Monday, February 20, 2017

DIARY: Happy 50th...

My mission to mimic my 2012 training plan was ticking along nicely by the time I had finished my 95 minute run on the Murrough this Wednesday before heading to my fourth dentist appointment of the year to finish some work. 50 workouts had been completed in 50 days and I lined up to complete the week as the biggest of the year - hoping to notch a good 110 km.

I had felt a bit lifeless doing Fartlek with Torben Dahl on Wednesday but had put it down to him simply being much fitter at the moment. By Friday, I knew there was more to it as Cillian's cough and temperature had magically transferred to daddy and it was only getting worse as the weekend progressed. I got a bit of running in around my coaching of the Tinahely Running Group and then our own Handicap League race Saturday but by Sunday I was reduced to trotting 2 miles. Monday has not provided much encouragement and it looks like I need an easy week. I plan to use it as an opportunity - turn negatives into positives - a rest week and then resume the 2012 plan where I left it.

With 'number 2' meant to arrive any minute now my main priority is to get fresh for that event so I can be some use. In preparation, Cillian and I have moved into our own 'man cave' to leave mother and newborn some peace at night while allowing the 'two boys' to sleep through so we have something useful to contribute in daytime as well.

Truthfully, it's a real annoyance to have a good spell of unbroken training irritated by illness - the third over a 3 month period but it was in the cards. My dentist discovered the need for nine fillings after fixing two faulty root canals I had. One had caused me pain because the German dentist who put it in neglectfully left the tooth half-alive and the second cracked on a piece of home-baked bread (so bread really is bad for you). I had not believed the news about the 9 cavities when first alerted in 2014 due to a bad experience when I first arrived in Ireland. A dentist in Rathgar told me I had 9 fillings after having had none at my last check-up in Denmark. Going to another dentist, he told me I had one filling which shook my faith in the profession and left me permanently suspicious. But this time I had two different dentist corroborate what they had found and was eventually satisfied.

Extractions leave a large strain on the body releasing lots of bacteria into the system. On top of this the 9 fillings would have meant significant stress on my immune system - likely over a number of years. Together with the big jump in mileage this probably dropped my defenses just as Cillian's youthful infection was ready to pounce. On the plus side the restoration of my dental health should pay off hugely in extra reserves for training and living in the coming years. I sure regret drinking all those sodas and drinking my tea with three scoops of sugar in my teens, but such is the way of life - we have to pay for all our choices. The bad ones have no expiry date.

So a tough week but hopefully this will blow over soon and normal service can be resumed before detraining begins.

Monday, February 13, 2017

DIARY: Brockagh Burst

From racing to race directing in one week - with the dust settled after Dungarvan, it was time to pick up the work on the Brockagh Burst mountain race. I concocted the basic outline of the course three years ago with two goals in mind:

  • Contribute another shorter and faster route to the IMRA calendar in the mould of Sugarloaf Rush, Hellfire Flicker and Bray Dash (although all were even shorter than Brockagh Burst - in fact the idea began as a 2 mile up and down challenge to the summit of Brockagh East, evolving from that)
  • Bring a race back to Brockagh South-East Top which is not generally run as part of the summer Brockagh race 
Like in previous years, the runners race straight to Brockagh South-East top - the most inferior of the three Brockagh summits (470 m versus 557 m for the main summit and 548 m for the North-West top) - but in my opinion the most interesting of the three. 

Reschedules but still a success

Due to some calendar challenges the race was moved late from the 5th to the 12th of February and from our venue at Brockagh Centre to Seamus Cullen's field across the route. The date change meant an inevitable clash with the National Masters XC costing the defending champion - Des Kennedy - the chance to compete. Despite this a sizable field of 150 runners lined up - only 50 short of the National Parks limit for the course - for another cold outing. The weather gods have an indifferent view of this fixture as it began in torrential rain in 2015, saw snow and sleet in 2016 and finally served up stiff cold and mushy underfoot for 2017. Should we ever get a dry and sunny day one can only wonder just how fast the course could be run. As it was a few falls were the order of the day but no casualties although three runners DNFed in the early parts of the race - before hitting the technical trails - due to minor injuries. 

The race is deceptive because the early kilometre has a gradually increasing level of climb but seems fast at first. It's very difficult not to pace this wrong and very costly to do so: as the first kilometre makes way for the first you emerge from fire-road onto one of several steep grassy trails onto the main Brockagh mountain path. This segment climbs 89 metres in 500 metres (an average gradient of 17%) splitting the field mercilessly every time and reducing most to a walk. If you started too hard on the fire-road you pay dearly here especially as the third kilometre - while gentler - is almost as slow.

Tight battles on slippy slopes

The earlier leader had been reeled back here this year by Torben Dahl and Mikey Fry working hard at each other. The leaders summitted close together only to be reeled in rapidly by Bernard Fortune's trademark descending. He took full advantage of the fourth kilometre being reasonably technical - the path is broken up, muddy and scattered with slippy rock faces. Throw in head-wind sleet and you have a challenge. The 5th kilometre includes the traditional Brockagh Grassy Bank Descent which has been run in some stunning times both winter and summer - when it's dry its one of the fastest descents in the country with a gradient of -10% and being mainly low compact grass. Runners today were not quite so lucky but still made good time. Many lost time, however, and could only begin to recover it once they emerged on the fire-road and the three zig-zags leading back to the start line.

