The Irish 24 hour championships were one of the two big target races for me this year. I had major unfinished business with this event. For various reasons I hadn’t made it to the first few runnings of this race. But last year I finally got the chance to compete. That race took place in Bangor, Co.Down, as its normal home, the Mary Peters Track in Belfast, was being relaid.
The weather at the Bangor race was appalling, with heavy wind-driven rain persisting through the night (with the race having started at about 7p.m.). That wasn’t a problem though, as I had exactly the gear needed to deal with that kind of weather, most especially my Columbia Omni-dry Evap rain shell. But I did have other problems. Gastro issues unfortunately! For the 12 hours or so that I lasted on the track I must have averaged at least 2 trips to the track-side toilets each hour. Bad enough in itself, but when you run the maths and realise that could be a kilometer being lost every hour, it soon adds up to a disastrous situation in such a demanding and competitive race.
In the end the race medics told me what I probably wanted to hear, which is that it was their medical opinion that I shouldn’t continue. It’s a very rare thing for me to pull out of a race, and this particular failure really rankled. 24 hours has been the event at which I have achieved my best results to that point, so to pull out of my national championships without being able to properly compete was gut-wrenching. My good friend John O’Regan, who I had been enjoying racing with when I could, went on to win the race and successfully defend his Irish championship title.
Of course such a disastrous race last year only served to increase my motivation to put things right and race to my proper potential this year. I wouldn’t let any other race get in the way either. Right from the start of the year this race was down as being a primary target race. So much so that I regarded the 24 hour world championships as being a tuning up race in preparation for this one.
Another reason for targeting this race with a greater priority than the worlds was that it was a track race rather than a road circuit race. There’s something about 24 hours racing on the track that seems very pure. I also reckon that in general, all other things being equal, it is more likely that you’ll be able to run a longer distance on the track. On top of that you’re always no more than 399 meters from the next aid station or whatever. The mathematics of lap times and pacing are also straightforward and consistent on a 400 meter track. So with all that I have a preference for track courses for 24 hour races.
Being a target race I had been sure to leave a “shadow” of at least a month between this race and my last ultra distance run (which was an attempt on the Bob Graham Round). This had brought an end to my sequence of ultras where I ran one every second weekend. For a target race I didn’t want to risk pushing this too far, even though I hadn’t had any noticeable degradation in my running. Better safe than sorry.
I had asked Helen Dixon, my girlfriend, if she had any interest in coming up to Belfast with me for the race, and maybe do a bit of support when she was at the track. She agreed, as long as we stayed overnight in Belfast and didn’t try to squeeze everything into one day. Then, after her successful return to running and racing she decided that she might as well give it a go herself and decided to enter into the 12 hour race which is part of the whole event. That was great. I was glad that Helen would get to experience a big endurance ultra race like this and see what it was like. Better again, it was possible she could turn out to be a natural ultra runner. Time would tell.
With a week or two to go Helen became more ambitious. She began thinking that if she was going to go for a 12 hour race then she might as well go for the 24. I agreed totally that it made sense. Even in the worst case scenario she could pull out of the race early, but by entering the 24 she would have the option of having the full 24 hour race experience (and would also be in the Irish championship race).
There was plenty of online discussion going back and forwards between the Irish international crew before the race. John O’Regan would, of course, be coming back to defend his title. He also had unfinished business with the 24 hour distance this year as his world championships race in Steenbergen didn’t go to plan for him. He wanted to put in a good distance this year and knew he should be able to comfortably beat his Steenbergen distance if he ran anywhere close to his true ability. Eddie Gallen would also be racing. Eddie lives in Madrid, but Belfast is his home town and he always makes sure to come back and race the Irish champs on home ground. Daniel Doherty also intended to come over and give 24 hours another crack. That meant that the full Irish team from the world championships would be racing.
