Sunday, April 6, 2008

GOING ROUND THE BEND IN BRNO FOR 6 HOURS

Getting there

The first mistake was leaving it till the day before the race to travel. Okay, it's not a long trip, with a flight just over 2 hours, but allowing for taxis and buses to get from Prague airport to Brno meant we spent 10 hours getting from door to door. The mistake being compounded by taking an early morning flight meaning the all important sleep of the night before the night before was compromised.
Weather was a bit warmer and a lot more pleasant than back in Dublin. Apart from a flying visit in the early 90s, this was my first time in Czech land, and I was very impressed by the place and the people. It seemed to me they combine the efficiency of the Germans with a whimsical easy-going charm and humour that is peculiarly their own, as might be expected from a culture that produced Kafka and Kundera. So everything is very well organised but you don't have the feeling you're going to be barked at or arrested at any moment for some involuntary transgression of an unknown local law or custom.
I was under the impression my race was at 9 AM the next morning, but it turned out I'd misread the email and it was actually 9 PM. Tony's race, the 48 hour, was due to start at 10 AM though so that meant an early start anyway. The big news was that Yiannis kouros, the world's greatest ever ultra runner (world's greatest ever athlete, in my view) was also in town for the 48 hour race.

Sixth or seventh circle?

The arena
The "stadium" turned out to be a large oval shaped building dubbed the Central European Conference Centre. Given the shape and the floor surface (shiny concrete) it looks like its main purpose might be as a rollerskating rink (and indeed there were people whizzing around on roller blades, including the genial race director Tomas Rusek). Mireille was complaining about aches and pains after an hour or two just walking on it, so I wasn't looking forward to running for 6 hours on it. The oval shape meant you were never actually running in a straight line: instead it was like running round one enormous bend for 6 hours.

Tony's race started rather surreally with the sight of a rather portly French gentleman who looked more like a shot putter than a distance athlete charging off like it was a 400 metre race, followed at a bit of a distance by Yiannis Kouros, then a bit more distance back to Tony and the rest.
I started trying to psyche myself for the ordeal ahead in what was becoming an increasingly unpleasant environment of a hard floor, no natural day light, and an almost constant beeping of champion chips as runners passed over the mats at the end of each lap. As we were lying on adjoining mattresses trying to get some rest, Paddy asked me if this was the sixth circle of Hell, or the seventh. By afternoon the lack of natural light was getting to both of us and we went outside for a short while.

Just fucken do it
I tried using my Light and Sound mind state optimizer machine to mellow out, with some success, and managed to fall asleep at the end of one of its tranquillity programmes. When I woke up, I listened to my MP3 player, the beautiful sad crystal tones of Bic Runga helping to block out the constant chip beepings. I thought about my goals for this race: to win the race, to break Tony's Irish indoor record of 59 km, to break Eddie Gallen's all surfaces record (set outdoors) of 67.4 km. Beyond that, my coach Norrie Williamson had suggested setting 81 km as the maximum target I was capable of in my current shape. This seemed very optimistic to me, almost two 3 hour marathons back to back, but I figured I might as well go for it.
As race time approached, my stomach started to feel queasy and I decided to take a Rennie as a precaution. Mireille gave me my pre-race massage, I did the minimum of stretching, and it was time to stroll to the start line. I tried to think of a positive mantra or message to focus on but all that came to mind was "Just fucken do it".
Show time

Just before the start


As I stood on the start line, I looked around at the competition, most of whom looked like they'd been ordered from an Aryan Athletics God catalogue. I know from experience though that in the world of ultra running appearances not only can be deceptive, but generally are. And so it proved: when the race started, it was the slight looking young guy in the gray T shirt who shot off rather than the more obvious male model candidates, and in fact the biggest threat of all to me in the race turned out to be a tall gangly guy with an awkward-looking swaying running gait. Hour one

End of lap 1
Half way through the first 270 metre lap, I'd caught the leader and we ran through the half the first lap together. He was starting to slow and I decided to pass him. For the next thirty minutes or so, I just concentrated on lapping in 72-74 seconds, and to my surprise nobody came with me or tried to chase. With the short lap, I was lapping people almost right away, and before long had lapped the entire field, in the process identifying the tall runner in blue as the main competition.
After discussing race tactics with Norrie, the plan was to take my first scheduled walking break at 45 minutes, but the problems started long before then. I'd taken my first few swigs of sports drink after 10 minutes and then 20 minutes, and could feel they weren't agreeing me. An unscheduled pitstop in the toilets revealed bad diarrhea, so I took an Imodium and hoped for the best. I couldn't stomach the thought of more sports drink so I switched over to water. Unfortunately the diarrhea kept coming necessitating more pitstops and the walk break became a toilet break. The guy in blue seemed to take heart from my problems and after one long pitstop got himself back to less than a lap behind.
Notwithstanding my problems, I covered 13.6 km in the first hour, which means that I was compounding my problems by running too hard when I was running, setting myself up for problems later in the race.

