Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be

Published in Reports on 7th April 2006

UK:A 100k Champs and Anglo Celtic Plate 02nd April 2006
RAF Innsworth, Gloucester, England.

Race Report by Mick Rice

Where to start?

Sometimes, even when there’s a good story to tell, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Deciding to train for and race this event wasn’t a decision I took lightly. Previous experience in marathon races and a small number of shorter ultramarathons had shown me that long distances deserve respect and that very long distances have to be treated with great caution. All this of course isn’t to say that one shouldn’t have a bash I suppose.

The prospect of this race had dominated all of my training and racing over the last four months. I had run more miles each week than ever before and had chosen not to race in events that meant a lot to me personally. This later choice, particularly in the case of the Connemara Marathon, wasn’t an entirely comfortable one. In short, I had taken this race very seriously, perhaps even too much so. On the positive side, having been nominated as an Irish representative in the event meant that I would be running in Irish colours for the very first time. For an aging plodder like myself this was an opportunity that I couldn’t easily pass up.

I had only a very few yardsticks that I could use to measure my approach. I had run well, by my own standards, in the fifty-four mile long London to Brighton Ultramarathon late in 2005 and I was hoping to transfer some of those positive experiences to my first attempt at 100k. The eight extra miles on this occasion would nevertheless take me into unknown territory. Expert guidance on how to run such long distances is hard to come by, even in this ‘information age’. I found I just had to combine my own limited experience with what I could find online and in old books and magazines and then hope for the best. I owe a great debt of thanks to John Walshe in Ballycotton, not only for his continual support but also for providing me with back issues of the Road Runners Club magazine, which contained much useful information. I had read somewhere along the line that training for a race like this is like practicing to be hit by a bus. When all was said and done, this wasn’t too far off the mark.

And so, after much huffing and puffing, I arrived at Exeter Airport at lunchtime on Saturday the 1st of April. My good friend Selina met me in the arrivals hall and we headed immediately north and towards our hotel outside of Gloucester. Selina is an experienced ultramarathoner in her own right with one hundred and fifty marathons and ‘ultras’ to her name. She was to act as my support person for the race on the following day and so I knew I was in good hands. The peace of mind Selina provided just by being there meant a great deal to me. Roughly two hours later we booked into our hotel and immediately started to meet up with other runners. With the race venue only a couple of miles down the road many competitors had chosen the same hotel as their base.

Time passed quickly. I wanted to prepare my drinks and kit for the following day and with that in mind I retired to my room shortly before ten o’clock. I’d gone through the same pre-race ritual many times before and each step was familiar. On the room’s spare bed I arranged all my race clothes and packed a bag with drinks, gels, spare shoes, spare clothes and the many other bits n’ bobs that just might come in handy. I also set out food for my breakfast the following morning and had one last glance through the race documentation. One final item caught my eye. I needed my passport as proof of identity. As the race was being held on the Royal Air Force Base at Innsworth, security was going to be tight. Personal details of each runner, race official and supporter had been submitted months in advance for security clearance. Unbelievably I couldn’t find my passport. I won’t even attempt to describe my growing panic over the next couple of hours as I turned the hotel room upside down in search of the precious document. I couldn’t find it. It was gone.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man”. Despite the late hour a friend James Lundon managed to fax me a photocopy of my work identity card from home, which I had to hope would suffice. This, given the fact that he had no access to a fax machine, was no mean feat. James, I shall be eternally grateful. All I could do was hope that I would be let onto the base the following day and to try to get some sleep. My head eventually hit the pillow at about half-past midnight. There was nothing more I could do.

My alarm woke me from a fitful sleep at 6:00am. My race gear was distributed in small disorganised piles about the room as a result of my vain search for the passport the previous night. I re-organised my race gear as best I could whilst stuffing food and drink into my reluctant stomach as fast as I could. Slinging a bag over my shoulder I met Selina in the hotel reception area at 6:30am. This was it. The next half an hour would determine whether I would be allowed compete or not. We loaded up the car and made our way tentatively towards the RAF Base. The Race Director’s instructions asked us to obtain passes from a military policeman at the entrance to the base. With great trepidation I proffered my faxed identification to the young man at the gate and with only a slight hesitation we were both given laminated passes and waved through. Phew!

