RACES: The Trail League Starts

The Leinster League has only been finished for a week, and here we go again!

"We created the Leinster League mostly for fun", said Gavan Doherty to me recently, and no doubt, the Leinster League generally features much easier races than the Irish and Leinster Championships, or the pure wildness of the Connacht Championships.

So if the Leinster League exits to ease people into hill running, then what is the purpose of the Trail League? Wait a moment, what is the Trail League.

The Trail League is a wind-down of the season with three short-distance races with a minimum of climbing and no "rough stuff" (meaning there's some kind of trail to run on, and no rivers to cross!).

Traditionally, Butter Mountain, Earl's Drive, and Kilmashogue have been the three races featured, but new League Director Douglas Barry had other ideas, and has refreshingly chosen three completely new routes.

Glen of the Downs
Fittingly, the first race of the revamped league is named rather colourfully "Glen of the Downs", a 7.26km race with 289m of ascent.

The run itself is a beautiful forest run, starting on a serious ascent, but also featuring another tortous climb midway through (as seen on the profile right).

All of us also-rans could realistically dream of a bit of spotlight as I scouted the starting pack: Barry, Ronan, James, Eoin, Peter, and the other big guns where no where in sight. Not that this meant an easy field by any means, a second glance showed that national coach Gerry Brady, everman Gavan Doherty, the strong North Laois runners, unbreakable and everpresent Dermott Murphy, and Irish international Keith Daly where all ready to pick up the gauntlet laid down in the absence of the runners who have ruled the roost this whole year.

A Maiden Runner
This was not the only change to today's field, however, as I was this time accompanied by my colleague Sharlene, who ran so well in her first half-marathon at Achill Island a month ago, and had decided to test herself against rougher pastures.

Being a real nature lover, it had not taken me too much persuasion to coerce her into trying on the Trail League, and was hoping the race would be a good first experience, and not as daunting as when I threw myself inexperienced against the might of Lugnaquillia (and was crushed as a result). Oh no, this race would easy, a pure walkover. I actually believed that!

So how did she do for her first run? And how was this first race? Well...

No Easy Run
One thing I've learned this season is that there's not really any easy run. If the route is flattish, well, then everybody runs off like hares, if it's harsh, everyone gets stuck in there 100%.

Still, I had a feeling this would be easier than normal, that seemed to be the point of the league anyway, so I decided to change strategy and rush off at full speed, instead of my usual cautious approach. I expected no serious hills after the initial climb, and that would allow me to shake off any lactic acid accumulated during the climb. As an extra bonus, the climb was the perfect chance to try and get a gap on some of the speedier runners from the streets and tracks.

I looked back, and saw Sharlene had taken up neutral position in a packed mid-field, and once several tractors where finally out of our view, I stormed off being right behind a strong group with Gerry, Dermott, and North Laois man Derek Coogan. I couldn't hold that position long, but managed to get over the first hill well in touch with the front group and with a good gap on the main field.

The last many races, including Snowdon, I've felt way too well arriving at the finish line, instead of half-dead as earlier in the season. I was determined to change that today, and even though my heart was already pounding at an alarming rate, biting through the pain was paramount.

What followed was a rough ride through a beautiful forest, with plenty of variation and small curves to be navigated. Thinking I was much further along the route than I was, I kept pushing the issue, even holding off a challenge from Alan Ayling, who was doing his usual charge after 2-3km, that almost unerringly leads him to to top-20 finishes.

I expected to see him again soon, though, but as it proved, I was not the only one who would suffer later on.

Just before the 4km mark, I was in 14th position out of the 111 runners in the woods, having run the first 4km in only 19:07, and then, like an F16 running purely on fumes, my legs went dead, and I just couldn't pick up pace. Runner after runner passed me by, and I was fearing total embarrassment at this stage, as every little hill seemed like my own personal Everest.

