It feels good to have joined the 100 mile club (or 106.75 mile club to be specific). The weekend was spectacular from start to finish, so I thought I’d try to put it into words while the memories are still fresh in my head.
My training plan went pretty well until about 6 weeks out. I picked up a few niggly foot injuries, so rather than trying to finish out the last few weeks of my program before tapering, I started to taper a little earlier than normal.
I still managed a few long runs, including a few really helpful recce runs that were organised by Gary and Gillian. All was going to plan until a week before the run where I picked up what felt like a 24 hour stomach bug, but turned into a 5-day stomach bug.
I was just happy to get to the start line with no real niggles and a few days of good eating behind me.
The only other surprise was picking up a running buddy beforehand. Aaron Cuskeran reached out after seeing I had only ran 35 miles previously and as his max distance was something similar, he suggested we team up and double our ultra running experience from nothing to absolutely nothing.
We got started in Ballintoy at 8:20. The first section took us along beaches, through a few technical rocky sections and then around the coast to the Giant’s Causeway.
The event was organised that well, I’m almost sure Gary and Gillian had a hand in the weather too. Clear blue skies, the sun beaming down and a nice sea breeze. One of those days where there’s nowhere you’d rather be than on the North coast. It made the first section so enjoyable as there was stunning scenery around every corner.
The first major aid station came at Articlave Orange Hall at around 34 miles. A quick toilet break, a cup of vegan soup and an outfit change and we were back on the road.
It’s hard to describe the mental and physical replenishment that each aid station provided. Just when you thought your legs were going to start packing in or your feet were getting too sore to keep going, an aid station would appear. A 10 minute break with some food and some of the kindest folks you could ask to meet gave you enough energy to get you half-way to the next aid station. Grit and determination made up the rest.
One of the toughest sections was in the middle of the race from around mile 50 to 70. Darkness was setting in and the terrain was a mix of mountain, bog and forest trails. This was the longest stretch between aid stations and while we were well strung out across the course, we could see a few headlights ahead and behind us.
It’s a dangerous game to start getting competitive with such a long way to go, but this is where our vast experience started to kick in (rolls eyes and shakes head to oneself). Without any words being spoken, Aaron and I started to pick up the pace a bit to start catching the lights in front.
We eventually caught up with Wayne and David who were great company to get through another few mountains and wind farms before reaching Dungiven. The steep downhill before Dungiven was tough on the knees, but we were glad to reach Kevin Lynches hurling club for soup and pasta.
The team at Dungiven aid station were absolute stars. Refilling water bladders, preparing food and generally prohibiting runners from doing anything that involved getting out of their seats. It was much needed at 4am and we were all extremely grateful for their care and attention.
We were reminded that it was only a half marathon to the next aid station, then it was less than a marathon to finish. I immediately scrapped that thought and said it’s about 3 miles to the Benedy community centre, then we’ll work out what’s next.
We made it to Moneyneany at around 8am after navigating Glenshane Forest, Eagle’s Rock and Moydamlaght Forest.
I was now on home turf and a friend who had popped up in Portstewart to take a few pictures appeared on the horizon again with his camera.
It took me about 30 seconds to determine if he was real or if this was the start of the hallucination phase. It turns out he was very much real, and it was great to see a familiar face again. Thanks again to Ryan Lagan.
After a long march up Crockbrack and down the other side, we made it to Goles forest. A quick pitstop (during which Aaron mentioned that he thought he had aged terribly!) and we were back on the road.
We were still walking and running at this point, but were slowing up a bit. We’d fallen in with another runner, Peter, around Dungiven but he pushed on after Moneyneany and was out of sight.
Somewhere on the march towards Barnes’ Gap I noticed another runner appear close behind us. I didn’t think there was anyone too close behind us so initially thought we were maybe going slower than we thought.
It turns out Peter had taken a wrong turn somewhere and was just getting back on the route. I’m not sure how well I could have processed doing extra miles at that point of the race, so kudos to Peter for seeing it out to the end.
Somewhere within the next 10 miles, I zoned out a bit and realised I had marched on a bit and left Peter and Aaron behind. I then realised that I (or more precisely my Garmin) had been Aaron’s main form of navigation. I sent him a message on Facebook to check he knew the final bit of the route, but I also knew that Peter could guide him home if need be.
