It was 1994 and I was living the dream. A teenager, off school (officially ‘self teaching’ at home), with the sole reason to get up every day and spend it doing activities.
While living in Naharya, Israel.
Why was I there? My dad was put on a tour of duty with the United Nations in Lebanon and, to my eternal gratitude to my parents, they decided to uproot the whole family and being us all out for five months.
In short, I was in heaven, and the event largely was to, and largely still, dictate many perspectives I have on life. Surrounded my numerous foreign nationals. Living in a country that seemed to be at war based on old-person beliefs (all the kids I knew while there had as many Arab friends as Israeli), and non-stop day’s outdoors.
I should call out I was always the active type. That child who went out kicking a ball every evening as long as possible. I must have cost a fortune in food for my parents to sustain al that energy!
While in Israel, I fell into a lifestyle of sports. The mornings playing basketball, the afternoons soccer. All interspersed with numerous hours in the pool or sea. And frequent circuit training classes with a bunch of adults. How fit was I? I have a vague memory of a heart rate in the mid-40’s and a definite memory of comfortably swimming over a length and a half of a 50-metre pool. Underwater. If there’s a heaven, I was already in it.
At one point, my family took the options to the surround countries. Lebanon. Egypt. Syria. And a drive over the border into Jordan as one of the only countries we could drive to (the rest involved a flight). On this case, we got to see the main sights: the capital Amman (watching Ireland play Italy in the 1994 World Cup). And then there was Jordan. You’ll all have seen it even if you haven’t realised: that cavern Indiana Jones walks down to find the Holy Grail in 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'.
Like much much of the trip, I don’t remember a lot about specifics or images. But I do remember Petra. How could you not?! Amazing buildings carved out of cliffs - what sort of work must it have taken?! Who were these people? It was possibly the first time I felt a true connection to human history, real tangible, HUGE structures created by humans.
And then there’s the building up that hill. (I had to look it up. It's El Deir, The Monastery) I don’t remember why but I do remember charging, running, the steps up to it like my life meant it. Don’t ask me why. I’d probabaly spent too much time sitting in a car or something. Then that satisfaction, sitting on the top edge of the the building, enjoying the view (o.k - that possibly wasn't so wise on an ancient crumbing, structure :).
Why do I start with this? Because it was probably my first ‘trail’ run. What I imagine as one anyway, up and down hills in amazing locations. Mainly because I thought of this memory for the first time in a long time while taking part in my first ultra-marathon, the Ballyhoura Ultra on be May Bank holiday, 2018. for those of you who have stuck it out this long, enjoy the report :)
My First Ultra - The Ballyhoura Ultra
Why am I standing at some red and white tape blocking my way, and on the opposite side of that tape, I can see the BACK of some arrows I'd been following earlier?! My now-tired brain slowly worked through the limited permutations before it dawned......
I'd gone the wrong way.
But firstly, I'll back up. It's now three weeks after my first ultra-marathon, the Ballyhoura Ultra. That warmth and energy that comes from taking part in a fun activity is still ebbing away alongside the deep fatigue and tightness in my legs and lower body! (Not helped by going out and 'running' the Mourne Wall last weekend......).
Secondly, thank you! Thank you to everyone who stepped up and sponsored. Your donations are to be applauded and humbled by all the response. Heroes. to the many well-wishers beforehand, you’re also stars :)
The little pre injury
Now that the event is over, I can properly talk about it. Four weeks ago, everything had been going to plan: consistent running and progressively building up in distance and intensity. I’d done my longest run at 41km (solo, across Wicklow) and a race of 26km. And then, on a ‘short 18km’ in County Clare while out for a social with friends, there was that major prang of pain in my left calf which I tried to run off... and by the next day, on a 4km jog, had to pull up after 2km and walk home. Over two weeks, and multiple dry needling, massages, foam rolling and easy walks, mild nerves were starting to set in as it went really clearing up. Age and experience meant I’d worked out there was a certain speed I could sustain without making it any worse however, even that was borderline. Would I be walking the whole event, or making apologies to all those who'd sponsored?
And then, one week prior, my saviour.
A suggestion from friend, Claire O'Connor, to try out a calf compression sock seemed like a gamble. By then, I was willing to try anything! Snow and Rock in Dundrum provided the Hilly Compression sock and.....3 day’s prior to the event, and a 3km run showed, only a mild ache. Hope!
Naomi, my hero, had also given up her day so on the Friday beforehand, and there we were in our little Transporter camper bombing down the road to the outdoor-sports village of Kilfinane. I say 'bombing' loosely - this is the Friday of the May bank holiday weekend on the N7 so 'cycling pace' is probably a more apt description! Registration was taken care of the Ballyhoura Luxury Hostel and by 10am, I was finalising my gear on the ground at Kilfinane Campervan Park (warning: Facebook link). The former accommodation looked plush, stylish and I'd recommend, the latter is the rear car park to one of the local pubs with some electrical hook-ups which I'll look forward to returning to in a couple of years when it's better set up!
