If we really want to get rid of suffering, completely and totally, then clinging has to go. The spiritual path is never one of achievement; it is always one of letting go. The more we let go, the more there is empty and open space for us to see reality. Because what we let go of is no longer there, there is the possibility of just moving without clinging to the results of the movement. As long as we cling to the results of what we do, as long as we cling to the results of what we think, we are bound, we are hemmed in. Meditating on No-Self: A Dhamma Talk (Edited for Bodhi Leaves), by Sister Khema(1994)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Conemmara Ultra Write Up - or; Great Expectations are merely expectations

October, 1992, I ran 2:45:05 at the Dublin Marathon, I finished 94th out of 3000 + runners.  I crashed and burned because I did good training but didn’t respect pace or show patience.  After that I ran a very good marathon the next year by adding some training in places and respecting the early part of the race and the pace of the race.

Twenty years later 1 April 2012 and a great deal of water under the bridge.
0600, woke up easily.  Didn’t sleep very well, but I knew that would be the case.  I did sleep a lot on Saturday as I travelled for some 19 hours just to get to Clifden, IE from Kyiv, UA.  The race schedule called for a 7:20 bus to the briefing which would be 0815, then bus one mile up the road to the start.  I started the day with a hot shower, had two cups of coffee and then headed downstairs to wait for 7:20.  There were a lot of people doing the Ultra who were staying at the hotel so there were quite a few in the lobby.  The bus we took ended up full.  My number was 390174 (cute the 39 stood for the ultra as we were going 39.3 miles)  This entire race was in miles of course, not kilometers.  

I didn’t know the route really at all.  I had been down about 10 miles of it without knowing I had been when I took the trip from Galway to Clifden.  It was significant rolling hills and we drove back up that road to the briefing area which was Peackock’s Hotel at Maam Cross. It looked like there were about 225 of us in total at the briefing.  Turns out that is about right.  We heard from the director, got our directions, turn right, turn right, turn right turn right, run down hill and then met the current 100 km world champion from Italy, really nice guy and about to run really fast. 

I didn’t prepare any dropbags as I packed 12 GU’s, strawberry banana and tri berry, plus insulin, test strips, meter and the thing that pricks your finger that I can never remember the name of in a fanny pack.  Having already practiced with this in the 40kms and 50kms runs I was comfortable with the fanny pack.  I wore an Adidas Clima Cool shirt, number front and back, compression shorts and running shorts along with socks and Adidas CC Ride shoes that had about 60 kms on them at the start.  I didn’t wear the wrap on my leg as it felt very good.  In fact, it feels good as I write this, which is full evidence that I should never ever buy a pair of shoes that does not fit/is too big again in my life!

 Early days with the group referenced below

I took off my t shirt that I brought because it felt cold, put it in my end of race drop bag, along with an apple, my water bottle and put it where it was supposed to go. I kind of felt like I was in a fog, my focused kept wavering from what was happening to sort of following the line of people and what they were doing.  I occasionally would listen to conversations, but what I learned was we were all kind of doing the same thing, only close friends were really speaking, we seemed to be following each other like lemmings to the cliff.
 I kept my gloves on, race time temperature was about 6 C.  I wore the gloves for the first 6 miles probably.  We took the bus to the start at 0840 where we had the first hilarious moment of the day.  It looked like every man in the field decided to go from the bus to the nearest field and acid fertilize (urinate) the man’s property.  I’m glad I waited, as more than one person stepped immediately in to a peat bog and got to run 40 miles with one clean shoe and one mud covered shoe.  But eventually I did make my personal contribution to the property line.  We slowly got ready and they called two minutes, I was about 15 rows back I think.

I had a plan which I spoke about previously.  Start slow and work my way into things and run somewhere between 8:15 and 8:30 miles, which is to say that I had expectations of my fitness level and what I had done leading up to this run.  In the final analysis I learned you can have expectations but if you don’t respect the course your ass is grass, end of story.

The first mile was downhill and probably the mile marker was  in the wrong place as we went through in about 9:30.  Mile two, however, seemed a little more correct and that was 16:44 (8:22’s).  By this time we began to have a nice group of people, some people moving quickly up, others staying together, others showing restraint and falling back.  I perceived myself as someone showing restraint as there were people around me.  Next time I will know that that feeling isn’t restraint, it is the early part of the race when we are all still together for a bit.  I was around a pack of French people from a club in Toulouse and ran with them for about 1.5 miles.  At the front of this pack was a Belgian women who had a bike rider accompanying her.  I ran with her for about 2 miles.  I didn’t look at the watch again until about mile 5.  

