Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Guest Post: Belfast 24-hour Alex O'Shea

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Guest Post: Belfast 24-hour Alex O'Shea

The Belfast 24-hour is held every year in Victoria Park in East Belfast with contestants running on a 1-mile loop for 24 hours. It also doubles up as the Irish 24-hour championships. 2021 results HERE

In this guest post, Cork runner Alex O'Shea gives his account of the event.

Belfast 24-hour Alex O'Shea

Warning it's a long one. 

The National 24hr running Championships took place 16/17 October in Belfast. A new national record set. Congratulations Ed & team. I like many look forward to reading Eds account and was fortunate to witness his endeavour.

Some personal big mile stones reached with 33 people running over 100miles and a few people running personal bests in difficult conditions. First timers and veterans all rising to the challenge.
So many people 
So many amazing stories.

Athletes encouraging and supporting each other through the many highs and lows in what is 24hr ultra running. But as their are highs there are lows and many people withdrew for various reasons during the event. 

I guess you get a very unique view point running a 24hr race. Sharing in the highs and lows of others.
Watching people taking on a huge challenge some people I knew others I got to share a little of their journey.

This was my 8th time running a 24hr race. So I have some experience but still far more questions than answers. Every one has been different some have gone better than others but one thing remains the same  they are anything but easy.

Having completed Sparthathlon a 153 mile race in Greece 3 weeks previous, I was unsure if I would attend the 24hr championships this year. In fact I only ran 4 times in the 3 weeks leading up to the race in the hope I could maximize recovery and minimise stress on the body. 

Covid had also impacted this event with it now scheduled far latter in the year and as a result instead of running Belfast 24hr as my A race  resting up and then running Sparthathlon I now found myself running Sparthathlon and then Belfast 3 weeks latter. So I only fully decided to enter 2 weeks out from the event. I haven't tried to do 2 big events of this nature so close together before and I wouldn't consider myself 100% race fit post injury. while others may have been targeting this as their race, I was recovering from my last big event & asking myself questions... Was it a wise decision to enter? What was the worst that could happen? 

It could go bad but What if it went well could I have a chance at a national medal?
Could I achieve the Irish  qualification standard for a place on the Irish team going to the European Championships ? 
I decided it was worth the risk nothing to lose.

If it was just a 24hr race I would have passed and rested up a bit longer and competed in a 24hr later in the year but Belfast is also the national championships and if I wasn't in it I guess I would have been following it live for 24hrs thinking I should be there trying... 

The logical assumption was the body couldn't be 100% fit going in to the race having ran for 28hrs & 40min 3 weeks previous at Sparthathlon & that was on the back of a year of injury. This was only my second race of the year so a lot of uncertainty and doubt to start with. 

Positives Sparthatlon went well & I implemented a new fueling strategy that had worked. So I was going to try run Belfast with some of the knowledge learnt from my last race.

That said keep the expectations realistic and see what happens I didn't have to have a big goal from the start & new I was asking a lot of my body. Only time would tell I guess.

The Event was Hosted by Atlas running events this year as previous race director Ed Smyth had retired and passed on the gauntlet. That said Ed could be seen out supporting us all from the sidelines. I am sure so many of the athletes were applauding Ed for all he has given to this event down through the years. The current race organisers the lads at atlas have Big shoes to fill. That said the lads did a great job I am sure it has been so difficult organising events around covid etc. of course there were things that can and will be improved but that's part and parcel of a big event like this. Thanks to all the staff volunteers that went above and beyond cheering us all on in difficult conditions.
Along with the main event there was a few shorter events.
24hr relay and at some point in my race I joked with myself that I'd like to have entered one of them & be finished now.
The relay is a nice 2hr on 6hrs off event & for many a stepping stone in to the 24hr race for the next year.
(What is a 24hr running event)
Put Simply you complete as much distance on a predetermined course in 24hrs.
Sometimes held on a 400meter tracks or on a 1 or two Mile looped course. The Belfast event has out grown the track option many years ago now. Tracks are limited in capacity.
In this case the course is approximately a 1 mile loop around Victoria Park In the Titanic Quarter. 
Complete it as many times as you can run jog walk run again what ever it takes. Compete at your level set your goals & for the most part be amazed at those around you. People of all abilities take up the challenge.
24hr running is recognised the world over and has European & world championships. In fact only a few years previous this very course played host to the world championships and I was privileged to run alongside in the open race.
So at the top level there is the chance to reach international qualifying standards to represent Ireland so a lot at stake.

