Helen Lavin represented Ireland at the world 100k (road) championships in Seregno, Italy last month, where she finished 32nd overall.
The Irish team manager contacted me about a year ago to gauge my level of interest. We emailed several times and I initially planned to try to qualify for the 2012 event by running a 100k road race in the US this spring as the IAU World Championship race is typically held later in the year. When the race was announced for April 2012 in Seregno, Italy, I knew I wouldn’t have time for a qualifying event but based on my trail ultra history, I was invited to be part of the team. The qualifying standard for women for the Irish team is 9 hours so that was my goal when I first made the decision to do the race. However, given that it would be my first 100k on the road, I anticipated I’d learn a few things along the way!
In the end the other Irish women didn’t make it either through injury or other plans so it ended up being just me for the women while there was a full men’s team (6) plus one individual masters runner. So with 8 total runners plus about a dozen other crew, we had a pretty healthy contingent.
On how the race unfolded:
The race was 5 loops of a 20k course with about half the course through urban streets and the other half on sections of bike path through parks and around the outskirts of the town. It was mostly flat with a few underpasses which felt like nothing at first but by the third or fourth loop started to make a difference! We had aid stations every 5k where we had a dedicated table for our water bottles and food. Chris [Scotch] and my friend Dee from back home were manning the 5k table so it was great to see them on every loop. The US table was just past them and I knew a few of the folks there also so it was a great boost to get cheered by both groups. Then my sister and mother were at the start/finish area so I had that to look forward to at the end of each loop. The support made a huge difference, especially when it got tough.
Based on my training since January I felt like I should be able to run 8:30-8:45. For no good reason other than a desire to run as well as I could, I decided to be a bit more aggressive than normal and planned my race around an 8:30 finish. This meant 1:40 for the first 2 loops and a few additional minutes for each loop after that. I settled in behind two German ladies for the first loop and while I knew I was probably running a bit faster than planned it felt super comfortable so I went with it. I also knew their goal was more like 8:20 so there were a few alarm bells going off in my mind but again, it’s early, you feel good… 1:38 for the first lap. On lap 2 I badly needed to pee so I decided that would be a good way to back off the pace a bit. However, after the 30-second pit stop I was back out there and without thinking about it soon found myself right back with the same group. 1:38 for the second lap. I went past the 5k stop still feeling pretty decent though I had slowed down a few minutes. I went through 50k in about 4:10 and after that things really started to fall apart. I badly wanted to walk but knew that I couldn’t do that. It was flat. On pavement. And there were people expecting me every 5k! It was pretty warm by now – probably mid-70’s in the sun – so that wasn’t helping much either. I shuffled along to the 15k aid station where John tried to get my smile back! By the time I got back to Chris and Dee at 65k, I felt like things were gone too far downhill. Took some coke there and got a few words of advice from the boss. I was running mostly alone now but would pass people every few kilometers. I knew my 8:30 goal was out the window. For a while 8:45 seemed possible but I just wasn’t hitting the kilometer marks as fast as I wanted to. A 5 minute k had seemed so easy just a few hours ago but now I was struggling to stay under 6 minutes. Every so often I would be closer to 5:30 but then the next one would be slower. Up and down it went for most of the fourth loop. I knew that if I could get to 80k in 7 hours, then I could finish in under 9. Given that I had originally started out with this time in mind when I first starting to think of the race, it didn’t seem like an awful proposition. Somewhere after halfway through the fourth lap the lead men started to pass me. It was so cool to see how fast these guys were moving. I recognized a few of the US guys and wondered how they would finish. Thinking about this kept my mind occupied as I made my way back through the park and to the finish line for the second to last time. Picked up my water bottle and gel at the table and off I went for my last 20k. Just over 7 hours on the clock. I guess that was a 50-mile PR. As you might expect, running the last lap brought the constant joy of telling myself it would be the “last time I’ll see that!” Every kilometer sign looked a little more pleasant. I smiled a little bigger at the supporters along the course who’d been there all day. I was really quite surprised by the amount of people who had sat out in the park or gathered in their neighbours’ front yard to watch us run by lap after lap. But the biggest boost of all was seeing Chris several times along the loop. After his duties were complete at the 5k aid station, given that I was the last of the Irish runners through, he had cut through town and met me at 9k and again a few times between 16 and 18k. Despite not having the race I’d been hoping for, I was so happy in those last few miles, and my legs were actually moving pretty well. The last 2k through the park, circling around the perimeter and seeing people ahead and behind. Exiting onto the road for the final few hundred yards and hearing the finish line announcer. I ran to the edge of the road where my mother was holding out the Irish flag for me to carry over the finish line. What an awesome moment. One I surely never thought I’d experience.
My finish time was 8:54:30. All things considered, I was very happy with it.
On running an ultra on pavement instead of her more familiar trails:
I had never run a road ultra before but I suppose I knew what to expect in terms of the urban setting so I didn’t really compare it to being in the mountains. Though we could see the snow-covered peaks of the Dolomites from the course which was pretty cool. I think the most challenging part was the period from about 55 to 75k when my legs really wanted to walk but my mind was telling me “there are no hills, you can’t walk”! In that sense, I guess it was a good thing to not have the opportunity to slow down even more. My legs probably suffered a bit more than usual due to the flatness of the terrain. My quads started to hurt at around 60k which doesn’t normally happen in a trail ultra where you’re constantly using different muscles.
On the glitz and glamour of a world-championship event:
Overall it was a really neat experience. For me, it was a huge deal being able to share it with family and friends. The opening ceremony the evening before the race, with a parade around the town and carrying the Irish flag, that felt a bit like being at the Olympics. OK, not quite the choreography of Beijing but pretty cool all the same. While I love the low-key nature of most ultra races, I enjoyed the chance to experience something like this. And walking behind Yiannis Kouros for the 40 minute parade was a little insight into what it really means to be a famous runner!
On representing Ireland:
Any time I run a race, I try to remember what a huge privilege it is to be able to do this. To combine that with representing your country was pretty special. While I tried to just enjoy the moment and not get too caught up in how my race was going, it was also a driver to get under that 9 hour mark. I felt very strongly that I needed to do that in order to feel worthy of the opportunity.
On her future racing plans, and next year’s IAU 100k:
Next year’s event is already scheduled for South Korea in November. I guess the fact that I even know that means I must be thinking about it J On the one hand I would really like to run the distance again – not necessarily even the world championships – as I would like to improve my time. But on the other hand I love trail running so much more than road running that it’s hard to see myself dedicating the required time to really give it my best shot. For the rest of 2012 I’ll focus on a few trail races – 50 mile and 100k distances – and make plans for 2013 later in the year.