Although there was over an hour to go to the race start, time passed quickly. Runners, officials and military personnel mingled quietly around the gymnasium that served as our race HQ. From the time that we had parked the car and started walking towards that gymnasium it had been clear that there was a very strong wind blowing. The weather was going to have a major impact on the race. The wind was strong enough to blow down some of the race signage and would clearly make life difficult on the exposed parts of the course. Runners who had targeted particular finishing times, including myself, would need to readjust their goals to take the poor conditions into account. Although rain showers were passing over every half an hour or so, they were light and probably wouldn’t affect performances. Each runner would need to complete thirty-two laps around the base, one lap of 3.2242 kms followed by thirty-one laps of 3.1218 kms. Time crept forward and at a little past 08:00am runners and officials assembled at the start to get the event underway. In steady rain our adventure eventually began in earnest and forty-one brave souls padded cautiously ahead and towards a distant finishing line. As the lead runners neared the line of support tables on the very first lap one of the chairs was blown completely across the course in front of them. It wasn’t a good omen!

Almost immediately we turned around the first corner and into the teeth of the gale. It was only my lack of real experience at running these sorts of distances that initially shielded me from the full implications. The first lap was to be exactly two miles long and all subsequent laps would be 1.94 miles long. I had originally planned to run at about 7 minutes and 30 seconds per mile pace for as long as possible. Allowing for some gradual slowing down in my pace this would bring me to the finish line just under the eight-hour mark. Before the race I had crunched the various numbers and had worked out what my lap times should be at this pace, but with all the confusion over the missing passport I had left my notes behind at the hotel. I had no option but to run by feel but I knew in my heart that I should try to err on the side of caution.

The early laps around the course were a little unreal. Everyone seemed full of energy and little conversations between small groups of runners bubbled along cheerfully. Each lap contained two long straight stretches that faced directly into the wind and some others where the wind attacked from the side. Perversely it seemed that the sections where the wind was helping were much shorter, but I suppose this can’t be true. As has been the case before I preferred to run on my own and soon found myself running in between the small bunches of athletes that were becoming distributed around the course. When I passed, or was passed myself, I tried to settle into my rhythm again on my own. My strategy was to creep slowly through the laps, to get by with as little drama or upset as was humanly possible, and for the moment at least I was able to manage just that.

This ‘phony war’ lasted for quite a while. After eight laps and with a little over fifteen miles done, I knew I had completed a quarter of the total distance but guessed that I wasn’t nearly as fresh as I should be with so much ground still to cover. My lap times indicated to me that I was probably a little ahead of the plan I had left behind in the hotel. This didn’t worry me at the time but in retrospect the alarm bells should have been deafening. I plodded on oblivious to the fast approaching danger. I could also feel that my right calf was tightening at the site of an old injury. I’d sought treatment for this problem only ten days before the race and hadn’t had any trouble with it since then. Some laps I would feel the calf tighten to the point where I was almost limping and on others it would dissolve to a sensation of slight discomfort. I fantasised that I would run it off, that the problem would resolve itself. Oh, the innocence. I passed the 25 kms point with 1:57:37 on the clock. This was around 7:50:00 pace for the full distance.

For the second 25 Kms I raced a quiet race. The tightness in my calf didn’t deteriorate noticeably, my pace didn’t reduce and so my lap times remained remarkably constant. The stewards all around the course were always cheerful and encouraging. As I was the only runner in an Irish singlet I was greeted with calls of “Come on Irish” and “Looking Fresh Ireland!” a couple of times on almost every lap. I must have stood out from the crowd a bit in my green shorts, Irish singlet, Athenry woolly hat and ‘Bono’ shades. Showers of rain came and went, the wind continued to blow strongly and the miles ticked by slowly but surely. With 3:54:08 on the clock I passed the 50 kms mark and very shortly afterwards passed by the aid stations where the faithful Selina stood, as usual, waiting with all sorts of necessary goodies. As I passed her, and gratefully accepted a bottle of watered sports drink, I smiled and said “Halfway!” I surprised myself at how cheerful the word sounded coming out of my mouth. Did I not realise that there was still a long way to go?

