RACES: Howth is Back, So Am I!

This Wednesday featured the 7th race of the Leinster League, and my "official return" to racing after 30 days of injury

See the pictures of me here, or go to IMRA for the full lot!

Comeback Kid

Obviously, I was more excited than usual at the start. Not only was it the first opportunity to see if the leg could take race pace (my long hard session on Saturday and Monday's intervals had given me some indications, but nothing compares to a real race), it was also a return to Howth for my 16th race of the season, having just missed out on 5 of the races I had planned for during the last month.

Needless to say, I have some catching up to do for the rest of the season.

Last time I did this race was this year's Winter League, at the time only my third IMRA race, and I did not remember favouring the route one bit, finding it narrow and chaotic....

Ben of Howth
The Howth race is not a high one, the highest point being only 171m, but you have to do two loops of the circuit on the top, and the first climb has gut-drenching ascent grade that can throw you completely out of rhythm, if you're not careful and pace yourself.

The race officially features 8.5km of running with a 220m of ascent. Today's race had to be shortened slightly, however, and I got the distance in at 7.93km of running with 200m of total ascent.

One thing I learned from Winter's race, is, that you must rush all you can to the forest after the GAA pitch where the field starts out. This forest track is very very narrow, and filled with obstacles like som agility track (returning over the top for a second time was also not a nasty surprise this time around! Still unwelcome of course!).

In order to spread out the field, a few laps are usually done of the GAA pitch, but due to the local club having a training session, and we only needed to do one lap of the adjacent field, before entering the narrow slit leading into the small wood next to the Ben of Howth.

Strategy and Battles
Its nice to know some of the routes beforehand finally, and I made a rush for it to get into the forest, knowing that if I didn't, I could very well get stuck behind a wall of runners.

Howth is a very difficult race for over-taking. Most of the tracks are only a few feet wide and filled with loose stones and heavy brush, particularly the first very steep ascent (seen below), and the small descent of the second peak at the top.
It was no surprise then that I had a hearty battle with my regular rival Aoife Joyce, a very ardent runner from Crusaders. We've beaten each other criss and cross all season (sometimes with as little as 4 seconds), so when she passed me by on the first ascent (as usual), I decided to hang on there, and we battled it out for the rest of the race, overtaking each other in terms. Aoife dominating most of the ups, I most of the downs.
Aoife complained that most her male rivals get the better of her eventually once they start training seriously. She's probably right, since genes are still heavily stacked in favour of males at this distance (the pendulum only swins into the favour of women into the ultra-distances), but if its any consolation Aoife, you do drag the best out of us with relentless and stubborn pace!

On the last ascent I knew that it was make or bust: If you don't get off the peak before the person in front of you'll lose your chance to break away, and will have a torrid time trying to over-take before the finish. My rest must have done me some good, because I was hanging in much more comfortably going up, and decided to have a go for it, just scraping past Aoife and lunging down the descent, getting a hole of some 30 metres in the process.

This time there was nothing to hold me back, and the knee stood up for it with little complaint, let's hope injury days are over!

While we were battling it out above, Barry Minnock had once again clinched victory below in the impressive time of 31:25, while Aisling Coppinger, recovered from her and her teams faltered attempt at the epic Wicklow Round (after 18.5 hours of running! Take that marathoners!), won yet another title on the women's side. Aoife Joyce coming in 23 seconds after me, took care of the 2nd place and clinched the women's team title for Crusaders, getting one up on Clonliffe Harriers.

No Snails at the Finish...
The IMRA finishes always seem to be frantic, and no exception was in sight at Howth, everyone seemed to be making a sprint for it at the finish when you appear out of the forest back onto a broad grassy track with only a few hundred metres to go. I glimpsed someone trying to sprint up on me from behind (not Aoife to my surprise!), and made a final spur across the finish line gaining two last minute positions as a bonus.

I was reviewing my race data afterwards, and it was mental. The rest, the altitude training, the intervals, or all of them, must have done something, because I was racing at an intensity of 187bpm on average (spending more than 37 minutes in the MAC, or Maximal Aerobic Capacity, zone). This is a good bit higher than normal, and to make matters more insane, I pushed my heartrate up to 197bpm on the final kilometre, 4 above my previously registered max. Heart Rate! Never during the race did my Heart Rate drop below 181 (and that was on the first lap!)

The data confirms my personal experience, this time I felt extreme tiredness in my respiratory system and heart (I'd go as far as saying the heart was beating "uncomfortably" and "out of rhythm" for a while, now I know why!).

Howth Winter vs. Howth Summer
I good measure of my overall progress since starting serious running back in January, was comparing yesterday's race with the Winter League Howth:

Length: 8.5km (Winter)/7.93km (Summer)
Ascent: 200m/200m
Time: 47:35/41:52
Pace (mm/km): 5:36/5:16
Position: 58 out of 104/41 out of 142
% of Winner: 144%/132%

So I cut off almost 6 minutes of the Winter time, reducing my average pace by 20 seconds per kilometre. This is my first chance to monitor real progress, so if this any indication, then things look to be heading in the direction I want them to. There's still an awful lot of ground to make up, but baby-steps must be taken for sustainable progress.

Most of all, though, its just great to be back racing. Motivating myself for training during the injury period was much harder than it should be, but now everything seems easy after a race like this, and it was good to see a lot of the crowd again. Roll on the next one...

PS. Why am I posting this a 3 in the night? Its a bit embarassing in fact, but I as I returned from the race, I went to bed around 1, and had to be up at 5 for some early tasks. Coming home from work today (well, yesterday), I thought an hours nap sounded like a good idea. Well here I am! Freshly awakened in the middle of the night!