RACES: Crone Wood - IMRA Goes Short!

At about 11:10 yesterday, I was half-walking/half-crawling up an almost 300 metre high grassy slope. Close behind me somewhere, Mick Hanney was wondering how many of the runners on the slope were taking Gerry Brady's name in vain for including this bit of off-road in the last Winter League race of the season, and also the Irish University Championships: the new route at Crone Wood.

Having recced it, I was never tempted to curse Gerry. It seemed somehow inappropriate when I had full knowledge of what had lain ahead and yet I had still gone out to do it! In fact, there was few thoughts in my head except surviving the slope without loss of position and trying not to bury my hand in the sheep faeces that covered the slope as I scrambled upwards in the grim grey of a very rainy day in the Wicklow Mountains.

A few rejoiced, and other runners who've been in hill running for about a year or so, like Niall McAlinden, was making great speed ahead and power-walked his way past 6 other runners before having to relinquish a few again on the easy flattish descent.

Irish University Championships
Every year, IMRA hosts championships for both Irish Schools and Irish Universities and the "inter-varsities", as it is also known, piggy-bagged off the Winter League race "Crone Wood", a new race created by Irish national coach Gerry Brady especially for the occasion.

Gerry had taken advantage of Coillte deciding to give something back to the forest areas of Ireland (it always stings my heart to see a country so devoid of forest having great areas chopped down, when we have so much back home, yet chop down so much less and replant it with proper trees). Coillte have constructed not only the impressive new MTB tracks around Ballinastoe but also new tracks running straight up through Crone Wood between the larger trails and the Wicklow Way trail.

As anyone with a basic understanding of how contours work knows well, if you slice a path straight through a forest instead of following a trail leading around it, you have a much steeper journey ahead of you. And this, of course, was exactly Gerry's intention.

Let's Get Started!
Nerves and jitters are normal before a race, but on this particularly wet day, most runners I overheard were just raring to get going before their better judgement led them back to their warm cars.

Since the race was unusually short for an IMRA race, at only about 6k (the route has been measured between 6.12-6.16k by our ForeRunners, the discrepancy a result of the impossibility of running exactly the same route in the hills), so I opted for nothing but shorts, compression wear, and, to add a bit of colour to the event, my Crusader's singlet (which used to be nice and white, but is now all brown!). This may be a good thing as it has received a lot of slagging for being inappropriately see-through...

An impressive 91 man field had turned out for this event, and many new runners, not just the many college/university runners, but also others from a variety of backgrounds. Of special note was National Cross-Country champion Orla Ni Mhuircheartaigh who would go on to win her first hill race, finishing 22nd overall, after a very tight battle with Aisling Coppinger, and not to forget, the leader of the WL before the race: Crusader's Aoife Joyce.

Hill Sprint
The new Coillte tracks are easy to manoeuvre but ascent grade is high, and I was determined not to go out too fast and be eaten up by lactic acid. I let some of the younger faster runners pass me by, then tagged onto Mike Long for the first ascent.
After a few hundred metres, we emerged on a flat stretch connecting the first Coillte path to a second: shorter but steeper. On this bit, I managed to break free from Mike, if not by much, but lost a few positions to other runners, among them a runner wearing the characteristic light blue of Ulster University.

Emerging on the long upper trail, mostly flat, but with a weak ascent grade in places that gnawed into tired muscles, I realised I had gone out a bit too fast, my legs where blocking up and for more than a minute I jogged slowly along fearing the race was over.

At this stage, our newcomer Orla ran up next to me, and for some reason (probably primitive and sexistic!), this made me think "hell no", I stepped up a gear, dug into faster, as-of-yet unused muscle fibres, and tag myself to the back of a group of three runners including Paul Duffy and a runner from the Defense Forces.

The Beast of the Slopes
No, the title does not allude to Paul Mahon showing off his skiing skills on the black slopes of France the day after completing the Mont Blanc Ultra, instead it's the defining feature of the Crone Wood race.

