I have duplicitous memories of Corrig. In early spring-time 2007, as a young and naive jogger in his first Leinster League season, I had roared down the slopes of Fairy Castle towards Stepaside only to tear my meniscus.
The following week I would make my first acquaintance with Corrig, one of the more interesting Leinster League races. It is half trail and half open mountain, much rock and much soft grass and bog, a bit of a “jack-of-all-trades” type of race.
With my knee not properly working, I had volunteered to marshal under some of the most horrendous conditions I can remember seeing here in Ireland. Wind and rain battered the exposed rounded sibling hills of Seahan and Corrig just South of Dublin. Yet I remember miserable after miserable runner fighting their way through the thick grey mist. I also remember Ronan Guirey winning clad in just a singlet, shorts and headband, confirming the hardiness of the hill runner, while a woman got lost on the way down and caused quite a panic.
Since that day, injury barred my return to Corrig. Until yesterday...
As I warmed up with Martin Francis, fondly reminiscing about the golden advice of John Brooks, the indomitable Scotsman who conquered Ben Nevis, Carrauntoohil and so many other great mountains, it was clear that we weren’t in for a slaughter of a climb.
A flattish fire trail leads you past a pile of litter (should litterers on these hills be put to the stake?) before the gradients get more severe as a narrow eroded forest trail leads up to the next fire trail and then eventually towards the open mountains.
Mark Ryan had shared a great line that John Brooks had learned from his coach back in the day: “A few minutes into every race put in a very hard effort to take the lead and then just hang in there.” Apparently this tactic had worked 90% of the time.
Warming up I thought about it, not so much with the intention of taking the lead, but more as a way to suck up maximum pain on the climb and then just hang in there to the finish. The further up the field you get the fewer runners you catch on the descent as most of them are quite handy and even if you run out of your skin and do a 3:00min/km, you may only be able to take 20-40 seconds off a slower descender. A bad uphill, on the other hand, can lose you minutes.
I was feeling better today while the weekend had offered 5 hill runs, I was less sore and had reason to be hopeful. A good 150+ field went off and for the first few kilometres everything went according to plan. Indeed, it was almost like the “old days”.
When I arrived on the fire trail, I still felt strong. I had passed out several runners on the first ascent and felt I was climbing effortlessly again. I tipped at the heels of Jimmy Synnott and could see Jason just a bit further in front. Deja vu struck me here, this was Brockagh all over again. I had arrived at the top of Brockagh in front of Jimmy and Jason and while one had beaten me on the descent, the other hadn’t. Of course, my season ended the moment I crossed that finish line. But for a moment now, I smiled inside. Had I returned to where I left off finally, after 11 long months?
Alas, it was not to be, the road sloped up again and suddenly my legs seized, without warning, and for the next two kilometres, I staggered, fought, and limped forward, as I plummeted through the field.
Every flat brought new fight, however, and as we crossed Seahan the race has a sadistic feature: Twice you get to pelt down a soft grassy slope with the glee of a child, and twice you must run up each slope and pay the prize for this entertainment. It was profitable, though, each descent brought more places than I lost on the following ascent and Gavan did me a favour when he passed me out as we returned to the top of Seahan. His burst of speed pulled me with him and I was very pleased with my descent. After several indifferent descents this season, myself and Gavan pulled back Conor O’Meara and a few others runners on the way down, and just managed to keep the returning Eoin Syron at bay.
Coming into the forest I took a stupid tumble and got caught behind Eoin. He gallantly told me to let him know if I wanted past, but my momentum was broken and I decided to just hang in for a few seconds. As we emerged on fire road I was confused how much race remained. When I eventually realised it was not much, I pushed out in front, took out Eoin and another runner and latched myself onto Gavan’s rear. The hardened orienteer knew the score, however, and having done 200s with him, I know he lacks for nothing when it comes to pure speed.
Fighting it out towards the finish, he rushed in 2 seconds ahead of me with Eoin Syron a further 1 second a drift. Keeping Eoin behind us was decisive as it kept Crusaders in 2nd place on the day. We had both passed Dermot Murphy out on the descent so at the time we left the top, Clonliffe were still ahead. You don’t realise these things during the races but it sure would spice things further up if you did.
There were many noteworthy anecdotes to take from today's race. One was how Eoin Keith recovered fast enough from his Wicklow Round exertions to still beat the while field 4 days later. Another was the sight of Keith Daly (almost) going full throttle in a Leinster League race (rumour has it he took it easy on the way up). Together with his brother Jonathan (who finished 5th), the two Donore runners were only a third man short of having a winning team. Instead the laurels went to Sli Cualann on both the side of the gender divide.
