RACES: Wicklow Way Relay Leg 7

As alluded in my earlier post on the Wicklow Way Relay 2009 I was suitably happy about my Leg 7 race to give it a full race write-up and explain the events as they unfolded on the leg.

  • Route: 5 (leg 7 is a great course, pretty landscapes, great variety throughout the route and enough ups and downs to make this one of the most interesting half-marathon distance runs in Ireland)
  • Weather: 3 (Rain gave way to milder weather midway and then more rain but this was to my advantage as I don’t run well in the heat)
  • Field Strength: 4 (Some top class performances by Cormac Conory and Martin McDonald, other solid ones by stalwarts like Turlough Conway and Alan O’Keefe. That more than one 1:18 half-marathoner couldn’t make the top-5 tells the full story)
  • Performance: 5 (Perhaps my best running performance to date and full comeback if anything. Tactics were spot on, mentality was good and I left everything out there on the route, just as you want it without ever abandoning my pacing strategy)
  • Overall: 5 (These days pay for all the hard work and that the leg just added to an already very enjoyable day makes this a race I’ll cherish along with Snowdon 07 and the Wicklow Way Trail 08)

My game plan was simple: Match the ascent time from last year (covering the first 4 uphill kilometres in about 20:40), go off slightly slower on kilometre 1 (where I had lashed madly after Niall McAlinden in 2008), flow on the descent and then turn into my newly developed “10k-gear” for the tarmac bit (leg 7 includes about 6 kilometres of up and down sloping tarmac road past angry dogs and quiet houses). My aim was to just replicate last year’s result (1:40:14) or even approximate it. I had no reason to be more optimistic than that given recent results.

Things went astonishingly close to plan. Kilometres 1 and 2 were run slightly slower than last year but the conservative pacing soon paid off. By kilometre 3 I was only 6 seconds down on last year’s time and by kilometre 4, the top of the hill, I was 17 seconds ahead and feeling strong.

Another Change, Another Descent

The delightful descent that followed, an unforced swoop of 3 kilometres, gave me 4 of the 8 sub-4min kilometres I recorded on the day and the while one path has now been covered with a paste of earth and branches to protect it from the wheels of Coillte machines, this merely added to the fun as my new DS Racers had no problem guiding me securely over it. I was particularly happy with kilometres run in 3:27min/km and 3:33min/km here as it felt effortless and rhythmical.

Jason, who was a fantastic support on this leg, joined me on the road with his car which allowed me to take a sip of water and discard two of the layers I had donned for the cold. I was ready to attack the upcoming hills and felt I’d get hot soon enough. Mentally I had approached the leg as running “two 47-minute 10ks and then just throw whatever is left after the last 1.1k”. When I passed the 10k mark in 43:18, more than a-minute-and-a-half up on 2008, I started to believe something special could be in the works, yet I the fear of blowing up never really left my bones.

Once Jason was gone a lonely run to the ford that marks the 13k point, about two-thirds home, ensued. There was no chasing like last year which in a way worked in my favour. The previous runners had all taken off around 4.5 and more minutes ahead of me, so even with a solid run I did not expect to catch anyone and just kept going steady like a locomotive. I felt like an old experienced hand such as John Farrelly and that was a good feeling. I may have been more nervous had I known David Walsh-Kemmis was running a 92-minute Leg 7 behind me for Boards AC for I did not expect to be catched at this stage.

Technique and Tarmacadem

Two different but savage descents brought me here, first through the only technical descent of the route through a narrow path with hidden rocks under high grass where a misstep tore up some old cartilage that has lingered on the top of my right foot ever since my sprain at Fairy Castle in May 2008. While it hurt it had no effect on my running, so I just kept going. The next descent is a super-fast and super-steep drop on very hard tarmacadem. Any attempt to break is painful here but going at full tilt in only racing flat meant my calves and feet took an absolute hammering. Thankfully it was quickly over and Dee was waiting handing me my Accelerade Gel. I wasn’t hungry enough to eat all but the protein and caffeine in it would do me many favours for the last bit, so I gulped it down before grapping a bottle of water from Jason, swallowing three hefty mouthfuls and throwing the bottle aside.

Turning a corner where Aoife was posted with her camera, the ford awaited. The weekend before I had jumped dry-footed over it but the downpour of the day made that impossible. Again, though, I complain not of the weather for the cold water was like balm on my feet. I feared the next steep climb to the first of many gates as I had blown up here previously. Yet I was up by more than two minutes now and caught my first glimpse of a runner in red up ahead. “You’re making great time on the four lads ahead”, yelled Dee. It was like pouring blood in shark-infested waters, yet I restrained the rush of adrenaline and just kept plodding away. Steady-steady-steady, I would now not abandon what seemed to work so well. The runners ahead had spent less time on their feet and attacking them aggressively was not the way to go.

