PREVIEW: European Trial – Clohernagh

The majority of hill runners may not realise it but one of the most important races of the season will take place tomorrow at the third peak of Wicklow: Clohernagh, standing tall at 800m and marking the Southern confines of the vale of Glenmalure. (Clohernagh is dwarfed only by Lug and Mullaghcleevaun).

That race is of course the European Trial on a route designed and chosen by High Performance Officer (HPO) Gerry Brady to mimic the characteristics of the real European Championship course. The EC is held on a 12km uphill only course with a relatively flat 3 kilometre beginning.

Long unbroken climbs are rare in Ireland and picking the right trial course thus becomes a big challenge for the HPO and while this year’s route is not a carbon-copy of the actual championship, it possesses another advantage: It is very, very tough.

Route Review

Starting out at the Glenmalure Lodge and heading West from the cross-roads of Drumgoff, runners must first battle it out on 2.5km of tarmac that lead to the foot of the actual climb. Gerry Brady advocates the tactical element of this feature. Personally, I think most runners will find it hard to break a significant gap at this early stage, I rather imagine it’ll be a relatively easy pace to the start of the climb with the favourites watching it other. I’ll elaborate on this below.

Once the tarmac ends you enter the custom-built “Glenmalure Zig-Zags” trail (it’s actually named so) which starts out rocky as you cross the Carrawaystick Bridge (named after the long boggy mountain that takes up the horizon South of Clohernagh).

A lot of the zig-zags are covered with delightful soft grass and a few flatter stretches before you reach a wooden plank with cautionary instructions about going on to open mountain, sometimes referred to as a “pillar”. Here you must turn up right over steep boggy ground with a barely visible path leading you to a turnstile. Once you have climbed this the hardest part of the climb awaits with ascent grades as high as 63% and a few short sections where clawing away on all fours seem sensible.

You have been running south for a while and now start veering West towards Clohernagh summit. The steepest slopes of the mountain open up in gaping emptiness to your right and the acrophobic will feel a nervous tingle up their spine as their feet take in more grass, bog, dirt, and rocks.

On a good day the views are stunning, the rugged green sides of Glenmalure valley revealing themselves dotted with grey stones that betray the areas ancient heritage. The path through Drumgoff forest to the military road, the Fananierin Ridge and Croaghanmoira can be seen clearly behind you and as you gain height you can almost feel Lugnacoille coming into view.

Another wedged trail leads you to a green warning sign on your left. From here there is only 800m to the summit, a possibility for a late attack perhaps? More of the same leads you to the final short climb; the cairn (not on the highest point of the mountain) comes into view quite unexpectedly and suddenly. During our training run here the temptation was irresistible to move on further to Lugnacoille connected to Clohernagh by a broad grassy (and endearingly runnable) ridge.

Tactics

I feel a very simple approach to this race is the way to go for no-hopers like myself (in the context of the race!). Since I have no chance of qualifying (indeed I hold the wrong password too) my objective with this race is getting experience running against the best. I think these races are hugely underappreciated and not only are the humbling effect useful in setting a proper performance bar for yourself as a runner but they can also be wildly entertaining. The uphill only at Lugnacoille two years ago laid the foundations for me to develop as a “climber” and last year’s tight battle in the Up-and-Down in Crone Wood with Adrian Tucker, Jason Kehoe and Richie Healy was one of the sternest tests of physical ability and concentration I had yet to face.

Simply put, these types of races bring you on more than the Leinster League can and I’d recommend it to anyone with aspirations about serious running (realistic or not, try it first and deal with reality later, that’s what I do).

I don’t think there is much to gain by an aggressive start. Even if I had more road speed than my nearest competitors gains would be small (I obviously can’t touch thoroughbreds like Mark Ryan, Brian McMahon, Peter O’Farrell etc., even on the roads where I am stronger at the moment). Let’s say I crunch out 3k pace at around 3:29min/km for me at the moment. 1) That’s quite stupid in a race of this length and 2) even if some hold back at a conservative 3:45-4:00min/km pace, the maximum time I can win is around 90 seconds. In a normal race this can prove quite significant, but with the severity of the climb facing us tomorrow it looks more likely to have the opposite effect.