Unfortunately, with a few days to go Dan’s niggling injuries were still affecting him. He eventually made the decision not to come over and race, which was undoubtedly the right one under the circumstances. A 24 hour race will always find your weaknesses and bring them to the fore! He also had a very big target race coming up in the not too distant future, as he was due to race the TDS race as part of the UTMB running festival (and Dan had every chance of doing very well indeed in that race). So we were down one from the Irish team.
The race was due to start at 6:45p.m. on Friday 19th July. That’s awkward timing from several points of view, although there are one or two upsides as well. It meant that a day’s holiday was required to travel to the race. However it also meant that on Friday Helen and myself could have a proper lie in and be well rested before Helen drove us up to Belfast. Thankfully the roads to Belfast are pretty much all motorway and dual-carriageway these days so the journey is no longer the expedition it once was.
We stopped off along the way at the large Sainsbury’s supermarket just before the hitting the Northern Irish M1. I was going to aim to try to run the race mostly or completely on liquid nutrition. So I stocked up on a large variety of fruit juices, fruit smoothies, flavoured milk, and fizzy drinks. I knew though that this could be a problematic strategy as we were in the middle of a that rarest of things in Ireland, a fantastic heat wave. It was probably about 25 degrees outside, and was forecast to be hotter, if anything, on Saturday. We bought a few cooler bags to store the drinks in to hopefully improve their chances of not going off in the heat.
It didn’t take long to get to the outskirts of Belfast from there. I’d never been to the Mary Peters track before (nor had Helen), so it took a little bit of navigational work with the road maps on my phone to find our way correctly off the motorway and towards the track. Usefully enough it was on the Dublin side of Belfast.
As we drove down the approach road and arrived into the car park the most obvious thing that struck me was what a fantastic setting the track was in. The track was on the edge of Lady Dixon Park, with the river Lagan flowing past not too far away. It was nestled down into a natural grass banked amphitheater below the trees. My first thoughts on seeing it were simply Wow…what a brilliant setting. And of course in the current heat wave it felt fantastic. This race was going to be the climactic opposite to last year’s experience in Bangor.
After parking it didn’t take long before we ran into Eddie. It was great to see him again, since we only ever get to meet at 24 hour races. It was also great to be able to introduce him to Helen and tell him about Helen’s decision to run the race. After that we headed over to get ourselves officially registered and find out where all the various facilities were.
The main piece of organisation that had to be completed after that was to set up our race nutrition at the track-side tables provided for us. I made sure to do this as early as possible so as to get table space under a gazebo which had been set over one or two of the tables giving protection from the direct sunlight. I was joined by another person setting up on the next table who I didn’t recognise. We introduced ourselves. He turned out to be George, the husband and support crew of Ruthanne Sheehan, the Irish female 24 hour record holder (Who had run 229km at the world championships in Poland last year). I hadn’t met either of them before. George made a very positive first impression, and seemed like a very nice guy.
At about 5:30 Ed Smith, the race organiser, gave a very thorough race briefing. It was heartening to see all the athletes gathered around. Given the challenge of undertaking a 24 hour race it was great turnout. There must have been over 50 runners racing individually, with the overwhelming majority doing the 24 hour race. There were also about 6 runners doing the 12 hour race and 2 relay teams of 4 persons each. The track was going to be pretty full!
John O’Regan had also arrived by then, so we exchanged greetings and I also introduced him to Helen. Gary McConville, who had supported us so well at the worlds a few months earlier was also here to support John and I was delighted to see him again. I cheekily asked if he wouldn’t mind helping out Helen and myself also if he could, which he readily agreed to.
6:45 seemed to come around very quickly after the briefing. I’m usually being very deliberately slow and relaxed before the start of these races, which is probably why time moves so fast. Ed called all the runners towards the start line. We all gathered up, and the faster contenders made their way naturally towards the front. There were one or two more greetings. Matt Moroz, a British international runner who we had met at the worlds in Steenbergen, had come over to give the race a go and we all cheerily re-acquainted ourselves with him.
