Leg 7 is schizophrenic: It can’t decide if it’s a tough road run or an easy mountain run. Despite racing it twice and reccying it thrice, I never figured it out but worried about the ups and downs nevertheless; my last mountain race had been spent walking up Djouce during the World Trial last August with a bad case of SnowDOMS (a terrible weakening affliction of the legs, which usually subsides in two weeks but symptoms include irrational fear of rest and ruined cross-country seasons).
A sinewy moustached Wicklow man walked up on Iron Bridge: “You are Mick Byrne,” I said and shook his hand, “it’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” leg 7 has been my private obsession since 2008, now I had finally met the record-holder.
Rene running to his one true passion…
Des came into view on the descent and time to stop thinking and start doing. I barely remember the hand-over before I was on my way up the zig-zags, important to relax but still look fast and impressive for the team here.
“Hmm, 3:46,” read the first K. Sounded a bit on the fast side, so I tried to rein myself in as the road steepened but I kept seeing Mick Byrne and remembering those darn seven minutes. Had I done the maths, I would have seen the obvious: This was the 1:19:59 pace needed at Enniscorthy in three weeks but there was a problem: 650m of climb were up ahead.
Leg 7 Strategy 101
Strategy is easy on leg 7: work steadily up the first climb, settle into 10k pace on the road stretch and then just “let it happen.” I forgot this and paid no heed to this important lesson I wrote down in 2009:
Of the 6:40 I took off last years’ time, 4:32 was clawed back on kilometres 14-21 (the last 33% of the race), which to me evidences that saving up for "late climbs" has a tremendous effect, in fact, its 34 seconds/kilometre.
Despite running 8 sub-4minute kilometres (in 2009), they only clawed back 2:32 (19 seconds per kilometre). In this run, I thus gained 44% more by having energy on the ascents than I gained on the descents.
To the top
This was all academic now, Mick Byrne, Gary Condon and Martin Francis were likely close at this point and it was like I was stuck in a high gear and a pace I couldn’t extricate myself from again: “Ok then,” I said to myself: “Just get over this hill and try to recover off the descent.” Energy burned early is energy burned badly, but thankfully my mind thought not to remind me of that as I hit the top in 19:38 versus target of 19:40 (2009 had been 20:26). I looked at the positive, my uphill was a bit awkward, but there was no real pain from the left foot: The tape was holding, the foot was working! Ninety minutes here we come?
Pick a time, but not any time!
In my assessment, leg 7 is a half-marathon about seven to eight minutes slower than what you’d run on the road. Barry Minnock observed similarly when Mick Byrne ran 83 minutes, having run 73:39 for the European Masters Half recently.
My original plan: Run sub-90 for Leg 7 in preparation for sub-80 minutes at the Strawberry Half, this was conservative and a natural step of a three-step launch-pad for that race. Now I was a blind man hitting for 20 on the dart-board and still all my mind saw was the hunting figure of Mick Byrne.
Rednecks on the tarmac
In 2009 I had torn off the top feeling like a million dollars and had hunted down five teams in a gleeful pursuit. This time I summited feeling in control but somewhat odd at ease. I put it aside and took the largely downhill five kilometres in 18:44 versus 18:59, to stay on target I needed 18:16. The 3:30 kilometres rolled along easy enough, I didn’t have to push it, but alarm bells should have shouted “this is five mile pace not 10k!”.
“Looking effortless Rene,” Jason shouted from the support car and then played me some songs they’d ask me fruitlessly to recall later. Ian seemed to ponder his disappointment that I had man-handled rather than vaulted the low barrier.
I weathered the few bumps before the sharp grassy descent. It didn’t feel very clean but I ran a 3:44 and stormed back onto the tarmac to the audible excitement of my team. My climbing legs were not right; my blood was not clearing as fast as it normally would. I knew, for when I hit 10k in 42:14, my strength was waning. The 10k point in a half-marathon is the “attack point”, the first part just a warm-up, but the powder-keg was not igniting. I wished I was a jockey and had a whip…
Two rednecks in caps kept chasing me in their car trying to play me tunes to recall and offering me water, but I was having none of that and stayed poker-faced as I laboured along.
