I like to be proven wrong when it works to my benefit. Until the last few days I was dubious if I should go ahead and do the Dublin Half-Marathon after the torrid three weeks I've had with several sick days at home in bed and a stomach that seems unable to tolerate a decent meal.
Things were to go much better than expected and not only did the day turn out well, the race taught me several good lessons for the future. Lydiard was right in saying that until you know what makes you run well on a day and what doesn't, you don't know anything about training. So let's have a look at what I learned, what happened, who ran on the day, and where to go from here.
Finally a race that managed to instill a modicum of order on a huge (8000 strong) crowd. One flaw that seems almost genetically build into a vast part of the running population is the inability to place themselves in the correct part of the field.
"I want to get a good time," some will protest. Well, you run off with people running your pace, you'll be better off in the end and besides with chip-timing you don't have to worry about when you cross the mat.
So at the Dublin Half-Marathon the separation of the field into three waves of sub-100 min, 100-120 min, and 120+ min was welcome and worked really well. I took 20 seconds to cross the line and had actually positioned myself a bit too far down, but only started the clock when crossing the map so ran on the right information.
I had met Dermot Murphy and Eamonn Hodge before the race (deja vu from last week's Lakes 10k!) and had a chat with a fellow Crusader who was hoping to break 1:30 (he went close with 1:31:13).
The Phoenix Park is only a bit more than 11k (7 miles) in circumference so the organiser's had to get crafty and they rose well to the challenge: using the centre of the park as a fulcrum we embarked on two half-moon shaped laps of the park (first North then South) before heading back towards the centre for a specially designed 400m run-in.
The course has 204m of ascent (193m of descent) and an average gradient of 4.4%. 4.6km of the route feature "uphill" and 4.5 downhill leaving almost 12k virtually flat, so a moderately fast course without being world record material. The three most severe climbs hit at 12k, 17k and 18.5k, making a negative split (running the second half quicker than the first) very hard to achieve even if you expend more energy during the second part.
This showed on my own result, as I went off easy and gradually expended more effort, yet I spend slightly more time on the second half than the first. Most of the rivals I passed out, ran much more positive splits highlighting this trend further.
Plots and Plans
Few club runners, and perhaps runners in general, go into a race without the fledgling of an idea on how they will fare, and Eamonn told me excitedly how he had an audacious plan to break 90 minutes (a nice barrier in the half) after his strong showing in last week's 10k (40:42).;
The predictor I use (Matt Fitzgerald's) would have predicted 1:30:02, so this was a good realistic aim. Dermot Murphy had already broken 1:26 and was now looking to get the better of 1:25. I knew
My own three half-marathons stand at 1:38 (Achill 07), 1:34 (pacing Aoife, Connemara 08) and 1:33:19 (Wicklow Way Leg 7), I knew none of these were reliable but my TPL system predicted 1:25:48 based on the 10k time from last week, so this I used in my preparations.
The big caveat remained how much damage my illness had done and how recovered I'd be overall.
There were some great results up ahead by IMRA runners, Brian Furey continued to show that he's a very serious runner with his 1:15:27 and North Laois duo Derek Coogan and PJ Carroll were also well up there with 1:16:36 and 1:17:22 respectively and then Martin Francis in 1:21:51. PJ would later tell me that despite all his year's of running, this was a new PB, something that should keep all of us latecomers to the sport inspired and working hard. More than that, it should keep our eye on the horizon, our planning on the long-term perspectives rather than short-term gratification.
The race unfolded as a microcosm of this principle, despite going off slightly faster than planned (3:52 and 6:13 for the first kilometre and mile respectively), I felt extremely comfortable until the 10k mark, moderately hard at 10 miles, and only in discomfort from kilometre 18 onwards.
I executed my pacing with almost perverse evenness for an undulating course, as the 5k and 10k splits show:
My Garmin played no part in this. While I looked at it every-so often, once I had established that I was running around the time I thought I should for the effort that felt right on the day, I ran solely based on feel. Runners around me pushed me up in gear just when it was most needed and didn't prove a distraction today.
Battles and Duels
Around 8k out, I passed by Eamonn. I had seen his IMRA singlet in the distance a bit earlier and worried at first. A quick peak at my watch showed I was doing 1:25 speed at this time, meaning Eamonn was well faster than his planned time at this stage. "Well done, keep it tidy", I said as I passed by, and he looked like he was preparing to find the right gear for the next stage of the race.
