Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Long night's journey into day

Sunday morning and I'm up at 6 so as to be able to do my last hardish
training run before my flight to Montreal. 90 minutes with about a
dozen all out 30 second bursts in the middle. In the past few weeks
I've trained harder than I ever have before in my life. Having gone
into my international debut at the end of May (the Anglo Celtic Plate
over 100K) with a torn hip abductor muscle and major digestive
problems, I was forced to sit out the month of June. Just as I had
started to ease back into training, I got offered a late call up to
the Ireland squad for the World 24 Hour Championships in
Drummondville, Quebec. My initial reaction was of the
Not-on-your-nelly variety, but after talking it over with the
selectors (who pointed out 24 hour races are less about current
sharpness and more about long term strength) and my coach in South
Africa Norrie, I was surprised to learn he felt it not only feasible,
but a good idea. Norrie jauntily suggested that given we only had
about 3 weeks to train for this, what was needed was one long run and
a "couple of speed sessions".

He made it sound so easy. I had visions of one leisurely Sunday
morning shuffle for 2 and a half to 3 hours, and maybe a couple of
6x400 sessions just to get a bit of speed in. Instead, the Scottish
sadist had me doing three eyeballs out speed sessions a week,
typically something disgusting like 5 times 1K at only about 10
seconds faster than I'd ever managed 1K before, with 90 seconds
recovery. Wife Mireille on the stopwatch offered the opinion several
times as she saw her beloved dry heaving on the infield that maybe
he's trying to kill you. Other than that, it was a doddle: the long
run was "only" 4 hours (there were a number of runs in the 2-3 hour
range but apparently Norrie considered them easy recovery runs rather
than hard ones). The other unexpected treat was being instructed to
run my easy runs within 5 minutes of downing a full breakfast to get
my stomach used to digesting on the run.

Mad as it all seemed, it did seem to work. By the end, I was hitting
times in my track sessions that were faster than my race PB's, and I
seemed to be in the shape of my life. Now the question was would my
ability to run 200 metres faster than ever translate into an ability
to run 200 kilometres in 24 hours?

I arrived in Montreal on the Sunday afternoon, giving me about 6 days
to try to acclimatise to what I knew would be hot and humid
conditions. Team captain Tony Mangan had already been here a few days,
so I hooked up with him for a training run in a park near my hotel on
Monday. Tony has been struggling with an ankle injury which has
disrupted his training greatly, but when we meet at noon (his
suggestion to maximise the acclimatisation: me I feel like I'm about
to drop dead from the heat and humidity after the 5 minute trot to the
park), he almost runs the legs off me. After about 40 minutes, I
chicken out and head back to the hotel and jump straight into a cold
water jacuzzi to recover while I drink bottle after bottle of water
and sports drinks.

Tuesday's run is a similar affair of me panting around after Tony for
as long as I can take it, then leaving him to plough on alone for
another hour or more.

By Wednesday, Richard Donovan has arrived, and he runs with us.
Richard's carrying a foot injury, a rather nasty angry lump on one of
his metatarsals that he suspects is the beginnings of a recurring
stress fracture. Nevertheless, he's determined not only to run the
race aided by the most powerful anti-inflammatories he can lay his
hands on, but to train on with Tony after yours truly has once more
headed back for the comforts of the cold jacuzzi.

While in Montreal, I walk around in the sun as much as I can, partly
to speed up the acclimatisation, partly to see this really beautiful
city and its super friendly inhabitants. It's one of those cities
where when people realise you're foreign, they stop on the street to
welcome you to their city, tell you all about it, offer advice on
what's worth seeing, and any other local assistance you might need.

Thursday's the day we transfer to the so called "athlete's village" in
Drummondville. Richard and Tony head there by train around noon while
I head out to the airport to meet Eoin and Eddie, the other members of
Team Ireland, who are arriving in that afternoon. We stand around for
a while surrounded by the voluminous Spanish team, all of whom know
Eddie (he lives in Madrid and races mainly in Spain). Eventually a
race official appears, makes sure everyone is on the list, and leads
us out to the bus, which turns out to be an old school one. The two
hour trip to Drummondville felt long and bumpy, but the spirit among
the athletes was good, particularly the rowdy Spaniards, one of whom
was offering a bottle of wine around. When I declined, he laughed
"Infirmo".

There was an unscheduled stop at a petrol station about 30 minutes
from Drummondville. There was no official announcement (language was a
consistent problem for the race organisers, most of whom seemed to
speak only Canadian French) but we gathered by inference that we
should stock up on whatever food we could buy because there was
nothing waiting for us at the hostel. So that night I dined on the
last sandwich in town, a big bag of crisps, a Haagen Daas and a Mars
bar.

The "athlete's village" turns out to be a technical college that
re-invents itself as a hostel in the summer time. Each country is
assigned a classroom, with four rudimentary beds with the kind of foam
mattresses you might see in an orphanage cot. Eddie and Eoin succumb
to their jet lag while Tony and I spend a few hours in the Internet
room.



At this stage, I should probably say something about my four teammates.

The first two don't really need any introduction, as Tony Mangan and
Richard Donovan are Ireland's greatest and most accomplished ultra
runners ever. Team captain Tony is a former world record holder for 24
hours on a treadmill. Last year in Taiwan, he set the current Irish 24
hour record, over 228 km, while achieving the highest ever position of
an Irishman at the world championships, 16th. Since then, he's had an
incredible year, coming second in the prestigious 72 hour race in
Arizona (Across The Years), setting another Irish record in the
process, then winning a big indoor 48 hour race in Brno setting a
world record in the process, before finishing second in the
prestigious Surgeres 48 hour race in May.

