Saturday June 4, 5:56pm
‘I’m in so much pain from all the roads’
– ‘Aw no! Can you continue?’
‘I will. Might just be a lot slower… But might as well make it worth it now.’
Nine and a half hours into the Norn Iron 100, I did something I usually don’t really do in the middle of a race. I texted a friend. To complain. I hate doing that, but I just needed to tell someone how I felt – I didn’t have a crew and the sheep weren’t interested. I knew my friend wouldn’t just tell me to quit but she also wouldn’t try to push me over the edge; she had been one of the reasons why I made it to the finish line of the Kerry Way Ultra (KWU) in one piece so I knew she’d be the voice of reason that I needed in that moment.
The pain in my legs had already started hours before that – too early, if you ask me. Running a 100 mile race is always going to come with some discomfort, aches and tiredness, but this time it all started to hurt very early on. The heat played a part in that, but most importantly it was the amount of road running that was causing my legs to start breaking down before I’d even hit the halfway point. I knew I wanted to push my limits for this one though, hence the motto I had chosen for this race: no risk, no story.
My voice of reason told me exactly what I needed to hear while I was trudging through the heather on Donald’s Hill. ‘Keep going if you feel you can, but there’s no shame in not finishing if you feel you might be doing lasting damage. You’ll know the right call for you.’ I knew she was right and I also knew there was no point in giving up there and then – I needed to get me and my complaints off that hill and on to the next checkpoint anyway. That checkpoint was still 18km away, at the 110km mark. At least I’d be able to start counting down from there.
The day had started with a bumpy bus ride from Gortin to Ballintoy on the north coast of Northern Ireland. We’d be running back to Gortin, a 170km route along the Causeway Coast before turning inland to cross the Sperrin Mountains. When the race started at around 8:30am, I found myself running with some of the front guys for the first couple of kilometres. I only knew one of them, Owen, and although it was nice to have some company I felt like I shouldn’t be running with him – he ran the KWU a couple of hours faster than me last year, and I was pretty sure he’d finish ahead of me in this race as well.
This meant I didn’t really mind it when he dropped me after 15 minutes or so. It felt right. I settled into 3rd or 4th position and found my own pace. I could still see the guys in front of me and knew I was moving well, but didn’t feel the need to be chasing them at all. It was going to be a long day and I wanted to enjoy the coastal trails as much as possible before we’d hit the hills in the second half of the race.
The Causeway Coast was as stunning as expected, and I took a short trip down memory lane as I ran past the Giant’s Causeway, trying not to hit any tourists in the process. Ten years ago I had been one of those tourists – and if you’d told me back then what I’d be doing in that exact same spot a decade later, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I was, again. Proud of how far I’d come since then, but also very well aware that I still had a long way to go – quite literally on this particular day, since I was only 15km into the race.
After the beautiful cliff paths in the first part of the course, the road sections became more frequent. And although they were interspersed with some forests, my legs just weren’t handling this type of terrain very well. Before the first major aid station at Articlave (53km), I’d already come to the conclusion that this was going to hurt more than I’d anticipated. The aid stations were amazing though and the volunteers truly made you feel like they’d been waiting there all day just for you to show up. There was no way you could be grumpy, let alone drop out after getting a VIP treatment like that.
Onwards I went so, rationing water as best as I could but still running out occasionally because some checkpoints were about 30km apart. Things got especially precarious a couple of hours after I’d left Articlave, as I was getting really thirsty and wouldn’t be hitting the next aid station anytime soon. Just when I was starting to look at puddles, wondering if drinking that water would be worse than getting dehydrated, there was a car by the side of the road. The man had been watching the trackers and had decided to fill his boot with water and jellies. I easily used up 1.5l of his water, thanking him about 38 times (but forgetting to ask his name) before continuing on.
After this, the hills and bogs made me long for the road and the road sections made me long for the bog. This is when I grabbed my phone to start listening to some music and send some texts. I had to slow down anyway to navigate the open mountain bits as I hadn’t done any recces, but I tried to remind myself that slow going is always better than no going. I was still moving; I was fine. I kept ticking off aid station after aid station and was now in a solid 2nd position as Owen had unfortunately dropped out. A quick glance at the tracker showed me that Lee, who was in front, seemed to still be moving strong, and the guys who were behind me were a couple of miles away by now.
At the last manned checkpoint, the volunteers assured me that anyone who managed to reach their aid station would finish the race. I knew they were probably right; it was less than 40km to go and ‘just’ one more big hill to climb. After that hill, there would be a 30km road section. When I was studying the route beforehand, the hill hadn’t seemed that bad and the road section looked nice and manageable: a jog to the finish line.
The legs had different ideas though after what they’d already been through. It’s hard to describe what goes on inside your head in those dark hours when you’re nearly there but you still have some hours to go. You know you’ll get to the finish line now that you’ve come this far, but at the same time it’s hard to imagine how you’re going to get there. You keep breaking things up into smaller and smaller pieces, until all you can do is just put one foot in front of the other. And so that’s what I did. I tried a different playlist (didn’t help), tried my favourite jellies (they stayed down so probably helped) and tried thinking of how it would feel to sit down at the finish line (this definitely kept me going).
For the final 10km I settled into my ultra shuffle, not allowing myself any walk breaks anymore because there wouldn’t be any more climbs. The sun had come up now and the hills looked gorgeous in the morning light. I tried to appreciate it as much as I could – I’m usually not the type of runner who’s up early enough to catch sunrises. The views also made me a bit more optimistic; a sub 20 hour finish wasn’t going to happen, but a sub 21 might still be possible.
Just as I made the last turn towards the finish area, I passed the 21 hour mark. I was delighted with my 21:01 finish time though; it meant I’d won the women’s race and finished 2nd overall after Lee O’Boyle, who was already fast asleep by the time I arrived in Gortin. But most of all, it meant the risks I had taken had been worth it.
It took a lot of stubbornness, a kind stranger at km 68, some very helpful volunteers and the encouraging words from a good friend to get to the finish line of the Norn Iron 100. Sitting down on that bench felt like heaven (getting up again, not so much).
Last week I shared some thoughts on how this year has been pretty wild so far in terms of running, and how I wanted to see if I could still do well at the Norn Iron 100 after all that. I wanted to know what I am capable of at this point in my training and racing – and I think I’ve found my answer. The body is recovering well and I still love to run, and I’m beyond grateful for that. Time to take the pressure off for a little while now and prepare for some fun adventures this summer!
Interested in working towards your own races and challenges and could use some help? Check out my coaching page and feel free to email/DM me.