ARTICLE: Running for Your Country

Before continuing my report from yesterday's World Trial, I can't help but ponder a bit about the importance of running for your country in light of some post-race discussions in the pub after that really strung a chord with my own fool-hardy project of defying both natural talent and age to have a shot at what I call "the red and white" but the Irish, of course, call "the Green".

Country First
"You country should always come first," was the general sentiment proposed by High Performance Officer Gerry Brady and he had the look in his eyes of a man who had felt like that always. There's reason to believe the sincerity and depth of this message from a man who fought throughout his career to qualify for various cross-country and mountain running international teams and had a knack for stepping up to the plate and delivering when it really mattered. Two essential qualities for the prospective international no doubt.

Ian Conroy, fourth on the day and looking like he's on his way to the World Championships, once the selectors have passed final judgement, put a more youthful slant on Gerry's dictum: "I just care about The Green". This strung the chord for I knew exactly what had driven him into the race, although, having never been near to the standard required to qualify for my country, I could only hope to understand the elation of having crossed the chasm and "done the business".

I don't encounter this passion for the first time naturally, as I have watched the intense commitment of runners such as Aoife Joyce and Peter O'Farrell to bridge that same gap and break into the qualifying spaces that so often seem like an protected circle guarded by a few stalwart, and genetically blessed and seemingly untouchable, elites. These two runners in particular have inspired me and showcased how far hard-work and belief can take you. Barry Minnock is another who showed the way emerging from the fringes of top-20 in the Leinster League to top national standard.

The Focus
Another message I took away from the Powerscourt Arms yesterday was just how important it is to take the chances granted to you. When you have the chance to run for your country (picture it dangling in front of you, all you need is to courage and desire to reach out and try and catch it), you must do it.

We all have a limited number of top quality races in our lives and while we may have many, injury or other circumstance can put short an otherwise promising career. Living in the moment therefore becomes and so does taking chances while they are there. Every year a new crop of young hopefuls arrive on the scene to challenge the existing group and the window of opportunity we all get can slam shut from one year to another, sometimes forever.

Competing against the best
The individualistic nature of running also converges, perhaps somewhat uncomfortably, with the need to sacrifice yourself for your country. Deep down I think many of us welcome that despite our drive for personal fulfilment through good racing. Perspective matter too. Runners such as Jim Hogan (born Cregan), former European Marathon Champion, said openly he had no interest in winning races against inferior opposition and had no time for the veteran scene either. His mantra was clear: Unless he was still able to beat the very best (and not merely "the best who were there", "the best in that and that age group" and so on), he wasn't interested in running.

This view may be a bit extreme (many prefer the football adage that you can "only beat what's put in front of you", but that's a simplistic view too) but for aspiring international it has merits. Truth is you can't improve by annihilating the opposition week in and week out. The big cross-country and track events are certainly essential in keeping the best athletes honed for the awesome standard found at the World and European Championships of Mountain Running.

At my level, the local leagues still prove very useful as I will face several runners at just around my level who can push me in races and keep things intense. Yet there's no doubt that I always find a different gear in races like Snowdon and the Trials showing again the importance of subjecting yourself to international class races.

The Gulf of Class
When you see people you can't currently get close to in the Leinster League being annihilated by 10 or more minutes, you'd be a fool not to ask the question: "How on Earth do I close that gap?" Of course, last year I found myself almost 15 minutes adrift of Stephen Duncan and it still did not deter my hopes.

It's important to break the challenge down into manageable pieces, however. Start by looking at the average pace of the winner: 3:59min/km (6:25min/miles). Looking at what speeds most human bodies are able to generate this is still not inhuman even if you take into account the cost of the ascent (which also has to be offset by the gains of the descent).

I could go into the gains and loses of uphill/downhill running but will save that for a later article, instead if you want to compare yourself to the best hill runners and see what type of training paces you must be able to master to run as fast as them just look at their flat times. Top class athletes like Andi Jones (the Snowdon winner) have run sub-15 for the 5k and 2:15:20 for the marathon. The marathon time is 3:12min/km pace (5:10min/mile) and while I would be severely pessimistic if this what the entry level all other aspiring athletes can take solace in the fact that the some of the leading Irish and Danish have slightly slower times. Brian ran 2:27 at the Dublin Marathon last year (3:29min/km or 5:36min/miles). Kim Godtfredsen who has run for Denmark in the hills has a PB of 2:25:22 (3:27min/km or 05:33 miles). And these were the best of their country at the time.

