Arriving in Holland
Saturday 10th September I travelled to The Netherlands to meet my Irish team mates, John O’Regan, Chris O’ Neill, Keith Whyte, John Byrne and Martin Rea. We were accompanied by our support crew, John Belton who would help us at the aid stations and provide some physio and Sarah Syron who has been vital at the Irish aid stations over the past few international events.
|Keith, John B, John O' R, Marty, Chris and me|
I had heard that The Netherlands was flat, but I didn’t realise it was FLAT. I mean not 1 hill, not even a ‘mound’. Being a keen trail runner living here would be my worst nightmare! Thankfully we were here to run 100k as fast as we could on road, so the conditions were perfect. Holland is a peculiar place in that everything looks very much the same, lots of green fields, trees and very, very long straight roads.
We stocked up with some serious train grub (biscuits, pastries, sweets and other crap) and jumped on the train with a vague idea of where we wanted to go.
“Tickets please”, says the nice Dutch ticket inspector to me,
“There you go Mr ticket inspector man”, I say
“But what are you playing at you foolish young man? This is a weekend ticket” says the bemused looking ticket inspector,
“What do you mean”, I say
“Well its Thursday” he says.
Brillaint! We had bought a weekend ticket on a Thursday! What’s that about? After the ticket inspector realised that I was probably not the sharpest tool in the box, he kindly agreed to turn that ticket into a day ticket. This was to mark the start of a humongous cock-up of travelling in The Netherlands for the Irish Team (and for many other teams!)
We finally got to our station destination to be greeted by the local hoodies. We jumped in to a small minibus which took us to Winschosten where we quickly signed in with the race officials. This is the first time I had seen the start of the course as this would be where we start on the Saturday. Shortly after, we made our way towards the Athletes’ Village which was some 30 minutes + from the start line.
I love the sounds of the words “Athletes’ Village”, firstly it’s the first time I have thought of myself as an ‘athlete’, which is nice, and secondly it’s a whole village full of athletes that are obsessed with running as much, if not more, than I am.
I checked into our room which I shared with Keith Whyte and we quickly separated the beds which were for some reason placed side by side. This would avoid any awkward ‘moments’ later on! Each room has its own small living room, toilet and shower, bedroom and kitchen. The kitchen had one of those boil on a stove kettles which I liked. It kind of reminded me of the American TV series ‘The Waltons’. “Hey John Boy, ye fancy a cup of Starbucks Via coffee?” Maybe not.
On a serious note, it was vital for us to have access to hot water as we both drink at least 5 cups of coffee an hour. No coffee. No run!
As soon as we got settled in it was time to walk over to the main building to pick up some munch. Various teams were now coming in by minibus and a bit of kit envy started to creep in for me. The Italians, French, Norwegians and many Western European countries have some serious national kits. Gore, Nike, Puma. They also seemed to have several pairs of each piece of kit each. Hmmm – we need to work on that one!
Getting Supplies – The Long Walk
The next morning, we woke up for breakfast which presented a selection of spreads and breads, yoghurt, granola and the all important coffee. For some reason there was also a plate of cucumber. Cucumber? Random choice for a breakfast menu…
We plodded down to the local supermarket which was still about a 15 minute walk. Backpacks a ready we were going to do some major stocking up of water and small bottles to carry on the course.
We arrived at the shop to be greeted by half of Team GB smiling and the other half not so happy. The shop had run out of water. It was easy to guess who just purchased the last bottles. Hmm, so it was another 10 minute walk to find another local shop which thankfully had plenty of stock (although we did crank up the pace a bit just in case another team got to the shop and destroyed the water rations!)
So, we bought several 2 litre bottles of water each and several smaller bottles that would be suitable for carrying on the course. All in all we were carrying some heavy bags - not ideal the day before a race. We took a left at this road, a right at that road, straight down here and then over there, followed by a right at the round a bout and we had reached our destination. Lost. LOST!!!
We had already been walking for some time by now and with the added weight this was not helping. My IT band had flared up and I was experiencing pain in my knee. Not funny. We decided to stop and try and work out where the hell we were. We asked someone if they knew she knew where the Athletes’ Village was or at lest a direction. Apparently, it was 10k in the opposite direction that we were walking. 10K? No way!
We laughed it off. This mad woman must have misunderstood. Surely. How the hell did we get lost by more than 10k in the wrong direction? I got the trusted BlackBerry out which confirmed that we were some way away from our destination. “Taxi”…. We were in the middle of nowhere, what were we going to do? For some reason, we even questioned the GPS technology and thought about heading in the same direction we were heading which would have only taken us further away.
