RACES: Trooperstown Hill

With my injury almost healed, and careful preparations having been made, I can't say I didn't go into the Trooperstown Hill race without high expectations.

I felt the buzz from the early morning, decided to "go flashy" and kit out in my trademark Denmark set. I had slept well, eaten well, supplemented well, and I knew the splits I wanted. And what a day, glorious sunshine, and an excited crowd of 106 souls lining up in Trooperstown Woods.

The Field
Generally, the Winter League brings out only a few of the top guys at a time, but today saw an amazing field featuring Barry Minnock, Peter O'Farrell, and Aaron O'Donohue, meaning Rathfarnham were at full strength. Not only that, both Crusaders aces Alan and Shane were out, and so was solid UCD runner Tim Grummell, and, of course, winner of the two first WL races: the inimitable Eoin Keith.

Paul Nolan was also seen running in the area, and last year's winner James McFadden was watching from the sidelines.

This fails to mention our regular host of class runners: Martin Francis, Rafael Salazar, Gavan Doherty, Kevin Grogan, Mike Long, Cormac O'Ceallaigh and many others, not least Aoife Joyce looking to defend her lead against Clonliffe's super-woman Aisling Coppinger.

The Race
Much has been talked about the race route, but on a good day this is an extremely fast 10.6km race, the descents are fast and runnable, even the steep bit at the end, and the ascents not to aggressive.

"Start of the first mile of any race easy", was the advice of Dennis Dreyer in ChiRunning. This is very isolated advice and mainly intended for longer distance events and not fierce neck-to-neck front-of-the-field running.

I had decided to start conservatively, though, not be pulled into the initial rush, find a good pace and keep it.

Running Smart
This has been hard to do previously, but today, as the field rushed off, I stayed off the pedal a little bit. I knew it was critical never to go beyond a 182 HR, and had my watch programmed to warn me if I did. After that limit my lactate production spikes by more than 100%, and for the small speed gain, it's not worth it.

I saw Cormac O'Ceallaigh and others I've competed with disappear slightly in front of me. A few hundred metres off, new Crusader, but seasoned New Zealand hill runner, Jason Reid, went up beside me and I "took his wheel" for a while, burst off on the small descent, before seeing him running off aggressively in pursuit of Cormac and Kevin Grogan on the flat bit.

I refused to take up the challenge, many bike riders in the tour have died trying to follow the accelerations of hill specialists such as Marco Pantani, instead clever bikers wait, find a sustainable pace and slowly chip away at the attacking rider.

Hill running is no different, and as we hit the tarmac and short fast descent, I immediately closed the gap on Cormac and Kevin, deciding to walk over the quarry to preserve energy, then burst off on the flat bit in pursuit of the group in front of me. It was a strong group consisting of Jason, Mike, Rafael, Tim Grummell and others, and I knew I wouldn't catch them on the first ascent. Question was, could I keep the Cormac, Kevin and Niall McAlinden behind me? Usually not, so as the minutes past by without challenge, my optimism grew.

The Boots
At this stage I had almost scuppered my carefully laid out plan, by forgetting to turn on the ForeRunner, I got it up after 1.5km, however, and had a rough idea that I was well on schedule.

The long climb had taken it's toll, though, and as we went up the unnamed hill with the famous boots at the cairn, Niall McAlinden swept past me. "Good ascending mate", I remember saying. I wasn't slowing down, as much as keeping steady, so Niall was on the attack.

Then came the cairn, and suddenly flatness that allowed me to hit the ground running, Diarmuid's cry of "You're flying Rene" helped, and I couldn't resist adding some psychological warfare by crying back "Not bad for an injured man!"

Strictly speaking the injury wasn't holding me back at all during this race, but it had put my Winter training in tatters.

The Weapon of Descent
I knew my only chance of getting a truly good position was to run flat-out on the ascent, and I hit the right rhythm straight away, clocking up a kilometre at 3:38 split and getting back in front of Niall almost immediately.

Running into the v-turn past Alan Ayling, I scouted ahead and saw that the group in front of me, the one chasing the leader pack, had splintered, but most of them where well beyond my reach. With a lot of ascent still to come, I knew chances of catching them were almost zero. It didn't matter, though, before my injury I had set a goal of beating the 50 minute mark, now I just wanted to beat my 53 minute revised target and catch anyone who got into trouble on the last half of the race.

The Women's Battle
Behind me Aisling Coppinger was on her way to smashing the women's record set by Orla McAvoy the year before with a run of 50:29. I was only loosely aware that she was behind me, in what would be the first time I could claim victory against the women's Leinster League champion.

Aoife Joyce, with one win and one 2nd place, was in hot pursuit, not too far behind, and would go on to secure 2nd, an important result in the battle for the Winter League title.

