I rarely decide to do a race on a whim, but when I do, I tend not to regret it and the Cooley Legends Half-Marathon proved no different. Rarely have I been able to take so much from a race: renewed confidence, new friends made, and an unprecedented amount of insight into my current racing status. More than that, though, and much more importantly, it was an honour to partake in the inaugural running of an event as well-conceived as this and with such a worthy winner.
Bryan McCrystal, a Wheelworx sponsored athlete, only took the jump from football a year ago and already qualified himself for the World Championship in Ironman. Bryan is a towering man, and it is a great credit to his raw power and endurance that he could deliver a time as fast as 1:25:40 in a hill run. Power to weight ratio can come in two ways, of course, low weight or tremendous power. Bryan showed remarkable quantities of the latter, and should he want to change sports, I’m sure the hill running community would welcome him.
The quality of the field was emphasised by the fact that he did not storm home unopposed, in fact, the man opposing him was Dunleer legend David Carrie. Now a veteran, David reached the headlines when he ran 7 marathons in 8 days to help the Mater Foundation in 2006 but in days gone by his CV reads well: In 1989 he won the National Intermediate Cross-Country title before qualifying for the World Cross-Country Championship later that year. His result will be a boost for the locals as he is truly one of their own with 8 Senior county championships to his name.
A secondary race for podium spots unfolded behind these two elites, with Setanta tri’s Niall McCabe arriving just over 5 minutes later. The next runners all arrived with some daylight between as 14 runners broke 1:40 for the half-marathon distance on the route with 522m of climb. I had been one of them and had played a key part in orchestrating the drama that would unfold over the two decisive climbs of a day that had all the hallmarks of a good Tour-de-France etapee in the Alps or Pyrenees.
When the start went a front group immediately formed which quickly broke into two groups of “pursuants” as Bryan and David set an intolerable pace for anyone else.
I stayed with group two, something that would later earn me a telling off from a guy I fell into talk with on the bus: Shane Molloy who would go on to finish 7th overall. “Why didn’t you go with the first group you would have gotten better pacing”? In hindsight, who knows if the prize of a faster pace on the road would have come back to haunt me or help me? In either case, group 2 was soon to turn into its own worst enemy.
Karen Alexander and a few lads in group 1 would be well back in sight by the time we hit the flat plateau at the top, but a heavy price would be exacted which would eventually allow group 1 to break free and Karen Alexander to cement a formidable winning time of 1:33:29, eleven and thirteen minutes ahead of the next female challengers Gillian Kilroy and Aisling Coppinger.
Black Mountain Deja-Vu
As we entered the rocky fire-road and left civilisation behind, I quickly noticed this was the same ascent as used in the 2007 Black Mountain race, one of my first hill races, which gave me a sense of comfort that was not to last long. 342m climb was the menu for the first six kilometres, but 311 of those 245 were on the final four.
Attacks started flying in. Suddenly I noticed that conservative pacing would not do as several runners, among the Wheelworx Rob Cummins, started nibbling away at me. The response was the long-awaited return of my fighting spirit. First I re-passed the runners who had taken me out, then I poured my focus into those close ahead and slowly wheeled them in. It was like shuffling a deck of cards, as the group broke into pieces. Runners in front and behind me kept attacking like a swarm of bees, all showing an admirable “never-say-die” attitude, but I too, stayed determined, and crested the hill first, broke a gap on the short descents accelerating whenever deceleration was expected before finally giving into a runner in blue and yellow who had been the most persistent of my hounds at the final grassy mound before we could savour the first bit of downhill goodness.
Grassy Descending, Heaven!
The next part of the Tain Way is truly glorious: the path is narrow and uneven but mostly grass and the ascent grade manageable. You find yourself flying down, playful as a child, but even then alertness is the key. A runner in red and grey who had fallen off group 1 before being wheeled in by me late on the ascent took advantage of a moment hesitation as I ran myself into a gap.
By the time I had recovered I found myself just holding the gap on my colourful friends ahead while the runner in purple stayed within reach behind me. I grabbed a sip of coke at the drinks station, then kept up my chase on the tarmac stretch coming up.
Hmm, tarmac and wind…
There was pain and joy here as steep climbs were followed by fast short descents. At the zig-zag that turns you from running North back due South, mother nature upped the ante, however. A strong headwind blew in and a runner in white-and-black caught me. Running side-by-side for a while, he decided to get better company, slowly surged on and connected with our man in red and grey. Together they pulled away from me as I struggled alone in the wind. Just as we prepared for the final climb, the purple runner, now with blue companion, also caught me and the whole group seemed to reunite on the brutal first part of the last climb.
My usual stomach problems had now gotten hold of me (I must find the reason for this) and it was a great pity because this point was the great opportunity of the race: The groups had almost gathered, people were slowing inexorably and painfully. It was the deciding moment: 146m elevation and 2 kilometres to the top.
Yet, I could not take advantage, but grieve not for it: Life is about being around when opportunities present themselves. You cannot always take them, so is the way of life, but as long as you are there, you’ve done something right. And I had done much right. I was in contention; I was at exactly the right position to mount a decisive challenge. But on the day, my strength deserted me. My legs suddenly went completely and my head seemed to rotate. I found myself walking a few brief fearful moments as the group, and the race, passed me by. Yet, something happened: I didn’t panic. Instead, I carefully took measure of the situation. Looked back to see the dangers from behind: I had a sizeable gap. “One foot in front of the other”, Rene. And slowly, almost like crawling, I found a stride that matched the slope and suddenly, much quicker than expected, I passed under the shadow of Slieve Foy and there was no more uphill. A great cost had been paid: 7:07 was the damage of the first kilometre of the two kilometre climb. The full would take me almost thirteen minutes, but I lived to fight on without dropping back through the field.
Falling towards Carlingford
Dizzy and wobbly, I couldn’t take advantage of the technical descent, but at least my legs were now moving faster. I lost another spot here to a Newry runner but found some luck as the runner in blue, deserted by his purple buddy, struggled on the downhill and allowed me to overtake him. From then on I took the Newry runner as my anchor and cruised, first on steep tarmac then on flat, over the finish line in Carlingford. I looked at the clock. 1:38:20. “You made top-10, well done lad”, the organiser said (men only, Karen Alexander pushed me to 11th in the overall). “Good, good,” I thought quietly before munching on the fresh oranges and tempting candy at the finish. Truth be told, the competitiveness of the field had taken me somewhat by surprise, there are a lot of good runners out there, but while the time is not up there with my 1:33 time for Leg 7 of the Wicklow Way, I came into it from much less ideal circumstances too and much earlier in the season.
But this is not meant as an excuse. The fact is, if you are any way serious about your training and your long-term goals, you can rarely arrive at races in optimal condition, so you need to A) have slightly lower expectations to these races and B) just get on with it and establish a solid minimal performance level. Part of becoming a truly good runner is to put in reasonable performances even when not tapering for a race. Otherwise, you are clearly not properly trained to handle the training you are doing or the races you run. As always with running, the blame falls only at your own doorstep, as it should be.
There was great banter and impressive prices at the Sailing Club afterwards (full kudos to the organisers and to Columbia for the nice tee). Now I return for three more weeks of hill-specific strength and speed training before the anaerobic phase and my Leinster League return looms ever nearer.