Richard is pretty much the poster boy of Irish ultra running. His
exploits in extreme races in extreme climates are legendary. Richard
burst on the scene when he won the first South Pole marathon, beating
Dean Karnazes (who the American public has been duped into thinking is
the greatest runner of all time) in the process. Since then, he's run
himself to kidney failure in the Amazon jungle (as chronicled in the
August edition of Runner's Weekly), run Malin to Mizen head in record
time (with a stress fracture!), won a few more races in desert or
snow, and organised the North Pole marathon. Richard is also the
sport's main administrator and mover and shaker in Ireland, the man
who is putting Ireland on the map at international level.

Eddie Gallen is the most experienced team member as far as these 24
hour races go. Originally from Belfast but based in Madrid, he's been
steadily improving in recent years until in May he made his
international debut for Ireland with a stunning 13th position at the
European Championships, covering over 212 kilometres. Eddie's great
company, and is very generous with his encouragement and advice for
the total novice on the Irish team.

Eoin Keith is one of Ireland's best hill runners and adventure racers.
In recent years, he's made Ireland's only trail ultra, the Wicklow
Way, his own, and he recently competed with distinction in the World
Adventure Racing championships. By his own admission, his ultra
ability is something of a side effect to his other athletic
endeavours, but one should not to underestimate his ultra
achievements. His PB of 219 km is second only to Tony's.

In addition to being the World Championships, this race is also acting
as the official Irish championships for 2007, so the five of us are
also running against each other for medals and the title of Irish
champion. The expectation was that this would be contested between
Tony and Richard: they had a real ding dong battle last year until
Richard was forced to drop out after 16 hours with a stress fracture.
However, the fact that both are carrying injury worries into the race
(Tony's ankle means he's done very little training in two months, and
Richard has that painful lump on his foot that he fears signals his
stress fracture is about to recur) could upset that. In the
circumstances, Tony is referring to the other three of us on the team
as "the three scorers" and Richard reckons that Eoin is the dark horse
as far as the Irish title goes.

As the total novice on the team and little or no specific training for
the event, I have no great burden of expectation on my shoulders and
would be an odds on favourite to be the fifth Irishman. This has the
advantage of meaning I'm a lot more relaxed than I normally am before
big races, and I've had no problems sleeping this week. Nevertheless,
I want to give as good an account of myself as I can, maybe sneak into
the top 100 overall and top 3 Irish for a medal and a counting
position. Norrie says I can go 200 kilometres, which is an
inconceivable distance for me. So inconceivable that for once I'm not
nervous about stepping up in distance. When I went from marathon to
60K, the extra 11 miles or so  on the marathon distance seemed like a
mountain in my mind, and when I then stepped up to 100K, the
additional extra marathon terrified me. 200K, or about the distance
from my house to Galway, just seems silly, but I'm determined to at
least push past 100 miles.

Friday is something of a full on day, as our Aussie neighbours in the
village would say. Meal times are regimented, so we're up at 8 for
communal breakfast in the cafeteria. I'm not a morning person, and the
sight of some of the planet's thinnest people downing some of the
biggest breakfasts I've ever seen is surreal. It looks like the
average ultra runner consumes at least half his or her body weight at
one breakfast sitting, before returning for seconds. We find ourselves
sandwiched between the American team and the Norwegian team (which is
one very affable guy). Tony is well known to the Americans (in fact,
Tony is well known period: people keep coming up for an audience with
the new 48 hour indoor record holder) and holds dual citizenship,
something which persuades John Geesler to attempt to cheekily poach
him even at this late stage (Tony is having none of it). We retaliate
by making eyes at the very Irish sounding New Yorker, Phil McCarthy,
who confirms he does have Cork ancestry. A shame we didn't manage to
poach him - unheralded Phil was the revelation of the race and ended
up fourth!

Tony introduces the rest of us Paddies to the Yanks. Some of them
remember me from my win in New York, which puffs me up a bit.

After breakfast, we totter back to bed to lie down and try to digest.
Incredibly, two hours later they're shepherding us back for lunch!
Even more incredibly, everyone seems ready for another portion of half
their own bodyweight. Now I'm starting to understand why they say
these aren't running contests, but running eating and drinking
contests.

Tony moots the idea of a short run. I'm supposed to do 20 or 30
minutes to get my body out of hibernation, but right now hibernation
seems so attractive! I half heartedly decide that if I do run, it'll
be this afternoon.

After lunch, they bus us into town for an official course inspection,
technical meeting and opening ceremony. At the start of the course
inspection, I spot Eoin (who disappeared after breakfast) and Richard
(who I haven't seen since Montreal: he's holed up in a hotel rather
than the village) having a very civilised (that is to say,
non-alcoholic) drink on the terrace of a bar. Richard calls to me. I
waver: drink or course inspection. Course inspection or drink? Drink!

Tony and Eddie proceed on for the course inspection. Richard and Eoin
have already walked the course. Me, I'm not that pushed. I figure I'll
get to see plenty of it tomorrow.

I brought the official Athletics Ireland gear for the race over with
me from Ireland, and doled it out to everyone at the village, but
Richard wasn't there. So we decide to walk back there so he can have
his gear. As we walk, he chats about his nightmarish kidney failure
problems in the jungle (he pissed pure blood!) and his approach to
these races. He likes to think as little as possible about the race
beforehand to conserve his resources, one of the reasons why he
doesn't want to stay in the village (where the constant sight of
athletes in their national tracksuits reminds you what you're there
for). His ideal would be to only discover he had a race as he stood on
the start line. This sounds like a good strategy to me and one I might
try to implement in future.

On the way to the village, I manage to twist my ankle in a pothole and
fall face first down on the street. Nice. No damage to the ankle or
anything else other than a few minor grazes and some pride injuries.

Richard comments that it's supposed to be cooler tomorrow. I'm
surprised because it doesn't seem that hot to me, but he assures me
it's up near 30 (and feels like 40, as the locals say, because of the
humidity). Normally I suffer badly in heat and did when I arrived here
first, so I take it as a positive sign of acclimatisation.