I had thought earlier that passing through the halfway mark would boost my spirits but instead I became a little depressed at the thought of another four hours or more on the road. I really couldn’t afford to think about the number of laps remaining because when I dwelt, even momentarily, on thoughts like ‘thirty miles to go’ my confidence sank like a stone. All the superficial toughness had been knocked off of me by this stage and I didn’t feel much like the brave adventurer anymore. I wasn’t quite a broken man but all previously held romantic notions about ‘testing oneself’ and ‘pushing the limits of the possible’ had gone the same way as my passport. Coming around the last turn into the sheltered straight that contained the start/finish area my right calf suddenly screamed with pain. I was absolutely sure, there and then, that my race was run. I was finished as far as I could see. I dropped from my previously reasonable pace to a dead stop and clutched at my leg. After a few seconds I started to limp down the long straight towards the officials and supporters based at the other end.

To say I was disappointed would of course be an understatement. I couldn’t see a way past this. At the support tables I told Selina that the calf muscle was either torn or in some sort of a spasm. I’d try to walk it off for a lap but felt reasonably sure that I was finished for the day. With head low, wanting very much to be invisible, I shuffled forwards again and tried to take long strides that might stretch the muscle out and help to release any type of cramp or muscle spasm. A minute later I tried a short jog and kept it going for thirty or forty painful paces. I walked again and then repeated the jogging experiment. To my surprise although the pain remained sharp I could maintain a slow jog. For the remainder of that lap I continued to jog slowly and then very, very gradually the muscle began to loosen. From this point in the race onwards there was only one game in town and that was trying to get to the finish line. All prior considerations about finishing times were completely abandoned, as perhaps they should have been earlier given the unfavourable conditions. I decided that I’d race from lap to lap and get as far as I could. Fatigue had also become a big factor. I was dog tired but determined.

After what seemed like an eternity I passed the 75 Kms point with 6:01:47 on the clock. I was slowing now but, more importantly, I was still in the game. It was clear from looking around the course that many of the other runners were also in deep trouble. Aside from the race leaders the majority of the field was walking and many had retired. Along this stretch I passed two runners who were sobbing as they ran or walked and others who weaved unsteadily along the road making painfully slow forward progress. In fairness, it also has to be said, that some other runners remained doggedly cheerful and continued to encourage others even as they were passed again and again.

I seemed to go into some sort of a self-protective trance towards the end of the race. My memories of the remaining miles are much less distinct than those of the early laps. Every once in a while tiredness and pain would reduce me to a walk for a short stretch and then I’d get going again. Sometimes I’d manage two or three laps without walking at all and then I’d have to walk twice in a few minutes. Each time I’d select an object that was thirty or forty yards ahead and then allow myself to walk that far, but no further, and then I’d jog on again. This wasn’t running as I’ve always known it, it was more like forward motion that didn’t technically qualify as walking. I was aware that my right calf was still very sore after the muscle spasm but now that everything else was sore it didn’t seem to be nearly as important as it had before.

With only a few laps remaining I asked Selina to dig out my MP3 player. I needed to distract myself with something in order to get through the final stages in one psychological piece. My player had been set to play tunes in alphabetical order and it started up from where it last left off. We were on the letter ‘H’. I was only mildly ‘freaked’ when the first song that played was the AC/DC classic ‘Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be’. When “Hit The Road Jack” by Ray Charles followed this and then “Hold On” from Carlos Santana I started to worry. Was I cracking up? All the music seemed to contain some sort of hidden message. Was I having weird aural hallucinations? Was the MP3 player even turned on? When the next two tunes turned out to be “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” by The Soggy Bottom Boys and “I Can’t Stand It” from Eric Clapton, I turned the player off and handed it back on the next lap. Seriously.

