The first of my big races this year came around quickly after Easter, and I had ups and downs in confidence that I was really ready for it. I only tapered the week before, doing a few slow runs at ‘race pace’ that only served to hurt my knees. It’s hard to go slow properly unless you have already been running for many hours. I also carb loaded much of that week, eating moderately the day before. I was pretty wired starting the week but thankfully work commitments proved light so I could find some relaxation. Typically, I left all preparations to the evening before, which only served to up the stress again. 3.5hrs sleep were all I could hope to get before the 2:30 alarm… that I somehow didn’t set. I tried to hold on to the fact that I had woken up in time, rather than post-panic at the fact I had forgotten to set the alarm.
My very generous friend Mike had offered to drive me to the race, and had prepared a micro-adventure of stealth bivvying, reading, 2 fish suppers, and exploration of Rathlin to pass the long day until I returned. The banter was good up the road and had me in bright spirits. We became waylaid by some bad signage and had to revert to a paper map and phone GPS to find our way to registration only slightly late. There appeared to be few runners about, but when the coach arrived it soon filled up. The briefing was true to word, consisting of ‘there is only one cut-off to worry about at 13:30, have fun’; and we departed on a terrific scenic drive along the coast roads with burning dawn stretching to the Scottish Isles and mist floating down the glens to the sea. A treat for all of us, let alone the visitors (local to us, the Causeway Crossing is part of a global Lost Worlds series of races, so there were a good few international competitors).
We started by the sea, with the lead runners taking off like they were running a 400m sprint! It was very impressive, but the rest of us chose to fall in line at a more moderate jaunt. Flat up a riverside then road lent a steady-pace to warm-up in the cool dawn before we had to tackle the climb through Glenariff Forest to get onto the Antrim Plateau. I had my sensible head on and walked a lot of the steeper climbs but didn’t hesitate too long when a chance to run presented. I was soon by myself, and it would be a good few miles before I caught the next runner. We chatted for a while about his UTMB experiences and enjoyed the golden sunrise burning off the mist. Apparently we were being diverted around Trostan and Slieveannora due to excessively boggy ground. This is something the Moyle Way is famous for, and going by some sections later on, a good call. It did make for more road running though, and what turned out to be a long…dry first half.
As another runner approached I decided to ramp back into my pace and moved on again by myself. I enjoyed the isolation, but was starting to get thirsty. The first water stop was supposed to be at 16K and we were long past that. It was nearly 25K before I hit an aid station. I thought it was the second, the first perhaps not in place due to the diversion, but was assured it was the ’16K’ one. The second aid point appeared at 31K, so I had only gotten half a bottle in me and struggled to take on more. I should have forced more water down me at this point because it transpired there would be no more for the next 30K. I have vague memories of nice remote tracks and damp, mystical forests but I was becoming more fixated on the thought of sucking moss or licking puddles. I willed the sun to stay hidden as my throat grew dry and my head started pounding. Ballycastle appeared and I kept my head down as I knew there was still a way to go after it.
Finally, after 6.5 hours on about 2 litres I reached Larrybane Quarry by Carrick-a-rede. After a quick stop in the toilets to wash the dried sweat off my face, I downed many cups of water, some gels, caffeine, and restocked my bottle and nutrition for the next stage. Thankfully, our turn-around had been brought forward to Portballintrae to counter the earlier diversion: I had feared we would still have to run another 50K. 42 was a more welcome number, but it didn’t twig that I was essentially still a marathon away from the finish.
I sloshed onwards, chatting to a few spectators and trudging along the beach into a headwind. Dr Andrew Murray gave some cheery encouragement as he raced past leading the 50K runners. I follow him on twitter, but a lot of people followed him along the coast as he went on to win in an impressive 3:55. I eventually saw Jonny Steede on the return leg of the 100K, blazing home to an outstanding 8:35 finish!
My own race was in a no-mans-land: out on my own and listening to the crash of the waves, hoping for rejuvenation. After 10K I reached the next aid point, refilling my bottle and taking another caffeine tablet. My system reached normal energy soon after this, and combined with my favourite part of the coastal trail, I decided to claw back some time… after all, now I had my energy back and I could eat and drink at will with the frequent aid points on this part of the course… Time for a lesson.
Don’t do too much thinking when your brain has been shut down all day. Just because your energy is out of the red, doesn’t mean you are safe. It is a very short visit back to the danger zone; the heart rate exceeding 160 and the pace dropping below 5min/km at points will get you there again all too soon… and destroy your legs in the process. I was turning around on schedule, but on a fools errand, as I was now stricken to a hobble. I refused to walk and pumped my arms to get a power-shuffle happening. All available speed must be sought! I despaired that I was now looking at 13.5hrs rather than 12, but kept pushing it out of my mind knowing I had to get there and it would take as long as it was going to take.
25K and 50K runners filtered past, and even two from the 100K who shouldn’t have come back on my radar at all. I gave one guy some gels and was disappointed that he dropped the wrappers on the ground. As I was going so slow I started to collect the waste that I passed. There wasn’t a lot but it was still sad that people are so careless in this stunning natural environment. One runner gave me a little pat on the shoulder as he went by and gave some encouragement. I smiled over and acknowledged the gesture saying something like, “cheers, we’ll get there yet”. Then, about 5 seconds later out of nowhere, I nearly broke into tears!?!! Note, this was purely a physical reaction: my brain was thinking, “where the **** did that come from?”. The hormones must have been out of whack in my weary body and the human touch triggered some over-reaction. So be careful around flagging athletes, you could accidentally set them off by trying to be nice!
Eventually, I knew I had 7K to go and forced myself into a proper run. Regardless of anything, I was close enough to risk giving it all at this point. I felt every gust of wind on my back and allowed it to turn my legs faster. I sought the firm sand near the tide on the beach and straight-lined the swash, streams and mud. My breathing was ragged (and probably sounded quite disturbing as I slowly clawed past people!). Off the beach, grassy section, Ballintoy, power up the road climb…there is no pain, last grassy section… there is no feeling. Sliding down towards the quarry my emotions also took another slip. Don’t lose it now, for feck’s sake! I gritted my teeth and pushed over the finish just under 13 hrs after I started; glad to have finished, glad of what I clawed back, but very much in pain, fatigued, and disappointed that I messed up.
I got a good, chunky medal, but there were no goodie bags and the masseurs were packing up. Mike had been waiting, and the thought of a seat was inviting, so we quickly hit the car and made our way home sharing stories and analysis of our days. My mind was chatty and fresh (probably due to loads of caffeine) but even breathing felt like hard work. It would be like this for a day or two, with the inability to walk down stairs, and trying to force in recovery food though the body was too tired to care. A strange sensation indeed.
Overall, I’m not sure what I made of this run. There were beautiful moments, but generally it was a grey, breezy day. We were all in it together, but I spent most of it alone. There were moments of fun, but generally it was one foot in front of the other. It was challenging, and hard, and I made mistakes, but I got there in the end…which was only good because I had chosen to do so. It felt like life, in a day. Now for recovery week; so I can reincarnate for a final month of hard WHW training 🙂
Thanks to all the great volunteers at the aid stations who were superb craic, to Mike for giving up his sleep and his Saturday after a long week in work to drive me about, and special thanks to 50K runner no.58 (Gary Gillham) who ran silently with me in suffering solidarity for a while, and stopped me taking a crazy wrong turn… because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on all those causeway stairs ;D