Many ultra / endurance athletes will tell you that you can push yourself a lot further than you think you can. This race was to be my first experience of this.
A few weeks after racing the Anglo Celtic Plate 100k and narrowly missing the Irish 100k record by a matter of seconds, I found myself on the 100K European Champs start line with some of the fastest 100k road runners in Europe. The course was not a usual IAU 100k course which is usually very flat – this time around we would have some short sharp hills to contend with throughout the course including a very steep 1km up to the finish line.
Ireland would be fielding two athletes – Keith Whyte (http://keithwhyteultrarunning.blogspot.co.uk/) and moi. We would be supported by a team of three - John Collins (Team Manager), Kevin Belton (Physio) and Jeff Fitzsimons (Team Support). Logistically, this course would prove to be tough, it represented a 100k loop with aid stations every several KM or so. The first priority for the team was to secure some bikes as they would need to cycle the entire 100k route to get each aid station before us.
The priority on my list was dealing with a nagging hamstring issue which I have had for several months caused by an awkward fall on Ben Nevis (trying to avoid a plodder). The ACP had inflamed the injury but I was working hard to keep it stretched and the blood flowing. I worked with Kevin before the race to stretch it out and work on loosening the surrounding muscles. Spending all day on a plane and then coach doesn’t do a runner any favours so a very short 1mile or so run the day before also helped shake out the muscles a bit.
|A wee jog|
It’s rare not to get some kind of ‘drama’ before an event and my drama was a lack of water for the race. The event was held in Belves which boasts 1 Spar supermarket for the entire village. Obviously this had been absolutely destroyed by other competitors getting there before us. Time was running out and I had 4 bottles to my name and 28 or so aid stations to cater for! Thankfully, just before we were heading in for the night we visited the local camp site shop where we were staying and noticed some very small water bottles in the fridge. Result! The shop assistant was a little surprised when we told her we needed an entire case!
As usual for a 100k road race, I would have more than enough water, breaking it up every 4th aid station with some kind of sports drink but generally relying on water with Elete added. My gels would be taped to the side of the bottle for convenience.
When Keith and I originally discussed race strategy we would go out with an even split with a view to potentially giving as much as possible at the end if we still had it in us. This was quickly thrown out the window when John returned from the course recce to inform us that this was not a flat course at all! Shit! Race strategy would not be conservative, keep it even on the uphills and then try and make up for that on the flats. Keep control on the downhills.
The race would take part in Belves which is located about 200 kilometres from Bordeaux and is known for its beautiful castles which will be well represented on the race course. The race is 100km looped course that takes athletes to neighbouring town of Sarlat in the Dordognes Valley. Racers will get to see five different castles in the region.
We decided to get up at about 4.30/5am as the race started at 8. This gave me enough time to shower, cream, destroy a 9Bar, Beetroot juice and some breakfast.
We jumped onto the bus which took us to the start line. These events usually always consist of a lot of rushing about to then wait around. The event would host the top 100k road runners in Europe from 19 European countries with just under 100 athletes participating. In addition, there would be an open race which would also include some very fast runners (in particular from France) who presumably didn’t make the team.
The support team immediately got to organising the 50-60 bottles of water we had and placing them in drop bags (not an easy task) we weren’t quite sure whether we would ever see them again, but thankfully things turned out well.
It wasn’t long before Keith and I shook hands with the support team and wished them well on their 100k cycle ride around the course. We stood on the start line and waited for the off. I quickly knocked back a couple of Imodium to deal with inevitable stomach issues.
The start went off well with enough space for us all to run at around our desired pace. However, it wasn’t long before we were heading downhill and both Keith and I started to inform each other that we were knocking out sub 6mm. Easy tiger.
As soon as I started running my hamstring started to present a dull ache from the top to the bottom. Not enough to affect my running pace but enough to notice and make my running not as comfortable as I would like.
We managed to get about 10 miles into the race when all of a sudden I need to make a pit stop. I dived into some cover to drop the kids off, jumped back up and slowly caught back up with Keith. It wasn’t long after that that my watch told me I had done a 7mm. I was really proud to have emptied my stomach while doing a 7mm. Surely that was a new Irish record?
As with most ultra runs the race doesn’t really start until it gets real painful for the athletes, usually around the last 3rd of the course. For me this would be about 20-30 miles in. The event was really uneventful for the first 25 miles or so, generally quite flat following the Dordogne river and passing the various castles. It was also lovely to see some local support around cheering us on.
More encouraging was that Keith and I had stuck together working on our pace keeping ourselves in check to ensure we didn’t go to fast. It was shortly after the 26m mark that the course introduced some steep inclines followed by some horrendous down hills (for such as event on tarmac). This would go on for about 15 miles or so and would see us running up hills at 8-9mm pace and coming down them at 5.20-5.30mm. This was not our desired approach and we would pay for this later!
