Like every sportsperson, Paul Tierney has his own specific rituals ahead of each race, “I check my kit, make sure everything’s right for that day’s weather. I have to be pretty careful because you can make it a long week for yourself if you start chafing in certain places.”
It’s essential the Cork native gets his gear right, because he is no ordinary runner, and this is no ordinary race.
A week ago, the Blackrock native spent 135 hours running across the Italian Alps in an ultramarathon in which he came sixth.
The Tor des Glaciers covers a distance of 450km and involves 30,000 metres of ascent. There are two others; the original race, known as the Tor des Geants, which is 330km, and the Tor D’ret at 130km distance.
Trails here are at the foot of some of the highest 4,000-metre peaks in the Alps and travel through the Gran Paradiso National Park and the Mont Avic Regional Park. Interestingly, the women’s race in the Tor des Geants was won by Emma Stuart who is originally from Sligo and who now lives near Paul in the UK.
“There are tons of little off-shoot valleys that run down towards Turin. It’s basically a lap of that, going over high colls over rugged terrain which is unmarked so you have to navigate yourself too,” Paul explains.
“The other difference in this race is that it’s unstaged, meaning once you start, you keep going until the end and only stop when you need to stop. The lack of sleep is the hardest part. You’ve to deal with the sleep deprivation as well as the exhaustion from moving.
During the day it’s not so bad – it’s bright and you aren’t feeling sleepy but when it’s dark it’s difficult. After a while, you aren’t really thinking straight. You start seeing faces in rocks, hallucinating. You can feel your body breaking down.
It felt like one long day because you don’t bookend it with proper sleep. This one long continuous weird period of time, so you struggle to remember what was what, and when was what.”
The ultramarathon 40-year-old Paul just completed is more akin to what we know as mountain running. The trails aren’t marked, so he’s also navigating as he goes, climbing down ropes and up ladders as he traverses the colls between Valleys.
Sleep comes in short twenty-minute bursts in tiny refuges set up along the route.
“You don’t need big, long sleeps,” the Blackrock native explains from Italy where he is still recovering. “Just enough to re-energise yourself. I set off at 8pm on Friday night and was finished at 1130 on Thursday morning. I carry chocolate bars, energy gels some crisps and fruit and nut mix with me as I’m running. When you get to the refuge you get a proper meal – typical Italian pasta, polenta or minestrone soup.
I probably lost about half a stone throughout the race. But what I love about it is that there’s a great sense of camaraderie. The whole valley throws themselves behind this race.”
This type of endurance racing is on the rise. In fact, it prompted Paul to move to the Lake District in the UK to set up his sports coaching business Missing Link Coaching where he creates bespoke training plans and helps clients with injury rehab. He lives there with his partner and their two dogs.
But what drives him to push his body to such extremes?
“I played hurling from the time I was 11 or 12. In fact, I played for my club Blackrock and for a couple of years for Cork. Growing up, I envied friends who trained every day with their rowing clubs and training more regularly appealed to me. I really admired the endurance I saw in people like Sonia O Sullivan. After I spent time in Australia, I got into triathlons. Then I wanted a new challenge.
“I remember doing short trail race in Fermoy back in 2012, and five of us turned up” he says. “That same race now has over 200 people. It’s still a niche sport, but it’s grown a lot. I like the fact it brings you to beautiful places. I like being outdoors too.
The other thing is if you are running for two hours on the road it seems like an eternity, but the same distance on a trail flies by. The terrain is always changing, the views are changing, plus it’s a different kind of sore. It seems almost easier.”
But psychologically, something must fuel him to take on such a huge challenge?
“I love the feeling of having worked hard,” admits Paul. “I also like the endorphin rush. Obviously as humans, we are built for walking and jogging long distances. We are good at regulating our temperature and adapting to the terrain we are on so it feels quite natural to me.
I know it doesn’t seem like it,” he laughs, “because it looks like hard work. But it doesn’t need to be. If someone is huffing and puffing, they are running too quickly. Maybe start by walking and build up your speed when you get quicker and fitter. If you are training appropriately, most of your training should feel relatively easy. It takes your mind off anything else.” There are no plans for any big races this side of Christmas.
But for now, less than a week since he finished sixth, Paul is turning his attention to sleeping and eating. As well as the achievement itself, Paul says he’ll treasure some standout moments.
“I remember one of the mornings, the sun was starting to come up over a remote valley. I was climbing from one valley to another, and I came across a herd of alpine ibex. They are like mountain goats with massive horns and can be quite elusive, but I got right up close. It was really great.”
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