I traveled up to Belfast the night before with team O Shea wife Audrey sons Noah & Leon. (Dylan & Louisa missing out) 

Audrey has completed a master's in sports psychology on the back of crewing me before in Belfast. She found it fascinating from a psychology point of view as she watched the events unfold.  (still trying to figure me out)  

The boys were looking forward to the event Noah"s second trip to Belfast 24hr & Leon"s first.
On arrival Saturday morning it's the usual number pick up say hi to friends & get ready it's a lovely atmosphere runners making there way to registration crews pitching tents & awnings & getting ready. Runners are a friendly group  it's always great to have a quick catch up & see who's around.
We hadn't seen a race entry list or race program. I guess with the year we had covid ,delays & uncertainty there was going to be plenty of late entries and printing a program wasn't practical. Looking around on arrival  I could see some familiar faces I immediately saw Rolando Rex & Alistair all of whom had also been running in Sparthathlon with me a few weeks previous all smiles, clearly we all had reservations about signing up and somehow there was a reassurance in seeing each other here. 
Audrey had a small tent & set up next to Rolando"s crew awning thanks guys.

Looking around I could see Current national 24hr record holder Ed McGroarty I was talking with Ed & mentioned it was a long drive from West Cork to which he quickly replied try running it ( Ed had broke the Malin to Mizen record earlier this year) 1 nill Ed

Belfast was surely his A race the year.
Eoin keith fellow Cork man former national record holder with more national 24hr titles than I could count was also here. Eoin had a big event in America but Covid prevented travel.
Fellow Irish international Eddie Gallon (24hr legend) would be running his 39th 24hr race today. Eddie captained the Irish time on this course a few years back when it hosted the world championship.
Fellow Cork man Aidan Hogan also in the mix. 

Keith Russel Keith a new rising talent having had a great race at the last man standing event & had been invited to compete in America but like Eoin Visa issues around covid prevented travel.
Also saw Don Hannon I knew Don was in for the 100mile event & had another 24hr event lined up in a couple of months.

Loads of familiar faces Lorraine & Susan Irish internationals lots of singlets & club colours lined a section of the course as people collected numbers & said hi. Also a few regular faces missing the later date may have been a factor. Jim & ken from Qilta also dropped by to wish a few of us luck. A few of us have been fortunate to trial Qilta and help progress it to a finished product.  I started using it when I did the 32 marathon challenge. 

There would of course be plenty more strong runners take to the start line hard to know who was In what race and certainly a few new faces. In a 24hr you need to plan & run your own race. 
Lining up ready to go. 

Just before the start the sun made a welcome appearance we all looked on the bright side knowing that the forecast was for a lot of rain. That said a dry start is always a bonus nothing worse than starting a race wet and cold.

Race we went I thought there might be one or two idiots that would fly out to fast remember this is 24hrs of running not a sprint. As it happened only the one & it was me. That should of told me something a lot of experienced runners across the start of the field keeping their powder dry.

That said this was my 8th 24hr event & i didn't just get a rush of blood to the head and go sprinting off when I heard the gun. I was following a plan. I planned 8.30 min mile pace & found myself leading out the race (not something I wanted to do leading out the race that is) let's face it their is only one place to go from here & that's backwards down the field. It's extremely rare to lead a 24hr from the start & finish 1st.

I found it hard to settle & my pace bounced around a bit. I was running more 8.15 average a little too quick. The plan was 8.30 min miles for 2 marathons then drop it back a bit I had done this before fine.
There are many ways to run a successful 24hr race some will vary speed plans  starting faster some run steady throughout. Some will have walk & eat breaks built in  some will factor in a few faster strides at times.