Fate had stored up one last surprise for me on that day. Each time we passed through the start/finish area an official emerged from a small tent and noted our lap times. With what I was certain were four laps remaining, an official called to me “”¦five laps to go!” I was gobsmacked! I called back to him that I was sure I had only four left but he didn’t immediately respond. As I had recorded all of my splits on my watch I felt I was reasonably sure of my ground. I shuffled on. I hoped against hope that he would check his figures and call the lap count correctly the next time around. As I passed him the next time he confidently called “”¦four laps to go!” I groaned and again turned, mid shuffle, and asked him to check. Again he didn’t answer, as far as I could see, but I managed to ask Selina to raise the issue with race officials whilst I was plodding painfully around the course one more time. Selina pleaded my case but she was absolutely assured that the official count was correct.

At this point I had no option but to go with what I was being told by the timekeepers. Everything I knew pointed to the fact that an innocent error had been made but I couldn’t take the risk being disqualified. I knew of course that I could be mistaken myself and above all else I wanted my name to appear in the results without the dreaded letters DQ or DNF beside it. I tried to adjust my mindset to take into account the ‘extra’ lap and pushed on. From that point on I didn’t raise any further questions as I passed by the timekeepers. I knew in my heart that this could only be resolved after the running had finished and I had absolutely no energy to spare on an argument with anyone. When I passed through the finish area for what I believed was my thirty-second time, I joked with Selina that I was finished but would be doing a lap of honour. I’m not sure she immediately appreciated the humour but given the fact that she had spent the previous nine hours standing in the cold and rain this was completely understandable. I put my head down and ‘ran’ the last lap at 8:30 pace, which was the fastest that I’d managed in the previous two hours.

My odyssey finished with 8:35:25 on the clock. Having initially targeted a time under 8:00:00 I was disappointed on one level but very, very happy to be able to finally stop. Tears were not far away. Almost immediately I wanted to check back on my splits to find out whether I had miscounted the laps. Selina and I went through the data that was stored on my watch and it was clear straight away that I had indeed run an extra lap. We approached the race referee and she requested that we write down the splits as my watch had recorded them. As we went though this process the referee observed closely as I recalled the data and Selina carefully wrote the details down. We also provided the cumulative times I had recorded for 25 Kms, 50 Kms, 75 Kms and the finish. The referee, Dr Hilary Walker, viewed our figures with an apparently open mind and promised us that she would investigate the issue with the official timekeepers. Only a short time later I was delighted to hear unofficially that my case had been accepted and that my finish time would be adjusted to 8:18:51.

And so it was over. All the planning, scheming, dreaming and plotting was finished. I had placed sixth in the men’s race and seventh overall. I was more than happy with this. In terms of running ultramarathons I feel as if I learnt a lot from the experience. None of the research I had been able to do beforehand had really prepared me mentally for how tough the later stages of the race would be. In terms of physical training there’s only so much you can do to prepare for a race of this sort. For the average runner there are only so many miles you can run each week and I suspect that even the best prepared and most talented runners will suffer towards the end of a race over 100k. These races are hugely self-indulgent and most people who participate in them will depend to some degree or other on the support of friends and family just to make sure they arrive at the start line with a chance of doing themselves justice. I was tremendously lucky to have generous support and encouragement not only from my wife Margaret and extended family but also from my running club Athenry AC. It makes so much difference to feel that people actually care if you make it to the finish line or not. I can’t thank people enough for being so kind.

A couple of days after the race I’m getting back to normal. I’m hoping to get out for a run on Saturday morning, which will be six days after the race. Aside from the usual muscle soreness that one could expect after such a hard effort I also had some bruising to my shins and swelling around my lower legs, which was a new experience. Thankfully all seems to be getting back to normal now. My guess is that it will be a little while before I attempt another race of this distance, as they seem to knock you back for quite some time afterwards. I love the challenge of really long distances but these adventures are not something you can jump into without being ready.

Onwards and upwards.