The scenery was just gorgeous, the sun was shining brightly and at this point we had the wind at our back and the rolling hills were not really any sort of problem.  By far this was the most spectacular part of the run, the weather was beautiful, the wind at our back, I felt extremely good and the beginning os a series of rolling hills went barely unnoticed by me as I seemed to be maintaining my pace.  

My pace was very good and I seemed to be turning 8:25’s or there abouts.  Unfortunately, at 5 miles I realized I was all alone.  I would stay that way for about 5 hours with the occasional conversation with someone I passed or someone who passed me.  I in fact had failed to maintain concentration about the concept of the length of the race.  It felt great so I continued on, not knowing there would be so many hills (I knew, I chose to ignore them for concentrating on the final hill) and therefore I just ran and didn’t think to consider that maybe I should stay with the group for a long time.  Just didn’t think about it.  Can you tell I am now?

And then there was pissing boy.  In Brussels of course they have the statute called “The Pissing Boy”.  There was a guy who went by me at about mile 2 who built up quite a quick distance on me.  But at mile 3, 5, 7, 9 he stopped to urinate and each time he started up again about 20meters ahead of me and rebuilt the lead.   I really felt that this guy was strong and this was my first strange feeling at mile 9, as in, how does he keep doing that, is he running that much faster than me, is he in that much better shape than I am?

I went through 6 miles in about 50+ minutes and seemed very comfortable.  I didn’t see the watch again until 10 miles.  Miles 7-9 were a series of very rolling hills and I ran this with three guys between 100meters and 50 meters in front of me, I could hear the French behind me and could not believe that they were just jabbering away.  My mental conversation was completely incorrect.  I was thinking about how long I should take to overcome both of the two guys in front of me.  I was not thinking about the rolling hills that just kept coming.  I was very comfortable physically.  But I was not, thinking about it now, considering the down range problems that I just didn’t have the experience to think about before the race and have learned from this race.

The conversations I had so far were merely about the weather and how beautiful it was.  I still thought this place was gorgeous, and I was very comfortable.  At 10 miles I was about 84 minutes and we made a write turn toward the Kilgore Monastery.  

This was a beautiful part of the run.  Lakes and bogs with sun shining surrounded by very large hills covered in rock and gorse.  We basically took a lake road for 3 miles until we reached the first ½ marathon point which is also where the companion marathon started.  Up to this point I had taken water at 5 and 10 miles.  I took GU 15 minutes before the race and took my second one at 5 miles as I ran and drank, this was pretty comfortable, it wouldn’t be later.  The water was in 250ml bottles. 

At the 10 mile turn we turned into a wind, which would accompany me for the next 25 miles.  Another factor that I had not considered, or factor into mental consideration for this amount of time on my feet.  This lack of experience is of course a recurring theme from this experience.  But that really is the point isn’t it?  Learn, use the information for next time, adapt, change, learn from the next one.  

At 10 we had what I considered our first serious ½ mile long hill and I found myself having to work very hard here and that I had caught the two guys in front of me and went by them; but another caught me and went by me like I was standing still and I never saw him again.

The 13 mile water stop was early and I took one bottle of water which I sipped on through the ½ marathon point, which was also the first time we went across a timing mat.  I went through here in just under 1:49, almost exactly what I thought I should be doing.  I also tested my blood sugar here and it was 206, so I took 2 units of humulog and on GU and off I went again.  Another interesting experience, I have been out of competitive running for so long that I didn’t know how timing mats felt I think I stumbled over this one in fact.

My first truly serious error occurred shortly thereafter.  I picked up the pace through a very hilly section of the course.  I worked this for about 5 miles.  I went through 15.1 miles at 2:06, write about 8:30’s, this should have been a hint that the hills required more respect.  My water stop at 16 miles was fine, just water, but then I started to really feel like crap around 18 miles, and there were hills coming and going and rolling along and feeling like there were good downhills with them.  There was going to be water at 19 miles, about half way.  I was surprised that I felt so bad, this area had a lot of hills in it and I was trying to pull experience from my training to work through it because I couldn’t figure it out. What seemed to be the problem.
A thought occurred to me, why not test your sugar! 

an attempt at pushing it with sets of hills in the background

I did, I’d had a bonk and the type 1 diabetes had made its entrance into the experience, blood sugar down to 60 from the 206 from those 2 units of humulog, I took two GU’s and two bottles of water at 19 miles.  I was at 2:43 here, which meant I’d gone about 4 miles in about 37 minutes (I didn’t figure this out then, this is analysis afterward) .  I immediately felt better, but then we took a right turn again and went straight uphill for a mile.  This really did a number on me, but I didn’t know it yet.  At this point I was still on a good pace for something about 5:35.  Or so I assumed that all we be the fine now that I had found and solved the problem.  Again, lack of experience.