We decided to trust the BlackBerry which eventually got us home. God knows how far we actually walked that day with extremely heavy bags, but it did take a few hours door to door! The thing with Holland is everything is so neat and straight and it all looks the same. You walk from one road on to another and you could pretty much be on the same path. It was like something out of the Labyrinth. The interesting thing about that episode was that I was shattered. I am not used to walking 10k+. Running, sure. Walking, well that that is a different thing altogether and my legs were trashed. I must have come in looking like I had just run the 100k! I needed John to take a look at my legs.
As soon as we got in, Chris and I booked ourselves in with a session with John Belton who went to town on our legs. John played around with my hips a bit to give them a bit more movement and reduced the inflammation in my IT band (which I am presuming was also causing the pain in my knee). On hindsight without this session I think the next day would have turned completely differently.
What a day. I thought a pre-race day was supposed to be relaxed on the couch. It still hadn’t finished, we still had the Opening Ceremony to do!
The Opening Ceremony
We hitched a lift to Winchosten and watched some local entertainment for a bit, dancers, a town cryer, and some other bits and pieces, followed by each country parading its flag and then a walk through the town centre.
Each country was called out in alphabetical order. “Ierland” (ahh that’s us), John Byrne was team captain so he held the flag. We were supposed to walk as a team through the crowds but we hung back a bit watching John walk into the crowd on his own. His sixth sense must have felt that no one was behind him as he turned to see us 20 yards behind him cackling away. Like children I tell ye.
We walked though Winchosten past the shops and crowds of people lined all the way though the town centre. It was nice and everyone was enthusiastic. I just wanted to get to bed and get cracking.
Nutrition and Aid Stations – Make up your mind man!
Once back at the Athletes’ village I realised that I had yet to work out my nutrition and hydration strategy for the next morning. Hmm. There would be an aid station a few hundred metres from the start and then another just short of 5k. So I needed enough nutrition on me to last 5k. Easy!
In front of me I had several Clif Blox, Elite, Pulsin Energy Bombs, Gu (various flavours) and Nakd bars, plenty of water and a couple of sports drinks. Now. How is this going to work? I taped some Bloxs to 4 water bottles and a Gu and a Nakd bars to several others. I then had some other bits and pieces (flat coke, jelly babies etc) which I would keep at aid station 1 for sugar emergencies! The first 10k I would not need anything, I would then pick up a Blox and Elite water at the first aid station once I had finished the first loop and basically alternate nutrition at each station to get a good mixture of ‘natural’ nutrition followed by something a bit more like sports gel / Gu.
I made that sound easy in the previous paragraph but it took a long time to work that out. Putting bottles and nutrition on the floor and pretending to run through aid station 2 on 4th loop and asking “what will I need”. I think I made it a little overcomplicated, but it kind of worked until I ran out of stuff about 70k in.
Braking the 7 hour mark
This would be my second 100k race (my first being the ACP in March this year). 100k could arguably be one of the most difficult distances in that it is usually on the road, is at an odd distance (62 miles), and is usually run at a good pace. Nutrition and hydration is extremely important and the intensity remains high throughout (perhaps compared to a 100m trail which has varied pace, elevation and terrain). Not to mention the relentless stomping the asphalt.
We were up at 6.30am for breakfast. I had a quick coffee, tried to ‘empty myself’ (twice!). Knock back some breakfast (fruit bread and bagel with peanut butter) and it wasn’t long before we were on the coach heading back to Wischosten.
It wasn’t long before we were all shoulder to shoulder at the start line. I was 6-7 people deep into the crowd and most certainly didn’t want to get sucked in to the front line pace which would be some going. The first 10k would very much be a warm-up / touchy feel of the course.
The guys from our team know the guys in Team GB quite well (Allen Smalls, Craig Stuart, Grant Jeans and Martin Mathews) who we know from the Anglo Celtic Plate or on the UK circuit. I think it was fair to say that many of the GB team were looking for a sub 7hr 100k as well as a few of us in the Irish team (all of which are more than capable). Allen is an extremely good ultra runner, very strong and has a lot of experience. Craig and Grant also showed great form in Perth at this year’s Anglo Celtic Plate. It was going to be a good’n.
The gun went off and we all started the motion which would continue for a long time. One foot in front of the other, many, many, many times over. Pounding that tarmac for hours on end. At this level, many people ask ‘what time you gonna do it in?’ However, for me it’s always about respecting this sport. The first question is not really about time but about finishing. 62 miles is a hell of a long way and deserves a lot of respect. Irrespective of fitness, training and mental state, it’s always about finishing. One poor decision or a bad hair day will see a “DNF” on your card.
