A new race has joined the ranks of popular IMRA Winter League route choices. Over the years the second most junior of IMRA's competitions (the 1st being the Trail League) has taken runners to the familiar straits of Ticknock, Crone Wood, Hellfire, Howth and Ballinastoe.
Later in the competitions history, the longest Winter race, Trooperstown Hill, was added, while other races such as an early incarnation of Prince William's Seat and Knockree have come and gone.
One race that I predict will not go away into the scrapheap of race routes, is Annacurra, the local training run of IMRA man (and member of new "virtual running club" Boards AC, the first of its kind that I am aware of) Mick Hanney. At first glance its an unusual race, the route featuring no real technical parts and with the look of route from the autumn Trail League.
The route has a good length, however, with its 8.8km and a decent, but gentle, climb with only few steep bits, offering less hardships than nearby Carrick Mountain and Cushbawn, while featuring similarities with especially the former.
All this makes the race very suitable for the Winter League, however, and while we could not enjoy snowy masses that had accummulated in Wicklow over recent weeks (alas they had mostly melted away by race start), I have not yet mentioned the routes finest characteristics: A very long fast descent!
The Race Start
Organisation of this race was top notch, starting with the roomy car park next to Annacurragh Church to the registration in the local GAA club house to the cozy local pub hosting the prize-giving (and which serves Mi-Wadi for free!): Yes, Mick had employed all his local contacts to make the race organisation flow seamlessly.
For me all of this only came in reflection, I was quite riled up about the prospect of my first hill race in 234 days (yes, I counted!). Last I wore an IMRA number I hobbled over the finish line of Brockagh with an injured ankle, having narrowly missed out on catching Colm Mullen, but having beaten Jason Kehoe in a titanic downhill struggle where I only pulled an ace on the final parts.
Things had looked good then, on the surface, my form had been strong, despite sporadic and haphazard training efforts, but I hadn't healed after my harsh introduction year, with 47 races in 365 days. Throughout 2008 I had started to take the fight to such notable runners as Martin Francis, Dermot Murphy, Richie Healy, and, of course Annacurra race director Mick Hanney. I'd had jousts (not always successful) with the likes of Mike Long, Jimmy Synnott, Tim Grummell and Niall McAlinden. But my house was build on bog and sank as swiftly as it was build.
These things, were history, as I lined up for Annacurra, but it was this history that caused me to feel less than at ease until a few moments before the start. It was like freshness soared into my legs. Purposefully, I moved myself a bit behind the front pack. Mark Ryan, when I told him of my temptation "to go with the guys I used to race", had said: "Go with them." But this seemed wrong. And it seemed reckless. No, I would start slow, and I was convinced that I would blow on the latter parts of the uphill. After all, science would dictate it. I had no anaerobic training for 7 months in my legs. It seemed to optimistic to hope that something would have survived those days.
Mick stood up to take the gathered crowd, 123 strong, through the route. He didn't need to speak long, a more straightforward run bears some imagination.
Then the huddle broke, I took off close to my "partner-in-strides" from moments earlier, Gavan Doherty. I quickly realised that I had moved too far down even for my current form and decided to move up immediately before settling into a steady pace up the initial steep and slippy bit through the autumn covered forest. Eoin Keith leapt off in the lead with new man Keith Heary and newly-inducted Clonliffer Paul Duffy in pursuit. Tim Grummell and Mick Hanney did not stay too far behind the leaders, and today there would be no chasing this duo.
Fire (Trail) Away!
Once we hit the first flatter fire trail, I passed out another of my old rivals, Cormac O'Ceallaigh, who had scored a narrow win against me in a local 3k two weeks earlier. Within my sight for most of the remainder of the race was London-based Irishwoman Marie Synnott-Wells, introduced to IMRA by the absent Shane O'Rourke, who made the most of her debut finishing a strong 1st woman with almost 3 minutes to spare on 2nd and 3rd placed Mary Dawson and Caroline Reid.
The first forest bit was over before we knew it and a quick dash over tarmac left us on the fringe of the upper forest where tiptoeing was the way to go up a short but steep ascent. The more fire trail. At this stage several runners I didn't recognise moved in front of me, then fell back and so it went until the steepest bit: Kilometre 3 to 4. Here was a choice to be made: Did I trust myself ot push through aggressively or would I keep a steady ship.
