Thursday, July 14, 2011

IAU Trail World Championships 2011 Race Report

USA runner - "In the States we dont call this a trail.... This is a Goddamm field"
Me - "You're in Ireland now buddy!!"

The course for Saturdays race was challenging to say the least, and perhaps not to everyones liking (if one is more used to nice pine covered, manicured trails) but I know I certainly enjoyed it and would not have changed any one of the 70 or so Kilometres that made up the route. The above conversation took place on the first boggy section just after the second loop of Diamond Hill. It was by far the tamest of these unrelenting sections so I think its fair to say that this particular runner wasn't one of the route's fans.

Just to clarify for those that are not familiar with the area, the race started at Kylemore Abbey and ran through the grounds and on to the road to Letterfrack. Diamond hill then had to be summited twice before heading off on the out and back section which included long sections of energy sapping bog, old dirt road, forest fire road and of course Benbaun Mountain and its surrounding foothills.

I met with the rest of the Irish team on Friday at our accomodation for the weekend, The Old Monestery Hostel. I hadnt met John O'Regan, John Byrne or Tony Brennan before and had only met Barry Murray a couple of hours earlier when I picked him up in Galway so there was plenty of introductions and chatting to be done before the race. I also met Jarlath Hynes, a clubmate of Tony and John's who was running in the open race and was also staying with us. So le Cheile AC were out in force. John Collins was the final member of the group and was detailed for Aid Station 1 and 5 where he would no doubt have to listen put up with us throwing the toys out of the pram if he didnt arrange our gels in a proper colour co-ordinated manner or keep our drinks at a temperature of 4.73 degrees! A brave man to take on the job, but he proved more than capable and was only caught out when I asked him at the last stop for some salt tabs, which I hadn't even bothered to put in my drop bag so that was probably pushing it a bit.

Anyway, back to the race. It was a 7am start on Saturday morning so not wanting to get up to early to eat a big bowl of porridge, I kept it light and just had a banana and a Meridian peanut butter and oat bar, which I love and are easy enough on the stomach. A couple of large mugs of coffee helped wash this down and there was very little else to do, but get the bus with the rest of the lads from the Hostel in Letterfrack to the nearby Kylemore abbey
Kylemore Abbey in all its splendor
Team Ireland before the start minus Barry who was going through his pre race ritual at the time
The atmosphere at the start was one of excitement, anticipation, trepidation and and probably a little bit of fear all rolled up togethe and waiting to explode before the start. This was added to by the Helicoptor overhead which was to be a regular feature of the day, as they hovered over the course getting some footage for the highlights programme that Eurosport, Channel 4 and Setanta Sports are due to broadcast in the next few weeks. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits and it seemed like we all just wanted to get moving and tackle what we knew was going to be a long, hard day of running. So on the stroke of 7am, Richard Donovan, the Race Director, gave the countdown and sounded the horn to get the large group of wirey looking athletes underway.
Time to go!!
I knew the race was going to start fast, as it was virtually flat along the road the whole way to Letterfrack, so I made sure not to let the excitement get the better of me and go off too fast. I opted instead to keep the back of the front bunch in eyeshot. It felt pretty warm, even for this early in the morning and I had a feeling fuelling properly was going to play a big part as the day wore on. On arrival at Letterfrack we took a sharp left and started uphill towards the Diamond Hill trail, passing our weekend lodgings along the way. There were a number of supporters along the trail, 2 in particular standing out with their French coloured afro wig, A quick "Bonjour" and I continued on. Dan, Keith, Barry and John Byrne had maintained contact with the main bunch while the rest of the lads weren't far behind me. As we neared the Top of Diamond Hill the trail changed to granite slabs and steps and it steepened a little. This made descending difficult as the slabs were wet and the combination of this and the gradient was definately going to cause a few casualties. That fact was confirmed when chatting about the race afterwards, as some of the lads had witnessed some bone crunching falls. It was too early in the day to be taking unneccessary risks so I kept it steady. Eventually we were back on the trail and making our way back around to Letterfrack, and our first opportunity to make use of the aid stations. I had started with a handheld bottle and swigged the last of it as I entered the checkpoint. Tony Brennan was on hand to give me a new bottle with a Nuun tab and I grabbed a couple of GU gels as well for the next 16K of the route. Familiarity breeds confidence and I felt a little more comfortable heading back up Diamond Hill for the second time. I also managed to make up a few places here, noting that there was certainly a few bodies who got carried away with the fast start. I caught up with Barry as we reached the start of the slabs again and chatted briefly with him before pushing on. On the way back down the other side I could hear some short fast footsteps catching up with me, as I was caught behind the lone Polish competitor who didn't seem too willing to give way to following traffic!! Anyway the short fast footsteps saw their chance and skipped past both of us. They were those of the eventual second place female, Cecilia Mora. Being the sexist pig that I am, I told myself there was no way I was letting her get away so I didnt let the gap grow. The trail branched off and away from Letterfrack this time and this signalled the start of the real fun. The underfoot conditions deteriorated dramatically as we entered the first boggy section and immediately I noticed myself gaining ground on some of the runners ahead of me, and passing Cecilia, who was probably getting her first introduction to an "Irish trail". It was a little further on at the first river crossing, that I had the brief chat with one of the US competitors. This only served to boost my confidence about the rest of the day because if guys were getting negative this early in the day about the conditions (which overall weren't that bad. Sure it wasn't even raining, which is practically a default setting for the weather dial in this neck of the woods) then what were they going to be like when they realised there was a lot more of this to come.

