RACES: European Trial/Clubs Champs at Crone

Crone Wood and lashing rain seem to go hand in hand. Last time my Crusaders kit got drenched as runners huddled in the shadow of the Coillte trees at Crone, it was the University Championship, one hard 6km lap with a terrifyingly steep ascent midway.

Race Review
Route: 4 (very fast and tough route that brings out the best and worst in an athlete. Not one for spectacular views and interesting terrain, however, but perfect for the occasion)
Weather: 2 (another miserable wet day in Wicklow, not so wet it kept the midges away though!)
Field Strength: 4 (apart from a few absent notaries, as noted below, a field featuring more top-class runners than you could ever hope to see in a Leinster League race. More depth would have added to the race though)
Strategy: 4 (Went off at perfect pace, timed the hill well, only made a slight mistake on last technical descent and could perhaps have gambled more at a few decisive moments)
Performance: 4 (the first strong outing since Three-Peaks, kept strong in a long hard race, ran a terrific 19kph downhill kilometre but lacked the final push on the uphills and longevity on the final lap)
Overall: 3.7 (a terrifically challenging race with good duels throughout and the signs of a turn in my fortunes)

Crone for the Big Occasion
Today was not the inter-varsities, however, it was the League of Big Boys, youthful pretenders and gruff seasoned veterans lined up side by side to contest the All-Ireland Championship. To add to the event, the clubs of Ireland would contest for the title of foremost hill-running club and from near and far they had come: Newcastle AC, Mourne Runners and Omagh from the North competing with the Republic's finest hill-running club Rathfarnham, tradition-steeped Crusaders AC, the local Sli Cualann (who sadly did not have a full team), Slaney from Wexford, and the orienteers represented only be a singular Setanta man. Among the women, Clonliffe Harriers returned with a strong team, Rathfarnham's fairer gender of runners returned to the hill-running scene, and once again Omagh Harriers had representatives. For a lot of athletes lining up, it wasn't the allure of these honours that had led them to huddle together on a wet Noon in North Wicklow, it was the prospect of representing Ireland at the WMRA European Championships in Germany (for those without this hope, there was also the prospect of making the development team for Snowdon).

Those We Missed
Indeed, it was a fine day, and it had deserved a bigger crowd of our solid top-10/20 runners from the Leinster League. Turlough Conway, Aaron O'Donohue, Bernard Fortune, Ryan Montgomery, William Powderly, Mike Long, Cormac Conroy, Martin Francis, Hugh Kinsella, Mick Hanney (who manned the laptop on this wet day) and others of their calibre would have provided true width to a field with great strength in the front. Colm Mullen and James McFadden were not fully back from injury, so Gerry Brady must have been happy to see the likes of Ronan Guirey warming up, the Cork-man making a long-awaited return to the hill races.

There were legends missed too, John Lenihan and Robbie Bryson would have sprinkled some stardust on the day, and I feel a lot of young athletes would have wished to have a go at them. And where was the Munster contingent? Eoghan McKenna and Tom Blackburn would have been a welcome sight. And for those who followed the races in the late 90s and early 2000s, it was hard not to miss Paul Nolan, who's unbelievable winning streak remains hampered by injury. On the women's side long-absent Beth McCluskey is always missed, while Tish McCann from Newcastle, the always-promising Orla McAvoy, and Olympian Jenny McAuley would likewise have spiced up the race even further in a great women's field. But let's leave that aside now, and talk of those who were there.

Going Into the Race
Every runner has a different preparation going into a big race. For a lot lining up this was the moment they'd been training for the whole season. For me, it was a chance to get back on track, I knew I would not be at my peak for this occasion, but I did want to go out and give a good account of myself again.

I had gone into the race on the back of the saddening news that my coach Emma Cutts from PeakCondition is going back to England, and our collaboration is coming to an end. She had left me with my last test results and a very touching email. Telling me that I had been one of her most enthusiastic and progressive clients, she was sad to break our working relationships as she had great hope that 2009 would be a very fruitful year for me.

So I was definitely eager to go out and "run for Emma", thanks for all the advice, support, and excellent training programs, Emma! You always got me ready for the big day with perfect timing. I'll take what I've learned and hope to do much self-coaching until, maybe, I can find another coach who has a similar scientific approach. As much as I admire the coaches I've met in the clubs, only the certainty of scientific method provides me with enough confidence to follow the advice of one person. I certainly got the perfect birthday present on the Sunday to start: “The Lore of Running”, a 1000 pages of scientific information on training.

