PREVIEW: How to Howth

The decision was made easily enough: Standing at the finish of the National 10k, gasping for air, my lungs and heart were more tired than my legs. Sufficient miles have build protection but insufficient racing has cut away sharpness.
There's only one remedy: Racing. Normally, I wouldn't do two races in such quick succession, but Howth is one of my favoured routes, it suits me, and given it was named by Vikings (the word Howth seems to be derived from the Scandinavian "Hoved", meaning "head"), so how could I not be there?

Last year I blistered back, untrained but only 65 kilos slight, and secured 15th place, having been 12th midway (weight is fundamentally important for fell running, champions like Sedgwick, Naylor and Kenny Stuart were all less than 9 stone). The year before I had been 20-40 places further down the field, so its no wonder I have fond memories of Howth.

Howth - The 40 minute barrier

I'm not as light this time around but nevertheless want to assault the 40-minute barrier, the same barrier that most semi-serious runners long to break for the 10k (since so few can dream of the 30 minute barrier). Many say that your 10k time is a good predictor of your Howth time and its not all wrong. Barry Minnock ran 31:25 in 2007. Two years and much fitter he ran 31:04 for the 10k. Peter O'Farrell has run 34:34 for the route (in 2004), he now runs the 10k in about 34:00.
Would I be happy with 38:28 for Howth? Yes, for the moment certainly, my personal best is 40:50 and 2:22 would constitute a fine improvement.

Winter/Summer, Year after Year

The fact that Howth has normally been on twice a year, has meant its a perfect route to measure your progress from pre-season to early season. And then the fact that it is every year, as an IMRA classic and the only Leinster League race North of the Liffey, means you can measure your improvement (or lack of) year on year too.

I did: Howth was my third race when I started out in 2007. I finished in 47:35, that same Summer, I had improved to 41:35, before finally, on a slower Winter's day, bringing it down to 40:50. Howth in this way played a fundamental part in seeding a belief in my mind that I could improve to a competitive level. It could do the same for you, or it could confirm long-held beliefs of your own.

How to Race

Howth offers a cross-country start, an agility bottleneck, a short tough climb and an easy trail run of a few kilometres: Twice!

You must stay close to your main competitors from the start to succeed in Howth: Numbers are always large enough to congest the area when you transition from the GAA pitch to the forests at the foot of the Bens of Howth.

This meaning running hard on the flat start and cross-country and road runners have an edge here. You must pick a speed that will allow you to regain the momentum, the part through the forest is easy, just jog it once before the race and note the obstacles. When you hit the hill you must keep your momentum, or face dropping through the field.

Once at the top, you're doing a very easy circuit with no serious climbs and a few very fast descents (particular the final one). You'll be running your heart out on these parts, don't run easy, just hang in there, the descent will give you a brief relief before you have to do it all again.

Howth is not a race to play catch-up, instead attack the climbs ferociously. It'll hurt more but will be over quicker and you have several flats and descents at your disposal to recover. Ground lost is unlikely to ever be recovered here unless you keep your competitors within sight, then you always have a chance in the long flat sprint to the finish.

The Winner and Some History...

This should be an interesting race, but personally I'd like to see Kevin Keane run it and show more of his resurgent form. Given the speediness of the route, he'd be a strong favourite against other prime candidates for the victory such as Colm Mullen and Eoin Keith.

Kevin Keane is a runner I'd like to see win the Leinster League, he came so close in 2005 but was beaten in a titanic struggle with the then all-conquering Paul Nolan. Paul Nolan won 7 of the first 8 races. At the short Hell Fire Flicker had narrowly beaten Paul, but both runners conceded defeat on the day to Tallaght's David Byrne.

Kevin went head to head with Paul again at Three Rock, Mountain View, the Scalp and Howth, and every time the story was the same: Paul Nolan 1st, Kevin Keane 2nd. At Corrig, Paul won again, while Kevin had to retire with injury. With the League secured, Paul Nolan retired from the League. Kevin duly took advantage and won Brockagh, Sorrell Hill and the Sugarloaf. Kevin finished second, despite three victories and 5 runner-up spots. Perhaps this could be the year for him to claim the title?

An interesting note is that the League of that time was more varied, having a number of very short races at the beginning, before moving into the longer more gradually later on. One can wonder if the preference for longer "slogs" has done anything to bring down the speed of the average competitor who can get away with relying on less speed and if this favours the older more experienced hill runners over younger, more powerful athletes. In England, you have to do well in very short, medium-length and quite long races to be crowned British Champion, would we do well to require similar all-roundedness from our athletes in the Leinster League?

Well, enough questions, roll on the League...