Dame Mary Peters herself had come along to be the official race starter. This was the first race to be held on the track named in her honour since it was officially re-opened a month earlier. And with the bang of the starter’s gun we were off. As ever with 24 hour races there is no massive surge forward of speed or jostling for position. The key thing to be sure of is not to run off too fast too early.
Soon enough we’re all sorted out into a rough order which was to stay pretty stable for the first hour or two of the race. I was setting what I reckoned was a nice steady pace at the front. John and Matt were always nearby and we were all settling into a nice conversation. Eddie was a little back from us but tracking along nicely. From a racing point of view these were the lads I was going to be keeping a watch on for the rest of the race.
It was pretty much prefect running conditions. The temperature was lovely and warm without being oppressively hot (at least from my point of view), and there wasn’t any wind to worry about. The sun was getting lower in the sky, so the shadows cast on the track from the tree belt were getting longer as the race went on.
In these early hours of the race I usually don’t try to think too much about how much of the race is ahead, or worry too much about the race itself, but rather concentrate on hitting the pace I’m targeting. In this race I’ve gone in with some very ambitious targets, so my pacing is faster and stronger than I would generally have run in a 24 hour race at this stage.
So far in my ultra running career my 3 best distances had been 237, 235 and 234 km, with the last of those being at Steenbergen earlier in the year. I felt I was capable of doing better, and my strong finish at Steenbergen combined with missing half an hour’s running time, along with my strong finish in the “across the years” race in Arizona at the start of the year was leading me to believe that I should be able to improve on those distances. The international A standard for funding from the IAU is set at 240km, so that was the most obvious target. It’s also a beautifully round number for working out pacing targets during a 24 hour race!
So my goal was to get over 240km, which would break my PB, break the course record, break the Irish 24 hour track record, and most likely win the race. There has only been one occasion when an Irish runner ran further in a 24 hour race, which was when Thomas McGuire set the Irish record at the “No Finish Line” race in Monaco, winning it with a distance of over 248km (and setting one or two other records along the way, such as the Irish 100 mile record).
To reach 240km I would have to run 10KmPH (as stated above, simple maths!). So it would be easy to measure how I was doing from hourly distances elapsed. I had run the first 12 hours of 24 hour races at this pace quite a few times in the past, and it was now a comfortable pace for me to set and hold. However I wanted to be sure of getting over 240km, and there were bound to be times when I would have to leave the track, or my pace would slow. So I wanted to run in excess of 10kmPH at least for the first 12 hours, and preferably for as long as possible. So I set myself a minimum target pace 0f 10.5KmPH, with a “red-line” maximum pace of 11KmPH.
Unfortunately there were issues with the lap-counting computers from the start of the race, and these took a few hours to fully sort out. There were counters doing manual back-up, so there would be no problem with measuring our distances. The problem was that we weren’t getting any feedback on our elapsed distances. So for the first few hours I was relying totally on my feel for pace as feedback on how I was going. Luckily that’s something I have been very good at since my very earliest ultra-running days.
This particular race changes the direction of running every four hours, which nicely divides the race up into 6 segments which I call “rotations” in my own head! We were due to get a leader board update after each rotation, and I was looking forward to seeing that! It’s much easier to view the race as a series of 6 rotations rather than looking it as a whole. Then it becomes a matter of running 4 hours at a time. It’s also easier to count down 6 rather than 24, especially early in the race.
There were no huge surprises when the leader board went up. Matt, John, Eddie and myself were all close enough. Perhaps the only surprise was that Ruthann was also as near as makes little or no difference to having the same elapsed distance. I was just about ahead of the pack, but it wasn’t really worth considering at this stage. It was still too early to race. It should be all about pacing still! And the pacing was going well. I was closer to 11KmPH than 10.5, but that was fine. I was feeling fine and my running was still relaxed.
