DIARY: The Origin Story

It's funny, an ancient memory came back to me today: 8th grade of Primary School in Denmark, I was about 12 or 13 years old (same year as I discovered drink) and I was lining up with my schoolmates for my one and only run on a track until 2007 when I joined Crusaders (about 14 years later).

We were supposed to do a fitness test, better known as the "Cooper Test". It's a 12-minute running test done on the track. I remember well speaking to a friend of mine saying we should just go off steady and then sprint the last 2 minutes, and so we did.

Nice and easy it felt, I remember and then when we heard "2 minutes to go", we sprinted like madmen passing out runner after runner. The end-result: 2800m run which is a pace of 4:17min/km.

I was the least sporty teenager you could imagine. A complete bookworm, a laughing stock in any sport I had ever attempted and also utterly devoid of any interest in sport (I wouldn't even watch it then). My only exposure to running was every Tuesday when my dad would bring me "Radio-orienteering", which is basically a sport where you use radio-receivers to listen in on signals from "Foxes" (little transmitters) hidden in various forests. You'd drive from forest to forest, run in (often in soaring rain and with a big torchlight in one hand) and start searching.

It was a weird type of running over very rough terrain, due to the evening time of the races, you could rarely see what you stepped on, and I remember taking some weird tumbles, getting electrocuted twice, hiding from raging bulls, and swimming through two icy-cold Danish autumn rivers to get closer to the area where we hoped to found our transmitters.

The running was not only uneven but also a lot of stop and go, once the radio-signals started beeping, the patient searchers turned into a stampede of sprinting maniacs, clearing any obstacles (and indeed competitors) necessary to get to the target first. Once found, the mad rush back to the car would start where you could get a break until the next forest awaited.

Alas, in all those years (I quit the sport at 15 and only resumed irregular jogging at 21), that was generally the only run I did.

During my journey, I did manage three races, I got cajoled into running a 12k in Business College at 19. I did this run on 3 days of training (3x6k runs) and just broke the hour. After a heavy night drinking to celebrate, I couldn't walk properly for three days. Its worth mentioning that I was a walking skeleton in those days weighing only 63 kilos on a good day!

Later that year, we were eating and drinking around midday to celebrate traditional Danish Christmas Dinner when my dad suggested we drive out and do the 9.1k "Dike Run" close by. Why not, a few of us thought, and off we went. I have no recollection of the time but remember being passed out by my dad only to catch him after he sprained an ankle (he always did). A kilometre later, he caught up with me again saying "it hurts as much running as walking" and so we ran in together while I marvelled at some runners running the route backwards (18k unbelievable!).

It was then I realised I had done a few jogs when I was very young. My grandfather had taught my dad all he knew about injuries ("you must run them away") and advanced techniques for treating the endless sprains suffered by radio-orienteers ("bag of frozen peas") and in my mind's eye flashed a long-lost memory of me jogging with my late grandfather (probably I was only 8 or 10 then), impressed by his fitness despite his 60 plus years.

That my paternal side had some running credentials didn't interest me much in those days, but my father's youngest brother (one of many uncles), did impress us with tales of the beach marathon he had completed. He would be the first in the family to complete a marathon and the only one to do so until I followed in his footsteps in Dublin 2007. (I have never asked his time, something to do).

Years later, as a hard-living student, I grew vain, hit the gym, did a bit of running (I'd run up to 10 miles on trails every now and again, then stop for months and start anew) and gained 13 kilos (some fat, some muscles, suffice it to say Skeletor was gone then).

One holidays, I went to the island of Romo to meet my parents and my dad once again cajoled me into participating in the "Quarter-Marathon" beach race (10.5k). On a rainy, windy day, I learned that lifting weights doesn't make you fit as I blew up on the sand dunes only to sprint home in front of my old PE teacher who was now retired on the island. I will never forget the look of surprise in her eyes seeing me running in a race. Finishing in 52:30, I was happy to beat my dad until he crushed some of the achievement by commenting "I had to stop as the dog had to pee." My interest gone, I did not race again for 5 years.

