Normally when things go according to plan you don’t finish last but that’s exactly what happened to me yesterday at the Dublin Senior Cross-Country.
I suppose it’s a poetic finish the day after my post on Lydiard’s famous quotes that “"When everyone else is running first, you'll be running last, but you'll run first when it's important." While I still stand to this philosophy (albeit I don’t necessarily expect to be first, just better!), I probably didn’t count on an example manifesting so soon!
Before the race I had looked at last year’s result and the last few runners finished in around 41-minutes and a bit. This year’s course was a bit slower due to the heavy rainfall which had made large parts of the course turn into a thick paste of mud that both caused slippage (my 15mm spikes helped somewhat on that) and threatened to pull off your shoes (this fate befell Mark Ryan who recovered well).
Since the course was about 10k and I’ve run 38:30 for that distance, I looked at other runner’s times and came up with a figure off about 2 minutes slower for this course than a normal 10k. The only unknown factor was how much speed my heavy volume had taken out of me and how much of the positive adaptations from the same training had already taken effect.
In any case, I put myself a positive target of trying to break 40-minutes as well as hanging on to the field. I narrowly missed out on both goals. A 65-strong field (or maybe 66 as I thought I saw one runner retire from the race) finished off the action in St. Anne’s Park after a day of racing that had started at 11:30.
The Cru in the Cross!
Crusaders AC, long absent from the cross-country, had a good comeback season last year and our main man Alan O’Brian led out 7 Crusaders (part of the allure of the Seniors is that it takes 6 to score which means you don’t just need a few top runners, you need a whole squad of them and even then it’s hard. No wonder only 4 clubs have ever won the Dublin Senior title).
Jason Kehoe, my fellow hill runner, had a baptism-of-fire on the cross-country scene with the Seniors being his first race. Yet he showed usual combativeness towards the back of the field and managed to get the better of me and three other runners, one fended off in a sprint finish.
The real action was further up front where Alan did us proud to finish 4th but all talk was about Rathfarnham beating home-favourites Raheny Shamrocks with three hill running internationals Barry Minnock, Mark Ryan, and Sean Hehir in short succession (5th-7th). Eoin Flynn, Paul Fleming and Michael Freeley finalised the team. Another hill running international was a bit further down in 36th: Kevin Keane, such was the competition. Our own Crusaders managed to keep 3 teams behind them for a very good 5th and hope for the future (and the 5th would have been traded for 4th had junior Sam Mealy not been barred from representing our club by AAI politicizing).
The First Mile
Finishing 65th and last with a gap of a good 35 seconds to the next man, most of the race was a lonely procession for me. Poor pacing did take part for although I always stayed close to the back of the field my first lap (each lap being a mile) was completed in 5:55. As this would give me a 10k time under 36 minutes, you don’t need calculator to predict that it was not yet a maintainable pace on a rough courses with strong headwinds on some of the exposed sides, no downhills of use, and a few strength-sapping bumps (although this was one of the flattest cross-country courses I’ve tried).
On the first lap a Liffey Valley runner and Keith Daly of hill-running fame (a last minute call-up!) hunted me, and by midway on the second lap I was alone now chasing two Liffey Valley runners after Keith cleverly worked his way up to 58th. James McFadden, Donna, Gerry and others provided great support on the course and I tried to find a consistently higher gear but got stuck in a rhythm and thrashed by the long windy Northside on every lap. The gap closed for 3 laps but never enough to truly make it seem feasible.
For a runner of my own standard it felt slightly strange to cross the 5k mark in a 10k race in 19:52 and be dead-last. Welcome reality! Sub-40 was still on as a goal though, so I kept working but there was only one gear once the freshness of the first lap had cleared (clearly a recurring effect of the heavy mileage).
On the fifth lap I could watch part of the top-race unfold as the top-6 runners or so lapped me before I went out on a now largely meaningless 6th lap. This was good training in just running for yourself, concentrate on keeping good form and steady effort. There was no rush of adrenalin from closing in on competitors: In other words the fun-factor of this race was zero but the experience was priceless.
Coming over the finish line in 40:11, I did feel a pang of regret that I hadn’t tried a super-hard finish to go under the 40 minutes, but then again, the number is merely vanity and with my usual stomach cramps plaguing the last few laps, a finishing burst was not an enticing effort. An official offered encouragement as he handed me an advert for another race: “You’ll probably win this one”, he said!
On the plus side, my legs are pain-free today and my energy-levels undeterred for the 105k week ahead. So the trend continues: Absolute speed is sacrificed at the moment for the fortitude to resist high volume with little side-effects.
I’m pretty positive about the result despite the outcome. Firstly because the overall results are based purely on aerobic work and I was called up (like all the Crusaders) for this important race with just a week’s notice. Secondly because I knew finishing last was a very real possibility. I expected a high standard of runners and I was not disappointed. Finishing within touching distance of this field I consider a better performance than most of my hill running performances. Some neutral observers of running in general may consider it better than all of them, but it’s hard to compare this way. Certainly, however, this field would cause irreparable damage to your standard Leinster League top-30.
Looking at it from this perspective I calculated that I finished in 121% of winning time. This puts the performance into perspective as winner Sean Connolly runs just a bit faster than anyone who has competed on the hills this season (Sean ran an average of 18.6kph for the course, its earth-shattering to imagine that Haile runs the marathon faster, in fact almost 20 seconds faster/km). 121% is also my average performance in the hill races this year. So running this against stronger opposition can only be interpreted as an improvement on a day that to the outside looks like a defeat.
The race also highlighted some weaknesses: Strength remains the big one as both wind, mud, and even the short hills caused me significant troubles today so the 4-weeks of hill drills that will come after my base training will be absolutely critical in addressing this handicap before the IMRA season.
Next up for me is my final cross-country race of the season: the Dublin Intermediates where I have some interesting plans to talk of later. In the meantime I did win one reward to savour on the day: With the race, my warm-up and my cool down, I completed 95.52k for the week. This constitutes my highest weekly training mileage yet in my brief running career and I now look forward to breaking the 100k barrier for the first time.