My name is Gerard O’Brien and I am a marathon runner. On September 1st 2012, I decided to try a new challenge and compete in the Dingle 50 mile Ultra Marathon. I am still relatively new to the running scene. I began running in 2008 in a bid to tackle my cholesterol which was starting to rise steadily due to my sweet tooth. So, in June 2008, I took part in the Churchtown South 5 mile Race – it flattened me but I persevered. I have to add that in my build up to all the local races I was a frequent visitor to the Cork Running Blog and still am. I have found it an incredibly useful source of information that has aided my running.
In June 2009, a year after my first run, I ran my first Marathon in Cork city soon followed by the Dublin Marathon in October. People had advised me that the maximum amount of Marathons you could run in a year was two and I took them at their word. I ran the Cork Marathon again in 2010 but I couldn’t wait for Dublin to arrive in October so I threw my name in for the Dingle 2010 marathon. It was at this marathon that I really got the bug. After finishing Dingle, I searched the Internet and found a small group of Marathon runners who got together under the guise of ‘West of Ireland Marathon Series’ and ran small low key marathons on officially measured routes. So, a week after Dingle I was running another marathon on the famous Connemartathon Course in Connemara. Two weeks after that, another Marathon in Salthill, and so on. Who said you could only run two marathons a year !! Two years on from my third Marathon in Dingle and I now have 39 marathons completed and I’m looking forward to many more.
Ever since my first Dingle outing in 2010 I have been in awe of the 50 mile Ultra runners. So last January I had put my name down for the Dingle Marathon and at the end of June I then changed over to the 50 Mile option. What made me change my mind and enter the 50 mile race? To be honest, it was my curiosity. The Marathon distance of 26.2 miles is greatly respected but often you’ll hear talk of back to back’s ( that’s running a marathon one day after the other), of running two marathons in one day, of running 4 marathons in 4 days, 24 hours races, etc. So when I was hearing talk of these distances, it was not going to be long before I was going to try something!
With 8 weeks to go to the Dingle Ultra, I copied a 50 mile training guide off the internet. My base level of fitness was good. I had run 12 marathons from January – August, so that distance was not the issue, it was the extra 24 miles that comes after it. I took to the training schedule and stuck to it fairly rigidly. The most important part was having a Marathon on Saturday followed by another semi long run (12 / 15 miles) on the Sunday. Midweek, I was running 5’s and 8’s three times a week. Also I was having to train at running at little bit slower at 9:30 minute miles. It seemed like a plod at first but I was warned that this was necessary or else injuries would occur when attempting a 50 mile race.
I also started to run my Marathons on empty...practically. I would purchase a bottle of Lucozade lite before a Marathon and carry that for the duration of the event – no gels – no food...just a bottle of Lucozade Lite. I was trying to get my body to feed itself from its stores of fat, while running slow. It’s only when we run fast that we dip into the glycogen stores and I was hoping to hold onto these for that ‘rainy’ day. Training was manageable but the days training following a marathon were tough but I stuck with my training plan. For nutrition I was going to rely on my favoured Lucozade Lite, which has electrolytes and flavoured water. I would set of with my hydration back sack (bladder) full, 1.5 litres, of Lucozade Lite. I was also going to bring a few gels as well as a couple of protein bars. One extra piece of nutrition would be a protein drink for the 24 mile bag drop area. At mile 37, another bag drop which I had extra Lucozade Lite and another protein bar, just in case. It was hard to gauge what I really needed. This distance was new to me. It was 50 miles- but it wasn’t 100 miles. In my head I was concerned about my hydration so therefore I was going to drink lots of fluids. Also I was concerned about muscle breakdown, so therefore I had the recovery drink at mile 24 and the protein bars to carry with me. I rested well and loaded the carbs into me for about 2 days prior to the event.
The night before the Ultra I am in bed at 10pm in Dingle. At 6am, the bus left Dingle to head to the start line. On the bus the Race Director, Ken Dunne, gives us a run down on what’s ahead .i.e. Water Stops every 5 miles approx, some will have gels and bananas and there is an 11 hour cut off on the course! Apparently, this is one of the toughest road races in Ireland. – all positive stuff. People exit the bus and take care of a few watering chores. Jokes are made and handshakes exchanged.
This is it. Ready, go. Ken Dunne the RD sets us off from 4 miles west of Camp in Kerry. The runners shoot off. The group is buzzing as we set off. I am fortunate that I have run so many marathons that I have made plenty of mistakes. The number one mistake when running a marathon is not having a plan – I had my Dingle plan. I was going to run at 10 minute/mile pace and slower if I had to. I just wanted to complete the 50 mile journey. The group took off fast – I didn’t. ‘There’s a long 50 miles to catch a lot of them’, I said to myself. I was accompanied on the first 25 miles by fellow Cork man Johnny Healy who now lives in Co. Offaly. I met up with Johnny through the club and on this day we decided that we would keep each other company for a while. After the first 4 miles we turn left and headed along the road that leads towards Castlegregory and ultimately the base of the Conor Pass. There was a strong headwind but it couldn’t be avoided. The wind was coming from all directions…it was continuous, mixed occasionally with gusts that would throw you off course. We were on this straight and sometimes undulating stretch of road from mile 4 to about mile 18. My plan of going out slow was paying off. By mile 18 we had passed a number of runners who looked very tired. At this stage we were at the base of the famous Conor Pass, the highest mountain pass in Ireland and we had a 410 metre climb ahead of us. The Conor Pass brought this 50 mile run to a walk for the first time since we started. It was pointless to try and run up this beast of a climb and especially when it was made even more severe by the force of the wind. I put my head down and power walked as much as I could. Occasionally the wind would ease or the incline would seem to level out and I would break into a jog to try not lose too much time. Johnny was just a few yards behind at this stage. Again as we made our way up the Conor Pass we started to pass more runners who were feeling the miles on their legs. I passed the sign that said 20 miles. ‘Well, only 30 miles to go. That sounds a lot easier than 50’, I said to myself.
