I made some radical alterations to my approach to racing in 2017. In the past I have usually mixed in a few big “A” races as my main priority with a lot of smaller local races. I had 2 reasons for doing the smaller races. The most obvious reason is that they’re enjoyable, and usually very social as well. I also reckon that you can make yourself a better racer by simply racing more. My ability to recover well has generally meant that I could mix in a lot of shorter races throughout the year without any obvious downside effects on my key A races.
In 2017 I changed things so as to focus much more on the A races, and really focus and optimise my training towards those. This had the effect of pushing the shorter races out-of-the-way, so that in the end I only races one or two non-target races. My definition of “short” is quite extreme. For me anything under 24 hours is a short speedy race. Longer are true endurance races from my point of view. Ever since I have been racing 24 hours and longer I’ve been aware of the significant difference in ability/skills required between these categories. It has become even more obvious to me now.
Another factor at play, being brutally honest, is that I am getting older. Against received wisdom I haven’t found that my recovery time is getting any worse as a result. If anything it’s actually improving, and I’m having to hold myself back from launching into full-on training in the days immediately after big races. Physically and mentally I usually feel ready to go almost straight away.
The downside of ageing that is getting more and more notable is that I’m slowing down over shorter distances. When I do enter shorter races I’m no longer able to compete at the level I could even into my early 40s. Race wins are no longer a realistic target. When you’re used to being able to mix it up at the pointy end of the field this is potentially quite demoralising. I’ve had to make mental adjustments and adjust my targets to reflect new realities.
2017 was my last year as an M40 category racer in my local races (both running and cycling). I’ve now learned through experience that there is a big difference between early and late years competitiveness in age categories. So even my “insurance policy” of racing for age category positions became much more challenging. Such is life.
The good thing though, is that over longer distances I haven’t noticed any decline with aging. If anything I’m just piling on more wisdom, experience, and years of training over time which is improving my racing ability. My speed decline is motivating me to take advantage of this for as long as I can whilst I still can. Use it before losing it!
So in 2017 I had about 5 “A” races/events. All the eggs were being loaded into these baskets! Of these I prioritized two in particular (A+). The 5 were, in calendar order : The Spine race, HeadtoHead (Mizen to Malin record attempt), Belfast 24 hour (World championships), The Beast (Adventure Race), The UTMB. In any given year I’ll be very satisfied to get one good result. Everything after that is a bonus. So how did it go…
As ever, I very much enjoyed the experience here, and got a lot out of it. However from a performance and results point of view it was a disaster! I was a little off the pace I would like to have been. Even worse, I managed to break a rib on the first night of the race which caused me far more physical impact than I would have thought. In the end this caused me to retire from the race about two-thirds of the way in for a first DNF in this event. The bigger downside is it took at least a month if not more recover from the broken rib and to get back to a point where I could train fully. Even then, I had to rebuild fitness from that point.
Attempting to break the record for running the length of Ireland (Mizen Head to Malin Head) was a big undertaking. This was one of the two big targets for the year, having spent many years contemplating this undertaking I finally ran out of reasons not to do so! Once committed to actually making an attempt I knew I had to throw everything at it. The attempt was a huge success. I set a new record of 3:03:47 (D:H:M), which broke the old record by more than 10 hours. I was very happy to set a time much closer to 3 days than 4. It was unambiguously the best run of my life. I finished in a ridiculously pain-free stress free state. This was unambiguously a huge success. If I did nothing more for the year this was enough for me to count it as one of my best ever.
Belfast 24 hour (A+)
This was my 2nd A+ race of the year. There were a lot of eggs loaded into this basket as well. On any given year these days I’d normally try to do 2 24 hour races : The Irish Championships also hope to get selected for the big international championship, which in 2017 was the world championships. In 2017 these were one and the same : the Belfast 24 hour. This was tripled down when it was also announced that the event would also be the inaugural world masters 24 hour championships. So all my classic distance ultrarunning ambitions for the year were being loaded into this one race. I had timed the HeadtoHead to give the optimal break before full recovery before this race.
I have had a good run of 24 hour and similar races, so I had ambitious targets. Firstly I would try to attack my own PB of 244.66km. I’d also target defending my Irish championship title. Looking at the previous year’s 24 hour world table I reckoned if I could perform to that standard I would give myself a chance at a world masters medal as that kind of distance would put me in the top 5 or 6 for my age group based on 2016 results.
There was a bit of a meltdown in the race timing system during the race which meant the athletes didn’t get much feedback on timing during the race. This didn’t really affect me too much as I tend to run my own race on feel to a large extent. At the end of the race I felt I had put in a very good effort, and was 50/50 about whether I had managed to break my PB (The timing system was still down so everyone was still unsure of their results). But I knew my relative result in the Irish championships, and that I had done enough to get in front of massive efforts from Alex O’Shea and Tim Brownlie who had both clearly smashed their PBs (As it turned out they both exceeded 240km to achieve the international A standard). The Irish teams had both had unprecedentedly good performances and results.
