Excited to announce that I’ll be taking part in the www.volcanomarathon.com in the Attacama Desert, Northern Chile on Nov 12th. My thanks to Richard Donovan, Polar Running Adventures for the invite to take part in this race with my running guide John O’Regan and thanks to my sponsors and supporters Great Outdoors (Dublin), Columbia Sports, Ron Hill, EVB Sports (Yvonne Brady), Sasta Fitness (Fiona Egan), Youghal Credit Union & Ernest Cantillon at Electric Cork
When I started running less then three years ago with no prior sporting experience I never thought that I would fall in love with running so much that on the Valentines day of this year that I would be running an Ultra Marathon of 50km – 31miles. I still cant fully believe that me a person who who didn’t take up running until my 30th birthday would be running the official Irish 50k championship. The race was on in Donadea forest, Kildare. The course consisted of 10 laps, and since each lap had been certified as about 4.97 km, we had to run a little bit extra at the start.
When the race started the first thing I noticed was underfoot there seemed to be places which were muddy and a bit slippy and so I grabbed John’s arm for support. Having a smooth tarmac would have been better. In each lap there was a 3 climbs consisting of about 50 feet elevation or so. After the 2nd lap I could really feel these uphill climbs telling on my legs.
I didn’t decide to run the 50km until a few weeks ago. I wasn’t fully sure what I was getting myself into. However, after 6miles into the 31mile race I quickly knew what ultra running was about – mental toughness: the ability to handle pain, boredom, exhaustion, and a feeling of nausea. What I have learned from my running experience is that sometimes we need to experience physical hardship and pain through running to put real life in perspective — I don’t get as daunted by the small stuff any more in my life.
This picture was taken before I started the race.
Different things had happened on the race which havent happened me in previous races. First, any runner looking to beat their times and to have steady races will use a good running watch. Being visually impaired it was a nightmare for me to find a running watch that I could see. I did find one but can only really see the figures when I am standing still because I can look up close but I cant do this when I am running. At the start line my watch was fully charged but wouldn’t start. I was getting anxious and a bit upset by it not starting even though I wouldn’t be looking at it I just wanted it be working so then at end of race I had my own recorded time on my own watch and could look at it with my magnifying glass when sitting down on the couch to remind me of my achievement. The watch wouldn’t start and John told me not to worry that he would be calling out my times because of me not being able to see the watch. Hence, this is one of the major differences between a sighted runner and non-sighted runner the use of a running watch and the benefits the running watch give to the runner i.e telling the correct pace to go at etc.
Another thing would be going to the toilet. In previous races I have not gone to the bathroom while in a race however with the 50km race I did go. At 9.30am before the race started I went to the bathroom. I should have gone again and tried around 9.50am but I didn’t have the urge. The race started at 10am and the minute I started running I got the feeling I needed to go to the toliet. I didn’t tell John because I thought to myself I can outrun the feeling and that it would go away soon but it didn’t. 5miles later my stomach was very sore from holding the urge. I told John that I needed to stop to go. He found a quiet place for me and luckily there were no runners coming, I went behind a tree – not very lady like. We were stopped for about 30seconds and I was conscious that we were wasting time. When we started back running I could feel a sense of relief and thus I was then glad that I made the decision to stop.
Then at about 6 miles miles my negative mindset set in – telling me the race was too hard, to stop and walk, that how was I going to complete another 25miles. When I started having this internal self-doubting dialogue I thought to myself – this will pass as normally in training runs it always has passed after one or two miles. But unfortunately for me the negative self-talk continue until the very end of the race. The more fatigued I was getting the worse the negativity in my head was getting.
Around the time negativity started I had got confused by how many laps I was on and so I thought I was on my 5th lap but I was actually on my 6th lap.
Guiding Technique – John and I use different techniques for running:
Running with a Tether – normally I call it running with a band but different people use different names tether, rope, strap etc. The band myself and John use is a short strap, about 30 inches long. Using the tether John would either run beside me or slightly ahead of me and each of us holds one end of the tether. John gives verbal directions, but I am able to detect bends in the road and other slight changes in direction much more easily with the tether. The shorter the tether the more sensation of pulling I can feel which helps to know what way to go. If an emergency arises, John will give a short pull on the tether or a slight push to my arm, and then I know immediately which way to go. It is important to keep enough tension on the tether so that John and myself can feel movements from the other. A balance has to be got because too much pulling just wears out both people’s arms. Myself and John find the strap easy on the hands and is washable which is important for hygiene.
Thus, as you can tell running a 50km might sound hard but try do it attached to another person and the process becomes harder.