Hour two
The stomach and diarrhea problems continued well into hour two, but otherwise I was feeling reasonably comfortable and taking confidence from the fact that even with the problems I seemed to be able to keep going at target pace, and consistently lapping everyone. I fell into a routine of focusing on the tall runner in blue from about half a lap behind (or ahead) of him, gradually reeling him in, then running behind him for long enough to let him know I was there, then surging by.
Mireille passed on a text she'd just received from Norrie saying I'd started too hard and should take more walking breaks. I caught the bit about starting too hard, but not the bit about taking more walking breaks, but in any case, the unscheduled toilet breaks were continuing. Paddy was also coming into his own as an assistant, whizzing around the place taking photos, keeping me updated on distance covered, how far I was ahead, and relaying information back to Mireille about what I needed on the next lap. I was very grateful for the magniminity with which he was taking this insanity as he's had a lot of upheaval in his own life in recent weeks but I guess having seen his girlfriend disappear down a tunnel in Rath Lugh and having to deal with the ensuing media frenzy this may have seemed like a lesser excursion from mental health.
Towards the end of hour two my diarrhea seemed to subside but I still couldn't stomach the thought of solid food or even sports drink. I covered almost 13 kilometres in hour 2.

Hour three
My mood seemed to take a turn for the worse early in hour three and my pace dipped. Now I was struggling to lap in 80 seconds, perhaps affected my the lack of nutrition, and also struggling with motivation since it seemed I was going to win the race easily and break the target records. I covered about 12 kilometres I think.

Hour four
I continued to struggle with motivation and now I was also starting to fret about lack of carbohydrate intake, as I still couldn't face the thought of eating or sports drink, and I started to wonder if it would be even physiologically possible to keep going in the last hour when it would be a full 8-9 hours after my last solid meal. At about 3 hours 40, my diarrhea returned with a vengeance, and I disconsolately asked Mireille if it was safe to take another Imodium. The box said one every 6 hours but we decided this was an extreme situation and we'd wait a while and then take it if necessary. Eventually I took my second Imodium shortly before 4 hours. A text had arrived from Norrie counselling that I try to eat some yoghurt, which I managed to do and it seemed to help. I think I covered about 11 kilometres in this hour.