We had moved the start line up by 60 metres to avoid the 'instant surprise' of seeing the finish line just around the last corner. It had caused a few near collisions last year. the downside of this change was a tighter area for volunteers and racers to cram into but it did add to the atmosphere with lots of cheers and jeers which could be heard all the way up the hill. In the end Bernard Fortune held on for  a superb course record of 26:25. Des' time of 27:04 needs to be seen in context, however, as a small change was made to the course last year from the regular course - runners were send on a slightly higher path back towards the grassy descent. The overall distance is much the same but the higher trail may be a little bit slower. Either way the new mark stands as the best time for the new course and the ladies too got a new best: Becky Quinn lowered the existing mark from 36:33 to 32:33. 

Bernard took full advantage of the descent - once he overtook the early leaders he put a gap of 2 minutes and 19 seconds into 2nd placed Mikey Fry - remarkable in the short distance he had to do it in. Mikey only just pipped Torben by 4 seconds whereas first man to the summit - Damien Kelly - kept hold of 4th place another 4 seconds down.

The ladies field was well-contested with many evenly matched competitors - behind Becky Quinn, Catherine Devitt was not far behind and Yvonne Brennan, Aisling Kirwan and Claire O'Callaghan had all battled it out closely in local road and cross-country races in 2016. There was also Claire Wyse and Tanya Sheridan and you could almost have wished for a cross-country style 'ladies start' so the female competitors could have monitored each other even more closely. The top-7 woman ALL broke the existing record - Catherine Devitt, Cathy Wise, Yvonne Brennan, Tanya Sheridan, Aisling Kirwan, Roisin McDonnell while Claire O'Callaghan and Julia Hackett in 8th and 9th broke the 2015 winning time. As the Glendalough AC coach I was delighted seeing our ladies finishing 2nd, 4th and 7th after Donna Quinn had won the inaugural year (she could not attend this year). 

From a club side it was a pity Barry Murray had to retire with a sprained ankle having sat in the front pack early on but with Torben 3rd, Dave Docherty 57th and young Jack Kennedy winning the junior race, it was still a good day for the club for which this race is a Club Road and Trail Championship counter for 2017 as well.

Winter / Spring League

I must say I am impressed by the Winter/Spring League - if you had asked me a few years ago I would probably have voted in favour of abolishing it, as I was one of the people who questioned the need to stretch the associations resources across the year and what the point would be of racing this early in the year. The neighbouring Spring League had also become an irrelevance in terms of numbers and was rightly scrapped. 

However, the new format provides for a more well-attended contest and a counter-point in the season for the Leinster League which is groaning and creaking underneath the weight of its own numbers. Having the two leagues closing in on parity gives hill runners a chance to decide whether they will run hills in winter, in summer or both. If someone has designs on other racing on cross-country, track and roads, they now have the flexibility to choose either/or without losing out on a longer league challenge. The standard in the Leinster League remains higher than in the Winter / Spring League but this may change in time. The league format itself does pose a challenge to elites and aspiring elites for whom the schedule invites over-racing if they are to be also gunning for major championships and national-level races but the leagues are not primarily a vehicle for the elite but for the fun and participation of the mass membership. The mass membership do not periodise and racing is done year-round as a 'reward' for the regular training - this means the IMRA calendar must support some level of racing for most of the year (but the existing three month period with few races is still wise to give everyone a breather). Elites can prioritise - as some had to do with the National Cross-Country Championships being on the same day - hill runners did well there with Ian Conroy in 4th, Des Kennedy 13th, Tom Blackurn 54th and Jason Kehoe 67th

(few errors to be worked out - Ben Brennan in 8th ran the junior course, Catherine Devitt- 2nd woman - not listed yet. Etc.)

Monday, February 06, 2017

RACES: Dungarvan 10 mile

Five years after my last 10 mile race in Ballycotton, four of us travelled down for the traditional John Treacy 10 mile race in Dungarvan and what a treat we were in store for. This was a race organised by runners for runners - no loud techno music blasted at the start or finish line but large timing clocks were everywhere on the course showing that the focus was firmly on the sporting side of running: the race against the clock.

West Waterford AC, the organisers, could celebrate a record entry showing the running boom has lost little of its current momentum. Yet this is one of those races that feel a bit different from most mass participation events - for almost the entirety of the race I saw barely a single runner who was not wearing a club singlet or some other t-shirt showing allegiance to a triathlon club, fitness team or similar sporting group. I have always felt this brings something special to each event - much like cross-country it's an atmosphere I love and thrive on. It helps the mind as well when the sun shines down and the temperature is lovely and cool - ideal running conditions with only light winds on limited stretches.

