After a wait of almost six months since my last race I flew to Dublin last Friday morning for the Dublin to Belfast Ultra – 105 miles following the less traveled roads north from Dublin (starting outside the Guinness Brewery) via Swords, Balbriggan, Drogheda, Dunleer, Dundalk, Newry, Maybridge, Corbet Milltown, Dromore, Annahilt, Drumbo, Ballylesson, and finishing outside the Crown Liquor saloon in Belfast.
As usual for a ‘running’ race of this distance, I was the only walker although most/all ultra runners usually walk during a race of this distance – especially on a hilly course. And this race had some massive hills, especially in the last third of the race.
Unlike other ‘running’ ultramarathons that I have competed in, I was left behind from the very start. Usually there are some slower runners at my walking pace (about 7:30/km or 12:00/mile pace) but I had to walk the first 2km 2 minutes faster than I expected to, just to keep the last of the runners in sight. Not knowing the route out of Dublin I wanted to keep the runners in sight rather than having to rely on the maps we were provided, or the map I had downloaded to my cellphone. My map reading skills aren’t the best, especially when walking at the same time, and I didn’t want to get lost too early into the race.
Once out of Dublin though, we followed the R132 road for most of the journey through to the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland so getting lost wouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Last place at 15 miles:
Checkpoints were roughly every 15 miles and I arrived at the first checkpoint almost exactly 3 hours into the race. I was still in last place but as I arrived at the checkpoint, two runners were just leaving. My plan for each checkpoint was to spend as little time as possible stopped. I was carrying enough food to get me through the first 30 to 40 miles, and the checkpoints at 40 and 70 miles would have our own ‘drop bags’ meaning that we could supply ourselves with our own food if we wanted, rather than relying on food from the checkpoints.
I decided I would use a combination of my own food and food from the race checkpoints. The plan was to eat only fruit and the occasional biscuit or cereal bar for the first 12 hours before switching to high sugar foods for the remaining 10 to 15 hours (depending on how long the race took – I was hoping for 22 hours in total).
I was wearing my Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest which has become a favourite piece of equipment, and as well as packing it with my food requirements, I had a few sandwich bags tucked in one of the front pockets. The idea being that at each checkpoint all I would need to do is refill my two water bottles and pile a selection of food into a sandwich bag which I would eat while walking. In theory I shouldn’t need to stop for more than 30 to 40 seconds at any of the minor checkpoints.
This also meant that I picked up multiple minutes on some of the runners in front of me each time we got to a checkpoint, and it wasn’t long before I started passing some runners.
Bad Patch from 5 to 11 hours:
Over the last two months I have done a long walk of at least 6 ½ hours each weekend and my longest walk was 100km in 13 ¼ hours, so I fully expected to be able to cover the first 100km through to the border in a similar time.
Sometimes however, things don’t go to plan. I have no idea why, but from about 5 hours onwards I just didn’t feel great. My kilometer split times on Strava show that for the first 38km I was consistently walking in the mid 7 ½ minute per kilometer range and then suddenly I am taking over 8 minutes per kilometer. In fact, the next time I walked under 8 minutes for a single kilometer wasn’t until the 159th km!
I have no idea what went wrong other than perhaps I was suffering from tiredness after a long week at work and less than 2 hours sleep the night before the race.
At 10 hours I switched from listening to podcasts, as I normally do when training and in the early stages of races, to high tempo music. But no difference. I just wasn’t enjoying it. I didn’t want to drop out, but I didn’t want to keep walking either. I was forcing myself to keep walking, and I still had over half of the race to go. I wasn’t looking forward to the next 15 or more hours.
At 11 hours I decided that my problem might be tiredness so I has a caffeine tablet. I hadn’t intended to use caffeine in this race, other than the ‘natural’ caffeine found in Coca Cola, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
I also had the hope that switching to a sugar diet at 12 hours, as per my original plan, would make a difference, but at 11 ½ hours my pace started to improve again. I had slowed to 9 ½ minutes per kilometer and was now back walking 8 ½ minutes per kilometer. Not as fast as I wanted, but I was feeling much better.
I celebrated reaching 12 hours with half a bottle of Coke and a chocolate bar, but I had only covered 86km (53 miles) – well short of the 90km (for an average race) to 95km (for a good race) that I was hoping for.