Richard collects his gear and we arrive back in town just as the
technical meeting is breaking up (as team captain, Tony was our
representative at it). We learn that the direction of the loop has
been changed (apparently because they fear that if we all hit the old
bridge at the same time, which we would do on the first lap if they
ran it the way originally intended, the bridge might very well
collapse. Reassuring!). We also learn that the most bizarre question
that arose was whether and where runners could smoke during the race
(one of the Danish female runners smokes like a chimney).

After some more hydration, it's time for the opening ceremony, so we
file back to the town square, where they line us up behind flag
bearers. It's organised alphabetically, so we start chatting to some
of the Italians. Partly because we're just so damn sociable, but also
because we're just about the only country there without helpers,
officials or assistants for the race tomorrow. By contrast, the
Italians seem to have more helpers than runners, so we cheekily
suggest they might like to help us too. They either don't speak
English or don't want to, except for one very friendly gentleman, who
it turns out is originally an Argentinian, and therefore very
favourably disposed to us as mutual enemies of Maggie Thatcher. His
English is good enough to almost cause a diplomatic incident after he
asks us where in Ireland we're all from. When Eddie says Belfast, he
looks confused and says "But why you run for Ireland? You are
British!". Eddie's normally the most easy-going person you could ever
meet, but this is provocation! His stock response to this is "Just
because the Brits are occupying my country doesn't make me one. Were
you German during the war?". The rest of us smile diplomatically at
our best hope for assistance on race day.

Meanwhile, a succession of locals are coming up to us telling us
they're Irish too. Mostly in French. As the only French speaker in the
party, I act as translator. It's quite a bizarre procession of people
telling us either in French or in accented English that somehow
recalls Peter Sellers as the Pink Panther  "Ah am really Ireesh. Mah
grandfaddair, 'e 'as come to Canada een 1845".

Finally it's time to get the show, or rather the parade, on the road,
and they march us through the village for the cheering locals to a
marquee near the starting area. The obligatory speeches drag on a bit
longer due to the fact that it seems everything needs to be said in
French first and then repeated in English and Spanish, and I reflect
that I've never felt so tired or dehydrated the day before a race in
my life.

After that, they bus us back to the village for the obligatory pasta
party. Again, mountains of food disappear inside molehills of people.
I take the spaghetti bolognaise option, and then my stomach starts to
remind me that this is the first time in years it's had to contend
with beef. Stupid mistake: the second law of ultra running is to stick
to very familiar foodstuffs before and during a race.

After the pasta has been eradicated from the face of the cafeteria,
athletes return to their rooms, and it seems like everyone goes
straight to bed. I marvel at the ability of these people to sleep any
time any place, on demand. On the bus to the village, I looked around
and at one point realised I might be the only person actually awake on
the bus (I say might because I'm not sure about the driver). Now
they've eaten enough to feed an army, they're all asleep. The Irish
contingent mixes up their drinks for tomorrow, swaps salt tablets and
painkillers and generally turn our quarters into what looks like a
chemistry lab. Richard arrives over with some of the industrial
strength painkillers he and Tony are hoping will get them through
tomorrow's ordeal.

Tony and Eddie go for the early night option and are out like a light.
Notwithstanding my earlier comments about not feeling the weight of
expectation and being unusually relaxed, I can feel my stomach
starting to knot as the excitement or nervousness mounts. Richard is
also far too hyper to relax: he's walked the 2 or 3 miles from his
hotel to here and still has energy to burn, so we head for the
Internet room, where Eoin sits alone. Richard and Eoin decide to do
some self diagnosis on Richard's injury using the Internet. Eoin and I
had attempted to do so this afternoon on the terrace of the bar, but
Richard pointed out that our credibility was blown when we came up
with three different possibilities in as many minutes (cartilege,
ligament, tendon!). Thanks to Dr. World Wide Web, it is definitively
decided that Richard's lump was a very nasty case of tendonitis, which
could indeed be a precursor to the old stress fracture. Richard tries
to get me to bet against him having a stress fracture during the race,
but I'm having none of it. I helpfully point out that injured tendons
have also been known to snap completely when run on, and Richard
ruefully remarks that this is why he hates talking to other runners
about injuries. Everyone knows someone who did something really
horrible to themselves.

Richard, normally a natural entertainer, is at his most hilarious when
he's this hyper and keeps Eoin and me laughing with tales about what
he calls his "knacker family: 4 brothers, 4 sisters". It seems they're
all high achievers: I lose track but I think there's a bridge
champion, a former Olympic 10000m runner, a Booker listed novelist and
a classical guitar champion in there. Meanwhile, I'm also answering
texts and emails from well wishers, including one from Irish 100K
record holder Thomas Maguire wishing me a great race day/night/day.
Thanks Thomas!

Eventually we decide it might be time to try to do the professional
thing and get some sleep, and Richard heads back to his hotel. Eoin is
out like a light, but I can't sleep. I spend most of the next few
hours wandering the corridors, apparently the only person still awake
in the whole place. Eventually around 5 I manage to drift off.

We're up again at 8 for breakfast, which it turns out has been
postponed till 9. Normally I have trouble eating before a race, but
this is less of a problem this time. Everyone else is now eating their
entire body weight in preparation for shedding it during the race. We
spend a couple of hours deciding what needs to be in our race bag and
what can be left here, while Eoin doesn't that amazing "out like a
light" trick. While the rest of us fuss around noisily, he covers his
face with a Guardian newspaper and commences snoring. I head for the
Internet room for one last frantic chat with Mireille. There's an
email from Norrie asking me to pass on his greetings to one of the
Aussies who used to run on the same British team. I go back to the
Aussie quarters and locate this Mick Francis, passing on the message
that Norrie sends his best wishes, hopes to see him in South Africa
soon, and thinks he's still a good idea even if he's an Aussie
nowadsys. That last part goes down a treat with Mick's Aussie
teammates.