Helen seemed to be getting along well too. She had adopted a good run-walk strategy. In these early days her running seemed to be going well, so it looked as if her long-term injuries weren’t impeding her. The cautious approach should serve her well and ensure that she lasts the full duration of the race.
I’d been having good long chats with Matt during the early parts of the race, covering matters from the politics of ultra-running (Matt had had an “interesting” time in Steenbergen!), to the UTMB and other great races (I think he had decided there was no way he would miss the UTMB after our conversation). However in the next hour or two he started to feel off form.
He ended up having to take some time off the track trying to recover himself, and when he came back he put in some very fast laps to try and re-energise himself… it wasn’t looking good. He was starting to drift off the distance of the lead pack of runners at this stage, and it looked like he would have problems lasting the 24 hours.
With the strong track-side lights being lit before the sun had set, it was almost imperceptible when day turned to night. We still had plenty of light to run by. It did, however, bring a drop in temperature. I enjoy running in heat, and seem to cope with hot conditions a lot better than the vast majority of people. I really shouldn’t be living in Ireland!! But even I enjoyed the drop in temperature. Without the sun directly radiating heat conditions were now pretty much perfect for running. There wasn’t a need to add any more layers either.
6 hours in, and a quarter of the way through the race, and everything was still controlled and steady. By now I had slim margin of about 2 laps over John, and he was a similar distance ahead of Eddie. Ruthann was still very much in this cluster of front-runners. However Matt was dropping away by now.
Given how hot it was forecast to be during the daylight hours most people (and certainly all the front-runners) had decided that it was crucial to build a solid steady base of mileage during the night hours when the running conditions were much less oppressive. Quite often it can be difficult to run during the night as the body goes through its natural lows in it circadian rhythms. But this was one definite advantage of the evening start time. It’s much easier to deal with the night lows. In fact I don’t think I noticed much of a low at all during the night.
Quite a few people did take a long break during the night. Helen disappeared for quite a while, and I eventually spotted her sleeping under the gazebo, making full use of one of my new Columbia Omni-heat sleeping bags… those things can be too comfortable 🙂 I was glad to see that she did get back out on the track again. She was more walking than running now, but still plugging away and clocking up the kilometers bit by bit. Matt had pretty much completely disappeared by now, so it looked like his race was over. John, Eddie and Ruthann were all running consistently and putting in big distances.
One advantage of the Mary Peters Track location is that it is far enough away from civilisation that the track loudspeakers can be used through the night. Early in the race there had been some track-side commentary being broadcast. But 24 hours races make for rather repetitive commentary, particularly in the early days when little is happening bar just grinding out the mileage. Thankfully that didn’t last much into the evening.
Music was also being continuously played out over the loudspeakers. For the first number of hours it was a compilation of music that Eddie had given to Ed specifically for this purpose. I can be a very fussy listener, so I was glad that Eddie did a pretty good job. There was a lot of stuff that I was glad to hear and nothing at all that was grating. There was certainly no need to be fussing about looking for my phone and headphones to play my own music.
For a while I feared I was going to have a repeat of last year’s disaster. Even though I wasn’t eating any solid food at all I was still having to make too many stops at the track-side toilets for my liking. This year I was a bit more prepared and took an Imodium at the first sign of trouble. Thankfully things eased back to a more manageable level after a while. I was still annoyed at every stop, as two or three minutes off the track is 400 meters lost, and it all starts to add up, especially as I had such an aggressive target for this race.
Just like with sunset, the sunrise wasn’t too much of a shock to the system because of the effectiveness of the track-side lighting. There wasn’t any oppressive heat for the first few hours of sunlight either, no doubt helped again by the track’s setting, as the the tree belt ensured that the track was in shadow for a very long period of time.
6:45a.m. was a big moment on the track for several reasons. It was the end of the 3rd rotation, so we had another change of direction, and the leaderboard would get another update. More importantly it was the halfway point, so from now on we were “running for home” and counting down towards the finish, which is a bit of a psychological boost.
