DIARY: Relay and Recce - Marathon of the Hills

40.96km. Add to that the kilometres of slow jogging as warm-up and cooldown I did this weekend, and I have cheerfully covered a marathon distance. In the hills, of course.

It also saw what could be a new beginning for my season. I clocked a total of 83km this week, or 52 miles, the highest ever. Even in my marathon preparations I never passed 79km. Now I'll set out to break 90 shortly, and then the 100km mark will await this Winter.

Much more importantly, though, there was tremendous hill runs going on the whole weekend!

The Wicklow Way Relay
This weekend was truly fabulous, the Saturday seeing my "d├ębut" as busy team captain for the 2nd of the 3 Crusaders team in contention on the day the "Crutched Crusaders", consisting of myself, Jason Kehoe, Brendan Craig, Seamus Murphy, Bronagh Cheetham, and Kenan Furlong. Lornie O'Dwyer kept our show on the road in the early hours, but due to her ankle injury, Jason cajoled one of his hockey team-mates into replacing her on leg 3. It was some baptism to hill running, but well done Catherina.

Leg 7 of the 8 leading the eager runners from Kilmashogue in Dublin to Shillelagh was mine to run, and I knew the 21.18km long course (almost exactly a half-marathon distance, and certainly a run that makes the Connemara equivalent seem like a pancake) could be the death of me on a hot day.

I had run it on the Monday earlier, would complete it again on this Saturday, before embarking on the recce of the classical race Circuit of Glenmacnass (19.78km) on the Sunday. It's been a while since I've done three long hill runs in a week. I'm delighted to sit here writing and have come through this week. With a total of 83km clocked, maybe my season is about to really pick up.

The Relay
That's a discussion for another day, though, for now, let's turn our attention to the Wicklow Way Relay, an event that so many people refer to as "the best day on the hill-running calendar".

Gerry Brady asked me to write a race report for the website, and I will tomorrow, if I get time (red: I didn't, so Gerry did it!). There's a recce of Scalp going on that I don't want to miss on the Monday eve.

For now, let me just say that it's a huge task to organise a team, but it was very fulfilling to see it all come together on the day. I'm quite happy with our teams performance, despite having to draft in a person with no previous experience and myself and Seamus having our runs somewhat handicapped by cramps, we finished 15th out of the 36 teams, which was a good feat on a day with many strong teams.

Only the top three, representing the current leading hill-running clubs: Clonliffe, Rathfarnham WSAF, and Crusadres AC, could not be touched by the other teams. There were many fantastic efforts on the day, such as Eoin Keith being described as flying out on the roads of Glencullen, Alan O'Keefe beating Peter O'Farrell (and most everyone else) on leg 2 to show us why we'd like to see him more in the hills, and upcoming runners such as Rachel Walters who even gave National Intermediate Cross-Country champion Orla a run for her money on leg 3.

As team captain the greatest prize was seeing the joy on the runners faces and the excitement as the team moved along. Especially newcomer Catherina, who'd never run a hill but still went out and gave it a good shot and arrived at the finish in high spirits (if understandably tired).

Jackie O joined a few other maniacs to do a bike ride of leg 7 after they'd finished their legs and suffered a bad fall, cutting open her thigh on her handlebars. She needed 6 stitches after, but was hardly fazed at the prize-giving in Shillelagh and just told me "now I understand that white gross stuff you were talking about". Ah yes, the glories of deep cuts and punctures, you really do get to see a new side of yourself! (literally!)

The Sporting Side
I recommend everyone read Gerry's rendition, but Joe Lalor was right when he said that an event once dominated by orienteers had now been taken over with by the traditional athletics clubs such as Rathfarnham WSAF, Clonliffe and Crusaders AC who battled it out.

My own team mates Crusaders put up a brave fight to challenge the traditionally stronger teams (in the hills at least, with Ivan winning the 800m this weekend, Crusaders once again showed their track pedigree) felt the pressure until Barry Minnock swept away a narrow Crusaders hold on 2nd before the final leg. Little did it matter, though, the Clonliffe and Guests teams masterfully assembled by an injured Gerry Brady would not be denied victory in the end.