The downside of a large race, naturally, comes in the form of some early congestion but the race is well setup to manage this and brilliantly marked. Traffic is neatly routed around the race and there's enough sapce at the start to avoid a complete logjam. Pacer's balloons tell you where you should place yourself if you have a realistic sense of your own ability and this seemed to be the general case here as the front of the field took off without hordes of runners having to push their way past slower competitors placed too far up front. There was still ducking and weaving and jumping up and on curbs, breaking your stride, putting hands out to indicate 'I'm coming in' and 'I'm coming out' but after 3-4 miles the field began to settle. I had started out with club-mate Barry O'Neill whom I expected would have a strong run based on recent performances. He is training for the Belfast 24-hour race and had done some long consistently paced runs that are ideal preparation for this type of one-hourish effort. With us was also his friend Charlie and Donna Quinn - another 'GMACer' (Glendalough Mountains Athletic Club member).

With Barry shortly after the start


Based on my own recent training I had stated in the previous post that 66 minutes would be a miraculous performance and anything below 70 would be ok. My training performances had dropped from 54 VO2max in October to 46 after illness in December and for most of the month I had mulled along at 48-49 only jumping up to 51 and then dropping to 50 in the final days before the race. I was determined to train right through as I didn't want a 'false positive' result flattering me just because I was fresh. So I did my 3 hours 15 run eight days out and continued training to plan. It almost cost me a bit of trouble as both my hamstrings felt strained after a series of hard strides on Friday evening. I then managed to bank 96 minutes of running the day before and the customary glass of red wine.

Once Barry and I were settled on the first few miles things were looking reasonably well: my breathing was quite steady but my legs were tired and ankles sore. So I focused on the task at hand - hitting the right effort and battling it out with the runners ahead. Barry eventually broke away for a gap that I did not retrieve and finished in a new personal best of 64:53. You are never lonely in this race thankfully and with plenty of little ups and downs, most of my time was focused on either reeling in a runner in front or holding off a runner from the back. As always I made more inroads on the descent than anywhere else as a Cork runner said to me at the finish 'jeez lad, you were flyin' down those hills' (you can add the accent yourself). Not being able to chase a personal best left me focused on the business of man-to-man racing and its incredible how many seconds you can retrieve by having to stay constantly focused and never giving an inch.  In 2012 I finally shed my demons and learnt the art of positive thinking in races: a basic trick is to always focus offensively - on the next runner and the next pack. Not the ones you just passed. It's easy to get shaken out of that as in a big race like this you're constantly hearing foot-steps behind you putting on the pressure. Now that I have developed a strong competitive attitude and ability to perform under pressure I always curse myself for not having more talent to use - but we must each work with the tools we've been given.

Final rush to the finish line

5 miles came in 33:14 for me, very positive on current form, and I only had to worry about whether I had the stamina to hold out at the moment. 10 km returned in 41:09 and then the very fast kilometer 11 opened up a big downhill for me and I thought to myself 'brilliant, I'm getting a mile FOR FREE'. I had lost count of the runners I had passed and those who had passed me in return but I felt I was in credit overall. The legs showed up as a bottle-neck at this stage - my average heart rate was quite low, at 169 beats per minute when I have run half-marathons at 176 beats per minute - and it was simply a case that the legs could not generate more power and pace today. I reviewed my cadence after and at 183 strides per minute it had been too high for this sort of pace but that often happens when muscles are a bit stiff and the body lacking its full range of motion or lacking the ability to express enough power per stride (we then take extra steps to compensate).

The finish

As we closed back in on sea-side in Dungarvan, you could feel everyone reading for the finishing sprint. I took several runners now as I made my last kilometre the fastest of the race but did get repassed by one as well - the only glitch in an otherwise strong finish. After catching my breath and finding Barry, we could see Donna finish in 72:23 about 7 minutes faster than she had run in 2016 - a massive improvement!

Tight cross-country style finish

So five years older, I was 6 minutes off my best but given the circumstances, I view it as a positive result. The training I am doing at the moment is what the Lydiard Foundation describe as 'Leg strength' - a period of training done BEFORE the base phase even begins. That will come next now once the days have had a few recovery runs to get their zip back. I had expected Ballycotton to be more hilly than Dungarvan but comparing the two routes, Dungarvan has slightly more elevation whereas the Trim 10 mile - held on the same day - has one third to one half the climb dependent on whose watch you trust most, so that may make that the contender as the fastest of the courses.

Friday, February 03, 2017

DIARY: Towards Dungarvan

With 'number 2' arriving in a few weeks and not knowing exactly how life will look in 2017, I decided to seek familiar pastures and began the year by copying my exact training diary from 2012 as close to the letter as the change in time and space allows.

More trouble in my foreseeable future...

One exception had crept in: last year I had signed up for the John Treacy Dungarvan 10 miler. I have a great relationship with organising club West Waterford - having worked with them on several occasions through ChampionsEverywhere and with a strong start to the 2016 cross-country season, it appeared a nice start to the new year.

As the Autumn peaked, my (vaunted) Garmin VO2max score had risen to 54 - only 4 points off my best level and with 3 months to go it looked realistic to be back in personal best shape. I only competed in the 10 mile distance once - running 60:28 at Ballycotton in 2012 and the Dungarvan course is allegedly faster.