Back on the firmer underfoot conditions, we were able to make quicker progress. We were now heading for the second checkpoint at the entrance to the forest, which was esentially the gateway to the 12 Bens, and everyones nemesis for the day, Benbaun mountain. Not before negotiating an even boggier section of ground though, where I again managed to pull away from some other runners and catch a few up ahead.

Reaching Checkpoint 2 at the 28k mark, I made my way to the table where John Collins had everything laid out and ready. I grabbed a new bottle again and this time took a peanut butter and oat bar and one of Jeff's homemade Rice cakes just in case I started to feel hungry. I continued on up the trail a little until I was out of sight. I pulled in for a quick p$*& stop, and as I was heading off again, Thomas arrived and we shared a few words about how the race was going so far. He reckoned we may have gone off a little quick but only time would tell. He was great all weekend, imparting his indepth knowledge of the course and experience of an ultrarunner on the rest of the team. We joked over the weekend that Thomas should write a book on his alternative approach to nutrition. His approach certainly gives the 2 fingers to conventional wisdom, and just adds to the respect I have for him. Actually I think his autobiography would be a bestseller! Anyway He had been out helping to mark the course and had also built some timber crossings for some of the streams, so everything was fresh in his mind, and he knew exactly where and where not to step on some of the softer sections. Craig Stewart of the GB team was also with us on this section but the last I saw of him was when we hit the boggy foothills of Benbaun and began making our way across to the start of the real climbing.
I had been exchanging places with him for the previous 90 minutes or so but this was the last I saw of him. Stuart Mills remarked afterwards that perhaps being such a tall, and probably as a consequence, heavier guy, the bogs probably slowed him more than most.

The climb to the top of Benbaun was slow going and towards the top required the use of all fours as we neared the top. Thats where the scree became plentiful and eventually the gradient became runnable again as we made our way to the true summit just after a small cairn which I initially thought spelled the end of the climbing. Over the top and then the hazard became finding the best place to put your foot between the loose, jagged rocks as we ran along the ridge to softer underfoot conditions. There was a nice array of nationalities chugging along now and I spotted Dutch, Spanish, British, Greek and US countrymen to name a few. As we swung right to begin the descent of Benbaun I spotted that Eoin Keith had made up good ground on our little group and I remarked to myself that he was going to have a fine race, seeing how he had paced the first half of the race and didn't seem to be hindered by the layoff with a broken leg earlier in the year. Experience is certainly a big factor in the sport of ultrarunning and Eoin was proving this fact with gusto.

