Sunday, 28 August 2016

Emptying The Tank

I just broke a record.

Not, as sometimes happens as a by-product of a battle for the win between athletes at the top of their game.  Instead this was totally calculated, planned meticulously, specifically trained for and executed effectively.  It was one of my key season's goals and I achieved it with time to spare.

My 3:36:04 clockwise lap of the iconic Seven Sevens race took exactly two and a half minutes off Stevie Cunningham's ground shattering 3:38:34 from 2010.  I really coveted this record simply because Stevie's time was so unbelievably quick.  To put it in context, only a handful of runners have ever been under four hours on this course and only two in the slower direction.  Four hours remains the benchmark time to aspire to and in most years is also enough to guarantee the win on the epic 19 mile assault on the Seven Mournes' peaks over 700m in elevation.
Some FAST splits there but some average ones too
I should be delighted so why do I feel so flat?

As is often the case I've been left bereft of the emotions you'd expect to attach to such an achievement.  For the sake of therapy and future understanding I've decided to try to explore my psyche to seek an answer.  Here are the possibilities.

1) I'm just a miserable person

Very possibly so!  I'm a complete perfectionist by nature and am unbelievably hard on myself.  So far this year I've been left utterly gutted with a third place in my first ever Ultramarathon (despite successfully hitting the World Champs qualifying time) and pretty annoyed when breaking my own record on Slieve Donard at Ireland's most prestigious race.  Unless I feel I've got everything right then I'm unable to shake a deep-seated discontent.  Bizarrely, the only race I was truly satisfied with this season was the Worlds where crippling cramp and extreme conditions battered me severely and cost me untold time.  The pleasure in that case came from destroying my legs to get a result and also allowing myself leeway as a relative newcomer at International level.  The intention with the Sevens was to put in the first ever sub 3:30 time and so 3:36:04 fell some way short.  I guess this was a disappointment even though training showed me that it was virtually impossible for me lapping in this direction, with required splits that would be ambitious for a team running it as a relay.  Nevertheless, I went all out and managed to stay on target for the first third of the distance before inevitably fading and having to consolidate mid-race.  It was a gutsy performance that saw me actually get back on to 3:30 pace for some of the later interim sections between the peaks despite the headwind and increasing heat.  Plenty of reasons to be satisfied!
Record breaking but unsatisfied on Slieve Donard
2) It wasn't a real race

Well, as a round of the Northern Irish NIMRA series it very much was a real race with plenty of people out to push themselves hard.  The problem for me was that, at risk of sounding like an arrogant prick, I knew that barring injury I was going to win comfortably.  I'd been training specifically for it since June and had been round the whole route four times in the preceding three weeks, more than most Irish runners manage in a lifetime.  I kicked hard off the start line and probably effectively sewed the race up before we'd even run the length of the football pitch that it started on.  I knew that nobody would be silly enough to come with me, borne out by my winning margin of over 31 minutes. 

There's little doubt that competing against people is fun!  The camaraderie, tactics, panted snippets of conversation and extra motivation that come from running in close proximity to your rivals can't be understated.  The temporary bonds of mutual suffering are powerful and racing against split times, stealing glances at my watch at key predetermined moments definitely lacked that poetry.  As a result there wasn't anyone to share my experiences with whilst collapsed at the finish line, instead I had a quick chat and then headed to the pub to watch the Olympic Steeplechase.

3) Post achievement blues

This is a pretty common phenomena when you become so focused on a particular goal that it can't help but be an anti-climax once it's all over.  I did get fairly fixated on this race, dragging myself out on some awful days to scope the route despite zero visibility rendering the recce almost entirely pointless bar the physical aspects.  The completion, satisfactory or not of an all encompassing target can leave me feeling empty until the next one is ascertained.  In this case though I already know my next goal and therefore lack this excuse, in fact I can get away with viewing the Sevens result as a stepping stone towards greater achievements, something that makes subsequent training easier to handle.

4) The shitty diet blues

As previously mentioned I'm a perfectionist and leave nothing to chance when seeking to achieve a goal.  I simply don't see the point of doing things half-baked and won't bother doing a race unless I feel I've prepared 100%.  That doesn't mean that I don't sometimes toe the line carrying injuries, or feeling leggy from recent efforts but I'll never sabotage my performance through poor nutrition.  What this means is that I eat a very regulated diet, denying myself the 'treats' that most people take for granted, the upshot being minimised weight and constant training without dealing with sugar lows or hangovers.  Unfortunately the human brain has a cheeky and self-destructive side that demands childish rewards despite knowing that they're toxic.  Like the Olympians that posted pictures of post-competition McDonalds binges I can't resist having a spell off the wagon after meeting a big goal.  For about a week after I'll ride the sugar rollercoaster with ice-cream, beer and buns back on the menu.  Needless to say this leaves me sluggish, sleeping worse and therefore mentally drained and low.  It's not long before I feel satiated and the logical part of my brain regains control but in the interim I can definitely experience post-event diet related mood swings.

5) Emptying The Tank

This is a big one and probably the most important discovery in this mini spell of soul searching.  Most athletes will have heard people talk of 'emptying the tank'.  It's associated with pushing the physical boundaries, often resulting in diminished performance or if timed right, cramping and collapse at the finish line.  I'm very familiar with stretching my limitations, taking for granted the pain, dizziness and occasional hallucinations that go hand in hand with extreme exertion.  From the physical perspective the regenerative properties of a good meal, hot bath and a gentle spin on the turbo trainer are pretty remarkable.  It never ceases to amaze me that even at my advanced age I can go from limping geriatric to near full recovery often in little over 48 hours.  What I've never previously considered is the psychological damage of digging so deep and putting such excessive pressure on my body.  There was a period about eighty minutes into the Seven Sevens that required a huge injection of mental fortitude.  I'd come over Slieve Lamagan absolutely flying, on 3:30 pace and surviving well.  The subsequent half hour saw me pick an awful line, nastily turn an already damaged ankle and then fade badly in the deep heather on the short cut to Binnian summit.  Hitting the top at 1hr 41 instantly put the nails in the coffin of my 3:30 dream and with my quads unexpectedly feeling the strain I could see my record attempt falling off the rails too.  At times like this you can either give up or raid the brain's precious chemical supplies.  I always opt for the latter.
Tank emptied, body and brain at their limits at my first Ultramarathon
The positive links between exercise and mental well-being are heavily documented and indisputable but I can't recall reading much about the potential damage of digging so deep during races.  Following the Wicklow Way Ultra at the start of 2016 I suffered a deep mental and physical fatigue that left me drained and demotivated.  Undeniably pushing hard whilst unwell accounted for the bodily tiredness but disappointment at my performance almost certainly prolonged the symptoms.  With body and brain being so ultimately symbiotic it's surely unarguable that over-extending physically will negatively impact mentally and vice-versa.

So What's The Verdict?
The post-Sevens funk has left me already.  I've just enjoyed a brutal session on the bike and celebrated with a largely healthy meal.  Of the five explanations I've considered I'd say that on this occasion numbers 1,2,4 and 5 conspired to deny me my righteous sense of delight.  It's definitely been a useful experience digging deeper into the reasoning behind my post-race blues.  I'd be really intrigued to hear whether other people ever experience this phenomena. 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Olympic Dreams - Can A Part Timer Be World Class?