(Results and Splits Attached)

Full Results

1 Matthew Lynas Thames Hare & Hounds England 7h17m40s
2 Paul Harwood Leamington England 7h19m14s
3 Dominic Croft Woodstock Harriers England 7h37m36s
4 Colin Gell Sale Harriers England 7h56m18s
5 John Pares Buckley RR Wales 8h05m35s
6 Mick Rice Road Running Club Ireland 8h18m51s
7 Leslie Hill Dumfries RC Scotland 8h27m31s
8 Colin Mathieson Pitreavie AAC Scotland 8h46m36s
9 John Kennedy Clydesdale Harriers Scotland 8h53m12s
10 Gath Peterson Brandon Fern RC 9h01m09s
11 Stephen Mason Dundee Hawkhill Scotland 9h04m33s
12 Tony Goodwill Bourton Runners 9h10m50s
13 Samuel Kilpatrick Road Runners Club 9h22m16s
14 Jeremy Mower Gloucester AC Wales 9h27m42s
15 Mark Cockbain Road Running Club 9h46m51s
16 Tony Holling Port Talbot AC Wales 9h54m49s
17 Jackson Griffith Road Running Club 9h57m57s
18 Andrew Farquharson Unattached Scotland 10h35m01s
19 Adrian Stott Sri Chinmoy AC 10h47m43s
20 Phillip Howells Tewkesbury AC 11h08m43s
Women
1 Elizabeth Hawker Road Runners Club England 8h06m20s
2 Heather Foundling-Hawker Honiton RC England 8h43m30s
3 Debbie Cox City Of Glasgow Scotland 9h29m46s
4 Sandra Bowers Winchester & Dist 9h38m29s
5 Pauline Walker Carnegie Harriers Scotland 10h12m28s

Lap Distance Kms Distance Miles Actual Time Lap Pace

1 3.22 2.00 0:15:19 0:07:39
2 3.12 1.94 0:14:49 0:07:38
3 3.12 1.94 0:15:01 0:07:44
4 3.12 1.94 0:14:10 0:07:18
5 3.12 1.94 0:14:34 0:07:31
6 3.12 1.94 0:14:37 0:07:32
7 3.12 1.94 0:14:40 0:07:34
8 3.12 1.94 0:14:07 0:07:17
9 3.12 1.94 0:14:42 0:07:35
10 3.12 1.94 0:14:28 0:07:27
11 3.12 1.94 0:14:40 0:07:34
12 3.12 1.94 0:14:37 0:07:32
13 3.12 1.94 0:14:40 0:07:34
14 3.12 1.94 0:14:34 0:07:31
15 3.12 1.94 0:14:34 0:07:31
16 3.12 1.94 0:14:23 0:07:25
17 3.12 1.94 0:14:50 0:07:39
18 3.12 1.94 0:15:47 0:08:08
19 3.12 1.94 0:18:33 0:09:34
20 3.12 1.94 0:15:28 0:07:58
21 3.12 1.94 0:15:37 0:08:03
22 3.12 1.94 0:15:20 0:07:54
23 3.12 1.94 0:15:30 0:07:59
24 3.12 1.94 0:16:48 0:08:40
25 3.12 1.94 0:16:43 0:08:37
26 3.12 1.94 0:16:26 0:08:28
27 3.12 1.94 0:16:34 0:08:32
28 3.12 1.94 0:16:46 0:08:39
29 3.12 1.94 0:17:36 0:09:04
30 3.12 1.94 0:18:24 0:09:29
31 3.12 1.94 0:17:00 0:08:46
32 3.12 1.94 0:17:34 0:09:03

Total 100.00 62.14 8:18:51 0:08:02

25k 01:57:37
50k 03:54:08
75k 06:01:47
100k 08:18:51

Comments

In a word ... off-your-head-stone-wall-mad

I have tried to print out some pages from this site (on behalf of those who do not have PC access) : the first page prints fully but each subsequent page has only the left side of text - HELP!

Tom

Hi Tom, I'm aware of the problem, but I'll get around to fixing it shortly.

It is a Microsoft CSS implementation bug, in case you were wondering.
It prints out fine in Firefox, and Safari on Mac, last I heard.

For now, All I can suggest is to copy the text into Word or something... or get a standards compliant browser :-)

Thanks for the feedback Tom

Alan

Thanks Alan, got it with Firefox - rushing out door for the Burren --brrrrr!

Tom