Soccer became my new hobby, poor as I was, I did gain a reputation for endless running ability which made up (a tiny bit!) for my abysmal lack of talent on the ball. In the same period I befriended a serious German soccer player and was surprised to be running him ragged on my "long course" (the 10 mile or so trail). Later an orienteering friend joined us with good running credentials and while he was unfit at the time, I took great joy in outsprinting both on the final mile of our training run. Any pretensions of fitness were quickly crushed as I went out with a "real marathoner" and was promptly forced to drop off his run after less than a kilometre. His girlfriend incidentally ran significantly more and more consistently than me! After that I settled for taking the girls from the hall of residence for the shorter loop I had, figuring it was as good a way as any to chat them up!

Time passed, university was done, Dublin became my new abode, and all my training stopped for two long years until one day a girl in the office looked at me and said with Danish frankness: "Aren't you getting a bit fat?" 2 hours later at home I went jogging: 20 minutes and it felt like Hell.

But it got longer. I was hardly consistent, but mostly managed 3 runs a week. Floorball and football started in the company and we'd train 2-3 times a week, once again, I could keep running running running, but had little talent or ability to show. Once for a company game against Accenture, I decided to run the 8k from my house to the game figuring it was a good warmup. Early in the second-half, after working my backside off as an ineffective winger, I sprinted full through and was laid prone by a painful cramp and saw myself promptly substituted unable to continue. My planned run back was cancelled and a colleague generously dropped me back home.

Not much later I heard that a guy from work had succeeded in doing the marathon in about 4:50. He was not your typical runner at all, and this planted a seed "could anyone do this?". A Danish guy called Thomas would be the turning point. Now here was a man to make you envious: Super-fit and good at any sport he picked up. He'd bike, run and skate everywhere. He once did the skating marathon in Berlin because he was too injured to run and decided to support his brother the next day who had trained diligently for the event. Not being able to resist temptation, he suddenly decided to sign up on the day and went out to beat his brother well and record 3:15 on no training. He was a legend in the office for his bike-ride back and forth to Galway in two days.

So what did he offer me? Not much in terms of profound wisdom actually, but much simpler was all that was needed: "What about you Rene, you look like a runner, you could run a good marathon". That was all. It was like a light-switch flicked. I'm light? I'm not good at anything but I can usually keep running, yes I'll do it!

Of course, my training plan for the Dublin Marathon 2006 didn't go according to plan at all. July came around and I still hadn't started training. Parties and drinks intervened. Then I became desperate and started searching for a miracle cure. "Hill running", I thought, "that should make you fit fast!". It was late August now. I looked at the IMRA website for the first time and saw the next race "Lugnacoille". "10k, not so bad, I thought". I had done a bit of hiking 2 years earlier (3 walks, then lost interest and returned to the party scene, story of my life). 800m climb? Meant nothing to me. But I've recounted the race on this Blog before: The complete blow-up on the hill, the excruciating pain, the exhiliration of flying downhill and the snapped ankle and 2 months on crutches which served me as a convenient cop-out for a marathon I was mentally looking for any excuse to pull out of and not do the work.

Despite this, the feeling of flying downhill, I never forgot, and when the Hellfire race 2007 popped onto the calendar, it lured me back in. Two weeks later at Howth I said goodbye to parties and drinks and the rest is history...

But as this tale weaves through my head, I can't help but think back to that track when I was 12. 2800m for a completely untrained wreck of a youth, with an awful pacing strategy. In my system that's a TPL 33-34 (incidentally around where I would start again 14 years later). I wonder, what if someone had says "you could make a decent runner."

Well, the truth is, maybe I would have been a better runner today, but nothing would have happened the way it has and, to take just one example, I would probably never have discovered the hills. Change on thing, change everything as they say.