Friday, 31 March 2017

Feeling The Burn - The Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultramarathon

It was never my intention to lead from the gun.  I really just wanted some clear space, away from the sound and sight of other footsteps in order to settle into my familiar, trained, tried and tested rhythm.  I'd spent the last four weeks perfecting a pace that covered 32 hilly miles in 3:54:00 and the sooner that kicked in, the sooner I could relax and enjoy my surroundings.
They're behind you!!  Fast early pace.  Photo: Barry Murray
Following the safety car, all 210 Ultra runners dropped down to the bridge that signalled our initial steps on to the beautiful Wicklow Way trail.  I savoured the moment as we began to ascend, the tension of the previous week dissipating as it finally dawned that I'd arrived at the start line fit and healthy despite the usual hypochondriac over-analysis of every recent sneeze and twinge.

Whenever I race, a certain hyper-awareness kicks in, listening for the breathing patterns and strides of my competitors.  I like to be out front which removes the possibility of seeing everyone else's form, checking their features for signs of strain, and so I've learned to form a visual picture without the dangerous pointlessness of looking over my shoulder.  Half way up that initial climb it slowly dawned on me that those familiar sounds weren't in evidence and I was alone.  There was nothing I could do about this, my pace was set and I was basically on auto-pilot, if nobody fancied matching it then I'd have to accept that it could be a lonely few hours ahead.  I crested the summit, stretched my legs along the slight undulations and revelled in the buzz of long-anticipated competition and warmth of long yearned for sunshine...

I didn't plan to run the Maurice Mullins Ultra this year.  Truth be known I had a chastening experience in 2016 and as someone who doesn't hugely enjoy hard packed surfaces and moderate gradients I'd have happily passed.  However, I do love competing for Ireland, being given the opportunity to travel as an athlete and pit myself against the World's best on the biggest stage and as this race was the World Champs qualifier for 2017 I realised I'd have to return.  Last year I came to Wicklow on the back of just three weeks training following a debilitating calf injury.  Fortunately this season my preparations were unhindered and I'd done a specific four week block of trail sessions, focusing on being efficient in movement and pinpointing the perfect pace.  A couple of comfortable 2:54, twenty-five milers over the Tollymore hills had me feeling confident and I fancied my chances of toppling Jonny Steede's rapid 3:56:47 record, particularly after seeing the weather forecast for the 25th March.

This race seems to have been blighted by poor weather in recent years!  Certainly on my one previous experience the high winds and intermittent showers made for testing times on the open mountain sections and lent a certain dankness to the forests.  This year a breathtaking sunrise accompanied the start of my journey and perfect blue skies led down to Glencullen where sunglasses at sign-on were prevalent.  With the early morning rays already generating a soothing warmth and the convivial nature of the usual pre-race banter it was easy to enjoy the last hour before the big start.  I decided to heed the forecast and ignore all my four base layers of differing thickness, opting to wear just the vest instead, a decision I definitely appreciated later on.  Final stretches, race briefing, sip of water and we were off.  Just 32 miles to go!
Stunning sunrise to start the journey
The first sixteen miles were pretty uneventful and at times hugely enjoyable.  From the techy rock drops of the first descent to skipping up Djouce mountain in the sun following the breathtaking beauty of Powerscourt Waterfall that almost stopped me in my tracks.  I passed Crone Wood feed station in 54 minutes and felt really comfortable although the decision not to stop and take on water was foolish given the conditions.  Even worse, I opted to down the 250ml of electrolytes I'd allocated to this section in order to save weight which left me without a drop all the way to the Ballinastoe half-way point.  Last year I downed 500ml at that point but the ensuing stomach issues left me overly cautious this year and I'd only packed another 250ml.

