Strawberries are perhaps my favourite fruit; half-marathon is my favourite distance: So how could anything go wrong at the inaugural running of Jane and Graham Porter’s Strawberry Half-Marathon.
Behind me two difficult seasons: Ahead of me, the road away from perdition. My pre-race internal fighting-talk had been blunt: “The half-marathon is my home-turf, my ground.” And then my demon, let’s call him Doubt, he’s certainly from the depths of Hell: “Ah, but think of the pressure, if you cannot do it today, on this distance, you can’t do it anywhere.”
Perhaps with such thoughts weighing heavy, I took extra joy from the great relaxation that comes from proper organisation. Jane and Graham show that runners arranging events for runners just works: Ample parking, easy to find and get into, short 1k jog to the hotel and an abundance of all the facilities you need before a race (particularly loos!).
I had heard Mick Hanney and Des Kennedy would be running so I knew there’d be an opportunity to measure myself against on-form people from the hills. I was surprised Martin Francis wasn’t running, but only until I stepped up in front of the crowd and saw his familiar profile standing next to Mick and Des. Des has run 1:25, Martin sub 1:22 and Mick has more than flirted with the sub-3 hour barrier during his many marathons. My year-old best from Dublin still stands at 1:24:40, so when a runner mentioned that we were in good company, he was not wrong.
Cormac O’Ceallaigh was there as well, looking for a go at his 1:27 PB, possibly with a 85 minute time, but he quickly admitted it may be a bit optimistic at current. Another Cormac could hope for a starring role in the race: Hill runner Conroy of Rathdrum lined up ahead of us.
Enniscorthy in flames…
The gun went and out the promenade next to the pleasant Slaney we went. Des disappeared from just in front of me and dashed away in what looked like a record attempt on the world 400m. “I went off a bit fast”, he’d tell me later, “but I don’t like to get caught”. A useful skill for hill racing certainly!
Mick and Martin likewise went off harder than I’d planned but my usual panic never manifests in half-marathons (statisticians will point out that this being my third road half-marathon, the word “never” may be premature), so I just tried to warm-up my legs having eschewed my usual lengthy warm-up to copy the conditions of last year’s PB (to fully replicate the lackadaisical conditions of that preparation, however, I would have needed to steal a bike and crash it on the curb. In the end I abandoned the thought).
The first kilometre is always a bit fast, and I chose to just accept. Right enough, I build up some seconds on my schedule before settling into the 40-minute 10k pace I wanted to bring me to the half-way point. My idea was conceived from the notion that if I blew up it wouldn’t be so bad I couldn’t recover with some honour and if things were going well, I could still make up what I needed on my schedule.
Enniscorthy disappeared behind us after a sharp right turn after the steepest and quickest descent of the race here. In the beginning, a few lads and a group of the leading women kept passing and re-passing me. I let people go on the small climbs and hammered past them on the downhills. Someone said “caution the tarmac is slippy” as we came down the steep bit. My inner voice laughed as I barged on unfettered and prayed nemesis would not strike at my hubris. My legs, however, stayed frustratingly tentative as if they couldn’t make up their mind whether this was going to be a good day or a bad one.
Despite having just three road halves under my belt, I somehow feel confident I know all about them. While not true, my predictions ahead were solid. I may have trained much too much on the hills this year. Indeed, the two weeks in Singapore were my only spell of regular road running. My quality training to kept being postponed by injury and has been crammed together in four desperate weeks ahead of my Snowdon taper. So what was my plan?
Well, I had done one week of a few quality sessions all run at my Target Pace Levels of 23, and decided to execute the pre-race week like a three-step rocket: First 3x1500m at 5k pace to get the legs ready for the 5k track race. Then I would do the 5k track race to make the half-marathon feel “slow” and finally, I did a session of 20x200m windsprints (100m on/100m off) at 1 mile pace. That left two easy days to absorb this last minute training at various quick paces. Beyond that, while I’ve run little on the roads, I knew my endurance base had to be there: Injury or no injury, when I ran, I ran a lot.
As little house-hold Gods, I took my 130k and my 140k weeks from earlier in the year, in my pocket and told myself “you are with me today, whatever happens”. My training paces suggested I should run 1:24:08 and that 1:22:49 was within the realm of the possible. Unrealistic goals such as chasing that wonderful sub-80 minute barrier had to wait for future opportunities and setting off with it in mind would only have led to destruction.
Wrath of the Furies
The above title is harsh on the female racers that defined the race up to the half-way point for me and no offense is meant, but the title indicates how I felt about what was unfolding at the time.
By this point, I had lost most of the male runners who had passed me out, and the women around were left as the most determined contestants. What both impressed and surprised me most was the very laboured breathing of the three women who kept passing me out and leading away at this stage. For an aerobic machine such as myself, it was hard to envision being able to keep up such effort with so long to go but perhaps these semi-elite female runners simply have enormous anaerobic conditioning.
