|Cool medal, cool shirt "slogan" fitting for an amazing race course.|
"The Hell of the West"
This was yet another "adventure" race. We were just about to take off at Atlanta airport when the captain announced on the PA that our plane had engine trouble, something about one of the engines revving too low. I could've lived with that, but then he came back on the intercom to announce "We're going to be delayed a little longer. The mechanics will try to identify and fix the problem...I guess?" Really? I guess? Is that how pilots reassure their passengers these days? That's not really the message I'm looking for from a pilot who is about to the me across the Atlantic Ocean for 8 hours. Everyone around me just smiled nervously, in disbelief what they just heard. Thankfully, we took off 2 hours later and arrived safely in Dublin, Ireland.
After arriving in Galway, Ireland after a 2 hour drive I quickly checked into my hotel before being picked up by local colleague and friend Mike Mulligan to pick up our race packets. I would have an early Sunday morning (European races usually take place on Sundays), so we opted to get an early cargo dinner at an Italian restaurant. I love pasta with a side of garlic bread. By 8PM I was back at my hotel, laying out my running gear and nervously looking ahead at 39.3 miles of the Connemarathon, lovingly referred to as the "Hell of the West" due to its road course mainly consisting of punishing rolling hills.
The following paragraph directly taken from the race's website truly reflects the experience. "The key to the event's success has been its ability to offer a unique package of experience. The popular sport of long-distance running is transformed for runners and walkers in the dramatic setting of mountains, glacier lakes, rugged green-brown landscape which winds in and around the challenging mountain wilderness of Galway in the west of Ireland. The course meanders past bogs, hills, lakes, and the Twelve Pin mountains rising up over the great expanse of Killary Lough, through the quiet village of Leenane, around the Maam Turk Mountains and all the way back up to Maam Cross. International participants enjoy the Irish welcome, the sense of comradeship on the lonely route and unmistakable buzz throughout the day. No other sporting event sends people away with such a taste of Ireland and all its highlights."
The race host a half marathon, a marathon and an ultra marathon. The ultra marathon started just outside Maam Cross about an hour outside of Galway and a race start of 9AM for the ultra and a mandatory pre-race briefing at 8:15AM meant that the 200 ultra runners would be picked up in Galway by shuttle at 7AM. We arrived at the "Peacocke" hotel in Maam Cross for the pre-race briefing and after a few welcoming words by the race director and a some very interesting introductions (see picture below), runners placed their drop bags in the aid station buckets that were lined up inside the meeting room. I was very surprised to see so many runners place so many items in the various collection bins for the aid stations and would find out later (and too late), why.
|World 100K Champion Giorgio Calcatella (center) and RD Ray O' Connor (on right)|
All runners including myself placed drop bags at the finish area just behind the hotel. Afterwards, we got onto another shuttle bus that would take us to the starting line just a mile and a half away. We arrived at the starting line with 15 minutes to spare, just enough time to chat with other runners and to check out the front runners. This was also only the second ultra I attended (the first one was in Germany) that had TV crews recording the race. I believe there were two TV crews from Italy, one following the current 100K world champ Giorgio Calcatella and one following an extreme athlete from Italy for a reality TV show.
The race started right on time. The RD had explained the race course in great detail: "You run about 1.5 miles and then you turn right. You run about 9 miles and turn right. Then run another 10 miles and turn right. Now run another 10 miles and... ?" - "Turn right!" responded 200 runners.
When looking at a map the course looked fairly flat and fairly almost shaped like a square. Well, once you hit the actual course, you realize that reality looked differently. While the race's nickname "Hell of the West" was intimidating, the course was actually very exciting with just the right amount of hills at just the right times...right in the middle and right at the end of the course. I has opted to run in my new Hoka One One Bondi Bs, lovingly referred to as "clown shoes" by my fiancee. I figured that 40 miles of asphalt might be easier on my joints in a pair of Hokas and I was right.
The first 10 miles went pretty smoothly and quickly, but I also realized why everyone had packed so much stuff in their drop bags. Unbeknownst to me, the aid stations only carried water and two of them Lucozade, an isotonic drink popular in the UK and Ireland. However, nothing else was provided, no food or snack of any kind other than "Fig Newtons" with 3 miles to go. Luckily, I had packed 6 energy gus and that would have to do.
As I was plodding along at sub 9 min pace, I was able to take in the amazing scenery. Connemara has to be one of the most beautiful areas in Ireland. The course led us in between the mountains, so we were basically surrounded by the so called "Twelve Bens of Connemara" the entire time. About 25 miles into the race, the pounding of the road couple with my busy ultra racing schedule of the past couple of months caught up with me. My quad muscles started to hurt and would continue to hurt for the remainder of the race. Instead of pushing through I decided to just back off and try to enjoy it.
The course led us through a couple of quaint little Irish towns along a couple of little lakes and rivers. It was just beautiful. The race course was basically one giant loop and marathoners would join the same course about 13.1 miles into the ultra marathon followed by the half marathoners, the largest group by far with 2200 runners, 26.2 miles into the ultra course. That allowed every runner to cross the same finish line. Bottle necks were avoided by race organizers by having the marathoners and half marathoners start 30 and 60 minutes after the ultra marathoners, respectively.
The final climb was a 2 mile stretch of road that would slowly take runners to the top of a hill before we would finish the race with another 2 miles of downhill running. I had decided to just walk that final hill as my legs were feeling rather tight at this point. I normally would not walk a road race, but this was not one of my key races but rather an "experience race". Instead, this allowed me to chat with another couple of runners who were running their first marathon and had slowed to a walk as well.
When I reached the top of the hill, I was itching to start running again. I said my goodbyes and started running and running fast. I think I clocked a 7 and an 8 minute mile or so it felt. I did pass quite a few runners who had passed me previously on the climb. I just wanted to finish strong and finish the race running. I succeeded and was thankful to cross the finish line to earn a nice medal and another unique t-shirt with a cool slogan. I has missed my original goal of sub 6 hours, but it was still my fastest pace over this distance. I even had an unofficial 50K PR of around 4:48.
The profile below shows the course, but doesn't show the amazing scenery. I can only recommend this race to anyone who ever wanted to visit Ireland and to do an ultra while there. The race organization was absolutely fantastic and the course provided the most interesting sightseeing tour I had ever participated in. If you count the times I used the words "amazing" and "fantastic" in this race report, you know this is a must do event.