RACES: Connemara

This week has been filled with activities so not surprisingly, I find time a precious commodity and the blog updates cannot flow with their usual speed.

A splendid weekend lies behind me, though. My sprained ankle is progressing quite well, my plantar flare seems to stabilise, and most importantly, my first stint as a pacer in a race went not just by the book, but superb!

Go West
"To Hell or to Connacht", was Cromwell's war cry, and as I looked once again at the harsh, yet majestic, green and auburn mountains of Ireland's western province, I could see how the farmers of old would find living here hard.

The West was not asleep this weekend, though, as County Galway welcomes hordes of runners to one of the island's most prominent race events, the Connemara Half-Marathon, Marathon, and Ultra-Marathon (a "short" ultra of 63k circumnavigating the Mamturks).

Aoife, in her shiny new car, drove myself and Rachel W. to the race in which both ladies were looking to contest the Half-Marathon distance. A fascinating distance that requires equal measure of planning, endurance, and pace, and while less resilience and consistency is needed than on the full marathon distance, more speed is the order of the day. And as we all know, it's not distance that kills, it's speed...

The Magic of Negative Splits
Like most novices I endured a tough learning curve last season. When amazing natural talent has not been bestowed upon you, you need to run smart, like an orienter, and not just barge ahead.

Race after race, I would rush off on the slope only to see runners catching me as lactic acid soared into my calves halting my ascent. In the Rathfarnham 5K, I blasted away with two splits close to 3min/km, only to be forced to revert to a much more conservative pace on the final 3km of the race.

Disaster was complete in several races, during the Wicklow Way Trail I was dead in the water for the middle 5k, and died off completely on the final 2k, finishing so drained and battered that I had to roar in relief and pain as I crossed the finish line.

Some races were near-misses, barging up the start ascent of Glen of the Downs close behind the likes of Gerry Brady, I only managed to contain myself somewhat. At around the 4th km, mid-way, Keith Daly passed me by, and as pain started to set in, I knew I had made a huge miscalculation. For two kilometres I was doing 6min splits per km, and only a very late rally saved my race and some of my pride.

So when I heard someone speaking the name of Aisling Coppinger, and of marathons, and of negative splits, I listened. And I learned. On the day of the marathon, I had a plan, and as my legs felt stronger for each passing kilometre, my speed increased, until I eventually set a PB of 1:36 for the half-marathon distance, on the last half. Some runners ahead of me lost as much as 6 minutes on me in a matter of 21km.

Now I had seen it with my own eyes, start slow, get faster, and then faster again, and not only do you feel an awful lot better, you can deliver much more controlled performance.

Why Pacing?
Some may wonder why a self-professed race lover such as myself would bother driving 4.5 hours to the West to pace another runner instead of racing myself.

Well, my logic happens to be simple: If I get a number strapped to my chest to run for myself, I'll run myself into the ground forgetting all about long-term priorities. Last year was the fun year, and while this year will certainly be fun, I need to preserve my energy for the occasions I have prioritised. Connemara isn't one of them, yet I was very keen to go over, savour the atmosphere and see the race with my own eyes.

Luckily, Crusaders AC abounds with good runners hunting PBs, and not many have shown better form of late than Aoife Joyce. Having had a stinker at the previous incarnation of the Connemara Half, she was eager to break 1:35, her personal record, as well as a betterment of the time set by her friend and rival, fellow Crusaders and former WL champion, Orla McAvoy.

Having gone out too fast the previous year, she had agreed to give the "controversial" negative split theory a go. Connemara is not as straightforward as most road races, however, so I had some thinking to do...

The Route
Connemara is famous because of it's undulating terrain, the half-marathon alone includes 299m of ascent. Nothing compared to the more than 700m of the Wicklow Way Trail, but substantial compared to other hard road races, such as Achill's Half-Marathon which features only 264m of ascent.

The route starts on a climb, and after 9 miles, you hit a famous ascent, known as the "Hell of the West". I had to account for more than just steadily increasing the speed. The same speed would not be equal to the same intensity at every stage of the race.

I knew the target was 1:35, and since Aoife works in miles (unlike a metric man such as myself), I had to set some easy to remember mile target based on the contours of the landscape.

The most important thing about negative splits, is to go off quite easy, warm up muscles properly and increase your resistance to lactic acid. Calculation showed that Aoife's splits would need to be 7:18/mile on average, so to make it even, I decided to do the first 2 miles 2.5% (11 seconds) slower than that.

