RACES: Knockbeg 1 Mile Classic
When John Maye, whom I had the pleasure of downhill jousting against during my comeback race Annacura last year, advertised the Knockebg College 1 Mile Classic race to take place at Knockbeg College just North of Carlow, I didn’t know I was going to attend the inaugural event (although the AAI had reported this). But I am glad I did and I can see this race becoming a staple event on my pre-season calendar. It’s short, its good racing, its fast, and gives you a good test of both speed and concentration.
The race was easy enough to find and once I arrived in the Victorian setting I was struck by the rural quietude surrounding the old college: Just the way I like my race settings, tranquil and picturesque. Well-kept GAA pitches with a trail around them provided a perfect warm-up facility and speaking of facilities, there was easy access to all you needed (including the brilliantly conceived travelling food/drinks service of “The Brew Crew” recently seen at the Wicklow Way Trail/Ultra).
Now to the course itself: It was certainly different from a 1 Mile on the track. Starting out on the main country road, you run 75 metres to the sharp bend right that leads you down a very fast smooth asphalt road leading straight to the College (tall trees dotting both sides of the drive in) and past the first 400m. As John said: “Some youngster will take those 400 in 52 second and pay the price all the way.” A sharp turn left leads you over the car park before another sharp turn (again left) takes you onto a dirt and gravel path with a slight uphill slope. At the end of this, the steeple-chasers can gain ground as you jump a cattle-grid and try to evade the muddy corner of the grass as you turn left again back onto the country-road where you started (some youngster didn’t, evade that is, and went down straight in front of me, luckily for me I had decided to take a wider angle around the curve!).
Very shortly after being back on the country-road, a nasty uphill bump stares you in the face, and given the distance of the race you only have one choice: Frontal assault and pay later! “I put it there for you,” said John. Didn’t they get the memo that I perform best on the flat bits of hill races???
No sooner are you off the bump, however, before you must turn sharp left for the fourth consecutive time to complete your loop by storming down the fast descent towards the finish line just on the doorsteps of the college entrance. The big clock ticks away ominously as the tiny stretch of road seems to leave you frozen in time for a spell.
All in all, a very interesting and very different course, almost a throwback to a time when the race man-against-man still held more fascination than today’s media’s fascination of man-against-clock. It is a real racer’s course and not one for time triallists (so don’t go looking for PBs as Martin McDonald who won the M50 category with his time of 4:57 on the day, would concur with me after).
Three races were held on the day: Men’s A and B event as well as a Women’s (separate A and B were planned for the women, but the numbers on the day didn’t justify two women’s races).
Olympian Pauline Curley was the high profile name in the women’s race and used her experience to come around the first corner in 4th. Ahead of her was a tall girl with the built of a sprinter with two local St. Abbans girls behind her. Just how punishing an error of judgement can be in an event such as this showed later. First to come around the corner for the final run-in was Pauline Curley with the two St. Abbans runners in hot pursuit. However, Curley seemed to be cruising now, as she hit the finishing stretch there was nothing forced about her running. It was a steady rhythmical demonstration of an athlete in full control of proceedings while her opponents toiled bravely behind but in vain as Curley crossed the line first in 5:15. Fourth runner rounded the corner well off the pace set by the top-three: It was the early leader, her early pace reduced to a shuffle you would only see in longer races and a warning that no race is too short to burn off all your pace if you don’t distribute what you have cleverly.
In the men’s B a well-trained senior runner with that wiry look so familiar in English fell-runners opened a big gap on the field on the first 400m and was in a class of his own from there on. The numbers must have been encouraging as it looked like anything from 35-50 runners ran in the B race.
I took the line for the Men’s A shortly after and I was in good company. Although I didn’t recognise too many names, Rathfarnham’s Paul Fleming, Sli Cualann’s Michael Dowling and North Laois’ Martin McDonald were well-known quantities. Looking at the experienced North Laois man in particular I wondered if he reminisced of times when the mile not a curiosity in the countryside but the centre-stage of the athletic theatre: The Perfect Distance. The furnace in which stars such as John Walker, Steve Ovett, Seb Coe and Ireland’s own Eamonn Coghlan were truly forged.
Perfection in Every Moment
The strive for excellence is no less gruelling for the middle-distance runner than the long-distance runner for not only must he subject himself to the same initial aerobic conditioning, but he must face a challenge as great as the iron-minded doggedness that once drove Naylor of innumerable hostile hills and that today drive men to run 20kph and faster for just over two hours to truly conquer the marathon. For the middle-distance runner the challenge lies in every split-second, every moment must be a perfectly executed movement, every moment is a chance to win or lose the race. Decisions must be made at the turn of a split-second, one stumble or fall, one lapse of concentration spells the end, and one short stretch of 100m run the less than perfect can mean the difference between medals and despair.