Lunch is at 12, after which we're bussed to the race. Tony gets off to
get the numbers: Eddie gets off to help him with his enormous bag of
chemistry set stuff  (all of it legal, I hasten to add). I head for a
toilet: my standard pre-race ritual being to hit the loo every 5
minutes or so for the last few hours.

In the help area, the tents have been assigned alphabetically. That
means that in the absence of teams from either Iran or Iraq, we're
sharing with the Italians. We set the stuff we'll have most immediate
need for during the race (drinks, food, electrolyte tablets) up on a
table at the front of the tent, with the backup stuff like painkillers
and backup shoes and plasters put on a table at the back of the tent.
A few autograph hunters are wandering around getting people to sign
the official programme, making me feel almost like a proper celebrity.
The other teams with their teams of helpers have everything arranged
down to a T while they complete their pre-race stretches, massages and
what have you. The helperless Irish team, meanwhile, are taking the
piss out of each other in the tent and talking about making a trip to
the local supermarkets for some supplies. Richard Eoin and I wander
off there to get some water (and I treat myself to some more ice
cream) and any other painkillers we can lay our hands on at this
stage. Eoin scores some Ibuprofen which he informs us is the business
in these races.

By the time we get back, the race is just a few minutes away. I swap
some texts with Mireille back home, and with Norrie in South Africa.
Norrie reminds me of the Plan: start slow, and try not to slow down
too much. Tony repeats the same advice. Eddie takes pictures of
everyone. Tony and Richard dose up on the heavy duty painkillers. The
organisers tell everyone to head for the start. Everyone does, except
the ever rebellious Paddies. There are still more texts to swap,
painkillers to down, pictures to take!



Eventually at about one minute to two, we wander up to the start line.
We sit in the shade behind the line watching the other runners bake in
the midday sun. As what we correctly guess is the final dignitary's
speech winds down, we sidle into the start.

A hooter sounds and we all start to shuffle. Or at least I do. It
seems to me that Tony just charges off. I watch him disappear. Richard
is moving fast too, about half way between us. Eoin is moving at about
my pace a bit ahead of me, until he speeds up. I look at the watch to
reassure myself I'm not moving at slower than the 10K an hour that was
the plan. I'm actually moving slightly faster. I try to slow down, but
the pace feels very uncomfortable.

At the end of the lap, we encounter the steepest hill on the course.
I've decided this is where I'll take the 3 minute walking break per
lap that Norrie has recommended. As I walk up the hill, Eddie and the
rest of the field passes me. I'm getting funny looks from people
wondering why I'm walking less than 15 minutes into a 24 hour race but
one American runner taps my shoulder as he passes and offers an
encouraging "Good strategy man!".

At the top of the hill, I watch the field disappear in front of me. I
look behind and see nobody: I'm apparently dead last at this point in
the race! Meanwhile, this is the main street right through the village
and is where most of the cheering spectators are thronged. I start to
feel faintly ridiculous walking, so I start to run again. The crowd
cheers louder, perhaps thinking they can encourage me to "get going"
again. But I'm determined to stick to the plan. I still have 80
seconds of my scheduled walking break left and I decide to use it
around the halfway point on the lap, where there's another climb but
very few onlookers.

So for the first hour I stick with the plan of trying to run for about
6 minutes at 10K/hour speed, and walk 90 seconds at 7.5 k/hour speed.
With less than a half an hour on the clock though my left calf
suddenly feels very tight. At this stage I'm rueing the absence of
Mireille and her magical pre-race massages. I concentrate as much as I
can on relaxing the calf. I also wonder if the slow pace is too
unfamiliar. I try running a little faster, at 11k/hour pace. The calf
seems to feel better so I decide to stick with the new pace. As a
result, I end up covering 9.8K in the first hour (I was aiming for
something between 8 and 9).

After about 55 minutes, Tony laps me! That means he's operating in
excess of 12 km/hour. Tony really is something of a phenomenon: it
seems like all his injury worries are shed once the race starts and he
just attacks it with total courage. He's right up there, just outside
the top 20, while I'm still well outside the top 100. Eoin tells me it
was a similar story last year, with Tony attacking from the start, and
then coming through a bad patch in the middle to finish the race
faster than just about everyone else, smashing the Irish record in the
process.

I'm getting lapped a lot now: the pace of some of these guys is just
unreal. It seems to me some are operating at a pace faster than my
marathon pace. Can they really keep it up? (The answer it turns out is
mostly no).

I decide to ignore the race situation and just concentrate on my own
efforts. I'm actually running faster than planned, and feeling very
comfortable. I had decided that if the heat was bothering me early on,
I'd start even slower and then try to pick it up once the sun went
down, but to be honest the heat and humidity don't seem to be
bothering me greatly, and apart from the calf, I feel very
comfortable. Eddie told me before the race that the key is to run your
own race and stay as comfortable as you can for as long as you can. I
keep repeating that advice to myself.

In the second hour, I cover a shade over 10K to bring my cumulative
distance to just over 20K. I'm liking the idea of the two walking
breaks: it reduces the race to a series of 6 minute jogs. I'm drinking
the precribed amount (about 600 millitres an hour), taking the
electrolyte tablets to a schedule, and eating as much as I comfortably
can. I'm also planning to follow Eoin's advice to take ibuprofen once
every 4 hours.

Richard laps me at some point in the second hour, and he dallies to
chat a bit. Then Eoin laps me and we chat for a while too. He tells me
that as comfortable as it feels now, these early laps will seem
meaningless when we hit the last 6 hours and it's survival mode.

At some point in the second hour, I pass Eddie, so I'm no longer fifth
Irish. Eddie says he's sweating like he's never sweat before in his
life. I laugh that he's the one guy who should be able for the heat,
living in Madrid. But he's not alone: it's noticeable that many guys
from "warmer" countries are struggling in the heat and humidity. By
the end of the race, one Aussie tells me their entire team has been
reduced to a walk because of the heat, and while he runs in the desert
back home, he has never encountered anything like this before. But for
some reason, while I can feel the heat and I'm sweating like a pig,
it's not bothering me. But people have started to collapse already!