Ballycotton 10 mile 2012

Unfortunately, I caught a smaller cold in November and before I had regained momentum our whole family went down with a bad flu (known as the 'Laragh Plague') meaning literally no training in December at all. When I slowly restarted between Xmas and New Year's Eve my VO2max had plummeted to 46 and the body did not like running at all for a few weeks. Thankfully, I worked my way into the year and have not missed a day's training for the last 36 days. Yet my optimism and goals have been tempered - instead of pushing for 54 performance and upwards I am now  at 50-51 according to recent training performances. A miraculous performance would see me run 66 minutes on the day with 68 or slower more likely. As it is, I'll train right through the event as a personal best is out of the question so I will use the trip as an experience and to scout out the race for future years. Another reason I opted to go is that a few more Glendalough AC runners are trying their hand at it and it should be a great club trip away.

We have a lot coming up apart from the arrival of 'number 2' (gender as yet unrevealed) - Jason and I are travelling to the North to teach a group of NIMRA Youth Internationals and then we are preparing for our talk at the Athletics Ireland Endurance Conference in April. I also have half an eye on my exams end of March and early April and then several family visitors from Denmark are expected to behold the 'new wonder'. Despite all this I intend to try to try and stick to my 2012 schedule with the exception of how it ended - the Copenhagen Marathon 2012. I don't intend to try my hand at any marathon distance event until my 5 km time is back below 17:30 so once I get further into the plan I will pick a new goal.

Ballycotton 10 mile 2012

This weekend, 5 years ago I did not do the Dungarvan 10 mile, so I have been in two minds about how exactly to include it. In the end I opted to just copy the Ballycotton week and move this week further ahead in the 2017 schedule. Is this the best way to train? Almost surely not but I'm on a personal journey here - I am walking the exact foot-steps of my best year because I want to understand the sequence of events that year better. It's not a training plan in the traditional sense as much as a voyage of self-discovery. It has been challenging as some of the things that happened in 2012 were not planned:

  • Our Hollywood to Glendalough run was planned for 28 km but due to a flooded bridge ended up being 37.5 km and taking us 3 hours 21 minutes. In the end here I could not quite copy it and instead did a run out and back to Glenmalure in 3 hours 15 minutes.
  • Our Dune sessions were just a 'cool idea' to test the session in January 2012. I could only do one sessions as I was already committed to the Glendalough Steady Steate League and/or my regular weekend work activities. 
  • Our UCD Fartlek sessions had a fantastic inter-personal dynamic - with a group of evenly matched athletes in the evenings. This time I have no company as I run around and replicate the sessions on the trails in Wicklow
  • I did a long run in January in the Glen of Aherlow a we had been invited by Tom Blackburn to do a hill session for the runners there. This year there was no such trip
And so on - and this is before the fact that I cannot run on the exact same routes anymore for the most part nor can I run at the same paces I did then. I also did not use a heart rate monitor that year so have no idea what intensities my runs were done at. That's part of the fun - these small differences help understand a little bit better what was the 'secret juice'.

Ironically because I am currently slower I ran more this January - 36 hours of running versus 33 hours in 2012. It's an improvement on the start to 2016 which featured only 24 hours running in the same month. The real trick will be to ensure it is sustainable. I am currently 3 kilos above my best racing weight at just over 69 kilos - dropping those 3 before the late Spring would make an enormous difference on average paces so I have a very low-hanging piece of fruit to pluck there.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

DIARY: A day in the life of the professional running coach

 When I first started running I would have been curious to know what the lifestyle of a professional running coach would entail. It’s an eclectic profession, of course, with characters ranging from Alberto Salazar whose position is funded by Nike’s multi-millions to the successful independent operations of Greg McMillan to semi-professional coaches attached to Athletics Federations or personal trainers dabbling in running. Coaching is a vocational career - greater riches are easily achieved in careers such as IT and Services - but can offer an interesting lifestyle.

So, I thought it might be fun for my readers to see a day in the life of a professional coach. I have been full-time at this work since July last year, having grown my company – ChampionsEverywhere – since 2011 first on a part-time basis with the safety net of a ‘secure’ IT job.


  • 7 am – alarm rings and it’s time to get dressed and fed without waking Aoife and the little man
  • 7:40 am – showered, watered, fed and dressed, and some mobility drills done and  I hit the road for Tinahely for the first of a 6-week series of coached sessions we are doing on behalf of the local triathlon club
  • 8:35 am – arrival in Tinahely and my friendly local contact Stephen Perry guides my car the last bit to the designated training grounds.
  • 9 am – after inspecting the surrounds, we start off with 40 enthusiastic runners of all abilities from beginner to seasoned veterans. This was possibly the biggest group I have ever had to manage on my own but the local organiser is a great help and the grounds are perfect. My job is to keep things organised and running smoothly, answer questions and address problems as they arise during the session and, of course, ensure everyone understands and can execute the workout. Sometimes you get some running done yourself during these sessions but in this case it’s minimal as I cannot be distracted for long. For a big group I have chosen a simple warm-up and cooldown that we all do together.
  • 10:30 – the session is all wrapped up and a take-away coffee later I am on the road back towards Laragh. My destination is the Glendalough Upper Lake where I am organising the ‘Glendalough Steady State League on behalf of my club – I have organised back-up in case I run late and cannot make it for the start at 11:30. Things go very smoothly and I am early – arriving at 11:15
  • 11:15 am – I setup the starting area and wait for my co-marshals and Aoife to arrive to help get the race up and running.
  • 11:30 am – runners begin to go on course and the stop-watch starts running for this handicap series. I get my own training done here – at 11:51 it’s my turn to do the long course and after a short warm-up I set out.  