“The 800 is brutal, one mistake and the race is over. I prefer the 1500m, where there’s more time for tactical decisions.” Michael Dowling pondered. On the day he had good decision-making as he finished 3rd. The first man could celebrate even more so: 4:24 earned him not only victory but an additional 100 euros for breaking 4:25.
From my own perspective, the race started fine, I got boxed in before the first bend, but still reached 200m in the planned 35 seconds. There’s no time to look at the clock but I knew I worked hard throughout and was pleased with my work ethic and my overall pacing as I crossed the finish, never looking back only at the finish line. I was shocked by the time when I looked down on my watch, however: 5:31. Luckily, I could look for plenty of reasons. A few minutes later, I could probably have gone off and done another, and the time wouldn’t have been much slower. My legs lacked “zip” that strange feeling that you are trying to turn on something that you know is there but just won’t respond. Proof that I couldn’t trigger full utilisation came from the lack of soreness after the race (they are still not sore today, despite putting in a steady-pace 13.4km trail run two hours later when I got home). Using my TPL system it was the poorest performance since my early-season 5k in Ashford last year scoring a 27 on the scale (The game was up early in the race as I was bleeding seconds, by 400m I was 3 seconds down on my PB, by 800m I was down 6 seconds, by 1000m 10 seconds and by 1500 17 seconds).
Look at the Factors
More reasons need to be found to explain a 20 second slow-down. The course obviously was not the fastest, but it’s interesting to read how erratic my splits were: Anything from 15 seconds to 25 seconds for the 100m. Sportstracks allows me to see exactly what 100m stretches where slow and which were fast. Looking at it, technique seems to have a great part of the blame; every 100m that turns a corner is run at 20-22 seconds (I lost a total of 16 seconds on the 4x 100s around the corners), clearly I struggled to get in and out at proper pace. The three 100s with mild to severe uphill cost me a further 15 seconds. I completely missed the boat on the “bump” at 1000m which I ran in 25 seconds, a good bit slower than half-marathon pace!). So the majority of the loss is right there: Lack of technique and acceleration as well as seemingly uphill muscles. My legs felt as if they were moving at decent speed and despite the cold my breathing was strong. There was 30-31 seconds there to be found and I should keep in mind I was fresh as a fiddle for my 5:11 time trial. So instead of looking at the negatives (the time), I should look at the positives: A positive attitude throughout the race, good combativeness in the finish and a first opportunity to shake of the rust from the long racing break.
The Dangerous Trend
Let me finish with something of great personal importance to me, I see a dangerous trend for the long-term regeneration of Western running from the predominance of longer and longer races, a trend that combined with ever more sedentary lifestyles could prevent another generation from reaching its full potential. Shorter races, especially on the track, seem increasingly confined to a “talented elite” in the eyes of the average Joe Runner, as if the ability to run fast is confined to a small part of the gene pool and late-comers to the sport can only challenge those seen as more gifted by dragging out the pain. The truth is much simpler: Faster runners are generally faster over any distance, period.
The 5k and 10k receive only the faintest of public attention compared to the travelling circuses that the marathon has largely turned into, yet it’s undoubtedly more physically impressive to run a strong 5k than to slouch through a marathon. Now, don’t get me wrong, they all have their place, but we need balance in the races available, just as you need balance in your training, in your life, and in your food.
These events can be successful, just look at the latest race report on the Rivington Pike at Mud, Sweat and Tears. Here’s a 3.25 mile (5.2km) race straight up and down a hill with a winning time of 17:31 (5k time) and attendance of some of the finest English fell runners (Thomas Cornthwaite, Ricky Lightfoot and Rob Hope should ring bells with mountain running aficionados). There’s a noticeable tradition in England for running anything from very short to very long (partly because the Championship is designed like this and favour all-rounders which forces contenders to retain their versatility).
I personally think there’s a lot to be gained from this approach, not only because it seems to attract a high calibre of athletes to local events (it’s easier to recover from a shorter race, so you imagine an elite athlete can more easily slot them in without impacting their key commitments) but because almost all of the great runners were all-rounders. Haile, Bekele and Tergat are prime examples that you can be an all-rounder yet still break world records in any discipline you care to attend, but you don’t have to look these modern super-humans. Steve Ovett once won a half-marathon while training for the 800m and the mile, Charlie Spedding made sure he got a track 10000m before he set the current British record for the marathon (were his talent would prove to lie), and Peter Snell could run long training runs with Olympic marathon-men, finish top-3 in half-marathon races and win longer distance cross-country races (he was an 800m runner).