Just as the trail you're running on evens out red-white tape points you off the safety of the trail and into open grass and woodlands.

As we scuttled up, almost nicely queuing, I was glad to be wearing my Inov-8. The grass was wet and slippery and mud and ship faeces was everywhere. I leaned as far forward as my back muscles would allow and in order not to have gravity pull me back.

This slope had been my main fear before the race. There's three things about Crone Wood that don't suit my own strengths in hill running:

1. Short steep ascents
2. Flat descents
3. Short distance

So I knew it was going to be a challenge (and I knew this was the type of race to relish, you develop more a a runner working on your weaknesses than your strengths, it's just less fun!), and no part more-so.

I did arrive at the top then. slightly surprised, having climbed 358 metres in less than 2kilometres. Behind me, I had taken a position from the Defense Force representative, and I knew all now rested on how quickly my calves, screaming from the long power-walk, could recover to free my legs up for the long descent down to the finish at Crone Wood car park.

The Challengers
After today's race, seeing so many new faces, especially younger runners, I can't help think on the pressure on the "champions", the "numero unos" who win most races. Every single race you have a bunch of new runners, either younger in years, younger in experience, or just plain hungry, new or not, waiting to see chinks in your armour that they can expose to bring you down.

Lovers of the Tour de France see the "Fall of Champions" as the defining moment of a race, not the victories. This fact explains why many French never warmed to super-efficient Lance Armstrong, who after 7 victories, thought there was no reason to stick around long enough to have anyone defeat him. I don't blame him. I would have done the same.

We feel this further down the field too, there's imposters like myself, relative newcomers to al serious sport trying to push into the top-ten for no other reason than that we think we can.

Then you have the high-fliers, good athletes from other sports who show early promise. Some fizzle and leave the sport, some just stay static, and then there's those, like Colm Mullen, who become established winners on the IMRA calendar. Colm Mullen would go on to finish 3rd in a close finish today, but would help his team, Sli Cualann, snatch team victory three points ahead of Crusaders AC. We could take some consolation in winning the overall league on sheer consistency!

You've got the come-back runners too, runners who had some kind of glory days back in school or college, in orienteering, track, or cross-country, and who suddenly come out, find they like these races, and seek strength in their old talents.

All in all, no matter where you are in the field, you don't have to work hard just to catch the top-guys, you need to move away from those around you, and keep those newcomers behind you as well. It's a battle on three front, and as the biological clock keeps ticking, it becomes ever harder.

Today's Battles
There weren't many one-on-one battles before the final parts of the ascent. I had a small group with Jason Kehoe in sight, but the descent was not difficult, and the runners in front of me appeared fresh enough to keep their legs going at max speed. Making up numbers seemed difficult, and as I ran on the narrow upper track, jumping drainage ditch after drainage ditch, my priority temporarily shifted to keeping people behind me.

Atheist or not, I've taken a lesson from the tale of Sodoma and Gomorrah in the Bible: Never look back! I'm serious about this trick, it really work. I always focus on the runner I can see in front of me, no matter how battered I feel.

Looking back takes time, it takes focus away from keeping up with the guy in front of you (an interesting pursuit) to keeping the one's behind you away (a stressful pursuit).

I was eager to catch Jason, I knew he was ahead of me in the WL, and I had stolen a mile, and a good 7 points on him, on the final ascent of Carrick before throwing it all away getting lost with Tim and the lads. Realistically, I knew today's race wouldn't offer much chance of catching him, but I went for it nevertheless, and while I badly bungled the short technical descent part (a few sharp twisting corners on loose gravel), my timing all off, I caught another Ulster runner and a runner in yellow-and-black on the final mile before the finish.

This was shortly after skipping around a tree that had fallen down to block the path. My mate Conor would jump out into the soft clay to get around a bit later that day, during the race, and sprain his ankle, leaving him to hobble across the finish line in 84th position.

To Sprint or not to Sprint
This was a day of small, thankfully not fatal, mistakes. First I had gone of slightly too fast on the ascent, then I had bungled the technical descent, but now I was on the right track. I had found a good stride on the flat descent following the Wicklow Way down to the car park, and wasn't expending energy faster than I could rebuilt it.

