My First Connemara - But not my last

Published in Reports on 28th March 2006

Connemarathon 2006 ”“

We came, we saw, we got wet, but we conquered the Hell of The West.

I should temper my report with the sad news that a fellow runner, a Frank Haines from England, who was running the Half Marathon, collapsed and sadly passed away despite the best efforts of the wonderful medical team and fellow runners who assisted, and our thoughts go out to his friends and family. It puts everything into perspective when a tragedy like this happens, but we must go on and I dedicate my report to Frank and those that have gone before him.

We drove over to Connemara on Saturday, a 4-hour drive from Dublin, heading for out base in Clifden and passing the Marathon Finish at Mamm Cross on the way. As we passed, the preparation activity was going on, so we called in to see what was happening and bumped into a group of people who were running the Race Directors Marathon, a special Invitee’s race to enable those masochists who like to run two marathons in a weekend the opportunity. Some people!

We got to Clifden and checked in, taking in the Soccer on TV and relaxing with a nap before I went to the gym and jogged a couple of miles to loosen up. My training partner, Kieran, and his wife Barbara, met up with us in the bar before we headed to the Pasta Party going on in the hotel. A well attended and well supplied gathering, with plenty of food and a good selection as well. We were joined by First Timer Aisling from Cork, and after dinner we retired to the bar, the runners all on soft drinks, listened to some music and retired to bed, remembering to move our clocks forward an hour as “Summer Time” started this weekend.

Well, Summer Time, saw me waking up at 6:45 to see grey clouds, mist on the hills, and the wind clearly picking up as the trees in the hotel grounds were swaying in time to the rain! A brief breakfast and the coaches were ready to take our merry crew to the Staging area. There were three races taking place, the Marathon with 540 registered, a Half with a couple of thousand participants and the Ultra, over 39 miles with some 80 lining up. The races all finish in the same place, but the starts were at various points, so after a quick arrival and a chance to see the 9 am start for the Ultra, we were shipped off to Lough Innagh and the Holding area for the start of our race on the shore of the Lough.

10:30 was the time we were due off. I saw a few friends, we all swapped our tales and hopes, casting our eyes skyward as the grey mist and low clouds were sure to be relieving their precipitation upon us at some point. To be fair, the temperatures were milder than off late, probably up to around the high 40’s, and freezing was never going to be a problem, so I ran in my club vest with a wicking shirt underneath. However the wind was likely to be a factor, so I ran with my woolly hat, and I have to admit to being glad I did, even if I may have looked a little strange (No comments about how I always look strange!).

The race was off at 10:30, having seen the leading Ultras pass us, and Kieran and myself settled into our pace easily, being joined very quickly by Ian, another First Timer, more about him later. Kieran and I had planned on aiming for 9 minute pace for as long as we could. The course was definitely a tale of two halves with the first half being the easier, and the second half having two significant climbs, one at around 13.5 miles, and a second, the Hell of The West, at 22 miles, and at 1.8 miles long, it would certainly be a challenge. Our first mile was 8:55, nice and easy, and very comfortable on the rolling road along the Lough side. The rain was keeping off and we were running effortlessly. I don’t stop my watch on marathons every mile, tending to go for 5 mile splits, but my memory recalls that we ran the next couple of miles in around 8:30 each mile, as we were over a minute and a half up on our goal after 4 miles, but the pace was comfortable.

Between Miles 4 and 5 I had a Paula moment. I could feel my breakfast stating to work, and I needed to make a pit stop. Now you might think that a Marathon running around the wind-swepped fields of the West of Ireland would provide plenty of places to dive into to relieve oneself, but no! The fields are open, not a tree in sight, but thankfully I could see a Porta-Pottie coming up ahead, so I left K and Ian to run on as I took my pit-stop. I lost three minutes on this stop, and so my 5 mile split shows 46:11 and I worked hared than I would have liked to re-catch the boys and those next five miles of solo running saw 43:56 clocked, and a 10 mile 9:07, and I caught the lads up and we got back together, and had a good laugh as we prepared to drop into Killary Fjord, well drop into the village of Leenaune rather than the fjord itself, although the rain we encountered on the second half left us as dry as if we had run though the fjord!

Ian was a scream. It was his First Marathon, and as a training method he ran a half marathon a year ago, and did take the wise move to give up smoking last week, and only have a few pints on the Saturday night. I’m sure he was being economical with the truth, but it amused us and kept us smiling as the rain started to fall and the conditions worsened. We reached half way on 1:58:11, and Barbara was waiting for us with bananas and goo, a welcome sight, and we ran through the village of Leenaune, famous for being the setting for the Richard Harris film, The Field.

Turing out of the village you encounter the first real climb. I love hills, and decided to work hard as we climbed the 250 feet from the harbour to the plain. This hill is steeper than the 22 miler, but given it was still within the “early” stages of the race, it didn’t feel as hard, and once we levelled off I knew we had some 7 miles to “coast” before the dreaded hill! Mile 15 saw a 45:20 split for 5 and only 27 seconds outside our 9-minute pace goal. However, it was now that the wheels started to come off for me. The constant rain had soaked through my shoes, and the blisters I have been suffering for weeks, started to come into play, although it was the smaller one on my left foot that was to play the worst enemy to my progression. Around here I had to let Ian and Kieran run on ahead as I was having trouble on the flat and downhill stretches. The blister was on the ball of my foot, and although I could get onto my toes on the uphills, the downhills where the foot strikes on the ball was an “ouch, ouch, ouch” experience.

