Mutai fastest marathon in 2011 Boston run not to be recognized as a World Record
Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai won last week’s Boston Marathon in the fastest ever time for a marathon, but his 2:03:02 time will not be recognized as a world record by the International Association of Athletics Federations.
The Boston Athletic Association was going to file an application to have his run recognized but it was quickly informed by the IAAF that its course exceeded the maximum elevation drop between the start and finish. Strangely, many runners feel that Boston’s course, mostly unchanged since 1897, is quite challenging because of its undulating nature and especially the hills between 17 and 21 miles. John Hancock Financial Services, however, did pay Geoffrey Mutai its $50,000 bonus for a world best.
Some observers note that Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie’s 2008 world record was on Berlin’s significantly flatter course and that he had the help of paid pace-setters. Meanwhile American Ryan Hall’s Boston time of 2:04:58 will not likely be considered an American record by USA Track & Field.
Mutai’s run raises interesting questions. It was The fastest marathon distance time ever recorded, but he did have the benefit of a tail wind. But that is the nature of running; some days are windier than others regardless of where you run. Should times be disallowed if there is too much wind? Should other runners reconsider their PBs if they got them at Boston this year? If wind speed is an issue at all, what speed is considered too much? If elevation drop is a factor, what does this say for all the other certified marathon courses; should they then have to consider elevation drop?
Or are we simply getting too picky, and missing the point of the sport?
Regardless, Geoffrey Mutai ran the fastest time ever for 26.2 miles.
What do you think?
The Comrades Ultra-marathon 2007: South Africa by Malcolm Anderson
It’s billed as the greatest race on earth. The ultimate challenge; It will define you. At 89.3km (56 miles), with relentless monster hills it defines many things. There are no comparable hills in eastern Ontario. A former Boston marathon winner said of the Comrades run recently “I didn’t realize how much a race could reveal to me. Of me. Some races are humbling. This stripped me bare”.
The course runs between Pietermaritzburg and Durban in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. The direction changes each year. This year it was the “down run” from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
I’ve heard a lot about the race over the past few months from runners I’ve been interviewing for books I’m writing on marathons. If they hadn’t already run Comrades, they’d list it as one they’d most like to do in the near future.
To truly understand Comrades I felt I had to run it. I’ve run a few marathons (42.2 km distance) recently and thought I might have enough to get me through Comrades so long as I ran smart.
A friend – Martin Woock, a South African now living in the Kingston area, got me in contact with friends of his in South Africa. Gavin picked me up on the Friday morning and I immediately began my Comrades immersion. The race was to be held on the Sunday. Gavin and his brother Alan were both running Comrades this year. This would be Gavin’s 7th run and Alan’s 3rd.
Gavin and I complete final race registration at the Comrades Expo and quickly pass through the dozens of booths promoting or selling a variety of running related products or services. Thousands of runners, friends and family members soak in the atmosphere, enjoying the festivities and, like me perhaps, getting increasingly nervous about the oncoming day.
We head to Rovers Rugby club and I go for a light 5km run with Kevin, a mate of Gavin’s who has also run Comrades. I listen and learn. We return and a have a few drinks with other friends, talking about Comrades and rugby, among many other important things.
The Comrades race holds a special place in the hearts and minds of South Africans. It is much more than a run. It is about tradition, overcoming obstacles, commitment, goal setting and accomplishment. To run Comrades is to put yourself on the line, to look deeply, to push your limits and to find new ones. It commands respect. It can hurt you too. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally.
Saturday morning. After a restless night, Gavin, his partner Fiona, and I head to Pietermaritzburg along the Comrades course. After just 20kms Fiona notices I’ve got pretty quiet in the backseat. It’s no wonder. Now seeing the course – the huge hills especially, I’m thinking I’ve made a big mistake.
We meet Alan midway for lunch at the Tala Game Reserve. We talk some more about Comrades. I’m looking for any advice that will help me beat the monster coming. We drive around the reserve passing Rhinos, Hippos, Giraffes, Buffalo, Springboks, Warthogs and Wildebeest. Wisely, I think, they won’t be running Comrades tomorrow.
We drive back onto the route and I return to my earlier state of shock. We get to Alan’s home and I meet Dawn – Alan’s wife, and the rest of their family. Dawn is more pumped up about Comrades than the rest of us combined. She has run it in other years but can’t run it this year due to an injury. There is lots of laughing, comments about feeling strong, and the role of Vaseline. Great build up.
We go to the Natal Carboneers Running Club which is hosting a Pasta Party. This is a tradition of all marathons – eating pasta the night before the run to load up on Carbohydrates that will provide some much needed fuel for the race. Runners from all over South Africa are present. There is a buzz. There is already a celebration of comraderie, friendship and good health.
We return early to Alan and Dawn’s to get our gear ready for the morning. We’re still laughing. Nervous energy perhaps.
Race Day: 3:45am. A deep sigh. This is it. No matter what happens, I’ll do the best I can. I have no idea if that will be enough. A hearty oatmeal breakfast, a cup of coffee and we’re out the door.
There’s a festive air at the Start line. It’s a cool 5 degrees and dark. Hand-shakes and much well-wishing. Many runners wear light jackets or plastics bags that they’ll discard along the route as the day warms up. African music flows through the air, and then, as the start-time gets closer, the Chariots of Fire soundtrack plays, as it does every year. Another tradition, a loud cockle-doodle-doo, comes over the loudspeakers and then the cannon shot. We’re off.