Where do I go from here? I don't know, but on this day, in Crone, I wanted to see a step up again.

The Race Day
This day was special for IMRA, Gerry Brady’s hard work over the last year had resulted in good coverage of the event from the AAI on their website, and had drawn in a few cross-country runners with real pedigree such as Tom Hogan of Slaney and Intermediate Champion Orla ni Mhuirteagh (the latter would later have to pull out of the race, I have heard because of a twisted knee, but this is not confirmed). The future of Irish Hill Running is in the works, and today was an important day in driving forward the development of this niche sport in athletics and bring Ireland a step closer to the English, Scottish, and Welsh associations.

The women got a 15 minute headstart so they could conduct their two lap battle in peace, while we men stood around a bit longer in the rainy breeze. It was a small field and very few of my usual “rivals” were around.

My game plan was not to be caught up in the initial surge, especially if some of my rivals did. Energy preservation was key on lap 1, lap 2 was where the trap had to be set, and lap 3 was just the clean-up job. I knew I wasn’t capable of running aggressively, so I had to sit back and watch the race unfold.

I wanted to keep my team mate Jason Kehoe within sight. We had good fights in the Winter League, but as my form has waned for each injury setback, Jason has gone forward and the gap between us has meant no serious competition has been present for a while.

So I went off easy, but was positively surprised that the pace wasn’t too frenetic. On the flattish bit of fire trail before the main climb on each lap, I kept a solid pace, and passed out a few runners, Kevin O’Riordan and others, before taking Cormac O’Ceallaigh early on the climb.

I couldn’t go faster and knew I just had to find a steady pace up the steep incline (my Achilles heel as always). At this stage Stephen Duncan had taken a lead he’d defend to the end, while Barry Minnock had to chase Ronan Guirey for the first lap, until solidifying his own 2nd place on the final two laps of the contest. Ronan wasn’t more dejected than he held a firm 3rd followed by Mourne Runners veteran and former Powerscourt Ridge winner Des Woods. Next was Tom Hogan, whom some may have expected to finish higher, and then the legendary Scotsman John Brooks, celebrating a return to the hills.

When to Strike?
I pulled over the climb eventually, and with preserved energy, I ran a strong descent, catching sight of Jason in front of me, before we both passed out a runner on the steep hard bit on the new Coillte trails. My fastest lap was clocked here, as I ran 3:10 for the 4th kilometre (just about 19kph), and went into the corner right on Jason’s tail closing a gap of several hundred metres within no time.

I decided not to push him too far on the descent at this stage, but rather bide me time and hang on for the next climb.

I’d managed to get the better of Rathfarnham’s experienced Adrian Tucker during the Winter League, so I was happy when I managed to pass him out after the first big ascent. I expected a tight fight, but after my hard descent, I seemed to get a bit of “peace time”, at least for the moments. Obviously, I didn’t look back even for a second.

This was necessary on parts, as you leave the fire trail and storm down the new Coillte track, jumping logs with regular intervals; both Jason and I took out another runner (whom I didn’t recognise). This was much to my surprise as this stretch really wasn’t suited for overtaking.

Every time I caught up with Jason, he fought out a small burst to break daylight between us again. I never answered these challenges, knowing that in my current weakened lactate state, it would be debilitative and there was time to strike later. Each time I closed the gap again. The pressure was on both of us now and the duel was intense.

Finishing Fast?
The final two times we hit the climb, Jason used his fast-twitch hockey fibres to burst up the first bit and break a hole. Once again, I steadied my pace until the gap was within what I deemed acceptable for the descent. On the final descent, I overtook Richie Healy (who later told me, after having overtaken both Jason and I on a mad sprint): “You pulled me up that hill,” and surprisingly kept a smaller gap than on the previous ascent.

There was a prize to pay, sadly, this time; my legs failed me longer than on the previous two summits. It took me minutes to get going, and by that time I had fumbled my last technical descent and a fair gap had opened between me, Paul, and Jason. What was worse, I could hear the footsteps behind me now, surely it had to be Adrian Tucker!

Luck smiled on me here, while there was no time to pull back either Paul or Jason, even though I seemed to descent consistently faster, I still kept a strong enough pace level to drive myself in in 19th place. A great improvement on the dejected 24th I had finished at Scarr, and in a much stronger field.

“Happy with that,” Mick asked and for the first time in ages, I could say “yes”.