RACES: Lugnacoille Strikes Back

Like the proverbial soccer player who can’t score in a brothel, I can’t buy an excellent result in the hills for love nor money. At Lugnacoille, however, at least I could take away some improvement and count my lucky chickens that I am still in the race for Snowdon. It very nearly all came undone on the descent and I had a close encounter with the past, almost literally!


Driving to the race was inspiring: So many interesting looking West Wicklow peaks I’ve never explored. I must rectify this: Just look at the interesting ascent to Lug from the South-West? Two peaks instead of just Camara! I was all gung-ho for going back Sunday, but it was not to be.

Anyway, at the start I was glad to see a good Crusaders field, Jason started, of course, looking to try and claim the King of the Mountains. With leader Brian away in Europe, he needed to keep ahead of Peter O’Farrell and had a one point lead going into the race. Niall Heffernan was always there and the surprise appearance of our old top contender Alan O’Keefe, who’s returning from injury, couldn’t have been more welcome. Hopefully, we’ll see a lot more of Alan in the hills.

Staring upwards

A clear day showcased the entire trail over Camara and the North Prison of Lug bared its maw: The jaws of the beast for us to jump into to.

My warm-up wasn’t great and doing it I felt like a man that had fired up a bit early, simple drills seem to require disproportionate effort and I went from relaxed to uncomfortable in my own skin within a few minutes. Or was it the horseflies?

Luckily, the start was not long in coming and I had switched my mind to “blank slate” status. Plan A: Sit on Mick Hanney’s shoulder and see what happens instead of the usual “rush off like a fool to the front”.

The start didn’t feel too fast and I ran alongside Mick and Martin for a bit, then Martin fell back, much earlier than I had expected (and hoped, he’s a good man to have around). Mick eventually fell out to the left side up Camarahill and accelerated slowly away from the main field here. Paul Smyth likewise showed that he’s a different man on the steep weekend climbs and powered up a slope where few run every step and strength of legs dominates speed of movement.

My heart rate went way through the roof much too early but my legs weren’t too bad, so once we hit the plateau I did my best to try and close the gap on all the folks I’d lost on Camarahill. I had a very lengthy tit-for-tat with a Rathfarnham man (William Morris as it proved). I eventually pulled away from him and almost caught Daniel Morrogh but lost him again as the plateau gave way for the scramble towards the summit. Daniel seems to have picked a much better line here: While I followed the masses right, he stayed left and I never saw him again. Niall had sandwiched himself between me and William here and it’s always good to see a club-mate so we walked alongside each other before the steepness finally relinquished its grip on our legs.

Speeding up slowly, Niall said: “I need to quit the booze Rene,” I mumbled something unintelligible back and decided that given today was a test of uphill, that I would be the second Crusader to the summit today come hell or high-water. This lead to a bit of a sprint-finish between us and I was happy to round the cairn a few seconds ahead although it was clearly a strange effort from the look on Niall’s face on the photos. William, who had been straight behind us, is reduced to a speck on the photo, showing we deserved full marks for enthusiasm about the summit and less for pacing.

42:14 to the summit: An improvement of 1:51 on last year but down on both my A and B targets (sub-40 and 41:17). An hour looked difficult, especially as I struggled to recoup from the sprint and Niall had time to build a 10-20 second gap straight off the cairn as I drifted aimlessly.

Think downwards

Mick Hanney, Dermot Murphy, and a few others had come off not too far ahead. My brain calculated away: Some of them I could take on a good descent going by past results but I’d need to be on my game and they couldn’t have an ideal descent.

Soon after, all speculation became meaningless. Struggling for rhythm down the rocks I landed badly after a jump my whole ankle rolled what felt like 360 degrees. The pain hit like a hammer blow and I yelped loudly and hobbled on.

A few minutes later just as the slope slackened, it rolled again and I roared once more as the burning pain tore up through the foot. “You ok, Rene,” Barry Tennyson asked coming up, “Just need to get off this mountain, I said.” “I’ve never seen a man grimace in such pain,” he told me after the race.

On the annoyingly uneven rocks, I had lost all nerve now and contemplated whether I had to quit. I then remembered twisting my ankle just here in 2006 (my first hill race) and how long it had taken to get down and decided to bite the bullet and just plow through it (how funny to come full circle like this). Besides, I got angry and decided I was sick of DNFs.

Anger Management for Race Leaders

Jason also used anger to great effect, a bit earlier. Peter O’Farrell set off at a punishing pace, intent on devastating Jason’s hopes for a KoM crown hard and early. Martin Bradshaw, one of the many strong Munster men in attendance (Tom Blackburn awed the crowds with his amazing style coming off Lug, while Stephen Cunningham and Joe Aherne also ran well). “I need more practice, I was brutal on the technical stuff,” I said, downbeat, at the finish. “Well, you’ve got the time,” Tom said pragmatically. Indeed, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. If you bang long enough against a wall, the bricks will loosen.

