RACES: Wicklow Way Relay 2011– Part 1

“I feel f*cked.” Not one to be dropping f-bombs prolifically, this one sentence had somehow replaced the simple “relax” trigger I had learned listening to a sports self-hypnosis tape. The latter wasn’t working and the first wasn’t helping, as I faced to worries 1) the grassy trail around hill had lengthened considerably in the five weeks since I last ran it and 2) was I ready to finish what I had started with a few innocuous words

“Hi gents,

I wanted to circulate a few key dates for you that you may be interested in for the coming year:”

Leg Zero – The Preparation

Twice before I had captained a Crusaders team, in both cases our “B” team, first in 2008 when we finished 15th and then again in 2009 when we moved up to 13rd giving a club debut to a a relative newbie mountain runner: Jason Kehoe. I wonder what became of him

In 2010, I did not get involved in the Relay preparations as I had pencilled myself into the European Trial but as injury struck with its usual timing, I watched both from the side-lines. Come the turn of the year, I decided to organise a team and my goal was to avoid the usual time and energy-consuming trials and discussions around the team and simply try and construct one around Aoife, back in her first full season, and the three men who have consistently placed the highest in hill races for Crusaders: Richie Healy, Jason Kehoe and Rob Healy. My own claim to a spot on a “Crusaders first team” was perhaps a bit spurious but I had set out the season to break 80-minutes for the half-marathon and when the UCD tests early in the year confirmed my fitness to do so, I reckoned I had the endurance and experience to justify my spot on the vaunted leg 7.

We quickly recruited Tressan McCambridge from our own ranks as our second woman and Declan Horgan as our first veteran before we couldn’t resist the temptation to snatch up Des Kennedy who was simply too good an M40 not to ask and whom I knew from my hill running sessions. Thus we looked all set, or where we?

The usual injuries

Every team suffers them: Last minute injuries and pull-outs. I knew the drill; both years I captained sides we had people injured last minute and getting lost on the course. This seemed almost unavoidable.

When Rob Healy announced a hiatus from competitive running, we went looking for another senior man. It wasn’t easy as the Relay coincided with the Dublin Track and Field and Crusaders is very much a track-based club at heart.

On the same weekend we got affirmatives from both Sli Cualann’s Tony Collins, whom I had first met when he wore the Irish vest at Snowdon 2007, and Ian Conroy, who needs no introduction for those having followed recent races. Ian works with Des and had impressed me with his enthusiasm for mountain running after the 2009 World Trial. This left us having to say no to one of the outstanding performers of 2011!

When Tressan’s knee went after the Connemara Half and Jason went down in a blaze of glory at Carrauntoohil, I was on the phone to Des like a whirlwind and his conversation with Ian went something like this:

  • Des: “Hi Ian”
  • Ian: “Hi Des, pity about the Relay team, I’d loved to have had a crack at that!”
  • Des: “Well….”

Thus we certainly got a “super-sub” and the team stayed strong when we brought in ex-Crusader Maura Matthews to replace Tressan. We knew Maura was in strong shape under the careful tutelage of Eugene Coppinger and having run the leg before is something every captain likes to see on their runners CV.

Flurry of emails

I had been emailing and crank-calling the team members for a few months, most of all to get the recces sorted. These proved particularly interesting this year as myself and Rich started our Leg 7 recce the same day as the Tinahely bank heist. On our leg 5/leg 6 combined recce, Jason, Des and I got lost twice while chatting before Des took a spill on the newly repaired road (these modifications, sadly make for poor running) but thankfully landed softly at the side of the trail.

In the end we had all the necessities sorted: carpooling, mobile phone chain to keep everyone appraised at all times, and recces done for every member. Then I send out an email titled “EVERY SECOND COUNTS” reminding the team that small things such as running on the inside curve of the route and following the straight line between bends could mean decisive seconds. This proved prophetic…


The final piece was to work out times for everyone to run and I looked at previous results for the runners in question and results set by other runners in the past that I believed the team members were now ready to match.

If everyone had a perfect day, it looked like we had the potential to break seven and a half hours. The thoughts of medals had not entered into the equation early on when assembling the team, but it was clear now that unless my guesses were wildly out there we’d be in the running for the silver-ware.

The final weeks saw the team sheets starting to take shape into their final versions and from the moment Rathfarnham’s record-breakers were announced, we mentally prepared for a fight for second keeping the possibility open that any mishap could mean a surprising gold medal.

Last injury

Three weeks to go: Catch flu in Spain, no training. Two weeks to go: Does tempo run, twists Achilles, doesn’t seem so bad. Ten days to go: Achilles not healing, no running. One week to go: Do a few short runs, Achilles so-so. Race week: Diagnosis says Achilles at least two weeks from full recovery, more if I race. Don’t tell physio it’s 21.1km.

What to do? Getting a replacement for leg 7 is not easy and I could not well ask any of the team members who plan to run the European Trial to embark on a length of such distance when their speciality lies below the 10k mark. Getting lost is also extravagantly expensive on this leg. And, the selfish man inside whispers: “If you can just complete in a reasonable time, you could end up with a set of medals.”

Race day

My decision was made. Race day beckoned, and with about six hours of the event gone by, I’m meandering up the flanks of Ballycumber’s unnamed hill. Legs are flagging, spirit is waning, doubt has set in: Was this all a colossal miscalculation of my personal vanity?