A superior climber can cut minute-sized chunks out of an inferior climber tomorrow, so if you’re fearing the climb, I suggest going out strong and steady, arrive at the climb relatively fresh and then pace the remaining energy up until the 800m sign when you can let out anything left.

This strategy obviously doesn’t apply to the people wanting to qualify, who’ll have to keep close to the top-6. Once dropped off the pace it will be almost impossible to fight your way back against strong climbers as the gradient is too hard and any attempts to do very hard sprints will be very punishing and you’ll have to rely on a complete blow-up in front of you. I know from sources that some of the favourites have already picked their spot of attack and it’ll be interesting to hear about it after the race.

The Field

It should be captivating tomorrow. One man I think will profit from the severity of the climb is Peter O’Farrell whose natural strength and familiarity with this sort of terrain could give him an edge. The favourite remains Brian McMahon, however, especially in the absence of Ulster’s Stephen Duncan. A dark horse is Mark Ryan of Rathfarnham, who while he’s been injured up until 13 days ago possesses tremendous class and he could be fresh enough to threaten for the top-3. Another Rathfarnham man has made a stylish comeback from injury this season: Kevin Keane, and he too is bound to play a key part.

Tom Hogan will also play a big part if he comes up from Wexford and Des Woods is still capable of mixing with the best if he comes down from the North. Very notable absentees are Barry Minnock, James McFadden and Ronan Guirey and a question mark hangs on whether Colm Mullen has had time to train enough to decide to attend and compete at the highest level. Turlough Conway is running well and should be interesting to watch while Leinster League leader Eoin Keith is running the Mourne Way Marathon this weekend and won’t be a contender here.

On the team side, Rathfarnham will no doubt have a frightening side and their greatest threat could emerge again from one of the Northern teams: Newcastle, Omagh Harriers and Mourne Runners. The top-3 in the Leinster League, Sli Cualann, Crusaders and Clonliffe, will be fielding strong teams and can’t be discounted but my guess is they’ll be fighting it out for the last top-3 spot tomorrow. New team Boards AC are also expected to show and this will be a baptism of fire for their newer members.

I know little of the women’s competition but it goes without saying that Donna Mahon will be among the favourites and so will, of course, Edel Mooney if she’s running as well as young prodigy Angela Speight. There’s also bound to be 2-3 very strong female runners from the North capable of putting serious pressure on their counter-parts from the 26 counties. It would be good to see Moire O’Sullivan on the steep slopes of Clohernagh as I think she’ll do well. The other leading women in the current Leinster League such as Caroline Reid, Karen Duggan, Sonya Fuhrmann and Jackie O’Hagan. From a Crusaders perspective we will of course sorely miss the injured Aoife Joyce who would be a very strong contender on the severe ascent which plays to her strengths as much as they play to my weaknesses, just as Orla McAvoy remains on the side-lines after her long-term injury which is a real loss to Irish hill running.

Personal Expectations

As mentioned earlier I have no major objective for this race. I knew I would never be able to make myself competitive in a race of this standard with less than 6 months since my return from injury. It will take at least 2, more likely 3, very good winter cycles with significant mileage and other quality work to even approximate the level of the top-10 runners in this race.

I view the race instead as a learning experience and will try not to go 100% if possible as the race will have more value as a very hard training session. Given the severity of the ascent this hope can very much be proven fanciful as there may be no 95% way to run up it unless you choose to slow down to a trod!

This, of course, is also not an option, given that there are club medals to fight for. Another goal for the race must therefore be to stay well-positioned in relation to runners who could threaten Crusaders’ position in the field. Luckily I do have Richie, Rob, Jason and Jeff as ample backup (indeed the first three a very likely to be our first scorers as they climb significantly better than me).

The long climb serves as a nice dress rehearsal for my big season target at Snowdon and hopefully I’ll emerge fresh enough to put in a really good performance at Scarr and break my “Leinster League duck” this season.

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