I cover another 10K in hour 3, while still feeling comfortable.
Shortly after 2 hours, Tony laps me again. He's still going great,
positively attacking the race. I'm still eating and drinking as much
as I can, reasoning that my digestive faculties are probably not going
to improve as the race goes on, so I should digest whatever I can
right now to get me through the second half of the race. For the same
reason, I'm drinking my sports drink now as well as water, because
experience shows my tolerance for it drops off after a few hours of
running. Lacking helpers, we're very much at the mercy of the food the
organisers supply in the official refreshment tent: crisps, salted
peanuts, bite-sized slices of white bread with as much jam as they can
hold, occasional bowls of plain rice, pretzels, assorted fruit. I
decide on a strategy of rotating among these foodstuffs so as not to
overload on or sicken of any one of them. My rota goes something like
crisps, fruit, bread and jam, pretzels, rice, fruit, peanuts, bread
and jam.

In hour 4, I cover another 10K or so. I'm still feeling comfortable.
I've drunk most of my sports drink so I decide to try a meal
replacement, again on the grounds that my chances of digesting it now
are at their highest. Our Italian/Argentine unofficial helper very
graciously agrees to mix it and have it ready next lap. By now the
Italians have realised we really do have no helpers at all coming and
have spread out to occupy our side of the tent. I think in theory they
agreed to help us a bit, but it seems that the Italian definition of
"help" might consist of essentially slouching around in chairs. This
means that every so often when a startled Irish runner appears in the
tent, he has to clamber over the equally startled slouching Italians,
who are apparently wondering what this strange green runner is doing
in "their" tent, to get to his bag for painkillers or whatever. Then
the Italians suddenly remember it's actually the Irish tent, and they
scatter.

However, the one English speaker (the Argentine) was doing his best to
help us when not otherwise occupied with the Italian team (and he
seemed to be their best helper too).

At the end of hour 5, in which I covered another 10K or so, our
unofficial helper produced a list of the current race positions. Tony
had dropped from his early position of 21 (I think) to about 28, while
Richard was moving up the field from the 40s to the 30s. This was the
first evidence I had that Tony was starting to struggle, though I'd
also noted that the amount of time he was taking to lap me was
increasing (he was now over three laps ahead). Eoin was about 65th,
and I was moving up too, having finally cracked the top 100, at 97th.
Eddie was just outside the top 100, not far behind me.

For the next few hours I continued at the same pace, averaging 10K an
hour, wondering how long I'd keep it up for. The answer it turns out
was about 8 hours. By then, the sun had gone down, and my pace dipped
down into the 9's per hour. The body had also started to complain,
particularly the knee. In addition to the ibuprofen pill, I also
scattered the Italians to get at my bag of rub on gels, and applied
liberally to the problem areas.

My memories of the rest of the race are somewhat imprecise. I know
that shortly after darkness fell, I caught Eoin who was a few laps
ahead. I was moving better than he was at that stage, and we ran
together for a couple of hours. The company seemed to do us both good
and my pace went back up towards 10K an hour. Eoin was very
complimentary on how I was running and moving and this gave me a
boost. In retrospect, I may have got carried away and run a little too
hard in these hours.

During this time we started lapping Richard, who it was clear was in
trouble. He'd covered something like 66K in the first 6 hours, which
he told us was the plan, and then he was going to slow down. He told
us Tony was starting to struggle too. Now, Richard told us he thought
he would drop out soon to help us, as it seemed like the best thing
for the team.

At 12 hours I'd covered 115K. Eoin had dropped off my pace so I was
running alone again. I was getting texts from Mireille keeping me
informed of the race position. I knew I was moving up the field, as
was Eddie behind me, and the other Irish were coming back to meet me.
This gave me all the encouragement I needed to keep going through the
pain and discomfort.

At some point shortly after 12 hours, I caught Eoin again. As I came
up to him, he was walking, his legs seemed to wobble, and he was in
difficulty. Suddenly it occured to me that it wasn't beyond the bounds
of possibility that I could finish as leading Irishman and take the
national title. Up to this point, the height of my ambitions in that
area was top 3. This encouraged me to press on, and I may have run too
hard in that hour, because sometime after 13 hours, I hit my first
real bad patch. A barrage of aches and pains seemed to suddenly
overwhelm me, my pace dropped, and a stop for some water was followed
by a stop to vomit. After five attempts at wiping the slate clean, I
started to feel a bit better. I applied some more gels to the
afflicted areas.

By now Richard was out of the race, and back at the tent to help. I
now had a sick stomach and looming diarrhea (I'd just stopped for my
one and thanfully only portaloo visit). I thought Tony had some
Immodium in his medical stash but Richard couldn't locate it. He went
to try to scrounge something from one of the other teams and next time
I passed through the help area, the New Zealanders were on hand to
give me a spoon of solid honey, which they claimed would settle
everything down. I had my doubts, but beggars can't be choosers, and
it seemed to do the trick.

During this time, Eoin had caught and passed me again. He was running
very strongly now. Perhaps the same thought that had crossed my mind -
that there was a national title to be claimed - was driving him on. At
some point around this time, Tony stopped for a 20 minute power nap.
He had suggested he would probably do this at some point (on a
sidenote, it surprised me how many other runners took even longer
breaks to sleep, up to 3-4 hours. For my own part, knowing my own
body, I was pretty sure that once I stopped, I was stopped for good).
However, it was clear he was struggling, not just with his ankle, but
also a recurrence of an old calf/shin injury. When he did get going
again, his pace was slow. As I went by him, I tried to encourage him,
telling him it might just be a bad patch that he could get through
like last year, and he might get a boost when the sun came up again
(which Eoin had told me was a common phenomenon in these events). Tony
is probably the most positive person I know and it was clear he was
determined to fight on till the bitter end, but it was becoming
increasingly clear that the bitter end might be nigh.

