The Kerry Way Ultra: Prepare and keep your wits about you.
September 2020: I was in good shape as a limited number of events came out of hiding. I was in the midst of a disrupted 20 event challenge, so I was grasping for an entry slot in any credible event that I could feasibly get to.
The event that I most wanted to happen was a lot more than credible. Ireland’s Kerry Way Ultra (KWU) see-sawed tantalisingly on and off the calendar as the organiser – in the shape of the indomitable Eileen Daly – became a supreme juggler of permissions and licences.
Taking on this event at short notice veered towards foolhardy. No recce, no support crew and a three week turn around from a 100KM race isn’t standard prep for any event, and KWU has an extra-brutal spec. 120 miles, 5,500m of elevation, sapping boggy mountainous terrain, no manned aid stations, a 40-hour cut off.
When the stop-start dice landed on start, a week before Kerry, I’d already made complacent mistakes. That 100KM Stour Valley Path had not gone unnoticed in my legs. I had slogged across so many rain-saturated clay pudding fields. It was a proper clodhopper.
Fatigue comes in many guises in ultrarunning and you will use different muscles in different combinations to ‘normal’ running. One thing both Stour Valley and The Kerry Way shared was repeatedly hauling my feet out of gripping terrain – the clay in East England and the mountain bogs of Ireland.
At midnight, on the Kerry Way, pathetically bending to grab my sandwich in Waterville, some 60 squally miles into the 120, my left calf said enough was enough. It tore. I knew it was at least fairly bad but shut that thought down. COVID rules barred me from asking for a friendly lift back and a taxi might have been several freezing hours. Shuffling ahead proved OK. Styles, though, were a frequent hazard. I hand lifted my left leg over them. I did finish, in a respectable 35 hours. But the calf was soon massive, under drum-taut skin.
This calf tear wasn’t just from overuse. The chief culprit was bad prep and planning. Stour Valley ‘seemed’ relatively easy, so I didn’t wear my compression tights straight after it, nor stretch with regularity. My post-race nutrition lacked the protein focus that I needed. Hard running breaks muscle microfibres. You need to repair, to recover, to regain.
On race day in Ireland, I should have kept moving as I refuelled ahead of the infamously attritional mountain ridge to Waterville, whilst instead, I sat recuperating, enjoying the respite of late evening sunshine. I should have kept supple, whilst taking on electrolytes to stave off cramping.
Tired mistakes. A challenging ultra requires you to have wits about you as much as fitness in you. Otherwise, you will proverbially or literally trip up. I did both.
The next day, trophy memento somehow stashed by the hotel bed, all food in clawing reach of my walking stick, I finally got my act in gear icing and compressing the injury, using cushions and tight leggings to hold some cold defrosting veg in place. It was rustic, but kind of worked. A disciplined recovery consequently reduced 4-7 weeks out to three.
At the end of September, I completed Maverick Ultra Peak (Peak District, 34 miles) which fully justifies the tag ‘hilly’, feeling lucky to be back. My method, discipline and travelling kit had all improved
Long day’s journey into night By Frank Wainwright Ultrarunning is my freedom. The time it takes between start line to finish arch is my
Written By Frank Wainwright September 2020: I was in good shape as a limited number of events came out of hiding. I was in