On review, this part of the course was really very difficult, it was mostly uphill with the type of hills where you reach the pinnacle only to find you get 100meters of downhill and go straight up very quickly again.  Also, with the exception of passing two guys and being passed by one guy who really looked amazing, I was jealous of his relaxed demeanor; I was running alone for a very very long time.  I think this being alone is why I like running.  However, it is very unique to this type of racing as the distances are so long and at some point you spend a lot of time by yourself and again, experienced learned.

Once we had climbed these hills we were sent down hill for about a mile then uphill and I got water at 22 miles and I took two bottles, one I stopped a drank immediately the other I carried for about ½ a mile until I finished it.  I still thought I was okay here, we were coming toward the marathon and I was making the critical mistake of getting too far ahead in the race, I began to think about the last ½ marathon of the race instead of focusing on my body and doing an inventory of what was happening.

And slowly I began to unravel.  I started to feel my quads hurting at about 20 miles, now they hurt a great deal and suddenly I had stabbing pain in both quads, above the knee (vastus medialis).  I had to stop and kneed out the cramping.  It seemed very early to have cramping, potassium?  Carbs?  Water?  I had no idea but I knew I was in serious trouble if it was like this this early.  Water at 22 seemed to solve the problem.  From here on out the experience would be aid station, water, fine, one mile from next aid station, all hell breaking lose in my legs from cramping.  By now the temperature was 15 C about 72 F.  I had a fleeting thought of running a 50km training run in Kyiv when it was -20C.  Hmmm, some things you can’t control I guess.

Getting to the marathon point was a gentle downhill which brought me to a stop because of the quad problem.  I went through the marathon in 3:48.  It had taken me 2 hours to do the second ½ marathon.  I was doing quick calculations in my head and knew it would be tight if I hung on.  That actually was an absolutely ridiculous expectation.  We turned right and went straight uphill.  My first thought was the ½ marathon starts on an uphill?  My second thought was pure mental unhappiness, “this just isn’t fair, how can they make us go uphill again?”  Again, complaining about something that I chose to do and not respecting the type of terrain that an ultra marathon requires, it can’t be flat unless it is in another country, not this area of the country.  On introspection I even knew this would be a hard hill I had looked at the elevation map dozens of times.  I just didn’t respect what it meant.  Another great experience.

This was really a very down moment for me, this thing went a very long way uphill, at least a mile.  I spent all my pre race visualization on the last hill of the race that I clearly had not mentally prepared for the whole point of an Ultra, the long winding road that is doing this type of race, its not a road race that is flat and fast, or marathons that are flat and fast, it is a race of patience, and I seemed to have run out.  Fortunately for me I was starting to catch the back part of the Marathon group so at least there was human contact.
Uphill at this point was far easier than downhill.  A rea lesson here is doing more down hills in training.  By now my form is a mess, I’m half bent over just following my shadow around and time is just going quietly by.  At 28 miles I tested again, still I was at 72, I took two more GU’s and two bottles of water, but I was walking in order to get it all in.  Every time I walked it took a good amount of mental preparation to start to run again. Hips, quads, feet were all feeling it.  It took almost 21 minutes to run that two miles.  Things were not good.  Making it even better, at 28 miles a guy stopped in front of me, in the Ultra race and muttered, “I’m done”.    For a short time I wondered “am I?”  I’m also starting to get passed by more than a few ultra runners who have showed a bit more patience, training, knowledge, whatever and they looked very fresh.  Really tough on me again.

I genuinely considered stopping right here.  But it only lasted for about 30 seconds.  I passed a point here regarding expectations.  I came to a decision, and I have no idea how, probably mental protection regarding failure; but I did decide to just enjoy it and pick my head up and look around some more and see what was on the course.  This was very useful for about 2 miles until I started cramping again.  I was really looking forward to the 31 mile/50km stop in order to see my time as compared to my 50km training run.  I hobbled in to this stop in 4:40 (I ran 4:43 in the training run).  I had 8.3 miles to go, 10 minute miles would get it done. 