Gavin has a race strategy that see’s us finishing with a 10:30 time. He knows how to run Comrades. My own strategy is simple. Stick with Gavin for as long as I can. Hopefully that will be enough to give me a fighting chance of finishing in time. It’s a 50/50 chance at best. Alan meanwhile, has his own race strategy. For all of us there are different strategies to achieve a common goal.
Soon after the start, Gavin and I are running together with Alan slightly behind. I don’t see Alan again until after the race. The roads are already lined with spectators. Further along the course many of them are setting up tents, chairs and barbeques as they prepare to make a day of it. As it does every year, the race is also being televised live across the country.
We start with a long and gradual climb out of Pietermaritzburg. We pass markers showing the distances left to run. A spectacular sunrise casts an orange glaze over the valleys below us, as by now we have climbed out of Pietermaritzburg. Gavin and I are running at a good pace. We intersperse this with short walking ‘breaks’ – these give our legs valuable respite which will be important for later in the race.
We run pass cheering school children from the Ethembeni Home. These children are physically disabled and line the road enthusiastically, some on crutches or in wheelchairs. In other years, Gavin tells me, they may be watching from their beds placed along the road. These are emotional and spiritual moments for the runners.
We’re closing in on half-way now. Half-way. 45km. I’ve never run more than 42.2 km before. The rest of the race will be an adventure into the unknown. My left calf starts throwing wobbly spasms. Not good. I tell Gavin to carry on and I’ll catch-up, but I know it’s unlikely. He probably realises that too. I won’t see Gavin until after the race. He run’s a ‘blinder’, finishing in a sub 10-hour time.
I walk for a bit. Then as I start running again my right calf throws a wobbly. I walk some more. I’m now at the foot of the notorius ‘Inchanga’. Hardly anyone is running up this hill. I’m now getting cramps and feeling thirsty at the same time. The high sun is starting to take its toll. I take an electrolyte pill hoping it may restore some balance. I still have 44km to run. My legs are threatening to call it a day.
I spend the next hour mixing walking with running. I take a painkiller. I must keep moving because there is a bus further back on the route picking up runners who have not passed certain points before specified cut-off times. The more I walk the less likely I’ll finish in less than the maximum allowed time of12 hours. Anxious moments.
I don’t know why exactly, but almost suddenly I am able to run again. It feels good. But it’s still a long way to go.
I talk to other runners. We face the same challenges but address them on our own terms. We look inside for the strength that will take us to the finish line. Enduring friendships are made. Runners open up their arms and hearts. We are all equal. We are privileged guests in other people’s lives; the adversities faced and overcome, the hopes and aspirations. Some people, like Gavin, raise money for charities by running Comrades. Some people dedicate their run to loved ones. For others it is an annual rite of passage, a reawakening of the soul.
By the 60km mark my quadriceps feel like rocks; each step downhill sends a jarring pain to the thighs. Mentally we all put this in a place and carry on. My calves continue their tricks. I’ve been running the race longer than a regular work day and still have almost 30km to run.
Thousands of spectators now line the course into Durban. There are offers of food and drink – this, in addition to the 50 official aid stations placed along the route. At each of these stations there are 175 mls sachets available of water and Energade, a sports drinks, as well as coke-cola and cream soda. Food is provided at the stations – typically bananas, boiled potatoes, and sliced oranges, and sometimes chocolate. Sweet and gooey Gels are also available. These help to replenish electrolytes in your body.
I reach a huge psychological turning point when I pass the ‘21km to go’ marker. A half-marathon. It feels like I’m almost finished. I can see downtown Durban in the distance. Plenty of hills left but I’m getting more optimistic. I keep running and walking. Talking to other runners, and mixing it up with the crowds along the route. I do high fives with dozens of children throughout the day. With several hours on a run you have to mix things up; to keep active mentally.
By now there are many runners pulling up, having done all they could do. It furthers my resolve to finish.
The hills are relentless – up and down. I keep reminding myself why I’m doing this. But I’m within reach. It feels good. With just 5km to go I now realise I can even walk the remaining distance and still be within the 12-hour time limit. Everything I’d committed to and sacrificed seems so incredibly worth it now.
An Irish runner beside me calls his father in Ireland to say he’s going to make it. An emotional moment at both ends of the call. Another runner – Pradeep from Durban – invites me to dinner when I come back (he insists) next year. Wonderful moments.
And then the most emotional moment for many runners – entering the Sahara Kingsmead Cricket Stadium and running the last stretch around to the finish line. I sprint now. I don’t feel any pain. I want to run faster but I want to savour the moment. The Stadium is full of runners, supporters and spectators. They cheer us on. A deafening sound. A Jumbotron screen shows to the entire stadium each runner finishing. I finish and a medal is placed over my head. Wow. I’ve really done it. Days later I still can’t believe it.
I meet up with Gavin, Dawn and others from the running clubs and we watch the closing minutes. Everyone – everyone – is cheering the runners on now. We are all together. A common bond. At the 12-hour point the race will be over. Anyone coming in after 12 hours officially does not complete the race, and does not receive a medal. It’s heartbreaking. Soul destroying. It could’ve easily been me.
