When I did the National 10k in Navan in 2009, I instantly adored it: Great atmosphere, small strong field, colourful club-vests everywhere and that indescribable “championship” feeling that only an official AAI event truly carries off.
The happy “Cru” post-race, arranged in order of height
Imagine my surprise when the announcement that more than 900 runners had signed up for the National Half-Marathon in Waterford. Our small Crusaders contingent of four male runners was dwarfed by multiple teams from Donore, Rathfarnham, Clonliffe, and scores and scores of other clubs from all over Ireland. From all the far corners of the island they had come to compete and looking at the very front, it must have been a long time since such a strong half-marathon field has been assembled on this island.
By the end, Sean Hehir had convincingly taken his first title in the event with an impressive 65:25 victory over Brian Maher. The wily Sean attacked aggressively on the tough ninth mile and was rewarded. Class-act Alan O’Shea followed in third with “IMRA-man” Barry Minnock fourth in a new PB. This gave Rathfarnham the team victory when another man going to Albania to represent IMRA, Mark Ryan, finished seventh. The leading lady ran a stunning 74-minutes. We should not get carried away, there is still a bit of work to do before 62-minute half-marathons are seen regularly again but the signs of a growing confidence and ability is evident.
When the start went a lot missed the sound (was it a gun? Was it a horn?). For those of us positioned too far down the field (as it proved), the movement of the huge crowd ahead signalled the start. I knew I had the right mindset on the day: First I had forgotten my socks so had to run barefoot in my LunarLites (an incident that means my feet look like someone tortured them with a razor and leaves me with mixed anticipation towards my Epsom salt bath!) but decided to simply shrug it off (the “I could care less, how much could it hurt” attitude). Secondly, I didn’t hurry or surge to get free of the massive crowd that formed all around me.
The last I saw of Amidou was the first mile (which we crossed around 6:12), he steamed ahead a steady effort and did not fade. The first kilometre had gone in 3:56. I felt great, so saw no need to slow down. I considered it around 7km when I had a lengthy conversation with an Eagle AC runner. Barely a minute went by without passing runners and he asked me what I hoped to run “don’t know, 88 minutes would be satisfying today”. “Ok, then you want to slow down NOW, we’re on around 83 pace.” “That’s alright,” I replied, “feel too good to slow down right now, will see later.” Ten kilometres came in 39:34 and I took down a HI5 gel just in case the caffeine would make any difference. I was well-fuelled on a huge dose of Orbana and ProArgi9 and did not feel either dehydrated nor low on sugar.
I remember passing out a few well-known faces among the ladies who have run in the hills such as Fionnuala Doherty and Lucy Darcy. I knew that with my projection they should actually be faster but when I hit the first noticeable hill at the start of mile 7 and everyone seemed to be slowing down, I just went harder. The hill gave me no problems and since its cheaper to speed up on a descent, I came off hard to take a few more people. Before I knew it nine miles were up and the course turned sharply back away from Tramore and towards Waterford again.
Not everyone just let me pass them out, many put up a great fight which helped me keep momentum and several runners came back. As I always noticed that my breathing seemed disgracefully inaudible compared to the others (any tiredness was purely in the legs, but there was no sign of lactic acid), I always decided to pelt off. This proved particularly helpful when I almost fell asleep on the 14th kilometre (4:11!). When three people formed a wall behind me to seemingly push me on, my pace came down around 3:50min/km and stayed there.
Then came my hero of the day in the shape of a Galtee runner I had passed out a kilometre back. Up on my side he went and there he seemed to stay. Suddenly he was just behind me, then on one side, then on another. He worked very hard and I felt like commending him (but that seemed unsporting on second thought) and I did not want to be too cocky at this stage. With three kilometres to go, he hit the front and for a second I felt a hint of tiredness, would I lose him now?
My mantra of “tall-relaxed-fast” brought me back, rhythm returned and I pulled up on his side and then ahead: For the first time today there was real discomfort but my breathing was still very strong. I had more air than I could use, only my legs could stop me. A few nasty corners almost dropped me behind him but then we pulled ahead of two more runners and as the stadium entrance approached I gambled on a fast turn: It was crucial to hit the inside track first and force them around me.
The Galtee Runner was a man for going all the way, I hit the inside track and increased pace. I could feel his presence just behind me and sprinted towards the finish. Suddenly he was on my side. Would I lose another sprint finish? I have not won any really for years. Then I thought “100m strides”, my centre of gravity lowered and my cadence increased and suddenly I was free. Even better, I could feel another gear emerging but before I could use it I ran out of course and crossed the line in 1:22:48. The last kilometre had been the fastest in 3:42 with a seven second last 50m to hold off “the man who kept me honest”. (We both shook hands for having helped each other well over the line).
The penny drops
I couldn’t believe it, it had been a commandingly controlled performance and I had run within twenty seconds of my previous PB. The Strawberry Half is a minute slow, many say, yet this still warranted celebration. I could not possibly be this fit. My training did not warrant it. But then I realised it: I had eaten myself fit. A return to the cave-man style diet I employed in 2008 and the supplements I used to speed up the repair of my cardiovascular system had fixed several of the issues holding my performances back. Less fit, yet more fit. It sounds like a contradiction but confirms one of the core tenets of our new company ChampionsEverywhere: To be truly fit you must be very healthy first. That is the real foundation for performance, trumping even aerobic fitness.
Could I have broken my best today with a bit more knowledge about my own capability. Undoubtedly, but I focus only on the positive now, I am ready to train well for the cross-country and my half-marathon PB is shivering in the bushes somewhere, that’s for sure.
My compatriots had done extremely well: Amidou ran home first in just over 80 minutes, knocking more than eight minutes off his PB. I went from proud athlete to proud coach within minutes. Then Markus told me he had finished just behind Amidou likewise in 80-something. He knew he could have run faster but with a very heavy marathon week behind him, this was a solid workout. Our fourth man, James, arrived in a new PB of 91 minutes not much later.
“Honorary” Cru Maura Matthews who ran for our Wicklow Way Relay team (but is now Clonliffe) had set a new PB as well in an impressive 88 minutes. Only black mark of the day was Keith Daly’s run which was marred by a late muscle injury to the calf which had him struggle through and cast clouds of doubt on the marathon ahead. This is a pity for anyone who has followed Keith’s systemic strong progress this year. Hopefully a quick fix will still allow him to refocus for a marathon in the very near future and get the results his recent performances warrant.