It was also the end of the race for the first batch of 12 hour racers, and the start for the second batch. I was glad to see that Aidan Blake had managed to run 114Km and set a new 12 hour record for this event in those first 12 hours. I have run into Aidan in the Dublin mountains quite a few times when we’re both out doing long training runs at the weekend. He’s a thoroughly nice guy. He still would have another 12 hours to wait to see if he had won the 12 hour event though, but most of us reckoned that running the first 12 hours was likely to be the better tactical option due to the daytime temperatures.
The leaderboard was updated, and after passing it a few times I had collected all the information I wanted from it (I never slow down to take everything in, just read what I can on each pass, and process the information on the subsequent lap). I had run about 126km for the first 12 hours. I was happy with that. It gave me 6km of “insurance” above an even split to reach my target of 240km. I was also still running well and feeling fine for the most part. I certainly intended to try and maintain the high pace as best as I could for as long as possible.
By this stage the gaps at the front of the field had opened up a little bit. I was happy to have built a margin over John and Eddie who had completed about 117km and 116km respectively. Probably the most amazing statistic at that point though was that my nearest competitor was Ruthann. She had clocked up an impressive 121km. This was world class running from Ruthann. She was looking very strong as well. I had already noticed that it was a very rare occasion for me to pass Ruthann on the track. High standards were being set, and it looked likely that all of these runners would run in excess of 200km from here if they kept going.
In fact very high standards were being set throughout the women’s race. On any other day Susan McCarthy’s half way total of around 114km would have stood out, but she was unlucky to be competing against Ruthann today on such good form. I had already seen Susan massively improve on one of her times this year when when she won the Mourne Way Ultra the previous month, so she was clearly an athlete going places fast.
By now the music on the loudspeakers had changed, as we had been through Eddie’s collection more than once already. The stuff that replaced it ranged from eclectic to downright bizarre (it definitely stuck me as unexpected to hear “N17” being played over the loudspeakers in Belfast!). It was getting so bad that I asked Gary to help me to find my phone. I set it up so as to play my music collection easily and asked Gary to give it to the organisers to play it over the speakers. Unfortunately they couldn’t figure out how to connect it up, so I’d just have to persevere with what they had.
This just added to the list of distractions that ensured I was chugging away nicely, still ticking over the kilometers effectively. The new day is always a psychological boost as well. I felt as if I was still maintaining a pretty good pace, and the lap times looked to be OK. I was definitely putting in more work to maintain this pace than I had been earlier in the race, but that was expected. My 100 mile time would more than likely be the next indicator of how things were going, and I was due to hit it in the current 4th rotation.
When I set the Irish track record in Tooting Bec a few years back (of 235.9km) I also set the Irish 100 mile track record on the way (At the time they were both outright Irish records, but Thomas McGuire’s outstanding run in Monaco set the bar much higher for both records, and his records stand to this day). I couldn’t remember exactly what the 100 mile track record was, but I new it was around 16:00 hours or so. I reckoned I was on course to smash that!
Ruthann was running noticeably strongly at this stage in the race. By now I was starting to notice that I was overtaking Eddie and John on the track more frequently than during the first half of the race. But I wasn’t noticing this pattern with Ruthann at all. For a while I just watched how the gap between us was varying. It seemed she was running at almost the same pace as me, as the gap was only creeping down by tiny amounts each lap. It was an amazing standard of truly classy running (and Eddie and John wholeheartedly agreed!).
At 15:25 I crossed the start/finish line to hear that I had just passed the 100 mile mark. That was my new PB for 100 miles on any surface and a new Irish track record. That was a big psychological boost, as it meant that I had achieved something in the race, no matter what happened from now on. Quite often in previous 24 hour races I’ve had big lows (and had to leave the course as a result) at around this time or distance. I was determined that this would no happen on this occasion, so I made fully sure to concentrate on looking ahead to reaching my big targets rather than thinking much at all about how well I was doing to this point.