None took this more to the extreme than Sportsworld’s Lucy D’Arcy. Coming into a band around 6k, she was standing gasping on the roadside and as I passed her out I assumed a drop-out due to injury or poor pacing. So when I picked up forced female breathing behind me once again, I glanced over my shoulder and was surprised to see Lucy back in the fight! She paced past me for a short while and we wheeled in some of her competitors. A steep hill came and as we crested it, I had had enough of the constant change in pace and when the downhill opened a voice said “GO!!!”
When M&M means Mick and Martin
While more laboured than I had preferred at this stage, the freedom of finally being “out of the pack” felt terrific. Now I was chasing, not being chased and with the half-way mark having been passed, my mental shackles were ready to fall off and I could start thinking about executing a negative split. 10k had been reached in 39:52, so my plan still held together. At no stage did the cocky confidence and extreme comfort from parts of the Dublin Half-Marathon manifest, however. As my pace increased, Doubt appeared and he much to whisper into my ear.
Luckily, Mick Hanney had been in my view for the majority of the race and was now moving slightly closer, this kept me focused on the road (and I missed the apparently nice scenery!). As an extra bonus, Martin Francis and two others drifted into view ahead. Momentum had slipped on my side here, I had re-passed everyone who had passed me out in the first half of the race and I would lose no more places on the way to the finish. Yet local woman Jackie Carty never slackened the pace and finished a mere fourteen seconds behind me as well she might for Lucy D’Arcy recovered enough from her earlier misfortune to arrive a minute later, yet both must have run positive splits, a very expensive strategy on a course with most of the “hill-work” on the first half.
Hill Runners Battle
I couldn’t see all of Mick and Martin’s battling up front, but Mick seems to have been reeling Martin in for the majority of the race until they joined in a group of four. They couldn’t have stayed together for too long before the hill runners left the two road runners behind. I passed the same two shortly after and gave chase. A flat spell followed until the Slaney crossing now and Doubt was about to whisper into my ear as I caught up with Mick.
“Going strong, go on,” said Mick, and who was I to contradict knowing how things had gone in 2007 when he’d said much the same during the Dublin Marathon. Never has so little conscious thought gone into a pacing decision but the truth was, I had a rhythm and it was easier at this point to hold it than to break and go conservative.
Martin followed very shortly after and we ran alongside each other until the bridge where a gorgeous view of the river rose our spirits “We love this,” we almost yelled in chorus and somehow, against what I felt was better wisdom, I started setting a harder pace towards the turn onto the N11. As I took the bridge first, I unfolded my arms like a pair of wings and said “aaah” as the fresh wind hit us.
I got a gap just as we turned the bend up a very short steep hill that leads to the N11. Martin was within touching distance here and my situation felt precarious. I had gone, very early, against a more experienced competitor and knew I now had the difficult task: I had to keep banging out sub 4-minute kilometres until the finish to have any chance of holding off the runners behind me. Mick and Martin are not the sort of runners to suffer from spectacular blow-ups and had a feeling they would not go down easy.
To add spice to an otherwise mentally draining and listless spell on the N11, I recognised a pair of white compression socks on a runner in blue in the distance? Des certainly? Then the demon arrived and all thoughts turned towards the runners behind me. “Just hold on to stay ahead of Martin and Mick”, I did not yet even have the conviction to believe I would significantly better my PB if at all. As the road turned flat and the legs tired, my brain repeated incessantly “think track, think track, think track”, keep the legs moving fast, my form wanted to drop, but I held it. Head up, arms fast and fluid, leg turn-over quick, back straightened, forward lean…
But my pace belied this now. 3:43, 3:59, and then the climb on the 19th kilometre almost took my legs away (4:03), next I heard female breathing again and a split-second later a new voice “What type of goal is “just hold off”” and I realised that wasn’t motivating at all. All this thought did was induce fear and sow doubt. “Get Des,” “break that PB” a stronger, and now clearer, voice yelled, and the legs clicked into action again. It never stopped being hard work here but my pace held as we descended down on the last few kilometres towards the city. 03:49, and 20k was past, 3:37 now, the hundreds of metres to Des and a runner in white were decimated, I sped up, and then so did Des and his contestant. For a brief moment, this threw my momentum, I never found my sprint gear, that final supreme effort to catch them, and it was a costly moment as I drifted in 4 seconds behind Des covering the last 60m in eleven seconds but too late to count for more places.
Note to self: Find a word to trigger a mad sprint without the possibility of hesitation “KILLL!!!” should work fine or perhaps “CHAARGEEEE!”. The St. Crispians speech may be a tad too long.
“The Hill runners are arriving”, or some such thing had Graham roared at the sight of our quartet. Jackie Carty was next (the lady runner I had heard on the 19th k) fourteen seconds after, then Martin twenty seconds down and then Mick another twenty seconds after him. The two gents they had all left before our battle started swept in next with 5 seconds between them. No one in our immediate party had blown up completely on the final stretch.
