Eoin Keith Q&A: 'You can measure the time with a calendar and the distance with an atlas'

Eoin Keith is an ultra-runner who holds Irish records from 24-hour to six-day running. The 48-year-old Cobh man, who broke the 431km Spine Race record by a whopping 15 hours last year, is attempting another record as he runs from Mizen to Malin Head, starting today.

Eoin Keith Q&A: 'You can measure the time with a calendar and the distance with an atlas'

Q: You’re from Cork but living in Dublin... At what point along the way did you transform from a runner into an ultrarunner?

A: I wasn’t really much of a runner at all growing up. My first run was a marathon when I was aged 30, back in 1998. Only a year or two after that I did my first ultra and as the years go by, I discovered that the longer the races are, the better I manage to get in results. Unfortunately, there’s no limits there (laughs). I’ve done some of the longest races in the world, and I’m still pushing it out.

Q: What’s the longest race you’ve competed in?

A: The longest I’ve run in one go was a six-day race in Hungary, where I did 816km.

Q: Wow! How long did that take?

A: The race is literally, ‘How far can you run in six days?’. It’s on a one-kilometre route so you just keep going around and around in circles for six days. 816km was an Irish record, and pretty good.

Q: It sounds more than pretty good…

A: They’re horribly torturous things to do but, unfortunately, they’re what I’m good at (laughs).

Q: Speaking of torturous things, Google Maps says walking from Mizen to Malin Head without stopping or sleep would take 111 hours. What’s your aim?

A: My aim is to beat the current record which is three days, 15 hours and 36 minutes. That’s about 87-and-a-half hours.

Q: You knocked 15 hours off the Spine Race record. Are you looking to do something similar here?

A: Beating it by one minute would do me fine (laughs). It’ll definitely take more than three days. It’s a hard one to estimate what you’re actually going to do with so many unknowns. I won’t be running out like the clappers trying to push days into it – that’s just not going to happen.

You have to be cautious with these things. One of the keys to ultrarunning is pacing and that’s one thing I’ve always been very good at. Slow, steady, metronomic running is what’s required here.

Q: What sort of distances do you cover day-in, day-out in training?

A: At weekends, I’d do back-to-back long runs. I might go out on a Saturday and do about six hours and on a Sunday do about five-and-a-half. The five-and-a-half is deliberately training on tired legs and tired body to get used to that effect.

I tend to measure by time rather than distance. I don’t like to know both at the same time because you can kill yourself with paralysis by analysis. If it feels like a good training run, it’s a good training run as far as I’m concerned.

During the week, it varies. I go running with my club on one day. I do speedwork. I do my own tempo-run session for an hour-and-a-half another day. I do one two-hour run across the hills, and then another two-to-two-and-a-half hours of easy running on the remaining days between the faster sessions.

It adds up to a fairly big training week in terms of time. The way I look at it, it’s a lifestyle thing. I don’t shuffle things out of the way to make time for it. Other things get shuffled out of the way because that’s what I do. I run.

Q: How many sleeps will you manage to fit in and where will you sleep?

A: I’ll have a support crew follow me with a camper van. Hopefully, I’ll be able to stop and sleep whenever I feel like it. I’m used to roughing it so that’s relative comfort compared to some of the races I’d have done in the past.

The rough schedule is to start at around 8 in the morning and try to run all the way through the first night, and on into the second evening. You do notice when the sun goes down that your energy starts zapping away, so when the sun goes down on day two, that’s when I’ll take my first sleep.

The plan off the top of my head is for something like two hours but we’ll see how it goes. Another two hours sleep on the third night and hopefully that’ll be it. If I need a power nap at any point, it’s always an option to take 20 minutes. The thing I have most difficulty with in the multi-day runs is sleep deprivation.

Q: What’s the longest you’ve run without sleep?

A: Last year in the Northern Traverse, a race which went from one side of England to the other, I actually managed to do the whole race without sleeping, which was something like 50 hours. It was horrendous but I got away with it.

Q: Do you mentally break down over the course of a three-to-six-day run?

A: Yeah, mentally it can go up and down. You never know what’s going on. One of the tricks I’ll be trying to do is virtual racing. I know what the record is and I’ll be imagining Mimi (Anderson), the record-holder, running the route in front of me, and trying to catch her.

I’ve actually worked out very little (about interval times and distances), which leaves me loads of time out there to try to work it out on the fly. That’ll give my brain something to do, rather than thinking ‘God, it all hurts – wouldn’t it be nice to take a lie-down or stop’ (laughs). Those are the thoughts you want to avoid because they can come on very quickly.

Q: And physically?

A: It’s like being on morphine. It’s not that you don’t hurt, it’s that you just don’t care about it anymore. That morphine-effect kicks in and you just get into, not quite a trance, but the zone… You’re just moving along, the outside world disappears and you’re just in your little bubble of a world, doing your task and concentrating on getting it done. So, once you get through the second day, day three tends to get better.

Q: Do you eat a lot during the races for the amount of energy you’re expending?

A: No, it’s one of my strengths. I’ve trained myself to be a fat-adapted runner, because you’re not running fast – you’re running slowly so you’re fat-burning rather than sugar- burning. You’ve a huge amount of fat energy, even in skinny rakes (laughs). I certainly wouldn’t have an eating schedule or be trying to shovel tonnes of rubbish into me.

It’ll just be eating what I want when I feel like it, which quite often is very little. I won the Irish 24-hour Running Championships eating pretty much nothing over the course of the 24 hours. I’d one slice of watermelon – that was it, and only because it was nice and liquid.

Q: After a long rest, I’m guessing, what’s next for you in 2017?

A: That’s very easy to answer. The next big thing for me is the World 24-hour Running Championships which are on in Belfast at the start of July. I’ve timed Mizen-to-Malin just to ensure I’ve enough time to fully recover for that. Normally I’d recover faster but I wanted to leave a good two months – a month to recover and a month of proper training to hopefully arrive in my best shape.

Q: 24 hours… You must’ve been watching the London Marathon last weekend and thinking at the end ‘That’d be the warm-up done for me’!

A: That’s pretty much it. One way of putting it is a marathon is a unit of measure… You’re doing things where you can measure the time with a calendar and measure the distance with an atlas (laughs).

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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