The first 5k went by with a bit of a buzz, people chatting and so on. John Byrne and I pulled up alongside Allen and Martin and we began chatting immedietly noticing how bloody hot and humid it was. For those who live in the UK and Ireland this was essentially a 10 degrees increase in temperature and humidity like nothing we had experienced this year. I, for certain, was not prepared for this heat or the humidity. Hydration was going to be vital today.
|Team Ireland and Team GB|
That said, I felt ok so pushed the pace a little as I wanted to hit each lap around 41 mins which, if held, would bring me under the 7 hour mark. I was therefore happy to see that I passed the first 10k in just over 41 minutes. Now all I had to do was maintain this pace for another 9 laps! How tough could that be? Pah!
It took a loop or two to get used to and recognise the course and get my bearings on where roughly I was in the 10k circuit (albeit there were KM marks). As already mentioned, the landscape of Holland is flat. I think the total elevation of the course was about 1metre and that was probably jumping over a couple of curbs! That said, the roads were closed for us so it was essentially traffic free and the locals most certainly made an effort for the event.
Each of the long roads we passed through saw the residents deck out their road. I recall 1 road being completely covered in orange bits and pieces with loads of pictures of previous runners of the event. National flags flying along the roads and the residents sitting outside having a few drinks and the most adventurous throwing some shrimps on the barby. Kids stood in the street handing out wet sponges and ran alongside the runners waiting for them to drop the sponge immediately picking it up to make ready for the next exhausted and over heated runner!
Music was blowing out of house stereo systems and I am sure I saw one dude on his front lawn with some decks, giving it the large on the wheels of steel, Dutch styley. All in all very much like a festival atmosphere and very much welcomed by the runners - anything to take the mind off the task at hand and the slowly encroaching pain in the legs, arms, stomach and eventually total body consumption.
Part of the loop comes back on itself where you pass a traditional looking windmill and is probably about 6-7KM in. This was a good point to check on the other guys. I could see that Chris was only 20 or so seconds behind me followed by John Byrne. Looking good.
Anyway, I knew something was odd when only a couple of laps in I had overtaken both Craig and Grant who were having problems and fighting their own battles. It was a shame to see these guys having a bad day as they should have certainly been at the front! I put my head down and ploughed on trying to maintain a consistent pace, focus on taking in water, sponging myself down, going through the routine of cooling down my back, my throat, then over the top of my head. I then wiped the salt off my face and arms to feel fresh. I must have done this at least 50 times during the race.
It was when was coming in to lap 5, running past the aid station that I saw Keith sitting there. He had dropped out. I was totally surprised as Keith is most certainly one of our stronger runners. I very much rate Keith as an ultra runner and it was very difficult for me to see him at the aid station. But you only need to look at the DNF list and the quality of athletes that didn’t finish the race or came in well past their capable time to show how unexpected and therefore tough the conditions were. For some reason I was lucky on the day and my body seemed to hold up. I do think it’s a matter of luck as on a different day my body may have reacted totally differently.
|John O' Regan|
Coming back around I could see that Marty had called it a day at the 50k mark and was sitting at our aid station. Marty had suffered with problems with his calf muscles and the thought of having to run another 50k would be something else.
I run at a very odd pace. I always do. I always end up running very much alone in races as I don’t seem to share a common pace with people, whether I am behind or ahead, it’s usually never in line with. Sure, I spent a short period running with a couple of guys form the U.S., some Japanese guys (who could only grunt when I spoke to them as they knew very little English) but yet very humble runners. I passed a couple of South Africans who looked very fast and at one time I was running alongside Daniel Oralek, which was surprising. Although, I must admit it wasn’t for long! It took him a wee while to work out why I was emphasising his name “Ahh Daniel”. He gave me an odd look, and it was only when he was running behind me for a few seconds that presumably he saw my race number with my name on. “Ahh Daniel” he smiled in reply. Good lad.
Now, I did exactly what I didn’t want to do. Something which I did in the ACP. And that was hitting a rather shitty bad period from 60k. Looking at my splits, I managed to maintain a solid 40 / 41 minutes for 60k. If I could maintain this pace for another 4 loops, I would be in shout for a comfortable sub-7 hour 100k. A dream come true. It was half way around loop 6 that I needed a poo. I couldn’t wait. I had to dive in a wooded area squat and do my thing. This was when cramp kicked in on my left leg. It was bad. I was mid flow and had to balance on 1 leg so I could straighten out the cramp in the other. It kind of went down hill from here. I don’t know whether it was fatigue, loss of focus of nutrition / hydration, the fear that cramp would come in with vengeance or a mix of all of these, but my average pace dropped down to 44 minutes.