It took a few hours for the provisional results to be announced. They had me at 246+km, which was a new PB, but frustratingly around a kilometer or so short of the Irish record. I had managed to get a bronze medal in me World Masters M45 category though, which I was ecstatic about.
A few days later I discovered that I had been left a lap short in the provisional results and that my actual finishing distance was 248.42km, beating the Irish record, just about, by about 40 meters. This was confirmed with the release of the official results. That’s a record I’ve been targeting for the guts of 10 years. Now I was even more ecstatic!
This race had been another massive success which would have been enough on its own to make for a good year. A PB, a new Irish record, An Irish championship gold, and a world masters bronze. Wow… those days don’t come around very often.
Ireland’s biggest (in terms of time and distance rather than number of competitors) adventure race by far. This year it was being hosted in a new venue, based up in county Donegal, Ireland’s northern most county, and possibly its wildest. There was an excellent range of teams entered. It included most of the experienced Irish racers, along with some interesting new prospects. There were a few international teams visiting as well. My own team, Columbia Ireland, had one change this year, as Finbarr, our A1 category cyclist, was on family holidays. Our old friend Thure Kjaer, from Denmark, slotted seamlessly into the team.
It was a high paced competitive race right from the off. Some early entanglements with Reed jungles on the first Kayak stage had us back at about 7th place towards the end of the first day (The photographers told us that we were right on the edge of front field teams they were chasing). We hung on in and kept our steady pace. We made several big calls on navigation decisions in the first big trekking stage. These worked out perfectly for us, and to our surprise resulted in our team taking the lead. Good navigation, teamwork, and continued steady pacing allowed us to slightly grow the lead by the end of the race.
This was another successful race. Donegal was a spectacular venue, and we very much enjoyed the course. It’s always good to come from behind for the win, and also to share the fun with a team. It was definitely another successful competitive outing, and a nice way to stay in touch with adventure racing. It turned out to be great navigation practice as well.
The last big race of the year. Unlike last year I had a few weeks of recovery after the big adventure race outing. However disaster struck race preparations when Aer Lingus lost my luggage on my flight out to Geneva. For 2 days there was no trace of it whatsoever. Luckily I had arrived in Chamonix with a few days to spare as Helen was racing the OCC (which she finished successfully for a second time).
This is where having a sponsor as good as Columbia really kicks in. Since they are the main sponsors of the UTMB there were lots of Columbia staff in Chamonix for race week. They went out of their way to ensure that I had all the race gear that I needed to race the UTMB. Not just Columbia gear either… whatever was needed. They were brilliant.
Less brilliant was my race day. Things started well. My luggage finally turned up 3 days late the night before the race. So I now had double sets of gear! I didn’t have access to the elite start area, but managed to get close enough to the front of the field that I only lost a minute or two at the start… no big deal in a race of this length. The first climbs and descents went well enough. However heading down into Italy I could feel abrasion on one of the soles of my feet. I spent 20 minutes at an intermediate aid station getting foot repairs before carrying on to Courmayeuer.
Despite my foot problems I was speeding through the downhills, overtaking plenty of people on the way. I was having to run more on my toes though to manage this. There is a much bigger medical team at the big aid station in Courmayeur, who did a comprehensive job patching up my foot. I also changed socks here.
The big climb out of Courmayeur is my least favourite in the race at the best of times, but turned out to be particularly horrific this year. Cramping was becoming a bigger and bigger issue. It became so bad that I realised I wouldn’t make it over the next series of mountain passes, so I rang Helen, who was my support crew, to let her know what was going on and talk through options. I decided to retire. That was definitely the right decision. It took an age to make my way back down the climb (to get back to Courmayeur. My cramping was so severe that I was unable to even walk forwards down the mountain even with walking poles. I imagine I was a comical sight to all the runners seeing me slowly walk backwards off the mountain.
So another DNF was a definite failure. I did take a few good learnings from the race though, and identified a few weaknesses that I have been targeting since then. I worked out that the cramping was probably caused not by the foot problems directly, but by the compensating running gait I adapted to continue to hold my running speed (too successfully as it turned out).
2017 in Summary
Sometimes you need the downs to remind you how good the ups are! Overall I’d count 2017 as one of my best ever years. My HeadtoHead, and my Belfast 24 hour results were outstanding results for me. In terms of endurance ultrarunning I reached a new height in terms of level of performance, and succeeded in achieving some very long-term ambitions. It means a lot to me to be the Irish 24 hour record holder, and also to hold the record for running the length of Ireland.
It was very nice to have these achievements recognised by athletics Ireland when they awarded me the Ultrarunner of the year trophy at their national athletics awards.
Now this left me with one problem… what could I do in 2018 to follow that up!