RACES: Devil's Glen

“Time to have some fun and just enjoy,” I thought as I signed up to do my old training route “Devil’s Glen” which I had conceived after Mick Hanney introduced me to the area, having discovered it the previous year.

I wanted to test a simple theory: I am capable of running hard enough? Do I have a fundamental problem or have I just gone soft on all my long lonely workouts and my rare racing outings? Has the lack of competition from people caused me to fall “off the back of the bus” as I have?

Competition spurs you on beyond the barriers you thought you had. “I broke 30-minutes for the 10k and thought nothing of it,” Gerry Brady commented in the pub when discussing the standards in days of yore. What he meant was not braggadocio but to say that back then they were focused on racing their competitors around them, not times as such. The times came us a result of the competition, not the other way around. Today competitors are slower, and thus a sub-30 minute 10k feels very special to most. So much sits in the mind, as Matt Fitzgerald writes in “Run by Feel”, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Kenny Stuart said much the same when commenting that records from the eighties still stand because more good runners pushed on the leaders than is the case today. The competitors, once again, created the results, not just fitness and training.

Devil’s Glen is a fast race, so had the potential to test my theory very well.

Devil take the hindmost…

While at the Ambleside Sports Fair I watched an interesting form of cycling: The only form of cycling I would personally consider competing it. Why? Because it was cycling brought down to its simplest constituents: Speed, power, endurance and individual tactics.

The races took place on a 400m grass track with a slight uphill and downhill slope in each end and the cyclists rode on sports bikes with no gears, and no brakes (as far as I could tell). There were no teams and no inbuilt sprints, only the simple concept of covering the distance (generally 8 laps or 3200m) faster than all others.

Tactics were reduced to deciding when to attack and sit out all alone working with the pack chasing you and whether to go long or opt for a final sprint victory. Suffice it to say it was captivating to watch: No frills athletics, no complications, just the strength of mind and body versus an elementary challenge.

One particular race had a twist though: Every lap the last rider to finish the lap would be eliminated until only four where left who could then fight it out for glory. “Devil take the hindmost”, they called this enthralling spectacle.

Yesterday’s race felt a little bit like and with the title in mind it’s suitable that the Devil’s Glen is the place where no one can hide…

Truths from the heart

I haven’t used a heart rate monitor since I learned to “run by feel”. But since my Garmin 305 had died in England and Jason had kindly loaned me his 310 with heart rate strap, I decided to wear it again to see if I had secretly been fooling myself over the last year. While heart rate zones change all the time and can wary depending on sleep etc., they nevertheless served me well as indicators during my time being coached by Emma Cutts.

The HR should reveal whether I was really “chickening out” these days in races and not giving enough effort thus making any talk of fitness irrelevant.

Up the Glen

A good competitive field took the trip down, more than thirty up on last year’s inaugural race. The first 800m are brutally steep and surprising for a “wind down” race at end-of-the-season. A got a few good-humoured complaints for this “feature” after the race and could defend myself merely with “I thought an IMRA race should start on a steep incline!”

The first 400m always feel easy no matter what happens for me. The collapse or revelation of strength arrives just a few seconds after that normally. I few guys flew off (the top-3 of Michael, Shane and Ian) with Eamonn charging up the hill as if all the Devil’s hounds were chasing him (and to an extent they were).

A pack consisting of Gerry Brady, Mick Hanney, Jimmy Synnott, Niall Heffernan, Daniel Morrogh, Martin Francis, and myself arrived close together at the top but while I had felt good for 80% of the climb my HR just would not drop (and in fairness, I tried to keep holding it high), so I came off the top at decent pace but nowhere fast enough to stay with most of the pack. Eamonn had carved himself a small gap with a few others and we all stayed close on the flats before the head-first super-fast descent.

I gained a few spots here but lost one as well as Amidou howled down past a rush of runners. Apparently he paid a bit for this on the second loop on the Waterfall walk but not enough to allow most of us back in the game. This is in incredibly fast descents and I felt I was going ok, but should be concerned after looking at the numbers: 3:14 for the kilometre is decent, but I run faster for the mile on the flat and used to be able to run a descent like that in 3:00. Where have the 14 seconds gone?

Coming off the descent, the undulating descent to the car park is painful to transition into. I had fended off Alan Lawlor somewhere around here and was jousting with Tim O’Donoghue going into the zig-zags where I finally stole a bit of space on him and now found myself running with Niall and Eamonn in my sights for the better parts of a mile and a bit.

As people had told me last year, the slight uphill run next to the river seems to drag on forever. My heart rate was crazy, reaching as high as 195 at some points during the race (my max is meant to be 198) and on average never dropped under 182. It felt like a noose was tightening around my heart and I wanted desperately to slow down to stop the pain.

But, intent on proving or disproving my own theory, I only let off a little bit towards the end of the lower path as the legs simply wouldn’t comply. It wasn’t a rest, my heart rate stayed low, but I lost momentum and Alan Collins passed me out. Coming up the hill I managed to establish a better rhythm and modified my breathing in a desperate attempt to suck in more air and bring my heart rate down.

I managed not to lose further ground on this ascent but coming into the flat upper path it was clear that I needed a major acceleration to catch the lads in front of me and given my heart rate was practically maxed out how was I going to generate it?

On the final stretch I caught sight of a few runners and felt I had stabilised just a little bit (my HR confirmed this as it dropped to its lowest at 179). Tellingly it later showed I ran only 3:55; slower than my half-marathon pace, despite a largely flat run here.

As you turn the last corner, there’s a nasty uphill zig-zag, which I more or less just plodded over before giving it a reasonable go on the descent (although at this stage I could see there were no runners within kicking distance). My Garmin saw me over the line in 38:03 although the IMRA website has me down as 37:46, so not sure what’s right or not there. Before the race I would have taken the time. Had you asked me before the season what I would have liked in a TL race, I would have said anything less than top-10 would be unacceptable, but 19th was not disappointing on the day with many very determined runners of good quality duking it out.

Record-breaker

If one part of the domestic house-hold isn’t running so well, then another can take over luckily. Aoife, just 7 weeks back from injury, ran very stable to both win and break the course record. To compare with my travails her heart rate was a more manageable 168.

The Crusaders girls in general really showed a liking for the route with Tressan third and Emma in fourth. It was good to see my fellow Crusaders Niall, Oran and Gavan all coming in fairly close too for a decent result even without the holy trinity of Jason, Rob and Rich to really put the sword to the heretics.

Heart or Hard Comparisons

I looked at my average heart rate for the race after and saw 182bpm. I had felt I had pushed myself further than I remember doing since I returned from long-term injury in 2009, so perhaps I had just become over-cautious after that and forgotten what true pain felt like?

At first I took this as a great sign, I’d run through the barrier, and just need to ensure I do it some more when it counts and full race-fitness should return.

Aoife was not so happy, reminding me that this was “as bad” as when I started racing in 2007. She had a point, once I got fit my race HR in these races dropped into a more manageable 170-177.

“You’re sick Rene,” was her instant comment at the coffee-table after the race. I didn’t feel sick but I have had lots of weird symptoms of various kinds over the last years, so I booked myself in with a sports doctor, Dr. Patrick Duggan, for this afternoon for a consultation and hopefully he can run the full tests and either detect what my problem is or give me peace of mind that I’m fine and just need to sort out my training.

Devil’s Glen indeed….

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