Connemara Ultra Marathon and "The Hell of the West"

  • Posted on: 16 April 2013
  • By: JoanneOB

John Cronin writes about his Ultra Marathon experience in Connemara …………

Last year I attempted my first marathon, the Connemarathon. Infamous for its "Hell of the west" hill at the 22 mile mark, ouch!! I didn't have any time goals for it, relatively new to running and just had the "be happy to finish" attitude. It was my first marathon. I'll never forget heading out on the bus for the race start at Lough Inagh and passing these runners already after starting. "Another event on today?" I enquired, "No, they are doing the Ultra, started at 9am and running 39 miles to the finish", I was horrified people ran longer than marathons, but for some reason slightly intrigued…… I ended up finishing the Connemarathon (walking funny but a huge smile on my face for days). I also learned since that the marathon is not the be all and end off of distance running. In fact, it's only the beginning! I read of 39, 50, 100 mile races, to 24, 48, 72 hour races to races that have no finish!

Since that first marathon I kept up the training, did a few marathons since and ended up signing up to the Connemarathon Ultra to experience it for myself.

Race day fast approached and the weather was looking about 15 degrees cooler than last year so I wrapped up well in the morning leaving the house and met Jerome Debize, another GCH member taking part in the Ultra challenge. A quick walk to the bus departing at 7am to take us out to the start line at Maam Cross. The day was promised to be windy but it didn't seem too bad that morning so things were looking good, no rain expected, phew!

We arrived at Maam Cross and met our fellow competitors. Plenty of familiar faces around from other races over the past 12 months so it was great to catch up. Everyone seemed a little on edge but happy to make it to the start line. The Race Director, Ray O’Connor gave us our race briefing in the comfort of the Peacock's Hotel while we readied ourselves. It got very emotional when he mentioned the passing of the great Simone Grassi, two times Connemarathon Winner 08/09 who in 2012 walked the marathon for Cancer Care West having himself been diagnosed with lung cancer in 2010. RIP. His parents and friends were also running the marathon that day in his memory. All of a sudden, 39 miles didn't seem that hard.

We then hopped on the bus again and it brought us to the race start, about a mile up the road to give us the 39.3 miles. Brilliantly organized and starting bang on 9am. Boy were we happy to be running, with only a 10 minute wait at the start we were already freezing! Almost 200 competitors ran the Ultra this year with mostly sheep for spectators, all a bit surreal.

I set into a nice easy pace and got chatting to plenty of people along the way....all of a sudden we were going through 13.1 mile marker, that flew! Feeling good I pushed on a bit here and started passing a few of the marathon back-markers. It was a nice undulating course with only a slight headwind at this stage. Plenty of flashbacks from last year’s run, I was really enjoying myself. Feeling good, I bound down the hills towards Killary Harbour and turning slightly to the right towards Leenane, it hit us like a tonne of bricks. A strong wind was now coming straight down Killary Harbour and hampering all out plans of an easy run into Leenane. I was kept going thinking, "ah when we get to Leenane we'll be turning right and the wind will no longer be against us". How wrong was I?

Whatever way the valley is shaped coming into Leenane, we turned right at the 26.2 mile mark and yet again a strong head wind was waiting for us going up the hill from Leenane. Head down, I grinned and beard it to finally get up the hill from Leenane and on towards Maam. I like this part of the course, the views were amazing and everyone is in high spirits with plenty of laughing and joking going on around me. Plenty of support too from Marathoners and Half-marathoners as I went past…… "Go Ultra's!!”. That was nice and I quickly returned "well done to you too!"

For me it's not actually that hard to run 39 miles, I'm relatively young and do a nice bit anyway so it's a lot more impressive seeing some of the half marathon/marathon back-markers finish their distances.

In my head I had thought 5 hours was possible for me, I went through the first 26.2 mile on that pace. The wind had quickly put an end to that dream so I was thinking maybe 5:15. Coming near Maam around the 32 mile mark is where my condition deteriorated somewhat. Suddenly my goal changed to "just finish". I was expecting this due to lack of long road runs and the pace quickly dropped from slow to extra slow. To be honest I really felt like walking for a bit but clung onto the "no walking" goal. Hell of the West was fast approaching and knew things weren't looking good. I reached Maam and to my surprise there were loads of support, getting plenty of high 5's from kids for a few hundred meters, using this support and some jelly babies parents were giving their kids to hold out, I turned right and faced the beginning of the end, the hell of the west, "here we go again" I thought. So I put my head down and drove through the wind using every ounce of strength left to run up towards Maam Cross. At one point I glanced up to see what seemed like a long line of colourful ants winding their way up the hill in front of me. They seemed really really far away at that point, so head down again and tried to think happy thoughts.

Eventually reaching to top of the hill, I grabbed a bottle of water and couldn't drink it fast enough but I relaxed a little knowing it's pretty much all downhill from here. My legs and feet were pretty shot at this stage but it didn't matter.

To my delight I came across a bunch of GCH supports roaring "Go GCH" and "Well done John!" this really put a pep in my step and I bound over the line in 5:18:16.

After over 5 hours of running it was nice to be stopped again. I walked to the finisher’s area to be presented with my finishers medal by the Irish Ultra running legend, Mick Rice. That was a nice touch.

Congrats to Jerome Debize who finished 4th in the Ultra marathon with an astonishing time of 4:39:57, he had the fastest final 13.1 miles for the Ultra on the day and was unlucky not to catch 3rd place.
Matt Bidwell of GCH made it look easy and took victory in the Half Marathon for the second year in a row in 1:19:29 and well done to all the other GCH runners who completed one of the most beautiful, windy races in the country!

Now for the Ultra rest..............

Written by John Cronin