In Matt Fitzgerald's TPL system, Brian is a TPL 12 based on this while Kim is a TPL 11 (for those wondering Jonathan Wyatt, based on his 10k PB of 27:56, is a TPL 1!!!). I have deducted earlier that being able to train at a TPL of 15 could suffice to earn qualification in the hills which means the following pace:

1 mile: 2:52min/km (4:37 for the mile)
3k: 3:03min/km (9:08 for the 3k)
5k: 3:11min/km (15:54 for the 5k)
10k: 3:18min/km (32:56 for the 10k)
1/2 marathon: 3:27min/km (01:12:46 for the half)
Marathon: 03:37min/km (02:32:31 for the marathon)

And this is pessimistic as there have been runners who have qualified with slower PBs. In terms of raw propulsion I know I can generate speeds well below 03:00min/km, the open question is to what extent I can turn this into a maintanable speed. Looking at the speed chart above, however, most are well above 3 minutes/km and while I would not yet be really comfortable at any of the above, I believe any runner who can maintain any of those speeds for longer than 1k has the chance to harness these speeds over longer distances. Here's the thing: Your brain already knows how to run that fast so you just have to teach it to do it better!

So to end this long side-track: Yes, there is a gaping maw of a chasm between myself and others like me and the dream of international glory, but there's no argument to consider it a fickle dream even if 10-15 minutes over 13k looks like a lot on paper.

Use and Throw Away
When I interpreted Gerry's views I had to go soul-searching though myself. Questions such as "am I really just messing around?", "Am I focused enough" and "Do I understand the scope of what I am attempting" popped into my mind.

These doubts are raised on the backbone of a string of disimprovement. In every single Winter and Leinster League race I have failed to return to the level of 2008. Promise was delivered by the performance on Leg 7 of the Wicklow Way Relay and at the 10 minute improvement on Snowdon (especially the descent where I wasn't too far off the pace set by the internationals), yet the questions beckoned to be answered.

To try and answer the questions I looked at the decisions I had made solely with an eye to long-term qualification for the Danish team sacrificing short term objectives in the process:

  1. Not racing most of January to March apart from a few tests
  2. Dropping my favourite race: the Wicklow Way Trial
  3. Dropping my "home turf" race: Trooperstown Hill
  4. Selecting training that would be beneficial in the long-term but detrimental to my short-term hill running performance (heavy volume of track and flat speed development)
  5. Focusing on the 10k time rather than being ready for the Leinster League
  6. Dropping out of the Leinster League once it was clear I wasn't performing and redirecting the energy to a single, more strategically useful, effort: Snowdon
  7. Slowing down my training after Snowdon once it was clear I needed longer recovery and had "spend my peak"
  8. Abandoning both the planned completion of Dublin Peaks, the Irish Championship and the Leinster Championship due to conflicts with my overall training plan
  9. Staying stubbornly with the laid out mileage even when I can handle more, slowing down my rate of short-term improvement in the hope of a theoretical better overall gain (this one stings most)

On the negative side, I wanted to look at decisions made that could be harmful to the overall goal:

  1. Decision to not seek replacement for Emma Cutts and proceed with self-coaching
  2. Too much volunteering work?
  3. Not serious enough about my diet

And that was it, so having seen those two lists seemingly I am focused enough on the long-term but the real dangers lie ahead. Here are the temptations I must resists:

  1. Chasing irrelevant PBs
  2. Entering the marathon scene too early
  3. Entering the ultra-scenne too early
  4. Getting caught up in the Leinster League if I find myself doing better next year
  5. Doing races that add no value to in terms of physical ability and experience to the hunt of a Danish spot
  6. Not reacting properly to the effects of the increased training load planned for 2010 (my average load in 2009 would make many wonder if I'm serious at all, the 2010 won't, so a Rubicon will be crossed here)

Some readers may pose the question: "But is there any enjoyment left at all in this?" I think that's a fundamental question and I ask it every day but then I remember what Gerry's point it: If you have the opportunity to run for your country, take it while its there.

Taking it I understand as meaning committing to it. I elaborated above about the gulf in class that you need to bridge to make it to the World or the Europeans. A lucky few have the genes to make it there while they still "mess around" a bit (e.g. spread their priorities, train sub-optimally and so on), but there are few people with such gifts and you can't count on being among them (if you were you'd know because you'd be winning races while wondering at the ease of your training).

For people like me who were running for fun until one Welshman's cry of "Go Denmark" ignited a dream, we can't afford to "mess around". In poker terms we need to go "all in", so I will try and keep Gerry's advice foremost in my mind and never undertake any race or challenge if it does not contribute to the goal of qualification. And it bears mention that the jersey will come with a great responsibility. When you put it on, the convergence between running for yourself and running for your country is complete and you aren't just running for yourself anymore. This means you owe a great performance. The job is not done with qualification, instead its the start of a much bigger task: To improve further and honour the colours you wear by stepping up another level.

Its not constructive to think of this regularly before you have qualified (as qualification is hard enough to have on your mind), but the moment its achieved, the new mission must be first in mind. For myself, should I qualify, I would try and give at least another 3-5 years "to the jersey" in an attempt to provide a presence for my small country on the hill running scene. Lofty goals indeed, but this though actually drives me more than the personal fulfilment it would bring. I wonder how many of the "real" internationals out there also feel this is being part of something greater than their own ambitions?

With those thoughts, I wish the Irish team the best of luck in the World Championship.