In the final minutes some runners are being carried in by others. One man collapses in front of us only to be immediately picked up and supported by others to the finish line. At the 12-hour limit there are still runners entering the stadium. They won’t finish in time. We continue to cheer and applaud. Then the lights go down, the Jumbtron screen goes off, and the commentary finishes. It’s over.
Two runners died at the Comrades run this year. Both in their thirties. It’s suspected they must have had heart conditions. No-one feels good about this. There have only ever been five others that have died since 1921.
I will never forget this experience. I’ve been tested on many levels. I come away with no serious injuries. I’ve been lucky.
It’s much more than a long run. I’ve been to places in my mind where we don’t go enough. And I shared this with wonderful people. They made it possible. Our lives are full of long runs. It’s who you share these with that makes the difference.
Comrades Race Facts:
The Comrades ultra-marathon began in 1921 to commemorate comrades who died in World War I. It is run in June of every year.
In 2007, 12,006 runners started the race. Just over 10,000 finished.
Leonid Shvetsov of Russia won the 2007 men’s race in a record time of 5 hours and 20 minutes. The Women’s winner was Olesya Nrugalieva, also from Russia, finishing in a time of 6:10.
If you complete 10 Comrades races you get a green number for all future races and effectively ‘own’ your number forever. No-one else will ever run with your number even if you no longer run in the event.
Postcard from Connemara by Malcolm Anderson
In 1948 Ludwig Wittgenstein ran from his Philosophy Department at Cambridge to Connemara. Later, he wrote “I can only think clearly in the dark, and in Connemara I have found one of the last pools of darkness in Europe”.
I headed there too, in March 2009; but instead of running to think I was coming to run – In the Connemara International Marathon. It was one of those opportunities that don’t come around very often. I had run with the Race Director– Ray O’Connor – the previous year. The idea of developing a marathon event in Connemara came from Ray, who himself has now run over 50 marathons.
Tourism Ireland also knew that I’d just finished a book on marathon running. It offered to pay my expenses to come and run in the event as well as see some of Ireland while I was there. How could I say No? You can squeeze a lot into one week of visiting Ireland. And if you want to run a marathon there’s few that can compare to Connemara. The Connemara International Marathon has grown rapidly from just 72 entries when it began in 2001, to over 3,500 by 2008. Over 1,000 runners came from outside of Ireland in 2007, and the trend continues. It’s no wonder Tourism Ireland is interested in the event.
My journey began in Vancouver, Canada on March 16th, where I was doing some research work at the time. Magically, I would be arriving in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day, early morning, on a red-eye flight. Even more magically, Tourism Ireland arranged an entire week’s itinerary for me to meet and see many of the people and places that make this part of the world what it is. I wish I could’ve stayed longer.
My first flight is to Chicago, where I wait for a few hours to board an Aer Lingus flight for Dublin. I’m pinching myself. I’m quite excited, to be sure, but I’m well aware that I’m woefully unprepared for this marathon. Since the middle of January I’ve been subsumed almost completely by research work in British Columbia hospitals. Long, late hours, a multitude of different expectations to respond to, and, and …
Well these, you’ll recognize, are excuses, of course. But when you have to make some hard choices among work commitments, sleep and running, running has taken, in most cases, third place. Given the volume of work it’s amazing running got a look in at all. It’s now March 16th, and to date this year I have probably run about fifteen times. Of those, I’ve ran two hours once, and managed four one-hour runs. All of these have been outside. The rest of the runs have been for about 30 minutes on one of three different treadmills in the three hotels I’ve stayed at since mid-January.
I’ve probably maintained some level of fitness, but I doubt it has been the sort that strengthens my endurance. Deep down, I’m hoping the experience of running previous marathons will carry me through the Connemara marathon. I even dare to think, maybe, possibly, sort of, perhaps, that I might do a good time. The reality is much more frightening than this dream state. Simply, no real long distances to speak of in any part of my training. Not good.
I board the red-eye flight that arrives in Dublin at 6:30am, after having traveled through several time zones. There is no sleep on the flight for me. I’m met by a driver, Colm, who takes me to my Hotel where I have the fastest shave known to civilization, and without cutting my head off. I put on some fresh clothes in case you wondered. No time to look for Leprechauns just yet, because the St. Patrick’s Day festivities are gearing up. Colm drives me downtown to my meeting spot and I’m given ‘International Media’ passes for the day, complete with clearance for various activities. I’m hoping I can find, perhaps borrow, the luck of the Irish and also scoot around the Connemara course in a good time, and stay injury free over the coming weekend. More immediately, I’m hoping the Irish luck will help me stay awake today.
For the rest of the day I’m engrossed in the festivities, meeting other journalists and enjoying a beautiful sunny day. As the parade begins and we get seated, I see I’m sitting just a few seats away from the Irish President – Mary McAleese. I could easily walk along and chat to her. “Will you be running in the Connemara marathon”, for example? More importantly, to my teenage son anyway, I meet the voice of Bart Simpson and get her autograph. The producers of ‘The Simpson’s’ are also in Ireland with the first screening of the episode on the Simpson’s family Irish origins.
The St. Paddy procession is long and not necessarily that spectacular, but there are thousands and thousands of people lining the streets watching. Green and orange are the colors today. I’m people watching and trying to take it all in. I’m sitting in the front row, right on the street itself, and doing my best to stay awake. I’ve been awake since Vancouver yesterday on the other side of the world. My head is beginning to fall off. It’s bad form when an international ‘media person’ falls asleep in arguably the best seat in the house.