Passing half-way at 1:56:00 I was delighted to be exactly on planned pace and still feeling strong, and the lengthy climb back up Djouce passed pretty quickly with the hundreds of snippets of support and conversation.  Huge thanks to everyone who stepped off the boardwalk, taking the softer line to let me pass.  The 90 degree bend that signals the top of the climb took me by surprise as for some reason I thought the trail went right to the summit and so I was a bit unprepared to commence the slippery descent, small patches of snow serving as a clear reminder how the weather could have been so different.  A few comedy slips on the off-camber mud led to the bottom of the hill and up the steep rise on the other side, temporarily power walking as a creeping nausea started to temper my progress.  To stave off any early cramp, salt sachets were downed and I paced on well back to Crone Woods, pausing temporarily for water this time and allowing a quick time check.  2:57:20, still on record pace and despite the discomfort of the nausea, still covering ground fast.

By now I was getting distinctly bored of my own company but the drifting nature of my thoughts allowed whole sections to pass without conscious input.  I knew my lead was sizeable at half way and given the continued fast pace I was confident it had remained.  This was confirmed at the final feed station where I grabbed some water and settled in for the final climb.  As I jogged up the final jumble of granite boulders I made the fatal mistake of allowing my mind to skip to the finish and the promise of fluids and a cessation of movement.  That thought combined with the still very real possibility of the record prompted me to push on a bit hard on the flat of the ridge and into the descent with the clock at 3:39.  Just two and a bit miles to go, mostly downhill, I figured ten for the descent, six for the road and a finish time of 3:55.  Then it all went badly wrong.

Cramp can come in two ways, the sneaky gradual tightening or the instant jolting shock.  I managed to experience both simultaneously with quads seizing immediately whilst calves spasmed in tickly shots. Mind in overdrive I adopted a bizarre shuffle, contorting legs into any shape that temporarily alleviated the locking.  I'd long since accepted that I'd won the race and now suddenly that was far from a foregone conclusion.  It seemed so cruel that with the bulk of the work done my body could deny me at the last minute but I'd obviously asked too much of it without heeding the messages sent in return.  For the first time that day I started looking over my shoulder, convinced that Barry Hartnett would be appearing on the horizon.

After walking a bit and then ultimately stopping to vigorously rub my rock solid calves I was finally able to re-commence a hobbling jog.  Survival was now the primary concern and I craved the finish or even just the change to the uphill of the road.  Crossing the bridge I allowed myself a lingering look across the valley and back up the track and was quite astounded to see it bereft of runners.  The result was now unquestionably in the bag as long as I could actually reach the finish.  That final section was cripplingly tortuous as I prayed for the GAA club to appear at every slight bend in the road.  Face contorted in pain, I hobbled in, unable to appreciate the joy of the finish line, mentally spent and continuing to seize.

That last two and a bit miles took a whopping 32 minutes for a final time of 4:10:44, a couple of minutes slower than the time I ran last year for third.  My dreams of the record smashed to pieces by inexperience, poor decision making and a body that wasn't quite up to the task.  Watching Barry cross the line a few minutes later it was clear he'd experienced very similar symptoms and given his superior pedigree and experience over this distance maybe I hadn't cocked up as badly as I thought.  Maybe the conditions were always going to be the decisive factor this year, we don't really legislate for it being too hot for March mountain races in Ireland!
Finish line agony after a very tough last half hour.  Photo: Mick Hanney
Post-race saw the usual rush for cheap calories whilst catching up with familiar faces and sharing battle stories.  I'd have loved to have had the option to drink away the aches in the glory of a sun drenched beer garden at Johnnie Fox's but the North was calling and so I fought my way out of the car park and headed for the mayhem of the M50.  Job done, great result and ultimately I definitely got what I came for, International qualification and another very important lesson learned.  Drink early, drink lots and drink often!  I'll keep that in mind as we head to Italy in the height of Summer!
Followed by delight at not needing to run any more.  Photo: Mick Hanney
Huge thanks as ever to all fellow IMRA competitors who make for such happy atmospheres at races and biggest thanks to all organisers, helpers and marshals.  It was a superb event again, really smoothly run and a credit to all involved.  Also massive thanks to the Mullins family who have created such a lovely trophy which looks great on the mantlepiece.  My kids love it!  Now I need to work out how to return it next year without having to run that damn trail again!
Top three Ultra men along with Barry Hartnett and Paul Tierney

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