The double ultra: first 100 mile attempt

Filling in the blanks: June 2014

The thinking

After the just-about-managed 50K of the Causeway 100 I had only five weeks before the Mourne Way Ultra. This race has played a key part in my ultra-running journey: the first ultra I failed, the first ultra I succeeded in a year later, and now it would provide the familiar proving ground for another milestone, my first 100 miles. Although I had run the West Highland Way the previous year, its strenuous course fits neatly under the magic marker at 95 miles. This is all a bit arbitrary as we Europeans run in kilometres, but it is a common measure in the American ultra scene; and growing up near Belfast it was how far you had to drive to Dublin. A big deal.

More crucially, I was looking to prepare myself for the effort of the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc at the end of the summer. The UTMB was to be 170Km with around 9500m vertical, an absolute monster! The regular Mourne Way Ultra is 84Km with 2400m vertical. I realised that by doubling this race I would cover almost the same distance but, as this was still a building exercise, only half the dreaded vert. The timing was also perfect, leaving me six weeks to train and recover before doing a recce of the UTMB route in mid-July, which leaves me another six weeks before actually running the big race itself.

The preparation

Looking back at Strava I can see that my first week after the Causeway was easy middle-distance runs for recovery. I then had two weeks of increasing intensity and mileage: a Donard/Commedagh blast on Tuesdays, some quick commuting runs, and long hilly Mourne runs on Sundays. Then followed a reduced week of quick commutes and a moderate pace-practice Mourne run, before the race week of tapering easy commutes to keep the legs moving. All in (and not counting the hour of gym each Thursday) those weeks looked like:

  1. 5hrs, 57Km, 1000m+
  2. 7.5hrs, 62Km, 2700m+
  3. 9.5hrs, 83Km, 2600m+
  4. 6hrs, 61Km, 1000m+
  5. 8K, 7K, 5K taper, plus race.

Seeing as the actual MWM race begins at 6am on Saturday, I decided to set off at 5pm on Friday night. I thought 12 hours would be about the right pace for the first half seeing as I had run it in just over 10 hours previously and was aiming for a 26 hour finish. For the second half I would be running the official race, but would need to be fully self-supported until then. To facilitate this, I hid some caches along the route as I made my way to Rostrevor on Friday afternoon. The largest was at the Donard Park half way (quarter way!), containing water, two slices of pizza, gels and socks. I then left 2 litres of water at Trassey Track, Spelga Dam and Leitrim Lodge to keep me hydrated out and back before the aid stations went up. Finally, my car in Kilbroney Park contained more pizza, gels, water and change of clothing /GPS.

Craig sitting in his car eating pizza.

Pizza power. Photo by Eoin L.

The run

While a little bit rushed, everything went to plan and I set off at 5pm, witnessed only by Eoin and my GPS. It was weird standing around for a few minutes until my arbitrary start, and weirder still running around that first tree in the wrong direction when there are no course markers up – all you Mourne Wayers know the one I mean!

In a theme to be repeated all night, I plodded up the first hill and reminded myself to go e-a-s-y. By now, I know the course like the back of my hand, so the night held no navigational worries. Instead it was relaxing and fun to trot into the darkness. The weather stayed dry, with a light breeze and I didn’t see another soul all night; just the freaky eyes of sheep, horses, and mystery creatures reflecting back the light of my headtorch.

The first half certainly went to plan and I arrived back at my car in a comfortable 12.5 hours. I ate lots, washed the sweat off and changed my shirt and socks. This took 15 minutes. Then I went down to the start line and chatted with the other runners for another 15 minutes before we set off. I was looking and feeling fresh, but a full half hour break was perhaps too long. As I resumed my comfortable pace it was shocking to see everyone disappear almost immediately in that start-line excitement. Having enjoyed the night to myself, I was surprised to feel a little lonely at this point as I realised I would not have the competition of other runners to spur me on.

The sleepiness of a night spent running also began to crawl into the body and I lingered too long chatting with the aid station volunteers, exploiting the excuse to remain stationary. While still steady, my pace slipped 10% and by Trassey aid station an obvious problem reared its head. A problem that should have easily been foreseen and factored in. The organised 84K race had appropriate time cut-offs, to allow all runners to finish in daylight, and to pack away the aid stations. While my pace was typical of many runners in the second half of the 84K, I had started at that pace and was not going to make the half way cut-off.

I rallied through Tollymore on the flat but knew it was a fool’s errand. The rough climb above Donard Park would require an impossible speed. I could always drop out of the official race and carry on as my own responsibility, but then I would have no water and little food (my near empty cache bottles had been left with the aid stations to clear for me). I wasn’t done for, but my day was still over. I ducked out the back of Tollymore, and took the road straight to Donard Park to see the start of the half marathon and catch a lift back to Rostrevor. I should have started earlier.

Craig and Eoin chat after the race.

Photo by Noleen L.

It wasn’t all bad: I got to freshen up, eat chips and crepes and see the first of the ultra-runners blaze into the finish, including Eoin (Lennon) taking his first ultra podium in 3rd place. I was pretty knackered though, and had to stop the car to sleep for an hour on the way home.

The analysis

120K covered in about 19 hours… I was happy with that really. Another 8-9 hours would have seen me complete all four marathons, only one or two hours over my goal time and still quicker than the West Highland Way. Ticking the ‘100 miles on foot’ box would have to wait for another day. Here is the final note from my race log:

So with hindsight should have started a couple of hours earlier on Friday and left wiggle room. Everyone commented how fresh I looked, but then I had been going very easy…body found an acceptable rhythm once it realised it wasn’t stopping…this speed was slower than I would have liked, but I’m actually happy enough to know it exists and to have managed it for a good while. I could surely have finished yesterday if it was possible for me to continue. Rightly so, the aid stations couldn’t be expected to sit out … waiting on me. My bad. Still 120K (74.5miles) over tough ground and feeling rather good about it all. Plenty of mental notes, and a fun adventure to kick off the summer of training.

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