Redemption on the Lug

The pharmacist told me that I have a subconjunctival hemorrhage and insists on taking my blood pressure. Two days earlier, I had completed Ireland’s toughest hiking challenge, the lug challenge.

The Lug challenge is a self-navigated biennial event that spans 18 mountain tops, covers 53 km and climbs over 2300 metres. The event takes place across open mountain terrain which includes marsh and bog. A tough event made much tougher from a night of relentless rain that made the underfoot conditions the worst in at least fourteen years.

But the story begins three days before this event, on Wednesday, when I prepare my strategy to aim for a podium finish. I have chased after a top-place finish in the Lug for four years. In the last one, I finished seventh. But this year, for very personal reasons, I wanted a podium finish, to finish in the top three, a symbolic outcome, an overcoming, and it was either now or never. This time I had the appetite and the mental fortitude to push my mind and body to its limits.

I started my preparation scientifically, by switching to a very high carbohydrate diet.

This is called carbo-loading where you load your muscles and liver with a fuel called glycogen. So for three days, I ate pasta and Spaghetti for breakfast, lunch and dinner. By Friday night I had gained two kilograms in body weight. This weight isn’t all fuel, as each gram of glycogen binds to about 3 grams of water. Although this extra weight gain could be viewed as an unnecessary burden, it provided an efficient source of energy and the weight penalty could be mitigated by carrying less food and water.

On Saturday morning, a Three O’Clock alarm has me awake and on a bus by Four AM, along with another hundred participants.

Waiting for the bus that will drop us at the start

The bus drops us off on the side of a desolate road in the Dublin Mountains, in rain and heavy mist. At 5:15 AM, I commence my third lug challenge.

I have already completed two lug challenges and after each one, have said I would never do it again. But here I am, again.

It is two hours to the next control station and already my feet are soaked through. This time I am wearing non-waterproof trail shoes. The problem with waterproof shoes is that when water gets in, and it will get in, it stays in. Half an hour into the challenge, both of my feet are soaking wet.

My strategy for a good time is to reduce the weight that I carry including the clothes that I wear. But for such a strategy to work requires a sufficient exothermic reaction to produce enough heat to avoid hypothermia. In other words, I must maintain a fast pace to avoid getting too cold. Especially with wet feet accelerating the heat loss.

Some people have already made their own way to the start line and have a fifteen minute head start on me.

I start out easy, passing participants along the way, making my way through two hours of bog, white-out and rain, until I make it to the first control station at the Sally Gap. I catch up with the group of five that had started earlier. After inquiring at the control station, I learn that there are two fast runners in front of this group which puts me in eight position. Motivated now, I feel confident that I can improve on this position, so I push on though taking myself into third position. I’m concerned that I may be pushing my pace too early and burn out like I did in the 2017 challenge or make a hasty navigational decision that will cause me to lose ground.

As I traverse from the Sally Gap towards Gravala, I lose the faint track taking me onto uneven ground which severely hampers my pace. I am now moving very slowly but burning a lot of energy and fatiguing for no benefit.

Unlike a road event, such as a Marathon, where the surface is constant irrespective of weather conditions, an off-road event is determined mainly by the terrain and underfoot conditions. The difference in effort between wet boggy conditions and a dry bog can be as much as double the energy requirement and hence double the potential time to completion. Achievement in such events is normally considered in terms of finishing positions rather than comparing absolute times to previous events.

I stop to check my map and realised that I have veered too far right into very uneven and steep ground, which slows me down considerably.

I try to maintain my pace but now my heart is going into its anaerobic zone, the place where you run into oxygen debt. This would be unsustainable and quickly result in burn out. But my dilemma is that if I slow down too much and lose my position after having fought so hard for it then I will mentally throw in the towel.

Events like this are at least 80% mental and 20% physical. Any mental doubt now will feed on itself and only increase over the next eight hours. But I know that over the next hill, the gradient flattens and there is some downhill.

I gamble by pushing my body into oxygen debt to get out of this slough of despondency, with the hope that I can recover on the next downward section.

The gamble pays off. I’ve only lost about fifteen minutes, and I can now bring my heart rate back out of the red zone to a sustainable level. I think I’m still ahead. I can hear voices in the distance but can’t tell whether there are in front of me or behind. I haven’t drank any water for three hours now but I don’t want to stop and so I push on again. I reckon there must have been about a litre and a half of water in my body from carbo-loading. When I arrive at the third control station, I learn that I’m still in third position.