  • 12:30 pm – with the race all done, our club goes for its traditional coffee and tea and some chat and banter to relax.
  • 1:15 pm – I am expecting a client at 2 pm, so I head back to the house to get showered and to a quick omelette for lunch and check that everything in the lab is setup properly and working.
  • 2 to 4 pm – Running technique assessment in the laboratory and retraining. While every runner is different, these sessions always begin by getting a brief history of the client and then filming them run. A few additional tests are completed to see where the runner’s weak spots are. Once we have a reasonably well-rounded picture, I teach the most important running exercises for the runner in question and we finish by refilming to see how far we have progressed.
  • 4 pm to 5:30 pm – I write the follow-on email for the client who has just left and check our CRM system (Customer Relationship Management) and our Chat services to see there is nothing urgent. Other than that, this is time for a break, a cup of coffee and some mental downtime. Then I review my notes for the 1.5 hour call I have scheduled at 5:30 pm.
  • 5:30 to 7 pm – Call with a client to review the last periods training and discuss the changes and plans going into the next period. This is done with screen sharing so we can look at online training records together and share any information either I or the client want to show the other. It’s a digital version of sitting with the coach over the dinner table I like to think.

With the last call done, it’s time to call it a day and start preparing the dinner, relax and get our son to bed.

A regular day?

There’s really no such thing in this profession which I suspect is part of the allure for most who dream or dare venture into it. What amateur running coaches should know first of all is probably this: you have to set your mindset that you will generally be working at the times when you used to have your brain set in ‘play mode’ or ‘training mode’. This is not as inflexible as it sounds – being your own boss allows you to plan your training quite flexibly but the best times to deliver your work is also often the best time to train and this includes weekend’s naturally.

What you should know if you want to 'go pro'

Also, the professional coach cannot simply know about physiology, training, coaching and so on but also needs to become quite proficient in marketing, social media, accountancy, price setting, negotiation, networking, video and document editing, digital media and much more. Because you’re generally a ‘one-man company’, you need to be prepared to learn every skill that there may have been a specialised position for if you worked for a large multinational like I did. If you’re successful enough to hire or partner with people, then you also need those skills to go with everything else. So for aspiring coaches or fitness professionals remember: it's not what you're passionate about that will make you happy or unhappy in a job and quite often making a job of your hobby is the single worst decision you will ever make. Why? Well, once you do something as a job, it still becomes a job even if the topic matter is interesting. Job satisfaction and personal happiness comes from other sources and primarily being competent and successful at what you do. So it's better to be successful at something that doesn't interest you all that much than failing miserably at what you love - so if coaching or fitness careers is something you're interested in be prepared to learn a lot of skills and do a lot of activities that you may not enjoy. 

Coaching a group or a workshop is the easy part - especially if coaching comes easy to do you - but running the business around it may catch a lot of new entrepreneurs off guard. You need to be comfortable with uncertainty - how much you will earn each month is never certain and you cannot stop to be complacent for a second. The fantastic workshop or 'brand new technique' that is giving you an advantage right now will be what everyone does for pennies a few years down the line. You will need to never stop educating yourself and continuously have a hunger to improve. If you read the 4-hour work week (I did) then you may have been tempted by the concept of 'Income Auto-Pilot'. This sort of thing does not exist in the coaching world - nor much in any other business. You won't grow a thriving company that gives you and your family security on 4 hours per week. You need to pretty much live and breathe the project and be prepared to make many sacrifices. In the early years of your project, you will likely find that you have less time for training and for your family than you did when you were full-time employed (this is obviously the case if you take the 'safe option' and build your new career on the side while working in your current role. If your top priority is improving yourself as a runner and getting personal bests, I can only repeat the advice Barry Minnock gave me years ago: DON'T COACH. Coaching means being passionate about the success of others. Being successful personally as a runner requires huge degrees of selfishness not compatible with the coaching role - get your own success first. If you go the coaching role first be prepared that you will never be able to commit all your resources to your own success. This is fine if you're willing to accept this. 

The most successful coaches were often not very successful runners for the simple reason that top performers tend to be quite different from normal folk and their ways do not always translate across to others. The skills required to be a successful performer and to coaching successful performers are largely different. You see the rare overlaps (Guardiola - perhaps) but more exceptions (Benitez, Brother Colm, Jurgen Klopp). Even my own 'hero' Lydiard was not a top athlete (merely a competitive one) - he possessed certain interpersonal skills that made him the coach he was.

My weekdays

During weekdays, I suppose I could call myself a ‘modern dad’ as I take care of my son until 10 am every day when he is picked up by the babysitter. Then my workday begins – generally with our online work – supporting training plans, answering emails, posting information and so on but sometimes early consults with clients arriving 10:30 or 11 am. I found early on that to be efficient, it was best to train straight away once Cillian (my son) got picked up as this allowed me to wrap up training and shower before lunch and then eat straight away. I don’t pick him up until 6 pm which leaves me a nice long stretch from 1 or 2 pm to 5:45 pm for focused work. If I have afternoon consults my wife takes over ‘pick-up duty’ and for evening consults, there’s a simple ‘baby hand-over’. Generally, I do not believe in regular work into ‘family hours’ so I keep post-7 pm work down to the few occasions where it is absolutely necessary.

