REVIEW: Winter League 2009

This year I cannot offer much of a competitor's perspective on but I did attend all the races, run most of most of the courses, was there when the planning for the League happened and, anecdotally, competed in the Annacurra race.

Thank You For the Memories
I've held a fascination with the Winter League ever since I entered hill running in earnest in the Winter of 2007. With lungs ablaze I had finished 74th out of 154 runners at Hellfire Winter and thus ignited a spark of belief that if I could do that with no training, then perhaps I could become a half decent runner.

My commitment to hill running was confirmed a few weeks later at Howth Winter as I, badly hungover and underslept, finished 58th out of 104 runners, in a significantly slower time than at Hellfire. I knew from then on that this sport was a serious business to me, and gone were the long nights, the weekly parties, and the heavy drinking that had filled so much of my life from the tender age of 15.

This overnight "life-shift" reaped almost immediate benefits as I finished a delighted 48 out of 87 runners at the 2007 University Championships at Ticknock. This race was worth special remembrance, it was the first time I caught site of Aoife Joyce in a race (albeit not for long) but for the general population it was known for the arctic conditions. Skating down full speed, overtaking runners led me to my best % of winning time yet, but more importantly, confirmed my love for the craziness of the hill running sport as opposed to the regimentation that is the track and road.

I missed Ballinastoe that year due to holidays and returned to a grey Trooperstown were I suffered lots but finished well, cursing a route that would, much later, become my favourite and my home. I wonder what I would have thought of such a development had I known then what I know now?

2008 would prove even better as I had several very strong finishes that set me up for a memorable Wicklow Way Trail. Eventually participation in the Winter League destroyed my season, however, and the lessons of the error left deep scars in my memory.

Winter League 2009
Given these strong attachments to the WL, people will understand that it was with a bleeding heart that I gave up 2009 incarnation of the league, although, no one could doubt it was the right thing to do.

The Winter League for all its fascination is a warm-up. The Leinster League has tougher courses, much harder competition, and more races and is in all ways the senior competition. But with that being said, the Winter League is a perfect incubator for future stars of the hills, before they have to worry about the top-end competition in cross-country and peaking for summer Trials for the Europeans and Worlds.

For the normal IMRA runner, its an opportunity to see how much fitness was lost over the winter period and regain race-sharpness before the Leinster League. Many hill runners, as is their long-standing tradition, race themselves fit rather than train. You won't find this in any textbook but for some people whose lives don't revolve around constant regimented training, its the most enjoyable and effective way to express their running.

The 2009 version lived up to this purpose almost perfectly. Let's do a quick tour of the races.

Race Calendar
The 2009 Winter League offered one completely new route: Annacurra, as well as a significant revamp of 3 traditional routes, the Ticknock Winter, Howth Winter and the newer Crone Woods race.

The opening race at Howth was a big gamble as the traditional route is one of IMRA's most beloved. The new, more winding and mazy run did win many fans if the forum was anything to go by, but in person, I heard quite a few stating they preferred the older. All in all, a good day out but not a clear keeper.

The Ticknock revamp on the other hand seemed to be ubiquitously hailed as a worthy course to become the permanent winter route in the area courtesy of Paul Mahon's creativity, and it was a relief not to see a repeat of last year's extreme conditions on the top.

New route Annacurra was also generally well-received and the southerly location not only meant strong local organisation but also the welcome addition of more runners from South and West Leinster. The only gripe heard on this route was that it was a bit tame as hill runs go. Certainly, Annacurra wouldn't be out of place in the trail league, but equally it served its purpose as a warm-up race very well with fast descents and low injury risk. It was also the only race I actually ran!

My own favourite Trooperstown was run on another gorgeous day, like in 2008 but much unlike 2007, and even hardened veterans like Joe Lalor expressed positive surprise about the beauty of the route which offers open mountain views that most competitors won't see again until the late Leinster League. I believe this area is so suitable for mountain running that I will propose a 12-13km version of the Trooperstown route to next year's Committee for the Leinster League as a replacement for Brockagh or Scarr to provide one of these routes with a much needed rest.

Finally, Crone Woods was beefed up to 7km from 6 and multiple hard extra climbs and another technical descent inserted. Reviews of yesterday's course has been glowing and finishing times were quick. I stand to my opinion that there should be room for shorter races in the calendar to really allow for speedy running, but with the overall consensus clearly being for the newer route, I can see this Crone Wood version taking a recurring role in the Winter League of future years.

The Runners
Winner was again Eoin Keith of newly formed Boards AC (the digital running club) but unfortunately there'd be no repeat of the fascinating duel between James McFadden, Garry Crossan and Ronan Guirey of 2007. Kevin Keane, long missed, returned to late in the fray to challenge Eoin, although he won both races he contested, and his win at Crone, with almost a minute down to 2nd placed Peter O'Farrell, was emphatic. The latter would also have had a major say in the championship had he completed 3 races, but in the end Peter O'Farrell ran only two races: Winning Howth and finishing 2nd at Crone.

Gerry Brady, despite harbouring injury, showed what a formidable athlete he remains, finishing 2nd overall, despite having 20 years on some of his competitors. Revelation of the league was Carlow Runner and duathlete Keith Heary who finished 3rd after several good runs.

My own club Crusaders could not muster a regular team as strong as the one that had secured team gold last year, but I was delighted to see Richie running strong when he managed to shake off his foot problem, while his brother Rob showed further improvements and finished 13th overall. Mick Hanney's determination meant he's moved up to 9th in front of former Wicklow Way Trail winner Martin Francis and his running partner Paul Joyce, was certainly one of the most improved with his 15th placed finish.

The women's competition was somewhat marred by a notable absence of the female runners who have been competing for major honours over the last years: Moire O'Sullivan, Aisling Coppinger, Aoife Joyce, Donna Mahon, Mags Greenan, Laura Flynn, and Orla McAvoy. Most were focusing on cross-country but showed their class when they showed, Aoife Joyce winning Ticknock and Donna and Mags finishing 1st and 4th at Crone. Crone Wood was hopefully a marker of what is to come as it featured not just Donna and Mags, but Ciara Largey, Niamh O'Boyle, Laura Flynn, and Karen Duggan. Another strong female performance was set by Mary Synnott-Wells, visiting from the UK, at Annacurra were she frankly annihilated all opposition in the Ladies category.

In the end Maureen Lowther managed to compile the best three results to win the league and the Crusaders' women took another title. There's a lot of promise the in the Ladies' field, but the competitive hardness that is seen in cross-country in the top-end of the field was not present in this year's Winter League. Hopefully this will be rectified in the Leinster League as, to me, this is a key incubator to turn mid-level runners into contestant for the Trial races (if that's what they wish).

The rest of the Winter League results can be viewed on the IMRA website. Now bring on the Summer!