I like the Olympics.  It's not just the fact that as a non Sky TV subscriber it actually gives me the opportunity to watch some live sport on TV.  It's not even the fact that the BBC's lust for medal coverage gives some relative minority sports and their talented proponents some otherwise non-existent mainstream TV coverage.  More than all that I like it because to some degree I feel I understand.

I love the fact that all these individuals are prepared and capable of being so totally focused towards a single goal.  The way that they'll put their bodies and minds through untold strain and pressure for years with the carrot of Olympic success as an incentive.  For the victors a gold medal can be a life-changing result, not just in terms of financial gain and personal recognition, they've got the opportunity at a young age to write a key line of their own epitaphs.  Whatever may befall them over the course of their life their names will always be preceded by 'Olympic gold medallist...' 

Listening to athletes being interviewed there is often a palpable sense of relief at ambitions realised and you'll hear mention of 'sacrifice' and 'pressure' above 'enjoyment' or 'satisfaction'.  At this elite, World Class level the need for results has often transcended the desire to enjoy their chosen sports.  These lucky few who are able to pursue their dreams full time, training and competing for a living, can also be tainted by the experience, losing sight of the reasons they compete in the first place.
Part time Internationals.  Professional preparation without the wages!
I'm not an Olympic athlete but I understand sacrifice.  I know what it is to drag myself out into horizontal rain and zero visibility, to condemn myself to hours of continual pain, to dread a session so much that I can't sleep even two nights before.  I know how it feels to deny myself things that most people take for granted, to stare into a kitchen cupboard six times in an evening before dragging myself away because weight is everything in my chosen sport.  And yet for me, and others like me who's sport doesn't get the Olympic seal of approval there isn't that all-consuming goal.  Instead we look to other events as the pinnacle of our achievements and accept that the financial rewards will never be there.

I'm not deluded.  There's a strong chance that if mountain running became an Olympic discipline then I'd no longer be one of Ireland's best.  Younger athletes with far fewer commitments would be able to potentially take my place, training almost full time and unaffected by the responsibilities that come with advancing age.  However, that said, I'd be surprised if my lab statistics were that different to your average Olympian, my resting heart rate, V02 max and fat percentages would almost certainly put me near that level so maybe I could've been there in Rio had my chosen sport been chosen.  As it stands I've competed at two World Championships, the peak of mountain running events, most recently finishing 39th in one of the strongest fields assembled.  I was very pleased to get that result and equally happy to initially meet the selection criteria to represent internationally but the fact is that I was 9% off being in the top ten which seems to me to be quite a lot.  It's left me with the quandary of how much faster would I need to be to realistically call myself world class?

So what does world class even mean?  Obviously my first port of call is Google, so a quick look turns up several similar definitions;

'Being among the best or foremost in the world; of an international standard of excellence'

'of or denoting someone with a skill or attribute that puts him or her in the highest class in the world'

'ranked among the world's best; of the highest caliber'

Given those fairly wide and subjective definitions I'd find it pretty easy to justify tagging myself 'world class'.  After all, amongst all of the World's mountain and trail runners I rank in the top 40.  However, when you dig deeper there are other factors to consider.  For a start, all the world's best mountain runners weren't present in Slovenia, just the top four selected from each nation.  That means that stronger nations like Italy, GB and the USA probably have runners on the bench who would have beaten me.  Likewise, there are many other top runners who would've chosen not to try for the Worlds, favouring other goals instead.  More telling for me is the consideration that Alessandro Rambaldini ran a 3:44:52, a full forty odd minutes and 15% faster than I managed.  If we equated those times to an Olympic discipline like the marathon then if we assume he would run something like a 2:10:00 (about average for an Olympic marathon winner) then I'd have run a 2:29:30, fast but still ten minutes outside the IAAF marathon qualifying time for the Olympics.
Crossing the line at the World Champs.  Fast but not World Class
So my World Championships performance probably wasn't a world class performance.  I can live with that, but a second question is then posed, have I ever done one?  There's no doubt in my mind that the Slovenia race wasn't my best ever performance.  The heat, humidity, distance and sheer size of the hills took a heavy toll and although I dug deep and beat plenty of excellent runners I was still hoping to go about 15 minutes faster, a time that would have placed me in the top twenty.  Over the last year a couple of results stick out for me, my records on both Slieve Donard and the Mourne Skyline, two very different races and two standout performances.

My 53:40 lap of Slieve Donard is almost a minute faster than anyone else has ever run for that exact route but realistically I know it probably wouldn't stand up to scrutiny.  I'm pretty confident that on the right day I could go sub 52:30 myself and given that my strengths seem to lie in the longer races I reckon the World's best could do somewhere near to 50 minutes.  That would put my record theoretically about 7% off the best achievable, definitely getting closer to world class.  The result that really interests me though is my October 2015 Mourne Skyline record.  Almost certainly my best ever run, it saw me beat second place Dan Doherty (17th in the World Ultra Trail Champs that year) by almost thirteen minutes with a 3:51:22.  My time also beat Kim Collison's previous record by almost six minutes.

Mountain race records are a bit arbitrary really, there are so many factors, primarily weather and ground condition related that have a huge impact on times on any given day.  The longer and more difficult a race, the greater the environment caused time variations.  However, I've reason to believe that my time last year may well be genuinely quick.  Given that the Mourne Skyline has only been run twice, my assertion is purely conjectural at this point but as the Skyline is part of the prestigious UK Skyrunner Series it has already established itself as Ireland's premier mountain race.  It's the only race here which draws top international names and as such my record will be challenged over the coming years by some genuine world classers.  I look forward to seeing if it stands the test of time.

So, when it comes to mountain running I reckon that it's safe to say that I don't quite have what it takes to consistently rank amongst the true world class athletes.  I am however hopefully capable of occasionally reaching their levels when the conditions and course suit my talents.  I'm confident that as a 38 year old with a busy business, a permanent part-time job and two young kids I can certainly call myself a part-time athlete.  I train as hard as I can for as much time as I can fit in but my schedule is generally fitted around daily life with other factors taking precedence.  Surprisingly this does still allow me to often train around fifteen hours a week but the recovery time is non-existent and it's actually that lack of genuine rest rather than lack of training that sets aside my routine from professionals.  In other factors such as diet I could barely be more disciplined and probably put many pros to shame. 
On my way to setting another big record on Slieve Donard. How would the World's best fare on this route?

So can any part-timers be world class?

I need to make the definition here between amateurs and part-timers.  Mountain running is an almost entirely amateur sport but there are plenty of athletes who manage to live like professionals, getting by through bursaries, sponsorship and part-time jobs, often within the industry, that are very supportive of their athletic endeavours.  To all intents and purposes these are not part-timers and I occasionally jealously read of the exploits of running acquaintances who seem to be able to just train constantly with few other considerations.  I do however know for a fact that some of the top British fell runners are proper part-timers and are also amongst the World's best so it can be managed.  I just need to find that magic formula before age starts to signal my inevitable gradual deceleration.

