RACES: Strawberry Half-Marathon 2011

With three niggle-free days from my achilles tendinitis, I took the risky step of towing the line for the Strawberry Half-Marathon. When I sat down and put together my 24-week Lydiard schedule between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, this date, 26th of June, had “THE RACE” written next to it, meaning it was the year’s first peak race and my plan was to train hard enough to break 80 minutes after my 82:29 on the course last year.
No one, not even the Lydiard software tool, can predict exactly how the 24-weeks of training will affect you, but it does try. For me it reasoned that an average level of improvement would lead to 1:20:25. Close enough that I’d risk going for broke. When I met Romain Denis for a lactate test after seven of the twenty-four weeks, he told me “you’d run a half-marathon around 80 minutes if you did it today.”
Strawberry Half-Marathon
Percy Cerutty graced us with many memorable quotes before his untimely death and my favourite is perhaps “run until you are exhausted and then begin meaningful work.” If it is true, then I did a lot of meaningful work yesterday. At 2km, I was comfortable, at 4km I started thinking about dropping out, by 8km I was sick of hills and curvy bends, and by 10km I had just about steadied the ship for a long laboured grind back to Enniscorthy. Throughout I poured water from the aid stations over me prodigiously, I overheated much too easily even on a warm day like yesterday’s. My heart rate was too high, sugars were burning too fast and too hot, and everything worked worse as a result.
Coming on to the long 5km on the N11, I lost two spaces before gaining two back on the last mile, one of whom was Tony Collins, doing his first half-marathon as part of a hard stamina-based training run, but still went on to finish in 1:27 despite no specific training. When I passed I just wanted to bring as much space between me and his 800m kick as I could, but as it proved we were competing about slowing down the least and not contemplating a shoot-out to the finish.
Crossing the bend to the last bridge, I heard “here’s Martin Francis”, and we had a reversal of last year when he had arrived close on my tail after I had broken away on the first crossing of the Slaney at 15km. Both of us were not as “hot on our heels” this year. My time: 1:26:00 (official time, naturally, counts the eight seconds my watch was stopped while I tied my shoelaces after 4km).

Aoife, racing as well, didn't have a great day at the office either, and where I had injuries to content with I suspect recent races caught up with her, as did the work we had to put in over the weekend advertising our new venture with ChampionsEverywhere and a wedding. This blackened my mood a bit as I feel I should have balanced her program a bit better in hindsight.

All this, was, of course, positively overshadowed by Barry's brilliant win  and new PB. The opportunity to work with Barry came unexpectedly but was obviously too exciting a prospect for any coach to turn down. Hopefully he'll go on to even bigger things from here and with great success being enjoyed by many in the Marathon Mission Squad, an exciting Irish Marathon Championships, perhaps the best in years, is shaping up.

An abject failure?
If you had told me back at Christmas that I’d cross the finish line in 1:26, utterly exhausted, I would have expected deep soul-searching, a complete revision of the existing program and my approach to training and all the usual drama and knee-jerk that so often follows a runner’s failure to perform to expectations.
But I had no need for that yesterday. In the two weeks since the Wicklow Way Relay, I have run four times (including both races). Apart from that, I had only four good anaerobic weeks (memorably setting a PB on the 5 mile in Killarney) during my last two-thirds of the program so it’s fair to say, the Lydiard program proved itself in the eleven good weeks I had, and cannot be blamed for the damage done by the last thirteen (there’s a lucky number).
A fast course?
Last year, the Strawberry felt perfectly fast, but with the strength to climb well and attack aggressively on the last half, this impression came easy. Previous year’s winner and this year’s runner-up Sergiu Ciobanu reckons the course could cost “as much as a minute” so perhaps I was in even better shape than the time suggested then and so was everyone else.
The hills started a fatal chain reaction in any case: I decided to just “hope for a miracle”, e.g. that I had simply retained most of my fitness, and ran the first four kilometres in sub-80 minute pace. But I was burning too much sugar and my heart rate rose too quickly and with it my body-temperature. Soon my legs were no turning over as effortlessly and when the hills came, I could not increase my effort but had to coast over them and from then on I focused solely on steadying myself.
Hard pounding
My achilles tendon has had biggest problem with hard heels and wobbly cushioning, so this left me with only one real choice for shoes: My Nike Mayflys. Unfortunately these are extremely light and flimsy and I knew my calves would take a hammering as they are not properly conditioned for doing this sort of distance without support.
Coming off the climbs this combination of overworked calf-muscles and lack of proper mileage and downhill training, removed all power from my legs on the climbs and by the time I hit the second half I felt like I had no “booster rockets” left to fire. I had two small engines left, and they had to carry me to the finish. Alas!
“Now, they are light,” said Barry, when looking at the MayFlys prior to the start, “they may fall apart before the race.” This was quite likely. The shoes are designed to hold together for only 100km and I am surprised they are still in one piece.
On the plus side the stability of the shoe and the fact that I could feel the pounding into my soles very precisely, let me to avoid the worst stride errors (as is now known, shoes do not lessen impact on your body, they simply send the shock wave beyond the soles of your feet whereas if you soles pick it up you can adjust to a less damaging stride pattern). I’d also taped myself up with Kinesio-tape which is quick becoming a favourite of mine simply because its so easy to apply compared to normal tape!
Last year I finished jubilant and full of chat (much to the chagrin of Des Kennedy just ahead of me!), this time I had to lay down under a tree as Martin Francis talked away to me, but at least I got up quicker than after the Relay Leg 7 and had still finished 28th, just four spots down on last year.
Speaking to Tony and others afterwards it was clear I can be happy with the performance given how the season has turned out even if it was my weakest half-marathon since 2008. 86 minutes still means I have sub-3 hour marathon fitness to start my next build-up from and now my priority shifts to rebuilding a new peak for September onwards as well as ensuring my tendinitis does not turn into full-blown tendinopathy. This will likely mean another 2-3 weeks of little running, but if I can start rebuilding from mid-July, I can still take a lot from 2011 including the 5k, 10k and half-marathon PBs on the wish-list.
I’ll review the course in a bit more detail later and compare it to Achill and Connemara, two of the other “tough courses” out there but more than anything else this is an event “by runners for runners”. Great organisation, plenty of portaloos, interesting course, places to store your stuff, plenty of kilometre and mile markers and just the right amount of water stations. Definitely one of the best half-marathons in the country.