We do leave in an age of technology, though, and the aspiring professional coach should be ready to deliver WhatsApp answers at various times of the evening if that is pre-agreed with the client. Mostly, however, good planning and communication can avoid the unfortunate situation where a coach or trainer loses control of the border between private life and work and begins to ‘work all the time’. This is not unique to professional coaching, of course, as every industry suffers from this issue since the advent of laptops and SmartPhones.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

RACES: Wicklow Novice cross-country 2016 (Ashford)

I haven’t felt as settled going into a race for 3.5 years as I did today ahead of the Wicklow Novice Cross-country hosted by Ashford AC on the Polo Grounds there. Last year’s tough hilly Wicklow Master’s course had been replaced by a ‘Phoenix Park-like course’ – a fast course with only few small hills and brief sections that were slippy and soft by the time the senior races came around.
Speaking off, after a near-perfect morning preparation for myself at home, our Glendalough AC organisation had a less than glorious moment. We had made certain assumptions about race times – predicting the typical start times of 1 pm and 1:30 pm for senior ladies and senior men’s race with the intention of meeting up at 12 am. Unfortunately, this is an assumption I have picked up on the Dublin and Leinster circuits where this is the norm – in Wicklow the time table is determined at 11 am on the day of the race. We didn’t pick up on this as our club decided not to enter our juniors into the cross-country series this year and thus had no representatives there early on. I won’t belabour the details just the consequences: we ended up fielding only 1 lady (Claire O’Callaghan) and 3 men which meant we could not compete in the team competitions as they require 3 and 4 runners respectively. This would be the only major disappointment on an otherwise great day. Our ladies would have had a good shot at medals whereas looking at the men’s result it is unlikely even the inclusion of Torben and Derek would have seen us in contention.
after it was all over

‘A perfect morning’
Until then I could not have asked for a better pre-race run-up. A very tough and surprisingly strong windsprint session on Thursday had been followed by 70-odd minutes of trail on Friday. Saturday I continued my experiment with slightly more aggressive pre-race day routines. Instead of my customary 4-6 x 100 m strides, I do longer repeats but in low volume. It’s a notion I picked up a long time ago from research into an area called ‘priming’ (essentially the idea that this does not tire you before the race but leaves the body in a state of greater readiness). Before Star of the Seas last Sunday, I had used 3 x 300m with 200m float repeat. This week I used 4 x 200m with running recovery until heart rate dropped down below 130 bpm again. These sessions always buffered by easy running. Why bother having different versions? Because I agree with some of the leading thinkers in training methods at the moment: variability in training is one of the biggest stimuli for improvement – especially of the brain and nervous system – and that’s where you can get the quickest benefits. So instead of using the exact same routine, I shuffle them. I finished the priming run confident – my legs were springier than in a long time and the body just felt ready to go.

Sunday began with my customary cold shower before enjoying a very large breakfast – one of the perks of late-in-the-day racing. I did a bit of suppling and lifted a few weights – nothing excessive – just waking up the body step by step. As Aoife left to do volunteer duties, I teamed up with my son Cillian for the next bit of preparation: immersing myself in cold water for 10-15 minutes in our bathtub. Cillian’s role is simple: throw rubber ducks at me to keep me distracted while I settle into the cold.  A lot of new research has confirmed that cold immersion close to events can improve performance. For those curious about the topic look up ‘Cold Thermogenesis’ and read the different protocols. For me it’s my main recovery weapon now: most runs are finished in the river or the bathtub or, failing the time, with a cold shower taking special attention to hose the legs down. On race day I put in a hot shower as a ‘contrast’ to heat the muscles up and not expend energy to reheat. On a normal day I do not do this as I want my body to be able to reheat itself. That’s the whole point: returning our bodies natural ability to thermoregulate even in the face of extreme temperatures. That’s a better investment than the most expensive jacket. There are more powerful reasons – related to magnetism and energy flow in our cells – for cold exposure but too big a side-step to talk about it here.

Trouble on the Polo Grounds
My pre-race bliss was shattered shortly after arriving when, carrying Cillian around, I became aware the races would start long before expected. A flurry of texts and phone calls followed and by the end of the storm some nice lady had volunteered to take Cillian to Aoife and we had three men and Claire ready to race – although Claire would have to do with a very truncated warm-up!

Panic at the start!

Torben – who couldn’t quite take advantage of his nickname ‘Turbo’ in this instant – was on the road from Ballsbridge and the clock was ticking. He was our lead-man and would have been a good 2 minutes ahead of me today had he raced and a good bet for the top-10. We pondered delay tactics. Could Barry fake a heart attack? Could Colm use a series of false starts to buy him time?

Claire in the the thick of it

 All the while, Claire was in the thick of the business of racing even without the other two musketeers to assist her – Donna and Yvonne – who were by now cheering on from the side-lines. Aisling Kirwan had gone off strong as she has in previous years. The open question was whether it was a too strong or not. Some spectators favoured the Ashford AC girl sitting in 4th position on the first lap to charge through. In the end the deck did not shuffle much – Aisling got a break from Claire who had been a presence on her shoulder for some time and held on – but only by 4 seconds. ‘I was driven to victory by the thought of having to run the Novice again at age 45’, she explained after.