I was now running fairly strongly again, though my pace was down to
around 8-9k an hour I think. I was finding the experience of running
through the night a strange one. Different times I felt as if my body
was drifting off to sleep, even as I ran.

I caught Eddie and we ran together for a while. He was running very
steadily, having come through a bad patch. By now we knew Richard had
dropped out and Tony's race was coming to an end. We talked about the
fact that this meant there was going to be a new Irish champion for
the first time since Tony came on the scene. I had already mentally
accepted that Eoin would be that champion, but Eddie was having none
of it, insisting that I was running a very smart race and there was
still a long way to go. He asked me why I wasn't chasing Eoin who was
now a few laps ahead again. I said I didn't see any point. Eddie, now
a master psychologist all of a sudden, encouraged me to go for it and
reminded me I should be running my own race rather than keeping him
company.

Suitably chastened by the voice of experience, I decided to go for it.
I settled back into the fastest pace I felt I could maintain
comfortably. I was now passing a lot of people, many of whom had
lapped me several times early on, and this re-enforced the positive
thought that I was running a smart race. When I eventually caught
Eoin, it was clear I was now running stronger than him. He ran with me
for a while, and then dropped off. Even though I was still taking my
scheduled walking breaks, the texts from home were telling me I was
moving right up the field.

Richard told me that Tony had now officially withdrawn, and that Eoin
was struggling. When I caught Eoin for the final time so that he was
now less than a lap ahead of me, he said "Hurry up and catch me Dara
so I can stop". Two laps later I passed what I thought was the
unmanned Irish tent only to hear Eoin's voice telling me "You're
leading now, Dara. I've stopped". At this point I started to think the
unthinkable: the last minute injury call up, easily the least
experienced and fancied of the five Irish, could be on the verge of
becoming National Champion in my very first 24 hour race.

I pressed on. I thought that Eoin could come back from a break running
stronger than ever, and would catch me if I weakened. I'd seen him
weaken before only to regain his strength. I also thought of Eddie, 4
or 5 laps behind me, but clearly in it for the long haul, and I knew
that even if everyone else stopped, Steady Eddie would still be moving
at the end.

As the laps clicked by, it seemed less likely that Eoin could get
started again. Richard was still optimistic he might, and he was lying
flat on the concrete pavement trying to regain his strength, but it
was not to be. With about 6 hours to go, I pretty much knew I just had
to keep moving to be achieve all my goals and more: top 50 overall,
leading Irishman, 200 km.

My motivation seemed to suddenly dip, and my pace dropped. Just keep
moving and you get it all, so why keep fighting with your body to move
uncomfortably fast? Suddenly as I stopped for a scheduled walking
break, I was overwhelmed by a stabbing pain in my right foot. The left
side wasn't doing so well either: a sharp burning pain from behind the
knee and the ankle was starting to throb.

But first things first. I peeled off the right shoe. It seemed to me
that the foot just exploded out of the shoe. Either the foot was a lot
bigger than normal or the shoe a lot smaller. Funny, my sock looked
red rather than white. Oh, right, soaked in blood. I peeled it off my
foot to inspect the damage. It's difficult to describe what I saw
except to say it looked like the big toe has simply exploded. Blood
was gushing from it, apparently not from one wound, but the whole toe.
The nail was hanging off. What to do?

I thought about limping back to the medical area and looking for help.
Then I wondered if any sane doctor would allow me to continue in the
race with my toe in that state. Memories of boxers being pulled from
title fights because of cuts. I decided I couldn't risk being
medically ordered to stop. Somehow I had to keep moving. I somehow
forced the swollen misshapen foot back into the blood-clogged sock,
trying to ignore the waves of pain. I then struggled to force the foot
back into the shoe. It felt a bit like cramming a tennis ball into an
egg cup, but eventually I managed to force it in.

I tried to keep a clear head. The ankle and the knee had started to
stiffen up during the stop. Decision time. Run, or walk? It came down
to simple arithmetic. I calculated that if I walked the remaining 6
hours, I could get to 200 kilometres. I was pretty sure that that
would be enough to take the National title (Eddie had told me last
time I saw him he had no hope of getting there). In the end, I decided
to go for the sure 200K rather than running to try for more, but
risking total blow up.

One thing I quickly realised though is that while I always had it at
the back of my mind that I might end up walking the last X hours, it's
much easier to say before a race "If needs be, then I'll walk the last
X hours", it's considerably more difficult to face the prospect of
actually having to walk for 5 or 6 hours when you're dog tired and/or
injured. I used to wonder why people just stopped in these races when
they could get another 30 or 40 k just walking: now I know why.

I think I walked for about an hour. Back in the helper area, I helped
myself to some more ibuprofen and aspirin. The pain seemed to subside.
I was tracking my pace and I realised I was walking a lot slower than
at the start of the race. Back then, I was managing close to 5 miles
an hour: now I was struggling to hit 4. I recalculated. This pace was
insufficient to get to 200 km. I hadn't seen Eddie so he probably
wasn't moving much faster than me, but the 200K mark was still a big
motivation that I wanted to reach. Less than a dozen Irish man have
ever run more than 200 K in a day, and I was near and wanted to be the
latest. In the same way a good marathon runner wants his marathon PB
to start with a 2 rather than a 3, a good 24 hour runner wants a 2
(rather than a 1).

So I started to run again. Not very fast, and the ankle started to
hurt more, but I was able to keep ticking along for about 3 hours (I
think) at this pace, taking slightly longer walking breaks than
before. The sun had come up now and it was getting warm again. Soon,
I'd be another mad dog out in the midday sun.

As my pace had now dropped, I needed to recalculate the amount of
fluid I had to drink on each lap, and drink more at each stop. I also
started to alternate water with pepsi and Gatorade (I could no longer
tolerate my sports drink).