Each to their own.
I continued as planned lap after lap the legs felt surprisingly good fresh I  was a bit surprised. Fueling I was grabbing a mixed bottle per hour & placing it in my belt. The body felt a bit hot the weather was warm for this time of year but I was definitely running a little hotter than usual I guess my body was a bit in shock. The first few Laps are the easiest your alert looking around taking it all in settling into routine energy levels high. I continued good for 30 laps or so & then the legs got very heavy & stiff suddenly. Now the negative thoughts started to fill my head. Was I starting the race with Sparthathlon miles in my legs & this was it for me down hill from hear. Now 30 miles in to a 24hr race I should only be warming up far to early to be entertaining these thoughts & far to early to encounter a low. I never hit a low this early in a 24hr race before so was it simply I was burnt out? From 30 miles to 50 miles I continued with very stiff heavy legs I did consider going into the physio tent but didn't think they could wave a magic wand & erase all the miles in my legs our the doubts building in my head. I had enough experience to now things can improve lows are lows so I just persisted it wasn't getting worse so it could get better.

Running a 24hr race you need physical ability but equally important you need mental strength to get you through the tough times of which there can be many.
You need to be very focused & not allow yourself think about the negatives our make them worse.
For eg this year the race was far latter in the year which means we would be running In more darkness than hours of light. Things like this can get in your head  yet for some running in the night means less distractions and you focus solely on the task at hand.
After about 50miles my legs didn't seem as stiff as before but mentally I was still having doubts. We all experience lows in a race but hitting one so early in the race can be tough. 
As you pass other runners and crews they give endless support while you don't always acknowledge them it is very much appreciated when your a bit down.
If you acknowledged everyone you'd have no energy to run. 
I try to thank people afterwards apologies if I missed anybody. 
Audrey Noah and Leon were doing a great job always having my drinks ready liquid food. Noah loved crewing & meeting other runners & was a hard task master if he thought I was really struggling he would say your doing great Dad keep going just don't quit.
Lesson kids make tough crew. Secretly Leon's hi light might have been watching TV in bed in the hotel the night before he didn't like the wet & cold.
The sunny start gave way to a dull afternoon with some light showers. It was warm so light rain was ok.
As it got a little heavier I put on a disposable poncho just because i could pull the sleeves off cut it short I didn't want to be to hot & sweat in a jacket.
The light showers gave way to heavy showers.

You need to be prepared and the heavy rain would cause problems and I would be no exception. Like it or not it was rain coat time. The rain got heavier and heavier and I think I spent most of the time running with my head down to try avoid any puddles, the dryer I could keep my feet the better.
I lost count of how many times I put my ran coat on and off. Shower after shower. I even saw people running wearing dry robes.

Always look for the positives the rain was cooling and personally I didn't get cold. If you where walking at this time then it was going to be a lot harder to keep warm. I am sure all the crews were freezing and wet yet they continued to smile and cheer us on.

At one point I was so wet the rain was running down the jacket & running down my leg inside my shorts. I stopped next lap for an unscheduled quick crew pitstop asked for a towel quickly dried off added lots of vaseline and managed to sort a problem before it developed. Of course the feet were also getting wet but I didn't see the point in doing anything at the moment the rain wasn't stopping anytime soon. I had toe socks on they are like gloves and offer some friction protection. Ok they are wet but if I change socks now they will be wet again in a few minutes so best not to look at them I think the toes are ok. 

As the hours crept by slowly I kept moving setting very small bite size goals never focusing on the 24hrs more on the here and what I could do now. I was having a few issues here and there the body was definitely tired but nothing to bad I just needed to keep positive & forget about expecting to feel bad etc. So i applied my usual positive mind games 4 kids so I need to run 4 marathons 1 for each of them. I was trying to keep running and after about 80 laps I allowed myself a little bit of a walk and to be honest I think it felt harder on the body to walk than running did, but at times your head was telling you to rest. So thankfully not to much walking and got back Running. In the scheme of things I wasn't to bad. 

As you approach anywhere  near 100 miles you think of ticking that box and if you do you will have joined the 100 mile club.. Every runner that completes 100 miles gets a jacket this can be a great driving force & positive focus point I can't recall wearing the jackets afterwards to much but at the time it's a huge positive motivational tool.