Behind me Alan was also having one of his worst races this season (and would finish 52nd, an ample warning that off-days will inevitably hit even the best!); he was not the only one sharing my suffering as it proved, later I learned that we all hoped that the ever-elusive finish would come sooner than it did, but endless winding paths revealed nothing but more of the same.

A Cry for Help
Did we all misjudge the race? Well, quite a few of us certainly did, and with good reason, the race features 289m of climb (more than Howth, and almost as much as Three-Rock Stepaside), and with an ascent grade of 7.9% (steeper than Tibradden, Ticknock, Howth, and same steepness as Brockaghs and Stepaside).

Yes, this wasn't the Leinster League, but it was harsh stuff.

At this stage my average pulse had been at 188 for more than 20 minutes, but even in my more and more delirious stage, I produced a worried thought for Sharlene, I had sold a stroll in the park, and this wasn't exactly it!

As it later proved my worries would have been better reserved for myself, tough (and clever!) cookie as she is, Sharlene had settled into a good pace behind me, while I was...

Running Stupid
Tactically, I've been very happy with my recent races, but I've still left them all with a bad conscience. After none of the races had I "killed myself", partly because Ronan Guirey had advised me to save a few percent in races and keep my eye on the long-term goals.

Today, I just had the desire to punish myself for this policy, for some daft reason, and I was doing just that, on kilometre 5 and 6, I was a fish out of water, a beached whale, and I loudly demanded the distance to the finish from every marshal I ran in to.

As I thought the race would unravel completely, though, I emerged on the long final descent, and somehow found the strength to take on Joseph Connor and Jonathan Corrie in front of me in a wild downhill pursuit.

Finish in the Down(s)
I got Joseph with half a kilometre to go, but while I closed the gap on Jonathan, I had to accept that the damage had been done, and saw him finish 7 seconds ahead of me, still the closest I had got this season. Mick Hanney in the meantime had sneaked up right behind me, and as he offered me hand to help me up (collapsed on the grass as I was this time), he said: "I could probably have taken you, but I couldn't take it away from you, you seemed to work so hard!"

Thanks Mick, a great gesture of sportsmanship that I honestly fear I would have not returned!
Having dropped to as low as 25th at some stage, I managed to recover to 22nd finishing only 18% later than winner Derek Coogan who had a dramatic finale with Gerry Brady winning with a 17 second margin, followed by juniors and brothers Emmett and Kian who took full advantage of their youthful speed to finish 3rd and 4th.

My mission of self-flagellation was certainly complete: I kept my pulse at 188 average, my highest yet for a race, seconded only by Howth's 187. I'll return to my Hellfire question: Can the heart explode?

Waiting for the Women
Next came the second nerve-wracking part of the day, having recovered my wits, I went to the finish line, to wait for Sharlene, partly hoping the race hadn't put her off trail running for good, and partly afraid she'd kill me for coercing her into it!

Has any man ever waited for a woman without some sense of dread anticipation in any context is the question best left to philosophers!

Coming in within 26 seconds of each other where old Crusaders rivals Orla McAvoy and Aoife Joyce arriving around the 37 minute mark, then followed other well-known faces such as Brendan Lawlor, Vivian, Diarmuid, Thomas "aka Tommy the Tumbler" Galvin, Jim Fitzharris, Alan Ayling, and Niamh, also more or less recovered from Snowdon.

Some time later arrived the first of the Bells, Wicklow Round father Brian, the first of the Bells, and only slightly later came Sharlene finishing in a solid 85th position, 20th out of the 36 women on the day. No mean feat, and while she admitted to me that the thought "I'm gonna kill René" did enter her mind during the race, my life was spared on this occasion. Pheew...

Roll on Next Week
I liked the race so much that I've postponed my full-on marathon training for two weeks, fitting my training to the next two trail races to see how well I can do. Sharlene was equally excited about the whole setup, and as we left the casual craic at the Glencormac Inn she made a firm promise to light up the league with her presence for the remaining two races, so we may have another convert to the off-roads! And before I can say: "How I miss that initial excitement", well, it's still there as fresh and untainted as six months ago!