After mile 20 we start to enter the clouds that are resting on the Conor Pass which was an amazing experience. There is something very magical about this part of Kerry. As I reach the top of the Conor Pass, my running partner shoots pass me with his arms out stretched as he lets loose on the downhill, to make our way to Dingle. I gave chase but cautiously. Running downhill might seem easy but it can play havoc on your quads(thighs) . I catch Johnny and we joke as we glide our way into Dingle. At mile 24 and our first food stop, I replenish my hydration pack and feel pretty hyped at this point about what the next 26 miles will bring. I add water to the bottle of powdered recovery drink I had in my stash at the bag drop which is called ‘Proven Revive’, how apt! I mix it up and again give chase after my running mate. I head up a hill through Dingle and by-pass the official start of the marathon. The Ultra course runs on the hill parallel to the marina. I drink my recovery drink as I run. Around here, mile 25 , a few things happened for. Firstly my running mate told me to carry on as he was going to ease back a bit. The second thing that happened was my decision to run or walk the future inclines. I got to the roundabout at the exit out of Dingle and see an Ultra runner ahead of me, walking. This is a tactic some runners use for very long distances – that is – run the flats and downhill parts – walk the inclines. I checked with myself (internal dialog) . I felt good. I felt strong. ‘Feck that’, I said and continued with my running.
The next 25 miles were to be a lonely 25 miles. I passed another few Ultra runners, as they walked. The marathon runners that left Dingle were now hours ahead of me. The Half Marathoners were already finished and heading back to the marina. As I ran pass the Half Marathoners returning to Dingle, they clapped and shouted on words of support. I was now running the Dingle Marathon course which I knew quite well having completed it twice before. There was nothing new here. The wind had reduced and the sun had not come out, thankfully. I just kept on running. I had my earphones in, a first time for me to bring an MP3 player. I took this measure because 50 miles is a long time to be on your own in your head – you could mug yourself. I listened to Lou Reed, REM, AC DC and of course, Will Oldham. I was on automatic pilot. Mile 35 , 15 to go. This is looking good. I checked my time out and compared it to my wrist band with my predicted times. Everything was looking ok. I reached mile 37, another food stop. I’m a bit tired now as I try again to get off my Hi Viz top as so I can take off the hydration pack and top it up with some Lucozade Lite. There was only room for one bottle but I was going to fill it anyway. I needed to stay hydrated. Getting the hydration pack on and then the HI Viz jacket was very hard this time. I was slightly unsteady on my legs after 37 miles - trying to get a head through here and an arm through there. But I just breathed into the situation and took my time as I got my pack on. With my pack on, I knew I had only 13 miles to go. I was feeling good. I knew I was almost home.
I head for Dingle – quite happy. 13 left out of 50 seems a good place to be. At this point I meet another Ultra runner who is in a bit of distress. I offer her some of my remaining salt tablets. She accepts – you’ll find that on events like this that runners pull together to help each other out if they can. We chat as we jog for a short while and then I push on. The next 13 miles are pretty uneventful. I keep my head high, breathe and run. I pass another few ultra runners as I come closer to my destination. I also pass the remains of the Marathon runners who left Dingle at 9am that morning. I suck on my hydration tube continuously. I now that I need to keep hydrated. At mile 47 as I climb the final hill I can feel my legs tighten up. Are my quads going to seize here and now? I feel a bit unsure. I know there was pain on the way. At that I catch another Ultra runner. I ask him for salt and he has a bag full of caps. I explained how I had given mine away earlier. I pop a capsule in my mouth and suck again on the lucozade. We exchange a few words and he says he’ll join me for the last few miles into Dingle. We summit the hill. Last year I thought this hill was tough but after coming over the Conor Pass, it pales into insignificance. We both strike on and there is a good vibe here. It’s like we’re heading home for the first time in long, long while. We’re running 9:30 minute miles and giving it one last kick. ‘We’ll make it under 9 hours’, I say to my new companion. Then the heavens open and it rains. It’s raining hammers and nails but it feels good. The salt has kicked in and my quads are feeling great. Run, breath and drink. Just out side Dingle, my Garmin signals 50 miles – ‘not long to go now’. We turn right at the roundabout and the finish line is a few hundred yards ahead. My heart is pounding with excitement, so I try to calm myself as I still run. Bingo, finish line – 8:53:00. I can’t but can believe it. It’s over.
I have to say it was the most exhilarating experience from running I have ever experienced. I was absolutely thrilled. I trained and stuck to my training plan. I ran the race with a plan and stuck to it. I finished 7 minutes ahead of time. I have to say that the 50 mile run in Dingle proved easier than some of the Marathons I have run in the past. Why ?......because I had a plan and stuck to it.
Now, what's next???