I knew that was likely to be the last time for a while that I would be called out on the tannoy for any record breaking. The next record I could break would be the event record of 212km, which was still about 50km ahead. Ruthann was still running extremely strongly, and she had a whole series of records she was likely to break in the intervening time if she kept going in the same style.
Ruthan, John and Eddie were the next athletes to reach 100 miles, with everyone in the by now stable race order. The gaps were very slowly growing. By now I was comfortable that I had built a big enough lead to ensure that I could afford to leave the track for a while and still be in front in the men’s race (although with Ruthann closer to me than John, things were a lot less certain in the context of the overall race winner, which was an unusual situation).
As we moved into the middle of the day the temperatures began to rise notably in the direct sunlight. It had seemed that before the race most people had been dreading this. It was likely to get uncomfortably hot, and would be particularly tricky to deal with after 16+ hours of running. I made sure to change into my omni-freeze zero t-shirt for the rest of the race. This was proving itself to be a brilliant piece of gear in hot weather, and was noticeably cooler to wear than any of my other summer running tops.
Before the race I was quite happy that it was forecast to be so hot. I enjoy running in heat. Even better, I seem to be able to cope with running in hot temperatures a lot better than most people. So I was very confident that on a competitive basis (i.e. trying to win the race) the heat would work to my advantage.
However at this relatively late stage in the race I had already built a good lead and was running at a faster pace than anyone else on the track. I was also nicely comfortable in the early morning temperatures. So from this perspective the building heat was not a good thing, as it could definitely have an impact on my pace. At this point absolute pace was a more immediate concern to me than my relative pace compared to the rest of the field. I was chasing absolute targets now, so I wanted running conditions to be as good as possible.
I did my best to keep my pace consistent. By now I was having to work much harder to keep up my pace to my target, even to hit the lower bounds of my target. The heat wasn’t helping, although I was definitely doing my best to enjoy the feeling of the warmth on my skin, and look on the positives.
The race organisers were also doing their bet to mitigate the effects of the heat. The hurdles water ditch next to the track had been filled to the brim, so that any runners who wished to could take an impromptu dip if they felt like. More practically, a track-side shower had been set-up. It was now possible to run under the shower to get some nice cool water on our head and our clothes. The race medic had done a good job of explaining to everyone the issues that heat causes, the causes and symptoms of heat stroke, and most importantly how to mitigate against the problems (lots of cooling water on skin was the main lesson I took away).
The best help they provided though was a series of buckets around the edge of the track, each filled with sponges immersed in water. It was now easy enough to pick up a sponge on the run, squeeze it over ourselves, and then drop it in the next available bucket. It was a very effective system which probably kept a lot of people going when they might otherwise be in trouble. For quite a while some of the younger supporters at the race were doing a great job handing out sponges to the athletes, and collecting the used sponges and bringing them back to the handout points.
Through the middle of the day Ruthann cruised to a series of new Records. After a little over 18 hours she broke the event record of 181km, which was also the Irish track record. So she had nearly 6 hours of running with which to build on her new record!
I passed through the 200km mark still comfortably ahead of schedule at about 19:30 hours or so. This was also a lot better than I had managed to hit this mark in previous races. I reckoned I was now running at about 10KmPH pace, so I started projecting forward to give myself target times to hit various way-points. The most important of those was to hit the 240km mark at about 23:30. Everything after that would be record/PB building.
The PA system was announcing runners approaching and passing the 100 mile mark on a reasonably regular basis now. It seemed there were a lot of runners having a good race. Each announcement was greet with enthusiastic cheers and applause. The overall standard of ultra-running here was looking very good indeed!
