RACES: Powerscourt Ridge

Season Falls To a Close
Ireland doesn't have as distinctive seasons as many of us continentals, particularly those from the Northern Reaches, are used to, but yesterday, as about 70 hill running souls assembled to take on the grandiosely named "Powerscourt Ridge" race, Crone Wood was showing itself from the most Autumny side possible.

To view John Shiels marvellous photos of this go here: http://www.iol.ie/~forrest/gallery5/index.html

Last year, the Powerscourt Ridge race was reinstated as the traditional finishing race of a long IMRA season (not accounting for the Christmas Flash on Dec 27th), and the warm-up (in more than way) to the annual AGM and Social.

This is one of the routes I have the advantage of having scouted in advance, having done it (with a few variations) with Barry Tennyson back in Summer and then again this Sunday with Niamh, Cormac, Jackie, Brendan, and Caroline.

A Beast of a Route
The above can be coined on quite a few IMRA races, noticeably the longer such as Aughavannagh, Carrauntoohil, and Croghan, but it definitely holds true for Powerscourt Ridge.

The route has two horrific climbs, especially the soul-destroying slog from Crone Wood to the top of Maulin, after which a long technical descent of loose rocks and natural staircases to the River Dargle offer some relief before another short but steep climb takes you up to a flat stretch leading to the mighty climb to the 720m summit of wind-swept Djouce where ascent grades

The Race
The race went off at a much less frantic pace than normally, and it was no surprise that the field showed such wisdom and restraint, looking around there was many a hardened veteran: Aaron, Barry, Eoin, Cormac, Joe, Turlough, Mike, Gavan, Gerry Lawlor, Mick, Vivian, and noticeably guests such as Munster top-runner Tom Blackburn and two representatives from the strong Mourne Runners hill running club.

Faster than anyone else, though, was a Slovakian lad who fought a tight battle with Barry Minnock throughout the race, Barry leading the ups while the Slovak shuffled away like a madman on the downs.

Thanks to John Shiels all of us could fully appreciate the Autumn splendour of orange, green, and brown that greeted us as we took on Crone, Maulin, and Djouce. During the race this was simply to painful. One needs only look into the eyes of the people ascending Maulin on John's pictures to see the extreme pain that climb causes (looking at myself I seemed to have been reduced to a Gollum-like figure by the end of the climb).

Death to the Road Runner
I felt fine on the easier ascent grades going up to the true climb to Maulin, but my calves immediately turned into lump pain-sacks as the ascent grade rose and most of us were reduced to walking, scrambling, and crawling along.

Like Mick Hanney, the marathon was still heavy in my bones, mostly so in my calves who have been so fatigued since the run that I couldn't complete my track training this Tuesday (as a consequence, I won't do any sprint work next week). With a calm look in his eyes, the black-hatted Mick said at the start: "I probably won't stick to you for the first 25k today."

And he was quick to keep that promise, as he went off much better on the steep climbs, and by the time I had reached the top of Maulin, I had lost a good 10 positions. Then came the relief of the first descent, but it took my several minutes to find back into a natural rhythm so the first part was slow and stunted, and I only found a decent trod when Gavan caught up with me again and we skipped side-by-side over rocks, until the cunning orienteer found a short-room and browsed past.

Across the Dargle, I found a bit of power again, the lighter ascent grade suiting me better, and I tractored past Cormac, Gavan, Vivian, and a few black-clad runners. It wasn't too last long, though, I kept a good pace on the flat grassy bit to Djouce but once the real hill started, it felt like every single male runner I had seen so far in the race passed me out, and the Cormac-Vivian group had blown a good hole to me at the summit. Also ahead of me was now the M60 Cross-Country winner from Teacher's and Padraig.

It was here, on the rocky slopes of Djouce, that I felt the newly confident road runner persona I had adopted just died away and was shattered. It was pure survival here, and I have never felt less a hill runner than at that moment. This would change...

Windswept Djouce
Hitting the peak in hot pursuit of the lads in front of me. Just as I was about to thank my Heathen gods, an infernal wind hit me straight mid-ship and I felt myself leaning against it with full force. From ascent to wind-tunnel, was there no mercy? What had I done to deserve this?

Release came though, as I turned left down Djouce towards the Wicklow Way. I slowly got my legs going again. My legs had been so weak on the uphill that my heart actually hadn't worked too much, so while I was stiff, my energy levels were fine. I soon hit my stride going down and caught the M60 cross-country veteran as we rejoined the Wicklow Way.

The next few kilometres running on the true ridge of this area, filled with big sections of stone dotting the slender path, I kept having Padraig-Cormac-Vivian and some other runners I didn't recognise within sight. But as much as a pushed, they didn't close significantly. Then came the best part of the descent, the soft mushy green leading away from Djouce towards the descent back to the river Dargle.

Here I really refound my stride and technique, and smiled to myself for the first time during the days race. Suddenly, I was the hill runner again, and memories of the many borderline descents from the summer, notably Sorrell Hill, poured confidence back into my every treacherous step.

"You're flying," said Padraig as a rushed down now closing in on a Cormac and Vivian with each stride. It felt like flying, and there's nothing better...

The Long Finish
Sunday's run had prepared me for the deceptively elongated finish. I had torn past Vivian and Cormac in a fierce battle down the loose rubble at the Dargle, and surprisingly held them off on the last ascent, power walking my way past another black clad runner before turning into the now completely felled wood leading back into Crone Wood.

My speed was now stable, I didn't want to push out the boat too much, there was still a few kilometres to safe shores. It was here I caught up with Mick, long out of my sight, and always encouraging he yelled: "Keep going Rene." I had to accelerate further here as Mick was keeping a very solid downhill pace, and this led me into the tracks of Alan Ayling, easily noticeably in mountain bike shirt and huge hat, who as he said: "Had bonked completely at that stage."

Not much later, I was home safe, if not completely dry, in a respectable 01:37, a good 14 minutes quicker than Sunday's Recce. Again there was a price to pay, though, as my muscles instantly turned numb and useless, barely able to stretch. The soreness in my left heel is obviously aggravated, and I stupidly wore thick socks with narrow shoes leaving me with a thumb-sized bloody blister on my heel.

Rest for God's Sake
I heard the above well-meant advice once again yesterday from several runners, and they'll be pleased to know that I will (seriously!) heed their advice.

Lindie's been saying it with a coach's experience to back her up, Paul's been saying it (and he knows his injuries), Jackie's broken it down the way I understand (science and numbers!), Sharlene has presented me with ever-present wisdom on matters of human self-understanding, and many others, and they are right, of course. Running is not just about following programs, but listening (not to others), but to signals from your body, and mine's not right anymore.

Too many new niggles added on to others, too much stiffness, so next week I'll take a relative rest. No speed training, just a few easy jogs, nothing else, and hopefully I'll soon be healed up completely, every ligament and fibre back to normal. There's a monumentally huge season ahead, bigger and more intimidating than the long one behind me, and I'll need to be at my freshest.

On that note, to all the runners who have made this season such a pleasure: Thank you for a fantastic first season, I am thoroughly looking forward to rejoining you all next years on the hills and trails!