For Claire the short warm-up had not been the only spanner in the works – going into the final sharpening week ahead of this race her hip had acted up and she had only resumed easy running earlier in the week missing our planned ‘sneak premiere’ at Star of the Seas were Torben and I had blown our own cobwebs out of the tubes. She had done an easier version of our Thursday sharpener and come through unscathed but it was not ideal. In the end she showed great grit to hang on for a silver medal – she’ll need a bigger drawer at the rate she’s collecting them this last year.

We're off

Men’s race
Cyril Smyth fired the starting gun as Colm, Barry O’Neill and I gazed wistfully across the grassland hoping to see the tall figure of Torben striding over from the car park but in the end the gun went and individual glory alone was the pursuit we had to put our heads to. Had Derek Cullen not gone down with a bug the evening before, we may not have been so tight to the bone in terms of numbers. I was in the ideal position for the start – on the very inside and with a clear run to the nearest corner. I was better positioned than I expected early on and did not feel overwhelmed by the intensity. Only later – analysing the run on Strava – could I see that the start was a good bit faster than I have been running anything in the last few years (3:37 min/km – the fastest of the 6ish kilometres I’d run).

Barry O'Neill

On current form I would have expected Barry O’Neill to lead our line in the absence of Torben, Amidou (work commitments) and Angus Tyner (orienteering commitments) but he had his own question marks to deal with. His careful preparation for the Dublin Marathon had to be aborted when he was put on the side-lines for several weeks with a debilitating back injury. A few weeks easy running had restored enough confidence for him to ‘give it a go’ and in the end he’d run very well. I caught a glimpse of him during lap 2 – sitting a few hundred metres back – as I rounded a corner and he would work his way through the field on the last lap and will be confident of even more of his current condition returning at next week’s Intermediate race. Colm suffered after a hard start. A foot niggle that has troubled him flared up midway and he managed it from there to finish in 43rd and 28:14.

3 x 2 km laps
I found myself running with Tony Collins briefly on the first lap – my compatriot from the Fionnuala McCormack Kilomarathon Relay on September 10th – running his 2nd race after his return. I pulled clear during the first lap but for every Parnell runner I passed there seemed to be another one ready to pass me (indeed we were outnumbered 10 to 3).

 I gained some spaces both on the first and second lap where I even had time for a bit of crowd-waving, ‘thank you’ shout-outs to encouragers and throwing one-line situation reports to Aoife. I was in control at this stage. One Parnell runner, Tom Moore, however, came through very strong and while his pull past me allowed me to also gain, his break was decisive. Not so with a ding-dong battle with Billy Tyrrell. Several times during the race he pulled past me and I had to repass. But this only confirmed I had reserves.

Ding-dong with Billy Tyrrell

 Or so I thought – hitting the first corner of the third lap the pain went up a by a significant notch. What maintained me now was the ‘see Jesus’ session on Thursday. I had run the windsprints so hard that the pain had changed to euphoria. Knowing I could push the heart to the brink gave my rusty race confidence the polish it needed to not panic and continuing pushing on all sections. I was particularly aware of the steepest part of the course – a two-part short hill just as you enter the long stretch to the finish. It almost cost me a place on lap 2 and I knew the same mistake could be fatal on lap 3 as my sprint finish is not one you would want to get you out of trouble. I am no Richie Healy (as anyone who has taken the ‘Healy Kick’ will attest). So coming up the final hill I pushed hard – hard enough that I knew there was a risk of being defenceless in the sprint. Thankfully I could still speed up – not to sprint speed but enough that no threat came from behind – my gap to Billy was 5 seconds in the end.

The very long final push

Never look back – or perhaps let’s look back a bit
 I was unaware of this – due to my refusal to look backwards unless I’m on a bend – I simply thought ‘push, push, push’ as the finish stretch seemed to go on forever and ever. Gasping over my knees at the finish I noticed for the first time that Irish Olympian Fionnuala McCormack was acting as club marshal. What a wonderful sport to be in when the top athletes do not hold themselves too precious to officiate at a ‘lowly’ local event. I imagine she has quite a few fond memories of the Wicklow Novice – perhaps the place where she learnt the foundation for her international cross-country success. Both Barry O’Neill and Tony Collins gained ground on me during the last lap – Tony finishing in 23rd (9 seconds down) and Barry in 25th (12 seconds down). Usually I am the one leaving it too late. It was a good performance on many levels:

  • ·         % of winning time 110% - by far the closest I have finished to a winner in cross-country (Dublin Intermediate 2009 saw me in 115%)
  • ·         Best position ever finishing 20th (previous best was 31st in the Wicklow Intermediate but that was out of 38 runners!)
  •       Second best relative position in a cross-country field (144% into the field – my best was in Teacher’s with 136% but that is a lower standard race than the AAI ones. My second best relative place was 162% when finishing 62nd out of 100 in the Dublin Novice 2009)

  • ·         My 3rd best pace in a cross-country race (3:50 min/km – versus 3:44 in Leinster Novice 2009 and 3:50 in Dublin Novice 2009 – of course courses are hard to compare)

We missed out on a great chance to compete for Ladies medals this time but have only ourselves to blame and thankfully not long before we can give it a second go at next week’s Intermediate.