With Crusaders, Rathfarnham, Sportsworld and Clonliffe the only Dublin clubs to have a completing team so far in IMRA regi, it would be nice to see other traditional clubs such as Tallaght, Raheny, DSD, Metro St. Brigids and Donore compete with teams in the Leinster League.
The impressive return of Hugh McLindon also continues to gather pace and the man from Glenmalure finished 3rd in this outing.
The Mystery Unravelled
Overall I snuck back in the top-20 (finishing 20th) where I think my training warrants me to be and my “% of Win Time” of 115% is only 3% off my top-form last year (112% was last year’s peak, my target this year to stabilise around 110%). So this was a good outing overall but once again I blew up almost catastrophically on the second part of the descent, walking long bits. This just didn’t happen to the same extent last year and I cannot count on my descent bailing me out every time.
Luckily, several old hands were at hand (pun intended) to offer advice on why this happens despite the fact that I should be in better form than results suggest. Richie Healy, Conor O’Meara and Keith Daly all concurred (independently) that I probably run too much in the hills and thus leave my leg muscles too tired to sustain a prolonged hard climb.
This makes sense as I’ve done an almost obsessive amount of hills recently (mainly because it’s hard to find a flat run where I live!) and because of the way I “die off” on the ascents. It’s not gradual and it does not come with much warning, instead it’s like my legs just suddenly shut down. Everything else is fine up until that point, but once the legs are dead it feels like I’m carrying dead weight and my heart rate and all the rest shoots up wildly. Yet, once I hit any flat or downhill I’m ready to rush off like a hare.
Muscle Damaged from a Scientific Perspective
Scientifically this also makes perfect sense when you consider the new theory of fatigue: Once my brain picks up that excessive muscle damage is occurring it “shuts down” connections to the motor neurons of all jeopardised muscle fibres. This, of course, immediately means that the remaining active muscle fibres are left alone to finish the job. In my case, with my already weak leg strength, this effect is catastrophic and leads to an almost complete halt of forward momentum.
The exact same muscles aren’t utilised for uphill, downhill and flat and the weight you must carry is much lower on the flats (it’s a bit more complicated on the downhill scientifically speaking). So when muscles are heavily, or almost chronically, pre-fatigued the body will start deactivation of motor neurons earlier. There are two causes for this; the first is the compounding of muscle damage when you add the damage of the actual race to the damage already done. The second cause has to do with an enzyme called Interleukin-6. This enzyme is released when muscle damage occurs and triggers the motor neuron shutdown explained earlier (Fitzgerald 2008).
In pre-fatigued runners there is a higher concentration of this enzyme meaning the brain will more likely start the shutdown process earlier than normal. Training of course makes your muscles more resilient to damage and also makes the brain more tolerant of elevations of Interleukin-6 concentrations. However, there’s always a lag between the training being done and the physiological adaptations the training brings. For my case it means I’m currently suffering the negative effects of hard hillwork before the positive adaptations have kicked in and that’s probably the reason why I ran below form for Ticknock, and Powerscourt Uphill.
There’s no doubt in my mind that hillwork leaves more muscle damage than almost all other types of running, simply because of the additional weight-bearing element on uphills (e.g. “fighting gravity”). Secondly, downhill running is proven to reduce muscle strength by up to 10% for up to 10 days after due to the eccentric damage it causes (when you run downhill the brain reduces the number of fibres recruited due to the support you get from gravity to move. However, this means fewer muscle fibres are absorbing the increased impact forces generated by fast downhill running. Good running form can somewhat limit this damage as it will spread the stress more evenly across the lower body).
My cure will come naturally. John Lenihan recommends no more than 2 hill runs a week to keep the muscles fresh, so I’ll follow this advice. Since I’m almost racing once a week it means just one additional long hill run in addition to this.
Reducing mileage will also help and as I’m moving out of my Intensity phase and into my Peaking now. This means I’m raising the intensity of my speedwork but my overall volume drops now. Hopefully, with this change, I’ll be at my freshest within a few weeks and ready to really put out a good performance at one of my three favourite races: Scarr, Brockagh and Sorrell Hill.
So thanks to Conor, Richie and Keith for the words of wisdom and encouragement, it’s interesting to see how hard self-diagnostics are and highlights how much I have missed the coaching of Emma since she returned to England.