Limits…everyone wonders where their limits are. I know I prefer a mild curry but I like my baths very hot. How far can I push myself running was something I’d never thought about much.
Still quite a baby within the running community, this time 2 years ago I could barely run a tap never mind a mile. Yet after only 2 marathons I found myself flirting with the idea of a 50k.
So quick rewind. As part of Brendas London training we took part in East Antrim Marathon Series or EAMS as better known, Knockagh Challenge. It was more the appeal of a medal for a 20 mile training run that drew us in and the flawless reputation of their events. Smaller more intimate event but great bling and super supportive. What’s not to love.
Mile 16 of the April Knoackgh Challenge with Brenda
In short these are the stats of this particular route:
10.3 mile a loop
900 ft elevation each loop
Choice of 1,2 or 3 loops
Big ass hill leading to a monument
2 laps in April was everything I had imagined the race to be. Yes the elevation was tough but we had a blast and was cemented as one of the best races of the year. I even took a small obsession with finding various Knockagh-likes on training runs.
Top of Slieve Martin, Rostrevor
I had guided Tony round Derry Marathon and we had talked during the run about teaming up again in the future. The return of the Knockagh challenge was one that I had said I’d happily join forces with him again whenever it rolled round. Well I didnt have long to wait. 2 weeks post Derry marathon ..whispers of a return of Knockagh where heard for the end of the summer.
Derry Marathon June 2017
It was almost immediate when word went live, that up popped the message on messenger. Tony didn’t waste anytime and with it being so close to Derry I still had the miles in my legs so ramping up the miles in training would be safe enough and managable. So when the question of 1,2 or 3 laps appeared…it was no contest 3 laps it was.
So I had until August 19th to get my ass in gear and attempt my first Ultra, roughly 6 weeks. I kept it to myself for a few weeks though. The girls had followed suit to tackle the Knockagh but once 2 x 20 milers appeared on Strava in quick succession I had to admit what I was training for.
I had plans this summer to work on my 10k and half time so this wasn’t really in the plan. Yet amongst intervals and better structured training I managed to get my 10k down another 3 minutes. I was beyond ecstatic to even manage 5.5 minutes off my half time at Rock n Roll the week before Knockagh. A testament to how hard I had been working between the crazy long runs.
The day was soon upon us and using her brain to make a sensible call, Caitriona dropped to the 2 laps. Brenda and Jennifer had their hard hat’s on and where going to go the full distance too.
With a 5am start on Saturday morning we arrived with plenty of time to spare. Nerves where high. I had my own mini meltdown on Wednesday about the event but didn’t let onto the girls that I was suffering acute maranoia. Afterall this was technically my bright idea and I’d to be strong for us all. However once we got out of the car and got mixed up amongst the participants I relaxed and had a very much ‘nothing I can do about it now’ attitude.
I looked up and there is was. The Knockagh Monument towering over Greenisland. I aimed to visit it 3 times over the coming hours. A message from the wise man to take my time with no silly messing at the start and ease into it, brought me firmly back to earth. What was I doing? You fecking eejit Siobhan! So with the plan being to arrive alive each lap. I didn’t think in distance and embraced the only way I know how to run which is to smile and count the laps.
Tony arrived and although I was accused of being too full of beans for the start of the days proceedings, he knew he was stuck with me for the next 31 mile.
EAMS had kindly suggested that the resident “Knockagh Knuts” lead off the race. So there was Tony and I about to set everyone off on their days adventure. After a chilled, animated briefing we were on our way.
8.30am as everyone took to the line
Lap 1 was relaxed. The weather had been kind and although a tad windy it was refreshing and cooling. Being a clockwise course it meant that Tony, who prefers to run to my right, was to the inside of the paths. This meant only one thing, brambles, nettles and brackens. I admit,I missed a few to warn him about but considering I am a bit shorter and they didn’t reach my head I’m easily forgiven. Though I am sure there were a few bad stings that I swear I couldn’t avoid. I ran along a grass verge and on the road at times to ensure I didn’t have him running in the ditch itself.
We had agreed to tackle this as a team. We had welcomed Susan with open arms into the team knowing she was of the same pace and she had also hoped to take on a marathon the next day in Letterkenny. At that she was more than mad enough to be hanging with us.