Once that was over, the plan was to increase to the base pace (7:18) for the next 4 miles, bringing us almost to the half-way point were we would eat our gels and then increase our pace by 2.5% to the foot of the hill (the 9 mile point). Up the hill, pace would be reduced to 7:18 again, but this would require more effort given the gradient.

Finally, on the last two miles to the finish, all decent, pace would be increased again by 2.5%. Of course, on the last mile, the runner has a virtual carte blanche to run him or herself into the ground.

So that was the plan, here's how it went...

The Horn Blows
Organisation had been much improved around this year's Connemarathon, which was good news for the runners. The race charges exorbitant fees compared to all competitors, none of which go to charity (unlike Achill, where everything goes to charity). It's a fabulous race, and a great event, but it still leaves a bad taste in your mouth, especially considering that every single IMRA race delivers a better experience for less money.

We got rid of our clothes in the last minute, and didn't get too cold in the shifty weather. Rain and hail littered the warm-up, but the sun broke just before the horn sounded and send us off through the streets of Lennaun up the hill out on the route.

We'd encountered Aaron and John McEnri at the start, both of which would go on to have great races. Aaron especially, fighting it out with Johnathan Doyle, would come in in a fabulous 1:18 for overall 6th position.

Many of the female Crusaders were also out, among them Sara, watched by her proud parents, and Elva, who would go on to set great times for themselves.

Going up the hill, the slow pace suited us fine, but the moment the route flattened, Aoife felt the urge to run fast, especially as runners started passing us by. I knew exactly how she felt, but I also knew how good it would feel to rail them in later...

We had settled into base pace for 4 miles as we hit the 6-mile mark. Gels were quickly gulped down and then we increased speed by another 2.5% rushing towards the 9-mile point that marks the start of the Hell of the West (Ireland's own "Heartbreak Hill").

This is the first time I realised that being a pacer can be stressful too, Aoife breathed forcefully at this stage and was putting up a great fight, especially as we paced out a strong-looking female runner in red bandana.

"Someone's got the same plan as us," Aoife said as a female runner eased past us.
"You want her?" I asked.
"No, need to catch my breath," and so we stayed on plan.

At this stage I threw out most of the water I had been carrying, the water stations had been plentiful and with a fast finish coming up, I doubted she would need them. My ankle was holding, beneath the strong strap of tape, it didn't buckle or bend, and I was feeling good as sunshine had once again broken through the short hail shower a few miles back.

The only time I rushed ahead a little bit was on a steep ascent.

"You showing off again," Aoife said referring to my ridiculous stunt the earlier Monday that had cost me the injury and almost certainly participation in the Wicklow Way Trail.

Hell of the West
As we rushed up the hill, our speed was supposed to slow, but Aoife held firm, nibbling away seconds on the uphill. I felt she'd make it and there was no reason to deter her at this late stage.

While my legs were sore from the long road run, something I have not done much lately, my lungs and heart were comfortable, my average heart rate would be in the mid 160 for the whole race, so I am ashamed to say I don't feel too intimidated by this "Hell of the West". Perhaps it's a more formidable barrier if taken after a faster run into it or at the end of a full marathon rather than a half.

I rather welcomed it, it changed the pace and my underused road-muscles got a rest and instead the task of moving us forward could be put on my uphill muscles, who felt little tiredness after a week of rest. My calves were giving out, though, plantar on the left and sprain on the right having weakened both muscles.

As a few runners, some of whom we knew, passed us by, a felt a rush of blood for the only time.

"Take them!" screamed a childish voice in my head, but I quickly shook it off. It always hurts to be overtaken, even when you're not racing yourself.

35 Minutes or what?
The best place to start an acceleration is the top of a hill, and as planned we released the last caution once the ascent ended. There was still two miles left, so some sense had to be retained. You can burn out easily over two miles, only once you enter that final mile can you feel completely at ease.

Aoife didn't feel this way, though, as we ran in on the final and I looked at the time, I said: "You've done it."

"Let's see," she said. We are always the last to believe, and I remembered how I only believed my own success on the final 800m of the marathon. There's always that car running you down, ankle twist on the final yards or other calamity that can strike you down.

With about two-thirds of a mile left, she asked: "How far!"

"Half a mile," I said sensing that this was no time for truths.

"You're lying!"

So I was, it made no difference in the end, though, as she upped her pace to sprinting speed, I followed, and we crossed the line in 01:34:06, job well and truly done and 54 seconds smashed of the target. It took some time to fully appreciate this as the clock showed (wrongly) 01:35:02 at the time, but it took nothing away from the our delight.

Connemara offers a good race, and some day I'll definitely return to finish some plans of my own, for now I can only recommend pacing duty, what better way to help people than go for a run, it can hardly be called work!