With about 90 minutes to go in the race, the ankle just seemed to go
completely. Running was no longer possible, but a fast limp could
still be managed. I knew I was near enough to the 200K mark that I
could get there if I kept moving. So on I limped, dragging the busted
ankle behind me, idly wondering if it was broken, sprained, or just
busted in some other way. Tony tried to encourage me to start running
again but I told him with finality that my ankle had gone.

With a little over 40 minutes to go, Tony told me he thought I needed
2 more laps. I was sure he was wrong: that it was just one more, but
there was no point taking chances. I limped faster. I clocked off the
second lap, my last complete one, with less than five minutes left on
the clock.

All around me, ultra runners who had been dead to the world for hours,
were suddenly waking up. John Geesler, who had spent the entire night
in a slow zombie walk, suddenly flew by me. Once again, I wondered if
I was the only walker stroke limper in the race. I tried not to think
about that and concentrate instead on limping as fast and as far as I
could. Tony had pointed out that mere yards often separate runners at
the end. Each time a runner flew by, I wondered if they were on the
same lap. With 30 seconds to go, I looked over my shoulder and saw
some runners gaining on me. Throwing caution to the wind, I disowned
my ankle and broke into a run.

The hooter sounded, ending the race. I slumped down onto the road, my
angry ankle determined to punish me for my lack of respect. The
protocol in these races is once the hooter sounds, everybody stops,
and places a marker on the road with their number, so that the
incomplete lap can be measured and added to your total. Simple, but in
my case there was a complication. In the pre-race confusion, Tony and
I had somehow got our numbers confused. We were both wearing the
correct chip that identified us to the official computer at the end of
each lap, but as far as the human race counters were concerned, I was
Tony and he was me. I'd been alerted of this fact by an official at
the chip mats half way through the race. After briefly fretting about
what it meant (disqualification?), I was reassured it wouldn't be a
problem. Near the end of the race when they were handing the finishing
markers out, I tried to explain to the official that I was really
number 80 even if I was wearing number 79. She insisted I take the 79
marker and sort it out afterwards.

Some runners just placed their markers on the road and started to
wander back to the start/finish area. I decided I'd better stay with
my marker till the officials got there so I could explain the
situation again. Eventually one of them turned up. I told him the
story. He said he'd heard something about the mix up, would take a
note of it, but to be safe I should go back and tell the officials at
the start/finish line again.

I started to limp back with the intention of doing do, back down the
main street of Drummondville. My legs suddenly felt very weak and I
seemed to be staggering. I made it about three quarters of the way
when suddenly I was overwhelmed by a desire to lie down in the shade.
I did so in a store doorway. A local, an old man, came up to me and
asked me in French if I was okay. I realised it must be an hour at
least since my last drink, so I told him "J'ai soif" (I'm thirsty). He
went off to look for a drink to me. Meanwhile I saw Tony wandering
around further down the street. I guessed he might be looking for me
so I called to him. It took a while (he was looking at eye level, not
ground level) but he eventually located me. He gave me some
electrolyte drink. Despite my obvious dehydration, I didn't appear to
actually be thirsty or want to drink, so I just took a sip or two. The
old man re-appeared with some water so I drank a sip or two of that
too. Then I told Tony we had to go to clear up the number confusion
with the start line officials. Tony noticed I was on steady legs so he
put my arm round his shoulder. We made it back and spoke to the
officials. They assured us it wouldn't be a problem.

Despite all this, when the official results were eventually published,
the 431 metres I covered on that last incomplete lap had been credited
to Tony, rather than me. 431 metres might seem like an insignificant
amount in a total run of over 202k, but it makes a difference of four
places to my final position in the men's race. Without those metres, I
officially finished 36th. If they are returned to me (and we've lodged
an appeal), they elevate me to 32nd. Given the pain I put myself
through to get them, I'd really like them back.

After clearing things with the officials (or so we thought), the next
thing I remember is lying on the footpath looking up at some concerned
unfamiliar faces. I realised I'd fainted. An English speaker asked me
my name. Once I'd supplied the answer to that one successfully, the
questions got progressively trickier. Did I know where I was? Did I
know what had just happened? Did I know what date it was? When had I
arrived in Canada? When was I due to leave?

I answered all the questions satisfactorily. I heard my teammates
voices. Eoin was upbeat, saying I was clearly aware of my surroundings
and my heart beat was back down below 70 (they'd hooked me up to a
monitor). I was lifted into an ambulance. Tony accompanied me to the
hospital. In the ambulance, I kept losing consciousness. Depending on
whose side you want to take, I was either fainting (the paramedic
view) or simply falling asleep (mine). I'd banged my head when I
fainted so concussion was a fear, and therefore they were determined
to keep me awake. So during the ride I had the disconcerting repeated
experience of closing my eyes, only to open them as the medics slapped
my face and shouted at me to keep awake.

In the hospital, they ran an impressive array of tests: an ECG, blood
tests, the works. The doctors spoke in French, apparently unaware that
I understood them. One was saying that due to something that was
elevated in my blood, it looked like my kidneys were about to fail.
Another was talking about a possible imminent heart attack. It seemed
like I was the calmest person there. I'd read that tests taken on
ultra runners often mimic those of "normal" people at death's door,
and I was confident there was nothing more serious wrong with me than
dehydration and exhaustion.

They put me on a drip and encouraged me to drink. They asked how I
felt. I said I felt okay, but my ankle had a problem. This seemed less
of a priority to them. One of them looked at it and then asked "Do I
look like someone who knows anything about sports injuries?" He had me
there.

The doctors hovered around until I started to piss again. I could
barely move so I'd been given a bottle of about half a litre to piss
in. When I'd filled it for the fourth time, the guy who was fretting
about kidney failure decided he might not be needed after all. The guy
who was more concerned about a possible heart attack watched my heart
rate settle down to 60 BPM, my blood pressure to normality, and
decided he could go now too. My teammates turned up to visit me. One
of them had brought me my phone. Tony asked if I would be discharged
that night but the doctor who had now taken over told him they would
need to do some more blood tests in the morning to see if everything
had stabilised.