Know the “enemy”
Mick Byrne had never been my only concern despite my mounting obsession as the race progressed, before the race I had made a list of potential “chasers” I’d need to hold off:
• Gary Condon: With a 2:48 marathon to his name, I would need to be in my full 80-minute shape to best him especially as he had tanked good trail experience during this year’s Wicklow Way Ultra
• Martin Francis: Faster than either Gary or I with 79 minute half-marathons to his name, Martin’s endurance could be a trump for the President’s Men
• Gerard Heery: The former Irish international was the strongest threat along with Mick but the strength of his Mullaghmeen Warriors was unknown to me
The Wall of Grass – again
I had suffered with dehydration and stomach cramps after the ford crossing in 2007, but this time it was different, firstly there’s now a walker’s bridge (which I duly took) across the beck, secondly my problems were more mundane. I got up on my toes and while the left leg felt like a rusty spring it didn’t hurt, at least not any more than everything else. I passed the first gate, hoping to have weathered the storm and the worst incline. I had been thirty-seven seconds down on target at the foot of the climb but the hill had only begun punishing me.
As Gary Condon crossed the ford six and half minutes later, my fast start brought one advantage: He was told he had made no ground, what impetus would a more positive message have provided him?
Flatter and grassier now and my neurons were firing signals into the legs but no one was listening, the little mitochondria factories in the muscle fibres had gone on strike and they weren’t in a mood to go back to work. Now I finally fully appreciated Joss Naylor’s words that “the legs didn’t belong to us”, as I was bombarding my legs with commands to move faster, yet nothing seemed to respond. Mind only holds so much power over matter after all.
Then..a few walking steps…and the constant “I feel f-bombed”. Every three steps and I commanded myself back into a feeble running trudge. All rhythm and fluidity drowned in a toxic ocean of oxygen debt. I thought of the hunting teams. “Let them go away, I just want to lie down on these green slopes.” I had to mentally slap myself to avoid looking back. I had long expected to see Mick Byrne but now also awaited the blue and white jersey and every gate I closed without hearing steps or breathing behind me seemed a gift from above. The old mantra of “relax” faded; it was pure survival to the descent now. Fear of throwing away the work of the six ahead of me bit stronger than pain of slow suffocation. “Think Silver,” became my new mind-chant.
Descent. Too short, more uphill pain, jump the wrecked fence: Shadow and descent came to me. I plowed through rather than floated over the scrambled rocks bruising my right heel badly. Great, now I had two bad feet. I wasn’t fast, but I wasn’t braking; until the endless gates. Was this stretch normally this flat? The descent came, and I floated off still feeling as if a plastic bag was wrapped around my head. I crossed the Derry River and prepared and braced myself for the final push. The final pain.
No one hates tarmac more than a tired leg 7 runner: “Today is decision-time, this is the day you decide whether you’re a quitter, or have what it takes,” something like this went through my head as my undead march continued upwards and every metre seemed a mile. Every corner not revealing the expected relief heard a howl of disappointment from inside. It screamed shrill as the penultimate bend to the finish revealed a yellow house rather than little grassy trail where Declan’s outstretched hand would be. “Think Silver”.
Then I saw it and although it didn’t feel like sprinting, a little spark of movement spurred me towards him. I felt like the girl at the beginning of Cliffhanger desperately reaching out for Sly’s hand. Touch, and Declan, was off, my job was done. I spotted a grassy patch between two cars in front of me. I tried to remember the gallant Japanese finishing technique.
My head dropped, my chest hammered, my legs were wobbling; and then I stuttered three steps forward and went straight down on my back like a corpse, eyes closed, and mouth open. When I reopened my eyes Ian and Jason stared down on me, waiting for the words I was about to speak: “Lying good, running bad…,” very eloquent, then I raised a feeble arm up in a gesture of “V”. I had won the battle against myself. It would be a few minutes before my mind turned back to the battle for the day.
Ready to “go Japanese”
One of our runners told me during the day that when asked how the race had gone, the response of “Yes, I’m delighted, had a great run,” met a baffled response. A positive reply can be hard to get out of a runner, we’re never happy, and with my time being slower than in 2009s and the five minutes dropped on my target, I could be unhappy but I wasn’t. I could have run smarter and likely faster as a result, but I couldn’t have left more of myself out there (Ian graciously compared it to a “Prefontainesque performance”, I’m growing the moustache as you read this). In an individual sport it is interesting that a team usually pushes you further than anything else out of your comfort zone.
Body’s a bit worse for wear and I expect 2-3 weeks will pass before I run another step. But if I have to “go out” this was the way…