The descent looked hair raising from the top and after my initial attempts to run it I decided to myself that there was ground to be gained on the faint hearted here, and I decided to make as much use of my backside as my feet and proceeded to half slide half run down. A few nasty bumps and gashes were my reward along with gaining a few extra positions in the overall standings. It was a little risky with some rocks half hidden behind the long grass but it seemed to pay off. As the slope evened out a little again, it was back to tip toeing around to find the best, most solid footing. The course seemed to undulate along here until we were directed by one of the Army lads over a fence towards an old dirt path which would bring us down to checkpoint 3. The support here was great with different nationalities cheering runners whether they were their own or not and it all just served to enhance the good feeling out on the course.
Heading in to Checkpoint 3
It was along this stretch that I met my parents who had walked up the track a little and this brightened my mood further as I headed for the checkpoint. And I got a further boost as I met laura at the checkpoint. She was full of encouragement as I tried to decide what I needed. Jeff's other half, Aoibheann was also there along with John Byrne's girlfriend who was actually the official Irish checkpoint person. All shouted support as I got out of there to continue a further 4k down the path before I would have to turn around and basically retrace my steps all the way back to the finish line in letterfrack. It seemed a little daunting to think of it like that so I concentrated on just getting back to the checkpoint, then to the foot of Benbaun and then over it, by which time the back would be broken out of the thing and it would be relatively  plain sailing to the finish, in theory at least. The leaders looked strong as they came against me on their way back from the turnaround, and I longed to feel as fresh as they looked but overall I had probably paced the race pretty well so far and I knew there had to be others feeling much worse. It was at this point I think I learned that Keith had had to pull out with a bad case of dehydration. It was a real shame and I was gutted for him because I knew from the time of our recce that he would have been capable of having a great race, even given his lack of off road running experience. He has obviously proved himself as a serious runner on the road, but from what I saw on our recce, he would be equally good on this type of course. Dan, however was flying at this stage and I shared a high five with him as he passed, looking strong. I met Stuart Mills from the GB team around this time too and he too looked to be going strong. He had gone out hard, in keeping with his mantra of  "race as fast as you can, while you can". I have to say from talking to him this weekend and from brief email conversations and reading his blog, I think he is on the ball with his different theories on performance. So much is dictated by one's own self expectations and it can be a major weapon in one's racing arsenal. I didnt stay long on my return to the aid station and just grabbed a handful of various bits of food and kept moving. The place was a hive of activity with runners coming from both directions. The climb back over Benbaun was just as difficult the second time round and I resolved to just gring int out one step at a time. Jeff was descending the mountain as I was heading up and I couldn't help but notice how fresh he looked. Maybe he should have chatted to Stuart before the race about going out harder! Eoin caught up to me again half way up the climb and we chatted for a while about what a great course this was, and joked at how there were some competitors who were not it's biggest fans.  On the descent I pulled away from Eoin again, as he is still slightly constrained on the descents by the leg break he sustained earlier in the year.

The next undulating boggy section saw me fall flat at least 4 times, at one stage going straight in to a head over heels roll twice in quick succession. One of the Army boys must have been wondering if there was a points competition for acrobatics, running concurrently with the race. However once back onthe forest trail it was easier to maintain a good rythm and I managed to make up another place.