This would complete a good day for Crusaders women, where Eva Fairmaner and Sharlene both had good runs to secure team victory. No other teams competed, which is a shame, as Crusaders have a good bunch of developing women and they deserve the chance for a good scrap.

Also a good day for Sportsworld and our own Jackie O, while they didn't field a complete team, sadly, Jackie's strong 5th placing put her into third in the overall rankings behind Aoife and Tressa McCambridge. Aisling Coppinger with 2 wins in 2, only needs one other to secure the WL title, however.

The Last Ascent
On the last ascent I was surprised to see I was closing on a group of five or so runners, Mike Long, Tim Grummell, Paul Duffy and Nicky Quinlan by the looks of it.

I didn't have the power for an attack on this ascent, so just kept stuck in there, and as I passed over the cairn launched into high pace. I couldn't gain ground at this stage, most runners in front of me were at least decent descenders, and they would not be troubled by the gentle descents we'd seen so far.

Then came the opening, the steep 26% descent grade opening in front of me, Paul Duffy and myself skated past Tim and another runner, and I was about to take the lead in the group, when I made a mistake taking the longer road round an obstacle.

It was enough, Paul was off, and while I kept good speed going onto the tarmac, he kept in there. In the meantime, Tim had shaken off his problems on the scree and I could feel him close in on the flat, as I'd expected him to.

In front of me, a tight battle had unfolded, Barry Minnock had smashed the men's record set by James McFadden with an incredible 39:12, after being put under strong pressure from Peter O'Farrell in 40:34.

Aaron O'Donohue would finish 6th to emphasise the Rathfarnham hegemony over the IMRA men's club competitions. Mike Long in 15th, Kevin Grogan 20th and William Griffin 29th only underlined it.

Crusaders are improving on the men's front too, however, Alan O'Keefe cruised in 4th with Shane 7th, and finally Jason had fought his way up to 9th. My eventual 16th place wouldn't count, showing true strength in depth for the first time for our team. Of course, there's slight disappointment in not contributing to the team points, but running against three runners with vastly more experience and better training, I hope they stay right up there, or even improve. No better motivation to improve even more.

Final Fire Trail
The last few kilometres of descent are fierce, and I maxed out in 3:38, 3:25, and 3:12 min/km splits (the last my fastest recorded kilometre ever, in any race, and a new record).

Tim kept clipping away at my heels, but every time he was just about to catch me, a streak of descent saved me and allowed me to re-establish my eventual 12 second advantage, my first victory against Tim. Tim's a great guy, and you just need to look at his results to know he's a top runner. In that way, it capped off a perfect day, both tactically and performance-wise, and means I can restart my training full off optimism.

Mike Long, though, again eluded me, 13 seconds ahead, "they're dying" yelled Peter and Alan at me as I came down, and I made a final push, but just didn't have enough to quite close the gap. Then again, you couldn't lose to a nicer man.

Running up the first ascent for our cool-down, Tim Grummell and I saw Gavan Doherty arriving, looking leisurely in an unusually low 81st spot. "What's the rush," he said smiling. His eventual time of 61:54 would have secured him 27th spot the year before, giving an indication of the "damage" done by the main field's detour last Winter.

What a Difference a Year Makes
Doing some archiving of photos in my computer, I haven't been able to help looking at pics John has taken from me last Winter (skinny-fat, unhealthy looks), Summer (much less fat, still a bit of bulk, healthy), and now (healthy, but emaciated and all bulky musculature now replaced with gauntness).

Everything according to plan

It's amazing how nature can completely change the make-up of the human body in the matter of 13 months of "return to nature". It's a bit of an extreme diet running 47 races, training like a madman in the hills, and changing your diet completely to near-Paleolithic principles, but it's a change. While I can honestly say I miss a bit of the "bulk", I guess it's the price to be paid for better results.

Last year's "make"

Last year I ran Trooperstown in a time of 61:12, perhaps losing a few minutes because of the detour, but compare that time to this year's time of 47:53, and you've got an improvement of as much as 13 minutes, or at least 10 minutes considering the time lost on the detour. I was happy when I took 6 minutes off my Howth time last Summer, and another 47 seconds a month ago, but this is a monumental difference.

It's going to be a fun year if it's all about smashing records. Guess 2nd year really is the charm, not the third, if you're a runner.

The Post-Mortem
After we went for food in the Coach House for prize-giving, and then a 2 hour bike ride in Ballinastoe (my first MTB!). Luckily, myself and Sharlene had "chosen" some fellow beginners to ride with: Peter, Aaron, Barry, Beth, and Alan O'. Thanks to all for waiting up!

I crashed four times, and feel like battered cod now, but it was great fun and will be an nice fun supplement to my running training. Rounding off a perfect Wicklow day was a trip to Poppies in Enniskerry.

Now for Carrick where I'd like to smash my old record of 39:57, preferably with a 37:00 or lower time, on the 9.4k, 240m ascent route.