I finally caught the runner in red at the final parts of the 3-kilometre climb but by now had caught sight of three more runners including Kevin O’Riordan who has put me to the sword repeatedly in the League of late. This was a very unexpected bonus and despite feeling seriously tired by now (long gone was the ease of the first 10k), I was now almost 4 minutes ahead of my 2008 time showing just how much I had lost on the climb in the sweltering heat and with a severe stomach cramp in 08.

This year I had eaten very little and drank only sparingly, and while my gut was up to its old tricks after the race, the symptoms were much milder than last year. I was in pain, though, and don’t even remember passing Kevin out (he told me later I did). As the penultimate climb came and went I do remember passing out two others runners, among them a fit-looking Donore man who latched on to me on the descent. Every time a gate barred my way (there are 4 gates to open here), he’d catch up and I would curse and rush off faster than my body would have preferred at this late stage.

Then came the Derry River, I had just run another 3 sub-4 min kilometres and from the bridge onwards you have 1.1 kilometres of ever increasing slope to conquer before the finish. I never fancy myself on a climb and was expecting my newfound lead to fade quickly. I didn’t know that I was now six minutes up on last year’s time and this is when I closed my eyes to reality and ran in painful stupor. 5:27 was the last uphill split, and then another 38 seconds for the final 140m before Diarmud’s outstretched hand signalled the end of my journey.

It took me a few moments to fathom that I had run the best run of my IMRA career, a result that certainly surpasses my effort in last year’s Wicklow Way Trail. 1:33:18 is 16 seconds faster than Bernard Fortune’s 2008 time and while he remains, and probably always will, the better runner, ranking next to a man of such quality in any statistic is a thing to be treasured. Many runners said the course was slower than last year due to the conditions and average times seem to confirm this. For me they were a blessing, however, for I cannot tolerate heat well. Being within 8 seconds of my first team Crusader's colleague, Alan O'Keeffe's, time was also encouraging with a view on next year. In fairness to Alan, though, he's not currently training at the level he did when he was at his very best.

He was not the only “scalp” I could be proud of on the day, as I beat out Hugh Kinsella, a well-known quantity for classy races at Snowdon but unfortunately the Sli Cualann man doesn’t get to race as much with IMRA as his talent deserves as his farm keeps him busy. Also behind me today was Alan Lawlor, who’s churned out good performances for IMRA since before 2002 and is no mean cross-country runner. There was also Ed McEntee of Sportsworld a 1:18 half-marathoner.

If nothing else, I found my favoured distance today, it seems to be just beyond the 20 kilometre mark!

Perspectives

So what to take from today’s race? Well, firstly, that my fears about my training programme and current fitness were over-estimated. There’s certainly something slightly funny about my ability to climb fast in the Leinster league but I think I must continue with my current game plan.

Considering also, that apart from a day with the hospital flu and 6 days out after my fall at Howth (spent hiking in the Lake District mainly!), I have run every single day between the 5th of Januray and today and done around 1390 kilometres in that time, many high quality track sessions and lately, rough hill runs. Also in the 4.5 weeks since I returned from my fall at Howth, I have about 9000 metres in training doing hill runs or more than Everest. Ok Joss Naylor did this in 36 hours, but I’m not him, so I was probably bound to be a bit tired at times.

It may also show that while I’m not great at running in the “Red Zone”, I can run for a very extended period of time in the “Orange Zone” and with this in mind I am bound to travel to Donegal in early September and try my hand at the National Half-Marathon there. It also tempts me to return to the marathon scene, but I will do my best to restrain myself at least until 2010. Looking at the results I should have a shot at running sub-1:20 for the half-marathon and sub-3:00 for the marathon. It won’t all come in one day, but I ran against runners of that calibre today and my current records are only 1:34:06 (a record I bizarrely smashed in today’s course which is 21.14 kilometres, only a few metres longer than the half-marathon distance of 21.1km). My one attempt at the marathon stands at 3:18.

My recent 10k time predicts times of 1:22 and 2:54 for the two distances respectively, but these predictions, while seemingly reasonably accurate, need to be combined with correct training and injury avoidance.

For now, the next big goal is Saturday’s European Trial, which I love to run even though its throwing yourself to the wolves and then Snowdon at the end of July where I my great ambition would be to break 90 minutes this time.

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