I was feeling good though. It was 11pm. I was passing the occasional runner and getting cheered on by their support crews from time to time. I was having fun.
The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was approximately the 100km mark and I expected to get there at around 13 hours give or take, but instead my watch showed 14 hours and 7 minutes. This race was going to take me longer than I had expected and I even started to wonder whether I had been overly optimistic in booking my flight home for 30 hours after race-start.
I was expecting to see a sign telling me that I was now in Northern Ireland, but unless I missed it, the only indication was that the mileage signs were now in miles, not kilometres.
The Newry Canal:
Until we arrived in Newry the race had been entirely on the road, and most of that was on the R132 road which wandered up the country through small towns along the way. When we arrived in Newry we started walking along the canal which eventually moved away from the road – and the street lights/car lights. Fortunately I have a good strong head torch, because it was a cloudy night, and without a head torch I would have been in trouble.
Problem: The battery on my head torch was almost completely drained and the torchlight kept flashing to indicate that the battery would soon be drained.
I arrived at the 70 mile checkpoint in 10th place at about 16 hours (3am) and the good news was that the officials at the checkpoint said we could either follow the road for the next few miles, or continue along the canal path. I elected to follow the road as I could do this reasonably safely without a head torch, and could let the head torch recharge via a USB charger while I walked.
By the time I headed back on to the canal path my head torch was charged enough to get me through the reminder of the night and I enjoyed the last bit of flat terrain that we would see for a while.
I hate hills. But as a walker competing against runners, hills are a great equaliser. They slow runners down much more than walkers, and over the next 20 miles or so, after leaving the canal path, I gained more ground and passed a couple more runners on a very hilly course – either up or down with not a lot of flat.
All competitors were carrying GPS trackers which provided great insight into where everyone was. I started using it as a source of information. Whilst it wasn’t 100% up to date, only being updated every few minutes, I was able to use my cellphone to see roughly where a runner was and measure how much time it took me to get to that point. Then I would repeat and see if the time was increasing or decreasing.
Soon after daylight I was up to 6th place and we were on to the final long drag along the busy A1 road up to Belfast. My motivation was the GPS Tracker but I wasn’t closing the gap on the two runners who were in 4th and 5th place. Both were about 10 minutes ahead of me. I was checking the GPS tracking via my phone on a regular basis but the gap wasn’t closing.
With about 15km to go we left the A1 and moved on to suburban roads again the gap was still 10 minutes and I was walking about 8 ½ minutes per kilometer. I remembered how I had managed to pick the pace up significantly over the last 3km in the Privas 6 day race last year. It was a case of mind over matter. Could I do the same in this race? I thought we had about 10km to go and if I could pick the pace up to 7 ½ minutes per kilometer, maybe I could catch one or both of the runners in front of me.
The race to the finish:
It wasn’t long before I had not only improved my pace to 7 ½ minutes per kilometer, but continued to improve my speed into the low 7 minute range, and then I saw the 5th place runner. He was struggling. He was walking and jogging with a friend (pacer) and when he saw me approaching he started to run again. He ran for maybe 50 meters then stopped to walk. I knew that I had him and picked up my speed even further.
No sooner had I passed him, and I saw the 4th placed runner. He was on the left hand side of the road and I was on the right. He was walking slowly, and I was walking fast. I tried to stay hidden behind cars, etc, but he saw me and started running. I picked up the pace even more, putting in a 6:50 kilometer, passed him and kept the pace hard to open a gap.
I thought we were almost finished but on checking the map on my phone I realised that we still had about 4km to go. According to the tracker, 3rd place had already finished and the gap back to 5th and 6th was increasing, so I held a steady pace through to the finish, arriving at the Crown Liquor saloon (finish) 25 hours and 3 minutes after starting the race in Dublin.
I had walked the last 10km in 73 minutes 31 seconds, only 3 seconds slower than the first 10km. Once again, I had taught myself a valuable lesson – that ultra-distance races are all about mind over matter. 90% of the race is mental, and the other 10% is in the head 🙂
Next year the Dublin to Belfast Ultra becomes the Belfast to Dublin Ultra – we get to do it all again, but in reverse direction! I can’t wait.
And watch out for my next event in which I will be attempting to circumnavigate London’s M25 motorway non-stop on foot to raise money for Limbless Association. The walk starts at 8am on Friday 5th May and you can donate via my Just Giving page here.