DIARY: Dunes and mountains

Last year my running season began with a series of largely lonely very strictly prescribed aerobic workouts. These were undeniable effective in creating aerobic fitness quicker than any other method of training but mentally it took an iron discipline to execute them week on week and eventually breakdown followed.

This year necessity and experience finds me using a different approach having inserted a one month “pre-strength” period into my marathon preparations for Copenhagen, an approach inspired by the Japanese adaptation of the Lydiard system which features daily 5-6 hour hikes with backpacks to build up muscular and tensile strength to its maximum. The Japanese then embark on a gruelling aerobic period with three runs per day (90 minutes morning, 60 minutes Noon, 90 minutes evening) six days per week before their weekly long run.

My training aspirations do not reach that far but mountains is a language I love and understand and I have decided to create my own pre-strength programme based around a mixture of regular hill running, fartleks, stride and drill sessions and Saturday dune running at Brittas Bay.

As I learned from Antony Riddle last year, whatever sport you pursue, the environment in which it takes place (be it a boxing ring, a lake or on a mountain) must become an unobtrusive part of your every day living. Running must come as naturally as walking and should be linked to a positive experience by your sensory session. When you go out the door it should not feel painful, tiresome or forced but rather enjoyable. One of the easiest ways to make it pleasurable is to have company so rather than do my regular 1-month coaching break I have increased the number of sessions I run in January and make sure I participate in every one!


Wednesday began this new routine on an abysmal day of roaring winds and lashing rain. Only four lonely souls made it out to the darkened UCD campus but our fartlek turned out anything but recreational as we subjected ourselves to all sorts of paces and finished off doing some “fun racing” over the 100m, 200m and 400m distance.

A real easy fartlek should be fully self-controlled but when we meet up I try to make a common game out of it with certain rules. Our competitive instincts always run high as it is, so my challenge for the coming weeks is how I can “restrain the flock” and ensure we do not go overboard in these sessions.

Working out the pains

My troubled right ankle flared up badly on the last part of the Fartlek but thanks to Hagen Stroh, Antony Riddle and my new favourite toy “The Stick”, I can manage to release it. The stick provides instant muscular release, aggressively attacking any knots and trigger points particularly in the calf similar to what I am sure Ger Hartmann will do. I cannot do six hour sessions but with the Stick at hand I can torture my calves several times per day.

Antony Riddle’s postural exercises allow me to “reset my posture” before every run. I do a series of natural squats, foot yoga drills, core exercises and jumps from a step directly down into a squat position. These drills help overcome muscular tension and bad habits from sitting too much and old injuries and leave me starting my run with better posture. The jumping exercises “convinces” the sensory system that the system is indeed fully ready to take the pounding ahead and helps kick-start the natural springiness that we all possess in our legs, turning them from stiff and rusty to flexible and soft.

With a few easy jogs and this routine my ankle settled and caused me no trouble during the weekend’s running.

Dune running

Eight runner turned up to my first dune running session and we got quite a workout here and I left with the impression that people saw this as something a little different. We began with a slow run over the entire stretch of trail among the dunes (about 2km worth) before doing some warm-ups on the beach and four quick sprints to the top of an extremely steep dune. The last bit was mainly a bit of fun and had most on their hands and knees as they reached for the grass and belted down again.

This done we prepared for the main part of the day: 2-3 circuits featuring 460m of intensive running over the dunes with equal recovery back on the beach. Greg Byrne, Jason Kehoe and myself shed our shoes and went barefoot while Gary park ran in Nike Katana (a “spikeless spike”) about the flimsiest shoe you can get (and I mean that as a compliment).

The change in grip and power of each leg drive was incredible as both Jason and I noted immediately. Suddenly we were slipping less backwards in the soft sand and each lap saw our group take off at a ferocious pace as a pack of beach-hares hunting each other: up and down and up and down, with no lay-off. On the final lap our enthusiasm almost caused a triple-collision between Jason, Greg and I. We did not get away entirely Scot-free: Aoife had to pick up five thorns from the dead thistles that had strewn the path the same evening. Jason likewise had to go to work with his pinchers.

The shorter circuit proved a better choice than the longer one I had originally intended. With its longer length and steeper dunes, all but the strongest wore out fairly quickly on the long loop and what we were looking for was some explosive strength work and to really work the ankles, calves, quadriceps and hamstrings. With the short and undulating dunes, we got what we came from. As a bonus, the lack of impact from the sand leaves your legs fairly fresh for the next day.

Trooperstown/Paddock hill circuit

The final group session of the week proved the most popular with a full twelve mountain running enthusiasts starting out from the Visitor Centre car park and a further two joining us at the Woollen mills: Tressan and James McFadden. I got worried when I saw James: last time we went on a long run, he had set a ferocious pace up the Torc Waterfall climb during our Kerry Weekend which left half the field gasping for air.

His running style is deceptively effortless (and he had finished 5th in the BHAA cross-country the day before!) and you get pulled along until you start feeling the string late on. Each stride uphill, even a steep slope, sees almost his entire foot hit the ground and “bound off” the ground giving him a powerful uphill bounce rather than a conservative shuffle.

I found myself first in the firing line during the initial single-track which means you have commenced the climb to Trooperstown chatting away with James up front. As we hit Trooperstown proper, I decided to let myself drop off as Kevin O’Riordan and James continued at a pace that left me wondering what we’d have in store for all the miles ahead. The trio of Tim Chapman, James Clancey and Jason Kehoe working their way up behind me caught up here while James and Kevin ran back to us and our front group took off down the shoulder together.

Food at the end of the tunnel

Luckily, Aoife knew the route as well as a sizeable gap had opened very quickly between our group and the next runners. It’s not pleasant to feel under pressure to keep up during a long run, so this worked out perfectly. By Boots mountain, James had left everyone and only come running back towards us as we emerged from Trooperstown Wood. The mountain was wetter and sloppier than last weeks and without grips it made for a real slide-fest in places.

At the foot of Brockagh I told Jason, Kevin and James to go on ahead as Tim and James Clancey had fallen a few hundred metres behind on the descent off Scarr and I wanted to ensure they took the right turn. We ran in together in just a few seconds over 2 hours for the 20.7km. This was 9 minutes quicker than last time so we felt like we were moving at times and to reward ourselves for the effort, I had worked on a vegetable soup the previous day which was served for everyone in our house with pots and pots of tea before Aoife rolled out the birthday carrot cake in honour of the double-celebrants: James and Tressan.

No one got lost and the reviews of the route seemed favourable, Brendan Doherty went as far as telling me he’d “add it to the armoury”. Next up we’ll be looking for something slightly more open mountain but with the current extremely wet conditions, my creative brain cells may need to work again as my first choice route can be slightly soggy even on a good day!