I feel myself nodding off, just in time though to prevent a full head-first dive into one of the procession acts coming by. This happens three other times. Close calls. After brilliantly not falling asleep completely, or out of my seat, but less brilliantly still managing to spill my coffee, it’s with a huge sigh of relief that the procession finishes and I can get up and start moving. I make my way back to the Hotel but have to take several detours as some of the streets are simply packed like vertical Irish sardines. People are everywhere, celebrating. For about an hour it feels like I’m in a Rod Sterling marathon at Mile 25, never to get any further.
I find my bed. Not surprisingly it’s in my room where I left it earlier. I collapse on it, hoping to sleep until the marathon in a few days time. But I’m overcome with guilt. The Guinness Brewery is just a couple of miles away, and the tours close shortly. I find it hard to believe it closes on St Paddy’s Day, but that’s what I’m told. Dilemma. Sleep and miss out; or hold that thought of sleep and make the most of the opportunity.
I go for it. I’m running on pure Irish-infused adrenalin now. The Guinness Brewery is one of ‘The attractions’ in Dublin. A must see they say, so I must go and see. I’m glad I did. Not for the free pint, but rather for the whole atmosphere – thousands of partygoers; 7,000 had gone through the site the previous day, a record, and I was one of 5,000 on my day. The Guinness site is famous for its seven-story Pint Shaped tour operation, which on the top level offers a 360 degree floor to ceiling glass-encased panoramic of Dublin. I arrive on the floor to a sea of green, a circular bar – the Gravity Bar – in the middle, and a rockin’ band belting out Irish music. I pinch myself again. And again when I’m offered the complementary pint. It’s really fresh, so fresh, in fact, that you wouldn’t think you were drinking Guinness. It’s Guinness’s 250th birthday year as well, so it’s all the more reason to celebrate. And buy the souvenirs if Guinness has done its marketing right.
Wow. I’m really here.
Oh, to run a marathon, that’s right. But as much as I’d like to stay on top of Dublin, I can’t, as I’m expected at a dinner for the media. It’s a whirlwind day; I’ll be looking forward to relaxing at the marathon. Did I really say that?
But the day is not over. Sleep? I don’t think so. Instead, three of us are taken by one of our hosts, to real Irish pubs, not the ones that are real Irish pubs in the touristy area of Dublin known as Temple Bar. It’s still St. Patricks Day remember, so there is plenty to celebrate, plenty to forget, and plenty of fun people around to take your mind off running 26.2 miles in a few days.
The next day – Wednesday –feels like I’m getting up as soon as I’ve got to bed. You don’t see that in the marathon training schedules. I’m off to pick up a rental car, then make my way out of Dublin. At least I give it a go. They drive on the other side of the road of course, and that’s always fun. As the rental car is about the size of my suitcase, I’m wondering if it would be safer to pick it up, tuck it under my arms and catch a bus to Galway.
But that’s beginning to sound a bit too Irish really, isn’t it. Instead, I drive as if I know what I’m doing. It’s a kind of Mr. Bean-drives-around-Ireland sort of drive. I eventually find Galway, right where it’s supposed to be; cities are good like that. It’s the third largest city in the Republic of Ireland, with about 70,000 residents, and known also as Cathair na Gaillimhe. It was first a Fort built in the Year 1124, about 652 years before the United States Declaration of Independence. It’s really old.
But it’s a nightmare trying to find the House Hotel where I’m meeting Ciara O’Mahony, the Tourism Development Officer for the region, for lunch. The angst grows as I discover there are no parking spaces available in all of Connemara at this particular moment. I spend more time driving around Galway than I do getting here. But I eventually find a spot. We have a wonderful lunch, after which I meet Michael Lynch who takes me on a walking tour of Galway. Michael has an encyclopedic knowledge of the place and his family figures in Galway’s history as well. With over a thousand years of continual settlement there’s history on top of history with almost every turn. And stories upon stories.
An older gentleman corners Michael and I in a bookstore and tells us his stories for half an hour. We escape, only to be captured later by the same man down a cobblestone laneway. But Galway is a wonderful place if you’re thinking of coming to run the next Connemara marathon in March. Galway is where most runners and their families will stay if they’re not from the area.
I was thinking I’d go for a run after dinner but it’s been a long day and I’m still on British Columbia time. My body has almost given up on me. If I throw a run into the mix it may decide to take things into its own hands. Sleep, that thing I used to have one time, is high on the agenda now.
Next day I’m on the road early again. I’m heading to Clifden via some must see places along the way. First stop is about 8 miles out of Galway at Cnoc Suain. It’s not a typo. There are several stone thatched cottages at Cnoc Suain, some of which date back to 1691. On 200 acres the hosts, Dearbhaill Standun and Charlie Troy, who are musicians and natural scientists, have painstakingly restored these cottages and the landscape. They’re wonderful friendly people who I met and who gave me a tour of Cnoc Suain. Their vision is to create a cultural and natural heritage centre that is a unique and authentic experience of the past and the present in Western Ireland. It was the Connemara Heritage Award Winner in 2007. Visitors can come and stay in the cottages at various times though the year. Perfect for writers, researchers, artists, marathon runners…
But unfortunately I can’t stay Cnoc Suain too long. I need to drive along the coast to catch a Ferry over to the Aran Islands. If you travel all the way to Connemara for the marathon, a visit to Aran Islands is a must. Specifically, I’m visiting the largest of the three islands – Inis Mor (the Big Island). It’s spectacular. Like stepping back in time. They say there are so many stone walls on this 8.6 by 2 square mile island that, put length to length, they would span about 3,000 miles long. I’d believe it. There would be another 3,000 miles easily if you picked up the rocks that are still lying around. There are more rocks than you can throw a stone at. There’s only six inches of topsoil on the island though, which partly explains the harsh living conditions experienced here over the centuries. Thank goodness for fish.