I could practically hear one or two runners clipping away at my heels, though, and I was sure it was the runner in black-yellow; he had looked strong still as I passed him by. Paul Kelly would later tell me I looked the stronger of the three who emerged onto the WW, and was confident I would take them. You don't always feel that yourself!

Jason stayed just ahead of me, and fearing that an early sprint who leave me exposed to whoever was behind me, I mistimed my sprint, badly, and left it too late. Once my sprint started, the gap between us vaporised, and in hindsight, an earlier attack would probably have earned me another place, but I didn't have the courage to do it, and God only loves a trier not a maybe-man.

And there was triers a plenty behind me, I was taken back with surprise to turn around, and only seconds behind me a battle between two of the races most stout-hearted M40s had just reached it's conclusion as my friend Mick Hanney and never-say-die Mike Long stopped close on each others tracks. Mick finished a strong 16th to help his team Sli Cualann to victory.

They had fought a tip-for-toe battle all the way down overtaking a bunch of runners in the process. "You did superb to hang on ahead of us", Mick told me later, and I'm not sure I would have if I had looked back to see the the determined runners in black battering away at my lead all the while fighting each other for runners-up spot in the M40s behind superb Ajax man Colm Rothery, who was 8th overall.

The Top Gang
UCD's Kenneth Nugent and Tim Grummell had secured 9th and 10th today laying the foundation for their victory in the men's University Champs while TCD took the women's title.

While I've relished my battles with Tim lately, today was a no-contest, as I was never even near him. Like Mick the Marathon Man, I left the race positively surprised, though. This was not our battleground, but we had hung in for decent finishes, and maybe some day, long or short won't make a difference.

Winner was Ulster University's Ciaran Collins, but the first five runners finished within less than a minute, Colm Mullen, 3rd, and Shane O'Rourke, 5th, where both edged out on the very finish line.

In the women's Orla had hung on for her debut victory, but she was hard pressed by Aisling Coppinger only 33 seconds behind, in what was for her too, a very short course. Aoife, self-professed lover of the 6-8k distance in the hills, showed that her improvement continues finishing within 43 seconds of Aisling. This meant the two ladies where tied on points (4 each) for the Winter League title, which goes narrowly to Aisling on head-to-head victories.

Men's winner Eoin Keith wasn't around to cement his title, but neither did he need to, having secured it the previous weekend at Carrick. Today belonged to the young runners, and spirits where high in Powerscourt Arms after the race, where great prizes were given out and the route was well-received overall.

My Winter League
Before the Winter League, I had made top-20 my goal, and after my good start at Howth, I revised this to top-10. Finishing 15th overall, after recording two DNFs, was very satisfactory, though, and quite fitting given that my recorded results where 15-16-15!

Paul Duffy on the other hand is in for some serious jinx after four consecutive 13th place finishes!

It was a fine improvement on last year's 33rd spot, where I had finished 74th, 58th, and 48th, before getting a very cheap 21st spot at Trooperstown when most of the field lost much time running astray.

As early indicators go, this is good but the real work lies ahead. Now focus returns to getting physically ready for the Three Peaks, and once recovered from that, a late charge at another top-15 finish in the Leinster League if possible, hopefuly combined with good runs for the Euro Trial and Snowdon as this year's priority.

Powerscourt Arms
And shame on the people who tried to scare the new people with all the talk of "oh this was one of the easiest routes" ;-)

In fairness, they are right in a lot of ways, but it depends on your speciality. For me this was one of the most difficult race, and weird soreness all over my chest attests to the fact that I had to work very hard to complete, harder than for a longer race.

For runners whose speciality lies on the track or cross-country, the longer races waiting in the Leinster League will provide sterner tests altogether.

There where good runs all over the day, really to many to mention, and people know best themselves when they have surpassed their own expectations. Let's hope for better weather come the next big test: The Wicklow Way Trail.