The turn to the climb was soon upon us in the 2nd mile. Up, up and up it went. Then it got steeper and steeper. Forever in the shadow of the Knockagh Monument as it looked down on us laughing at how silly it must have thought we were.
The whole team together on the approach to Monument Road.
That last turn was heaven, one more push got us to a gentle incline followed by a banana like down and up. As we picked up pace again we were soon welcomed by the 2 most amazing marshals to ever grace any race. Lorraine and Michael were there for the duration and offered hugs, encouragement and an array of goodies. This fuelled us for the final climb to the monument. Meeting others as they descended was filled with encouraging and supportive words which is always fantastic to hear.
And there it was… Knockagh. Looking out onto Belfast Lough the sun shone for miles around. Doing the obligatory lap of the monument I had forgotten how beautiful and peaceful it was up there and how God damn big the thing was.
The big lump of stone on top of the hill
But knowing we were coming back 2 more times we set off on our way. The team firmly together as we made our way to the corkscrew bends. Definitely Knockagh clockwise is a nicer way than the anticlockwise direction. Even on the downhill the corkscrew goes on forever!
As we made our way back to the road we began to spread out. Probably safer. Tony, Susan and Myself close together as we made the final stretch to the start/finish line. We arrived at the checkpoint and as I stopped I felt it. I couldn’t believe it. My bloody right leg began to cramp. Stopped too suddenly maybe, I don’t know but thanks to the paramedics on site I had half a can of deep heat sprayed on me and I had to get going again as quick as possible. So we were forced to leave Jennifer, Brenda and Caitriona behind and off the 3 of us set off.
It wasn’t long before Jennifer caught us just before the bend. But I felt my leg ease or maybe it was the can of coke kicking in but I took on the hill the second time like a woman on a mission. I’d my mountain head on and I was not going to let a hill defeat me. It was here I had a very humbling moment. We had begun to be passed by those on their 3rd lap. With 10 more miles completed than us, I was amazed to see them stop to walk parts of the hill. These are marathon runners who run 6 minute miles on normal runs being reduced to walking on the hill. I did look upon it as a way to conserve energy but it was reassuring to see that those who were leading the pack had similar tactics just a lot quicker.
By now my race stories had become deep and meaningful. Reaching the half way point at Knockagh, Tony took me to the edge of the grass to let me see over the drop. I’m not a fan of heights and knew there was a sheer drop there. But I was tackling an Ultra – I was fit to embrace the height.
As we reached 18 mile I was comfortable, had found my groove and poor Tony had to listen to Susan and Myself swap motherhood stories and remedies. In the distance there were dark clouds. The weather had said there would be showers but these clouds were nasty looking.
As we approached the final half mile to the end of the 2nd lap, rain began to fall. Of course this lead to the ground being wet and me totally missing a mud pile after a footpath, nearly losing Tony as he slipped. I really am a terrible guide on open roads. Quick reaction meant he stayed on his feet but I was sure I had hurt him. Though being the man he is, he ran on saying he was fine and didn’t tell me until after the race he had pulled something in his knee. As we reached the end of the lap the heavens opened. Thankfully it was a short, sharp shower and soon gone.
Before lap 3 Susan had gave me some magic magnesium spray for my legs which was unbelievable. It instantly loosened my legs and I was ready for lap 3. No sign of the girls behind. I took on what I could stomach in solid food. I was heading for marathon distance and beyond this lap.
I was lucky to welcome Gillian (first lady home) and Stephen (strava buddy) across the line before setting off on my final lap. Time wise I was doing ok. Second lap was a bit slower than the first but I put that down to the pull of the other runners in the first few miles in lap 1.
Off I went on lap 3. My legs were fuelled by magic spray and knew this was it. Even if I had to crawl I was going to do it. And surprise, the hill was still there. Looking a lot more steeper and higher than before. I am so grateful for my trips up the mountains, they served me well. Tony was great and my wee legs managed to keep up with his long strides. We lost Susan on the climb but knew she’d never be too far behind.
Oh my god my legs were in bits at the top of the hills. I don’t know if it was a thank God that hills done but knew marathon distance wasn’t far away and as we met marshals extrodinaires at the bottom of Monument Road we where 1 hill away from 26.2.