It was good to see, and next year, we at Crusaders will definitely look to attempt and come back stronger and faster. Our ranks of young talented runners is increasing and many are improving. This is good for the club and hopefully good for the competition in Irish Hill Running.

For myself, I'd set a target of about 1:40 for my running of leg 7, as I took off at tremendous speed, however, hot on the heels of Niall McAlinden who had started 1-2 minutes earlier, I started to feel that 1:35 should be within my grasp. I had already taken one space back and thought delivering Kenan anywhere close to Niall's team would be enough.

Stomach cramps hit me around kilometre 6, I cannot comprehend why (the weather? stress of the day?), and while I kept churning out great splits (my first uphill kilometre was in 3:56 followed by four consecutive sub-4min splits on the road. I was running between 15-16kph and feeling steady).

I ignored the cramp at first, but had to refuse the gel from the support car, as I couldn't take the risk. Hitting the descents I started to feel the discomfort but I kept hanging in on Niall's shoulder. I didn't want to attack too early, but knew I would be better on the descents while he would have the upper hand on the ascents.

Before the ford, the road got so steep that I couldn't contain my speed and bombed past him down the road, once it flattened out I kept my momentum and Jason an the team were magnificent cheering me on. I forced down the gel here and some water, and then my machine just broke down. Hitting the steep ascent, my legs turned to dust. It wasn't the painful muscular exhaustion you can try and fight through, it was just numbness. Nothing was working and I grind to an almost complete halt.

Niall broke away here, and I scuppered on, again and again grinding to a walk. Still I kept Niall in sight, and when the final descent came, I thought I could make a push. I was still close. Then came the tarmac uphill and it left me with nothing to give. I was sick to my stomach at this stage, and wonder how I'd have fared if not Three-Peaks had shown me a different level of pain.

I eventually trudged over the finish, in 1:40:07. Before the day I would have been happy with that, but I clearly had more to give before my stomach ruined it. Later I was reminded that I had been carrying a tummy bug the whole week, something you like to forget when you race, and this probably threw a spanner in my works.

Kenan took over and made up a few places, but failed to catch Niall's team, making my collapse slightly more regrettable. But well, it was not a bad performance, and on a day such as this, personal disappointment must take the backseat to the enjoyment of the team.

Recce of Glenmacnass
To get the old acid out of the legs and enjoy another day of fine weather in the hills, myself and Aoife joined Cormac, Niamh, Caroline, Aisling, as well as Tressan McCambridge and James McFadden on a recce of next week's Circle of Glenmacnass race.

I'm not planning to do the race itself, as I want to be fresh for the Crone Wood Trial, but it's a fabulous run, very enjoyable, especially on a sunny day. The magnitude of the race is staggering and rivals my trials at last year's Aughavannagh race.

In harsh weather, the already eroded paths that covers much of the venture will turn into a complete slog. I don't envy the brave souls who'll go race it next week. But good luck all!

I was feeling fresh through most the run, which surprised me at first, but it only confirmed to me that I couldn't spend all my energy on the day before and my body was now willing to pour it's resources into the tremendous climbs of Glenmacnass. Watching James McFadden run the whole length of Tonelagee, whilst still recovering from injury, was also inspirational and shows the almost unimaginable gap between us who can breach the top-20 and those who can dream to win a race.

Getting another long run like this in before next weeks Trial is a priority of mine, and I am tempted to go jog the race on Saturday simply to get a really nice run in. I felt fresher finishing this weekend than at any time during the last two months and asked Emma: "Could my body have been depressed by the low mileage I was going?" She quickly deflated the question: "No, you've simply started to peak again after your rest."

So, with that said, a little speed test at tomorrow's Scalp race before final preparations for the Crone Wood Trial commences.