RACES: Mount Mud - A Tale of Howth

All hill runners who've been with IMRA for more than a little while, know Howth well. Howth. it's one of the few races providing easy access for the North Dubs. Howth. It's the race with a beautiful vista over Dublin Bay. Howth. She temps you into thinking she's a trail race, with her pronounced paths, easy-to-follow route, and low elevation.

Of course, Howth is not a Trail Race, she's just plain messy! While Howth does not always kick-off the Winter League, the race is always early in the calendar, and Archie O's apt naming of last year's version as a race of "Blood, sweat and muck" has become indicative of the pure raw fun of IMRA races.

We're Not On the Roads More!
It's the mentality far from the "I'm a road runner this is too messy for me" cry that was heard as this year's race kicked-off, in it's adoring cross-country style, with two high-speed laps of the GAA pitch before the WL record crowd of 150 runners stampede towards the infamous bottle-neck entrance into the trees beneath the Ben of Howth. "Trees" is a cozy misnomer as new runners soon discover. As feets (and shoes!) disappear in ankle-deep muck and a trail resembling nothing more than an agility track born out of the sadistic mind of your average drill-sergeant.

Fresh out of the freezer in Wexford, and anxious to throw off the dust of my long lay-off, I certainly shared the excited sentiment of the runners lining up in the GAA club for their registration.

Temperature and weather had turned positively non-Baltic as we approached race-time, and while one or two runners looked coalrife, there was no flashbacks to last year's Three-Rock race here.

A New Season
Nothing is better than a new season to test all the wisdoms learned in the last such as not discussing groin injuries in restaurants, not drinking milkshake before races, and that finishing races injured, while commendable, makes you look like a mis-shot horse. Also there was the gentlemanly promise not to block the ladies ...

Most of the race I spent, thus, surrounded by little known runners, and in my sight I watched Mike "Lionheart" Long fighting it out with experienced Kevin Grogan, and knew that I had to be doing something right (or something terribly wrong!).

Tour de Howth
Once you've fought your way through the small forest, you arrive at the foot of the Ben, and need to ready your mind for the steep ascent to it's 171m peak. In pure Irish and British tradition, the climb is far from the end of your woes, as the course holds three climbs of note, and all must be bested twice (realisation of this fact, plunged my into a moment of rare despair last Winter).

Off the top you move onto a shallow descent, and I noticed I was now part of a smaller pack that had broken a small gap to the huge main group forming a long snake behind us. From here we navigated the puddles with ease, until, cutting the corner onto the fire trail, the runner in front of me tripped and fell, and I squeezed in between him and the high bracken.

Here Peter O'Farrel, down with a cold was cheering us on, as a we turned onto another short, this time grassy descent and round the lowest of the peaks of Howth, a peak you do well to burst up, throwing caution to the wind, eating up the pain it'll inflict on you.

The final ascent then, is where the race is won and lost if you are a good descender, arrive first to the top, and only a madman will catch you before you hit the flat (of course, first time round, this is of less concern, as you must take a second round with the forest and the Ben), arrive after, and a slower descender will pen you in, and you can only pray you're the better flat-out sprinter.

This final sprint, is a descender's dream, however, and few runners seemed to hesitate taking it at full speed. I remembered with joy the tree on your left at the end of it, which serves as an excellent emergency brake if you come off too fast! (do try and hit it with your hand, though).

After all, slowing down on descents won't put you in the Irish version of "Feet in the Clouds" (which, rumour has it will be written by Joe Lalor and be entitled "Eejits in the 'ills"

Crusaders take the fight to Clonliffe
2nd and 3rd were swept up emphatically by Crusaders Shane O'Rourke, the seasoned marathoner, and Alan O'Keefe, who, while he rarely ventures into the hills, does so to great effect when it happens. Victory in the team competition was only curtailed by the failure of yours truly to improve on his 11th spot at the half-way mark and dropping to 15th, still (absurdly) my best finish ever in any IMRA race, honours instead going to the strong Clonliffe team: Fergal and Ronan Heartnett and Dermott Murphy finishing 4th, 5th, and 6th! Only 10th spot for me would have done in the end

  • Clonliffe Harries: 15 points
  • Crusaders AC: 20 points
  • Setanta: 67 points
  • 3D Triathlon: 146 points
  • Rathfarnham WSAF: 165 points
  • GEN: 208 points
With rumours of Gavan Doherty and Cormac O'Ceallaigh making the switch to Crusaders, and our new (Zealand) ace, kiwi Jason Reid, returning for the next race, our men's teams, who finished 7th out of the 8 teams who completed the Leinster League last year.

Former IMRA chairman Cormac had a stunning run and flew in at 8th.

Our women too put up a tremendous fight, and impressive numbers with runners, Aoife Joyce, taking the individual victory and putting herself up as a strong contender to reclaim the Winter League throne conquered by fellow, but sadly absent, Crusader Orla McAvoy last year. Clonliffe put in a strong performance, however, to rekindle last year's rivalry and claiming the team victory with Bronagh ni Bhrian, Karen Duggan, and finishing strongly.