The constant routine of picking up and depositing sponges, as well as running under the shower occasional, was actually proving to be useful as a mental distraction. Time wasn’t dragging too much. Better again, it wasn’t looking like I was going to have a mid-race low, which has been something I’ve had to deal with on pretty much every 24 hour race I’ve run. The heat didn’t feel as oppressive as I had feared earlier in the morning. It seemed I was coping with it quite well, as I had anticipated before the race.
It was the final “rotation” before I broke the next record available here. The event record was set at 212km by John O’Regan in 2011. At around the 21:00 hours mark I passed through this distance. Although it wasn’t a biggie on my target list, it was still a nice one to tag since Ed, the race director, was offering a 100 pound financial reward for breaking it. That’s the first prize-money I had won this year (although I had quite a few vouchers and trophies nonetheless).
I remained focused on getting to the 240km mark, and was now watching my elapsed distance every half hour (I was asking Gary to find out what it was) to make sure I was adding 5km every half hour. When I ran through 230km I knew that the race was pretty much won from a competitive point of view. That was better than the PBs of both Ruthann and John, and I reckoned that I had a big enough gap that even if I stopped running (with 22:30 elapsed) that neither of them would be able to make that distance running at their current speed.
So everything was going very well, I was on target and running well…I then had my one near disaster of the race! I started feeling a very sharp pain in one of my toes. This is the kind of little problem that could lead to a collapse in speed if it persisted. So I decided to take preventative action immediately. I ran the remaining one or two hundred meters to the aid area and came off the track. Gary was at the ready to assist his runners as ever, and Helen was also under the gazebo, taking another break from running.
I let Gary know I thought I might have a small stone in my shoe, and that I was going to change socks and make sure the inside of my shoes were stone-free. Helen helped with finding one of my spare pairs of socks, and Gary helped with getting my shoes and socks off to change. It’s amazing how helpless you can become with the effort of running this far… I wasn’t able to bend over very effectively to be able to do it for myself. It took about 2 or 3 minutes, and then I got up to go.
Unfortunately, with my first step I could feel that the pain had not gone away. So I sat back down and asked Gary to help me get my shoe and sock of from my left foot again. Helen found a scissors in my wash-bag, and I used it to puncture a blister that was on the painful toe. Hopefully that would be the fix. I was now getting frustrated at loosing 2 laps worth of time just sitting and adjusting feet and footwear. So with the help of Gary I got my shoes and socks back on as quickly as possible and set off again. I’d lost about 6 minutes, which wasn’t a disaster, but I could still have done without it when chasing aggressive targets.
I was able to get running again quickly and pain free. I think my pace was probably a little higher, thanks to the short rest and the build up of frustration to get moving, so I tried to channel that energy to maintain the pace a little higher, and hopefully reign back in the distance I would have lost when I had stopped.
Things were getting very lively on the track with about an hour to go. The lord mayor of Belfast had accepted an invitation to attend the event and present the medals at the awards ceremony. He is also a runner himself, and as a result took the time to join in the race for the last hour, which was great. The tannoy was announcing the arrival last hour with great gusto, and you could get a real sense of finish line fever. There were quite a few runners closing in on the 100 mile mark as well.
My own distance check with an hour to go was good, as it was around 234km. I was well on track for all my targets. The last of the records I was likely to break was also coming up rapidly. I had set the Irish track 24 record at 235.9km a few years ago. At about 23:11 it was announced on the tannoy that I had passed that mark and was now setting a new Irish track record. The announcer wondered would I stop and wait to increment the record in small amounts at future events, in the style of the top pole vaulters. “No way” I thought to myself. I’ve run too far not to set the best distance I could, and I had my own targets to meet.
My 24 hour PB was about 237km. I was so fixated on my target of hitting 240km (and preferably hitting it at around 23:30) that I didn’t pay any attention to when I passed that mark. But I knew from my pace and time that it would around 23:20 or thereabouts. I got the word to the track-side timers what my target was so that they could tell me when I had passed it.