Hitting marathin distance
Saying goodbye to Knockagh 1 more time was a relief. The steps back to the road where the hardest part of that lap no joke. As we descended back down we passed Susan followed by Jennifer and her colourful language and greeted by a positive and smiley Brenda who we met at 26.2 on the nose.
Stephen and Gillian had come up in the car with beer on offer. In fairness if I had accepted, that would have been me. My body would have shut down thinking it was party time post marathon. So politely declining we used the downhill to take on the final 5 mile.
Excitement came over me at 27 mile that I was actually going to do this. My body was beginning to wonder why it wasn’t at the pub as per normal marathon tradition. We had been met by Tonys team mates for his next big challenge the PAT 2018, Pete, Matthew and Janice up on the bikes with Pete on the tandam piloted by Matthew. It was a great boost.
By this stage Tony was sure I should write a book on my life as he thinks I’ve some worthwhile stories to tell from my past. Both entertaining and enlightening. We had some lovely moments on those final miles. Just me, him and road in front. Both of us about to achieve something people would have deemed impossible for us both. Making dreams a reality and showing the world there are no barriers, it’s just finding a way to get around them.
Mile 28 saw my legs begin to protest. I felt a blister pop on my right foot and knew this was going to take all the positivity I had to get to the end. Obviously if I had trained harder over a longer period of time I wouldn’t have had this minor struggle but my body was in uncharted territory and it knew it.
Yet it wasn’t long before we were preparing ourselves for the home straight. The medics had been past to check on us and informed the finish line of where we were. And there waiting at the line I saw Caitriona popping her head out to see us coming, Wallace Tonys guide dog, Emma Tonys fabulous wife and a number of the EAMS team and runners.
I have been so happy to see a finish line
We crossed the line, hand in hand to rapturous applause. I couldn’t believe it. It was the best hug I’ve ever had. I didn’t want to let go of Tony. We had done it. 31 mile/50k/a lot of hill.
In amongst the haze I wanted to ensure I had clocked over 50k so took myself for a short third of a mile recover run to push the numbers up. Yes everyone thought I was mental. But I needed that minute to gather myself and my emotions.
I arrived back and text Michael followed by checking in with those on Snapchat awaiting my finish photo. Tony got mobbed by Wallace and I stood in disbelief. An Ultra marathoner. That’s me.
What people don’t realise is that I had more than determination and madness driving me through the miles. This day 5 years ago I made a phonecall that was to turn my life upside down and inside out. From here I broke into little pieces and began to build myself into the person I am today. Against the odds and losing a lot of people who I thought cared, I fought for justice and had my day where I was proven right and a burden eased (I would say lifted but the past never goes away).
I found running in my journey to find who I was and it was so appropriate to cross that line at 50k when I did. A true indication of how far I’ve come in the past few years and the how I didn’t have anything or anyone holding me back.
As I pretty much ate everything in sight, Susan crossed the line and had picked up the two lads, Ivan and Ronnie, out on course to accompany her through the final miles.
It wasn’t long before we welcomed Jennifer and Brenda. Smiling together they crossed the line and hugs where aplenty. I feared that I was being cursed up and down that Knockagh by them. Brenda not so much..she knew what she was in for but definitely sure Jennifer had lots of choice thoughts for me.
So here we are…Ultra Runners. Jennifer marking her 10th marathon and Brenda going from 10k in January to Ultra in 8 months. Unbelievable stuff. I’m so proud of everyone. I think you need some sort of crazy idea radar as we’ve seriously pushed the boat out this time.
Whats the next challenge planned… is what I keep getting asked. Well nothing I haven’t done before- DCM17 where all the madness began last year. For now though I’m resting my wee legs, showering my feet with love and I’ll get back to proper training for the marathon once I’m fully recovered.
I’ll wake up everyday for the rest of my life an Ultra runner. However the reality is I’ll forget somedays what I’ve achieved after all its just a very long run. Guaranteed though everyday I’ll be woken by my kids, who although don’t understand what I’ve achieved, will someday be proud of how far I’ve actually ran. Proving to them that they can achieve anything they can dream of. And that alone is an invaluable lesson to be taken from being taken up the Knockagh … 3 times… backwards.
A huge congratulations to Susan Dixon on completing not only 50k on Saturday but also on getting up the next and completing a marathon. Just unbelievable.
Thanks to everyone for all the photos especially Lorraine and Simon from Seapark AC. Just lovely to have the day also in pictures.