  • Clonliffe Harriers: 24 points
  • Crusaders AC: 25 points
  • Sportsworld: 67 points
2nd place was taken care off by Moire O'Sullivan, adventure racer extraordinaire, who must have wondered, after the meek 8.2km of the race, what happened to the rest of the route?

Consolation for Crusaders, though, as Niamh niCholmain showed no sign of stopping her improvement finishing 2nd (and having the audacity to beat her dad!) and Eva Fairmaner taking 3rd. 10 of the 42 female runners where also Crusaders, some feat given at several of our regulars in the hills such as Rachel C, Orla, Eileen, Emma and others were not out today.

The men's M40 and overall price went to Eoin Keith, no stranger to 1st places.

Now Eoin Keith is definitely, even now as a well-matured M40, the type of runner who like his race rough, long, and who likes it steep. Is he a pure hill runner. Well, he'd probably say he's an awful lot of things, but should he lay claim to such a title, it would raise fewer eye-brows than the Pope declaring himself "a man of faith."

It was a fitting win not only to mark Eoin's move into his new category, but to present Version 1 with a good victory as reward for their newest website updates!

A "TAD" underrated!
Looking back at the race, Rachel Walters provided us with the first review of IMRA's new "Difficulty" measure, the TAD system: "No way this is a "4"". There was nodding approval all round, but, as we all know, Howth, the old girl, is a Four alright, as we will all fondly remember when we throw our frail bodies against the mights of Lug, of Galtymore, Croagh Patrick, and Carrauntoohil in the exciting months to come...

Tough Awakening
That hill running can be a tough awakening to a new world was exemplified today as 8 people, among them 5 first-time runners, DNFed (Did Not Finish!).

Another guy had blood smeared on his face. Did you fall I asked: "Yes thrice, he smiled undeterred!)".

This prompted me to ask Tommy the Tumbler. "Did you fall", says I, "some things never change", says he....

Personal Evaluation
The race was joy all round, while loosing out on magical top-10, I dream off, after being 11th at the half-way point was disappointing, I came away with this race with much more than I could have possibly hoped for.

After 7 weeks on my backside, trepidation is natural, especially since we know our own capabilities as runners, but will still always attempt to go out at the speed that we think is "our speed", often meaning "too fast". I felt well going around the GAA pitch, though, even at our high speed (I did the first kilometre in very respectable 3:52, so our speed on the grass would certainly have been a good bit higher than that).

When base fitness is lost, however, by not training, it will logically strike later in a race, so nagging doubt of a blow-up was always there, and did to some degree manifest as I slid from 11th to 15th during the last circuit. Had the second climb of the Ben been much higher, my blow-up would almost certainly have been spectacular.

Another PB!
When I first ran Howth, I did it in above 47 minutes, a figure I shaved considerably down to 41:35 6 months later, but I was helped by the route having to be shortened from 8.2km to 7.9km due to a GAA match.

My stated goal for Howth this season, is to break the 40 minute barrier, something I counted on doing today, before I was injured. With the lay-off in mind, my priority was simply to hang in for a decent finish.

Today's route was back at 8.2km, and I'm delighted to say I smashed my old personal best and did it in 40:49 (according to my watch), meaning I will almost certainly break 40 minutes in Summer, if injury will permit me to train again.

Finishing only 15% after winner Eoin Keith is something I have not mustered in any race, not even the less competitive Trail League, nevermind the Leinster League! And my finish of 15th out of 150 is also my best overall and relative finish in any race.

More than anything, this made the risk of running the race worth it, despite my injury certainly not being improved by it. Now, I have a sense of calm, that I have a solid platform to build on, even if I cannot trained over prolonged periods.

I also managed a rare personal win against always gregarious Gavan Doherty, whose dad swept up the M60 honours, and for the first time, beat strong Tallaght runner Gary Moralee.

Driving home, Aoife said to me: "Running's great because it's so much about what you believe you can do." Top 10 has been a dream so far. Now I believe I'll certainly do it, and that removes any remaining disappointment of missing out today.

Shar(ing) the Joy
Much more than my own result,though, I was delighted by Crusaders showing, in particular that off my good friend Sharlene, or "Shar", as she's known by some. Being very new to hill running, and suffering from jitters most would experience before their first such run, she went out, unimpressed and finished in a good 51:21, only 145% after Eoin Keith.

In doing so, she well bettered her performances in the easier Trail Leagues. I'd told her about the extreme adrenaline and endorphin boost you get from running a race in the MAC zone (Maximum Aerobic Capacity, beyond 180bpm for most), and after she said: "I feel on top of the world, they should bottle this drug!"

They sure should, even if it means we all won't be getting much sleep tonight!