With around 10 miles to go I was still feeling OK but just wanted it finished. This was around 1pm and with my watch telling me my estimated finish time was around 4.15pm, 3 hours felt like a long time still to go.
I started to run all the downhills and the flats again and was chugging along well at about a 10 minute mile pace when running, then walking the up-hills. I stopped at Barnes’ Gap for a water refill for a few minutes, but immediately noticed a few aches and pains in my left leg when restarting.
My ankle was looking a bit puffy and the pain was worse when running, so it was back to marching towards Gortin.
It was a tough 6 mile stretch through country lanes and roads. I kept telling myself that I just needed to see Gortin so I could walk it down. 3 miles later and I was almost convinced Gortin didn’t exist! Winding roads and rolling hills kept it well hidden until almost the end.
Aaron eventually replied to say he was listening to a David Goggins video (Torture them with f*%king success) and that he was pumping out the miles again. It was a genuine laugh out loud moment and lifted my spirits in the final stretch.
I then had another hallucination check in. Suddenly someone was driving towards me with their hand out the window holding an ice lolly. Bear in mind I’d hardly seen a house for miles, never mind a shop. But it turns out the lolly was very much real and helped make another mile disappear.
There were another few moments of hilarity to go.
Another runner’s (Annamarie) crew had been following along closely as she was around the same section. They came up behind me and as I had headphones in at this stage I didn’t hear them until late. I turned around, ice lolly in hand and I could see the surprise in their faces as the driver laughed and shouted ‘Where the feck did you get an ice lolly around here?’!
Annamarie caught back up with me and after I gave her directions for the last few turns she flew on. I had about 1.5 miles to go and I was happy to just walk it out and try and keep my ankle moving as much as it would allow.
I then heard a roar behind me. ‘Pain is temporary, motherf*ckers…’ Aaron was coming charging over the hill at a ridiculous pace (7:50 minute miles I’ve been reliably informed)! He tried to get me going to finish out the last mile or so, but my ankle was having none of it, so I watched him fly around the next corner. It’s a moment that will stay with me for a long time – the humour and the inspiration rolled into one. Goggins has a lot to answer for.
I managed to shuffle over the finish line in 31 hours and 45 minutes. Gary from We Run Wild NI was there with a handshake and the 100 miler belt buckle, as well as a spot prize of a running backpack and torch.
Having a few family members at the finish line made it a really special finish, and the vegan sausage bap and cup of tea from the volunteers put the icing on the cake.
People make it all worthwhile
There’s something special about the ultra running community. I’ve seen it in documentaries from around the world where the cut-throat competitiveness sport is replaced by kindness, support and a genuine wish for everyone to do their best. It was amazing to be part of that over the weekend.
I wouldn’t have got around without my own support crew (my wife, kids, parents and few others along the way) and the multiple other crews who offered us food, drinks and words of encouragement.
Gary and Gillian from We Run Wild NI were awesome race directors. Absolutely flawless from start to finish; organising recce runs, adding extra markers along the course and making sure all the finer details were covered to perfection. I was spoiled for choice with vegan options at every aid station which was an added bonus!
A special word of thanks to the volunteers at aid stations and along the course who were there to tend to our every need. They all made it that little bit easier to keep going.
And finally, the runners themselves. A great bunch who made it an experience to remember forever. Whether it was a conversation for 10 minutes or 10 hours, there’s something humbling and inspiring to go through a 100 mile journey with a group of like-minded people. The eventual winner (Lee O’Boyle) completed the course in an incredible time of 19 hours 30 minutes. I’ve always watched documentaries in awe of ultra runners who can complete longer runs in such times, but covering the same path and knowing how tough some of the terrain was brings the respect to a new level.
How to wrap it all up?
In many ways the Norn Iron 100 encapsulated everything that is great about Norn Iron itself. The people, the scenery, the weather (when it decides to play ball) and the community spirit over the whole weekend.
We had aid stations in an orange hall and a GAA club named after a hunger striker, and no one batted an eyelid. They were just grateful to be cared for and inspired to keep going.
There’s lessons there for our society as a whole. Maybe the answer to many of our problems is to just get everyone to run a 100 mile race together. In the words of Van the Man…
When everything falls into place like the flick of a switch, well my mama told me there’ll be days like this.
Until the next one.