So back to the title question and the simple answer is yes, I think extremely disciplined and driven part-timers can be world class.  As for myself, I'll keep plugging away at the mountain running and hope that the accumulation of miles will keep pushing me towards that World's top ten.  In the meantime I have the consolation that when it comes to parallel parking and hoovering I'm almost peerless and when they become Olympic disciplines you'll see me beaming out from cereal packets and Quorn adverts into your own homes.  Watch this space...


Monday, 8 August 2016

Ragley Bigwig - Mid Term Impressions

I've had half a season of thrashing my new Ragley Bigwig around the woods so it's time for a progress update.  I'll put in a couple of caveats before I start though;

1) I didn't pay for this bike.  As explained in my previous blog, Ragley have been kind enough to sponsor me this year.  However, they've put me under no pressure to say anything nice about their products or even say anything at all so there is genuinely no bias in this review.  I'd hate for people to make a purchasing decision assisted by my opinion only to find out it was totally skewed and luckily, unlike the magazines I don't have to worry about losing advertising revenue by offending anyone.

2) I've been riding mountain bikes for thirty years and am extremely fussy about kit.  I haven't bought an off the peg bike since the nineties because I just end up swapping out all the components.  Like an arse of a  boyfriend I'll be comparing the Bigwig to my exes.  Just bear in mind that those exes are a who's who of the best bikes and components of their time and so the Ragley has a very stiff job if it wants to impress.

Let's start with the important bit...

The Ride

I'm a definite advocate of the hardtail.  I love the required precision that forces the rider to actually pinpoint lines, reading terrain rather than hitting, hoping and hanging on.  I also adore the easy cleaning, low weight, lack of set-up time and visual simplicity of rigid back ends.  As a coach I firmly believe that everyone should spend at least a couple of years on one to develop fundamental skills before opting for a full bouncer.  In the past this decision has obviously been to the detriment of speed on the downs and in the tech but those days are over.  In the hands of a decent rider a well put together hardtail can compete on most trails and the Bigwig is definitely one of those bikes.  Drop any preconceptions you may have about 29" wheels because when combined with a super slack 65 degree head angle they make for a confidence inspiring combination.  Gaps between rocks and roots are drifted over rather than the bike stuttering and dropping into the holes and I became a convert within a matter of minutes.  The more technical a trail becomes, the more the Bigwig excels, well demonstrated when I turn around at the bottom of steep, extremely rocky trails punctuated by big drops to see my 160mm travel, 27.5" wheeled mates off and carrying.  The big wheels allow me to roll down drops that would hook up anything smaller and on this kind of trials type descending where the speed required to launch the drops is impossible to come by they are definitely the best option.
The Bigwig is a total downhill weapon!
At speed the Bigwig feels stable, no doubt assisted by the pretty lengthy 1162mm wheelbase (medium size) and I genuinely don't feel that I'm getting overly battered or fatigued by the constantly rough nature of our local trails.  I've always been a big fan of the dampening properties of steel as a frame material and have really enjoyed getting back on this steel frame.  The slight give in the rear end does enough to take the edge off the hits without ever feeling flexy, particularly noticeable with a super stiff carbon rim and 142mm bolt through back wheel.  As the old saying went 'steel is real'!  If you're put off by the old school look of the skinny tubes just consider the fact that most custom frame builders still opt to use steel as it can be made to provide such exceptional ride qualities in hardtails, particularly when they get the exact right tubing choice and seat tube diameter to provide that damped and controlled feel.  Obviously the Bigwig, like all hardtails needs a slightly more cultured approach to descending but this frame really has allowed me to carry speed with confidence and I've yet to get caught out in any really dodgy situations that the Bigwig hasn't dug me out of.

I've found that the Ragley rewards a really aggressive, front heavy riding style and because of this the 130mm Rockshox Yari forks have taken a consistent battering.  So far I've been delighted by their performance and noticed no discernible difference from the Pikes I was previously running.  They sit high in the travel, particularly important on a hardtail where the head angle steepens as the forks compress, and they track adequately with minimal twist or flex.

So it's great on the downs, confident at speed and brilliant in the tech.

But what about the cornering?

This is an area where I thought the long wheelbase 29'er would really suffer, how wrong could I be!  It seemed to take no adjustment in riding style with the big wheels and it carves with confidence.  Once back on familiar rubber I was happy to push really hard and as expected the breakaway points are the same regardless of wheel size.  Two wheel drift in our continually sloppy conditions is predictable and great fun and I've never been highsided and thrown out the wrong way when the traction kicks in.  The (slightly too) low bottom bracket makes for great cornering stability although I did have issues getting my feet positioned right whilst getting used to the bike, not entirely sure why but it felt a bit more difficult to do rapid foot swaps than on my other bikes.

Can it climb?

Yes it can!  I often read about slack head angles making front ends a bit light and drifty on technical ascents but personally I think that proper weight distribution technique can overcome this every time.  I've not noticed any detrimental effects of the slacked out frame, it climbs well in the tech and as ever I find that a 30/36 low gear combo can get me up anything.  The length of the bike does mean that it suffers when on really tight switchbacks but this is countered by its general ease in the rough sections.  Big wheels excel at getting up steps with a quick wheelie, the back end following happily and the 72 degree seat angle puts my weight nicely centred to shift around for traction and control. The low bottom bracket has definitely been a pain at times with plenty of jarring pedal strikes.  Having previously owned a Commencal Meta 5 and a Santa Cruz Nomad CC I'm well used to adjusting my riding style to counteract this but on a hardtail there is no cushioning to the blows and so the bike stalls frustratingly with every hit.

On the fire roads it trundles along nicely and maintains speed with the big wheels smoothing out any bumps and ripples and allowing a good cadence to be spun.  Having said all this it is pretty weighty compared to my usual bikes and so won't be winning any XC races.  The 31lb stock weight has been greatly reduced by my expensive upgrades (more on that shortly) but a near 6lb frame is disappointing and definitely noticeable in comparison to my Ibis Tranny which weighs half that.  Having said that the Bigwig complete costs 50 quid less than the Tranny frame so the value for money and overall performance of the Bigwig makes it a better choice for all but the most discerning riders.
Very happy with the current set-up

So, I've mentioned that I always build bikes from scratch.  Much of the joy and anticipation of a build for me is in painstakingly hand selecting componentry to make the ultimate combinations.  Bar widths, stem lengths, tyre choices, the list is endless and research exhaustive.  Like many experienced riders I've got my firm favourites when it comes to contact points and strong opinions on all other parts so riding a stock bike was always going to be a major compromise.  I did intend to ride it as received, but ingrained instincts die hard and my puritanical stance lasted all of two minutes!

I'm 1x all the way and was really surprised that a 'hardcore hardtail' frameset with ISCG mounts was specced with a 2x set up.  The front mech is a dead and archaic addition to me, robbing bar space and adding unnecessary weight.  Allen keys out, front shifter, mech and chainset removed and an XTR/Blackspire single ring set up thrown in.  I hope that Ragley will be following my lead soon and with Shimano finally offering monster gear ranges on their cassettes and joining the 21st century with narrow/wide rings I'd imagine that the 2017 offerings will lose the granny rings.

The Ragley grips supplied were actually very good, not least because they're very similar (patent anyone?) to the all-time greatest ODI Ruffian.  Unfortunately they're just a couple of mm larger in circumference than the ODI's and so had to go.  I told you I'm fussy!

I've ridden on the WTB Vigilante/Trail Boss combo before and think they're alright performance wise but fundamentally flawed in mould quality.  Unfortunately, whoever built my bike decided to stick the Vigilante on the back and the Trail Boss on the front necessitating a three man fight to the death swapping them round.  I've been there before, thumbs aching, tyre levers snapping and forty combined years of spannering experience sweating, swearing and shaking our heads.  We got there in the end but as with my last Vigilante the fight took its toll in terms of a warped bead that made my wheel look like it was Pringled from the start.  Take note WTB, there is NO NEED to make your beads so tight and this was being fitted to one of your own rims.  I'm just glad we were fitting them close to my kettle and beer supply and not on a frozen Irish trailside.  Once out in the slop they performed OK but I find the Vigilante drifts wide whenever pushed hard into the types of mud that have epitomised this Irish year.  They're predictable but not precise enough for my liking and so I'm back to the Maxxis.  High Roller 2's instantly improved the Bigwig no end.

The Nukeproof dropper post also didn't get far before the chop.  I love droppers but am scathing of their dismal longevity.  I've tried most of the common brands and am constantly amazed that a 300 quid office chair shaft can never last more than a year, even with correct servicing.  The Nukeproof decided to get stuck in the down position half way through an early ride resulting in a chastening quad workout.  Close inspection revealed that the bottom screw had actually fallen out of the post and ten seconds with an allen key had it back to fully functional.  The thing that signed its death warrant was actually the fact that the post return could've been measured on a calendar and the plasticky lever is so un-ergonomic that I actually stopped using the drop at all.  In came a KS Lev with the Southpaw lever, an incredibly smooth and easily functional combo that is also showing almost immediate flaws with a continually loosening collar.  Give me strength...

The 180mm/160mm rotors supplied would generally slow a hardtail more than adequately in combination with the SLX hydraulics.  As you've read, this is no ordinary hardtail when gravity kicks in and even with my skinny ass eleven stone body I had to swap in a 203mm/180mm combo to get the required stopping power.

The Ragley Wiser bars are a good shape and really comfortable feel but they sent me some carbon Wiser bars to test so obviously they went in instead for the weight saving and improved trail dampening characteristics.

I had a couple of spins on the supplied wheels which are a combo of WTB STI23 TCS rims, laced to bolt thru-axle Novatec hubs.  They were OK but I definitely felt the weight dragging me back like a mini anchor.  I've witnessed quite a lot of 29'er wheels dismantle themselves over the last few years, the larger diameter rims and longer spokes seemingly more vulnerable to damage.  I'm glad that Ragley have opted for strength above weight saving in their choice but even so, with minimal use and no big hits the back wheel was getting out of shape.  One well-known downfall of 29'ers is their sluggish acceleration and I felt that this inherent flaw combined with heavy wheels would make the bike non-competitive.  I wanted to be hitting the top step of the podium this year and so made a quick call to the lovely people at 2Pure distribution and a set of the incredible Ibis 941 wide carbon wheels arrived.  Needless to say, a set of 1300 quid carbon wheels has improved the ride exponentially as they would improve any bike.  They are incredibly laterally stiff, light and strong.  Acceleration is no longer an issue.
I've swapped out the 2x and fitted a narrow/wide with a chain guide.  I hope Ragley will do this themselves in future

So obviously I ditched a fair few of them but I've been largely impressed with the stuff that remained.  The SLX shifters and XT Shadow+ rear mech have been faultless.  I don't like the shifters and brake levers being joined on the clamp as it robs you of the chance to make micro position adjustments but this is a minor gripe.  The SLX brakes have also performed very well with predictable power and modulation.  The levers themselves are slightly more rounded than my preferred XTR's and lack the grippy dimples. This has actually resulted in less grip in really muddy conditions.  I like to feel a good edge on the lever as I rest my finger on it so I know it's there when I need it, again a minor issue but these are the subtle differences that make me happy to spend top dollar for the range topping kit.  The Ragley Wiser carbon bars are superb with the rise, shape and 750mm width feeling perfect for the bike and the 50mm stem is a solid and stylish unit.  The Ragley saddle was a comfortable shape and I was happy to keep it until I bent the rails and had to bin it.  In its defence that was really a facet of me having to position it beyond the recommended limits so no blame attached.  I've actually finally got round to re-fitting the original SLX cranks with the Blackspire Narrow/Wide chainring.  They are a good looking and stiff crankset but the speccing of a 175mm length seems a bit bizarre on a bike with such a low bottom bracket and more pedal strikes are an inevitability.  This would be a really easy fix for Ragley and hopefully they'll switch to 170mm in future.  Cable routing is neat and tidy and although I'm not sure about the aesthetics of the industrial looking bolt on cable guides, they keep the cables firmly in place though so no doubts on their function.  The Stealth dropper port on the back of the seat tube comes with a neat cover for if you're not using it but I'd be concerned about water and dirt getting in if I was running an internally routed dropper.


At just shy of 6ft tall I often find I'm stuck between manufacturers frame sizes, usually opting for the nippier characteristics of a smaller frame over the gate like feel of XL offerings.  The Ragley was no different and I went for the 18" Medium frame rather than the 20" Large.  With a 50mm stem this has left me a tiny bit cramped by the 420mm reach and 605mm effective top tube length.  The upshot of this is that I'm running my seat a centimetre back beyond the recommended limit which resulted in me bending the rails on the Ragley saddle despite me hardly being a big unit.  I'd like to run a shorter stem and so maybe the Large would've suited better but I was put off by the length of the seat tube and have been burned in the past by buying frames that just felt too big to suit our tight and twisty trails.
Top step of the podium.  The Bigwig is definitely fast.

So far I'm really impressed!  The Bigwig has re-framed my preconceptions about what a 29'er can do with the all important frame angles making it a bike with an emphasis firmly on fun.  That's not to say that it can't be fast and Enduro race outings this year have seen me hitting the top step of the hardtail category whilst placing in the top 20% overall, putting hundreds of fully suspended riders put to the sword!  Technical problems with a jammed and then dropped chain in my second race have since seen me fit a chain device, something I'd definitely recommend since the ISCG tabs are in place and I'm really excited to keep pushing the bike to the limits that only competition can bring out.

It climbs well enough and really rips on the downs, corners with confidence and feels well balanced on the ground and in the air.  I really think it's a bike that questions the need for full suspension, particularly at its price point.  At £1550 for the complete bike it's a total bargain but I'd definitely be more tempted by the £450 frame only option given my love of hand picking all componentry.  If I had less than two grand to buy a bike then I'd choose a custom specced Bigwig over any company's mid-range suspension bikes every time.

I'll report back with an end of season write up when I'll have an idea on the longevity of the parts and will have smashed it through a few more races.  Some planned trips away will also allow me to test it on some different trail types.  Until then if you see me around then feel free to ask for a test ride on my bike and if you want more info then check

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Dark Side Of The Mind - The World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships

'You lock the door and throw away the key, there's someone in my head but it's not me' 
Pink Floyd - Brain Damage.

Cramp hit instantly, a searing jolt up my calf with none of the familiar tickly warning shots.  Leaping high over the slippery jumble of wet rocks provided safety and speed but the repetitive jolts had extended my muscles too far.  The German I’d been tearing towards eased away and my mind went into instant overdrive.  I’m just 16km into a 42km race, there’s at least 1400m of climb and 2600m of descent still to endure.  If I back off and simply manage my physical state then I may be able to finish the course but this is the World Champs, I’m representing much more than just myself and it’s been an epic journey just to toe the start line.  There can be no let up, the World’s best mountain runners are biting at my heels and I’ve invested too much in this, too many hours slogging through the mire of a Mournes Winter.  Adjusting my gait I find a half skip that maintains momentum without further physical damage and try not to contemplate the suffering still to come.

Just twelve months ago I was a short course mountain runner, pretty rapid on unimaginably steep terrain but largely unproven on any distance over seven miles.  An unplanned sequence of events last season triggered a transformation familiar to many ageing athletes, I discovered an aptitude for the longer stuff and a liking for the protracted suffering of extended physical efforts as opposed to the horror of leg tearing, lung burning half hour sprints.  Twenty plus miles of mountain running requires a different approach, still constantly pushing hard but paying much greater heed to signs of physical degradation and playing off the odds of slower initial speeds to guarantee longer term survival.  This thoughtful, chess like approach to racing appeals greatly, it seems a more civilized way to suffer and so my pre-season race plans were devised around a totally different set of goals to previous years.

Half measures aren’t really in my make-up.  Having decided to focus on stamina based events I naturally sought out the race that would provide the greatest challenge.  The pinnacle of mountain running is the World Championships and so initial tentative contact was made with the Irish federation to ascertain what the selection criteria would be for the Long Distance Mountain Champs in 2016.  The upshot of that found me piling in the miles and battling serious injury over a stuttering, mentally draining but ultimately adequate Winter training block.  I’ve chronicled my unspectacular Wicklow Way Ultra attempt elsewhere.  It was an arduous and frustrating experience with a steep learning curve that ultimately saw me meet the Worlds selection requirements by just one minute in 250.  Duly chastened by my first ever Ultra I set about guaranteeing that Slovenia would be more positive. 

Subsequent training surpassed all expectations, particularly an eight week spell that saw me banging out multiple sub one-hour Slieve Donard repeats for fun, the fastest ever Mourne Skyline, a 3:34 Seven Sevens and all with minimal recovery time between epic mountain sessions and necessary tempo efforts.  I rounded off the block with a couple of races to check progress and duly broke my own Slieve Donard race record whilst comfortably defending the most prestigious of titles.  A late hamstring pull caused last minute concern but the enforced rest was probably beneficial.  I felt physically prepared and whilst obviously lacking pedigree over 26 miles I wasn’t overawed by the task ahead or the gathering of so many truly World Class athletes.
It's all about pulling on that jersey
The arduous journey to Bohinj, Slovenia took its toll with the final ninety minutes of impossibly narrow and twisting mountain roads compounding the nerve fraying madness of Italian motorways en-route from Milan.  It culminated in a vomiting child and a cramping arse muscle but this suffering was countered by the spectacular Alpine environment and the excitement of exploring a new country.  The timing of the Worlds, during a pre-planned holiday had presented a unique opportunity to drag my family along.  I was unsure whether the distraction would be a positive calming influence or would rob me of focus but having them there was a real joy and hopefully Anna and the boys were proud seeing me sporting the Ireland jersey.  The rest of the Irish lads arrived through the Thursday and so we gathered together on Friday to talk tactics and compare eating habits.  Although the usual Irish self-depracation was well in evidence as we mercilessly played down our chances I knew that we had a really talented squad.  Brian MacMahon, Eoin Lennon and Dan Doherty all have International experience in abundance and an enviable set of top class results in an extremely varied range of distances and terrains.  Having competed against Dan and Eoin before and followed Brian’s results I knew that I’d have my work cut out living with their abilities but evidently we had a very balanced squad and nobody could predict what order we’d finish in.  A Friday evening train journey to the race arena in Podbrdo allowed us a bit of time to scope out the finish area and stare up at the dauntingly steep surrounding cliffs as we guessed which of the distant ridges would form part of the Gorski marathon route.  The opening ceremony was predictably entertaining being paraded in front of the crowd accompanied by local school children and a repeat loop of ‘we are the champions’.  Formalities done we scoffed the available pasta and headed for bed, the familiar mix of excitement and trepidation multiplied several-fold by the unknown nature of the course and the stellar talent of the opposition.
Getting ready to be announced to the crowd inside
Race morning passed quickly, a 5am jog in already rising temperatures was a portent of the heat to come but I slipped into the standard routine and my automatic pilot landed me on the start line with a few minutes to spare.  The opening to the race was a confused affair with a mile long jog through the village behind a pace car.  The comfortable speed was a welcoming introduction but the additional unplanned distance certainly wasn’t.  As we passed under the huge inflatable barrier and over the timing beam the flags dropped and the car tore away, it was time to get down to business, months of prep over and no longer any hiding.  This was it, the World Championships, no excuses and no bullshit, just 120 of the best mountain runners in existence and a course that was deemed near impossible by local inhabitants when the Maraton Gorski was originally dreamt up.

The route itself can be summed up fairly simply.  Full marathon distance, from the start a continuous 15km climb gains 1250 metres of altitude before dropping about 1500m to the lowest point at kilometer 27.  Immediately kicking up again very steeply for another 1250 metre height gain over just 7km it then finishes with an eyeballs out 8km downhill sprint, quads screaming and feet burning, desperately seeking sight of the finish line and the relief of a dip in the river.

I was dreading the first climb.  I knew the gradient was too shallow and suspected the tracks too runnable to suit me.  I settled into a rhythm aiming to stay close enough to the front third of the race whilst hopefully not burning myself out for later efforts.  Initially going well it struck me that my pace would be tearing any Irish races to pieces but instead I saw the first forty runners gradually pulling away, lead by race favourite, team USA’s Andy Wacker, the differences between National and International competition perfectly encapsulated in one clear demonstration.  Just ahead of me Dan was plugging away with Eoin gaining distance and Brian long gone, he clearly had a slightly less tempered race plan than my own.
This initial effort lasted ninety minutes and passed through some of the most stunning scenery and enjoyable terrain I’ve ever experienced.  My body felt good and I was comfortably gaining altitude through the lower slopes before picking up places in the steep scree of the last kilometer.  I’d long dropped Dan who was clearly having a torrid time, form deserting him at the most inopportune moment.  He’ll be back in international duty again soon enough, defending his top 20 World Ultra distance ranking in October.  As the final rock strewn rise degenerated into loose switchbacks I passed Eoin, a friendly word and push on the back greatly welcomed, I can’t imagine athletes in other sports often being so warm spirited.  There was no sense of relief at topping out that first mountain, just a satisfaction that I’d got it right, my body felt strong and as I sprinted down the technical and broken initial track I picked up a couple more places, no indications of the sharp pain that was so imminent.

As previously mentioned, that initial burst of cramp was a real shock.  My body had given no indications that it was suffering and yet just a hundred minutes into a 270 minute race I was in real trouble.  A couple of minutes of a shuffling half-step relieved the pressure on the screaming muscles but the mental anguish wouldn’t dissipate so easily.  This wasn’t part of the plan; I’d paced well and am usually comfortable running these distances and elevations in training.  Perhaps the continual nature of the climb had pushed me further than anticipated and was compounded by the immediate repeated impact of the tricky descent.  I shoved a salt capsule into my mouth and awkwardly forced down a gel, no mean feat when skipping over such unpredictable terrain.  Shortly after this I was met by the unwelcome sight of Brian heading back towards me having abandoned the race.  His ambitious early pace, dualling with the front runners on the huge first ascent had emptied his legs beyond redemption.  Suddenly I found myself as the leading Irish runner, a thought that would have definitely buoyed me under better circumstances. 
I was praying to see this sight as soon as possible!
Missing out on the opportunity to pre-scope a course can be a serious disadvantage.  Mentally it’s extremely tough not knowing what awaits you around every corner and whilst I’d memorised the course profile it lacked sufficient detail for me to be truly confident.  I knew that this descent contained a short rise at some point but was completely unprepared for the length and degree of height re-gain.  Without fully recovered legs I crawled through this section, my mental state darkening as I slipped a few places, praying for the recommencing of the downhill.  The heat was beginning to play a part by now; sapping and oppressive every time we left the sanctity of the forests.  I’d joked with Dan prior to the race about the point of feed stations on downhills and why a 26 mile course had a full eighteen stops but with the fear of cramp and genuine prospect of chronic dehydration I was using every single one.  As an inevitable by-product of this re-hydrating I was hit by another unpleasant sensation, I was desperate to wee.  Dan had enlightened me about the ‘on-the-go’ technique sometimes employed during his crazy distance races.  Simply lifting your shorts a bit and maintaining stride whilst relieving yourself may be easy to the initiated but I wear knee length compression shorts and didn’t want to piss down my leg so decided to suffer on.  I had actually trained for this scenario, forcing myself not to go for hours during Mournes epics. The devil is in the detail!

After seemingly hours but actually only a handful of minutes the route descended again and my tough spell finally passed in time for me to speed through the low point where I grabbed a bottle off Brian and another off Team Ireland manager and all round gentleman Leo Mahon.  I was surprised to see Andy Wacker there, illness forcing his retirement, but unsurprised to see him smiling through his disappointment, I’ve never seen him not smiling!  The second climb wasted no time in kicking up to a 20% gradient and I glugged back some caffeine drink whilst settling into a rhythm.  Although I was now coping well I was disappointed at feeling sluggish.  This type of steep terrain is my speciality and would normally see me gaining time and places, even in such esteemed company.  I realised that all was still not well with my body and sank into survival mode, backing off to prevent blowing up.  With nothing to entertain me but the incessant grind my mind rapidly darkened again.  It’s at times like this that you really explore the inner workings of your psyche, drawing from more primal reserves to keep moving.  I have blurred memories of this epic ascent, a singing marshal, kind words from a Slovenian athlete, having to pull on fixed ropes as the trail was so steep and surprise at being passed by some top drawer athletes who I’d assumed were already ahead.  Rising beyond the tree line I finally saw the summit ridge laid out before me with about twenty athletes within striking distance.  I can recall shock at still being in touch with so many despite already having three and a half hours of running completed, I’d expected the field to fracture much more.  In better circumstances I’d have reveled in the task of chasing them down but the truth is that by that point the result was arbitrary to me; I just craved the relief of the summit.  A huge and vocal crowd at the top encouraged me to throw caution to the wind on the final descent and I duly responded, lifting my head from its stooped position and focusing on the narrow strip of rocky track ahead.  As with the previous descent I began well, immediately gaining a place but unfortunately another facet of that previous descent then took hold with the worst bout of cramp yet.  This time finding a comfortable stride proved near impossible and I had to ease off and simply see it through whilst frustratingly losing more distance and time.  As before, the contracting muscles ceased their most noticeable complaints after a few minutes and I was able to focus on the task of finishing with a bit of pace and pride.  This last drop proved to be a highlight as although the cramp had robbed me of the chance to gain many places I was absolutely flying for the last five kilometers.  I passed a Ukranian after a short tousle and then flew past a Japanese athlete as if they weren’t moving before fixing my gaze on the Dane about 200m ahead.  I was rapidly eating into his lead and having scoped this final kilometre I knew I’d be able to pass him shortly before the finish but a familiar tension was brewing in my calves and faced with the prospect of having to limp over the finish I gave up the doomed chase in order to finish in the style this race and my waiting family deserved.
Relief at crossing the line...
Sprinting down the picturesque final slope, adjacent to the Alpine stream and beautiful ornate water wheel towards an animated crowd lacked the emotion it deserved.  I was mentally and physically drained and craving the relief of the finish overrode any other feelings.  It was only after a few blissful minutes pouring water on my head, sat in the river and chatting to family and fellow athletes that the pride and satisfaction began to blossom.  I’d finished the race in 39th place, first Irish finisher at 4:24:33.  It had been a monumental effort, exploring my physical and mental capabilities way beyond expectation for a course with those statistics.  I’d anticipated a tough day but am more than capable of covering 26 miles and 2800m of ascent and descent without ever requiring that degree of soul searching and gut wrenching.  Eoin crossed the line just under five minutes after me in 43rd place; he too had suffered exceptionally, particularly given his undoubted and proven talent over greater distances than the Gorski Marathon route.
Soon turns to smiles!
I didn’t hang around long beyond a few thankyous and handshakes, we had a family holiday to commence and I had plenty of time to digest and analyse the race in the lengthy drive to Lake Garda where a chilled Belgian beer and a chilled Belgian friend awaited.

So what's the verdict?  Overall I'm pretty delighted, 39th is a big improvement on 81st at my last World Long Distance Champs in Colorado two years ago.  Even more satisfying is the fact that this was only my second ever marathon distance race and experience and miles in the legs count for a lot over longer distances.  I was only four minutes off the top 30 and twelve minutes off the top 20 in amongst some very classy athletes and I feel that with a bit more specific training I should be in that World's top 20, not bad for a 38 year old who's only been mountain running for five!  We spent the next three weeks enjoying the best of Italy during which I trained hard and discovered the only way to counteract that drained feeling is a constant flow of electrolytes rather than excess fluids to get past the sluggishness and unlock the underlying fitness.  I'll store that knowledge for next time.
Great Irish team relaxing post-race
Representing internationally is always a great experience and one that I’m immensely proud to do.  I came to mountain running relatively recently and so reaching this level and being offered these opportunities is slightly bemusing at times.  Knowing the sacrifices I make in terms of diet and lifestyle whilst dragging out the motivation to train endlessly in often trying conditions makes me eternally appreciative that there are other like-minded people doing the same thing.  Without fellow athletes to compete against I’d never have the chance to push myself so hard and explore my own weaknesses so thoroughly.  The dark side of the mind is a difficult place to dwell but visiting occasionally is a powerful drug, enticing you to seek the next challenge and further discover the limits of your capabilities.  I can fully understand why athletes are compelled to continually push further and harder in search of their breaking points, who knows where it will take me next?
Huge thanks to my fellow Irish athletes Dan Doherty, Brian MacMahon and Eoin Lennon as well as our excellent team manager Leo Mahon who made the Worlds such an enjoyable experience. Thanks also to Gerry Brady and all at IMRA as well as the organizers of the Gorski Marathon and the WMRA.  It was an excellent event, really professionally run and as ever the World Federation looked after us well.  Time now to get back to the Mournes and prep for a big record attempt.
Massive thanks to IMRA who even got Anna added as a team official!

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Graphic Scenes of Suffering - The Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultra

Feb 1st 2016 – The physio removed the needle from my calf and a flood of relief spread from the twitching muscle.  The dry needling was uncomfortable and left me feeling bruised and tender but I was happy to try any method that may get me running again.  He delivered the verdict pragmatically but it felt like the executioner taking a swing.  I should put thoughts of running a mountain Ultramarathon in eight weeks time firmly out of my head and just focus on recovery.

March 26th 2016 – I skip from foot to foot and look around at two hundred other athletes afflicted with the same masochistic tendencies as myself.  The driving rain and biting wind bring goosebumps to my forearms and I note that I’m the only person here not wearing a waterproof jacket.  In these conditions I figure it wouldn’t keep me any drier after ten minutes and I hope to warm up at some point on the mountain.  Race rules read, a short speech and we’re off.  How the hell did I end up here?

The Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultra would never have been on my radar a year ago.  As a short course mountain running specialist my races rarely touch ten miles, making up what they lack in distance with brutal gradients and technical underfoot conditions.  Late last season I discovered a certain aptitude for stretching my legs a bit further, culminating with a big win at the final round of the prestigious UK Skyrunner series in October.  Duly inspired by my enjoyment of initial forays into the longer stuff I set about planning a change in direction for the 2016 season.  A combination of seeking new challenges as well as a desire to represent Internationally led me towards the Irish trials for the World Long Distance Champs and the World Mountain Ultra Champs.  Ultimately, that led me to that freezing windblown mountainside in late March.

Back to November 2015 and a wholesale change in distance had required a corresponding adjustment in training technique, so I set about acclimatising my muscles and joints to longer term pounding as opposed to super steep and high intensity.  Initially my legs responded really well and importantly so did my mindset with an average training run comfortably doubling in length almost overnight to a quick 16 miler.  I figured that rather than trying to become a plodder I’d instead be better off maintaining my leg speed and trying to extend the distance I could hold that pace and hopefully push up towards the required 32 miles.  Pre-Christmas this saw me advancing to some very hilly sub 2hr 50 twenty four milers and my confidence was high that I’d be able to get my 32 mile time to somewhere around the 3hr 50 mark by March.  Then in the New Year disaster struck…

I felt no different as I ran on into the second lap of my standard eight mile loop.  Legs were going smoothly and pacing was steady.  As I hit the slope at mile nine, out of nowhere both calves locked simultaneously and painfully.  The sensible option would’ve been to stretch off, walk back and get some rest in, so naturally I carried on and finished the session with a deep and spreading tension tearing my calves apart.  Equally stupidly I did what most runners do and after a mere day of rest headed out to ‘test’ the injury with a tough tempo session.  Unsurprisingly the legs locked again, this time after only two gentle miles and for the first time in my short running career I was faced with an injury that I couldn’t just man-up and run through.

What followed was near two months of mixed frustration, enjoyment and farce.  The frustration largely emanated from the total lack of improvement despite nearly two months of non-running rest.  Living with an uninterrupted view of the mountains transformed from the usual joy to a simmering resentment.  The satisfaction of knowing that I could be up amongst those peaks at will replaced by a debilitating depression at the realisation I couldn’t even walk up them.  I felt that their presence was mocking me, exacerbated on the rare sunny days where not enjoying their views and freedom seemed like a crime.  This frustration was tempered by a refreshing shift back to constant bike riding, the time freed up by non-running allowing a mix of structured turbo training and thrashing round the woods in the rain.  Mentally this was fantastic, really refreshing with the added bonus of re-finding my bike speed and actually bringing some tangible improvements in top end anaerobic performance.  I’d have probably been happy to settle for continuing the run free existence were it not for a nagging feeling that part of my identity had been removed.  The mountain running scene is full of incredibly friendly, humble, talented individuals and being a part of that has brought me a real sense of belonging since I stumbled into it a few years back.  Whilst not being a runner doesn’t mean being instantly banished, it does rob you of those shared experiences upon which the camaraderie is based.  I wasn’t prepared to walk away from that yet.  Likewise, there’s a belligerence to my mindset and if I’ve decided to do something then by sheer force of will it generally happens.  If that means exhausting all avenues in order to achieve my aims then so be it.  And so it was that seven weeks, four physios, massages, stretches, needles, weights regimes, foam rolling and research later I finally found the farcical solution to the ailment myself.  To give due credit to all the physios, they had diagnosed the problem but been deflected by the assertion that I hadn’t changed my shoes recently, and I hadn’t.  What I previously failed to realise though was that the intensity of my new regime had internally collapsed the heels in a three month old pair of Inov8’s so whilst they looked visually perfect they were essentially wrecked.  The additional heel drop had put too much strain on my calves for them to cope.  Diagnosis made, shoes changed and remarkably within a week I completed my first three hour run, celebrating my return with a favourite route along all the peaks of the famous Mourne skyline.
The Culprits
Depending on viewpoint the timing couldn’t have been worse/better.  Four weeks is hardly textbook prep time for the longest race of your career, however it was theoretically long enough to squeeze in a mini-periodisation of three increasingly hard weeks followed by a one week taper.  That was enough incentive for me and so it was that I somehow went from unable to run a mile to a sub four hour trail 32 miler in less than twenty days.  I also managed to squeeze in a new PB on my eight mile testpiece route and even a fantastic but freezing bike recce of the Wicklow Way course itself.  I can’t say that confidence was high, I was painfully aware of how fragile my physical conditioning was, largely built on foundations of sand. Having seen the course I also realised how little it suited my attributes.  Despite containing 2,000 metres of climbing, unfortunately none of it was steep enough for my strengths to kick in.  I feel my body noticeably settle into a rhythm once hills get super steep, something clicks and I find the going easier, not harder.  The flipside of this is that until that gradient is reached I often suffer and despise gradual ups and downs.  I knew I’d be fighting for rhythm throughout the race, a thought that brought trepidation. 

My taper week was as hateful as ever, every little tweak over-analysed and a creeping sense of dread culminating in my calf symptoms returning at the last minute and me being unsure whether I’d complete the course, let alone be competitive.  I’ve learnt to largely ignore all these feelings, form is so often uncontrollable and it always amazes me that despite all the hard training, sensible diet and mental acclimatisation I still rarely know whether I’m going to cruise the course or die a death.

We rolled into the Wicklow mountains to be greeted by a constant sheet of rain.  Cloud hung low around the peaks with little indication of any rapid improvement.  I agonised over kit choice with waterproofs, gloves and buff all pulled out and then stuffed back in the bag.  Ultimately I stuck with wearing a short sleeve base layer with the obligatory jacket in my bum bag.  I’d rather suffer than overheat.  A chilly wait on the start line and a few friendly and knowing conversations and we were off.  I headed out alone, happy to try to find my pace along the road section unhindered by the distraction of others.  Dropping down across the river we turned onto the Wicklow Way trail that would be our companion for most of the following thirty miles.  The initial 3km climb went smoothly with easy effort punctuated with snippets of chat; it’s always nice to get to know the athletes who may be your companions for a few difficult hours.  A fight with a gel pack took me on to the Alpine style rocky descent that had been so much fun on the bike in glorious sunshine just a week previously.  I led the field on to the long forest road descent and that’s when the problems started.  I’d woken in the night with stomach pains but dismissed them as pre-race nerves and spent the early morning forcing down the requisite calories to undertake this epic.  Unfortunately they returned with a vengeance, a painful swirling and slopping feeling that was moving rapidly downwards.  I don’t want to be unnecessarily graphic about what followed but needless to say I lost the lead as I dived for cover in the bushes.  The last thing I wanted was to have to force a pace so early in the race but I felt the need to re-connect with the lead group and tuck in to recover.  Heading into Curtlestown Woods I re-joined them but looking around at their serene faces it was clear that I wasn’t as comfortable as my front-running mates.

We pressed on together towards Crone Woods with me listening but barely able to contribute to conversation, my stomach was already churning again and I was dreading forcing down more gels at my pre-decided point.  I was caught in a classic Catch 22, knowing I’d need the energy provided but very aware of the debilitating impact of further fuelling on my present condition.  Reasoning that the status quo was better than hitting the wall completely further down the line I literally sucked it up, the gooey gel hitting my stomach like a very unwelcome guest.

The fog denied us the breathtaking view over Powerscourt Waterfall and instead we were treated to the disappearing back of Tom Hogan’s Team Canada jacket (I presume a swappsie from a previous World Champs, when I started chatting to Tom on the first climb of the day I was expecting a Canadian accent!).  He made a strong move and gently opened a gap on myself, Eoin Lennon and Barry Hartnett, none of us wanting to commit to the chase at this still early stage.  Watching Tom slip and skate down the steep drop towards the base of Djouce mountain I was glad of my X-Talon’s heel grip as I actually held back to ensure I’d have someone to shield me from the powerful wind on the open mountain.  Just a week ago I’d ridden up this section on bone dry trails, giving cheery advice to some out-of-their-depth Americans who’d overstretched themselves in a doomed attempt to summit Djouce.  This time it was me feeling pushed as Eoin decided to force the pace over the ridge and on to the boardwalk.  The punishing sidewinds toyed with us, daring me to lean into them to stay upright before abruptly ceasing, removing their invisible crutch and leaving me swerving and staggering to stay on the wooden sleepers.  Eoin was really motoring and so skipping round Barry I stuck to his back, drafting along at an alarming pace.  We picked off Tom on the steep exit from the boardwalk, his road shoes grossly deficient on the saturated ground, and rapidly opened a hundred metre gap.  As we hit the Ballinastoe Woods track Eoin apologised for the effort, explaining that he wanted to reel in Tom before exiting the rough stuff.  I felt that he wanted to work together, extending our advantage and under normal circumstances I’d have definitely concurred.  Unfortunately my digestive system had other ideas and I had to agonisingly watch Eoin and then Tom disappear again whilst I hid in the dense trees.

Briefly re-joined at the half way feed station I unfortunately couldn’t quite liberate my feed bottles fast enough to leave with the lead pair and so the metaphorical elastic stretched and then snapped as I watched them gradually ease away on the extended climb back where we’d just come from.  As an out and back route, the following half hour should’ve been a spirit lifting series of exchanges with friends warming up for the 26km Trail race as well as the outgoing Ultra runners.  I certainly saw many friends and appreciated their encouragement but was barely able to respond beyond a slack-jawed thanks and a raised thumb.  My quads were struggling to acclimatise to climbing again and the forced speed of the descent had sapped me beyond expectation.  The mental anguish of feeling this rough at merely the half way point weighed heavy and I’m sure I cut a dejected figure as I sluggishly retraced my steps over Djouce.

Photo Credit: Mick Hanney
A sliding, windmilling sprint back down the river that used to be a trail off Djouce mountain brought possibly my only enjoyment of the whole race, the familiarity of uneven ground and soft bog allowing a mental relaxation and rare freedom in my movement.  This was reflected in speed as the gap closed to around 50 metres on the steep rise back to trail running above Powerscourt, the grinning faces of groups of kids sat on the wall at the top juxtaposing dramatically against my pain-etched features.  Initial tickly shots of pre-cramp in my calves were allayed by some fluids and a salt sachet but the stomach issues weren’t so easy to defeat and another frustrating minute lost put the final nail in the coffin to any aspirations of re-joining the lead pair.

From that point onwards it was a lonely exercise in pacing, passing only a couple of the 08:30 starters to reassure me that I was still moving sufficiently fast.  Inexperience may have hindered me in this instance as I treaded a conservative line, preferring to reserve energy rather than push on and risk blowing up.  Ultimately I lost a few minutes as Tom and Eoin fought eachother for the win but the legginess I felt on the final road section convinced me that I hadn’t held back too excessively.

Initial emotions on crossing the line were relief tinged with disappointment.  My time of 4:08:55 (don’t believe the official results) would usually have been fast enough for a win but in reality it was considerably slower than I’d hoped.  I set myself high standards and Jonny Steede’s 3:56:47 record was always the target.  Perhaps I was being unrealistic given my lack of experience at this distance combined with the unorthodox preparation.  Problems on the day definitely cost me a static few minutes and maybe a few more as a result of the energy sapping nature of my ailments.  The clock doesn’t lie though and who knows what issues Jonny may have faced whilst setting his blistering pace?  The other key fact is that Tom and Eoin battled the same elements and came out faster.  A race that long will definitely reveal the rightful winner and the better athletes showed me up on the day.  Fair play lads, I’ll be back!

A badly stuck van (MASSIVE thanks to my Newcastle AC team mates for dragging us out despite the untimely sleet storm), a two hour drive to dissect the race and by 7pm I was safely back in County Down.  The redemptive powers of smiley kid’s faces, home-made carbonara and a roaring fire soon overcame any disappointment.  Time to relax, have a beer, wait for the DOMS and plan for my next race.

Huge thanks to IMRA for a great event, to the marshals who always have the toughest job and massive respect to all my fellow competitors.  The unifying qualities of shared suffering can never be underestimated and spending some time on the finish line meeting runners as they came in was really life affirming.  If ever you needed to explain why so many people gladly pay to go through that experience, just ten minutes spent there wordlessly encapsulates it all!