Still, the islands have been invaded by just about everyone you can think of over time. These days, it’s the turn of the tourists, who in peak season, vastly outnumber the locals. Today, there are about 800 residents, 250 of which are children, and five pubs. Most of the younger residents leave school and leave the island searching for a new life or to experience what the rest of the world offers. Some return later.
I’ve been set up with a tour guide at the local hotel but as I sit and wait the hotel Receptionist works out that there’s been a slip-up, and there is no-one actually to take me. Anywhere. So she calls Mike and we spend the afternoon together; crashing around in his Van. Mike is a local and it seems that he knows everyone on the island. It would be a great place to run, or bike, I think, and I know I’ve got to come back one day.
I’m awestruck by the massive fort of Dun Aonghasa. It’s a stone fortress/settlement built over 3,000 years ago. There are three semicircular concentric circles of stones about twenty feet high; impressive in itself, especially given when and how it was built. But on one side there is nothing but a cliff’s edge, 285 feet high above the crashing ocean waves below. There are no barricades like you would have in North America to prevent you from falling off, or pushing someone else. People are quite welcome to go over to the edge and peer down. And, if they choose, fall or jump off. Today, several visitors are sitting on the edge, dangling their feet over, taking pictures. I’m fairly close too, but it’s a gale force wind, and I can’t take any chances; it will be hard to write a story about the Connemara marathon if I’m being tossed around in the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s always a good sign when you leave a place thinking you’ve not had enough time. I’ve not fallen of the cliffs either. But I’m quickly falling in love with Ireland. I’m also experiencing the luck of the Irish as it’s a spectacular sunny day yet again. I fold myself into the car and drive to Clifden, which will be my base for the remainder of the stay. It’s not too far from the marathon start line, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere – they call it Maam Cross – about halfway between Galway and Clifden.
I‘m staying at the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel. Looks and feels a bit like a castle too. It was built in 1832 but spent over 100 of those years as an orphanage. The Hughes family took it over in 1969 and it has become one of the top hotels in western Ireland. One of the owners – Brian – is a runner too, and we end up having several conversations over the days and nights. There are a large number of marathoners from around the world staying here over the weekend as well. It’s a great spot to relax, and each night the owners entertain the guests, singing and playing piano into the small hours.
My room is about the size of most apartments in North American cities, complete with a poster bed and a great old bath that I could probably go diving in. It’s a perfect bath, I’m thinking, for that cold water experience after the run. It’s Thursday night now. I talk with the Race Director, Ray, over the telephone and somehow, the word is already out, lost in translation, that I’ll be in the Race Director’s Invitational Race held the day before the marathon, as well as the marathon on Sunday. I feel every organ inside me quiver. I don’t even feel prepared for the race on the Sunday. It’s going to be an interesting weekend.
Friday arrived predictably after Thursday. I hoist my body out of bed and go for a run – out of Clifden down the harbour towards the coast. A loosener of a run at 7am to get my body into the concept of running once more. The run doesn’t feel very encouraging. Felt great on the flat roads as I ran out to the sea, but the hills coming back on the high road reminded me how out of shape I’ve become. It appears I packed the wrong set of legs for this visit to Ireland. But I’m not silly or macho or anything like that. I walk parts of the way back, remembering I have 26.2 miles to run the next day. My breathing is labored too. The loosener run is better labeled, perhaps, as an awakening. It’s brought everything into perspective. I’ll have to run smart and well within myself. We’ve heard that before. I especially don’t want to injure myself in ways that will prevent me running for any long period when I get back to Canada. I remind myself I’ve got a 100 mile race in September and I’ll need to be in top shape for that. That, and the other races this year.
Later in the morning I look around Clifden and pick up some supplies and touristy stuff to prove to people, that in fact, I’ve been to Ireland. After lunch I head over to the Connemara National Park Headquarters. It’s not far from Clifden. The Park covers about 2,000 hectares of mountains and scenic countryside, rich in wildlife on the slopes of the Twelve Bens. I tempt myself into thinking I could climb one or two peaks, and then slam myself for being too big feeling the day before two marathons. It’s a shame though, because it’s a spectacular part of countryside. Next time.
Already the day is disappearing on me, but I still have time to visit Kylemore Abbey, built in the 1860s. It started as a family residence, but was bought for almost nothing by the Benedictine Nuns in 1920. Aside from simply being ‘a castle’ it has an 8.5 acre Victorian Walled Garden, 6 acres of which are completely surrounded by a brick and limestone wall.
It’s yet another great sunny day here. I’ve been spoilt. I meander around Kylemore for a while and try to imagine living here. I’m sure the sun is conjouring up a false sense of ease with life because it is well known how much suffering occurred in Ireland over the years. I almost feel guilty with these historical thoughts as I drive back to the hotel for a fine dinner, which quickly leads to bed and an early night. My body is in a constant state of re-calibration. It’s not sure if it’s hungry, tired, feeling alright, peckish or all of the above. My guess is it will eventually work things out on the plane going back to Canada.