The last checkpoint came and went without too much difficulty. I just refilled my bottle here and grabbed a gel and kept moving. John Collins was still doing great work and Laura andmy parents had made it around from the other side of Benbaun which I didnt expect so that wasa nice boost too. I continued up the next road section to the entrance to the boggiest section of the coursr which this time had the sting of being uphill for the last kilometre. I had a few bodies out ahead of me which provided something to chase. I managed to catch up with one of them just before we got back on the long road section to Letterfrack. I had thought that we would be on this road the whole way back to the village but with 2k to go there was a right turn to bring us back through the fist bog we encountered earlier in the morning. This was a nice surprise as it was going to provide a more scenic finish and at this stage it was easier on the legs than the road. As I neared the 1k to go sign I could see one of the Italian runners just up ahead and he looked to be suffering. I had no idea what position I was in but decided that an extra jump up the table could be good for the team results and that I had to get passed him. It wasvirtually all downhill to the finish as I met Tony with his camera where the ground went from bog to fire road so it was just a matter of letting gravity do the work and taking me in  to the finish line in the village
Last 1k, sneaking past Daniele
There was a great atmoshphere at the finish line with athletes and spectators alike mingling and the locals shouting encouragement. Dan was there after his storming run and we shared congratulations and stories from the course. I knew Eoin wouldnt be far behind so I was keeping an eye out for him too, which there really wasn't any need to do since we had the most enthusiastic announcer on a loudspeaker letting us know as each runner neared the finish. Eoin came in next and I congratulated him and thanked him for his company during the Benbaun climb. I think his performance was one of the best of the day, given where he was 4 months ago
I then bumped in to Stuart Mills who had been in a while and had come back over to the finish chute to wait for his teammates. We had a good chat about the course and how he ran the race. He also gave me someinteresting advice for the Lakeland 100 in 2 weeks time, which has got me thinking about my strategy for that race. Whobetter to get advice from than last year's race winner and I'll certainly be putting in to practice some of the advice he gave
Thomas, Barry and John O'Regan weren't far behind and that made up the finishing Irish contingent. John Byrne was thrown in at the deep end with this race and had to pull out around the halfway point. Although he is a class runner, he had never run any type of mountain race before and the fact he had dislocated his shoulder many times in the past meant the risk for him continuing was too great, especially with the World 100k championships on the horizon, an event that is probably his forte and one that should see him at the business end of the standings at the end. Keith had suffered big time with dehydration and it would have been dangerous for him to continue. Thankfully he was ok and will also be gunning for the 100k race in the Netherlands in September.

So all that was left to do was enjoy the rest of the evening in the company of some great people. The Guinness flowed and the banter bounced around between us all. Some of the GB lads joined us for some "rehydration" too even though they had a 5.30am start the next morning to get a flight back to the UK. Thats commitment lads!

Finally I just want to say thank you to the Irish squad, both runners and management for making me feel welcome, imparting ye're own experience and finally for giving me the opportunity to be a part of a great experience. It was a proud day!!

Next up is the Lakeland 100 in 2 weeks. I can't wait to get over to that spectacular part of the world and soak up the experience. And of course I cant wait to give a right lash and see where it takes me.

Here is some photos of thelads in action
Thomas coming into the finish
Dan looking strong on approach to checkpoint 3
John O'Regan in a South African sandwich!!
John Byrne passing the 1k to go sign....More like 55k unfortunately!
Teamwork demo by Thomas and Eoin
Keith still battling even with a bad case of dehydration
Barry with his game face on
Jarlath and Jeff at checkpoint 1


  1. A great read of a great run. Well done Paul.

  2. Hi Paul

    Awesome write up. An excellent read.

    What's this comment above! "I'll certainly be putting in to practice some of the advice he gave." Only putting in to practice SOME of my advice!!!

    See you at the Lakeland 100, from the sidelines!


  3. Great read matey. A great performance by yourself. Really happy we managed to race together and best of luck in a couple of weeks! See you soon.

  4. Hey Pual,
    Good to meet you and your girlfriend at the pub after the run. Well done on your run, you did very well. Brutal course, great experience.
    Kev Mannix (Australia)

  5. Thanks for the comments lads. What a great event!

    Stuart - ok I'll put all your advice to good use. What was I thinking!! :)

    Kevin - hope you got home safely and you enjoyed your stay over here and our version of a trail race!!! Was great to meet you too. We will look you up if we are in melbourne sometime!!

  6. Paul, That's a great result and a great write up to go with it.

    See you at the UTLD next week. I'm sure you'll do well