Encouraged, I push on quickly, but, as it turns out, a little too hastily. I quickly pick up the correct track from Mullaghcleevaun, but in my haste, I veer too far right and then over-correct by veering too far left. After stopping multiple times to check my map, I realise this navigational error has cost me another fifteen minutes.

I now hear voices parallel to me and see the group I had overtaken two hours earlier ahead of me. I’m about to enter the pain cave.

The pain Cave is the mental fatigue you feel when your already tired and realise the distance still in front of you.

I have needlessly lost half an hour in navigational errors due to too much haste. My heart sinks, I have gone from third position to eight position. I start following the group but it takes me some time to catch them. My heart rate has now gone into the anaerobic zone again, which is not sustainable.

This is my low point. I abandon the idea of finishing in third place. Another dream gone as my hopes have flown before. I am now deep in the pain Cave.

As I catch the group, I tag along at their pace and my heart rate begins to settle back down into the upper limits of my aerobic range – a range that I could sustain for the distance. Buoyed by the comfort that I can at least keep their pace and still finish in the top ten, I start assessing the group. I can see that the three people towards the end of the group are outside their comfort limits and won’t maintain this pace for the full course. I overtake them which puts me in fifth position of a very close group. I’m still not sure if my assessment is correct so I decided to test it by pushing the pace for a while. I proceed to the front of the group, where I regain third position, and then start pushing the pace.

To get someone to chase you, you need to increase the pace very subtly, almost imperceptibly. Then continue gradually increasing it very, very slowly.

My tactic works, the two leaders give chase, the last three people in the group now realise they can’t keep up and slow down considerably splitting the group. I can’t maintain this pace so I gradually drop back from third position to fifth position where I just draft behind the two leaders and get my heart rate back down to a sustainable level. From the top of Toneaglee, I realise this is my last opportunity to consolidate my position.

I need to act now and make it clear that I’m taking a decisive lead. So I push ahead again, into third place and start opening a gap, leaving no misunderstanding that I’m determined to take third position.

Events like the Lug Challenge are not just about speed, but also navigation, tactics and an overall strategy.

With equally matched participants, it can be like a chess game

I keep the pace and hit the next control station, the Wicklow Gap, in third position. This is the second control station for me to hit in third position.

I made another navigational error after Lough Ferrib, but I’m confident that I have a good chance of holding onto third position.

Even though my feet are soaked, I’m traipsing through water and bog, I feel very little pain and I’m feeling great. Actually feeling on a real high.

Runners would call this the Runner’s High.

The Runner’s High used to be credited to a brain chemical called Endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers, similar to morphine. But more recent research from the University of Heidelberg suggests that another chemical, endocannabinoids, having a similar effect to cannabis, is the main contributor to this high. The research is showing that continuous rhythmically exercise for at least two hours at moderate intensity, such as the lug challenge, produces this state.

I’m feeling good now and totally in the flow.

The last major climb is to Lugnaquilla and I now push on at a steady pace. At Lugnaquilla, I’m still in third position, but there is still another 6 km to the finish line, so I keep the pressure on. My leg muscles are pulling all the oxygen out of my blood system, leaving me lightheaded. I imagine that there are others behind me, hot on my trail. I can feel my heart pumping like it’s expanding to fill my ribcage, the blood pounding through the back of my head. As I descend from Lugnaquilla, the vision in my left eye starts to blur.

Eventually I reach the finish line.

I have now reached the finish line in 10 hours and 30 minutes, an excellent time considering the underfoot conditions, placing me clearly in third position.

This is a podium finish, finishing in the top three. The event has left me elated.

My mind has triumphed over the body and I feel a great sense of elation, like I’ve conquered something, something deep within my being.

Two days later, being concerned about by bloodshot left eye, a subconjunctival hemorrhage, I visit the local pharmacist. He takes my blood pressure which is normal and concludes that the most likely cause for this type of condition was the elevated heart rate for an extended period of time.

The event has taught me several lessons and has reaffirmed my Stoic philosophy. Not the least of which is finding strength and support from deep within one’s innate self. Working hard at what’s within your control, refusing to worry about what’s outside your control and the wisdom to know the difference.


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