Tunnel vision: Co Down ultra-marathon man on track for 200-mile run in dark
It's not for everyone but ultra running has become the new challenge for runners who can stay the distance. Gail Bell talks to Crossgar ultra runner Sammy Daye whose is preparing to run 200 miles through a tunnel in the dark
IF THE thought of running 200 miles up and down Britain's longest pedestrian tunnel in total darkness sounds like your worst nightmare, then spare a thought for Sammy Daye from Crossgar who is actually going to do it.
But the extreme test of endurance (he is allowed to wear a head torch so he can see where he is going) is a dream challenge for the committed ultra runner who has taken marathon running to new heights – or, rather, distances – across Ireland and beyond.
The 47-year-old, who set up running events company Atlas Running with his brother Adrian, is part of a growing Northern Ireland community of ultra runners for whom ordinary marathons no longer cut it.
Instead, the thrills come from the mental strength of just keeping going – and going – whether that is running through a darkened tunnel or across a desert, mountain range or, better still, a perilous jungle somewhere where no human has yet set foot.
"Some people do think we are a little mad, running such long distances – my wife, Anne, says that's what cars are for – but I love running and there is a real buzz when you finish," Sammy says. "Ultra running is more just about finishing than speed and
I'm really looking forward to the tunnel challenge as I've never run in a tunnel before.
"It's going to be a bit stark and a bit lonely and I've read that I can expect to hear strange noises and see strange colours... On the plus side, though, I won't need a waterproof as the weather isn't going to be an issue and hopefully my toenails won't fall off this time."
Blackened toenails is an occupational hazard, apparently, for the dedicated ultra runner, but Sammy just tapes them back on again, "so they don't move about in your sock".
The tunnel in question is Combe Down Tunnel in Bath, Somerset, and although the non-stop run – time limit 55 hours – in the dark, isn't until next March, the training schedule is already under way.
As well as running a picture framing business (and finding some time to paint as well), Sammy pounds the roads five days a week, covering around 100 miles and several marathons – although the serious business of running in the dark won't begin until winter.
Last year he completed the Mourne Ultra, starting off in Gortin in Co Tyrone and finishing up in Donegal, but his favourite, to date, is 'Escape from Meriden', a run with a difference which he took part in last November in England's West Midlands.
"You start at midnight, at a 500 year-old stone cross in the village of Meriden, and you end up anywhere you want to," he explains. "Runners can travel in any direction they like and they keep running for 24 hours. The idea is to get as far away as possible. I ended up in London, about 90 miles away."
Another event of choice is called Last One Standing – organised through Atlas Running – and it has proved a big draw with local enthusiasts, both at Florence Court in Co Fermanagh and Castle Ward near Strangford, Co Down.
"Runners have an hour to complete the first 4.2 mile loop and be back at the start line ready to go again," Sammy says. "Any runner not finished within the time limit is disqualified; this happens every hour until there is only one runner left at the start line – the last one standing.
"We also organise a few 5km events to raise money for charities and defibrillators and we have planned a doughnut run in July and Prosecco run in August."
All ultra running events are a mental challenge more than physical, he believes, and are therapy for the mind, in that participants can easily 'zone out' of everyday worries.
"When I am running, it is a chance to not think about anything at all," he says. "People leave all their preoccupations behind; you don't think about work, about paying the bills. Everyone says it, but running really is good for your mental health. It is just you the path in front of you."
A former solider, Sammy stood guard at Buckingham Palace and says this experience helped develop stamina and mental toughness, although he only started running in 2009 after he bet his wife he could run a marathon after watching the London event on TV.
"I ran the Belfast marathon – my first – in 2012 and I hated it," he admits. "I thought I would die, but I completed it in four hours and 26 minutes. Five weeks later, I entered the Mourne Ultra which is over 54 miles and it was a completely different experience. It was so hard, but I loved it and quickly looked to see what I could do next."
The Daye brothers – Adrian is a professional coach – founded their running events company to make events like the Big Dog Backyard Ultra, which runs in Tennessee in the US, accessible to Northern Ireland runners.
A race run on a loop without any discernible end, it sparked the idea for Last One Standing, to which have now been added a number of customised, extreme events, including the Belfast2Dublin Ultra (107 miles), as well as tamer 5K and 10K Santa runs.
"There is a run to suit everyone; you don't have to have a head torch on and run up and down a tunnel," Sammy says. "Ultra running is not about medals and being the fastest; it is about completing the challenge and enjoying the sense of achievement afterwards – even if you do have to suffer a few blisters along the way."
After he survives (hopefully) the Combe Down Tunnel – described by race director Mark Cockbain as "a mindbending test of extreme endurance and sensory deprivation" – Sammy is aiming to run 640 miles of the Ulster Way and set a new record in the process.
"Mark Haigney, who runs for AtlasRunning, is joining me and we are planning to run the Ulster Way next July," he adds. "The record is 26 days and we hope to do it in 12. That will definitely be the biggest challenge yet."
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