“In all my years here, I’ve never managed to get a cooldown in,” such was the advice from Cormac Conroy, Sli Cualann, and from all I’d heard the Ballycotton 10 was a challenging race both for warming up and cooling down. With a record crowd of over 2600 being herded through a narrow gap in a wall then to fight their individual ways through to the “correct” time slot in the field behind the elites. If guesses were actions, Ballycotton would have 200 runners under the hour it seems.
Running tall at Ballycotton, only a hint of the “sunken hip” syndrome left to see.
Despite the cramped street and great carnival atmosphere permeating the little East Cork harbour town of Ballycotton, I managed to sneak in 6km of warm-up including my now customary “priming” routine of running 2 minutes at race intensity before relaxing for another five minutes before the race with strides.
This time, I had to improvise, keeping warm by jumping around on the spot and leaving it as late as possible to take my spot in the crowd about 10 metres behind the “under 58 sign”. I felt strong and had decided to go for sub-60 with full commitment.
My preparations had been strange: I had done my customary strides two days out instead of the day before (6x100m, 2x200m with plenty of jogging, all barefoot on grass), then done a 9.5km jog Saturday morning. Arriving in Middleton where we stayed, Tony phoned me to ask if I’d join him for his strides. “No,” I said, “but sure it won’t hurt to jog with you and do a few pick-ups”. After the long car drive, the risk of a second run the day before seemed worth it and if the body cannot take this sort of aerobic easy stimulus, then nothing will save it anyway come race-time. We did a good 7km and Tony was hitting 16-sec strides relaxed and looking strong.
“You look lean and mean, sunken chins, actually you look awful, as in, that’s a good thing,” Shane O’Rourke, a Crusader now residing in East Cork, had told me as Aoife and I dined with him and his wife the day before. I devoured a three course meal at the cafe. Healthy stuff apart from the gluten-free Walnut and Coffee cake and the Chai Tea Latte. Later that evening, another soup and a huge fish-meal was also duly put away in the hotel restaurant and two half-pints of Beamish and Murphy’s respectively (none of that Guiness for me). To say healthy, I also had a glass of wine. We were on our weekend away after all! Together with a leisurely swim in the spa, I slept like a baby but did feel I let my sense of professionalism down a bit!
Hills and wind
From the first step of my warm-up with James Cottle and Aoife Quigley, I felt “right”. “It’s there,” I suddenly exclaimed after having taken a mere three steps of jogging. I then went on to chatter annoyingly about how “I don’t even feel these hills” and “when you run the Glenmacnass Road fast regularly, no road race holds any fear.” (which btw, would not include the Lakeland road race going over Honister Hause!). Annoying or not, I was in the right zone: supremely confident, fearless and raring to go.
The Ballycotton ‘10’ has it’s own little hill about a mile from the finish which is spoken about in the same terms as the “Hell of the West” in Connemara. The latter did not impress me back in 2008 and I looked at this challenge positively: the course would shift the load across multiple muscles across the course and was overall fairly flat with only 62m ascent compared to the 198m on my faster regular Saturday training run.
Recall the positives in training
I had prepared with this little beastie on the Glenmacnass Road and it immediately paid off. When I felt a hint of tiredness early on, I remembered immediately “you feel more tired before every Glenmacnass run and you are breathing much easier now.” I also recalled that regardless of how tired I’d feel starting out the Glenmacnass run I would always hammer it home in strong form. So why would today be any different?
Herb Elliott said you must never neglect the “mental/spiritual” side of training and he wasn’t referring to sports psychology but rather exposing yourself to your fears in training and conducting at least a few workouts of such nature that they fill you with supreme confidence. This does not mean hammering mercilessly. The Ballycotton result is the result of the control enacted on the Glenmacnass run, not the effort, had I gone up to my threshold limit, so lionised in recent years, it would have left my glycogen depleted and flat for the week ahead. Instead, I got most of the benefits running a bit slower but having enough in the tank for a strong long run on Sunday and a solid run at Rathdrum on the Wednesday.
Guns and songs
“…the Ballycotton 10” and old Irish folk singer boomed from the loudspeaker as we went off across the line into a slightly frantic phase of weaving, ducking and sneaking past huge crowds of runners. I realised immediately that the pace of the runners I had started out with was well off what I wanted to run and I had to get myself more space to take advantage of the fast first mile.
I just managed, hitting target pace of 3:44min/km but then lost momentum and hit the mile in 6:07 and the second kilometre dropped to 3:51. Freeing myself from the crowd and getting into my own steady rhythm allowed me to return to 3:44 on the third kilometre and I smiled and waved at Aoife here. My breathing was unbelievably comfortable. Around me there was hard laboured breathing essentially from the start, something I only experience in hill races and 3km and shorter, so I knew I would be running an aggressive race. Every time I latched onto a new group I expected the pace to become challenging to hang on to but until mile 7, I flew through most groups, resting only brief seconds for a bit of windshade when I felt like it before surging on ahead.