Claire with her medal

Missing out
Unfortunately, I will not be able to compete as I have to travel back for my grandmother’s funeral. She passed this Tuesday at the grand old age of 94 – one year and a month after my mother left us. The day before will be busy for the club – we are organising Run the Ridge (a 20 km and 8 km mountain/trail run). I am also sorry not to see the work we’ve put into this but going home to pay my respects and catch up with the family obviously takes priority. Next up then will be the Avondale 4-mile race on 20th of November as the warm-up before the Wicklow Seniors where we can field a decent team and then our road-trip to the Dungarvan 10 mile in February. Amidou is sadly out for the season as he leaves for a work stint in Mali then. The upside: two months of largely uninterrupted training between then and now should allow me to take another step ahead fitness-wise especially with an eye on 2017. Certainly having such a success in my weakest running discipline is huge encouragement and taking 20 seconds off my average pace from Star of the Seas the week before was even better.


I want to end by thanking Ashford AC for great organisation and a really enjoyable and interesting course.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

RACES: Return to Stamullen (Star of the Seas cross-country 2016)

'That was the most horrible race I ever did.' Torben had only spoken the words a few seconds after I crossed the finish line and I knew the wait continued: the years had passed and still I had not met a runner enjoying their first cross-country race. 'But I am kind of enjoying it now,' he finished.

A big club trip had been planned to make this early-season cross-country run a general rehearsal for the upcoming back to back weekends of Wicklow County action. Injuries and other race commitments whittled our travelling squad down to just two: the two Danes, Torben and I.

The years roll by

Long years seem to pass between each of my trips here: 2007 saw my first outing and 2011 the second. Why it took me so long to return I don't know for it is a real classic. No medals, no t-shirts, no loud-speakers, no guided warm-up routines or goodie bags. Just good old-fashioned racing for €15 including the tea and brack afterwards. The field is placed as a cross-country course should be: in the middle of nowhere between Greenanstown, Julienstown and Stamullen in County Meath. This should not fool us into thinking the race is easy-going - this is a terrifically well-laid out cross-country over 4 x 1500m laps including 8 steep climbs (2 per lap), 8 descents and odd flat sections in between.

I stepped out off my car and into the heavy grass in brilliant sunshine. By the time I reached registration grey clouds had gathered and by the time we had made our way up the first hill and into the first descent a fierce rainy blaze hit us head-first. It was an odd wind almost sucking the air away from your lungs it seemed. This was the closest I was to Torben - less than 50 m back. He slowly made up more and more ground especially on the climbs to finish in a fine 22:30 for the 6 km.

My start was better than expected but then I hit a midway crisis and the usual thought of 'I'll have to drop out'. The fact a man over 60, running in his bare feet, was 100 m ahead of me quickly banished such thoughts and I steadied my own private ship and got stuck into the race again. I had lost 4-5 spaces here and would only regain one but on the other hand I would lose no more.

Age no barrier - at least for some of my competitors

Coming towards the finish my older co-competitor and a runner in yellow singlet were the only two in reach. I passed the Masters runner at the top of the hill and thought I'd be gone on the descent but he thought otherwise. Only in the last 100 metre could I let my lesser years count enough to secure the spot. Afterwards I thought how 37 is an odd age - too old to be young and too young to be old which I suppose is why we call it middle-age.

My time of 24:41 was slower than on the two previous outings here (23:53 in 2011 and 24:09 in 2007) but conditions were also much slower than on the previous occasions. Since early summer my VDOT has climbed from 48 to 52 and at this rate I will be back in PB shape by Spring next year. It's no coincidence that this coincides with giving up the day-job and being able to work full-time on 'the dream' - being content in life is the foundation for everything else - sporting or otherwise.

Now for the serious business...

As a dress rehearsal it was nice to get the cob-web blown off the lungs - my chest was markedly tired after. The Wicklow Novice awaits and with three of our top-4 club runners being absent, the rest of us will need to work a bit harder. I experimented with a new routine removing my easy run with strides in favour of 4 x 300m repeats with 200m float to try and prime the machine more. It worked well enough and I was happy how I kept working hard into the hills - an area I normally concede significant ground on.

I discussed the point on cross-country with Torben again after: it's training for other stuff we runners want to do - hills, road, track - at least for the majority. So the initial shock of doing, the general dislike of being part and the inevitable satisfaction of completing are part and parcel but also simply part of a training process. Cross-country is a strengthener for the winter training ahead and it hones largely neglected skills nowadays - racing man against man, picking a good line, dealing with the unexpected, bringing the intensity and keeping the spirits high in difficult conditions. Ok, there was no heavy plough and obstacles like in the old days but it wasn't a golf course either. My dad did not have much to work with - sporting wise- with me as I was both disinterested and without obvious talents as a child. Yet, he did lay a decent foundation for this dragging me through forest floors from the age of 5, running in dark forests during bitterly wet and cold Danish Autumn nights and having to cross river streams early on and spend the rest of the evening sitting wet in a car. We need this sort of stuff today - more than ever....

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