We all know the stereotypes: There’s the hill runner with his old washed out cotton t-shirt, a pair of well-worn Irish shorts, and a muddy set of footwear that were once fell-shoes but are now just mesh hanging together by a few threads. Then there’s the gleaming hero of the track with his polished sunglasses and perfect hair-do supplementing a crisp singlet and a pair of shiny racers (almost certain to feature silver or gold mesh).
Well, over the last few years, I’ve noticed these stereotypes being slowly eroded with ever more fancifully dressed mountain runners taking the stage and then there was yesterday when I lined up to runners who wouldn’t need too much of a make-over to cast in Braveheart. My venue: Morton Stadium in Santry, the capital of Irish Athletics and home of Clonliffe Harriers.
While both Charlesland and Irishtown have wonderful tracks, the surface at Santry beats them all, and I undertook the drive northwards with the eye on securing a 3000m PB. I had a vain hope to bang out a breakthrough performance with 9:59 (3:20min/km pace). I knew it was a long shot, but on a good day, with the right pace, it seemed within my abilities.
Hills on the Track
The first hill runner I ran into on was Michael Dowling who was looking to be paced down to around 3:53 for the 1500 (he went close with 3:57). The next was literally “a hill”, none other than Colm Hill who many would probably have expected to see at the rough Sugarbowl. But here he was to run in the 3000m, and, unfortunately for me we’d be running the same race as the A, B, and my C grade were combined into a single start.
This meant starting in the outside track, which I was ok with as it allowed me to drift straight to the back and just take the wheel. I had set my Garmin to record 200s as I would need fifteen consecutive 200s in forty seconds to go under ten minutes. The pace came on fast, the first eight 200s were all run around 36 seconds and I crossed the mile close to my PB time in 5:14. At first I thought “great, they’ll pace me below 10 easy!” but the wheels came off quickly just over midway as the too fast starting pace told. I dropped to 41-43 second 200s and paid dearly for having to struggle alone into the strong headwind on the inside track alone for the last seven laps.
At this stage, there was little I could do but try to survive, my legs and lungs were exerted to their maximum and I clearly felt any further effort would send me into a complete lockdown. Line came, looked down at the clock: 10:42. I had hoped for more, but still a thirty-one bettering of my old PB (set in the Rathdrum 3k last year). You have to take progress as it comes and I also got a new PB on 800m (2:29) on the first. I will look to set a proper 800m time next week (sub-2:20 would be my goal).
The race left me with a feeling of being unfulfilled though. Once again, too hard early pace had killed me and I would undoubtedly have had a better shot at sub-10 if I had started out at 3:20 pace and just kept it rather than being dragged into 3:00min/km early (the marshal yelled “you’re on 9-minute pace” after a few laps to remind us). With the standard being what it was I had no choice as getting left behind on lap 1 didn’t seem a very sensible strategy either for a guy who wants to learn what it means to compete on the track.
Colm Hill meanwhile wanted around 9:20 and got 9:22 so I imagine he wasn’t at all displeased at his first attempt on the distance.
Enter the 1500
…is what I did. The 1500 was just about to start, so I rushed up to registration and signed up. What the hell, the 3000m had been short, and my breath seemed recovered. What of the legs? Who knows? But at least they’d be properly warmed up now.
My team-mates Dave Sheehan and Charles Hogan were also there and I was put out in the outside lane again. This time I headed straight for the mid-pack as the gun went. “Finally,” I thought, “I’m living my dream of racing a 15 or a mile”. I caught a much swifter leg turn-over this time and felt strong and steady. I was fighting in the outside lane until we hit the inside stretch on the first lap. A tiny gap opened up between 3rd and 4th and I swiftly moved in for the kill. “Well done”, someone yelled, and I hoped they referred to the move for it felt mighty slick at the time.
Tallaght and I
“Now we’re racing,” I thought, and kept feeling strong. Two young Tallaght runners were all that was ahead of me and I quickly passed out the first and put myself in the slipstream of the leader. What a perfect position to be in! “This is where the action happens,” a voice said and I relished it. That moment it became clear how much I dislike languishing in mid-pack or out back. It’s the sniff of the front that gets the adrenaline going and the mind racing with excitement. The sooner I can get myself fit enough to race further up in races the more momentum I’ll gain for my running.
Coming into mid-race, I considered making a move, but then I thought my friend would make a good windshield. Then he opened a slight gap as I lost eye on the ball for a second. “Close that gap, Rene,” Michael Dowling yelled. I tried but he wasn’t budging. The bell went, the gap stayed, and I missed a golden opportunity to draft off the leader for the final two face-offs against the wind. No time to sleep in these races!
I never looked behind and hit the second-last bend, “bring out the kick”, but nothing came, my legs had slowed down since the start of the last lap and now it was becoming a full-scale braking-movement. “Darn it,” I thought, and there came the first kicker! I can’t remember if it was two or three, but it seems I dropped to fourth or fifth in the last 100m with my Crusaders mate Charles showing that his reputation for a fearsome kick was not unfounded as he took me at the death. I salvaged some local pride by holding off Dave. Sprinter I may be not but if I could unleash one of my 15sec/100s in these races, it would be a good start.
In the end the result was disastrous, all but one runner had gone past me on the finishing straight and the result of 5 minutes clean eight seconds off my PB. I lost thirteen seconds in the last 300m metres and the majority of that again on the last 100. But a valuable lesson learned in the progress and a solid run given the 3000s that went ahead. I’m still a better pacer than racer (e.g. I race the clock better than people) but this was a start.
I haven’t experienced a runner’s high for more than a year but this evening it was back in full force and my mood buoyant. Perhaps it was the return of some swagger, some madness and some courage: All the things that used to feed me. Have they been oppressed by calculation and predestination? There’s probably a balance but courage is often rewarded and it felt better to be a brave loser than a scared winner, perhaps this is why the 3000 felt so empty and the 1500 so rewarding.
I’m sold on the 1500, from start to finish it was a test of pure speed and it felt like flying until the final bend. Now bring on the 800m next week! And note to self: Bring the madness wherever you go and perhaps a few lines from Iron Maiden’s unforgettable “Can I Play with Madness”, the first verse resonates particularly with the runner in me:
Give me the sense to wonder
To wonder if I'm free
Give me a sense of wonder
To know I can be me
Give me the strength to hold my head up
Spit back in their face
Don't need no key to unlock this door
Gonna break down the walls
Break out of this bad place
Could I have won?
I ask myself this question and I think “yes” it wasn’t impossible. Strategically, if I had kept onto the leading Tallaght runner and had shielded myself from the wind behind him I may have had enough for a kick. Kicking from behind into a windy stretch was clearly a huge advantage to the guys watching me from behind and I could have used a similar strategy. Obviously, the young Tallaght-man may well have had a much stronger kick to counter, but with a bit more killer-instinct and experience being out front, I believe I would have had a shot.
Alternatively, there were times when my rhythm was broken by the slow pace on the first lap, a slightly harder pace throughout always suits me better than a sudden spike.
An interesting night on the track for a long-distance hill-donkey…
I’m further stirred on by the news that the Ambleside fair will be on the 29th of July, same day as me and Aoife are staying there. There’s a senior Guides Race on (straight up and down a steep hill-side!). Running a Grasmere/Burnsall type race has long been a dream of mine, so I’ll have to give that a crack of the whip while I’m there. It’s 3.2km and has 244m ascent. So a mile up and down, what’s not to love!