5 miles came in 30:44 and it seemed to me I had left too much work to do as I would need a strong PB on the last half, supposedly slower, to break the hour. Getting stubborn, I ran my maths and made it my goal to break my previous 10k best (38:28) at the 10km mark. Hitting it in 37:55, I surged further and decided to try and close down every group of runners I came across. I had no long-time companion at any stage: one strongly build runner hammered through the field at around 4 miles so strong that no one could follow but by mile 7 he was drifting back and when I caught him he had clearly used up any ability to surge in his early attack. Speaking of this really felt like following Lydiard’s advice to “Attack, attack, attack and then sprint”.
My attack felt more like a slow squeezing up of the tempo: 3:39, 3:41, 3:37, 3:39 and just as the “big hill” into the village came into sight, I recognised the runner in yellow I was about to pass. A glimpse of recognition moved between us and he said “ah, hello Rene,” it was Thomas Bubendorfer whose blog many will know well, and when I replied “ah Thomas, good to meet you,” I realised that my sentence sounded too comfortable with only 2 kilometres to go and a sub-sixty minute finish to chase. “Take it,” my inner voice roared, “as payback for the years of disappointment,” and I hurled myself towards the hill yelling “let’s bring it”. As Tony predicted, the hill is over almost before you hit it but coming up and over the crest another big strong runner tried to fight me off but I broke him over a few hundred metres. The kilometre had come in 3:38 despite the hill. For the first time since the start, a runner I had passed earlier came back and we fought neck on neck for 400m before I broke a gap. I realised only after that we had not really upped the pace very much for the 16th kilometre (3:37) and if I had just focused on myself the pace would have felt less stressful and my finish would probably have been stronger.
My watch still had 230 metres to go, rather than 90m, and I just had another notch in me and got the pace up to 3:18 for this bit. The loudspeakers had told me I would miss the hour mark by a whisker despite the aggressive finish. Without faster sessions in the legs, accurate pacing becomes essential as there are limits to have far you can “pick up the gears”. It’s like building a seven-gear car but not having an “overtaking gear”. Yet, I had actually managed to smash both my 10k PB (37:02, taking almost 1.5 minutes off my previous, 29:44 for 5 mile and even taking ten seconds off my 2 mile which was admittedly a soft target!). 1:00:28 was my own recorded time compared to the 1:00;32 listed.
I sought out Tony to see how he got on and only found him later in the pub after I had done a 20 minute cooldown with Tim Chapman (as difficult as Cormac had warned!). Fair to say he was pleased with a new strong PB of 58:08 and a top-100 t-shirt. The miles are doing their job. Tim had also recorded a PB and beaten off perennial rival James Clancey who both finished between 65 and 66 minutes. Several Crusaders were also in action.
The biggest change in this race was a removal of the constant negative thinking I have been guilty off for years now. Every time I saw a hill today, there was not even a hint of a negative thought instead assertions such as “hammer it” and “I’ll reel past them now” kept coming like if ordered. Thoughts such as “what if I run out of gas”, “the last hill will be a killer” etc. just did not manifest. If it is my focus on positive thinking of the training confidence, I cannot say (probably both) but conditioning your mind to always have ready positive statements for any situation (wind, sun, hills, competitors) really get’s the head right. I’ll need to accept a higher degree of suffering in more crucial races in the future, today, I just was not in the habit of “going into that zone” and it lost me a bit of time. After the marathon, I will focus some work on that area to be ready for shorter racing in the summer.
All about consistency
Nine weeks ago I was running less than 50km per week and often as little as 22km even in December, two months ago I ran just about 40 minutes for 10k! The last eight, however, I have averaged almost 100km per week. It can be hard to keep pace when your fortunes shift so quickly. When eight weeks of consistency can achieve so much it really puts the onus on me to not muck it up this time and get injured again. One needs only look at Cormac Conroy, a strong finisher in 55 minutes, as always one might say, to see the value of consistent high mileage training unbroken by long-term injuries.
With the ankles being a bit stiffer than I like today, I managed to do some work to release them and just jogged 7.5km slowly. The legs were surprisingly springy but I will take another easier day before building this week back up towards, hopefully, 100km if I feel fully recovered. Then I need to start rebuilding towards 120-130km for a few weeks and then the more specific work for Copenhagen begins. 2:48 looked very much a stretch target from the outset but running 15 seconds slower per kilometre for just over 2.5 times the distance I covered today, does not seem so daunting now. It is up to myself to show good judgment and make this a permanent turning point rather than a brief revival.
Here’s to one year of consistency, get it in and I can celebrate a t-shirt next year.
In my next “marathon quest” entry on ChampionsEverywhere I’ll look at how I decided to balance the training going into Ballycotton in the face of increasing tiredness and small concerns around my ankles.