I went into my fifth race in fifteen days (on the back of the La Santa series) in buoyant mood: my Garmin ForeRunner had been found by a nice lady in Lacken so all I need do is pick it up tomorrow evening. On the downside Aoife now has to figure out a different Christmas present for me than the ForeRunner 910XT I had put on the “need urgently” part of my wish list.
The scene was the fabulous setting of The Curragh, a traditional hunting ground for cross-country runners, and today the battlefield for the multi-coloured armies of Ireland’s clubs for the title of National Novice Champion. Despite an indifferent weather forecast, they truly came from near and far for this event. Eighteen senior ladies teams and thirty-two men’s teams resulted in record fields for both events: the ladies 3km (ish) race and the four 1500m laps set out for the male runners.
I had no aspirations or illusions coming into this race and my goal was as modest as “not finishing last”. Four races in four days during the holiday has helped my fitness but miracles don’t happen overnight and six month’s with little training tends to show in cross-country.
So my mood was relaxed, my warm-up was easy and I didn’t nit-pick about any particular detail of my build-up. It could have been any other day as far as I was concerned: all I wanted to do was replicate the La Santa strategy of running close to lactate threshold, always in control, and finish strong. This way I feel I am building myself up through these races rather than tearing down the house.
Only concern had been a very tight right glute. During yesterday’s dune run at Brittas Bay my leg had not been able to track and I had been unable to complete more than one stride. To fix it I did some trigger-point work with the foam roller and some more precise work with my thumb to get the points worked out. It seems to have worked as it didn’t trouble me.
We were herded into our starting pens, each team in their own enclosure with a slight downhill vista of open grassland ahead of us. I took off controlled but at decent speed (running without a watch what did I know!) and happily realised that there seemed to be a fair few people behind me. Unless I was running much too fast it would not be a battle for last after all.
Quite the contrary as I took a wide turn around the first of the always muddy corners, I noticed there were singlets everywhere. This was the most massive cross-country field I ever entangled myself with and it made for great running. From the first bend I started picking off runners and this continued throughout making it a fun run to do. I had no clue about pace or position in the chaos and running without the watch was an advantage as my full attention directed itself at the next runner. Always the next runner or pack of runners. I closed gaps that I normally don’t close in cross-country very quickly but this was perhaps because I ran too far back in the field for the pace I had.
When we hit the two shallow hills for the first time, my brain tried its usual “preserve here and kick back” but instead I thought of Cerutty “it’s only pain” and gave the little bit extra on each of these sections to stay with my group or break away (on some occasions). I grabbed 1-3 positions each lap on the downhill section where I really seemed to make up ground and on the muddy stretch at the top I jumped the small waterhole that had formed. A clear sign there was plenty in the legs.
Colm Hill and Keith Daly were among the many supporters yelling our names and their position was ideal close to the finish: swinging into the final straight I’d gained more positions and only lost one to an Inishowen man. I almost got surprised by some very heavy quagmire, just a stretch of 4-5m, on which you could easily lose a step. I decided I had to react lightning quick on the other side to build up to my maximum sprint pace or a pack of wolves would be upon me. Aoife said later that I was actually clear and I closed the gap to the Inishowen man to 1 metre but the step lost in the quagmire stopped me from catching up.
Looking at the results afterwards its amazing to see the depth of the field. Although I felt like I passed several dozen runners I still finished 226th of 253 so not that many behind me. My fellow Crusaders finished 5th (Sam Mealy), 87 (Stephen Moore), 117 (Jason Kehoe), 138 (Richard Healy) and 184 (Gary Park). 20 seconds meant literally 20 places by the look of it but men’s times are not up yet. Paul Duffy who had swept all before him during our La Santa challenge was 81st and top placers from the hills finished a bit down as well: Jason Reid (102) and John Brennan (165). This is no slight on anyone’s performance but simply shows what happens when you bring talent from all the 32 counties together in one place and should give my hill running readers an idea of the level of competition.
I went away happy (not so usual for a 226th finish) and feeling another bit stronger as I keep clawing my way back to the sort of fitness I need to start my marathon training. Today was a perfect school in how to race man-to-man and never drop your concentration. It was total immersion in the experience. Sure, I could probably have suffered, my heart rate returned to normal very quickly after the race and there is no sign of being drained but that was part of the point. I got my kick, my fitness boost and a positive experience. Triple bonus. Make that four with the return of my watch…