Saturday 21st March – The Invitational Run from the Race Director
4am. I’m wide awake. Not by choice. Plenty of time to get ready then. The time zone thing predictably ensures I wake up well before ‘early’. I’m running a marathon today. And tomorrow. At 9:30 this morning I’ll meet up with nine other runners who will be in the Invitational. I will be running a marathon around Connemara – a spectacular place for the scenery and the people. Hard to believe. At this point my gut feeling is it will hurt, a lot, and I’ll finish in a time around 4:30-4:45. It may take longer, especially if I feel a showstopper injury developing. We’ll see!
The marathon course runs through a truly dramatic ‘big-picture’ setting of mountains, lakes, and rugged green-brown landscapes that are filled with bogs and farmland. We’re continuously provided magnificent views of the Twelve Pin mountains. We’ll also catch a view of the ocean as we run alongside Ireland’s only Fiord, about a couple of miles from the halfway point in the sleepy village of Leenane.
It’s another sunny day. Ten of us line up, sort of, at the start line for the marathon, just down the road from Maam Cross. It’s very informal. We all seem to know several of the other runners. I’ve run with some of them before in England, and others are from the UK 100 Marathon Club who I’ve interviewed for a book I’m writing. It’s great to see them again. We’re standing alongside a small lake in the middle of the big, spectacular countryside, laughing and chatting away as if we’re waiting for a bus to come and take us on a tour.
“Drinks along the way anyone?”
“Sure”, we say.
“OK … we’ll have a car going around checking up, seeing if you need anything”.
All sounds rather informal, and to a certain extent it is. Truth is, we’re all fairly experienced at running 26.2 miles and we’ll all be doing it tomorrow again as well. I’m thinking I may be able to get out of tomorrow’s run. But everyone else is of the opinion that if we’ve come all this way to run, we may as well run two marathons. Peer pressure at its finest.
I feel like I’m an imposter. There’s the lack of training for one thing. A major thing. But its really great to see several folks – friends now – Steve (460+ marathons), Teresa (Nurse and pivotal role in coordinating the Brathay 10 marathons in 10 days Challenge last year), Selina (250 plus marathons), John (running his 299th) and Jim (two time veteran of the 10 in 10 Challenge with over 150 marathons to his credit). There are a few Irish runners, and me, the imposter.
Keep quiet, muddle through this thing. Maybe no one will notice me quietly dying along the road somewhere. Can’t believe I’m here. Pinch me again. But not too hard, because I’m fragile. Oh, and now I have to run 26.2 miles.
No Gun. No horn, nothing. Just … “Okay … lets go …”
So we go …
I’m not moving backwards, but not far from it. I decide, brilliantly, to “run my own race”, a great theoretical concept, which never actualizes itself. But for 800 feet it’s like a dream come true and I’m on my way. Not long now. Then, out of nowhere, Pete runs up alongside me for a bit and asks what time do I hope to finish in. I’ve never met Pete before. He’s a serious runner, I can tell. You know, he has that look. I’m thinking he’s serious so I say 4:30, figuring I’ll be way too slow for him. To my surprise he says that’s the time he’s looking for as well, would it be okay if we run together?
Oh crap. I’ll be sharing my suffering with someone else. He’s a good guy though and as we talk I feel increasingly inadequate running at all, and wonder if I should stop, sell my running gear, melt any medals I have and give the glub of melted metal to charity. Pete, from Northern Ireland, has an MBE he received from Prince Charles for his charity work raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from running for cancer. He’s run 300+ marathons, with just under 100 of them under 3 hours. He’s run many 100 mile races and a 620 mile race (1,000 km) (e.g., The Sahara Desert 150 mile Ultra, Mount Everest Himalayan 100 mile Ultra). He hasn’t run for a while but figures he’ll take it east today because he’s running the Connemara Ultra (39 miles) the next day.
I will likely redefine the word ‘easy’ for Pete today. Do I feel like I’m holding him back? Absolutely. Pete tells me we’ll run to my pace, and if I want to walk, he’ll be there for me. While I take it easy and look for any excuse not to run, Pete continues as if he’s ready to run around the world today. Another runner joins us. I look for a place to pee, being careful not to be doing so as one of the women close behind runs into view. The new runner on the other hand, hangs it out and pee’s while he runs. Impressive, I think, sort of, I suppose, maybe, but I keep my distance.
He soon disappears. Pete and I continue … slightly faster all the time than what I want. But the company is great, the scenery – valleys, fiord, mountains, quaint villages … spectacular. And I’m still in that romantic pinch me mode. The wind is strong most of the way, although the sun has been out the whole time. I know I’ll suffer later in the race, but in the meantime we hit the halfway mark in 2:05, well within my hoped for 4:30 time range for completion. But I know I’ve run to hard.
At about Mile 20 we’re quite low on water. Pete suggests we go into a small pub on the side of the road to get our containers filled. Sounds good to me. I’m hoping the locals will invite us to stay for a Guinness or two and I’ll call that a reasonable excuse for a DNF. I’m tired, my back is hurting, and these next few miles seem like they’re what the devil conjured up. In fact there is a long two mile stretch that is uphill, which is unfair at Mile 22-24ish. The five locals are stunned into almost silence, their mouths wide open, as Pete tells them a little bit about what we’re doing and some of his running career. Clearly, we are out on day passes.
