.  I also talked to the race director Seb Locteau and established exactly how the support area worked, what was provided (and more importantly what was not) and what the rules were.  Frank Burke agreed to be my support man (thank you again, Frank).  The marathon has a 2.2K run-in and then 8 laps of the 5K circuit.  I worked out the splits and printed them on an A4 sheet of paper and laminated it.  The only place my plan broke down was when Owen refused to let me pin it on his back (that hurt buddy J).  I provided Frank with a table, chairs, gels, a scissors to open them, cups to pour them into and small water bottles. 

But regardless of all the planning it’s the execution that counts so now we come to Tony K’s rules for execution.  This only applies to a mission like a sub 3 hour marathon and has nothing to do with 95% of the time we spend running which in my view is for enjoyment.

The taper and start. I ran a very hard 5K race on the Tuesday before Kildare. Stupid, stupid!! – I could still feel the race in my legs on the marathon start line.  Almost no running in the week leading up to the marathon works best for me.  Then have as stress free and relaxed pre-start as possible. The day was overcast, very little wind, cool – perfect.  The trip down is very short, I picked Jane-Ann up at 8:00am and we got there at 8:45, parked literally beside the finish line, got registered in 5 minutes, no fuss – perfect.  Got the support area organized, full toilet break, Vaseline in all the vital areas, took the bus for the short trip to the start –perfect.  And without any fuss or bother we were started on the greatest run of my life.

 Be ruthless in concentration and focus during the race.  Talking wastes energy.  This is very hard for me as I love the craic when running and I apologize to all the friends and supporters that I didn’t respond to during the race.  Opening gels wastes energy.  Plan your route through crowded sections.  Back off, if there isn’t space!  It rarely lasts for more than a few seconds but jumping sideways or accelerating wastes energy.

Stick to the pace. Early on it would be no problem to do a 4:10 or a 4:05 K and the temptation is there all the time that you can save those 5 or 10 seconds for later.  But in my view those seconds come at a huge cost.  The only exception to this is when you get a few free seconds when running downhill or wind assisted and these banked seconds can be useful later to compensate for tougher stretches. Sixteen of the 42 K laps were within 1 second of target pace and 31 were within 3 seconds.  My fastest K was 4:07 (downhill) and my slowest was 4:25 on lap 32 when the head wind came up quite gusty (luckily this only happened once).  A word of warning here – don’t trust Garmin measurements.  The watch may be measuring short so cross check against the markers and the time clock.

Check your body at regular intervals.  Are your ankles loose?  Is your posture good?  Every now and again, drop the shoulders, flex the arms and the back, crouch over for a few steps.  There will be lots of aches and pains but is there anything serious?  If something seems unusually bad focus on it, relieve it if possible and then tell it to go away.  Your body will try to trick you into stopping or slowing down but remember your mind is in charge.  There will be bad patches but they will pass.  My worst loop (aside from the last one) was actually loop three.  Trust your training!  

Take the nutrition.  I carbo loaded for two days before the race and each time I passed through the support area Frank handed me a water bottle and a cup with gel in it.  

There is only one goal.  There are no sub goals.  I really, really wanted to break 1:30 for the half in Kildare and I did it.  Yippee!  But how do you lift yourself to do it all again when starting from a much harder place?  Not surprisingly the first K that I felt real trouble in Kildare was immediately after the half way point.  I told Owen that I didn’t want to know where the half way point was in Portumna (he still told me, mind you, but I didn’t check the time - strike two buddy J).

The pain will come.  There is a whole load of science associated with what happens when aerobic capacity is exhausted, the lactate threshold is reached etc, which I am not going to go into here.

Take it from me it hurts – both mentally and physically.

It is only possible to maintain pace for a short time when the pain comes.  The good news is that you don’t then die, you just run at a slower pace and the other good news is that you can increase the pace again for a very short time through sheer willpower. In both Dublin and Kildare I had tested myself after hitting “the wall” so I could predict very accurately how much time I would lose when the pain came.  If I could make it to the last 5K I knew that I had a really good chance of achieving my goal.  The 39 spare seconds in my race plan would be just enough to compensate for the slower pace, but the further I could get into the 5K the less of these I would need.  A second word of warning here though – coherent thoughts stop when the pain comes – don’t trust yourself to make good decisions from this point on.  When I made the last turn with 2.5K left to run my head went woozy, my stomach started heaving and my legs turned to jelly.  This is the time to lock down and go for it.  No thoughts of times or pace or averages, just the target of the finish line and my legs going as hard as they can and Molly Bloom’s soliloquy going round and round in my head “and yes I said yes I will Yes”.

So my friends’ energy dragged me over the line and I fell to the ground exhausted.  But the clock was stopped at 2:59:31 and I knew that I had done it and it was the best feeling in the world.  All the hard training had been worth it after all.  The perfect race is run when the training, planning and execution come together to produce a result that is beyond the individual’s greatest expectation and I really felt that I had run my perfect race.  Afterwards, when I had recovered a bit I said to the crowd around me that this was my last racing marathon and that from now on I would only run sight-seeing marathons but they all fell around the place laughing.  I still can’t figure out what was so funny.

Thanks to Mick Rice for the mentoring, Jane-Ann for everything (I really believe that you will do it – you are a superb runner), Owen for partnering me, Frank for the support and all the friends and colleagues in Athenry AC and beyond who supported me and cheered me on.

2:59:31   - see for full result!

Tony Killarney – June 2012.