The narrow tarmac road around Ballyboughal, a neat little village North of Swords, is opening up what I think is the final few bends before the finish. A hand-crafted sign saying "800m" confirms as much.
I'm weary, not in the usual drained, zombie-like way as when you're making it up the third steep ascent of a long-distance hill run, but heavy, like if lodestones had been tied around my ankles. My over-stretched right hamstring, and the two-month soreness of my left heel somehow don't bother me. Perhaps they have chosen to retire for all races, as a friendly gesture, or perhaps they are being drowned by the numbness of my legs, each muscle fibre ignoring my pleas for greater speed.
A Weary Mind
At this stage the thought "you're so slow" has invaded my brain constantly for the best parts of 30 minutes, my frustration compounded by strong breathing and little discomfort, at my steady heart rate of 177bpm.
I should have known better, I tell myself, "don't race tired" jumps in as an endlessly rehearsed excuse. "Was it the weights Thursday or the hard sprints Tuesday, or the rough run Friday?" the logical part of my brain tries to reason endlessly.
I've been feeling alone for about a mile, after a quick start had send me well off doing the first two km in 3:46 and 3:50, I had been overtaken quite a few times, fighting off a few more challenges along the way, and colliding with a Clonliffe female runner at the water station midway. Of course, I know nothing of my fast 2 first Ks at this stage, all I remember is being constrained by a crushing slow pace.
"There you see, you are not a road runner", "you should focus solely on the mountains", my brain keeps working away with feeble excuses to explain the perceived failure.
The familiar faces from the hill running scene, Keith Daly and Dermott have not been in sight since the first few kilometres. I know Fionnula and Bronagh must be breathing down my neck, and that somewhere a bit further down, is Karen Duggan, the reckless descender, and possibly the only person who seems to think more about running than I do, and Niamh, my fellow Crusader, on her way to setting a PB.
The 800m is a tempting kick-off point for a mad sprint, but if the track sessions have thought me one thing it is this: 800m is not a short distance...
The road winds further, the final metres seeing looming shades protecting us from the baking sun above, and my sprint starts. Someone, a male runner in white, overtakes me with breathless pace. I try to sprint and almost catches the two runnes in front of me, but it's not a real sprint, just fast running pace. If I had any fast-twitch fibres left in my legs, they were grinded to mash by Shane and the Crusader's sprinters on Tuesday and the too heavy squats Thursday.
As I change to walking pace, I'm shaking my head in disbelief. What happened? Nothing bad is it turned out...
The Illusion of Speed
One of the downsides of stepping up your level, competing with faster runners, and overall pushing yourself more, is that you feel less fresh while you're running, more forced, and slower compared to the "speed cannons" around me.
The 8k Clonliffe Harrier's Road Race is over, and the winner has shattered last years record with a sub-25min time. This pace is just a few seconds quicker than the Kenyan who won the Marselis Run two weeks ago. Of course, he had rough hills and 4 more kilometres to contend with, God only knows the damage he would have done on today's flat friendly route.
Having never run an 8k road race before, I had no idea what time to expect, all I knew was that I would set a PB no matter what. Asked to guesstimate by Keith and Dermott before the race, I ran a few quick numbers and concluded: "I'll be happy with 33-35 minutes."
Logic told me that I couldn't possibly have a great run. I'm in the middle of the roughest training my body has ever had to receive, I'm struggling, every day is a battle at the moment, every completed training a monumental victory. But then, sport is not about reason, it's about passion, and no passion is more true than any other.
When the whistle goes...
So, as the start went, I forgot all about Lindie and her "don't go out and kill yourself" and all about my own deductions: "This is a glorified speed session." Every position lost in the hundred-something field hurt just as much as always, as while I was not delirious enough to try and force my legs beyond what they were clearly restricted to today, my mind kept putting it's foot to the gas.
A lesson was learned today, as my fellow runners called my time of 32:40 "a great time", it dawned on me: Big changes are happening.
Many runners have come on by leaps and bounds this year. Look at Aoife Joyce, whose ferocious determination propelled her to the World Trophy, at Niamh ni Cholmain whose percentage of winning times keep getting better, of Peter O'Farrell who has recorded his first wins on the IMRA Tour, or Eoghan McKenna who looks more and more like a man who is more than a local hero, but perhaps a prodigy worthy of stepping out of John Lenihan's long broad shadow.
And so have I, and it's time to start being happy about it. As Karen was giving me a lift back to Dublin centre, she characterised herself as a "whingeing runner". Well, Karen, if you're a whingeing runner, I'm a "Moaner", never happy, never satisfied.
The Spark of Dissatisfaction
All top runners need enough ambition to be dissatisfied with setbacks, otherwise, what would drive them onwars to excellence. The same applies to us happy amateurs, but it's important never to lose sight of the true picture. Don't take achievements out of context, look at the raw facts. This would be my piece of wisdom for aspiring runners.
And so I did for myself today. As I had time to reflect, it came to me:
1. I ran three kilometres in times around the 3:50 mark (a feat I've never achieved before in a road race)
2. I produced an average speed of 14.7kph at 177 average heart rate (this is not possible in my last physical test, meaning my metabolism has increased further)
3. I ran on average 4:05min/km, my fastest ever in a road race
Moreover, this was not done while I was fresh and spritely, but in a phase of my running where I feel sore, over-trained, and slightly grumpy. "You can't only run when you're fresh". Right you are Lindie!
Is this just a personal pep-talk? Sort of. Did it work. It sure did!
So what I'm trying to say is, sometimes you'll be improving barely without noticing, you may even feel like you're regressing. Be careful before you throw out the running shoes, sentiment and facts rarely coencede, as it is their custom in this tipsy world or ours...
Oh, and the race was a very nice rural sojourn, well done Clonliffe Harriers, not a spot on the event!