It’s 2:42am. I can’t sleep.
The unfamiliar cocktail of caffeine and sugar is still coursing through me, synapses firing and thoughts swirling. I need to write, to understand, to analyse and for catharsis, the disappointment of yesterday’s race raw and grating. The chemical contaminants will work themselves through my system soon but the mental anguish will undoubtedly linger, festering on my psyche, why did it go so wrong?
Overriding emotions from a whirlwind of a day. Disgust, loneliness, emptiness, dredging the depths of physical and mental reserves. To do so for victory, be it through winning or personal achievement feels noble, but to dig so deep to feel so low seems pointless, I nearly skipped Slieve Donard, abandonment in fourth place so near to the end almost preferable to finishing fifth.
This has an air of arrogance. I’ve no god-given right to win the Skyline and was beaten by some extremely talented athletes, as well as leaving some equally good ones in my wake, but context is required. Conditions this year were seemingly benign, the biblical tempest of last October a distant memory, and the ground, although greasy, largely hard-packed. It was what I’d waited for, a chance to transfer my 3:41:11 FKT from GPS footnote to accepted record, reward for a testing training regime, 6:30am starts and dietary denial. I knew the standard would be high, Brennan Townshend put nine minutes into me at the Worlds and Javier Rodriguez was in town, but far from providing pressure I expected the competition to assist in pushing the pace, I never expected to fall away from it.
The day started well. Pre-race buzz and amiable conversation. It’s a hell of an event, Ryan and the team know how to keep it slick, and kit check, registration and bag dump were handled effortlessly. As ever, form is intangible and despite training efforts and a lack of illness I was unsure which version of my body would turn up; nevertheless I felt relaxed and confident, this is my backyard, familiar granite peaks scattered with a lifetime’s worth of positive memories. Home advantage counts for a lot, the personalised support I’d receive on course wouldn’t just be from people reading the name on my race number.
The hooter took everyone by surprise, not least Ryan himself who condensed a five second countdown into one, and we were off, pushing a gentle pace along the seafront and into the woods, leading out confidently and smiling for the cameras. The plan was simple, tried and tested. Run my own race, steady to the Fofanny ‘half-way’ point and then allow the legs off the leash for the iconic Skyline return. As a lead group of three edged away prior to the Granite Trail I happily let the elastic snap, hoping they’d over-cook the initial skirmishes, race-heads operating to the latter detriment of race-legs. This tactical error of my laissez-faire pacing becoming apparent as I hit the mountain proper, a solid headwind funnelling the valley and nobody to shelter behind. Opting to take the hit I continued to turn a steady cadence rather than going hard to close the gap and it was a slow time to the col, no dramas, the race hasn’t even started at this point.
The Brandy Pad let me stretch out a bit, smoothly picking off third place, an early psychological boost. I felt okay but a touch blocked, the sense that the top two gears were unattainable, and the humidity was stifling. I contemplated losing the base layer and running topless, retrospectively this was the first portent of the suffering yet to come and an indication that all was definitely not well, at the time I just regretted not opting for a vest.
Bearnagh came and went, choosing to run the whole way, as per the majority of training. Following the flags on the descent proved frustrating and wasted valuable concentration, off to the right of the fall-line and hugging the wall, but I appreciated the need to keep the masses away from the ankle-breaking scree. Meelmore dispatched with a modicum of effort and back into a stiff breeze for the technical drop towards the Happy Valley, but by this point the wheels were starting to wobble. There was a heavy nausea brewing, emanating from the stomach but resting in the throat, vomit close to the exit and an overwhelming sluggishness. It’s not altogether surprising; force-feeding contaminants into a system unfamiliar with such abuse has repercussions, but caffeine is a well-proven performance-enhancer and the gloop of the gels tends to stave off hunger. Degeneration was alarmingly rapid and the head was lolling before the feed station, and yet with the leaders in touch, I still expected a resurrection once the muscles claimed the dormant energy from the guts. At this point racing was still well on the cards.
Ott, Loughshannagh, Meelbeg, grinding through the peaks and still seeking that elusive flow, but body and brain were starting to squabble. Fog creating a bubble and the physical weight of the mugginess, my field of vision creeping towards my toes, this is going wrong, who’s legs are these? A sense of displacement exacerbated by the loneliness, I’d had nobody alongside me for the entire race and the lack of human contact saw nothing to deflect from the negative spiral of internal dialogue. I began to reminisce previous efforts, Dropping Dan and Seamus and prancing to victory, but this was so different, the conscious mind jumping ship for self-preservation as the primal drive took over, I just want this shit to be over.