After they all left, I turned on my phone. There were frantic texts
from Mireille wondering at the lack of news. There was also a whole
bunch of texts from Raheny Shamrock club mates. I was amazed at the
number of texts and delighted to receive them. Stuck alone in this
strange hospital, they cheered me up no end. I answered one of
Mireille's texts before they confiscated my phone.

The doctor asked if I was hungry. By God I was. She brought me a
standard hospital meal: tomato juice, 4 tiny crackers, and a small
piece of cheese. Not the most satisfying of meals when you've just run
24 hours.

My teammates had brought a photograph Richard had obtained of me
running during the race. A succession of medical personnel arrived,
saw the photo, and exclaimed how good I looked in the photo compared
to now. Thanks guys.

My ankle was now throbbing, and I eventually persuaded the new doctor
to take it seriously. She wheeled me in to X ray. No break, she said,
but maybe a stress fracture or something else. I asked for some ice
for it. I also enquired about the state of my big toe. She told me it
didn't look good but had been cleaned up and bandaged. What looked to
me like a totally busted toe was actually a series of gashes and open
wounds.

Finally I was allowed to sleep without having my face slapped. When I
woke up, they took some more blood. A very confused looking doctor
showed up with the startling (to him at least) news that as far as my
blood was concerned, my recovery was total. He decided it had just all
been dehydration, and suggested I drink more in future if I were ever
to attempt such madness again.

One of the race organisers appeared to bring me back to the athletes
village. I now realised that I had slept in my race shorts, and
wondered what clothes I might put on to leave the hospital. The answer
appeared in a large transparent plastic bag containing the blood
filled shoes and socks and sweaty Irish singlet I'd arrived in. In the
absence of alternatives, I put on the reeking drenched singlet I'd
spent most of the past 48 hours in. As soon as I tried to get out of
bed, I realised I couldn't put weight on the ankle. My new friend went
off to get a wheelchair. He wheeled me out and lifted me into his van.



Back at the village my teammates were both relieved to see me, and
tickled that the new Irish champion was now in a wheelchair. Eoin
insisted they refer to me as the raspberry (ripple: rhyming slang).
Richard wanted a photograph of me in the chair with my arms
outstretched in triumph. Timmy! Tony had already gone to the airport
to catch his flight. Eddie helped me shower, change and pack.

Food appeared in front of me, and I ate it all. Eddie, who appeared
disgustingly mobile, ran for seconds, thirds and fourths. It was now
time to go to the airport so I was wheeled out to the bus. The other
countries seemed to take a strange pleasure from the news that in the
Irish contingent, the champion was the one in the wheelchair.

At the airport, I was propped up against a trolley while Eoin and
Eddie went in search of a wheelchair. This seemed harder than you
might expect. While I waited, I watched in horror as another
passenger, not looking where he was going, rolled his trolley over my
injured big toe. Eddie noted that the white bandage had just turned
red. I looked down at it, considering whether I should investigate,
but Eoin counselled "Don't look at it, there's nothing you can do
about it". I was barefoot now, no sock or shoe in my possession being
big enough to possibly contain the swollen monstrosities my feet had
become.

Eoin, Eddie and I were on the same flight to Amsterdam, but Richard
was going back via Toronto. Once we'd checked in, we hooked up with
Richard, who appeared to find my wheelchair a near endless source of
amusement. I needed the toilet so I wheeled myself over to the
disabled one. Incredibly, the disabled toilet in Montreal comes with a
swing door! You open it, then release it so you can wheel yourself in,
but before you can, it slams shut in your face. I struggled with this
conundrum for a couple of minutes while my teammates roared in
laughter from a nearby bench. Eventually, Richard did the decent thing
and held the door open for me. Getting out was another matter (the
correct solution involves building up momentum so that you hit the
door, open it and are out in one glorious movement).

My teammates were still laughing when I got back to them. I wondered
aloud what the notoriously PC Canadian passersby would make of the
three Irish knackers on the bench pointing and laughing at the guy in
the wheelchair. Richard pointed out they had no way of knowing we were
Irish: he was wearing an Italian singlet he'd swapped for, and Eddie
was wearing a Brazilian one.

They then wheeled me into a bar manned (or rather womanned) by the two
unfriendliest waitresses in the world. One of them thawed a little
when she realised we'd run the race (which she watched: she was
actually from Drummondville) but we quickly moved on when they started
sniping at the Spaniards who had just joined us for not drinking
enough. I tried one Heineken but it did nothing for my swollen feet or
other pains.

The Spanish were fascinated by my feet. Through our interpreter
(Eddie), their main guy (who had finished 7th) said I had great merit
for not stopping and keeping going, and he wanted a picture with the
"Campion Irlandese".

We eventually parted when it was time for our plane, Richard helpfully
pointing out that a long haul flight was the last thing my swelling
feet needed. He wasn't wrong. The longer the flight lasted, the more
my feet seemed determined to test the stretchability of my skin.
Luckily, I was seated beside Eddie on the flight to Amsterdam, and
he's rip-roaring company. The 6 hours flew by as he told me about his
adventures as the only Fenian on a bus of Linfield and Glentoran
supporters on the way to the Spanish World Cup, why he always gets
stopped by airport security, and what it's like teaching English to
Spaniards.

In Amsterdam, Eoin and I parted ways with Eddie, and eventually
managed to get ourselves on the Aer Lingus flight to Dublin. We asked
for a wheelchair to be waiting for us but either it didn't arrive or
some passenger who disembarked before us helped themselves to it. All
through the journey back, the airline and airport employees we met had
been full of sympathy for my plight, but of course the Aer Lingus air
hostess was cut from a different cloth. "That's what you get for being
an eejit and running for 24 hours", she snickered.

I found it hard to argue with her.

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