No chance.  And uphill we went again.  Every uphill reduced me to a 12 minute pace at least, each downhill brought on the stabbing pain in my groin and my quads and my feet.  I began to break down the run into 1 mile sections.  Not looking at the watch, and was analyzing how the pain was coming.  My running form had turned in to something that felt like I was duck walking, I kept looking at my feet and I wasn’t doing that but my mind kept thinking I was running with my feet splayed out like I was doing cross country skiing uphill.  About mile 33 I gave up on sub 6.  I just tried to learn from everything happening around me.  My mind was everywhere, first focused on running, then focused on trying not to feel disappointed then trying to put one foot after the other.  At this point I was channeling Bryan Powell and “Relentless Forward Progress.”
A very funny moment was soon to come.  We made a right turn and came into about 35 + miles and crossed over a bridge and were about to do the “Hell of the West” the two miles uphill I have written about and mentally done in my head many times.  I come up on this water stop and here is a man with a box screaming “Fig Bars, Fig Bars”, I take two waters, drink one immediately, and turn to him and say rather loudly “I don’t have any money.”  He politely tells me, “well done, they’re free for everyone lad.”  I look at him a little wild eyed and say “Free?”  I take six and cram them in my mouth and then have some water.  Instant cookie dough in my mouth, not the smartest thing but it sure was something to pull out of my teeth for the next four miles eat.

 do i look like a duck to you?

At this point the hill is there and I am walking and have been walking for 1 minute, I don’t know what the time is and I don’t want to know, I begin to talk to myself and slowly start to run, I begin to pick up what I would call pace, maybe 10 minutes a mile and run this hill for all my life.  This thing just keeps going and going and going, I pass about 10 people, none of them ultra runners, and finally reach the top to be met by an ambulance that is stationed there permanently after the death of a runner who ascended and had a heart attack in 2007.  This is 37.1 miles, I refuse the water and start downhill.

What a nightmare, you can see the finish building for 2.2 miles and it never gets closer and it wasn’t all down hill it still had one more little rolling hill in it.  I’m going down hill and my quads are just death warmed over, I seem to be leaning predominantly to one side and I still feel like I am duck walking but I’m not.  To add insult to injury we get over that rolling hill go down a bit then go up about two meters and then start toward the finish shoot and I finally get it done in 6:17:34.  Good for 94 I find out later, barely in the top half of the race.


Physically I felt destroyed, I had no elation at all at finishing.  And I had to get on a bus to go back to the hotel.  I could barely put one foot in front of the other.  I couldn’t lift my legs for the next four hours.  I got home, showered, took a nap for two hours and woke up in excruciating pain.  I slowly tried to ambulate and was able to move forward a bit but my feet were just killing me.  I put them in ice cold water and then went and had dinner.  

After dinner I got back to the hotel room and started to begin to try and stretch.  This process went on through the night as I woke up every two hours to go to the bathroom.  As early morning came on I started to feel a bit better.  

Now on Wednesday pain is gone in all areas and I will try to run a leisurely bit tomorrow.  Don’t even know how far.

As you can see from the write up, I learned a great deal in this my first true competitive ultra.
My training was clearly not appropriate, too much taper, not enough long runs, not enough prep time.  I spent 12 weeks on this but didn’t get enough in the bank clearly and took too many days off.  Some people do this with several days off but all of their runs are longer runs.  My diet is probably wrong as well.

Finally, it is time to decrease expectations.  Enjoy these runs, and the workouts and the ability to just put one foot after another because you can.  Stop trying to beat the clock and work on different expectations that involve the experience itself, because in an ultra each course is different, each distance is different it is so different from racing shorter distances and the mind work is different and the joys are different.  But if you show some patience and relaxation you can accomplish some realistic goals instead of unrealistic goals.
Finally, it is enjoyable, really. 

We’ll see where it goes from here.


  1. Congrats on a job well done! Conemmara is beautiful. Mind you, I traveled by means of walking.

    I agree completely with your conclusions about running. I've reached the same for myself.

    Rest up. You deserve it!

  2. Thanks Bree, actually, I am in pretty good shape now, i'll probably run Friday.