Cresting Meelmore and the cheery support commences. Kathleen, Taryn, Ricky, friendly faces amongst the marshals and outgoing runners and yet I can’t even respond to the encouragement. I feel like a fraud, ashamed, the voices tell me I look great, I’m going well. I don’t and I’m not, I look defeated, crestfallen and shell-shocked, necessity driving me on, not competitive desire. This is still the fastest route back so I may as well persevere.
The return trip over Slieve Bearnagh has previously been race-defining, a welcome transition from run to power-walk and a nine minute push to the summit, stretching gaps and striking the decisive mental blows. Today I reel sideways as if shoved by non-existent winds, dizziness of the head and weakness of the legs. A photographer snaps at the crown of my head, eyes to the floor, hollowed out; he easily keeps pace for a couple of minutes, following me into the clouds, this is bad, really bad. The cramps have started, electric pulses rippling muscles, salt sachet in the mouth to shock the system, locking allayed for now but another nail in the coffin of pacing.
Hares Gap, I wish I didn’t know what remained. So many memories, powering from here to Commedagh summit in nineteen minutes, today would take a sorry twenty-five, Rodriguez knocking me off the podium on the steep sludge as we near the summit tower but I’m past caring. I could quit, end the anguish and drop from the col, nothing to lose, and yet the remnants of racing dignity remain and the Spaniard is still in touch, a decent descent and I could still even win this. Except there’s nothing left but nausea and emptiness. Sweden’s David Holmberg dances past looking fresh and I can’t even congratulate him, a throaty growl where my voice should be, fifteen minutes of purgatory and I’m rewarded by a tumble off the back of the stile, downhill all the way from here but that’s scant consolation.
Finally the calves give up the ghost, simultaneously locking as I drop to the floor, jolts of pain and I’m actually relieved not to be leading. No need for panic when the race has long-since parted so I sit and rub, one minute, two? Time is an abstract concept by now. A glimpse of the muscular frame of Paul Tierney over the wall, strength to weight, that man can run two hundred miles.
Defensive descending, holding the core tense to protect the legs, a motional foetal position and it’s exhausting. 500 sit-ups a day proving their worth and keeping me off a mountain rescue stretcher. Tinkling cowbells and the final few bends, shaking my head apologetically as I pass Jim Patterson; he understands, some days it all falls apart and that man has a lifetime of racing to reflect on, and yet I can’t help but feel I’ve let him down, I’ve let myself down. A fresh bout of cramp and the ignominy of a crab-like waddle to the finish, passing Anna and the boys and I can’t even raise a smile, I’ve nothing left to offer. Bent double at the line and a pat on the back from Ryan, ‘I know you’ll be disappointed’ he says and that means a lot, that stated degree of understanding begins the healing. 3:58:15 is a dismal effort, my slowest ever, including numerous training laps, but having that acknowledged is instantly cathartic, I’m better than this and at least somebody else knows it too.
Gradually the relief floods in and realistic context returns. To say ‘it’s just a race’ is flippant, insulting. If we don’t mentally raise these arbitrary efforts on to pedestals then what’s the point? It has to matter, and yet post-race conversation with Robert, my travel companion from the Glencoe Skyline gives genuine perspective. ‘Apart from me, probably only two other people care about what I’ve done today’ he states, and it strikes home satisfyingly. My anguish is genuine, but it’s so self-indulgent. Time invested in a desired outcome is never time wasted and lessons learned hard are often the most powerful. Writing this has already settled my mind, time to wise-up and move on, nobody died and there’s a category winners medal sat on the table and 29 minutes chopped off the vet 40’s record, little consolation but the time for consoling is done. Sunday with the family and a decent feed, life goes on and it goes on well, I’m a lucky man.
I’ve suffered disappointment before when races held dear rejected my meagre efforts, and it’s impacted me hard. This time will be different, the physical symptoms will be gone in a week and by then the mental will have departed too. Life is too short.
I’m bordering on the philosophical, it’s time to sleep…