With the containers filled, we push on. It doesn’t seem fair that I’ll keep going while they sit back and relax in the Pub. Not much has been fair in Connemara’s history, especially with the rule of the English under Oliver Cromwell. Although I don’t have the space to write about it, if ever you’re looking for an interesting, in fact, great read, cast your eyes on Tim Robinson’s ‘Connemara’, an amazing book that will make you feel you lived here even if you’ve never seen Connemara.
But as much as these thoughts are mildly interesting, my back really hurts, and as we climb up what is known as Hell Hill I gesture to Pete that he really needs to go ahead of me. Eventually away Pete goes and I feel some euphoric drug invade me, figuring maybe I should walk my way in, even after this hill. What I realize though is that the running is actually giving me less pain than the walking. I work it out, I think. Because of the strong winds earlier, I had been tensing up and leaning too far forward as I toughed it out. Now, as I come to Mile 25, my back feels like it’s been sawn in half but hasn’t quite fallen off yet. Well this is fun.
But I get through this. We all do. All it is, is our context. It’s highly unlikely I’ll keel over in the bog and become an archeological wonder a few thousand years from now. I’ll finish, it’ll hurt – in some places more than others, and life goes on.
And so it’s with a huge relief that I cross the finish line – in 4:31, which shocks me, but which for the other invitational runners it’s as if I’ve pretty much walked my way around with cups of tea and plenty of sandwiches, perhaps immersing myself in a dazzling game of chess while I was out there.
Well that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I’m Ireland. There are still a few marathoners behind me. But the only competitive part of running marathons for me is about competing with myself. Long distance running teaches you humility, and when you run with those who have run hundreds of marathons, humility comes very easily.
Pete’s there at the end, ahead of me of course, perhaps just back from a 10 mile loosening-up run. He offers to give my legs a quick massage; he’s a qualified massage therapist. Cool. Wish I knew how to do that. I’m feeling fine, but Pete has me lying on the roadside as if I’ve just been involved in a tragic head-on collision.
I figure the head on collision will come tomorrow, if I decide to run, that is. I’ve got a night to work it out.
We all have a few laughs and wait for the others to come in. The sun’s still shining and everyone is in good spirits. I’m still walking and talking, so I’m feeling great about that. My back problem has begun to disappear – what a difference it made when I thought more about my form later in the race. It’s been a fun and rewarding day, but now I’ve got to head back to Clifden and pick up my bib and chip for tomorrow at the Race Registration. Equally important is the fact that the Irish rugby team is playing Wales tonight in the six nations tournament. If they win they’ll win the Grand Slam, having defeated every other nation in the tournament. It’s the biggest sporting event this year and much more important to the Irish than St. Patrick’s Day. The pubs will be jam-packed. I’ve got to experience this.
First though, it’s a cold bath, a warmer shower, and refueling with vegetables and fruit and pretty much anything else that looks like food at this point. Feels good.
Soon after, I find myself in a local pub full of Irish folks watching the TV above the bar. Better still, it’s across the parking lot from Race Registration. It’s an electric atmosphere. Standing room only. Although I’ve just run a marathon it’s the last thing on my mind. I want the Irish to get that Grand Slam. A pint of Guinness for me please. Why not?
It’s a great game. Edge of your seat stuff, if you had one. At half-time Wales are leading Ireland 6-0. Half the pub disappears at the break as we go over to pick up our bibs and chips. We’re back to watch the second half, which must rate as one of the best 40 minutes of rugby I’ve ever watched. It’s dramatic! Ireland pulls ahead over the half, but with just five minutes to go Wales gets the lead. With two minutes to go Ireland score again to regain the lead, and then, in the last seconds, Wales misses a penalty kick which would’ve given them victory. The pub goes crazy; people are jumping up and down, screaming and yelling, and hugging anyone with a pulse. There would have been hundreds more celebrating through the night if it were not for that small detail of a marathon the next morning.
It was a great night all the same. I went to bed knowing that all of Ireland would have a smile on its face the next morning, despite some if it feeling the worse for wear. As for me, I’m seriously wondering if I should run tomorrow or not. Something’s just not feeling right. Maybe a good night’s sleep will help.
Sunday 22nd March – The International Connemara Marathon Day
There’s an old Irish saying that goes “You may use your feet to run fast, but if you’re mind doesn’t keep up, you’ll get stood on, and that’ll hurt.”
No chance of me running fast today; if at all. I’m still not feeling good – tight in the chest, genuinely lethargic, and aches and pains from yesterday, despite Pete’s fine work. But it’s the overall feeling that concerns me the most. So much so that I take the extraordinary option of jogging around the parking lot while waiting for our Start-line buses to pick us up in central Clifden. Just to see how it feels. I’ve never been this unsure of running a race before.
And so it goes, right until I line up at the start line with everyone else. It’s a bit cool this morning but the sun is still ‘there’. I eventually decide to run. I’ll take it ultra-easy, enjoy the views, take my camera, meet lots of runners and embrace the experience. No-one will care whether I break three hours, or can’t even break five hours. But they will care if I seriously hurt myself. So I start running feeling good with my decision. And now I’m simply out to enjoy everything the day offers.