My now walk/run stretch was reflected in my time to Mile 20, a 53:55 split and any hope of breaking 4 hours was well gone. I was still on for 4:15, still respectable given the conditions, but knowing what was ahead I had my doubts. I had caught Ian, who was struggling, and he was walking on behind me, but Kieran was running well, tired but determined to run all the way and I had no sight of him on this stretch. With the rain now directly into our faces, and the headwind whipping up, thankfully not as fast as the forecast’s had predicted, but still strong enough for me, it was a struggle and making new friends along the way, I persevered, trying to block out the pain every time my left foot hit the road, thinking at one point, “I wonder if I could hop a marathon”.

We headed for home, turning by the pub (Keane’s I think!), crossing the river and my last goo stop, along with sweets and chocolates being handed out by the brave volunteers who were the only spectators on the course and a welcome sight every 3 miles or so. That’s not totally true, as I recall the watchful eyes of many a sheep wondering why their tranquillity was being shattered by the footfalls of a few thousand idjits, and baaing us along. At one point, two cows were stood at the roadside, and mooed as I passed, I thanked them for their support ”“ It made a welcome change from “You’re Looking Great” or “Awesome”.

Mentally I was strong, but physically I was feeling drained, and somewhere after the Mile 22 mark, The Hill commences. It isn’t that steep, just never-ending. Consistent, and visual. You can see the road dotted with bobbing figures rise up above you, and as the saying goes, “This road sure does rise up to meet you””¦ It was tough, and I make no apology for walking at many stages, then getting on my toes for a while and trying to keep up a pace. As an indication, only two people passed me on the whole climb, and I was struggling ”“ The rain, the wind, the climb were taking their toll on more than me.

Eventually the summit is reached, and only a little over two miles to go, downhill and flat were now awaiting us, and I was determined to finish strong. My blister was killing me, but my mind was working on the assumption that it was better to run through the pain barrier and get finished as quickly as possible, so I set off. The 25 mile split was 63:08, but I actually was checking my watch from the 24 mile mark, having clicked accidentally there, and I could see I was either starting to fly, or the mile marker was wrong, I ran 7:30 for Miler 25, yes you read that right, my fastest mile of the race was Mile 25 (OK, there is a nice downhill stretch here!), and I was suddenly flying, thinking about how fast I could have been on a flatter course, or maybe in a nice sun-drenched marathon such as Hawaii, not Connemara in March ”“ Why am I a glutton for punishment?

Mile 25 was past and the last 1.2. I could suddenly see Kieran up ahead of me, and reeled him back, meaning to run home with him, but he was running on empty by then, and I had to keep my pace going, he told me afterwards, that he had been expecting me to rush past him, I think his quote was “The Old Fecker will come strong at the end”. I persevered, clocked of Mile 26, and knew the finish was just ahead. I hadn’t been able to see anything for the last 4 miles properly as my glasses needed wipers, and has been steaming up as well, but I can smell a Marathon Finish Line and I kept running hard, could see the clock counting down to 4:20:56,”¦ 57,”¦”¦ 58,”¦.. 59,”¦.. 00”¦”¦”¦ I was done ”“ 4:21:00 spot on, and the last 1.2 miles in 8:30, the last two miles and 385 yards in 16 minutes exactly, if only I can repeat that next time out I’ll be very happy.

I waited for Kieran to come through, shattered but immensely delighted to finish his first marathon. The Medal was very welcome, and the T-Shirt very apt with it’s phrase about Hitting the Wall in Connemara. The wonderful and welcome soup and coffee, sandwiches and fruit were a god-send, and whilst the army tents may have been dark and muddy by now, they were a wonderful place to be having braved the elements.

Having located our bags (thanks Barbara), and changed into dry clothes, we had a lift back to Clifden and Dee was waiting for me, a welcome hug and a nice pint, as we relaxed with fellow runners and swapped tales about our exploits in the Wild West. It was here that we heard about the tragedy, which brought everyone down to earth. I know it can happen anywhere, and has done many times before in races around the globe, but somehow it felt closer to home in this International Marathon with a flavour of being far more like a Local Race, an amateur feel to a very professionally organised event.

I would like to thank the volunteers, the Race Director and his team, the Medics, and everyone else involved with the staging of this event. It isn’t easy. That was Number 20 for me, and by a long way my hardest. If you are looking for a Marathon Experience that involves huge crowds, a fast course and a PB, then this isn’t for you, but if you love a challenge, welcome the camaraderie of fellow runners, enjoy great craic, before, during and after the event, then this is the One ”“ A great Experience, tough and challenging, but then again, isn’t that what it should all be about.

The first leg of my 2006 Grand Slam completed, and I’m guessing (and hoping!) the hardest of the four. My goal is to run 16 hours for the 4 Irish Marathons, so I can now work on my target for the next leg, Belfast on May 1st.

One final note. I got through this race feeling strong, and apart from the blisters, no injuries. As I write this on Tuesday morning, some 36 hours after the finish, I feel fine, my legs are recovering easily, and whilst I can still feel the 26 miles in them, I can walk easily and will be running a recovery run this evening. I do have one injury that is really sore, and drew blood at the time. Creeping back into the Hotel Room at 5 am after partying after the race, and trying not to wake Dee who had retired around 3, I stubbed my toe on the bed ”“It really hurts J

Updated to record Official Time as 4:20:48 (Liam)