The next morning, the alarm was off at 5:15am, and after stuffing some food into me, up to the local school for the race start. I'm normally someone who gets the increased-heart-rate nerves before an event that I need to perform at, however maybe it was the freedom about thinking about the calf or just trying not to think about the distance, but a relaxed air ebbed through the room. As the complete novice to this event, and not knowing anyone else doing it, it was almost nice to be able to stand back, take it in, observe the banter and camaraderie and atmosphere. I didn't really know what to expect, however the size of the crowd made for an intimate setup - I was fairly certain I could have learned the faces of everyone there if I'd tried, and it was also easy to observe the overall lack of female runners (at three)
Sometime after 6:15, the group was brought together (image below) outside for the general safety talk, and the 'start' A quick announcement and off we went! Being 6:30am in the morning, and not someone who can explode out of the blocks at that time of morning (even if I was 15 years of age, I couldn't have!), I settled into the pace I'd hope to keep for the day: continuous moving at the pace where I'm not burning up. 30 years of heavy sport means I'm fairly in tune with the workings of my body in sport so realising a few kms in I'd forgotten my heart rate chest strap didn't phase as I'd just be running by feel for the day.
The kms in the first 18km loop passed in a blur. Various sections of wide forest track into very dark tree dodging to one-person wide ankle deep mud-trails. At times running solo, at others linking in with others. And then, I'm on the road with the final few km into Kilfinane, turning the corner into the school at our starting point, and aid station, as the pack of runners in the marathon disappeared around the corner. Somewhere around 2:15 for first 18km and I was slightly slower than I'd personally expected, but well within the 3-hour cut-off so couldn't care less. A couple of minutes to guzzle some food and liquid, chat with Naomi and then I was off again. An easy couple of km out of Kilfinane brings me to the first of the 'steep' climbs. Not long, but good way to check the legs/body. All good, so out over the top and off we go again at the body-requested pace. This next 23km section involved the highest point on the whole circuit. Coming from the Wicklow hills I was a pleasant hike, and height, and as I topped out on the summit peak, it was an easy transition into full-bore charge off the back. I was feeling confident in ability as I looked over my shoulder to see I'd lost the group I'd been tacking the climbs earlier. Again, not in a race mindset but a nice smile to myself that even with 3 weeks of no running prior, the legs still remembered what the plan was. Smile some more and enjoy!
As I approached the second main aid station, I was feeling good and put the foot down coming in for the final few kms as a test. Looking at the Strava result after, 5:03/km was a good pace as I approached my longest distance (and followed up the next km or so at the same pace).
Chatting to the volunteers, lots of banter about 'am I finished' lead to some serious looks, only broken by my own fit of laugher. Turns out it's not a question to ask, as they are usually too afraid to respond to those who are pretty run down.! Naomi was there to force more food into me, get the obligatory cheesy photo (below), and throw some good words my way. My role at the time was to report that the only piece of food that didn't work were those energy jellies which seemed to have the alternative plan of wrapping a ring of ache around my waste. Good lesson for the next one.
Leaving the aid station, leaves to a lovely run along a trail tracking a small stream before hanging a right and pushing up onto another hill. A mid-point aid station was passed by turning right at a bunch of arrows and a bright strip of red and white tape I didn't expect to see again. How wrong I was........
Like before, I was feeling good and having a great chat with 100+ ultra-marathon runner, Alan. Not only has he found the elixir of youth by looking younger than myself in my late 30's while actually approaching his 50's, he was also a great laugh and chat as we both pushed up across the hill. As we came over the top, the usual happened. I'd have a bit more pace on the climbs so lose Alan there, then somewhere in the following flats, he'd close in again.
Except for the sign.
I bounded out of a narrow track, again solo having left a few other runners behind around 10 minutes prior. Arriving at the sign (below), it was an up-arrow (signifying straight on) but off to the left and my now-tired brain took it as a go-left. 2.5km later I would be staring at the wrong side of some tape, and about another 0.5km later laughing smiling to myself about what had happened, bemusingly realising that instead of running 20km more than I'd ever done, I was no looking at more like 25+km..... Let's not bring up the 0.5km in between that phase ;)
As I approached the now-infamous arrow, I bumped into another runner I'd been with earlier, David, who was running towards me. A small smile to myself to realise I wasn't the only one! We turned around together and re-sorted ourselves out. My own fault, and all I could do was laugh as I realised i'd be walking in the final 10km - a good learning for a future event that after making the mistake, my brain had allowed the various aches and pains to enter my thoughts and in doing so, I lost the enthusiasm to keep pushing. As my only goal for the day was to finish no matter what, it being my first, I didn't really care. Soak up the sun and enjoy! (Interestingly, the detour added at least an hour and 15 minutes to my time - a good lesson in how costly those mistakes are when over these distances. Ouch!).
And therefore the final 10km passed away, a great chat with David giving me glimmers of ideas about the UTMB in the future. Why not.....
At the end, fun chats with a few people and lots of happy smiles. In my head, none of us looked that tired, although I'm sure the non-runners may disagree....... to all those volunteers and organisers on the day, thank you! Look forward to seeing you in the future :)
Of course, the perfect ending for myself. Off we went to south-east Cork and Inch beach to spend the night in the camper. As we pulled up, we noticed the wooden object on the beach with the sign below.......
Somewhere out there, the running gods were looking after me :) See you at the next one?