Mick hasn’t contested this distance for a number of years so his PB undoubtedly felt overdue. Des took a good bit off his and my time of 1:22:28 was not only better than the most optimistic predictions but 2:12 off my old best. Martin didn’t quite run as fast as he’s done in the past but nevertheless we all finished ahead of some strong contenders from the hills.
The Hill Runners
First regular hill runner of the day ahead of us had been Cormac Conroy in Foreigners dominated the front (not me!) with Sergio Ciobanu winning in a fine time of 1:08:26 and Sandis Bralitis chasing in 01:10:12. Lorcan Cronin was first Irishman in third. Regular “guests” in the hills Aengus Burke, North Laois, and Wicklow Way Trail winner John Farrelly also finished very well. John’s time of 1:21:27 must be seen in the perspective of the 35-minute 10k he ran the night before! To boot he looked to have had a relatively lonely race: Eddie Garry and Pauline Curley raced more than a minute ahead and the trio with Des, myself and Martin Murphy arrived a minute later.
More hill runners followed us Ed McEntee in 1:24:38, Ger Doyle in 1:26:52, Edward White in 1:28:28 and Cormac O’Ceallaigh, a few minutes outside his PB, in 1:29:23. Next David Walsh-Kemmis, one of the North Lais men, in 1:29:51 before Tom Hogan’s cousin Stephen Tyrrell in 1:32:51. His club-mate Chris Squance, also a regular of the Open Trail Series, followed in 1:33. Carl Mountain of Liverpool Running Club should take up the hills with a name like that and ran 1:34! Niahm Garvey, one of my Monday Hill Circuit runners, came in just over 1:36, Loretto Duggan just over 1:39, then former president Brendan Lawlor in 1:43:35 and Dena Hogan, known from the Snowdon video 2008, in 01:49:34. Finally Mary O’Colmain suffered the heartbreak of running eleven seconds outside the 2 hour barrier! All in all 496 runners and 88 walkers partook in the event.
Performance of the day was perhaps Erin Caitlin McVeigh who managed to finish both 66 and 120 in 1:33 and 1:40. Unless that’s a very common name, something seems to have happened there!
My finish left me with 22nd overall, far and away my best finish in a major road race and with some good women and veteran category men ahead of me, I could take the podium to collect 9th man overall with undoubtedly the most surprised look on the face of any prize-recipient of the day as Jane was quick to remark. When asked how I finished, I answered that the mooted top-30 sounded like a stretch.
The women’s field had been particularly classy, perhaps lured in by the 1000 euro prize-money, with Pauline Curley consigned to fourth behind some of the top runners in Ireland at the moment: Linda Byrne, DSD, Caitriona Jennings, Sportsworld, and Bilboa’s Rosemary Ryan.
At the finish, the initial pain stopped quickly and luscious strawberries greeted me after which random chats took up several minutes. Only once I had a quiet moment on my way to the strategically well-placed portaloos did elation hit me. It was not the exuberant joy of a man who dared reach for the stars and struck gold but rather a deep elation of a man shedding the weight of expectation carried on his shoulders. It was a huge contrast to last year’s pure triumphalism and perhaps healthier. “A major breakthrough”, Cormac said after the race. Perhaps, but I have failed to capitalise before, and will not get carried away.
“Is this what you get out of staying away from the hills,” Paul Joyce said, “I hope not, for then I would have to keep away from them,” I answered and from then on all our concerns turned to tea, cakes, and sandwiches where Martin Francis could also enjoy a prize having taken the first M50 with Des the fourth M40 on the day
Postscript – Splits
For those interested in the numbers, I got the route tagged at 21.06km (I must have cut the corners well to gain 40m) and 159m ascent on GarminConnect (the most precise on the market at the moment if using MB Gravity). Overall, the route was very rugged and the race winner commented it wasn’t exactly the fast course advertised. Personally, I found it was definitely a slower course than the Dublin Half-Marathon last year (adding to this year’s achievement) but not so much because of the climb as the fact that the tarmac was often in poor condition, you had to run into numerous bends, and the rigorous ups-and-downs made it hard to establish a rhythm (this may or may not have suited us hill runners, I’m a bit of a chronometer normally and today my kilometre splits were all over the place while my longer 5k and 10k splits were fine).
It can be fun to compare your 3k, 5k and 10k splits during a half-marathon to your PBs when you run well, to get an idea of what is breakable in the immediate future: My fastest 3k was 11:29 (the last 3000m) against PB of 11:13. Fastest 5k was the 11-15k (19:09) and the last 5k (19:11) against PB of 18:16. Finally the last 10k in 38:37 was just nine seconds away from recording a 10K PB on the day. Three records to go for in the winter most definitely.
Slowest kilometre was the tough 10th k (4:19, a 19-second loss that could have proved expensive) but luckily I ran eight kilometres in 3:50 or faster. But no real surprises, splits with climb are slower and those with descents faster.