Another guiding technique is verbal direction – at different stages during the 50km myself and John used this technique to give my arm and should a rest from any buildup of stiffness from being attached. We waited until there was a clear enough area to run with the John staying on one side, simply giving verbal instructions. In this technique, talking is crucial. The guide might have time to say “Please move to the right, because there’s a …..” or may only be able to say “Move right!” The guide has to be prepared to throw conventions of polite conversation to the wind, and the runner has to be willing to obey immediately.
When I am running without the band being attached John has to be very alert because I normally zig zag when running by myself. I cant run straight and I would normally veer off to the side unless the guide is there encouraging me to stay centre. The reason I zig zag is because with my bad sight I cant focus properly. I have the eye condition nystagmus which means the eyes involuntary move and shake and this causes a lack of being able to focus.
As a visually impaired runner I find it useful grabbing the guide’s arm when at bumpy ground as this provides stabilitiy and prevents me from falling. However, the downside is by catching the guide’s arm I loose power in arm for running and in turn loose my running posture which affects my speed. Speed in running coming not only from legs but arms because arms centre you and this is a disadvantage for me having to grab the guide’s arm but in terms of safety it is a must for me.
The reason I like running with John is because he is safety-conscious. For example, people who don’t mind running across the street and nearly being hit by cars themselves should not choose to become guide runners. John also has good enough judgment to get both of us around obstacles safely. John is a much stronger runner then me and this is what I need in a guide runner. Guides need to be able to talk and run at the same time, and they need to have enough energy while running to pay attention to what’s going on around them. If a guide is running at my top speed and they’re hanging on for dear life, then they won’t be able to tell me much about potholes etc. It is important to get on well with your guide when doing a long distance such as a 50km because the two of you are by one another’s side for a long time.
In giving verbal directions John has learnt to be specific – for example – “Be careful here” doesn’t really convey any information. I am already being careful. “The ground is a little rough here” tells me more of what I need to know. In verbalising directions the guide runner needs to put actions first, followed by background information. “We’re coming up on a crowd of people standing on the path, so…” doesn’t tell me what to do until it’s too late. Instead, saying: “Move right, we’re coming up on a crowd of people standing….” is more directive and helpful. Hence, as you can see John did have a tough job but coped well with it.
At that point of the race I was suffering. I was physically and emotionally fatigued. I was losing concentration. By the time I was at about 17miles to 20miles I was really dropping energy wise. John was asking me to eat something but I had never done that on a training run before and I was nervous because I have a weak stomach and normally with long runs it gets upset. My fear was that if I ate something then I would be sick. When we came around by the starting point John asked Maggie to get me a small cereal bar that I had brought with me to the race. She handed it to John. He opened it and I ate it slowly in small bites and at different stages as we ran along. It did increase my energy level a small bit but it didn’t sustain me for long before I felt very tired again. However, some might argue different because after all I did complete the 50km and for most of the race I kept telling myself that I wasn’t going to complete it.
As a visually impaired runner your arm gets sore if your constantly attached to the guide and so to loosen out my arm at various stages when the path was clear and flat I wold take off the band for a few moments to run by myself. This allowed me shake out my arm and any stiffness that was building up. It also allowed me to feel the sense of freedom and independence for a few moments that any normal runner would feel. However, when the band is unattached it is very important that the guide stay right by my side and John did this at all times.
Lap 9 and Lap 10 were definitely hard. Feeling tired seemed perfectly reasonable. John kept encouraging me and reminding me that I had an entire Marathon behind me and that I had now run a great distance that I had never run before and so to see it out to the end.
John told me that I was coming near the finish line and so I started to sprint. I just got a burst of energy. I don’t know where it came from but it was there and I was going to use it. I could feel my feet being lifted into the air, my knee lift was becoming higher, I was swinging my arms with a lot more power.
I couldn’t see where the finish line was and I had blocked out that John said there were 3 mats at finish line that I could potentially fall over. My attitude as I finished the race – well I cant see them so that means they are not there.
When I crossed over the line I just felt absolute relief and I embraced John in a hug because without him I wouldn’t have got through the race.
John did a super job on the day. He knows that being a guide runner is a responsible job because not only was he looking out for his own safety but he was also watching my safety as well. I hope to run more races with John in the future. If you want to find out more about John then check out his website .
After the race I wanted a moment by myself and so John brought me to a quiet area, got me a seat and left me by myself for a few moments.
After the race everything ached – there was salt particles all over my forehead and also on my lip. Hence, not the most glamorous of pics.