Running past the various aid stations at the 5k mark, I could se Ellie Greenwood sitting down. Ellie is a proper trooper and one of the best ultra runners in the world. She looked like she was suffering but from reading her blog she got up and cracked on up to the 90k mark. Amazing!
I dropped into the aid station asked John for some electrolytes, took in some water and stretched my legs. WTF – I can’t be spending this much time in the aid station. IN AND OUT.
Coming around at loop 7 ish (I think) I saw John Byrne sitting down at the aid station. Jeez, this is our best 100k runner! Now let me tell you about what makes a true ultra runner. Determination, endurance and willpower. John had apparently come in to the aid station looking like death. Bad day. Fine. Many other runners had the same issue. But John sits down probably feeling pretty bad to stop. Composes himself and pushes on with some distance still to knock out. John didn’t come close to his capable time but certainly showed some serious spirit on that course.
The last two laps I struggled quite badly. I would get a bout of cramp every KM where I would be running with a ‘straight leg’ stretched out looking like some clown. This in turn probably slowed me down. The fear of having major cramp issues so close to the end was very much on my mind. I kept the pace I was now running as it didn't seem to agitate it too much. Just get over that line a couple more times!
It wasn’t long before I was running past the finish line for the 9th time. Last lap. It didn’t matter what happened now, I was going to finish. I took in the surroundings one last time as I had forgotten what was going on for the past few laps. I picked up the flag at the half way point, only to realise that I had to run with it for 5k! Peaked a bit too soon.
A final run past the windmill, a few more sponges and 2k to go. I hadn’t come close to the time I wanted but certainly the proudest moment of my running career was running the last few hundred metres with the flag being cheered on by the crowds. Job done.
Here are my splits. You can see the struggled for the last few loops:
Split 1 - 00:41:43
Split 2 - 00:41:05
Split 3 - 00:40:47
Split 4 - 00:40:22
Split 5 - 00:40:44
Split 6 - 00:41:36
Split 7 - 00:44:16
Split 8 - 00:45:03
Split 9 - 00:46:59
Split 10 - 00:45:36
Personal Results – 7hours 8 mins
European Championships – 8th
World Championships – 14th
Team Results Ireland – 23 hours 03 mins
European Championships – 5th
World Championships – 7th
Full results can be found here
I just want to get home
Sunday morning. Feeling alright. I know I have run 100k but my legs are not that bad. I got up especially early. A quick coach ride, a couple hours on a train, an hour flight and I’m home. Job done. YEAH RIGHT.
Due to a major thunderstorm the night before a part of our route had been knocked out. We were on the train for a couple of stops and then we were stranded on the a station. Only a couple of people at this stage but slowly train by train the teams and locals started to build up on the station. Lots of people stopping at this stations and not many heading in the other direction. The direction towards the airport! The train would stop at our station and then head back to where we started.
It wasn’t long before our patience wore thin yet nobody knew what the hell was going on. Then some kid said, “ya this goes to the airport”. We all rushed on the train, cmon I only have 6 hours to get my plane!
It wasn’t long before we realised that this wasn’t going to the airport but would take us back to where we stated. Everyone off.
Some security guard was on the platform, hounded by hundreds of people. Not knowing a thing. We had already been on the platform for a long time. “Ya I am still deciding whether to sort out coaches or a train”. He did realise that everyone on this platform had a plane to catch. He was on a SERIOUS chill.
Eventually, a train turns up. It would take us 40 mins or so down the route in the right direction but we would need to get off. Great. We jump on that train it stops at its destination, we jump off that train onto a train that will take us to the airport. Great. A few stops down the line the train is on a chill. An announcement is made and we need to jump on another train. This one will definitely take us to the airport. Great. Eventually we get there.
I bolt it to the BA check in to be told I had missed the plane. F-ing brilliant. “Sorry sir you will need to buy a new ticket”!!! I buy a new ticket and check in. Sorry sir, the plane is currently delayed by an hour and a half. WHAT THE HELL. JUST GET ME HOME. NOW!
After a very long day of travelling (nearly 12 hours!) I get into Heathrow. Meet Anjali and we drive home. Well actually we hit the M25. Yup you guessed it a arsing traffic jam!