Back to Peter, Jason and Martin: coming off the plateau, Jason almost lost heart: Peter seemed to move away with every step and Martin Bradshaw was now sandwiched between them. King of the Mountain points dangled in the air like elusive prizes. “It was lung-busting stuff,” said post-race Jason.

Then a change occurred, suddenly the two leaders drifted closer and Jason decided to “get angry”, and to some effect. Fighting up the precarious slope, the cairn became a centre of gravity pulling him in and the Crusaders man overtook Martin Bradshaw to arrive second to the summit after Peter. Would it be enough?

Martin, not being in contention for KoM, would not have cared, and unleashed his full descending fury to move from third to first. Had the battle for KoM expended the other two? For Jason, sadly, the answer was yes. Struggling with a hell bruise and unable to run properly, he wrapped himself in a jacket and jogged down: His job was done and three weeks of rest, off the foot, are now required for him to attempt to get ready for Snowdon and his international debut.

Peter meanwhile did not have to pack it in but chased in vain to finish second.

Back to me

My anger had worked as well, once off the rocks, I had enough confidence to run and I decided why not run as hard as possible because I would be bound to slow down once I hit anything technical and certainly on the Camarahill descent. My right foot was gone and with it my nerve. All that remained was speed and determination and it almost paid off with Martin Francis catching me only very late here.

Just before dropping off Camarahill I also lost the Rathfarnham man but at this stage I knew anyone who came close by Camarahill would almost certainly get me. Thus I was positively surprised to take out Dermot Murphy coming down but the joy of that was immediately tarnished as Damien Kelly passed me on the last of the technical climb. I closed the gap on the easier grass with faster leg movement but could find no way around as I had to be careful where I planted my foot. The gate delayed us both for a second and then I started a mad sprint down the road. Again, my handicap told as I couldn’t go out in the rough sides of the rocky road and only got the chance to draw up on the side of my competitor in the last bit. Then it was too late, despite my best efforts, he just about hung on.

I roared out my frustration and anger at the finish and knew this would be my last hill race in Ireland this season. Hobbling off to the side, Mt. Leinster is definitely out and strong taping will be needed on Snowdon.

Splits and times

My result looks surprisingly good with 18th in a small crowd of 65 compared to 24th last year (in a bigger crowd). I arrived at the top ahead of Niall who finished twelfth which may have been a sign of what could have been possible if I hadn’t come to grief. That would have constituted a pretty good result; alas the line between success and failure is narrow. Things could easily have been worse if not 4-5 other runners had also been injured coming down. Paul Smyth, for instance, whom I don’t remember passing out, was clearly ahead of me at the cairn and would not have been defeated by the pedestrian 22:49 I recorded on the descent, yet I was ahead of him! Despite running easy downhill last year, I was more than a minute slower this time: A costly roll of the ankle and it would get worse…

Even without the injury, the result would have been on the slow side. If you look to Des Kennedy (who finished 4th), he finished 4 seconds ahead of me in the half-marathon. Clearly, there are barriers that mean I cannot properly employ my fitness to the hills when I am so far behind here. The lost season may be part of it (you cannot make up a year really, it needs to be run) and so would the fact that I’m not race conditioned for the hills while the majority of runners in the top-20 have been racing tons of hill races over the last 2 years (this interestingly, doesn’t apply to Des who has only been running for a year!).

On Snowdon, Feet and Cross

As far as I’m concerned the 85 minute target for Snowdon still lives despite the failure to hit 41:17 and faster to the top. Hard terrain suits me better than soft and I have three more weeks to get properly peaked for an all-out performance. Next week will be a savage anaerobic test and then there’s just two weeks of coordination and speed to rest up the system.

Biggest threat is the foot; I had to abandon a run on Sunday as every step was agony. The sprain is a funny one with the pain being very much under the ball of the foot and on the inside. Walking is painful and running is like dragging a leg along after me (so pointless). I hope I’ll be able to do something today.

This brings me to my two biggest revelations from the weekend. The first is simple: Too much damage has been done to my race sharpness to fix in one summer, so the absolute priority is to get injury-free into the cross-country season. Nothing will do more good for my long-term hill running than a long and hard cross-season.

Secondly, why did I get injured again? Concentration is the answer I believe. I have run fast and fluid down difficult descents (such as the Spink) in training numerous times. Even when tired (after 20k of running previously), so that’s not the deciding factor. Focus is the problem, I was clearly too busy thinking about other runners, positions etc. coming down. To express myself properly on the descent I need to zone out completely and ignore all other runners. Just man and mountain. Blank slate…