Some people feeling bad will put all there energy into this goal and it will become their finish line. So for me 4 kids a marathon each means I had a few more miles to go after the 100 and then reassess.  Then you think of something new keep moving the goals.

Sadly from time to time you'd see athletes sitting in crew tents with crews  tidying up clearly race over for what ever reason. This year the wet conditions could and did cause a lot of issues. You can prepare for so much but sometimes you can be unlucky and a small issue can end a race unfortunately this was the case for some.

Later the heavy rain gave way to lighter rain & suddenly I found myself hobbling a blister or a toe nail issue was my guess? So I made my way around to my crew asked for fresh shoes socks and blister plasters at the ready. I had a blister at the base of my toe nail or 1/2 under the nail so a bit more complicated than a quick drain tape and go. That said I wanted to try simplest option first so just said compede plaster on and fresh socks shoes.

The reality was the toe nail had suffered a lot of trauma and the blister was around the base of the nail. I think this is only the third occasion I lost a toe nail running and yes the first time was when running in fire boots. I am sure the wet conditions contributed on this occasion. The change of shoes felt good I remember thinking they felt good the surface didn't feel as hard anymore i hadn't felt like that in a while. As I am a heal striker I wasn't putting the full impact into my toes and was consciously guarding the injury I guess. Importantly I was able to keep running & not realising it was anything more than a blister I put it to the back of my mind I had a few other things to think about.

I was now deviating from my fuel plan adding some sweets did I need them? Or was it just a distraction of sorts?  In the background Audrey was crunching a few numbers telling me if I continue at a certain pace for the remainder of the event I would reach the automatic qualifier for a certain event. Or If I did this I would reach the Irish qualifying standard for the 24hr team. I wasn't all that focused on looking that far ahead my race was just me and now my goals were lap to lap at one point my leg nearly buckled beneath me I was close to my crew so stoped and sat maybe a minute had a drink I think it was nothing more than misjudging a slight step on the course.

I guess I started the race thinking running Sparthathlon 3 weeks previous would have a big effect on my race. I thought physically I mightn't be up for the 24hr but I think mentally the doubts in my head where every bit as a big a stumbling block. 

The last few hours of the race I focused hard maintaining and improving my performance. I knew Ed was leading comfortably followed by Aidan. Eoin Keith had sadly droped out early in the day as had Alistair at some point after that. 

While I didn't know my position In the race I knew I wasn't going to be in the medals so the focus was as it always had been bit by bit keep moving. There are many ways to do a 24hr race and with a few hours remaining I was now preforming steady & progressing well lap by lap 

While for some people they were at there low point now walking & all of us wishing for the 24hr claxon to sound. I remember with a few hrs to go Audrey giving me lots of goals & targets to hit some I felt totally unrealistic it's just we had two different view points if I was hurting the numbers made less sense if I was preforming then  I looked at everything  differently.  I told Noah tell mom small goals step by step. 

Not long left on the clock and Audrey was playing the mind games 7 more laps needed?  I was a little annoyed as it was a big ask in the time remaining. The final minutes were counting down & I was putting in some fast laps. Fast for this stage of a 24hr race that is.
10.02 minute miles followed by a 
9.22 minute mile followed by a
9.01 minute mile 

Then crossing the line for the last time I knew I hadn't enough time to get back but this is it every foot counts to me and I was giving it everything. I crossed the mat out now on my last partial lap this was my challenge how far could I get? No eating drinking or anything else this was just flat out what ever I could muster breathing and running i managed to squeeze in .85 miles in 6.21minutes = running a 7.29min mile pace.

Claxon sounded I was bent over gasping for breath job done I was finished.
When the claxon sounds you stop and take off your chip
(Thankfully a lad took it off for me as after running 24hrs that was not going to be an easy task) then place it down so the partial lap can be added to your full laps to give your complete distance.
Finished 5th overall.
134 laps
222.90 km
138.50 miles
Making me eligible for the Irish team selection for the European Championships.
Not my best 24hr performance in terms of distance but very happy. 
A lot to take In over the next while and see what lessons can be learned.
I have ran further I have medaled nationally but I think I will measure this performance a little  differently.

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