Hour five
The diarrhea subsided and I took a swig of local cola at the start of the hour. My pace was still dropping though, but I was finally taking proper walking breaks rather than toilet breaks, and these seemed to help as I came back from each break able to lap about 10 seconds faster than my last lap pre-walking break. The original plan was to take them every 30 minutes from this point on but it was probably more like every 20 minutes. Mentally I was starting to get a bit confused too as glycogen deprivation started to hit, but Paddy and Mireille were doing a great job keeping me alert with information on how far ahead I was, and making sure I was taking on the correct amount of water and electrolyte capsules. I'm not the only one suffering though: despite slowing myself, I'm lapping people more frequently, and a few times I see the small guy in the grey T shirt sitting on a chair apparently crying while a friend tries to encourage him to get going again.
The organisers were making deft use of inspirational rock music to keep us going. Bruce Springsteen featured prominently (Baby we were borrrrn to runnnnnn!). Most of the other choices were inspired too, like Elton John's "I'm Still Standing", but the choice of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car", title notwithstanding a rather grim tale of what it's like to be working poor in the US, towards the end of hour five was either viciously or unconscious ironic.
I covered just over 10 kilometres in the hour.
Hour six
At the start of hour six another encouraging text arrived from Norrie exhorting me to try to lift the pace for the last hour. I tried to lift myself mentally and focus on what I wanted from the last hour. I'd already broken Tony's old indoors record and only needed another 7 or 8 kilometres to get past Eddie's outdoor record, not much more than walking pace, so I fixed on 70 kilometres as my new target. For a final boost I took another swig of the local cola and regretted it almost instantly as about 100 metres later I was down on my knees vomiting copiously beside a pillar. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a lady waiting discreetly with a mop for me to finish. I struggled to my feet and made it to the next pillar before I was down again, vomiting again. I could see the lady mopping the other little pool I'd left for her looking over and thinking "When I'm finished here I need to do there". Again I staggered to my feet, and this time I made it the half around to where Mireille was waiting with water, before the thought of drinking water upset my stomach to the point that I left another little pool at Mireille's feet, dashed into the nearby toilets with the idea of finishing the job in a cubicle, didn't make it that far but instead ended up emptying out what was left into a urinal to the startled alarm of the "occupant" of the next urinal who was going about his business using the urinal for its primary intended function. Face down at penis height emptying your stomach into a public toilet urinal, oh the glamour of ultra running.
When I eventually stood up, the room was spinning and my legs couldn't agree on the direction to take. Somehow I staggered out and onto the track and started shuffling again. My mind was in panic and I asked Paddy to find out how far I was ahead so I could work out if I could walk the last hour and still win. By the time the answer came back I had started to feel better and was running again, albeit slowly. Forty minutes from the end, I took what I intended to be my last walk break before the final "sprint", and worked out what pace I needed to get me to 70 km. I was moving pretty well again but every so often my legs threw a wobbly. I was still worried about total collapse, and so was Mireille, and we both could see the other was worried, but we left it unsaid. Instead she gamely stuck to the task of giving me water and cheering me on.
During the last half hour I gradually increased my pace and 8 laps out I knew I was going to break 70 kilometres unless I collapsed. I also worked out that if instead of 8 laps I somehow managed 9 I'd blip past 71k, so that became the new goal. This eventually meant covering the last four laps in 70 seconds each, making them my four fastest laps of the race. Ahead of me, the tall lanky figure in blue and in second was also experiencing a surge, even though he was by now almost 20 laps behind me. This dragged me along as I concentrated on blocking out all the distress signals my bodily functions were sending me, putting it all off until I crossed that line in 4, 3, 2, 1 laps. I made it with a few seconds to spare and came to a shuddering halt on my knees to vomit what was left in my stomach onto the ground. Paddy and Mireille had arrived to take photos, and someone asked Mireille if he should call a doctor. Mireille, a hardened veteran for how far an ultra runner can push themselves but also how quick they can recover told him there was no need.

Aftermath
As anticipated, I recovered pretty quickly. Within an hour I was able to eat again and moving reasonably freely. Meanwhile Tony's race was coming to an end. He'd taken his nap earlier than anticipated and now had a badly swollen ankle. Mireille massaged it and he tried to sleep it off but eventually told us to tell Tomas he was forced to withdraw. All that remained was to hang around for my presentation ceremony, scheduled for 8.30 AM. With the race finishing at 3 AM, most people including the race director were sound asleep. Shortly after my race finished, on my way to the shower I limped past a row of sleeping bags containing about half the competitors in my race.

Getting the trophy

When I was presented with my trophy, the sheer size of it took me by surprise. It's about 3 feet tall and every time I look at it I mentally hear the Champions League music! The other surprise was that the lad in the gray T shirt who had run in third for most of the race ended up being overtaken by one of the guys from the Aryan Athletics God catalogue.
Presentation

Tomas very graciously drove us back to the hotel and we spent most of the next 24 hours sleeping. We made it back for the last hour of the 48 hour race. By now it was clear that Yiannis was going to win comfortably but somewhere in the mid 30 hours he'd cracked and was reduced to a walk so Tony's World record last year survived. After the race ended I walked around congratulating the shattered 48 Hour race finishers. As I shook Yiannis' hand, I said "Well done Yiannis. You're number one" and he replied in flawless unaccented English "Thank you, that's very sweet". A modern day Greek running God and a beautiful human being, it was a pleasure to see him do what he does better than anyone else (run) and also to see the humility and humaneness with which he treats everyone from his fellow competitors, his adoring public, his crew and everyone.
Take the long way home

The following day we set out from Brno to Prague by train, not being able to face the idea of another bus trip up the motorway. This turned out to be an inpired decision as the train ride through the forested mountains was very picturesque and refreshing. In Prague, we quickly found a lovely restaurant offering such exotic choices as boar, deer and kangaroo. Tony went for a kangaroo steak while Mireille and I sampled the wild boar.

2 comments:

Your a fucking mad man, have linked you in my blog.

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