However, as I sat there I didn’t care how I looked. All I kept thinking was that I am so thankful that I finished the race because I genuinely didn’t think I was going to finish it.
After I had my moment to myself I stood up and looked for John but couldn’t see him. My legs ached so I couldn’t walk anywhere and so stayed stood to the one spot beside the chair. John saw me and came over with a photographer, James Shelley, this is one of the pics that was then taken. As can be seen in it both myself and John are happy because we both worked as a team. The sense of that the race has been completed had really set in at that point and this is why we had smiles.
John helped me out in so many ways in helping me complete the 50km race. For example, being registered blind I don’t drive. Donadea Forest is hard to get to and public transport to Donadea on a Saturday morning isn’t an option. Thus, I am grateful to John to driving me to the venue where the race was on. It is these small things like drivng that people take for granted that can prevented many vision impaired runners from competing in races because they cant get to the venue due to no public transport.
I seem to have recovered quite quickly from the 50km race because a week after 50km – on Sunday 22nd February I ran the Dungarvan 10K race and finished with a PB.
My thanks go to race director Anthony Lee and his crew of the Donadea running club.
I am happy that I completed the race and that my time has now been recorded and listed in the Ultra Running Rankings (date of birth wrong on link).
Many thanks to James Shelley, photographer, for all the wonderful professional pics.
Many thanks also to Maggie Lawlor, our support crew on the day whose help really benefited us on the day of the race.
Now that I have done the 50km Ultra Marathon I know that my mind is stronger than what I thought. What interests me is what’s possible later this year for me, next year and the year after. I am going to keep pushing boundaries with my mind and body. I am a determined and ambitious young lady and I won’t stop setting goals for myself. I will continue to keep setting the bar higher and higher.
It seems that I am the only known visually impaired/blind runner to do an Ultra Distance Race in Ireland. This in itself is an achievement but isn’t the reason why I did the race. My reasoning for doing the race was to challenge myself mentally and physically. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to push boundaries.
My final words……
Challenge yourself today and set yourself an exercise goal.
In 2012 I did a motivational speech for the Women’s Leadership Forum at EMC. Today I was invited back to do another speech for a different group of employees. It was an extremely enjoyable day and I felt privileged to be asked back a 2nd time.
Ironically, on the day that I was asked to do the speech for EMC was the day I turned down to go to Japan. In july 2014 I gave my commitment to Childline that I would run the Dublin marathon for them. In August then the International Bar Association asked me to go to Tokyo in Japan to talk on the employment law and disability law committee. I thought I could combine the two but given the distance of Japan from Ireland and given that the talk in Japan was on the 21st and 22nd of October and the marathon is on the 27th of October it would be all too tight re travelling and exhaustion and being well slept before the marathon. I am a person of integrity – I keep to my word and hence I decided not to go to Japan and keep training and fundraising for Childline. On the day I made the final decision not to go to Japan was the day Caroline from EMC contacted me to say would I give a speech for the 23rd of October. It just shows I was meant to stay in Cork. The lesson to be learned is that when one door closes another will open. Sometimes the door will open fast sometimes not but another door will open.
EMC is such a fabulous company, all the staff are very welcoming and friendly. If I wasn’t in the middle of doing a PhD I would nearly apply their for a job. However, I have given a commitment to do my PhD and thus I will see same out. Who knows where I will be after my PhD or what I will be doing but I always think big. During my EMC talk I told the audience that I truly believe that in years to come in this country I will be in a senior leadership position. I know this can happen by continuing to work hard, gaining respect from people and making some sacrifices. Its all about being persistent and determined and what am I willing to sacrifice. Am I willing to sacrifice having a family over my career? At the moment, the answer is yes. I am extremely career driven.
I thought when I qualified as a solicitor that I would work as a solicitor 9 to 5 and follow the norm. However, my path has led me down different roads. I believe we are all destined to do great things but sometimes we just have to take the ‘long scenic’ route to get there. Everyday my journey unfolds. I am grateful for all the people who have come into my life. I am grateful to all the staff at EMC who believe in me, who make me feel included, who show empathy and understanding towards me. Knowing that an international company such as EMC believes in me makes me want to strive further and further to reach goals that to some people are out of my reach – the people who see me a ‘vulnerable’ girl who has a disability and who cant contribute to society. Time will only tell where my journey is going to bring me but as of now I am excited about what the future holds – as the future is unknown and that is what can make it scary but also exciting.
25th October 2013 – Bandon Grammar School – Prize Day
I was privileged to be asked and to give a motivational speech for Bandon Grammar School