Last Sunday was my birthday, so when I woke another year older I thought 'what better way to spend your birthday than running a marathon'... Some might think I was mad to be running my third marathon in 7 weeks but I was really looking forward to this one - no time goal, no pressure, nothing in front of me apart from my feet and the road.
I made my way to Sixmilebridge with half the family coming along to see me off. It was so nice to have them all at the start before the race took off. We parked in the GAA club and on my way to registration I met a fellow Galwegian Johnny Mannion who was lacing up for the 26 lap course. That was the unique thing about this race - it's a one mile loop you repeat 26 times. We were due to start at 12 noon but the Double Marathoners had been on the course since 7am, working their way through 52 loops of Sixmilebridge.
At the Start Line (with Patrick Mercie)
We gathered at the start line (0.2 of a mile up the road from the mat) and watched as the Doublers and 30 milers passed by. Knowing they were 5 hours into their run and still going strong was encouraging. I got to shout support at Alan Murphy (an incredible Ultra Marathon-machine I've been following on Twitter for ages) and Michelle Burke (who is my running hero) as they passed by.
We started just after 12 noon and headed down towards the mat (which is in by the school prefab) and back out onto the road again. The route brought us up through the village, around by the local pub before turning left and passing the library. The road veered left and up the hill passed the school before turning left again and back to the start line. The loop appeared as straight forward as the come - now I had one lap done, I just had the next 25 to get through.
I found my groove pretty quickly and as this was a headphone-less run, I started chatting. I told nearly anyone that would listen that it was my birthday - I don't know whether I was hoping they'd let me off a lap or two as a result but I did get loads of back-pats and Happy Birthdays from other runners. I ran with a lovely Finnish woman Paula for the first 5 or 6 miles and we had a great chat, she knew people I knew from Galway and I knew some of her friends from Limerick.
Myself and Paula early on (hence the fresh faces and enthusiastic waves)
Pic taken from Mary Mockett's Facebook (link)
After myself and Paula split, I ran with two lovely guys from Carlow who nearly had me convinced to sign up for the Tullaroan Marathon already. After they pushed on, I was chatting to a Polish guy as the miles clocked up. While the first half passed in a relatively easy blur, the repetitiveness of it all was starting to take its toll on me in a way I didn't expect - I wasn't paying attention to the numbers. I hadn't taken in much water or food. On a regular marathon, I'd take water at every station however as there was water every mile, I often kept going without. It wasn't until nearly half when I realised I hadn't taken on any yet!
The Half Marathoners joined in the loops at 2pm and with it, a few other runners I knew like Eugene and Wojtek joined the field. The half runners added speed to what felt like energy flagging around the course. A lot of people were walking the hill on the far side of the course but I was determined to run it for as long as I could. I clocked half at 1:55 which I knew was kind of pushing it so I decided to slow it up a little and take each loop with a bit more ease. I wasn't going out to push myself and my legs were starting to tire.
Round and round... (Pic taken from Mary Mockett's FB)
By about Mile 18 I had had enough of that hill and decided I'd walk every second loop. I'd overheard Michelle pushing some of the Ultra guys on by saying to run half the hill (to the white van) and then recover and walk to the school. Who am I to argue with a woman who was still powering around on her 45th lap. We even had time for a selfie on the way up the hill...
Running up THAT hill...
I absolutely LOVED the fact I got to talk to everyone I knew on the course but hated the envy I had as others passed proclaiming how many laps less than I had they had left to complete. The last six loops/miles were tough. It was raining, the wind battered into us as we turned at the top of the hill and believe it or not, it turns out, there are actually 8,359,014 better ways to spend your birthday other than running 26.2 miles - I worked them all out while I ran.
Alan's wife was giving me his progress each time I crossed the finish line and I knew Michelle was still out there - honestly, their strength kept me going as I was thinking that regardless of how tired I was, I couldn't imagine how tired they must be. I'll admit it was disheartening crossing the mat alongside another guy who was just about to head around on his final loop while I still had three more to go but honesty, the support of the people around the finish line really helped as Michelle's husband and Alan's wife were among the many supporters who cheered and encouraged every single runner who passed through starting their next lap.
Alan finished amazingly in third (8:49) and was standing cheering me on for my final lap, obviously we man-hugged it out with the appreciation fellow runners have for one another. I high-fived every marshall the whole way around as I said 'Hope I don't see you again'. The very last marshall responded with 'Ya, until next year' (Don't think so mate!). This marathon was most certainly insane, doing the same loop over and over again. I crossed the finish line for the last time 4 hours and 21 minutes after starting - making this the longest duration I've ever run.
There is absolutely nothing easy or straightforward about running a marathon and while I finished on empty I think this is one of those days that'll live with me forever. The camaraderie and banter, the complaining and encouragement, the motivation and inspiration I received running in circles was absolutely incredible.
Proud finishers... Myself, Alan & Michelle
When I think about it, spending my birthday running really was the best present my body could give me. How many people could just decide to run a marathon? How many can say they've run three in seven weeks? How many get to spend their birthday doing something they love that gives them so much more back than they ever could have wished? I certainly feel like a lucky guy. Now I'm rewarding my legs with a few months break before they take on the 26.2 mile journey again but don't worry, I'll still be out there pounding the tarmac!
Happy Birthday to Me!