As I passed the aid station area after 23:30 had elapsed I asked Gary to check the elapsed distance for me again, and when I came back around the word was that I was almost there. One lap later and it was announced that I had passed my personal target of 240km. Wow… this is great!!! And better still, I still had nearly half an hour of running left, and better again I was still running 🙂
A few laps later I passed the 150 mile mark, which was announced over the tannoy. I think in metric units for the vast majority of races, including all 24 hour races, so that was pretty much a complete irrelevance to me. But the race was taking place in one of the last handful of countries which still use the imperial system! They were probably spending the race taking my elapsed kilometers and converting them into miles, and I was listening to the miles and converting them back to kilometers in my own head!
The overall 24 hour record of 248km was too distant for me to be able to realistically challenge to reach it in the remaining time. I just settled into building as much distance as I could to set a high bar for the track record. Having reached my major goal target it was now more difficult to motivate myself to keep a high pace, but I did my best. Some of the others on the track now seemed to be running faster than me, which was a change. I wasn’t bothered about that at all, and just kept concentrating on keeping the laps ticking along.
With one minute to go I passed the aid station area for the last time. There had been fresh cans of coke available there for the last hour. Since I was likely to be out on the far side of the track when the hooter would blow for the end of the race I stopped to pick one up to carry with me so that I would have some nice chilled refreshments while I waited for the measurement of my last lap interval to be taken.
Running that last lap I briefly thought about stopping in a shaded area, as it was still quite hot in the direct sunlight. But I had come far enough and ran on for all the remaining seconds to eek out every bit of distance I could. The hooter blew, and I was happy to simply collapse onto ground in my usual style at the end of 24 hour races. I was definitely cooked! I was glad to have the can of coke to crack open, but realised I’d forgotten to bring something a lot more important with me (but I’d just move on to plan B!)
I did a quick interview for Ed’s cameraman as I lay on the ground waiting for the measurement crew to get around to me. I wondered how I would come across on camera… would my elation at having such a fantastic race and setting a new PB outweigh my obvious tiredness. After the measurement crew arrived and ticked off the final distance I was helped up, and made my way back over to the aid station where Helen was now resting.
I collapsed onto the ground near Helen under the Gazebo. It took a little time, but I managed to search through my rather large gear back and find the package I had hidden in there before I left my house in Dublin. I found, and started unwrapping the layers. Helen was sitting looking at me curiously, as I took a box out of a paper bag at her feet. And then I took a ring out of the box, and asked if she’d like to marry me 🙂 Thankfully she was elated and said yes. It’s not every day you get to break a PB and set an Irish record, and then put all that into the shade a few minutes later with a much bigger event!
Eventually I floated back down to earth and had to get on with more conventional post-race activities. We packed all the re-usable race food, and all the clothing spares we had used back into my big gear bag. We then headed off to shower before the prize-giving. In the shower I almost fainted and had to sit down for a few minutes to try and recover. I was obviously pretty drained! This had only happened to me once before after a race, which was after I set my previous PB in Bergamo. Eddie had now witnessed both occasions!
The prize-giving was great. All the runners were called out to receive their finishing medal. A huge haul of 22 runners also received a special running jacket for having run over 100 miles. That was a very impressive number to get that distance. (A full list of results can be found here). As promised, the lord mayor was on hand to present the Irish championship medals to the top 3 men and women. I was particularly delighted to have my Irish teammates and friends John and Eddie sharing the podium with me.
I’d like to thank everyone who helped me in this race. I’m very grateful to Ed Smith, for inviting me to the race and doing such a fantastic job of organising a top class event (along with all his organisational volunteers and race sponsors). Thanks to Gary for helping out on the track-side on his own for the full 24 hours without showing any outward signs of stress or tiredness!
But most of all thanks to Helen for getting us to and from Belfast, for plunging head first into a 24 hour race, and most of all for simply saying “yes”!