There was no gung-ho today. I kept it steady, and perhaps I lost 1 or 2 minutes doing so. My kilometre time dropped to 7:30, something I hadn't done since, perhaps, 2007, in a serious hill race. But I was feeling good, and the expected collapse did not materialise. Then Alan Ayling moved alongside me, working hard. This is when I made my move, not to spite Alan, but to follow old dictum of putting on pressure in the transition from uphill to downhill.
From the top of the main climb a bit of jumping about was necessary as the path grew muddier. Debutante John Maye and UCD's Zoran Skrba were fighting it out ahead and I weathered the final small climb in an attempt to attach myself to the party. I had been careful, perhaps overly so, but there was no sign of injuries and it was all flat or down from here.
As descent grades suddenly turned steeper and big rocks started to litter the fire road, I saw my opportunity. I closed in. Then came a few hundred metres of snow. Even better. I passed by John, then Zoran. At first Zoran seemed to come back strongly on the flat that followed but he faded. Now the leading woman, Marie, was in sight and she was doing impressive speed coming downhill.
Just as I thought I could switch on autopilot and cruise down the last 3 fast kilometres, John Maye returned, in his visible yellow shirt, made a strong attempt at me. He literally chipped at my heels. I didn't want an all out dash this early and yet just about managed to get to the narrower forest path ahead of him. This was decisive: On the slippery paths I was faster today and caught Marie on the tarmac, gaining another place, but had to keep blowing at full speed to keep her behind me as I crossed the line, elated, in 21st position and a good 5 minutes after winner Eoin Keith who had secured a solid margin by the end.
Race Director Mick Hanney had secured an impressive 6th while Tim Grummell showed his return to form, now running for Sli Cualann instead of UCD. David Walsh-Gremmis 8th position, meant new club Boards recorded their first victory while myself, Rob Healy and Gavan couldn't quite defend the lofty heights set by last year's Crusaders team as we finished 4th and last in the team competition with 15th, 21st, and 30th spot. Our female counterparts made amends, with Sharlene Bell, impressively and with an injured ankle, led the Crusaders girls home to victory against Mary Dawson's Sli Cualann side.
A bit of panic ensued during the finish, as two runners went missing in the woods (they later arrived safely and smiling! Were did they go wrong?), but for most this went unregistered as they leisured away in the pub.
My 113% of winning time was somewhat of a surprise, at first glance it seemed I had lost about 1-2 minutes on some of last years rivals, so this seemed flattering (did Eoin ease off at the end?). There was no discontent after this race, though, the joy of being back had carried me through the race with a smile on my face (which the photographs can attest to) and I often found the urge (and strength) to wave at the encouraging spectators (and take a running bow for John Shields, see if you can spot the photo!). Some may accuse me of not working hard enough, but this was the time to test the legs, not do all-out battle.
Others had great cause for content, my friend and work colleague Conor Murray had a cracking race finishing 58th as he could marvel at the fitness gained from sea kayaking! Paul Joyce, also of Boards AC, expressed great satisfaction with his 16th placed finish, his best yet, while Rob Healy and his brother Jeffrey, kept the Healy-flag raised high with 15th and 33rd spots in the absence of their injured brother Richie who had been a strong 4th at Ticknock earlier in the League and who was sorely missed by our Crusaders team today.
Meanwhile, Graham Porter, IMRA Chairman of old, had to face defeat as wife Jane outsprinted him cheered on by the ladies on the finish line!
Two tests lie ahead of those wishing to complete the Winter League: Trooperstown Hill and a revamped and lengthened version of last years speed-fest at Crone Wood. One more victory will give the title to Eoin Keith for a second year running, unless Peter O'Farrell comes out and matches that feat, while the women's series still looks wide open.
Should Aoife recover from injury, she will have a strong shot with her win at Ticknock in the bag, but should she choose caution in light of the more important challenges lying ahead in Summer, a very open playing field remains for the other women.
Personally, I'm delighted with a fun day out and will try to employ the rest of the Winter League as further tests towards the summer races. So as the last autumn colours of Annacurragh fade towards memory, it is again time to look forward. But the trees around Aughrim will hear racing runner's feet again, no doubt about that. A popular race and a popular event. But for those who had their hill running baptism at Annacurra: Beware, for Trooperstown will present a sterner test still and the Leinster League even more so...