I needn't have worried too much, though, he cruised home in 1:27:05, well ahead of his target, and recovered strongly from what would have been a fast start.
Coming up the first prolonged climb, I was feeling very good and used my high knee technique practiced in the heels to pass out a score of runners. A runner in yellow-green singlet came up to my side just before we turned back towards the centre of the park and said: "Very strong on the uphill, well done." Now that was a first. I latched on to him and we battled for the next many kilometres before I managed to break away. I later found he was called Rory Mulcahy and finished in 1:25:42.
I had also seen a runner in a Danish singlet on the first few miles, he slipped in the narrow bend around the cone and I lost sight of him then. Meeting him at the finish, I learned he was a fellow Dane alright, Lars Borgbjerg and works with my old colleague Steen Larsen. He'd recover well from the fall and finished in 1:25:34. I felt with him as I had crashed on my bike on the way to the race breaking for some runners and bruised my hand and shin. Could have been a lot worse...
"Cormac is close," James McFadden yelled around 14k. I had seen him warm up and just as we passed the 9 mile mark and turned up one of the steeper bits, I managed to catch Cormac, who held on for a new PB of 1:27:13.
Then came 10 miles and now Dermot Murphy drifted into sight, I was starting to feel a lot less effortless now, so thought a close finish could be in the cards with my IMRA colleague who had beaten me at last week's 10k. Coming past I was got a gap reasonably quickly, however, and went on alone.
Real pain set in on the last 3k and I pushed myself up into anaerobic on the last 400m winning and losing a few places in a random shoot-out with other runners eager to exhaust their tanks.
Good Day at the OfficeMy most optimistic predictions were well and truly beaten when I ran home in 1:24:40 and took more than 7 minutes of my current PB set on the Wicklow Way Relay Leg 7 earlier this year. Dermot followed in 1:25:25, meaning I had gained about 15 seconds/mile on the last 3.
What it means
This is exactly 4:00min/km pace or 15kph, a pace I have grown very comfortable with over the last year, which paid off today. My pacing strategy was good and despite running a positive split (I went through the first 5k and 10k respectively in 19:44 and 39:35 while I ran the next 10k in 40:40). The course has incredible variation in gradient though, and I found it was best run simply by feel although circumstances had me pushing the ascents well today. My fastests laps were 1, 11 and 12 (3:50) while the slowest was 18 and 19 (4:11 and 4:20). All others laps were remarkably stable something that will have played an important part in the good result.
Question remains though: How could I run relatively well despite such an awful few weeks before-hand. Lydiard kicks again: Because although my training recently has not been great, I have consistently slogged out a decent mileage all year and this has left a solid aerobic foundation.
Today, anaerobic development would only have made a small difference. Essentially, with better developed buffers, I would have been able to kick it with about 5k to go and run splits closer to 3:35-3:45min/km instead of staying steady around the 3:55-04:00min/km mark. A difference of a minute or two would probably be all that would have to be seen. A much more fundamental difference would have been made if I had clocked more miles this year than I have (98% or more of the energy expended in a half-marathon will be produced by the aerobic energy system).
A number of frustrating results this season can be put down to two factors: Over-training (not in mileage but intensity) and poor pacing strategy. Both of these we're avoided today. My illness and moderate approach after Snowdon have meant that while I wasn't in peak-fitness, my muscles were fresh. My tactics were also well-chosen and I felt calm and measured throughout not wasting energy on surges or other superfluous movements. As a rule of thumb in a half-marathon distance race or longer, I think you should feel effortless until around half-way through and then slowly up the perceived effort level. This has worked for me until now.
Most of all I feel a sense of regained momentum, that things are moving again steadily forward. This gives confidence to your racing, of course, but much more importantly it rekindles the sense of purpose that every competitive runner needs to keep faith in what they are doing.
Its hard on the mind to feel you are moving backwards and as Turlough said to me after when discussing the time "another milestone". A good way to describe it. Another performance marker has been ticked off and new goals can now be set up based on it ahead of the new season.
The accumulated mileage of the last few years of running has turned 15kph into an aerobic speed for me. Next I must turn 17kph into an aerobic speed. Why 17? Well this is my current 3000m speed and a pace I know I can "work with" for extended periods. I logically deduct that more aerobic work will allow me to maintain this speed using mainly aerobic energy sources (e.g. fat).
To compare: 17kph in a half-marathon is 1:14:28. How long it will take to make this possible it is too early to say, but I have a plan and I'll talk more about it in upcoming articles...