Before the start gun goes off we all wait for the first of the ultra-marathoners to go by. These runners have already started further back, about an hour earlier. It’s inspirational to see the leader as he passes by the thousands of marathoners about to begin their own race. We slower runners will be passed continuously during our own marathon runs today.
It’s a great day. When time is not important everything else becomes much more so. All the runners are extremely friendly, and not just the Irish either. We share our stories, laugh a lot, wonder at the sun and the landscape, and are critical of the Race Director for putting the slopes on the hills we run. I’m stopping at different spots to take photos; others are doing the same. My body seems to have forgotten it’s covering 26.2 miles today.
I glance at my watch now and then because I can’t help myself. Despite the numerous stops I see that I’m not that much different from the previous day. I see all the sights I saw yesterday but they still look new and fresh to me. I don’t go into the pub Pete and I visited yesterday, and each time I see an Aid Station it’s almost a surprise to me. I don’t have any pains or aches, and that chronic condition I felt last night and this morning has gone. I’m feeling that I made the right decision running today, and that just makes the occasion feel even better.
Part the way through I get a tap on the shoulder – its George Russell, running in the ultra, who I’d run with in the Brathay 10 Marathons in 10 Days Challenge last year in the Lakes District of England. It’s the first I’ve seen of George since that time. He speeds past me but still has time to bring out his camera and take a couple of pictures. I do likewise. These are great moments.
I’m running up the Mile 22-24, Hell Hill. And I have plenty left in me to run briskly to the Finish Line. Dozens, gulp, hundreds, have got there before me, but that doesn’t matter. First home is Simone Grassi in a time of 2:40:42. The first woman to finish is Shirley Coyle in a time of 3:10:11. Malcolm Anderson finished slightly off the leading pack in a time of 4:38:45, but surprising himself immensely, and with no show-stopping injuries.
I’m delighted. I’m relieved. Hugely relieved. Yes, it certainly feels like I’ve done the distance, and I’m in that euphoric state we all get. It’ll last for quite a while this time. There is a continual stream of buses taking runners back to the main towns from Maam Crossing, where the race finishes. I’d normally mull around for a while and enjoy the moments, but I’ve got to get back, take a cold bath, shower, get some food and get on the road myself to head to Galway, where I’m meeting up with friends; runners and family members who had been at the Brathay Challenge last year. It might sound busy but I’m still on a high, so traveling the ninety minutes doesn’t seem like a burden at all. Hard to believe I’ll be flying back to Canada the next day though.
One of the striking things about driving in rural Ireland are the road signs, if you see any. And if you do, you’ll see they’re written in Gaelic (Irish), and it’s not your eyesight playing games with you; if you’re mesmerized by Greek you’ll enjoy Gaelic. The signs are not terribly accurate when they do appear, may not tell you what you need to know, and if they do it will be in Gaelic, so you better brush up on it. They’re also about 3-4 feet high and written in 20 font size text. By Leprechauns perhaps. Apart from all that there’s nothing wrong with them. But by now I’m used to it. I know my way back to Galway – we’ve planned to meet at the Marriott Hotel. Surely, I reason, it won’t be hard to find the Marriott in downtown Galway.
I’m proven wrong. It’s my first Galway experience all over again. It’s dark now and that doesn’t help matters. I pull up alongside an older gentleman who has that knowing look about him. I ask if he could tell me the way to the Marriott hotel. He looks in the sky, not unlike Stephen Hawking would do to give you the answer to the meaning of the universe, and looks back and smiles. “It’s right around the next corner”, he says, all smiles, and wishes me well. ‘What luck’, I think. I drive around the corner and sure enough, there’s the Hotel.
Only it’s the Meyrick Hotel, not the Marriott. Well, it was close, I suppose, don’t you love accents. But I’ll not be able to instantly conjour up 10-12 friends there. Instead I find a Hotel, any hotel really, book a room, and ask the receptionist where the Marriott is located. I could walk to it, she says, it’s only about a mile away. At this point in the weekend it’s a mile too far, so I get a taxi and arrive, still in time to meet up with everyone.
And that, as it so often happens, is one of the most rewarding moments associated with marathon running. The race is over. It may hurt, but it’s a time for sharing. A time for enjoying each other’s company. A time with old friends. A time with new friends. Common goals, shared experiences. And we’re also celebrating John Dawson’s 300th marathon. Whatever does hurt can hopefully take a back seat for a while.
My final day see’s me up early driving via ten or so roundabouts to Dublin to catch my flight home. At each roundabout I’m hope I’m heading in the right direction out of these things. It’s yet another fine day, unusual to have my whole week this sunny. And then, just outside the airport, it starts to drizzle some rain. Time to go home I guess.
I drive around the airport as if it’s the Galway experience once more. I contemplate putting my car/suitcase on a pick-up truck, but feel that will be a hard one to explain to the rental company. Instead, being quite rational and fearing my flight will take off without me, I drive the wrong way down a road in the faint hope that it will create the place I need to be. And it does just that. Luck of the Irish again?
And so ends my Connemara Marathon experience. Unforgettable on so many different levels. Excellent marathon, well organized, spectacular scenery and wonderful people. But we don’t go to Ireland just to run a race and return home straight away.
It’s everything else that makes the experience so much more complete. Looking back, even though I saw a lot in a short amount of time, I only brushed the surface of what is possible. As a destination marathon it has everything. I’ll be going back in 2010. And I’ll be taking some people – hopefully runners, friends and families – with me.