By the time I hit the 50k mark my hamstring injury was starting to complain about the running. I shouted at the team that my leg was shot, and I would need to hit the ice spray for the next 50k! As we got into each aid station I would grab the spray, spray the hams and IT, grab my nutrition and crack on. The spray would generally reduce the pain and get me to the next aid station.
Keith was a little behind me as I believe he had to make a pit stop. It was around the 60k mark where I really had a bad patch and my legs were screaming. I stopped at the top of the hill for a very short while and waited for Keith to catch up. I thought to myself that I would keep with Keith for a long as possible and let him run on – I would not DNF but I would jog back in.
Worse than my hamstring injury were two athletes (one from Russia and one from France) who were essentially tucked neatly behind us letting us do all the work. Now, this is fine as it’s all part of the game. However, we were getting a little pissed off by the how close they were getting. I was waiting for one of the guys to clip our legs and send us flying and possibly out of the race. In addition one of the guys was in the open race and had his support on a cycle – riding right by us – this guy did not have any consideration and continuously got in our way.
Thankfully, I think this took my mind of the hamstring for a while and after a couple of tough sections we both managed to drop these athletes.
After using 3 quarters of a can of spray on my legs, I think it was having more of a mental affect than a physical one. It was something nice to look forward to at each aid station.
Keith and I managed to stick to each other for about 65k-70k or so when he hit a pit stop and I think he started to suffer from an injury. Unfortunately, I would later learn that this would be the end of Keith’s race but I am more than certain he will be back in the near future to give the Irish record a crack!
I had about 30k or so to go and I was sitting in around 18 place. My legs were screaming and I was keeping my fingers crossed that nothing would go ‘ping’ and cramp would stay away. The tough section was over and it was essentially a good section of flat. I managed to keep myself at a good pace along this section picking off places as I went along. I got some really good encouragement from the team with updates on how the guys were looking ahead. “The Russians are struggling”; “The Italians are not looking good, Dan”; “You are flying, Dan”.
These bits of encouragement gave me the incentive to crack on and see how I was doing. At this point I went from thinking about jogging back in to the finish line to seeing how long I could keep this pace going and finish in a respectable time.
After each aid station I could see I was running well compared to the other athletes ahead. When I passed an athlete I was clearly running at a pace they could not maintain. I was waiting for each of them to keep shoulder to shoulder so as to avoid losing a place but they simply let me run past. It was at this stage that I had to ‘drop the kids off’ again. I had no time for diving into a bush but simply had to do it on the spot. I apologised to the athletes running past and also to Kevin who cycled past (I don’t think he will sleep properly again).
I managed to take a couple of places back that I lost after the quick pit stop and essentially push on through the ranks. Looking at my watch a good time was on the clocks and a possible Irish record. I didn’t know what place I was in at the 90k mark but information coming in was that I was in or just over 10th place. Good sign!
The last 10k I pushed on as hard as I could passing a few runners and continuously looking back to make sure I would not lose a place or two.
I had about 3 miles or so to go when a spectator shouted, “well done buddy only 10k to go”. WTF, was that right? I hope not!
It was at this stage I was feeling comfortable, I could not see anyone behind me and the finish line was close. I was good few minutes under the Irish record when I hit a massive incline for about a KM (shit I forgot about that!). The climb was severe enough to drop the pace around the 9-10mm mark. I was desperate, I could see the finish line was very close but the road followed a curve taking me away from the finish line and slowly bringing me back towards it. I was just under a KM when someone shouted from behind me “C’mon Dan”. It was Keith who had hitched a ride from some guy in a van. The only response I could master up was “Don’t shout at me, I’m gonna cramp!” I had been on coke for a couple of CPs and I don’t think I had enough Elete in the bottle so I had signs of cramp kicking in.
A final push and I managed to get past the line in 7.05.57 (although time says 7.06). Seconds away from the Irish record. Twice in the space of a few weeks! Tough luck.
I managed to moan at the guys for not passing me the flag to cross over the line with to then learn I came 8th in Europe and 5th in my group. Not bad for someone who was struggling at the 50k mark! I managed to squeeze in a couple of handshakes and the like to only be approached by an interpreter. “Hi, I am your interpreter, this is [x] from the Anti-Doping team. He will be supervising you until a sample is taken”. Great, it’s gonna be a long day!!
|The Finish Line|
One thing I learnt from this race is that you can push yourself a lot further than you might think. Could I have gone under the 7 hour mark if the course was flatter? Who knows. Perhaps the hills kept my pace into check which allowed me to push on later on in the race or perhaps I was having a great race and could have put in a great time. I will never know.
The toughness of the course can perhaps be explained by looking at other results. Usually, I am at least 40 mins behind the winner. In this case I was about 12 mins behind. The winning time is usually well under 6h30. This time the winning time was 6.53. Take from that what you will, but I do feel that one of us in the Irish squad is very close to breaking the 7hr mark and coming well under this time.
Full results can be found here: