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!